With Crump, we mark the publication of classics like Carson’s Silent Spring and White’s Charlotte’s Web, and even the musical premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. We note the discovery of the structure of DNA and the mountain gorilla, the rise of citizen science projects, and the work of people who’ve shaped how we view and protect nature—from Aristotle to E. O. Wilson. Some days feature US celebrations, like National Poinsettia Day and National Cat Day; others highlight country-specific celebrations, like Australia’s Wombat Day and Thailand’s Monkey Buffet Festival, during which thousands of macaques feast on an ornately arranged spread of fruits and vegetables. Crump also highlights celebrations that span borders, from World Wildlife Conservation Day to International Mountain Day and global festivities for snakes, sea turtles, and chocolate. Interweaving fascinating facts on everything from jellyfish bodies to monthly birth flowers with folkloric entries featuring the Loch Ness Monster, unicorns, and ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology, the almanac is as exhaustive as it is enchanting.
A Year with Nature celebrates the wonder and beauty of our natural world as we have expressed it in visual arts, music, literature, science, natural history, and everyday experience. But more than this, the almanac’s vignettes encourage us to contemplate how we can help ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy the landscapes and rich biodiversity we so deeply cherish.
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Wisdom of the Platypus
January 1 is World Day of Peace, a good day to appreciate and respect the differences that characterize our human family. As global distances shrink and cultures merge, we are becoming a dazzling kaleidoscope of languages, colors, traditions, and beliefs. Each of us is special, no one better than another. The Wiradjuri, Australian Aboriginals from Central New South Wales, tell a story that expresses this sentiment.
During Dreamtime the Creator made three types of animals: Mammals, Fish, and Birds. He gave Mammals fur to stay warm on land; he gave Fish gills to breathe in water; and he gave Birds the ability to lay eggs out of water. With the leftover bits and pieces, he made Platypus. After a time, Mammals, Fish, and Birds quarreled, each claiming to be the best. Mammals asked Platypus, because of her fur, to join them in their fight against Fish and Birds. Fish encouraged Platypus, because she spends most of her life in water, to join them in their fight against Mammals and Birds. Birds urged Platypus, because she lays eggs out of water, to join them in their fight against Mammals and Fish. Platypus pondered which group to join. At last she declared, "I am part of each of you; I am part of all of you. I will join no group, and I fight against no group. When the Creator made us, he made us different. We should respect each other's differences and live together peaceably."
Every two seconds, someone in the United States needs blood. In 1969, President Richard Nixon designated January as National Blood Donor Month. Although an estimated 38 percent of the US population is eligible to donate, fewer than 10 percent of people do so. On average, about 40,000 pints of blood are needed in the country every day. If you can donate, what a way to begin the New Year! Your donation of a pint can be split into plasma, platelets, and red blood cells, potentially saving three lives. We cannot manufacture or synthesize human blood; it must come from generous donors.
We also depend on the blood from horseshoe crabs. Instead of white blood cells to fight infection, horseshoe crab blood contains amoebocytes that coagulate around bacterial toxins. We use this capability to our advantage. Each year, over 500,000 horseshoe crabs are collected and bled from tissue around their hearts. Their baby blue blood is used to test for contamination in vaccines, injectable drugs, intravenous solutions, and implantable medical devices like pacemakers and knee replacements. The Limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL) test is nearly instantaneous: coagulation indicates presence of bacteria; if no coagulation occurs, the solution is considered free of bacteria. One quart of horseshoe crab blood is worth $15,000 in an annual global industry valued at $50 million. Horseshoe crabs can be relieved of one-third of their blood and returned to the ocean. Most people in the US have benefited from horseshoe crab blood, as every vaccine and injectable drug certified by the Food and Drug Administration, as well as surgical implants, must pass the LAL test. We are protected by marine arthropods with an evolutionary history dating back 450 million years.
Like the colorful striped garters eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gentlemen tied just below their knees to hold up their stockings, garter snakes have yellow, tan, or orange stripes running along the length of their long, slender bodies. Garter snakes are abundant in many places in the US. After two elementary school students from Massachusetts learned that their state had no state reptile, they decided the eastern garter snake should have that designation. The students worked with a local representative, and three years later, on January 3, 2007, then-Governor Mitt Romney declared the eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) the official reptile of Massachusetts.
Snakes engender the extremes of human emotions. We admire and respect them, or we dislike and fear them. And so it is heartwarming for a herpetologist like myself to hear of children who campaigned for a snake to be featured as a state reptile and of a legislature and governor who supported and signed the bill. School children in Massachusetts now learn about the eastern garter snake. Nature centers, museums, and zoos feature this snake in educational exhibits and fieldtrips. If we can empower people with the knowledge to distinguish harmless from venomous species, what to do if they see a snake, and a little about the animals' fascinating biology, most will come to respect the reptiles.
From Tadpoles to Ogres
On January 4, 1948, Myanmar (Burma) gained its independence from the United Kingdom. The day marked yet another transformation stage for the Wa, an ethnic group from northern Myanmar who long ago practiced headhunting.
The Wa creation myth tells that as tadpoles, they spent their early years in Nawng Hkeo, a mountain lake at 7000 feet (2134 m) elevation. After they transformed into terrestrial frogs, they lived on a hill called Nam Tao. In time, the frogs became ogres. They lived in a cave; ate deer, wild pigs, goats, and cattle; and were sterile. The Wa searched farther afield for food until one day two ogres encountered humans. They captured and ate a man and returned to their cave with the skull. Eating the man made the Wa fertile, and over time they produced many ogrelets in human form. The parents taught their children that they must keep a man's skull in their settlements to protect against evil spirits and to ensure peace and prosperity.
Tadpoles are a logical focus for a creation myth. Throughout the world frogs symbolize rebirth, reflecting their "magical" transformation from an aquatic, gill-breathing, swimming tadpole into a terrestrial, lung-breathing, leaping frog. Just like frogs, we too pass through critical stages in our lives. Physically, we transition from being bathed in amniotic fluids and getting oxygen through the placenta to breathing air through our lungs once we leave our mother's womb. Emotionally, we experience major changes in our lives and emerge from crises in transformed states.
National Bird Day
Perhaps because birds can do something we cannot — fly, we have long imbued them with supernatural powers. Birds soar in and out of heaven, messengers of the gods. They can foresee the future. They are visible spirits of the deceased, reincarnated human souls.
Birds play major roles in creation myths, as in the sacred story of the Salinan Native Americans of California. Sea Woman, jealous of Eagle because of his grandeur and power, emptied her great basket that contained the oceans and flooded Earth. Eagle gathered the animals together on the only remaining dry land, the peak of Santa Lucia Mountain. He sent Dove to fetch soil, and from this mud Eagle made a new world. Eagle fashioned a man and a woman from elderberry branches and breathed life into them.
Our "feathered friends" raise our spirits. In 2017, Daniel Cox and his colleagues published a paper in BioScience that examined the relationship between nature-related experiences of people in their residential neighborhoods and mental-health benefits. They reported that afternoon abundance of birds was positively correlated with a lower prevalence of depression, anxiety, and stress. Birds are many people's favorite animals, perhaps because we see and hear them all around us; we can feed and watch them. Enjoy a walk today, National Bird Day, and see how many of the world's nearly 10,000 species of birds you can spot in your neighborhood.
Pea Pods to Genes
In the late 1940s, folksinger Woody Guthrie exhibited erratic behavior. By 1952, he was diagnosed with Huntington's disease, inherited from his mother. Huntington's disease is a progressive brain disorder that causes uncontrollable body movement and inability to walk, talk, and think. Transmission of the disease follows the laws of Mendelian inheritance.
Austrian monk and scientist Gregor Mendel changed our understanding of inheritance through his experiments on pea plants between 1856 and 1863. Mendel focused on seven traits in his pea plants and found that each trait had two forms, as in yellow seeds and green seeds. He termed the traits dominant and recessive. Mendel concluded that "factors" (now called genes) having these alternate forms result in inheritance of visible traits in predictable ways. Mendelian inheritance refers to simple patterns where inheritance of traits is controlled by genes with two alternate forms.
Huntington's disease is one of these. In everyone's cells, two chromosomes carry the HTT gene: either normal or altered (a gene mutation). Every person who inherits the chromosome with the altered gene will eventually develop Huntington's disease; one copy of the altered gene is all it takes. Thus, a child of an afflicted parent has a 50–50 chance of developing Huntington's disease.
Gregor Mendel, "Father of Modern Genetics," died on January 6, 1884. Evolutionary biology and medicine owe much to Mendel. On an individual level, Mendel empowered us with knowledge to better understand our own inheritance, including tracking and predicting diseases.
A New Day, Painted and Framed
Every day a new picture is painted and framed, held up for half an hour, in such lights as the Great Artist chooses, and then withdrawn, and the curtain falls. And then the sun goes down, and long the afterglow gives light. And then the damask curtains glow along the western window. And now the first star is lit, and I go home.
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden: January 7, 1852
Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau spent two years, two months, and two days (July 4, 1845, to September 6, 1847) living in a one-room cabin on the shore of Walden Pond, a lake near Concord, Massachusetts. In part he went there to write. More importantly, he sought to "simplify, simplify," to live "deliberately," to immerse himself in nature. He sought to discover what was really important in life, to experience simple living, and to better understand society. Thoreau recorded his thoughts, experiences, and observations in his journal, which later formed the basis for Walden, or Life in the Woods.
Thoreau is considered one of the greatest of all American nature writers and is read and respected worldwide. He shares with us the details of nature's happenings — each new picture painted and framed, as he wrote in Walden on January 7, 1852. He encourages us to rekindle our wonder and love of nature. Thoreau's reflections have inspired generations of activists, naturalists, conservationists, philosophers, poets, and others to ponder nature, society, friendship, and life itself.
Alfred Russel Wallace, born on January 8, 1823, was one of the greatest natural history explorers of the nineteenth century. Although he formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection independent of Darwin, Wallace focused on biogeography (the study of how organisms are distributed around the world and through geological time) and is primarily known as the "Father of Biogeography."
In April 1848, Wallace left Liverpool on a small trading vessel bound for the Amazon — his first adventure outside of England. After 29 days at sea, the ship anchored at Pará (Belém), Brazil. Wallace spent over four years exploring the environs of the Amazon River and the Río Negro. In July 1852, he set sail back to England. On day 26 of the voyage, the ship's cargo caught fire. All of Wallace's collected specimens and most of his notes were lost, but he still had his memory. Wallace recorded his Brazilian adventures in A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro, published in 1889.
A Narrative of Travels belonged to a fairly new genre of natural history books during the nineteenth century (others included works by Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin). In addition to vivid descriptions of nature, these books shared personal adventures experienced during exotic travel. Wallace's lively prose has inspired others, including myself, to explore the Amazon Basin. In 1970, my 14-year-old brother, Alan, and I (a second-year graduate student) searched for salamanders along the Amazon River, around Santarém, Óbidos, and Manaus, Brazil, areas that Wallace had explored 120 years earlier. That is what good natural history writing should do — nudge the reader into continued personal discovery.
Mermaid — Beautiful or Repulsive?
The earliest known mermaid myth comes from ancient Assyria. The story tells that in about 1000 BCE, the fertility goddess Atargatis accidentally killed her human lover. Out of shame and guilt she dove into the ocean, hoping to become a fish. Her beauty was so great, however, that she retained her goddess-human upper half and only her lower half transformed into a fish.
Mermaids, half-human, half-fish, have been portrayed as both beautiful and repulsive. Beautiful may reflect sailors' wishful thinking from spending months at sea. Repulsive likely reflects sightings of either dugongs or their cousins the manatees, large herbivorous mammals that live in coastal waters off Africa and Australia (dugongs)and North America and South America (manatees).
On January 9, 1493, while sailing in the Caribbean, Christopher Columbus wrote that he saw three mermaids rise from the sea. He commented that they were not as beautiful as they have been painted. Columbus's sighting is taken to be the first record by a European of the manatee in the Americas. Mermaid sightings are still reported, most recently off Haifa Bay, Israel, in 2009, and in Zimbabwe in 2012.
If you've ever wanted to be a mermaid, Weeki Wachee Springs near Tampa, Florida, offers mermaid camp. Learn to swim with a sparkly blue, form-fitting tail and execute reverse somersaults as part of the underwater ballet training. We do love fantasy, whether believing or becoming.
Ophiolatry (snake worship) is deeply rooted in Benin (formerly Dahomey) in West Africa, where pythons were believed to control the water supply, Earth's productivity, and human fertility. During the 1700s and 1800s, residents of each Dahomey village cared for a captive python, fed by priests and entertained with song and dance by priestesses. Dahomians worshiped Danh-gbwe, a large python and powerful fetish that served as a go-between for people to approach the divine being. Living pythons were believed to be incarnated spirits of Danh-gbwe. Devotees believed that any child touched by a python had been chosen to become a priest or priestess. Anointed children spent a year in a fetish school to learn the dances and songs of serpent worship.
Snake worship remains alive and well in Benin, especially in the city of Quidah, where pythons are housed in the Temple of Pythons. These snakes are still considered to be incarnated spirits of Danh-gbwe. The temple pythons are set free periodically to roam the city in search of food. Pythons that wander into homes are considered honored guests. In time the snakes are rounded up and returned to the temple.
January 10 is Vodoun Day in Benin, a national, paid holiday to celebrate the Vodoun religion, which boasts a following by about 60 percent of the population. The celebration in Quidah begins with the sacrifice of a goat and continues with chanting and dancing — and honoring of the sacred pythons.
What Good Is It?
The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: What good is it?
— Aldo Leopold, Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold
During the early twentieth century, many conservationists judged the worth of land based on its value to humans, such as abundance of minerals to be mined, density of animals to be hunted, and fish to be caught. Aldo Leopold, professor at the University of Wisconsin, rejected this philosophy and argued that all natural systems and their component plants and animals have worth in their own right. This belief is reflected in the World Charter for Nature, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1982, 34 years after Leopold's death. Signed by well over 100 nations, the charter states: "Every form of life is unique, warranting respect regardless of its worth to man, and, to accord other organisms such recognition, man must be guided by a moral code of action."
Aldo Leopold, born on January 11, 1887, is considered by many to be the father of wildlife management and the US wilderness system. Leopold died in 1948 of a heart attack while helping his neighbors near Baraboo, Wisconsin, fight a grass fire. Not long after his death, his book A Sand County Almanac (1949), a collection of essays focusing on land ethics, was published. Leopold's beliefs concerning our relationship to the natural world continue to inspire generations of nature enthusiasts.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Year with Nature"
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