Beware of Windigo

Our Relationships With the Earth, and the Wisdom in “Braiding Sweetgrass”

We live by certain rules. They may or may not be written down somewhere, but by observing what we do, we can see the priorities and patterns in our actions. These are the rules or principles that govern our lives. It seems to me that, across most major countries of the world today, the governing principles are to make as much money as you can, and fight against anything that could limit how much you can make. In order to do that, the harvesting, mining, and extraction of “stuff” in order to make money must continue and even accelerate, if possible. Everything else is secondary to those rules.

People may say that they follow different principles. Many of the world’s faith traditions, and many of the ways we like to talk about ourselves, emphasize caring for others, caring for creation (or at least enjoying nature), and sharing what we have. But I am not talking about what we say, but rather observing what we do. With some important exceptions, what most of us do seems to conform pretty well to the rules mentioned above.

What’s wrong with that? We are taught that economies must grow, and if they do not grow they will stagnate and fail, and so we must feed the machine at a faster and faster rate in order to be productive. It is as if we have to break up all the furniture in the house to keep the fireplace roaring, as if the furniture would never run out and there would be more and more tables and chairs to break apart and feed the fire. We have been living in a very big house, but sooner or later we will run out of fuel for the fire. 

From the first century, when the world population may have been between 150 million and 330 million (World Population Estimates, Wikipedia), the human population has grown to a mind-boggling 7.7 billion people (Worldometers), practically covering the continents in an endless hive. All of those people deserve a good life, but only a minority will have one that is materially secure. Too many will be hungry, homeless, sick, or preyed upon by others. However, all of them – anyone with so much as a pocketful of change – is a consumer. And with the majority of the planet trying to make the most money by selling the maximum amount of stuff to those 7.7 billion people, we are stripping and poisoning the earth, the garden that many believe we were put here to steward. 

That’s an old-fashioned term, “steward,” meaning to manage and look after something that is not ours. What if we thought of the earth as something that we don’t own, but that we had the responsibility to care for? The alternative view is that we own it. Ownership is a completely one-way relationship – the thing we own is there to please us, we don’t have any obligation to it. We can use it, sell it, destroy it, and that is perfectly fine in an “I own it” relationship. If we are stewards, the relationship is very different. We are put in charge of something that is not ours, so we must take care to use it wisely, so that it is not harmed. But that places some constraints on our own behavior; we cannot sell it and we cannot strip all the value out of it for ourselves. Stewardship is not a relationship that works for those who are driven to create wealth regardless of the cost. It is not a business plan for the mega-rich.

New York City (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NYC-Skyline-4.jpg)

When the population of the earth was counted in the millions, humans could ignore the idea of stewardship and the earth only suffered in a few places. Over the centuries, more people meant more impact as we went about the business of each obtaining as much power and wealth as possible. There are billions more of us, and we need that much more of everything. Our roads penetrate most of the land area of the planet, and our mines, factories, and agricultural fields cover vastly more of the planet than in the past. 

The consequences of our continually growing population and our drive for endless economic growth are all around us. A recent paper in the journal Sciencepredicts the collapse of all fisheries by 2050 because of the loss of marine biodiversity. In various places across the globe, loss of insect populations is causing alarm, as reported recently in Scientific American. Perhaps it is easy for some people to dismiss the loss of pollinators as some sort of inconvenience to gardeners, but insects are incredibly important. Not only do they pollinate our crops, allowing us to be fed, they help break down dead things so that we do not live in a rotting graveyard. Insects are a fundamentally important part of most food chains, so that the loss of insects would bring about the collapse of a wide variety of insect-eaters, leading to the collapse of other wildlife that depend on those insectivores. The oncoming effects of human-induced climate change are in the news everywhere: heat waves killing people, sea levels rising and threatening coastal communities, loss of species that cannot adapt to a rapidly changing climate, and on and on. We are losing all kinds of wildlife species, leading some to speak of our causing a sixth global catastrophic loss of species.

Because large ecosystems can absorb little disturbances pretty well, we have believed that the earth is too big for us to harm. Years ago I had a climate-denying friend who argued that we were too small to change the atmosphere, that it was arrogance to think we could change the climate. That point of view comes from the time when we were a younger species, far below the 7.7 billion that we now number. But we are beginning to overwhelm the only livable place we know in the universe. There’s no place else to go.

I do not have practical answers. Like so many others, I contribute to the problem; I drive a car, use air conditioning, and so on. As the clock nears midnight, I don’t know how, or if, these problems will be solved, but I know it is wrong to give up, to surrender to the trap we have caught ourselves in. And since we got into this mess through a particular kind of relationship to nature, we should explore other possibilities.

There are other ways of being in a relationship with nature, other than by owning it, selling it, stripping it of valuable materials. It is possible to see it as a garden to tend with care, as in parts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. If we truly lived in that relationship, we might not turn the garden into a wasteland, but we would still be separate from the garden, benevolent but not really a part of it. There is also the possibility of placing ourselves within nature, as part of it, one of many lives that work together in partnership. Among the traditions and belief systems that see our lives and the lives of plants and animals as part of the same cloth are those of some Native American cultures. I am no expert on these cultures, but I can recommend a brilliant, lyrical, and wise book written by someone with one foot in the scientific tradition and one foot in the Potawatomi Nation of indigenous Americans. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York and a member of the Potawatomi Nation. Among her books is Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.

Throughout the book, Kimmerer tells us the indigenous stories that create a relationship with nature consisting of reciprocity and gratitude, starting with the creation myth in which Sky Woman falls to the earth and is rescued by the animals. Together, each bringing their own gifts, Sky Woman, birds, an otter, and a great turtle create the world – Turtle Island. It is a shared effort, and the world would be incomplete without the contributions of every species. There is also the Windigo myth that warns about how unbridled appetite can separate us from all that we love and consign us to an existence of eternally consuming and never being satisfied. Sound familiar?

Importantly, stories of the natural history of trees and other plants are interwoven throughout the book, clear and lucid portraits of sweetgrass, maple, as well as animals such as mink or salmon. These are not simply scientific profiles (though her training as a scientist means that we learn many things about the biology of these species). She places us there in the field beside her, helping us appreciate small observations like raindrops in moss for their incredible beauty, and also the big, grand pictures of forests and coastlines. And along with that, she weaves Native American ways of being in relationship with nature into her narrative. Like braiding sweetgrass, she braids field observation, culture, and philosophy into a beautiful narrative.

It is important to understand that the book is not selling some indigenous religion in which we are to believe certain propositions in order to receive something (not that I think that any Native American religions work that way). Instead, what is described are ways of seeing the world and being in the world, marked by respect, gratitude, and reciprocity. How different those are from the ways our societies treat the earth now! Everything embodied in this book feels like a satisfying way to live life, a way to escape the insatiable greed of Windigo. The book is not a “fix” for the ecological problems we face, but it sure seems like a good, healthy foundation from which we might search for solutions. 

A final note: get it in audiobook form – Kimmerer’s voice is perfect, like sitting comfortably by the fire, listening to a story told with compassion, friendly good humor, and wisdom.

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Deep in the Heart of texana……

On December 30th of 2018, I hit the road to San Antonio Texas for New Year’s Eve, a tradition that I have had for about the past twelve years. We have gone mostly to get our fix of some really good Mexican food. Typically, I don’t eat Mexican food north of San Antonio.

I try to take advantage of any opportunity to find herps when I am in a different region of Texas. One of the endemic species of turtles that occurs in this region is the Texas Cooter (Pseudemys texana). With a fairly wide range across the central part of Texas, it can be a fairly easy species to locate.

The Texas cooter was the very first species within the genus Pseudemys that I found as a kid. One summer in the mid 90’s my family took a little trip to San Antonio and Austin. My dad took my sister and me to swim at the famous Barton Springs pool. It was there I found a big beautiful female texana hanging out on the limestone in the shallow part of the swimming area. I picked her up and checked her out. I called my parents over and we all admired her. You can see the look of delight on my face in these pictures. After we took pictures I followed alongside her for as long as I could until she finally disappeared into the deep end under the diving board.

Lucky for me in these past few years I have been able to work with and admire many Texas cooters. As a part of the Turtle Survival Alliance – North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group, we have two long term population monitoring sites. Both locations, Comal Springs and Bull Creek in Austin, are places where Texas cooters call home. Since I see these turtles on a regular basis, I and others have noticed an interesting difference in the look of P. texana from Comal Springs and the ones from areas surrounding Travis county. Since this has been something of interest to us turtle nerds, I make sure to document the differences and similarities in photographs. Carl Franklin even makes a point to do this on the Texas Cooter page of the Texas Turtles website.

“Did you say cooter?  *Aheh-heh-heh hehh*

Yes, we turtle nerds get this question quite a bit from non-herp people. Cooter? Why do we call it cooter? Cooter is derived from an African word for turtle: “Kuta.” When slaves were brought to America the word “kuta” got vernacularized into “cooter.” There ya go!

During the day on New Year’s Eve while my non-turtle friends went to do non-turtley things, I set off to find some cooters in Bexar county. It did not take me long! I ventured to an area off the San Antonio River walk in a very developed location. One of those parts of the city that has recently been renovated with hipster breweries, coffee shops and apartments. To my surprise, I spotted some cooters right away. In Texas we can have all types of weather at any moment in time, and even all at one time. (Seriously!) The weather was rather chilly, overcast and cloudy and 57°F at about 2:30pm. Not what one would normally think of as turtle or herp weather. I have noticed that if days are warmer before leading up to a cooler/ overcast day I still have a decent chance of seeing turtles.  

I photographed these turtles as they sat alongside red-eared sliders and of course the always handsome melanistic male sliders. I made note of the stripes that ran down the side of the cooters’ heads and necks. Many have thicker yellow stripes toward the back of their heads near the ear. Their head shapes always stick out to me. I don’t exactly know how to describe it, but there is an almost blunt shape to their faces. They have a bicusbid upper beak, meaning that the upper jaw drops down in two little points, leaving a notch at the center, just below the nostrils. Along the carapace, at the edges, the underside of each marginal scute has a pinkish-orange circular or ring-shaped blotch. The back legs and feet often carry the same coloration. The carapace can be olive to brown with yellow lines creating a reticulating or even swirl pattern. They also possess amazing bluish/green eyes.

I walked a good distance down the river. As I neared the section where I needed to turn around, I noticed a great blue heron with feathers fluffed up. It looked as if it felt cold, and temperature was cold, that is for sure! Seeing birds is a great side-benefit to exploring waterways for turtles. In these winter months I do become more of a bird nerd since turtle/herp activity slows down. On my walk back, I noticed a little blue heron hunting for whatever creatures it could find under the bank. I watched this little blue heron for quite a while to see what it caught to eat.  As I pressed on, I came across a snowy egret that was also hunting. This little snowy egret was shuffling its feet below the water, at what looked to be the top of the mud or sediment. I watched it flush out whatever it could from the muddy water and then eat it. I am sure this is a behavior well known among birders and ornithologists. It was cool for me to watch!

On the rest of my walk, I spotted a few more turtles and many of the same turtles I saw earlier. I finally called it a day and headed back to my friend’s house to partake in “normal” New Year’s Eve festivities.

New Year’s Day, 2019.

All I really had on my mind with it being a new year was getting out to see what turtles, and particularly what texana, might be out. My friends decided to join me on this stop at a very popular and well-known San Antonio city park. It was 51°F – much colder, more cloudy and overcast than the day before. I was starting to think that I was not going to see any turtle activity.

However, it did not take me long to spot a small Texas cooter and red-eared slider “basking” on a small log. I was pretty happy with that, thinking that those were all I would see.  We all decided to call it quits since it was so chilly. On the drive out of the park I spotted more cooters out on logs and tree limbs in the water. I quickly pulled over and photographed five more cooters. Again, I thought it was still pretty awesome that they were out in such chilly weather!

First turtle of 2019

Texas Endemic

Texas has three endemic species of turtles that is, they are found only in Texas. These are the Texas cooter, Texas map turtle, and Cagle’s map turtle.  The Texas cooter distribution is throughout central Texas in the Colorado, Llano, San Saba, Brazos, Guadalupe, Nueces and San Antonio river systems. We even have speculated that they may be as far up as Tarrant county. We have caught a few during our Trinity River Turtle Survey that have quite a “texana” look to them. (This is a discussion for another time maybe!)  Here are some pictures that may show a bit of the difference between cooters in Comal County, Travis County, Bexar County and even Gonzales County.

Female Comal County
Female -Gonzales County TX

female -Gonzales County TX

For a while P. texana was grouped under Pseudemys concinna (eastern river cooter). It was described as P. texana in 1893.

As I mentioned before, these turtles are bicusbid. The insides of their mouths are pretty interesting. Along the surfaces of the jaws are “tomiodonts,” which look almost like stalagmite and stalactite formations. These structures probably come in handy since Texas cooters are known to be primarily herbivorous. ( these images courtesy of Carl Franklin showing tomiodonts for three different cooter species throughout Texas)

Perhaps the newest bit of information that we have found is that females grow to 13.5 inches (34.3 cm) and adult males reach 11 inches (28 cm) in straight carapace length. This data was collected from our Comal springs study site.

There’s still lots more to be learned about this Texas endemic. Hopefully, 2019 will continue to grace us with more knowledge on this species.

Thanks for reading……..Happy New Year!

-Viviana AKA Mother of Turtles