When environment and culture intersect

Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

By Eric Freedman
When journalists report on environmental issues, our stories and photos usually concern natural resources – lakes, forests, oil, oceans.
Or things we have built – cities, power plants, dams, bridges.
Or natural disasters – tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes.
Or mega-issues – alternative energy, air quality, climate change.
Unfortunately, we often overlook interesting and important stories that highlight the cross-over between culture and environment.
Here’s some information about two programs – one international, one in Michigan – that recognize that cross-over, that intersection of people and nature by highlighting, honoring and protecting cultural heritages that, in many cases, connect with the environment.

On a global stage, UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization – has a 2003 special convention to recognize and protect practices of “intangible cultural heritage,” including ceremonies, crafts, festivals and sports. Some are closely linked to the environment and natural resources.
UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding calls attention to the preservation of “ intangible heritage elements” that “concerned communities and participating governments believe “require urgent measures to keep them alive.”
Next March, UNESCO will hold a conference in Norway on the role that cultural heritage, including intangible cultural heritage, plays in contributing to sustainable development.
Its traditional cultural heritage program is less well-known than UNESCO’s World Heritage List of almost 1,000 natural and cultural sites of “universal value” in 160 countries. Among them are Mesa Verde, Yellowstone, Mammoth Caves, Great Smoky Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns and Everglades national parks.
Shrimp fishing with horses 2

Shrimp fishing with horses. Image: Dirk Van Hove, Gemeente Koksijde Paardenvissers, UNESCO

On the cultural front, one endangered tradition is shrimp farming with horses in Belgium. As UNESCO explains:
Twelve households in Oostduinkerke are actively engaged in shrimp fishing: each has its own speciality, such as weaving nets or an extensive knowledge of Brabant draft horses. Twice a week, except in winter months, the strong Brabant horses walk breast-deep in the surf parallel to the coastline, pulling funnel-shaped nets held open by two wooden boards. A chain dragged over the sand creates vibrations, causing the shrimp to jump into the net. A good knowledge of the sea and the sand strip, coupled with a high level of trust and respect for one’s horse, are the shrimpers’ essential attributes. The shrimp fishers function on principles of shared cultural values and mutual dependence. Experienced shrimpers demonstrate techniques and share their knowledge of nets, tides and currents with beginners.
Iranian Lenji boat

Iranian Lenji boat. Image: Asghar Besharati, Iranian Cultural and Geographical Studies, UNESCO

Another recognized tradition concerns skills of building and sailing Iranian Lenj boats in the Persian Gulf. According to UNESCO, these boats are “traditionally hand-built and are used by inhabitants of the northern coast of the Persian Gulf for sea journeys, trading, fishing and pearl diving” in Iran.
Yet another cultural tradition relates to community efforts to allocate limited natural resources: irrigators’ tribunals of the Spanish Mediterranean coast: the Council of Wise Men of the plain of Murcia and the Water Tribunal of the plain of Valencia. These are “traditional law courts for water management that date back to the al-Andalus period (ninth to thirteenth centuries). The two main tribunals – the Council of Wise Men of the Plain of Murcia and the Water Tribunal of the Plain of Valencia – are recognized under Spanish law. Inspiring authority and respect, these two courts, whose members are elected democratically, settle disputes orally in a swift, transparent and impartial manner.”
Since 1986, Michigan has had its own mechanism to formally recognize contributions to the state’s cultural traditions – many of them intimately involved with our natural resources. It’s run by the MSU Museum’s Michigan Traditional Arts Program to “honor individuals who continue their family and community folk traditions with excellence and authenticity.”
Bamboo fishing rod maker Wesley Cooper

Michigan bamboo fly fishing rod maker Wesley Cooper. Image: Marilyn Swanson, Michigan Heritage Awards Program

dAmong those receiving Michigan Heritage Awards have been Carlson’s of Fishtown in Leland, a longtime Great Lakes commercial fishing and fish processing company; Wesley Cooper, of Fremont, a bamboo fishing rod maker; William “Willy” McDonald of Delton , a waterfowl decoy carver; Ron Sherry of Clinton Township, an iceboat builder; Ronald J. Paquin of Sault Ste. Marie, a birch bark canoe maker; Bob Summers of Traverse City, a builder and preserver of bamboo fishing rods; Ken K. Krum of Marshall, a decoy carver; Capt. Edward Baganz of Grosse Pointe Park, a Great Lakes freighter captain and teller of sea stories; Dave Kober of Bear Lake , an ice-fishing decoy carver; E. C. Beck of Brighton, a folklorist and collector of Michigan lumberjack lore; Jay Stephan of Grayling, an Au Sable River boat builder and guide; Jim Wicks of McMillan, a duck decoy carver; Perry Allen of Shepherd, a lumberjack singer and teller of tall tales; and Elman “Bud” Stewart of Alpena, a fish decoy carver.
Nominations for the 2014 awards closed Dec. 1, and the awardees will be honored at next summer’s Great Lakes Folk Festival in East Lansing.