USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘nature’
Folk speech
Proverbs

“Nature Organizes Best”

Context & Analysis

The subject is a good friend of mine who has been going through some difficult times recently; I believe this is a very grounding (and likely comforting phrase) for her to remember. It has a similar tone to ‘Whatever’s meant to be will be’. I also think it is interesting that the phrase is not necessarily religious—and the subject is not religious herself—yet she still mentions spiritual ideas like God in her description of the proverb.

Main Piece

“My parents say this thing in which, it’s like,  “Nature organizes best”, which just means that a god—not necessarily god, I don’t know, in which, like, the way of the universe is working out that everything is supposed to be the way it’s meant to be—kind of like karma almost, but a little more to it than that. Like whatever’s happening in your life in the moment is supposed to happen because nature is organizing for you to learn and to grow and to become the best version of yourself which is something that my parents have always said to me when bad things are happening or when good things are happening. That things aren’t necessarily in your control and that, like, there’s something else out there and it’s not just you and that the world is working in your favor.”

Folk speech
Humor

Floating a Log- Euphemism

Subject: Folk speech. The taboo.

Collection:

“Interviewer: When we were on our trip, we- our trip around Arizona and Utah, we went to… a lake, Lake Powell.

Interviewee: I checked the prop there many times.

Interviewer: So, can you tell me a little bit about what it meant to you as a kid to float a log?

[intense laughter]

Interviewee: Uh… uh.. yeah. We- it saved time going to the outhouse or into the motor home.

So, who- so, who was on these trips and who was partaking? Can you describe this environment a little?

That would be my good buddy Kelly… the race car driver.

Kelly Slater, the race car driver?

That would-be Kelly Slater the surfer.

Whatever.

Although, I’d betchya Kelly Slater has floated a log or two.”

Background Info: S. Taylor grew up in Southern California he grew up snow skiing, water skiing, motorcycle driving, jet skiing, playing volleyball, and racing cars. He first heard and began using the expression as a kid on trips to Lake Powell with his family friends. Today, S. Taylor lives in San Clemente, CA with his wife, C. Taylor.

Context: I first heard this phrase from my father when he was recounting stories of his childhood trips to Lake Powell on our trip there together. This account was shared over dinner to one-up his wife’s contribution of a phrase used as a substitute for urination that she learned from her mother. After this, the subject of conversation was abruptly changed.

Analysis: This phrase intentionally subverts societal taboos by openly addressing and making public those bodily functions that are actively suppressed. When on camping trips or other nature explorations, the rules surrounding bathroom etiquette are looser, especially for men. Often, these trips are a way of escaping urban society and allowing oneself to live freely in commune with the natural world.

The phrase “to float a log” naturalizes the bodily function in two ways. First, it calls the action of defecation to the forefront, making it public. This action combined with the humorous phrase allow for the speakers and bystanders to let out tensions that usually surround bathroom activities. This addresses the fact that defecation is a normal bodily function done by everyone, and calls into question the ways that society currently punishes talk or open expression of “toilet talk”. Second, the phrase uses metaphor that links feces to the natural world, or something that is thought to exist in nature, as opposed to something disgusting. This further naturalizes the action both in that moment and for when the performers of this folklore return home.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Nature and Garden Spirits

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as AD.

BD: So tell me about the spirits that live in nature.

AD: So, my mother, in her house’s yard, there’s a swing outside and some grass. They say that there’s something that lives underneath the ground. Every time you have to be careful and not step on the roots, or you have to say “excuse me,” which in Tagalog is “tabi tabi po.”
Anyway, spirits that live there, outside and underground, and if you accidentally step on them and you don’t say excuse me, bad things happen.

BD: Like what?

AD: People get sick. And doctors don’t know why. Bad things like that. But when this happens, and it’s unexplainable by regular medicine, they call a man from the community and he does “tawas.” I don’t know what the term is in English. But only certain people can do it. This person who knows how to get the sickness out of your system. They use a bowl with water, and they use a candle. What they do is put the bowl in front of them and the person who is sick, the bowl between the two people. They light the candle, and pour the wax into the bowl of water. And it forms a shape. Whatever shape it forms—sometimes it’s in the shape of an animal—that’s the spirit that is harming the person.


 

Analysis: Growing up, I heard this belief often, because I am Filipino, and my grandmother’s yard was rumored to have some of the spirits in it—all nature does. Even now, when I step on tree roots, I whisper under my breath “tabi tabi po,” in hopes I will not be cursed. A more personal, in-depth look at the process of tawas can be found at: www.lifestyle.inquirer.net/177916/diagnostic-rituals/. The informant personally knows four people capable of tawas, proving it is not an uncommon practice, and many Filipinos still believe in both ideas—the initial superstition and the folk medicine that can cure transgressions by the superstition.

Folk Beliefs

Hawaiian Superstition

Main Piece: Hawaiian Superstition

 

This was told to me by my Hawaiian teammate Danny:

 

“You are not supposed to take sand or rocks from the beaches in Hawaii, as it will upset Pele and she will curse you.”

 

Background:

 

This is more so a superstition that is used for tourists to the islands, as an incentive to not take sand or rocks from the beaches. The goddess Pele, who is believed to curse you for taking them, is known as the goddess of fire, volcanoes, lightning, and is known as the creator of the Hawaiian Islands. It is told that when rocks or sand are taken from the beaches, you are taking away Pele’s home and this is why she curses you. The only way to please Pele is to return whatever was taken, and not take anything else away.

This is another generally known superstition in the Hawaiian Islands, and Danny tells me it is something told to help preserve the environment in Hawaii, and keep nature the way it is and just appreciate it in the moment and not take a souvenir that is a natural part of the earth.

 

Context:

 

This is a superstition told to tourists to prevent them from taking sand and rocks from the beaches to hopefully preserve the ecosystem and not disrupt nature and the islands natural beauty. If every tourist who went to Hawaii took one rock or one bottle of sand, the make-up of the many popular tourist destinations would not be the same, and it could harm the ecosystem of the plants and animals that inhabit them.

There is no other context that this could be told in, other than a parent telling their kid to just leave nature as it is, because if it was made that way, that’s the way it was supposed to stay. Danny was told this by his mother who was a big advocate for respecting nature and keeping everything the way it naturally came to be. It is also a pride thing for Hawaiians, because they want to preserve the beautiful place they live in and keep it from changing unnaturally.

 

My thoughts:

 

I had actually heard this superstition before once when I went to Hawaii. My brother and I had made what we called “beaches in a bottle” one day where we would fill an empty plastic bottle with half sand and half ocean water and a piece of rock or coral, and when we were coming back to the hotel from the beach one of the workers told us that if we took the sand, it would upset the beach gods and we would have bad luck until we returned it back to its rightful place. We immediately returned everything to the ocean and didn’t think to take anything again. This gave me a better appreciation for experiences, and not necessarily needing a souvenir or any sort of memorabilia to remember a place.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Good Luck Butterflies

An old woman told my friend that seeing seeing white butterflies is good luck.

Lindsey: I was working on a community service gardening project and this old woman started talking to me. She said that if a black butterfly lands on you, it means you or someone you are close to will die or get very very ill. By the same token, a white butterfly indicates good luck.

Me: Had you ever heard of this before?

Lindsey: No, but I told my mom, and she said that a white butterfly is only good luck if the first butterfly you see in a year is white.

Analysis: In many cultures and religions, butterflies can be a symbol of rebirth. At first, one is young, and then they go into a sort of hibernation, and then they break from a cocoon into a beautiful butterfly. White is an auspicious color as well, in that white often symbolizes purity, goodness, and untarnished youth. To see a white butterfly, an animal which is relatively elusive and fast-moving, is to glimpse at a special gift that feels as though only you were meant to see it.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Red Sky At Morning

Background:

My informant is a twenty-two year old deckhand on a lobster vessel out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. He began working part-time on the boat as a senior in high school and began lobstering full-time just out of high school. He has also worked fishing cod, crabs, and halibut. He spends a great deal of time on the water in his free time as well.

Performance:

“I think everyone has heard this one. ‘Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailor’s take warning?’ Basically it just means that if you’re going out and you see a wicked red sunrise…that’s probably not gonna be good. At night it’s supposed to be red, so that’s okay. We say it on boats and stuff but I think I heard it when I was little somewhere. Everyone says it I guess. Honestly it’s pretty fucking accurate…like, every time I see a red sky when we’re going out in the morning we’re all like ‘shit, this day is gonna suck.’ It’s not like a huge storm or anything, usually, but it really sucks when it’s wicked choppy and rainy or windy or something. I don’t know if there’s science or something about it but I think it’s legit.”

Thoughts:

This saying gives some predictability to an otherwise very unpredictable job. Often both the weather and the success of the trip are equally uncertain. Mike was incredibly adamant that the superstition is true based on anecdotal evidence. Despite the superstition, it does not seem that a red sky in the morning would seriously deter a boat from going out; rather, it portends the quality of the day.

Legends
Narrative

La India Dormida – A Panamanian Legend

“The youngest daughter of the chief of the native Guaymies tribe was a warrior girl. She was a simple girl who fought against the Spanish invaders. And then, she fell in love with one of the Spanish guys. So she left the tribe to visit him one day and one of the warriors of her tribe who loved her, knowing that his love was not going to be returned, killed himself by throwing himself from the top of a mountain. And then, the daughter of the chief tried not to betray her tribe, so she said no to the love of the Spanish soldier, and while crying, she got lost in the forest and laid down and died. Where she laid down and died became the mountain we know today. It is named after her and looks like her as well.”

According to the informant, the La India Dormida (translates to The Sleeping Native Woman) story is meant to explain how a famous mountain received its shape and name. It is intended to be a tragedy, as the young woman in the story was forced to abandon her true love and eventually ended up dying alone. The mountain is nearby an important highway in Panama, so many Panamanians see it often and are quite familiar with it.

The informant, Jonathan Castro, is a 21-year-old student from Panama. Because until recently, he had spent his entrie life in Panama, he believes that he is well informed in Panamanian folklore. Jonathan explains that because he drove by the mountain so many times as a child, his curiousity about it eventually compelled him to ask his mother about it during a car ride. It is then that she told him the story of the mountain and the tragedy behind it. To Jonathan, the story is a peek into what life was like for the native Panamanians during the Spanish invasion. It was clearly a difficult period for them, and this story only reflects their hardship.

In the United States, it is uncommon for the general public to hear tradtional creation stories about how our nation’s natural formations were made. This contrasts drastically from Panama, where stories like this are much more common. Although it is difficult to say why this difference exists, a likely explanation concerns the American emphasis on science and the reasoning derived from it. The average American would probably look at the mountain and try to find a scientific reason for why the mountain is shaped in such an interesting way. This doesn’t appear to be the case in Panama, however, as people seem to have the need to have an explanation for the shape that comes in narrative form.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Some Cherokee beliefs about incoming storms

When my friend told me she was part Cherokee Indian, I was curious to hear what kinds of traditions and pieces of wisdom were passed down to her. The following is what she had to say.

“So, my grandma, her mom is a Cherokee Indian, and some sayings that she passed down that my grandma always says is that, if the pine tree has a bunch of [pine]cones at the top of the tree, then that means it’s gonna be a really tough winter, and if animals have really thick pelts, then that also means its gonna be real hard because the animals have to fatten up I guess. And if you see the backs of the leaves, then that means a storm’s coming.”

I have heard several folk beliefs about when people think there might be a storm coming, or other types of natural occurrences. Native Americans seem to be particularly in tune with nature, and my friend told me that she thinks the above folk beliefs are true because so far she’s witnessed them to be true.

Childhood
Customs

Minnows can be beauty salon employees

My friend told me one folk tradition she and her sister used to do as children.  They would sit on the edge of a pond and stick their feet in the shallow water.  After a while the minnows would come by and they would start biting at their feet, removing the dead skin.

We were watching a documentary on sea life and she volunteered this tradition.  She claimed it feels like small pokes and was not painful at all.  She said that the practice was also used by Asian spas, which would stick your feet in buckets of water with minnows in them.

The process seems to be an at home beauty solution which incorporates nature.   It’s much cheaper, although somewhat more inconvenient that buying something to exfoliate your feet for you or paying for a spa visit. It makes sense that this originated as an eastern tradition since eastern medicine is known for incorporating natural remedies.  It is interesting that it was adapted as a practice for children since it is also almost a daredevil game because it places children in a much closer relationship with nature than they would normally be.  Minnows are not inherently dangerous but using them to clean your feet you are mastering nature.

Source: http://www.dvorak.org/blog/2007/08/15/new-spa-treatment-fish-eat-your-dead-skin-cells/

Folk Beliefs

French Gardens

“So French-style gardens are very exact in their layout, they’re supposed to ache, like there’s definite vegetation areas, and there’s gravel stuff, and they’re really into doing intricate designs, and you’re supposed to see different things the farther up you are. What you see on high is supposed to be different from what you see, you, know, at straight-ahead level. And the whole theory of it—you know, they have like, multiple level terraces and whatnot, so you’d see, like, a curlicue design if you’re standing inn, like, eagle eye, but if you’re actually staring just straight at it, it looks like different levels of topiaries.

“So the whole theory behind it is that, um, gardens are supposed to be man’s demonstration of his power over nature. So it’s a whole exercise in controlling, you know, what would otherwise be wild nature. And so, it’s about making sure each path is—strictly delineates between, um, say vegetation and gravel, because it demonstrates that man is ultimately at, by God’s design is at the top of the food chain and is therefore able to control any and all elements, and so the more control that you have, and the more intricate the designs, the better demonstration of man’s control over nature.”

 

The informant said that the purpose of the two different views was to further demonstrate skill: if you can trick the eye into seeing one thing from one place, and another thing from another, it was a good demonstration of power. She found that this belief is “in line with French thinking,” which often favors the art of precision and links that with divinity.

She learned about the gardens from one of her teacher’s in France in 2012, (and she found more evidence of the belief when she researched it on the internet). She discovered it started with Italian gardens and tree carving. The informant learned that it is a sort of big game to see how much you can do with plants in a controlled environment, and it was a way for royalty to demonstrate their power (the head gardener for such people was actually a very respected position).

This belief is compelling because it is so widely accepted it doesn’t exist on the margins of French culture, but in its center. The informant said that magazines and other publications exist solely to teach how to garden in the French style. It seems that the original purpose of the gardens (to demonstrate man’s power over nature) has fallen away in a way that it is not obsolete, but it is no longer truly important. The ideology has been totally absorbed by the culture.

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