Me, As Mammal

Zeke, my first non-human mammal friend. (Photo: Duncan R. Munro)

There was a time when I wondered whether something was wrong with me. I was often uncomfortable being called “Latvian,” for one. “C’mon,” I countered, having spent most of my formative years in the Midwest, “I was little more than one month old when I was bundled off to Austria.” “Quite so,” anyone who heard that could respond. “But you don’t identify much with Austrians or Americans, either.”

Truth be told, I have tried to wriggle out of any show of group commitment more fervent than a perfunctory reciting of the “Pledge of Allegiance.” Such as all that stuff that I had to say as a self-conscious 16-year-old at the far-too-public rite of Lutheran confirmation. Or all that stuff that I had to scream in support of high school and college athletic organizations. My lack of zeal for my undergraduate football team was particularly perplexing since it was a Big Ten powerhouse. That this occurred in the Sixties, when the U of M was the “Hotbed of Liberalism,” did not help, either. I shrank from affirmations at SDS meetings. While markedly different, they seemed similarly coercive.

I came to claim that the best I could do was accept membership in the human race or, more accurately, the Homo sapiens species. But even that rubbed me the wrong way once it struck me how disturbingly the Bible, which forms the basis of my Judeo-Christian culture, starts out:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. [Italics mine.]

Honestly, I did not want my name associated with any group that advocated that degree of exceptionalism and imperialism. So I settled for seeing myself as a mere speck in a vast Universe, both the known and the unknown one. That worked when considering major issues such as Life and Death but did little for me on a day-to-day basis.

I saw no viable solution until I reached middle age, which is when I was grown up enough to acknowledge that I was once and probably always will be a displaced person. I started writing about that, then volunteered my services to the Baltimore branch of the International Rescue Committee, which helps resettle a range of refugees in my area. And, once the refugee situation reached crisis proportions comparable only to what my family and I experienced after World War II,  I wrote about my debt to today’s refugees, which was viewed by thousands and, hopefully, spurred some to action. I even sided with displaced plants and took on both those nativists who wage war on non-native vegetation and those who do so on non-native people.

Still, it seemed sad to only be able to identify with people and plants that do not belong. Which got me thinking about Zeke. Never was a sentient being more confident of his place in the world. And more capable of committing to those beyond his own species, Canis lupus. He gave us Homo sapiens licks and wags and cheerfully tolerated all those strange training regimens that we foisted on him. His exceptions, embarrassingly, revolved around the darker-skinned members of my then husband’s British football team. But Zeke made it clear that this was only his anomaly detector at work by also barking furiously whenever the right-side-up version of me turned upside-down during yoga poses. And then showed regret to certain Jamaican gentlemen by returning their broad smiles as soon as he understood that they meant him no harm. Something that some humans cannot do.

He also, interestingly, eschewed the gender stereotypes that so many humans get hung up on. While being the manliest of males—60 pounds of pure muscle and much-admired by the ladies—he felt free to show his feminine side. Even as a raucous adolescent, he became maternal when visiting the two-year-old next door. Even obeying his orders. Even when there were hot dogs involved. All little Michael had to do was say, “Sit,” then, “No, Zeke, no.” He was similarly sensitive to me. While always showing how much he missed me when I returned from work, he then sat back and assessed the situation. And altered his behavior substantially depending on whether I was seriously stressed by the impossible search for a parking space near our Back Bay apartment, preoccupied with the report that I had to complete by the morning or relieved that it was Friday and ready for fun.

Memory of this was his way of reaffirming for me from wherever he is now that we are both mammals. And saying if I accepted that, I could not only become a part something more sympatico than how my own species sometimes seems but also escape its sexist connotations. Instead of identifying as a HOMO sapien or a huMAN or a member of MANkind, I could proudly proclaim that I belonged to a clade characterized by mammary glands. Which, incidentally, both males and females possess. As Randy Laist well knew when he wrote “Why I Identify as Mammal” for The New York Times. Of course, that puts Laist and me in a clade with rodentssloths and sheep. But since we are in the silly season known as the presidential election in the States, I am sure that we are no worse off than if we had simply stuck to humans.

Now, know that this might not work for you. Wesley J. Smith, after all,  wrote a spirited rebuttal, pointing out that Laist—”of course!“—was an English professor, and published it in—of course!—the National Review. But then try to enlarge your view in some other way. If you see yourself as a Millennial, try seeing yourself as a mortal so as not to insulate yourself from people who are closer to Death’s door. If you see yourself as a Republican, try seeing yourself as a US citizen so as not to be in a position to have to vote for someone who is repugnant to you come November. And, my dear native Latvians, try seeing yourselves as members of the United Nations, not just as NATO members, which is currently more convenient. And If you see yourself as a Christian, try seeing yourself as simply spiritual. Or a principled person. So as not to set yourself against Islam, the fastest growing religion in the world. Or agnostics, another rapidly growing group.

And if you have done all that and more, give identifying as mammal another go. Not so that you feel compelled to stop the slaughter of your fellow mammals to fill your stomach, which makes some good come of our inevitable demise, but so as to limit the torture that has become pervasive on factory farms. And then, when you are really ready, expand your identity further so that you become part of the planet, then the Universe. Because that, ultimately, is what you are.

The Nativists and Me

Some common seed-dispersal systems. (Illustration: David Plunkert)

Certain aspects of spring make me squirm. Particularly those related to advice on what I should and should not plant. Even what I should actively eradicate. Insistent voices and ubiquitous manifestos inform me that I must limit myself to native plants—that is, those established before European and African settlement—and wage war on all others. Which you might think is mere hyperbole on my part, but that is not so. The desire to make my local environment resemble what it might have looked like before 1492, when Columbus crossed the ocean blue, is what drives the definition of “native” in a booklet just published by the Maryland Native Plant Society. Which makes me wonder why this document was not produced by a printing press, invented circa 1440, instead of some digital device available only recently.

On the surface, I have at least two problems with people who espouse this sort of nativism. First, I am not convinced that they love nature nearly as much as they claim. If they did, they would readily embrace an essential aspect: constant change. Which is particularly important these days since phenomena such as global warming are rapidly accelerating the rate of this change. Meaning that trying to make current vegetation resemble that of previous centuries, where the natural and man-made environment was decidedly different, is maladaptive, at best. If they must mess with Mother Nature, they might better ask what her future needs were and attempt to meet them. Second, they do not seem to understand the inherent futility of their efforts. Both plants and animals, including the human kind, are set up to spread. The salient difference between flora and fauna is that the former relocate by more subtle means. Say, through seed dispersal. And between autochory—most notably the use of gravity—and allochory—wind, water, animals and humans—them flora sure do get around. Of course, much of seed dissemination is polychorous, which makes those nativists that come down particularly hard on the human-vectored sort of dispersal come across as somewhat silly.

Deep down, there is another problem that I do not bring up with such nativists. Much like my father, who seemed to fear for his manhood each spring that my mother made him to lop off tree limbs and prune bushes, I—a non-native Marylander (here by way of Latvia, Austria, Germany, Michigan, Massachusetts and Alabama), a merely naturalized US citizen and a former displaced person—fear for my place in my present community, my adopted country and even the world as a whole at the start of each growing season. Because, invariably, I get sucked into discussions with those finding the likes of the multiflora roses and butterfly bushes on my riverbank offensive and then wonder just how they find me. You see, there is a political form of nativism that seeks to preserve or reinstate status for established inhabitants against the claims of newcomers and seems disturbingly similar to that of those seeking to reinstate some prior status of the riverbank.

The arguments used are certainly similar. And similarly questionable. They say, for instance, that the trouble with non-natives is that there are no natural predators to keep them in check. And that unchecked growth decreases biodiversity. Try telling that to our native beavers, who indiscriminately destroy the Japanese cherry trees, non-native but beloved, planted along the Tidal Basin and the native dogwood that I planted in memory of my mother. And to those humans, presumably native-born, who attack immigrants in our area and made life miserable for my family and five-year-old me when we arrived in Michigan. If diversity really is at issue, those nativists would beat on beavers, not butterfly bushes, which beavers blessedly leave alone. But they do not, any more than the other sort fights anti-immigration groups. Most would readily revert to 1965, when white people still comprised 85 percent of the population rather than rejoice that non-Hispanic whites will no no longer represent the majority by 2044.

Of course, nativists rarely seem to commit to reinstating the status of all plants or all people to anywhere near that of pre-colonial days. Few, for instance, show any interest in pushing for legislation restoring the status of Indian tribes. Even those who refer to them as “Native Americans” and admire their artifacts. And while dandelions are anointed by the Maryland Biodiversity Project and touted by the University of Maryland as nutrient-rich plants used by said Native Americans to treat a range of disorders, not many refrain from ripping those pretty but pesky natives from their lawns. Much like my mother in Michigan, who sought total annihilation as my father and and I stood by and smirked. (Monoculture lawns seem to be suburbanites’ sacred sites. When I worked in Washington, a colleague from posh Potomac said in all seriousness, “We have been invaded by violets.”)

Undogmatic by nature, I was pleased to learn that organizations such as the The Nature Conservancy now take a nuanced stance. Altering the orthodoxy that assumes that non-natives are guilty until proven innocent, points such as the following serve as rational replacements:

  1. Non-natives can have devastating impacts, especially on islands,
  2. But they can also provide much-needed habitats for endangered species and be the best bet for erosion and mudslide control.
  3. Trade restrictions and border controls have reduced the flow of known pests, and some eradication programs have succeeded
  4. But millions of federal dollars have been spent without any measurable impact on either biodiversity or ecosystem function.
  5. It is important to protect against certain highly invasive species
  6. But novel ecosystems are increasingly common and, going forward, will need to be viewed as part of the total ecosystem.

Not only are these points applicable to, say, my multiflora roses, which were, in fact, introduced to control erosion on riverbanks such as mine, but also to non-native humans such as me. Substitute some words in a Conservancy statement, and you will see. “Science-based conservation cannot be about knee-jerk platitudes and simple views of good and evil” any more than evidence-based immigration or refugee policy can be about knee-jerk platitudes and simple views .  .  .

The mixed blessings of introduced species are well-illustrated by the Columbian Exchange, that widespread transfer of not only people but also plants and animals and microbes, not to mention culture and science and technology, that took place between the American and Afro-Eurasian hemispheres as a consequence of the colonization and trade that followed from that somewhat ill-considered trip Columbus took. While non-native diseases certainly contributed to precipitous declines in indigenous populations, benefits accrued, as well. There was, for instance, no honey bee here back then. The same one that now is undergoing colony collapse and causing us to wring our hands about how we will feed ourselves in the future without this important pollinator. We probably will figure out a way, since humans—arguably the most invasive species of all—and ecosystems do eventually adapt.

Meanwhile, I will continue to root for those dastardly multiflora roses and butterfly bushes since those beleaguered bees sure do like feasting on their flowers. And that useless grassy hillside—it could barely be called a lawn—behind my house that I turned into some semblance of  a rain garden, full of non-native shrubs and small trees selected not only for their shade tolerance but also because they are not too tasty to our native white-tailed deer, who eat everything in sight. And those non-native lettuces and carrots that I plan to plant in our community garden. And the native tobacco plants, but only when they are restricted to the colonial garden, co-located with our own at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, which is dedicated to the first African-American man of science and son of a former slave.

I will also continue to support the Syrian refugees, not only because I was a refugee once myself but also because I cannot imagine how I would be able write another word without the elegant digital devices developed by a man whose biological father hailed from Homs. And the migrants who enter the country from the south, not only because part of the States once belonged to those below the border but also because one is my next-door neighbor. And to oppose those nativists who believe that closing borders and building walls will somehow “make America great again.” Not only because I cannot countenance their irrational hatred but also because they ignore their own history. Particularly the part where the Columbian Exchange and subsequent waves of immigration carried the seeds of greatness to their shores.

 

Some non-native plants, animals and microbes. (Source: Encyclopædia Britannica)
Some non-native plants, animals and microbes. (Source: Encyclopædia Britannica)

No Big Deal

President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga hosts a summit in Rīga. (Source: NATO)

Little Latvia has something to teach the great United States of America about presidential politics. Namely, that electing a woman as president is no big deal. It was not back in 1999, when Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga became the first female president, and it was not in 2014, when Laimdota Straujuma became the first female prime minister. (Latvia has a parliamentary system, so there is a head of state and a head of government.) Though born in Latvia, I had lived decades in the States by the time both of these events occurred. But I knew enough about both countries to be able to spot two reasons why this might be so: (1) the gender gap was not quite as large in Latvia and (2) the prevailing attitude among Latvians the world over was that women could do whatever men did. And could succeed—or fail—to the same degree.

The gender gap can be measured objectively. The Global Gender Gap Report, for instance, is based on data collected from 130 countries, or over 93 percent of the world’s population, in four broad areas: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment and health and survival. With no country obtaining anywhere near the combined score needed to indicate complete women’s equality (1.0), the most recent findings (2014) show that Iceland comes the closest (0.8594). And that Latvia (0.7691) fares a bit better than the States (0.7463). Curious to see what that says about political outcomes, I linked the scores to a list of women world leaders. Apart from President Borjana Krišto of Bosnia Herzegovina and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, for whom data were not available, all the women came from nations scoring above 0.6:

0.8594  Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Iceland
0.8453  Prime Minister Mari Johanna Kiviniemi, Finland
0.8453  President Tarja Halonen, Finland
0.7850  President Mary McAleese, Ireland
0.7798  President Doris Leuthard, Switzerland
0.7780  Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany
0.7409  Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Australia
0.7208  President Dalia Grybauskaitė, Lithuania
0.7165  President Laura Chinchilla, Costa Rica
0.7154  Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Trinidad Tobago
0.7075  Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, Croatia
0.6974  President Roza Otunbayeva, Kyrgyzstan
0.6973  Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh
0.6806  Prime Minister Iveta Radičová, Slovakia
0.6455  President Pratibha Patil, India

Attitudes are harder to quantify. But I am fairly certain that I was not unique among Latvians everywhere in feeling empowered as a female from my very first days. This empowerment came from my maternal grandmother, who was responsible for my day-to-day care. Born in 1879, she was able to figure out how to support her remaining family after her husband was executed by Russian revolutionaries and she had to return to Rīga, pregnant with her second child, accompanied by my mother, who was only a toddler, and bags of worthless rubles: she set up her own sausage stand and, later, turned a seaside resort into a resounding success. It come from my mother, who worked outside the home all her adult life. Born in the 1915, she managed to land a good job after we fled to Austria to escape the invading Red Army and then assumed the role of sole breadwinner when my father, after falling the equivalent of several stories at the hydroelectric plant where he had found work, decided that it might be best to study law in Innsbruck instead. And it came from my father, as well. He grew up with two accomplished sisters on a farm Cēsis and was equally proud of the one who became a farmer’s wife and the one who became a dentist. The latter, similar to what my mother did in Austria, became the primary provider not long after she and her husband fled to England. While she was able to establish her own practice in London, her husband, who had served as a judge in Latvia, could only find factory work. Which was not only unsuitable but also became a tax liability. So he quit to manage her practice. And both were fine with that.

I am constantly amazed by how many native-born American women my own age do not feel similarly empowered by their predecessors. However, I am truly heartened by what I hear from those born several decades later. For whatever reason, they have managed to instill the No-Big-Deal attitude in this electoral cycle. While most want to see a female president soon, they are also unwilling to say that it has to occur this particular year and be this particular front-runner. Even—or perhaps particularly—many feminists. So, according to a New York Times piece, some 87 percent of likely primary voters aged 18 to 29 say that they would vote for Bernie Sanders compared with only 13 percent for Hillary Clinton.  As a woman quoted in an LA Times piece says, “Feminists choosing her just because she is a woman is the opposite of what feminism means. A ‘person’ should be elected by their records, not their gender.” So, there seems to be substantial progress.

It is important for the electorate to reach the point where gender no longer takes center stage. Not only so that more women are willing to run for office, confident that they had a fighting chance, but also that this could elevate the level of political discourse. As John Cassidy wrote in a piece in The New Yorker, “One of Hillary Clinton’s problems is that her campaign is largely about her. Sanders, on the other hand, seeks to inspire people with an uplifting theme.” And Clinton has claimed that this is so because she is a woman. If we were at the point where it was not always about gender, Clinton might show us what a remarkable leader she could be. On the other hand, very few have matched the “uplifting theme” marking President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. And racial inequality in the States is clearly greater than gender inequality. And many of the world leaders listed above had to contend with greater gender inequality than either Latvians or Americans endured. So maybe the best that Clinton can do is to make the presidential bid about herself. But then, at least, we would know.

Eighteen women world leaders. (Source: TEDwomen)
Eighteen women world leaders. (Source: TEDwomen)

So Long, Laima

Three Latvian deities: Māra, Dievs and Laima (Painting:  Jēkabs Bīne)

Laima, the primary Latvian goddess of destiny, likes to live under willow trees. And willow trees like to live on riverbanks. And a riverbank was where I elected to live when I moved to Maryland and bought a house. A portion of the Patapsco River’s bank, to be specific. Which came complete with a large willow tree and, I had to assume since I was Latvian by birth, the goddess Laima. Because Latvians—and do not let anyone tell you otherwise—are basically pagans. While most modern Latvians identify themselves as Lutheran and a smaller number as Catholic, Orthodox or even agnostic like me, right below the surface, our essence still resonates most with all the ancient deities.

Meaning that we are not so different from the peasants living in the Vidzeme (Middle Land) region, where I was born, when the 16th Century geographer Sebastian Münster came upon them and, with unpleasant surprise, recorded in his 22-volume encyclopedia Cosmographia that there “are many of those, who know nothing of God and his saints. One worships sun, another moon, one chooses a beautiful tree to worship, while another a stone or whatever he pleases.” To which Balthasar Russow, in The Chronicle of Livonia, quite disparagingly added, “They hold some brushwoods as holy sites, which were forbidden to cut down. Their superstition was so great that one who would cut down a tree in the holy place would be killed immediately.”

Which leads me to the point of this piece, which is that on 6 January 2016—which happened to be Epiphany in the Christian world—men in reflective vests with large bucket-bearing and mulch-making trucks arrived in front of my house and, after much discussion, started to ensnare the largest limbs of the willow. As I watched them work from my front porch swing, sipping my morning coffee, all that disturbed me was the noise. I assumed that the tree would be trimmed, a common occurrence around here. But when the trucks and men returned the following day, a primitive rage arose. I left my spot on the swing to keep from acting upon murderous impulses, telling myself that they were mere agents of a higher power. Likely not Dievs, but at least the Oella Homeowners Association. Once I returned hours later to find that only a stump remained (see below), I was less angry than sad.

Of course, the OHA was within its rights. You see, while I viewed the riverbank as an extension of my front yard, it was, in fact, separated from my house by a narrow road and a strip of sidewalk and constituted common space administered on our behalf by the OHA. And, of course, there were good reasons why the OHA might want the willow gone. It blocked our view of the river. And its roots, aggressively seeking moisture, could present problems if they clogged our water and sewer systems. And, while I viewed the tree as Laima’s home, truth be told, it was a weeping willow. Which is a hybrid of the Chinese Peking willow (Salix babylonica) and the European white willow (Salix alba), and, therefore, not a Latvian willow. (Hey, we exiles have to adapt.)

And, to be honest, I have not been happy with Laima of late. Last year alone, she made my life holy hell with an array of physical afflictions and even set it up so that I almost died. Not to mention messing with the stock market so that I barely eked out a profit and, this year, seem well on my way to a substantial loss. And all the stuff that she decided should break. Apparently, her rule is that a decade after a major renovation everything in a historic millworker’s house should fall apart. Particularly during those historic cold snaps and heat waves she so thoughtfully arranged. And, if I thought that you had an hour or so to spare, she has given me enough material to write about much more. So, maybe I should simply rejoice that she has been forced to flee.

Still, what I have always adored about the ancient deities is that they were never saints. Just consider the Greek or Roman mythologies. Perhaps the solution, therefore, was to take a page from Marie Phillips‘ 2007 novel Gods Behaving Badly, where she felt free to portray the 12 divine beings of Mount Olympus as living in a modern-day rundown London flat while witnessing their powers wane. I could just as easily envision Laima, evicted from her scenic site on the Patapsco riverbank relocating to more urban digs just down the hill in front of the Ellicott City Railroad Museum under one of those linden trees, which some say that she likes as much as willows. That way, I could keep her from meddling in day-to-day matters but still have her nearby to blame for events that I would rather attribute to fate.

 

Weeping Willow Stump
The sad stump where the weeping willow once stood and Laima once lived. (Photo: Ilse Munro)

 

Note: Little Patuxent Review, where I was once the online editor, is launching the Winter 2016 issue, Myth, on January 31. Attend the launch reading and purchase a copy, either there or online.

ILSE MUNRO

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