Category Archives: anthropology

Glaciers as Social Spaces: Oral Histories, Frankenstein, and Pearl Jam’s Gigaton

Lately I’ve been thinking about glaciers. I re-watched “Chasing Ice,” which is a fascinating documentary film with the first large-scale ground survey of glaciers, directed by Jeff Orlowski and led by photographer James Balog. I’m sure you’ve seen Balog’s incredible documentary films on PBS/NOVA if not “Chasing Ice” or his photography in National Geographic.

Thinking of glaciers as “social spaces” allows us to consider the effects of climate change on the cryosphere—the frozen layers of the Earth, including glaciers and permafrost, from a variety of perspectives. We can examine glaciers as “social spaces” by exploring the ethnography of oral history traditions in the Yukon Territory, the socio-economic impacts, such as the melting of the cryosphere, in those ‘social spaces’ in Alaska, as another example. Additionally, we can explore glaciers as social spaces in literary ecology and contemporary music. How do glaciers “listen?” I explore a few ways below.

51Z+K0PRVIL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_The senior women of the Saint Elias Mountain region of the southern Yukon Territory (Canada) relayed complex natural and social histories to anthropologist Julie Cruikshank when she did ethnographic research recording the life stories of Athapaskan and Tlingit elders. Her book, Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination was published in 2005 (Paperback edition, 2010) but I think it’s still highly relevant. She found that the elders, “grounded precise social histories of twentieth-century life within a scaffolding of much older narratives. [They drew] on established long narrative conventions to reflect on complex life circumstances. In the words [of one elder] Angela Sidney, ancient narratives had helped her to ‘live life like a story.’” (Cruikshank, 2005) Cruikshank, while living with the elders, “heard narratives about glacial caves inhabited by intemperate beings that might emerge unexpectedly: and others that depicted glaciers as living and responsive themselves. Stories dramatized […] bursting of ice-dammed lakes into river valleys, and […] told stories of travel […] sometimes crossing crevasse-ridden glaciers on foot and sometimes piloting hand-hewn cottonwood boats beneath glacial bridges…” (Cruikshank, 2005) They told stories of strangers called “cloud people.” (Cruikshank, 2005) The women’s stories depicted a “winter world” that crossed economic borders, of coastal Tlingit traders, and the shifting power relations described by economic historian Howard Innis on the 19th century market for furs, gold, cod and timber. (Cruikshank, 2005) Cruikshank’s writing is wonderfully evocative of the culture and arctic wonder.

Glaciers, according to the stories, radiate heat and energy. They’re alive. Cruikshank pores into the Athapaskan elders’ stories like a glaciologist drills an ice core, studying its layers, noting the environmental, geophysical changes in a glacier—which tells a social story, since glaciers are part of the Athapaskan and Tlingit life stories. The Little Ice Age (1550-1850) is within reach of the memories of Athapaskan and Tlingit elders; some of their stories are memory and some, myth. After the Little Ice Age, the glaciers receded enough to make coastal lands accessible to Eyak, Tlingit, and Athapaskan nations to converge. Stories map the geography and human ecology of the glaciers and the ecological and social corridors connecting glaciers. Through the study of oral histories, we can glean that “glaciers present some navigational, spiritual, and intellectual challenges of a sentient “land that listens.” (Cruikshank, 2005) This is what is known as sentient ecology. (Ingold, 2000) This is what the elders explained to Cruikshank when they told her stories about glaciers listening and responding.

Similarly, a human ecologist could study the environmental changes, such as those impacts from global climate change on glaciers and permafrost, two related ecosystems, and their ecological place in our world—both as social spaces and quintessential geophysical, temporal yardsticks with which we measure global environmental change. These stories, from oral tradition, captured local traditional knowledge of the Saint Elias Mountain region of southern Yukon, and other parts of Canada, and the stories themselves seemed to shift and transform infinitesimally much like the glaciers.  One of the elders, Annie Ned, told stories of “caribou ‘blackening the ice’ on nearby lakes early in the (20th) century.” (Cruikshank, 2005) When Cruikshank and Shelia Greer prepared a report on the region’s oral history for the Archaeological Survey of Canada, Ned’s story about the caribou became important in another context: “Scientists reporting discoveries of ancient tools and caribou droppings melting from a high alpine ice patch above [Ned’s] trapline cited her oral account in their initial scientific paper on prehistoric caribou.” (Cruikshank, 2005) Thus, the oral histories were not solely cultural translations and transcriptions of the women’s life stories; the stories were also part of a larger natural history of the region. Also, the issue of personhood comes into play: these women tell stories that “summon up a moral system that includes relationships with non-humans – animals and also features of the landscape, like glaciers – that share characteristics of personhood.” (Cruikshank, 2005) I am intrigued by the idea of personhood, the Rights of Nature movement, and an old idea—perhaps ancient, and pan-human, of connecting with land and water—the way headwater streams braid and combine to form a stream, intermittent or ephemeral—after storms, and each stream tells a story as it carves through sediment in the streambed. Similarly, anthropologists and human ecologists study the layers of permafrost, or analyze the many ways to tell a story about navigating a crevice in a glacier—the successful and failed rescue attempts, in order to discover the human dimensions of that glacial ecology. Literary ecologists seek to find meaning in the stories of the ways in which people interact with the natural world, including glaciers.

In Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein (1818), she begins and ends the famous story about the mad-scientist, Victor Frankenstein, a graduate student from Geneva, and his creation, a Monster, comprised of human parts reanimated by electricity—on a glacier in the Arctic. At the start of the novel, a ship captain writes to his sister about encountering a strange man, crossing the ice on a sled, totally bereft but driven by a vengeance to confront his creation, the Monster, who fled to the “Land of Mist and Snow,” the glacial Alps, because he wanted a refuge from the cruelty of mankind. At the end of the novel, the reader rejoins Victor and the Monster, as they have one final showdown on the glacier. In Shelley’s real life, she and her fiancé Percy B. Shelley, had traveled through the region of Mont Blanc, home to Mer de Glace, the second largest glacier in the Alps in 1816. Later, while pregnant, Shelley writes the novel, the plot of which takes her heroes to Mer de Glace, that glacier. “Until the eighteenth century, the Alps were believed to be infested with devils, monsters and dragons. By setting her story of Victor Frankenstein and his Monster at Mer de Glace, Shelley links Victor’s activities with those of mountaineering scientists like Horace Benedict de Sausure.” (Nardin, 2006) Why set a story on a glacier? Her 19th century readers most likely shared her interest in alpine mountaineering, science and exploration. (Mary Shelley was an explorer herself; she had the moon in Sagittarius, a sign associated with wide open spaces, exploration of great frontiers and the outdoors. She was well-traveled even before she met Percy, and then they traveled Europe together. The astrological piece is my own theory.) In their travels, Percy and Mary stopped at inns along the way, and heard German stories, including a strange tale about a 17th century alchemist who had lived at Frankenstein Castle. (Sampson, 2018)

89394509_10221007979530563_3472725631433703424_o

In studying Romanticism, and in particular the work of Mary Shelley, I would argue that she pushed the borders of what it meant to be human, and the limits of our imagination surrounding consciousness and creation. Her two heroes, the Monster and his creator, Victor, are both intellectual, Miltonic philosophers; the epistolary structure of the novel has several characters communicate via letters; but the Monster, by contrast, writes in a journal. After failed attempts to socialize, he took refuge in the forest, along the river, and in the Alps at Mer de Glace. At Mont Blanc, he built himself a house, an ice cave within the glacier, and that became his home. He desired a mate and implored Victor to supply him a female counterpart, who the Monster planned to live out his (immortal) days, at Mont Blanc on Mer de Glace. I wish I had a cool photo of Mer de Glace–but I haven’t traveled there–but a quick Google Images search yields lots of incredible photo results! Have you been there? Leave a comment and let me know what it was like!

I am currently reading Mary Shelley’s travel journal, which includes her experiences traveling through the Mer de Glace area (I think she and Percy saw it from a distance). Screen Shot 2020-03-11 at 9.34.13 PM

Last year, I began to analyze Shelley’s use of water and wetland metaphors throughout her novel as part of my graduate work in literary ecology. It’s intriguing that she creates this social space on the glacier—instead of within a city, or along a river, or in a forest—other places where the Monster hides and takes refuge throughout the story. The Monster feels safe in the harsh environs of the glacier. Unlike a man, the Monster is not vulnerable to the cold, strong winds, snow and ice. Other scholars, researchers, poets and writers have shared this fascination with Shelley’s use of the glacier, Mer de Glace, as a social space in Frankenstein. I am analyzing this as a part of my literary ecology of works by Romantic women writers–and still have a long way to go to read and digest what scholars have already discovered.

I wrote a Mary Shelley tribute poem, “The Bride of Frankenstein’s Monster, On the Eve of Her Wedding,” published last summer on Boned literary magazine’s site; my poem revisited the idea of the Monster, having his wish granted for a mate, and is about to return to the glacier. I wrote the poem from her perspective, while she is preparing for a life in the “Land of Mist and Snow.” This is one way that I have explored Shelley’s novel from an ecofeminist perspective.  For the bicentenary of Frankenstein, poet and scholar Fiona Sampson published the biography, In Search of Mary Shelley: the Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein (2018). I loved this biography!! She writes, “Mary has ‘gone missing’ from literary history; she has faded to white like Frankenstein’s creature who ‘goes out, alone again, onto the Arctic ice to die.’” (Hewett, 2018) The iconic profile of the Monster, loping out across the ice, has haunted my imagination since I first read Frankenstein at seventeen, while my family lived in a historic, haunted house in Maine.

I have been having fun playing with this “Literary Witches” deck of cards, by Katy Horan and Taisia Kitaiskaia, who created a clever way of translating mini biographies on each card of women writers from all sorts of genres and all sorts of periods of literature–from all over the world. Perfect activity for International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month! I like to use the cards for inspiration. And yes, Mary Shelley is in this cute deck. The idea is that each of these writers created “magic” through their literary works. (None are suggested to have been “witches” here–it’s just a clever metaphor.)

Screen Shot 2020-03-11 at 10.03.53 PM

Part of Shelley’s genius was her way of weaving together Enlightenment and Romanticism-era science, the including the invention of electricity and the Linnaean classification system, her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft’s botany and natural history articles, as well as Shelley’s own explorations with Percy, sometimes with a toddler in tow, endowed her with additional “tools” of her trade. Her novel brought glaciers to life for readers with her first-hand observations; she enlivened Mer de Glace into an imaginary landscape accessible to her readers. Today’s literary ecologists are re-examining works in Romanticism (and later periods) to extrapolate Romantic ecology, “dark ecology” and the EcoGothic—related themes that frame how we continue to think about the environment today. Industrialization occurred at the time when Romantic ecology was born—the onset, as many scholars believe, of the modern environmental movement. Is it still relevant? There are some literary ecologists who believe we are still in a Romantic treatment of nature. Paul Kingsnorth and Tim Morton, two ecology writers who promote the idea of a “dark ecology,” are examples of those who believe the age of Romantic ecology may never have ended. We continue to be awed by glaciers—their melting, their sublime power, even, on a smaller scale, glacial erratics—geologic memories of prehistoric, ancient glaciers.

In socio-economic terms, we can analyze the social space of a glacier, and related ecosystems, such as permafrost, and the effects of climate change on that ‘social space,’ for instance, in Alaska, where communities have already been seeing socio-economic impacts of climate change. These impacts include the need for relocating and replacing infrastructure that’s been damaged, lost or threatened by permafrost thawing. Permafrost is a frozen, arctic wetland type; specific grasses, lichens and shrubs are frozen in water most of the year, in some places, frozen year-round (thus the name permafrost) creating a carpet-like vegetation. Thinning, melting permafrost can be found at Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve in south central Alaska. Glacial melting has caused increased large landslides in the national park. In 2015, 180 million tons of loose rock fell into the Taan Fjord causing a huge tsunami-like swell that flattened forests. “Tsunamis of some sort triggered by landslides in bays or lakes are fairly common, but it’s rare that they’re this extreme,” according to Brentwood Higman, author of a study on tsunamis in the Taan Fjord, Alaska. (2018) Melting permafrost is also allowing archaeologists ways of uncovering evidence of human and animal use of the cryosphere—with brown ice layers revealing evidence of caribou use, such as illustrated by the senior women of the Saint Elias Mountain region whose stories Cruikshank recorded and transcribed—detailing their ancestral memories of the “browning ice” phenomenon associated with caribou use. Additionally, archaeology of melting glaciers provides newer access to human artifacts such as wood arrow shafts, darts made of antlers, and birch bark basket fragments found in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. (Dixon, et al. 2005) This is, I think, further evidence of the value of oral histories in adding historic context and narrative basis behind newer findings during archaeological research projects made possible in part by glacial melting and permafrost thinning in that region.

In a 2018 study on the economic effects of climate change in Alaska—pertaining to changes to glacial ecology, including permafrost melting, “five certain large effects can be quantified, […] to impose an annual net cost of $340-700 million of Alaska’s GDP.” (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) These large effects include the melting and thawing of the cryosphere—notably glaciers and permafrost. “Glacial melt affects availability of phosphorus, iron and organic carbon to terrestrial and marine organisms.” (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) “Melting glaciers will increase the role of seasonal precipitation patterns in determining hydroelectric capacity.” (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) The melting of the cryosphere affects several industries in Alaska and ‘social spaces’ including fishing, forestry, energy demand, tourism and recreation, agriculture, marine and coastal shipping, as well as public infrastructure. (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) For native Alaskans, the effects of climate change on the cryosphere include impacts to subsistence living:  “harvest cycles, changes in important food sources, loss of some locations used for fishing and waterfowl hunting,” are among the changes affecting those social spaces. (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) The largest effects are directly caused by melting glaciers and permafrost in western and northern Alaska. (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) There are far more examples, but these are just two significant ones that quantify the effects of climate change on the cryosphere—and that as a “social space.”

download

Glaciers are weighed in gigatons. Pearl Jam, my soul (read: more than favorite, since 1992) band, is an environmental activist band. Pearl Jam’s new album, Gigaton, features the close-up image of a glacier on its cover, (at left) and while it’s not out yet, I will be surprised if there isn’t a song about glaciers, or something environmentally-conscious. (I will post a review once the album comes out March 27th.) I love their new song from this album, “Dance of the Clairvoyants.” Pearl Jam has, in the past, taken inspiration from environmental issues like coastal wetlands, hurricanes, and ocean conservation and incorporated those into their music and activism. They create a social space for environmental activism through their music, their Surfrider Foundation, and their concerts. That’s another way of exploring a glacier as a social space. Set it to music.

This spring, I am teaching a literary workshop on Romantic women writers and short memoir for Westbrook Adult Education in Maine. Participants will have the opportunity to explore some literary works by Romantic women writers such as Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft and Ann Radcliffe—three writers of Romanticism who were keen on incorporating the sciences of the day, which included the origins of modern ecology. They crafted stories that weaved in botany (as translated by Erasmus Darwin, et al.), based on the formalized classification system of Carl Linnaeus, as well as geography and alpine/arctic mountaineering, and biology. The workshop will also allow participants to experiment with creative writing in hybrid genres, including short-form nonfiction with a focus on memoir. I will be offering this workshop through Westbrook Adult Education through mid-May 2020. If you’re interested, please visit their website to learn how you can register.

Berman, Matthew and Jennifer Schmidt. “Economic Effects of Climate Change in Alaska.” Weather, Climate and Society. April 2019

Cruikshank, Julie. Constructing Life Stories:  Glaciers as Social Spaces, from Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. 2005

Dixon, E. James, William Manley and Craig Lee. “The emerging archaeology of glaciers and ice patches: examples from Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.” American Antiquity. Vol. 70, Issue 1. Jan. 2005

Hewett, Rachel. “In Search of Mary Shelley Fiona Sampson Review.” The Guardian. Jan 2018

Ingold, Tim. The Perception on the Environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. 2000

“Mountain Waves: Glacial melt is increasing land instability in mountainous regions, with huge tsunamis rising in frequency as a result.” Geographical. Vol. 90, Issue 11. Nov. 2018

Nardin, Jane. “A Meeting on Mer de Glace: Frankenstein and the History of Alpine Mountaineering.” Women’s Writing. Vol. 6. 1999

Sampson, Fiona. In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein. 2018

Sharon Blackie’s Book, If Women Rose Rooted (2016), Inspired Me to Go to Ireland

This is partly a book review of a nonfiction book by Dr. Sharon Blackie, If Women Rose Rooted: The Journey to Authenticity and Belonging (September Publishing, 2016) and part of my own journey as an “eco-heroine,” a journey that took me to Ireland in June 2019. Dr. Blackie’s book inspired me to come into my own as an “eco-heroine.” 20190207_205421

At the time I read Dr. Blackie’s book, I was studying the anthropological dimensions of environmental policy, with a strong focus on the intertidal zone, and oceanography, at University of Maine as part of an Interdisciplinary PhD studies program. At the time, I was still getting my footing as a graduate student, having returned to pursue my degree after working in the fields of wetland science and policy for a number of years, and having reached a point where I knew I wanted to teach, write and contribute somehow to collaborative projects and initiatives involving water, wetlands, climate change–and human ecology. I was also coming to terms with the idea that I had lost a sense of my purpose (something that I don’t typically experience) and felt a little like an “Indiana Jones” / “Lara Croft” adventurer getting itchy feet, feeling my way through a quest I’d only vaguely glimpsed in a dream once, while studying human ecology at College of the Atlantic nearly two decades ago. Then, I read Blackie’s book. I cannot explain it except to say that after reading her book, I wanted to live it. Or, come as close as I could possibly get to experiencing what Dr. Blackie described so that I, too, could feel that sense of “belonging” to the land. I grew up on the coast of Maine and have always felt close to nature. That really wasn’t my struggle (being close with nature). But, I felt a little lost in my graduate study program, and somehow, this book helped me figure out how to re-calibrate my inner compass a bit better, to get a sense of direction.

20190621_152201

Hiking in Glengarriff Wood Nature Preserve, Co. Cork, Ireland

Become a haunter of edges: sea-swept tide pools of islands, the dark mysterious peat and depths of blanket bogs, the fertile wetlands of the “buried feminine” drench the natural and cultural landscape of Sharon Blackie’s book, If Women Rose Rooted: The Journey to Authenticity and Belonging (September Publishing, 2016). Students, readers, poets, human ecologists, nature-lovers, wetland ecology scientists and/or wetland professionals, as well as those interested in Celtic mythology, political ecology, eco-feminism, human ecology, environmental psychology and cultural anthropology—with a special interest in place-attachment, will respect the multidisciplinary, multi-species, and holistic suite of stories and case-studies covered in this book.

A 2016 Nautilus Book Award winner in the genre of “Environmental Feminism,” Dr. Blackie’s If Women Rose Rooted is a call to action. By the end of the book, it is difficult for any ecologically-conscientious reader not to identify with the journey of Blackie’s “Eco-Heroine.” The journey begins in the “Wasteland,” an internal and external manifestation of the planet in environmental crisis—climate change, fracking, the destructive effects of Alberta “tar sands” on the boreal forests, along with many deeply personal examples of women activists who found themselves at a point of personal or professional crisis—and realized they needed to make a dramatic change (or leap of faith) to return to their roots, to community, to gain a sense of place. Place-attachment evolves into an intense identification with the land, water and wetlands—with a special focus on the Celtic countries of Ireland and Scotland. The “Eco-Heroine’s Journey” delves into the cultural anthropology, sociology, psychology, Celtic mythology and ecology of the natural and cultural landscape of Ireland and Scotland—with some fascinating, liminal forays into the Celtic Otherworld through stories of myth and the Celtic Fairy Faith. Dr. Blackie invites the reader to entertain a new philosophy of eco-feminism, to put aside the patriarchal “hero’s journey,” or “quest,” and instead, to embrace a new path. The reader will be introduced to numerous real-life “eco-heroine” leaders, activists, policy-makers, crofters living “off the grid” while also advocating for forestry policy, medical professionals who have adopted new ways of healing and treating patients in remote, nature-inspired retreats, lawyers who proposed an “Ecocide” law to the United Nations (2010) and sparked a new interest in restorative justice.

Four components of the book anchor the “Eco-Heroine’s Journey.” The first component is comprised of stories from the Celtic Otherworld. Stories of selkies, Celtic fairy women, the well-maidens of ancient Ireland, the “mad women” who lived in the wild—these stories serve as metaphors, historic precedent and a prompting to rethink the dualistic argument between two groups of eco-feminists: there are those who advocate for equality to the point where they want to embark on the masculine/patriarchal “Hero’s Journey” (likened to those of the chivalric Arthurian Knights of the Round Table), and in modern society, these women strive to accomplish equal or better jobs as their male counterparts. Blackie proposes an alternative to that dualistic stance, and instead suggests that the Eco-Heroine’s Journey is completely different—not better, not equal to, not lesser than—that of the Hero’s Journey.  Blackie plunges the reader into the Celtic Otherworld, and with poetic and skillful precision, then interweaves an ethnography of environmental advocacy among women, who Blackie interviewed. These women exemplify the qualities and actions of the “eco-heroine,” often marked by unusual, charismatic and fearless quests for some area of environmental policy, or an authentic way of living closely with the land—and their way of showing others a new way of living, healing, being. Put simply, I loved this book. This book became a touchtone for me as a graduate student, as a writer, as a human ecologist. I realized, thanks to this book, I, too, am on the eco-heroine’s journey. Perhaps you are, as well. After reading her book, I joined the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, and I registered to attend their annual conference, which was held at UCC in Cork, Ireland in June 2019. There, I attended a seminar talk on selkies by poet, artist and archaeologist Erin Kavanagh, who opened my eyes to the intertidal nature of selkie mythology. Since I’d just read about selkies in Dr. Blackie’s book, I was even more “in tune” to Kavanagh’s poetic discussion of selkies at the conference on water, climate change and spirituality at UCC in Cork. After I attended the conference, I rented a car, and traveled around southwest Ireland, and swam in the ocean in a strong current. I’m certainly no selkie; I nonetheless felt transformed and awakened in a spiritual way.

20190630_153133.jpg

After my swim in the Wild Atlantic, Co. Cork, Ireland, June 2019

Blackie’s observations, first-person narrative and perceptions of the “eco-heroine’s journey” make up the third component of the book, and some readers may appreciate her distinctively poetic voice. Blackie is a poet, as well as a psychologist with a background in neuroscience, and special expertise in Celtic mythology. This multidisciplinary background lends itself to an interesting exploration of woman as a shaper of the land, as a part of the natural landscape—inextricably linked to “Mother Earth” through the “Fertile Fields of the Buried Feminine.” Ultimately, Blackie proposes while the quintessential quest for the “holy grail,” which one could argue has long been considered a destination for the “hero,” can be transformed to reveal the quest for the eco-heroine: that the eco-heroine, herself, is the vessel, the holy grail. She, the “Eco-Heroine,” is the “voice of the wells,” the voice of Mother Earth, who possesses the power to lead in a different way.

20190621_145955

Glengarriff Wood Nature Preserve, Co. Cork, Ireland (Stetson photo)

Blackie’s book chapter titles read (at least to me) like names and classifications of wetlands. Any wetland-lover would enjoy the rich, detailed wetland ecology–and the spiritually rich discussion of human connections with wetlands and submerged landscapes in her book. While in Ireland, I was very sick with an illness, but I made the most of my time there. I hiked around in Glengarriff Wood Nature Preserve in Co. Cork, attended a workshop on seaweed harvesting and the intertidal at Reen Pier, Unionhall (Co. Cork) and paddled a kayak in Lough Hyne, a rare saltwater lake (Co. Cork) at night.

20190620_170450

Raheen Castle ruins near Reen Pier, Unionhall, Co. Cork, Ireland (Stetson photo)

I will post more of my adventures from Ireland in the near future.

To learn more about Sharon Blackie’s books, her work, her poetry, and the workshops she offers, I encourage you to visit her website here.

Find her book on Amazon here.

River of Avon—Providing a Wetland Link Between the Living and the Dead, Mysteries of Stonehenge Revealed in an Ancient Streambed

When it comes to Stonehenge, many theories abound. What was its purpose? Why build there? One of the recent theories comes from an archaeologist, Mike Parker Pearson at University of Sheffield in England, who has been researching the link between Stonehenge and the Durrington Walls. He found a correlation between the two monuments—and the geographic and ecological connection to the River of Avon. If Stonehenge was a cemetery, as many believe, and the Durrington Walls stood for the living, then the River of Avon connected the land of the living to the domain of the dead, carrying the ashes of cremated loved ones after royal burial rites.

Pearson leads the team of researchers on the Stonehenge Riverside Project.http://www.shef.ac.uk/archaeology/research/stonehenge The team discovered natural underground gullies in an ancient streambed that made a direct path between Stonehenge and the river—strangely enough, in perfect line with the sun’s rays during the Winter and Summer Solstices. This astrological event might have influenced the monuments’ architects and engineers, thought to have built Stonehenge around 2900 B.C.http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/
05/080529-stonehenge-cemetery.html

The River of Avon is Britain’s largest unimproved floodplain and has been a favored area for anglers, naturalists and conservationists. But land use changes over time have broken the links between the adjacent wetlands in the floodplain and the river. As a result, there have been a number of recent wetlands restoration projects, including the 2009 Strategic Restoration and Management of the River Avon, which won a Living Wetlands Award in 2010http://www.waterlink-international.com/news/id430-Ciwems_Living_Wetlands_Award_For_STREAM.html and Wetlands West, formerly known as the Severn and Avon Vales Wetlands Partnership, which aims to protect wetland habitat and create floodplain and water resources management practices for that watershed. http://www.severnwetlands.org.uk/restorationzones.asp In addition, there have been other local municipal wetland restoration projects like this one that created the community Avon Meadows Wetland in 2008:http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1059717.

For a virtual tour of the World Heritage Site, including Stonehenge, the Durrington Walls and the River of Avon, go to: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/
properties/stonehenge/explore/stonehengemap/
 This ancient and mysterious tie to wetlands is one of several that I unearthed in an earlier Strange Wetlands blog post on Lost Worlds, Lost Wetlands.

Lost Worlds, Lost Wetlands

Mesopotamia is argued by many historians to be one of the “cradles of civilization.” Historically, the Marsh Arabs depended on the marshlands of the region for 5,000 years, going all the way back to ancient Sumeria. These wetlands show up in epic poetry of early Mesopotamia:

‘Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood,
the mayfly floating on the water.
On the face of the sun its countenance gazes,
then all of a sudden nothing is there’.
– ‘He who saw the Deep’,
(The Epic of Gilgamesh, 1,200 B.C.)

Most of the marshes of Mesopotamia, including the delta plains of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers in the Middle East, were destroyed by the year 2000. The marshes were lost to hydro-engineering for dams (flood control and electricity), canals and reservoirs (irrigation, farming), all of which reduced the annual floods, which used to renew the waters in the wetlands. The once-thriving marshlands have dried out due to a 20-50% decrease in the flow of water from the major rivers throughout the region. In addition, Saddam Hussein drained large wetlands to punish the tribes—Marsh Arabs—living in those areas and to expose the rebel hiding places, in the 1990s.http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/
Features/WorldOfChange/iraq.php

A number of international organizations pulled together to bring attention to the loss of wetlands there, including World Wildlife Fund, which recorded over 278 species of bird in the Mesopotamian ecoregion. Nearly half of those identified are wetland birds. http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/ecoregions/mesopotamian_delta_marshes.cfm A marsh restoration project through the United Nations Environment Program began in 2006. For an image of the Vanishing Marshes of Mesopotamia, go to: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=1716 For a technical report,http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/imagerecords/1000/1716/meso2.pdf

For those who research archaeological use of wetlands for agriculture, the Mayan use of the “seasonal swamp,” known as el Bajo la justa,” in northern Guatemala is also very interesting. In the latter years of the ancient Mayan culture, archeologists surmise that the Mayans must have expanded the way they farmed the lowlands, including wetlands, in order to support a larger population. But this has been a subject of much debate: whether these “bajos” (interior wetlands) were used for agricultural purposes. A 1995 study by T. Patrick Culbert funded by the University of Arizona looked this issue: http://www.famsi.org/reports/94033/94033Culbert01.pdf

Last fall an issue of Nature featured new findings. A study identified more evidence that wetlands were used for agriculture by the Mayans: The new “research suggests that the Maya built canals between wetlands to divert water and create new farmland,” according to Timothy Beach, a physical geographer at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.. Archaeologists often explore the question of any ancient civilization, how did they feed a large population? The answer for the Mayans was wetlands.
http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101105/full/news.2010.587.html For more background information on the history of Maya agriculture and the role of wetlands, go to: http://www.authenticmaya.com/maya_agriculture.htm

Finally, I’ll leave you with something fun to ponder: the true whereabouts of the lost city of Atlantis. Is it buried in the marshlands of Spain after all?  According to a new film, Finding Atlantis, on National Geographic (TV channel), a documentary-maker from Hartford University in CT has proposed just that. To find out how to see the film, visit: http://channel.nationalgeographic.
com/episode/finding-atlantis-4982/Overview
 and come a little closer to understanding one of the world’s greatest mysteries. Yet again, the answer to the riddle could be wetlands. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/spain/8381219/Lost-city-of-Atlantis-buried-in-Spanish-wetlands.html

Bog Bodies: Not for the Faint of Stomach

I get sucked into crime television dramas-“Bones,” a show about a forensic anthropologist, is currently my favorite. One episode involved a corpse found in a bog, which had preserved the remains and helped the fictitious Dr. Brennan solve the mystery of the bog man. A simple Google search reveals that “bog bodies” are a popular topic of research and interest. Also called, “bog people,” they illicit curiosity, how did this person die? How old are the remains? Human remains left in bogs can be preserved for hundreds if not thousands of years. For example, in ancient Aztec bogs, bodies were held in place with wooden stakes; National Geographic had a special program that explored this phenomenon. There’s even a scary movie coming out this year called, “Legends of the Bog,” which takes place in rural Ireland (Note: the USA version is simply called, “Bog Bodies,” which comes out this June.) Here are a few links to sink into bogs with bodies:

Tales of the Living Dead: Bog Body and Aztec Death (National Geographic TV)
http://www.electricsky.com/
catalogue_detail.aspx?program=118

Bog Body
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bog_body

Preserved bodies tell the tale of ancient ‘bog people’
The Paramus Post – April 2006 http://www.paramuspost.com/
article.php/20060428173048520

Reluctant Time Travelers – Bog Bodies of Europe (1997)
http://www.utexas.edu/courses/wilson/ant304/projects/projects97/dentep/dentep.html

“Bog bodies” (scroll down this blog for the entry about bog bodies)
http://darkmoonnightmagick.blogspot.com/2009/04/bog-body.html

Bodies of the Bog
http://www.archaeology.org/online/features/bog/

Legends of the Bog (movie – 2009)
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0928375/ andhttp://www.bogbodiesthemovie.com/story_2.php