Why Names in Nature Matter to Us All

February 16, 2024

This column and photo were published in more than 30 newspapers, including the Miami Herald, Kansas City Star, Charlotte Observer, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Sacramento Bee, and many more.

By Matt Witt

While hiking in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Siskiyou County near California’s northern border, I came across several colorful birds that were zipping around at high speed to gobble up flying insects.

I stopped for a while to enjoy these pink and green creatures and see if I could photograph them as they darted out of oak trees to surprise their prey.

But when I returned home to identify these birds, I got an unwelcome surprise of my own.

I learned that they are called “Lewis’s woodpeckers,” paying homage to Meriwether Lewis, a slave owner who was best known for co-leading the Lewis and Clark expedition in the 1800s.

The expedition he led played a key role in opening for expropriation the lands of this continent’s Indigenous people, or “savages,” as Lewis referred to them.

The U.S. president “has become your only father,” he told the tribal leaders who the expedition encountered.

Wondering why a bird species would be named after such a person, I learned that Lewis claimed to have “discovered” these birds even though they were known to Indigenous people for tens of thousands of years and were here on earth long before that.

I wasn’t thrilled by this name. And, apparently, I wasn’t alone in my dismay.

In November, the American Ornithological Society announced that it will be changing the names of Lewis’s woodpeckers and all other birds currently named after people.

That includes 152 species in the U.S. and Canada.

The change comes in response to a coalition called Bird Names for Birds that includes the American Birding Association and many local birding groups.

“It is a questionable premise that species should be named after specific humans at all, as if bird species were possessions or trophies,” said the AOS committee that recommended the new policy.

The AOS said it will involve the public to generate creative new names that reflect a bird species’ looks, calls or habits.

The committee noted that a large number of bird names that honor individual people were coined in the 1800s to pay tribute to “soldier scientists” traveling with the U.S. Army during the appropriation of Indigenous and Mexican lands.

By contrast, Indigenous communities already living in the West named birds, animals, peaks, rivers or other natural features in order to communicate something about their characteristics — not after individual tribal leaders or members.

Perhaps other agencies and organizations responsible for official names of natural features will now adopt that approach and follow the AOS’ lead.

The colorful woodpeckers I saw that day not only can snatch flying insects out of the air, but in the fall they also break acorns into pieces that they store in holes or cracks in trees for retrieval in winter when food is scarce.

I look forward to seeing them again on a future hike when they will have a new name — perhaps one that reflects their extraordinary survival skills.


World Wide Work: Books, Films, Music You May Have Missed

January 20, 2024

 

Pelican on Big Cloud MorningPelican on Big Cloud MorningOregon coast

BOOKS

Apeirogon by Colum McCann (Random House). This is the dramatic true story of a Palestinian family and Israeli family who each lost a child to the endless violence in that region. The children’s fathers have joined forces to campaign for an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as a first step toward a peaceful and just solution for all. As members of Combatants for Peace and The Parents Circle, they have given multiple presentations in the U.S., whose tax dollars fund the Israeli military.

The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan (Bloomsbury). A book originally published in 2006 follows two families – one family of Palestinians who were driven from their house in 1948 and the other a family of Bulgarian Jewish refugees who took over that home. The Palestinian family goes from believing their displacement is only temporary, to believing that the surrounding Arab nations will insist on their right to return, to ultimately believing that armed resistance is the only path left. The Jewish family goes from believing their new home was abandoned, to understanding that it was stolen, to ultimately believing they now have a right to it although Palestinians are owed reparations. Members of the two families meet but never resolve their differences. In an afterward written in 2020, the author – an American journalist – says that a resolution of the overall conflict has become more difficult in the ensuing years because more than 800,000 Israelis have “settled” on Palestinian land.

Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad (Grove). A Palestinian actor who has lived most of her adult life in London comes home to visit her sister and gets drawn into an Arabic production of Hamlet in the West Bank. She reexamines her place in the world as she learns first hand how brutally the Israeli occupation affects even a theater troupe.

Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride (Riverhead). In the early 1900s, a neighborhood in Pottstown PA was home to a mixture of poor Jewish immigrants and African Americans. A grocery store owner crossed cultural barriers between the two, and when a 12-year-old deaf boy witnesses a crime committed by a prominent white citizen, the two communities come together to protect him in this novel that mixes social commentary with entertaining tall tales.

The Missing Morning Star by Stacie Shannon Denetsosie (Torrey House). Nine short stories by a Navajo writer go deep into the lives of young people around the reservation.

Power Lines edited by Jeff Ordower and Lindsay Zafir (New Press). Community, environmental, and union organizers from around the U.S. share their experiences in trying to build a united movement for climate justice in a variety of economic sectors and geographical regions.

Canary Girls by Jennifer Chiaverini (William Morrow). A feminist historical novel draws on two true stories. One is about women who went to work in munitions factories during World War I in Britain and were exposed to health hazards as a result. The other tells how they and other women also replaced men as the nation’s soccer players, drawing as many as 50,000 spectators, until the soldiers returned and the women were told to go back to their roles as housewives or low-wage workers.

Barely Floating by Lilliam Rivera (Kokila). A 12-year-old Latina on the east side of L.A. gets inspired to join a synchronized swim team, but her activist parents don’t approve. When she proceeds behind their backs, everyone in the family finds they have something to learn.

Indigo & Ida by Heather Murphy Capps (CarolRhoda). Indigo is a biracial eighth grader who wants to be liked by the “cool girls” at the same time that she is finding her voice about injustice she sees around her. When these two impulses collide, she has to make difficult choices.

What An Owl Knows by Jennifer Ackerman (Penguin). This overview discusses the many types of owls, how they adapt to their environment, what their hoots mean, the people who study them, how they can be protected, and more.

Hedged by Margo Susca (University of Illinois). The decline of newspapers in the U.S. is often blamed on the rise of the Internet, but there is much more to the story. For decades, wealthy speculators have come to dominate the industry, draining profits and assets to pay for mergers and acquisitions while laying off thousands of workers and cutting back on service to communities. One alternative is provided by the more than 425 nonprofit news organizations that have sprung up, often spearheaded by experienced local journalists.

1932 by Scott Martelle (Citadel). 1932 was a year full of events that seem remarkable today: a strike by farmers, a march on Washington by poor veterans to protest broken promises, a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the racist conviction of nine Black teenagers known as the Scottsboro Boys, and the election of a president who said government’s job was to protect the public interest against the “economic oligarchy” that concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a small number of individuals and corporations.

FILMS

Little Bird. In this engrossing 6-part series produced, acted, and directed by professional actors with roots in various tribes in Canada, three young children on a Cree reservation in Saskatchewan are ripped away from their family and put up for adoption. One ends up living as Esther Rosenblum with an adoptive Jewish mother in Montreal who lost her own family in the Holocaust. But when “Esther” comes of age she decides to uncover her own history and try to locate her birth parents and siblings.

The Bank of Dave. In this feel-good feature film very loosely based on real events, banks In a small town in England put profits ahead of the needs of the community so a local small business operator starts helping people out. But when he tries to set up his own lending institution, the banking establishment does everything possible to stop him. He then turns to a corporate lawyer from London, a famous rock and roll band, and others for help.

Corporate. Emilie is a personnel manager at a large French company that has been taken over by an even larger multinational corporation that is determined to reduce payroll by any means necessary. She skillfully carries out their agenda until she is confronted by the human impact of her actions.

Til Kingdom Come. This documentary by an Israeli filmmaker shows the close political alliance between right-wing Christians in the U.S., right-wing Israeli “settlers” on Palestinian land, and the Netanyahu and Trump administrations.

A Town Called Victoria. The night after Donald Trump issued a ban on travel from Muslim countries in 2017, someone burned down the local mosque in the town of Victoria in south Texas. This 3-part documentary introduces us to the Muslim immigrants who had established the mosque, as well as other local residents with a variety of views. Will the community support their Muslim neighbors? Will those who created the mosque try to rebuild or be driven from the area?

Stranger at the Gate. A former U.S. soldier who spent years trying to kill Muslims overseas decided to bomb the local mosque in Muncie, Indiana. But as this half-hour documentary shows, before he could carry out the attack he actually met some of the people who used the mosque and changed his mind.

MUSIC

Heat Comes Down by John R. Miller. A creative singer-songwriter from West Virginia uses unexpected phrases and rhymes to capture feelings about real life in the U.S.A.

Jubilee by Old Crow Medicine Show. The new album from this string band has something for everyone,  from inspirational to dance tunes to ballads to just goofing off.


Forgiveness

April 03, 2023

BobcatBobcatAbbotts Lagoon, Point Reyes National Seashore

This poem and bobcat photo were published April 3, 2023 by Piker Press.

Forgiveness

By Matt Witt

Forgiveness

of yourself or others

is the kind of cat

that shows up when it’s ready

and not when you call it.

 

If you feed it

and give it a

warm place to sleep

it will mostly stick around.

 

But now and then

it will disappear for a while,

and only come back

when and if it feels like it.


Building Strong Communities Should Be a Team Sport

September 15, 2022

My syndicated newspaper column talks about the human impact in my town and others as working people and farmers essentially have given heirs to the Walmart fortune and the chair of Starbucks a $4.6 billion "grant" to buy the Denver Broncos football team. What can we do about the fact that a few people have more wealth than they could ever use at the expense of so many people who are struggling without affordable housing, health care, education, child care or other basics?


They Say the War Is Over

July 15, 2022

"They Say the War Is Over" by Matt Witt is a nonfiction short story published in the literary and arts journal Cirque, Edition #24, Summer 2022. This "timely and dramatic personal account about race, class, and war" can be read free in PDF form at this link, or on pages 46-50 free in Cirque online.

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