Friday, August 7, 2015

Nature Awareness 1

1.  Describe the customs of two or three Indo-European cultures regarding the land and natural resources, and compare and contrast these practices with the prevailing modern attitudes. (minimum 300 words)
In ancient Rome, there was a set of rules known as the Twelve Tables.  These tables were responsible for many of the guidelines of magic, including those pertaining to crops.  One of the laws states “'nobody shall, by spells, take away the harvest of a neighbor” (Graf 41).  However, these regulations did not punish the magical act, but instead punishes the offense against the property.  Graf states, “damage to fields and harvests can rather quickly call into question the status of the landowner and thus harm the social equilibrium.” 
Ancient Rome covered a large land area and remained focused on agriculture and trade for the economic growth.  The crops from the fields were the main exports for the country (McGill University).  In this type of society, more land meant more wealth.  One theory even went so far as to say that the problems with Rome were reflected in the land.  A corrupt society corrupted its land, the internal rot of the people was shown in the soil erosion, and the immoral politics were reflected in the deforestation (Pyne 93-94).  This theory shows us how deeply the Roman people were tied to the natural world around them, and the value they placed on it. 
Greece is a country that is surrounded on all sides except the north by water, and has numerous islands.  The easy access to the seas allowed the ancient Greeks to have a large maritime commerce and to travel and spread its influence to many parts of the Mediterranean.  The mountains of Greece also served as a natural boundary, and made large-scale farming difficult.  Instead, Greeks had to look outside of their country to find fertile soil.  However, they did have easy access to precious metals in the mountains (University of Pennsylvania). 
Despite having limited agricultural influence or land ownership, ancient Greeks had a very strong presence of nature spirits in their mythology. Not only were plants and animals viewed as having special attributes of their own which often used as omens, there was an entire pantheon of nature spirits, such as Dryads, Nymphs, and Satyrs that represented the different aspects of the natural world.
One aspect of ancient Greek culture that expresses their understanding of nature were the Eleusinian Mysteries.  The Mysteries were one of the most celebrated ceremonies of ancient Greece which were observed in both Athens and Eleusis.  The Eleusinian Mysteries were adopted from old agrarian cults and were based upon the tale of Persephone’s kidnapping by Hades (Nilsson).  Here is a very simplified version of the myth for reference:
Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, who was the goddess of harvest and fertility.  One day, while out picking flowers, Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and taken to the underworld to live.  Demeter searched for her daughter but couldn’t find her.  In her sadness, Demeter stopped the crops from growing and the world began to suffer.  With the help of Helios, Demeter was finally able to find Persephone, but not before Persephone had eaten several pomegranate seeds, which required her to return to Hades for several months each year. Now, each year as Persephone rises from the underworld, spring returns to the world as Demeter is overjoyed with the return of her daughter, but each fall, the world begins to again grow cold as Demeter mourns her daughter’s time in Hades. 
The Eleusinian Mysteries were divided into two separate celebrations, the Lesser Mysteries and the Greater Mysteries.  The Lesser Mysteries represented the return of Persephone to the earth while the Greater Mysteries were held honoring her return to the underworld (Wright).   These mysteries show the importance that ancient Greeks put on the cycle of the year and the turning seasons.
Compare and Contrast
In today’s society, concerns about the well being of the environment are ever-present.  We are aware of the way that our existence and lifestyle changes and affects the natural world in a way that the ancient Roman and Greeks were not able to see. There is now an emphasis on the ability to recycle or reduce the impact of humans on the planet that has never been seen in the past.  Similar to the Romans, we do have set rules that forbid people from damaging or taking the land of others, and often, at least in the case of modern farmers, the more land a person owns, the more wealthy they are thought to be.
I do feel that we could learn a few things from the ancient Greeks in terms of our relationship to nature.  While most of them were not necessarily farmers, the massive number of nature spirits in their mythology shows that they still had a very deep connection to the natural world.

2.  Describe your understanding of the term "nature spirits"? Discuss this concept in relation to both ancient Indo-European and modern ADF practices. (minimum 300 words)
Of the three Kindreds, the spirits of nature are the ones that I am most familiar and comfortable with.  I grew up in a time where summers were spent outside running through the grass and dancing in the rain, and in a place where the natural world had not yet been overtaken by modern life.  I grew up knowing that the plants and animals were important to the world around me and that they do not need voices to speak.  The spirits of nature, I believe, are the easiest to contact and honor, and to observe and appreciate.  However, all too often they are the first ones forgotten.  The feelings of connection and comfort I get when interacting or even appreciating my fellow mid-realm inhabitants is incredible. 
The ancient world understood this connection as well as the importance of the nature spirits in a way that most of modern mankind can only imagine.  They understood that there are natural spirits around us.  Nature spirits were a huge part of Greek mythology.  Ancient Greeks held a very animistic view of the world.  Plants and animals had relationships with the deities, and there was an abundance of nature spirits present in their mythology to represent the different aspects of the natural world.  There were “innumerable nymphs, dryads, fauns, satyrs who were supposed to dwell in wells in streams” which express the universal animistic view among their culture (Karsten 46).  Slavic mythology had a similar practice of including multiple nature spirits in their mythology.  They had multiple sea spirits, including Vila and Vodyanye, and land spirits called Leshii, which were the protectors of plants and animals (Phillips 66-72). 
Within ADF, nature spirits are viewed as both those natural elements that live in our realm, such as the plants and animals, and those spiritual beings of the natural world.  From an ADF perspective, nature is quite literally the giver of life.  It is the food that nourishes and the water that sustains us.  It’s the air that we breathe and the sun that warms us.  It is also the place we called home.

3.  Describe the park or patch of untended nature closest to your home and what kind of park it is. (minimum 100 words)
            The patch of untended nature closest to my home is actually a portion of our land, far into the back yard. I live in the city of Omaha, so while there are several “conservation” areas and parks, very few of them are left untended.  The area behind my house is a section of prairie that has a small creek running through it.  The creek bed is lined with trees and tall grasses and houses much more wildlife than I had anticipated in the city.  We have seen snapping turtles, raccoons, squirrels, opossums, muskrats, wild turkeys, woodpeckers, and numerous other birds, as well as the occasional deer.  It’s like a small, wild oasis on the edge of city life.

4.  Explain where your household water comes from; what waterway is nearest to your home, and where its source is; where it drains; if there are any large bodies of water (lakes, ocean) near your home; what you know about the quality of water in your region; and what the major concerns in your area regarding your water supply are. (minimum 300 words)
Water in Nebraska comes from two primary sources.  80% of the population consumes water from groundwater sources, while the remaining 20% of the population obtain water from surface water sources, such as rivers or lakes (Skipton, Dvorak and Woldt). The city of Omaha’s wastewater collection leads to two major treatment facilities, while the storm sewer system collects rainwater runoff and drains into either the Papillion Creek or Missouri River (City of Omaha Public Works Department).             In 1974, the U.S. Congress enacted The Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure that our public drinking water is safe. This program established minimum drinking water standard and regulations.  This means that all public water supply facilities have to ensure that they meet those standard.  In Nebraska, the Department of Health and Human Services is the agency responsible for enforcing drinking water regulations. Unfortunately, due to limited data regarding the health effects of chemicals in drinking water, there is no guarantee that the water contaminant level is risk-free (Skipton, Dvorak and Woldt). 
Omaha sits along the Missouri river, which is definitely the largest waterway in our area.  The Missouri river starts in Montana and runs for over 2000 miles to St. Louis, Missouri, where it drains into the Mississippi River (Geographic Names Information System).  There are also several lakes in the area, including Cunningham Lake, Beaver Lake, Carter Lake, and Lake Manawa (Nebraska Game & Parks).
The biggest concern for the waterways in Nebraska recent years has been the potential of the Keystone XL pipeline.  This pipeline would run through Nebraska and carry crude oil from Canada to Texas.  It would pose a threat to the Ogallala Aquifer, which is one of the largest aquifers in the world.  The Ogallala is incredibly important to our area as it provides water to farms across eight states (Mufson).  A single leak or spill from the Keystone XL pipeline in an area where the Aquifer is located could be disastrous to farms, ranches, and the citizens of Nebraska. 
5.  Explain where your household garbage ends up and what recycling is available in your area? (minimum 100 words)
We live right outside of the city of Omaha, Nebraska.  At our home, we use a local garbage company to gather our trash weekly.  The trash they pick up from our home goes to one of two landfills.  One is located in Douglas County, while the other is in Sarpy County.  Both of these landfills also allow personal drop offs of trash and are utilized by all the trash companies in the city.  The landfill in Douglas County is large enough to accept vehicles and other large items (Sarpy County) (Douglas County Environmental Services).    
Our garbage company also provides us with recycling opportunities.  They accept numerous types of recycling including aluminum, paper, aerosol and paint cans, cardboard, and plastic.  They do not accept glass for recycling and have a list of items on their website that aren’t accepted, including plastic bags and rubber bands. (Abe's Trash Service, Inc). 

6.  Briefly describe the major sources of air and water pollution in your area, what the biggest source of pollution in your area is, and what impact it has. (minimum 100 words)
Nebraska is an area that people don’t generally think of as having a large pollution area because the state is not densely populated and is known for farms and prairies.  However, Omaha and other parts of the state have still had to deal with air and water pollution problems.  Air pollution in Nebraska is primarily caused by the “fossil fuel combustion by industry (especially coal-fired power plants) and mobile sources, such as cars and trucks” (City of Omaha).  In Nebraska there are 1,251,616 people who live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant (Clean Air Task Force).  This type of pollution leads to several health issues, including lung disease, asthma, and other chronic breathing problems.
In addition to the air pollution, one study marked Nebraska's waterways as the sixth worst in the nation for toxic pollution.  During 2012, Industrial facilities dumped 10.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals into rivers and streams across Nebraska, causing high levels of nitrates to be found in the water (Laukaitis).  In 2011, Environmental Working Group began examining the quality of water across the United States.  They tested Omaha water for 148 chemicals, and of those 42 were detected.  This included “20 of which were above health guidelines, and four of those were detected in illegal amounts” (McIntyre). The pollution that is found in Nebraska’s water includes chromium, which can cause cancer, and lead, which can affect the development of children.

7.  Describe the basic climate of your region, the primary influences on your weather patterns, major economic resources of your region (for example, crops, minerals, ranching, tourism, manufacturing) and how are these affected by climate and weather conditions. (minimum 300 words)
            The climate in Nebraska is known as a “continental type climate”. This type of climate allows us to experience a large amount of variation between the seasons.  Temperatures can even vary greatly from one day to the next.  The state is not near any large bodies of water, or strong geological features, such as mountains, which is what gives us the continental climate. A continental climate typically experiences large temperature variability with warm summers with thunderstorms, and cold winters with snow and wind (Shulski, Umphlett and Pathak).  A lack of prominent geological features allows for strong winds and large cloud formations to build across the state, allowing the formation of heavy thunderstorms and tornados that the state experiences.   
            Nebraska’s economic resources are definitely led by agriculture.  With a large number of beef and pork ranches, along with corn, wheat, and soybean farms, processing is the largest industry in Nebraska (Gray).  This means that the climate in Nebraska is vitally important to the economy.  A spring and/or summer drought can lead to a low producing crop, which in turn makes the largest industry in Nebraska suffer.  A hailstorm in a large area can easily demolish all much of the profit for part of the state. 
Agriculture is not the only industry in Nebraska.  Finance and insurance has started to become much more prominent, with Berkshire Hathaway, Mutual of Omaha, and First Data all holding large offices in Omaha.   We also have the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which is a major research facility in the state, which draws patients from all over the country, as well as Offutt Air Force Base.   The last large economic resource the Nebraska has is in the industry of Transportation.  The Union Pacific Railroad provides thousands of jobs, and has shipped sources all over the country.  The largest railroad classification yard in the world is located in North Platte, Nebraska.   These industries are definitely less affected by the climate in Nebraska, but large storms can lead to power outages or hazardous travel conditions, so they can lead to challenges there.

8.  Name and provide the following information for each of three species of animals (birds, mammals, insects, fish, etc.) and three species of plants native to and currently found in your area:  
Animal – American Beaver (Castor Canadensis):
Status:  Thriving
Physical description & where/if you’ve seen it:  Beavers are a large rodent that can grow up to 4 feet long and can weigh up to 60 pounds. They have dark brown fur, webbed feet, and a large flat tail.  We have seen beavers living in the woods along the Missouri river and creating dams in the water. 
Describe how humans have used it: Beaver pelt was one of the incentives for the exploration and settlement of the western part of the United States.  Traders would trap the beavers to harvest their furs and meat (Nebraska Game & Parks). 

Animal – White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus):
Status:  Overpopulated
Physical description & where/if you’ve seen it: The white-tailed deer is a large, hooved animal with light brown fur and a large white tail.  The males have antlers with multiple points.  The fawns have white spots along the back that disappear as they grow into adults. White-tailed deer are abundantly present in the area that I live in.  I have seen them in my front yard, driving down the road, hiking in the woods, and many other places. 
Describe how humans have used it:  White-tailed deer are used in Nebraska as a food source.  The use of deer as food also has an economic impact on the state because of the numerous deer hunting permits that are sold each year (Nebraska Game & Parks). 

Animal – Black-footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes):
Status:  Endangered
Physical description & where/if you’ve seen it:  Black-footed ferrets are small mammals that are 20 to 24 inches long and weigh about 2.5 pounds.  The have long bodies and short legs with a tan fur.  However, the fur on the head, feet, and tip of the tail are black.  I have never seen a black-footed ferret in person because of their endangered status. 
Describe how humans have used it:  The black-footed ferret never had a strong presence in Nebraska, but because of this Native Americans viewed them as a very special animal.  The pelts of black-footed ferrets were used in headdresses and in religious ceremonies (Nebraska Game & Parks). 

Plant – Purple Coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia):
Status:  Thriving
Physical description & where/if you’ve seen it:  The purple coneflower is 16 to 28 inches tall with purple, sunflower shaped flowers at the end of long stems (Wikipedia).  These flowers grow wild in many parts of Nebraska, so I have seen them walking through prairies and planted intentionally in my grandmother’s garden.  
Describe how humans have used it: Sioux tribes used the purple coneflower as a cure for many different ailments including:  antidote for snakebites and treatment for headaches or toothaches (Morgan and Weedon).   

Plant – American Licorice (Glycyrhiza lepidota):
Status:  Thriving
Physical description & where/if you’ve seen it: American Licorice grows to be 16 to 40 inches tall, and has long, tough, brown roots (Wikipedia).  They have yellowish flowers along long stalks with clusters of leaves.  I do not believe I have seen these in my hiking, but it is possible that I have seen it and just not known what it was.
Describe how humans have used it: Native American tribes used the American Licorice plant as a general analgesic.  They would boil them for earaches, and rub sore horses with the leaves.  Women were given the roots during childbirth to speed delivery as well (Morgan and Weedon). 

Plant – Sweet Grass (Hierochloe odorata):

Status:  Thriving
Physical description & where/if you’ve seen it: Sweet Grass grows to be only 8 inches tall, but can grow out 40 inches wide.  The leaves are shiny on one side with a purple or red color (Wikipedia). Sweet grass grows natively in much of Nebraska so it is seen in many prairies that I have walked through in my life. 
Describe how humans have used it: Sweet grass has been, and is still, used to purify participants for religious ceremonies and rituals.  It is braided and tied at each end.  They have also been burned as incense for the Sun Dance ceremony of the Sioux tribe (Morgan and Weedon). 

9.  Identify one species of plant or animal in your local area which is threatened, endangered, or locally endangered, or which became extinct in historic times. Explain what destroyed or threatens this species locally, how does or might the absence of this species affect your locality, and what, if any, steps were taken or are being taken to preserve the species. (minimum 100 words)

Animal – Whooping Crane (Grus americana):

The whooping crane is the tallest species of bird in North America.  They have a very long neck and legs.  Their feathers are white with black tips, with bright red feathers on the face and head.  Whooping cranes were once very popular in the Upper Midwest portion of the United States, including Nebraska.  However, they are currently on both the federal and local endangered species lists.  The primary cause of their population decline was unregulated hunting and poaching.  They also experienced a large loss of habitat due to growing roadways, towns, and industries (Nebraska Game & Parks).
Whooping cranes no longer live permanently in Nebraska.  However, they migrate through our state twice per year, once in the spring and once in the fall.  During their migration, they stop in the rivers and lakes across the state, staying in each location for anywhere between two days and three weeks.  While this may not seem like a long time, losing their presence would affect the ecosystem that they visit.  Whooping cranes are omnivores and feed on the aquatic plants and animals of the rivers they stop in (National Wildlife Federation).  If they stop feeding in these places, the population of the animals and plants that they eat will increase, which will in turn cause changes to the environment.  This may be a small change to begin with, but over time it could have a major affect on the ecosystem.  Additionally, the crane migration is often a draw for tourism in Nebraska and many people travel to the lakes and rivers to watch these birds in their natural habitats.  If the birds quit migrating through Nebraska, it would harm the economy as well, reducing the number of tourists and the business that they bring with them. 
Fortunately, conservation efforts are being made to help bring these birds back from the brink of extinction to a flourishing animal once again. Crane Trust is one organization that is working on conservation and research of whooping cranes through habitat protection and maintenance and collecting data about the habitats that cranes choose to use as stopover sites to better provide for them.  They also provide a service called “Whooper Watch” where people can report a sighting of a whooping crane for researchers to get about the cranes and their habitat (Crane Trust). 

10.  Identify one plant or animal species which was introduced to your area and explain how its introduction and continued presence has affected the local ecology and what, if any, steps are being taken to mitigate those effects. (minimum 100 words)
Animal – Norway Rat (Rattus norvegicus):

The Norway rat is found in towns and on farms all across Nebraska.  They are rodents that are 12-18 inches long with a long bald tail and brown fur on the rest of their body.  They are omnivores and eat nearly anything that humans can eat.  However, this is not a species that is native to the United States.  They first came to North America on ships sailing from Europe around 1775 (Nematology Lab at UNL).
Unfortunately, Norway rats have had a negative impact on the local economy.  They cause structural damage to buildings, roads, railroad tracks, and irrigation canals because of the way they chew on structures to get to food.  They also carry several diseases, including typhus and salmonellosis, which can infect both humans and livestock (Nematology Lab at UNL).
Getting rid of Norway rats in Nebraska would be nearly impossible.  However, to mitigate the impact they have it is important to use good sanitation for all food and trash.  Farmers have also tried to use rodent proof construction, rodenticides, and predators such as cats to try to control the number of rats that they have on their property. 

11.  Based on your experiences, meditations, and research, describe what, in your opinion, makes a place seem "natural." (minimum 100 words)
             From my experiences, a natural place isn’t necessarily a place that is free from humans, but is instead a place where I can connect to the natural world.  It’s definitely easier to do that in a place that hasn’t been touched by industry or construction, where the land exists in its native form.  However, it is also possible, and important, to be able to find nature around me and make that connection as often as possible. I am sure this is partly because of how I was raised.  I lived in a small town with lots of undisturbed natural world around me.  However, my grandmother was also a large-scale gardener who nurtured my fascination with the plants and trees.   I grew comfortable in these gardens that she created, but never once thought of them as being “unnatural.” She believed they all had a place in the cycle of life. Simply being outside was a form of connecting to the world and the spirits of the land.  Being in nature and enjoying the world around me is the easiest way to connect, and sometimes, sitting down town surrounded by graffiti, it’s easy to miss the flock of birds overhead or the flowers growing on the side of the road, but my hope is to be able to appreciate even those brief gifts of nature.

12.  Based on your research for Questions 1 above, describe what sort of offering would be appropriate to make to the Nature Spirits in your area, and what would be an appropriate way to make such an offering and why. Discuss the potential ecological consequences of making this offering and ways to modify the offering in order to minimize any negative environmental impact. (minimum 100 words)
            My preferred offerings are items that can be beneficial to the nature spirits and the natural world without disrupting the ecology of the space that we’re using.  When doing rituals at my home, I frequently use birdseed as an offering to help feed the family of wild turkeys and other birds that live in and around my neighborhood. I have also made offerings of grass seeds to help regrow grass in areas that have been damaged by weather or invasive plants.  My goal is to not make offerings in a way that the animals become dependent upon them to survive, but instead to show my gratitude to them.  I also try to vary the location of the offerings so multiple groups can utilize them.

13.  Based on the research and conclusions you have drawn from question 1 through 12, describe how you might further extend your personal and/or group spiritual practices to include the Nature Spirits and other natural elements. (minimum 300 words)
            During the past year, I have tried to incorporate more work with the nature spirits into my personal practice.  I do my meditations outdoors as often as possible in an effort to connect with our land and build a relationship with the spirits there.  I also make offerings of birdseed every few days to the birds that live in our yard.  I would like to start using water as a way to build connections with the trees in my yard as well, as I think that bringing them a gift may help to nurture that connection.
My grove’s spiritual practice tries to be very connected to the natural world, but it’s always a bit of a challenge since we are all on individual paths.  We do make offerings of items that are beneficial to the land and clean up our ritual area to be sure not to leave litter or harmful items behind.  We don’t currently have a permanent structure, but we have discussed developing one in my yard where we frequently hold our rites.  In our rituals we use offerings that are useful to nature, including water and birdseed, instead of things that may be harmful to the ecology or the creatures in the area.  These gifts are given at each high day, but are spaced out enough that animals will not become dependent on them.  I view this as giving them a gift as a thank you for letting us hold our rituals on the land. 
In addition to this, our community service projects have been focused on going into natural areas and cleaning up the litter and garbage left by other people.  Our grove has worked to be very aware of our effect on nature and try to minimize the consequences of us using a space for rituals.   Each fall we have also dedicated one of our rituals exclusively to the Nature Spirits to show our gratitude of them, the sacrifices they make for our sustenance, and the gifts they give to us by sharing the world with us. 

Works Cited

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