Witches, ghosts, and werewolves: fear-inducing outliers brewing powerful potions, apparitions defying the normal cycle of life and death, humans metamorphosing into savage canine creature. If one can step away from the commercial hype, Halloween reminds us of places and times where nature’s wilder manifestations were anthropomorphized.
In Landscapes of Fear, Yi-Fu Tuan explores ways in which threatening aspects of nature—fears of drought, flood, famine, and disease shared by entire communities, and fears haunting the individual imagination—were given shape and tamed through myth, stories, and anthropomorphizing. Writes Tuan (pp. 105-112):
"Dark nights curtail human vision. People lose their ability to manipulate the environment, and feel vulnerable. As daylight withdraws, so does their world. Nefarious powers take over…. People the world over have shown a tendency to anthropomorphize the forces of nature. …[T]he physical environment of dark nights … acquires an extra dimension of ominousness, beyond the threat of natural forces and spirits, when it is identified with human evil of a supernatural order, that of witches or ghosts."
Witches defy social values. They dwell in untamed places outside standard human habitation—deep in forests or mountainous—and are closely associated with wild animals that defy human control: wild goats and horses (Europe); toads, snakes, lizards, frogs, jackals, leopards, bats, owls, and nighttime screeching monkeys (Uganda); hyenas and black cobras (Sudan); and dressed in skins of wolves and coyotes – werewolves (Navajo). They "are a force for total chaos, and they are closely associated with other forces or manifestations of chaos such as dark nights, wild animals, wild bush country, mountains, and stormy weather."
Your costumed neighborhood trick-or-treaters might be a far cry from the bone-chilling renderings conceived by people trying to make sense of nature's more fear-inducing tendencies. But consider how cultures, living without electric lights and ease of communication across villages, coped with frightening aspects of nature. Maybe, for a moment, from the comfort of your built environment, and between sampling candy corn and observing various ninjas, princesses, and superheroes, you can sense how the supernatural helped explain the natural.
Song of the Witches
William Shakespeare, from Macbeth
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and howlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon's blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.
Each season offers its gifts to our senses, and with autumn our senses awaken to the powerful changes in nature around us. We observe the leaves changing color and falling to the ground, we hear crisp leaves underfoot, we feel a stronger breeze and cooler temperature, and deep within our bodies, with the waning daylight, perhaps comes a gnawing desire to retreat to our homes a little earlier and stay snug and warm, much like fellow creatures that hibernate.
Our sense us smell awakens too to the change in seasons. What causes that rich “autumn smell”? In a recent article journalist Matthew Cappucci provides insights:
Leaves are designed to produce “food” for the plant — glucose — through the process of photosynthesis. They take in six carbon dioxide and six water molecules at a time and, with a bit of sunlight, reshuffle them to form glucose and six oxygen molecules. That’s why plants are said to “purify” the air. They add breathable oxygen to it. But even though this reaction produces energy for the plant, it takes a lot of work to sustain.
In the fall, when the energy needed to create the “food” outweighs the energy afforded to the plant by the food itself, the leaves are no longer needed — and with that, the tree bids them farewell.
When the leaves fall, they die. As they take their last breath, they “exhale” all sorts of gases through tiny holes known as stomata. Among these compounds released are terpene and isoprenoids, common ingredients in the oils that coat plants. Terpenes are hydrocarbons, meaning their main ingredients are hydrogen and carbon. Pinene, a species of terpene, smells like — you guessed it — pine. It’s a main ingredient to the saplike resin that repairs the bark of conifers and pine trees.
Occasionally, these gas molecules excreted by plants — known as volatile organic compounds — interact with variants of nitrous oxide. This can lead to ozone production, which can smell a bit like chlorine or the exhaust of a dryer vent.
In addition to the release of gases contained within dying vegetation, two other effects contribute to the emotion-evoking scent that accompanies a northwest autumn breeze: decomposing plant matter, and pollutants trapped at the ground levels during the fall months.
The soil in most parts of the world is rich in Geotrichum candidum, a fungus that causes rotting and decomposition of fruits and vegetables and dense plant matter. In fact, Geotrichum candidum has been sampled on all seven continents. This is just one of many species that erodes away as deceased organisms, the chemical reactions of which contribute to the smell of “fall.”
Allow your senses to connect with autumn.
We are deep into autumn, with a chill in the air and the hours of daylight diminishing, prompting leaves to change color and fall to the ground.
What actually causes leaves to fall? In Lab Girl, Hope Jahren provides a beautiful description of the science behind falling leaves:
If you rake fallen leaves into a pile and then examine them, you will see that each one shows a consummately clean break at the same place near the base of the stem. The fall of leaves is highly choreographed. First the green pigments are pulled back behind the narrow row of cells marking the border between stem and branch. Then, on the mysteriously appointed day, this row of cells is dehydrated and becomes weak and brittle. The weight of the leaves is now sufficient to bend and snap it from the branch. It takes a tree only a week to discard its entire year's work, cast off like a dress barely worn but too unfashionable for further use. Can you imagine throwing away all of your possessions once a year because you are secure in your expectation that you will be able to replace them in a matter of weeks? (p. 95)
Autumn's falling leaves offers an opportunity to consider what we can discard. What is it that we no longer need? What is that we don't need now, but are confident we can restore in the future? In what ways are we comfortable or not about letting go?
A federal holiday since 1937, following a 19th-Century tradition established in San Francisco, Columbus Day designates the explorer’s 1492 “discovery of America”, as well as a celebration Italian-American heritage. Noted in the diaries of Columbus, when he arrived in the New World--where over the course of four voyages,he landed in the Bahamas, Cuba, "Hispaniola" (current-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Trinidad, and Panama--on his arrival, he encountered local inhabitants.
Who were these people? Millions of Native Americans (the estimate is 7-10 million) lived in North America when Columbus reached its shores. They arrived in North America from a land bridge across the Bering Strait more than 12,000 years ago. Some have suggested even earlier dates for the arrival of inhabitants in the Americas. So too, many scholars have noted that Columbus likely was not the first European to arrive in the Americas. Leif Erikson arrived in Newfoundland in 1,000 A.D., and it is thought that Chinese Admiral Zheng Ha sailed around the world 70 years before Columbus.
These days, there’s greater awareness of those who were living here when Europeans began exploring the Americas, and the tragic legacy of European conquest of the Americas for native peoples, including violence and genocide. Efforts are afoot to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.
What is the legacy of indigenous cultures in the New York City area? When Henry Hudson sailed up the river that is now his namesake in 1609, “people appeared….dressed in skins, peaceable, and with an air of dignity, offering corn bread and green tobacco.” (R. Shorto p. 32). At the time, there were likely about 15,000 native inhabitants in the area, mainly the Lenape people, a dozen or so groups living in seasonal campsites between eastern Connecticut and Central New Jersey and part of the broader Delaware people. To the west were the Raritans of Staten Island, the Hackensacks of New Jersey, and the Tappans of northern New Jersey. Farther North were the Mahicans and the Mohawks, and to the west of the Mohawk region other tribes of the Iroquois: Oneida, Onandaga, Cayuga, and Seneca, as well as dozens of other tribes throughout North America.(E. Borrows and M.Wallace p. 5).
Archeologists have identified 80 Lenape habitation sites in New York’s five boroughs, over two dozen planning fields, and an intricate network of paths and trails. Current-day Broadway was a primary Lenape trail along Manhattan’s “hilly spine from what is now Battery Park in the South to Inwood in the north". Where the trail passed current-day Greenwich Village, it intersected another trail that led west to a fishing and planting site on the Hudson River near what is now Gansevoort Street. Northern Manhattan was a particularly thriving area, with many settlements, fishing camps, and planting fields. (Burrows and Wallace p.6).
The legacy of America’s indigenous people persists, with the biggest population of any city living in New York: nearly 41,300 according to the 2000 Census.
Columbus Day offers an opportunity to consider the significant history and legacy of indigenous people in what is now New York City.
Autumn is here, a time when nature calls out, demanding our attention as trees turn vibrant colors. There’s still much greenery in New York City, with trees showing only the slightest autumnal hues as of yet—greens a little faded, and a few yellow leaves emerging here and there. But every day brings perceptible changes, and this time of year offers a reminder of how the only constant is change. Trees slowly change colors, new migrating birds enjoy a stopover during their travels south, nighttime arrives a little earlier each day, and the air becomes cooler. And so too, we change a little every day. As Thoreau noted, “the seasons and all their changes are in me”.
Over the next few weeks the trees will exhibit spectacular colors and then will be bare, their leaves having fallen to the ground. This time of year is rich in metaphor, perhaps a sense of the passing of one’s prime and a hint of mortality:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
--From Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare
But need that really be our perspective? What we know is that nature exists in cycles, as do we. From autumn and winter come spring and summer, new life emerging in continual cycles of birth, life, death, and regeneration. There will be new springs and new summers, and with this time of heightened awareness of change comes awareness of potential and expectations, of new opportunities, with each season offering its gifts.
About this Blog
Hi! I'm Nancy Kopans, founder of Urban Edge Forest Therapy. Join me on an adventure to discover creative ways to connect with nature in your daily life, ways that are inspired by urban surroundings that can reveal unexpected beauty, with the potential to ignite a sense of wonder.