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Character vs. nature stories have been told time and time again in American popular culture. In television and film, The Jungle (2017), The Walking Dead (2010-present), Into the Wild (2007), Twister (1996), Lost (2004-2010) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) have incorporated elements of nature overpowering the abilities of the character(s) to stop its force. Character vs. nature stories can have a religious philosophy element where characters may call to their God or gods for help or turn their back from their spiritually completely. In Into the Wild, the real life character of Christopher McCandless connects with spirituality towards the end of the film and has an epiphany about his long journey to Alaska. In The Jungle, Daniel Radcliffe’s character of Israeli traveler Yossi Ghinsberg was stuck in the jungle, and he began to hallucinate and call to God for help. The Walking Dead shows characters dealing with their faith at the face of their new reality. Characters on the show back and back between being with and without their spirituality. In The Walking Dead, God is not so much the focus of the plot, as is the philosophies gained from various religious doctrines such as practicing benevolence in the face of purposely malevolent acts.
Depending on one’s belief system, reasoning with nature and its capabilities is not a task a person is able to accomplish. Nature’s actions will touch anyone near it, but recovering from nature’s actions does not always trickle down to everyone in the same matter. A person without money, without a means of communication and without social resources is at will to their surroundings. In these cases, human relationships with each other are the focus. In all the mentioned films and television shows, this concept is explored in one way or another. The Walking Dead and Lost explore how the threat of death or losing resources influences helpful or harmful acts towards each other in a new built civilization. The Day After Tomorrow and Twister explore working with strangers/loved ones to get to safety in order to survive a disaster that the main characters knew was approaching. Into the Wild shows how the main character’s lack of plant knowledge affects his time on his spiritual journey in nature. Jungle explores the lack of communication and transportation of a character with little knowledge about nature or how to survive in it.
What I’ve discussed above may fall into the film geography realm. Film geography is a field on its own, and I won’t make this post ENTIRELY about that… this post is more an effort of a)trying to unknot a string of ideas that have been in my mind for a while about spirituality, geography, natural disasters, and b) making that string of ideas coherent. Throughout this post, I’ll be discussing three things: 1) are nature’s actions perceived the same way in the United States?; 2) how does fictional character vs. nature stories and realistic person vs. nature experiences differ in concept?; and 3) in what ways can digital environmental humanities be a tool for person vs. nature storytelling?
In Greek mythology, Poseidon was the god of sea and natural disaster-related events. Storms and earthquakes were a result of Poseidon’s anger. Consequently, natural disasters had a negative connotation. In Roman mythology, Neptune was the ‘king of the sea’. Neptune was an angry person and natural disasters were believed to be due to his violent nature (pun intended). Weather gods have existed for centuries all around the world, and understanding them and those that worship and believe in them opens the door to a different way of looking at social, economic and health implications associated with natural disasters today.
African American comedian, Dick Gregory spoke that hurricanes began in the same point in Africa and traveled along the slave trade route that brought thousands of Africans to the United States. In his 2014 interview with YouTube film channel, reelblack, Gregory said matter of factly that, “Hurricanes…that’s the Black woman. That’s her spirit…White folks know that; the real ones, and we don’t know that” (ReelBlack 2015). Gregory was quite outspoken in his comedy and off-stage persona on up until his passing in 2017. In the interview, Gregory went on to say, “All hurricanes start at the exact spot in West Africa where the slaves were put on the ship. Not almost… the right area…they stay on the water and follow the same route the slave ship followed…It comes all the way up the East Coast, to Maine. Maine is as close to Canada as you [the interviewer] are to me. Canada has never had a hurricane…” (ReelBlack 2015). Gregory held firm in his belief that Canada never had a hurricane because the country never harmed African American women like the United States has. His statement of Canada never having had a hurricane has been shown to be false, since the country has had several hurricanes, more recently Hurricanes Dorian in 2019, Matthew in 2016, Arthur in 2014, Igor in 2010, Noel in 2007. However, in 2017, Colin Price, a South African researcher in Israel, stated that “85 percent of the most intense hurricanes affecting the US and Canada start off as disturbances in the atmosphere over Western Africa” (MacDonald 2017). The storms are seen as vengeance, in that they are corrective measures for nature to cleanse the location or itself.
Native People cultures also have weather gods that differ from tribe to tribe. Among the Navajo people, Tó Neinilii is a male deity related to rain. The deity is called the “Water Sprinkler” and is thought of a ‘mischievous’ and trickster-like character who produced rain or drought due to bad timing, or sometimes, due to lacking self-awareness, being playful or losing a bet with Nohoilpe, the god of gambling. In Taíno, Puerto Rican and Carribean culture, Guabancex (Juracán) is a female deity related to hurricanes and winds. This goddess was considered evil and “reigned and dominated in the storm by destroying everything in her path with the eternal support of her two male assistants: Guatauba and Coatrisquie” (“El dios Juracán era una deidad femenina” 2008). Her anger came from when residents “did not fulfill the required devotion to their images and when they did not surrender the relevant offering or tribute” (“El dios Juracán era una deidad femenina” 2008). Similarly to Dick Gregory’s belief of hurricanes, Guabancex was female and was a negative consequence of the residents’ actions.
Many weather gods are characterized to express their anger through chaotic winds and storms. Natural disasters, as we may call them, are perceived as the gods’ frustration and subsequent wrath. When studying natural disasters, hearing of residents’ beliefs of the causes of the natural disasters, if they felt their actions did or contribute to the event and/or which god(s) played a role in the natural disasters and why will allow interesting insight into their perceptions of the natural disasters and recovery period.
Researchers have been exploring natural disasters since the late 1800s. The early researchers often discussed meteorological issues surrounding storms. The Scientific American published an article in 1875 called ‘The Laws of Storms’. This article mentioned that weather maps were becoming more popular and previous ideologies about storms by organizations and people such as the United States Signal Service and Professor Elias Loomis of Yale College should be reanalyzed. The article has no author but whomever it was, they were quite sophisticatedly feisty in their writing. The author stated that “Though the whole work of the Signal Service is interesting as a fairy tale, we propose at present to call attention only to some of the deductions of Professor Loomis respecting storm laws” (The Laws of Storms 1875). The article critiqued Professor Loomis’ storm explanations and included their perceived correct counterparts. Despite the criticism, the author made detailed notes of the makings of storms and how the operated. Storms during this time were approached more scientifically than socially to understand how they affected those who experienced them.
Cherry et al. (2018) acknowledge that coping studies after natural disasters are scarce. The researchers explored how spiritual support impacted how residents recovered from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the Deepwater oil spill. Using the Spiritual Support Scale created in 2005, the authors evaluated how much support spiritual relationships offered the participants. To evaluate the role of humor, the Coping with Humor Scale created in 1986, and later modified in 1996, was used. Participants were asked their agreement in questions like: “Spirituality or religion has been an inspiration during adversity”, “Spiritual or religious beliefs assist with coping”, “I don’t give up”, “I am not easily discouraged by failure” and “I like challenges” (Cherry et al. 2018, p.495-496). After conducting statistical analyses, Cherry et al. found that spiritual support was associated with disaster resilience. Humor was associated with coping and stress. Additionally, the authors found that “low income…after the 2005 hurricanes relative to a typical year before the storms [was] independently and negatively predictive of resilience” (Cherry et al. 2018, p.497).
In 2018, Wang et al. discussed using Twitter data and open source flood imagery to analyze flood risk. Documentation of flood events data has been minimal over the years. A few locations have attempted providing datasets through photographs, interviews, email communications and news reports (Wang et al. 2018). Over a month between ends of September and October 2015, Wang et al. collected 7,602 tweets that contained the words: “flood”, “inundation”, “dam”, “dike” and “levee” (140). Using MyCoast, a crowd-sourcing platform of mostly photos from the site’s mobile app, Wang et al. looked for photos pertaining to urban flooding. The photos contain information on the latitude, longitude, time and date of the flooding event. The authors found that “the daily volume [of flood related tweets in the United States] increases quickly from October 1st to October 4th. This trend is consistent with the history of the Hurricane Joaquin, which reached the Category 4 major hurricane on October 1st and gained its greatest strength on October 3rd” (Wang et al. 2018, p.142). Using the flood photos, the authors identified that the ranking of the number of flooded roads by state “[was] consistent with the states that were impacted by Hurricane Joaquin” (Wang et al. 2018, p.143). The crowdsource photos were considered more geographically accurate due to GPS information being included versus Twitter data which went to street names. However, Twitter data is considered more reliable and able to involve more data to review.
Previous studies point to a wide range of topics related to storm and natural disaster events. Early discussion focused on the makings of storms from a scientific standpoint. More recent studies have looked at new methods for evaluating storm (more specifically flooding) events. Additionally, the spirituality into natural disaster recovery has been shown to be an integral aspect of well-being. The stories being told from character vs. nature can be about survival, spirituality and/or who people can become in the wake of disaster. These concepts should be discussed from the geographical perceptive as well to understand the role of place, person, spirituality and social resources in experiencing and recovering from such events.
Rose et al. (2012) described environmental humanities, also referred to as ecological humanities, as “an effort to inhabit a difficult space of simultaneous critique and action” (3). Digital environmental humanities is interdisciplinary in nature and is influenced by “anthropology, philosophy, science and technology studies, geography, biology [and] ethology” (Rose et al. 2012, p.4). Val Plumwood, a prominent environmental scholar said that this discipline had to 1. “resituate the human within the environment” and to 2. “resituate nonhumans within cultural and ethical domains” (Rose et al. 2012, p.3). Being in a specific location means what to the human? What roles do nonhumans play in the human’s ability to have a positive or negative experience with a specific location?
In 2014, Finn A. Jorgensen discussed the concept of armchair travel. An armchair traveler is anyone who “explores the world from the comforts of home. Through the printed word, still photographs, moving pictures and sound, science locations and remote landscapes come alive, conveying some form of filtered and mediated experience of the world” (Jorgensen 2014, p. 95). NRK, a public television broadcasting company in Norway, aired a program in 2012 which following a train for nearly ten hours, at different times in each of the fours weather season. Elements of geography were found in the process with the Jorgensen noting that “the absolute location information enabled by the synchronized GPS data links the four different train rides to each other”. The finished product displays all the video footage at once for each of the four seasons synchronized to show the same locations and time. In another effort of showing slow travel, NRK began broadcasting Hurtigruten, which was a “Coastal Express, sailing from Bergen on the southwest coast of Norway to Kirkenes in the far north…” (Jorgensen 2014, p. 104). Visualizing travel by way of Hurtigruten was well received by viewers, and Jorgensen argued it is because of the program’s mix of history and nature. NRK used an interactive map, live or past video stream and links to information about the Hurtigruten or the video data on the Hurtigruten’s website. Because the NRK’s interactive map ‘broke’, the author noted that “this illustrates well the challenges of sustaining digital projects” (Jorgensen 2014, p.106). When experiencing the Hurtigruten, viewers are even able to have ‘annotated landscape’ which is a combination of “recorded geospatial information and highly manual annotations” (Jorgensen 2014, p108). Norway’s NRK is an example of combining disciplines like digital humanities, geography and environmental studies.
Digital environmental humanities is a field that excites me for possibilities in understanding geography and nature. The example I’ve included in this section discusses slow travel and environmental humanities, but what would this look like from a geographical perspective? What would be focused on more? As I progress in this fellowship, I am looking more into creating a project that incorporates geographical concepts while using digital humanities methods to discuss natural disasters in some way.
About the Author
Kyeesha M. Wilcox (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a second year master’s student in the Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences at Michigan State University.
Cherry, et al. (2018). Spirituality, Humor, and Resilience After Natural and Technological Disasters. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 50(5): 492-501.
Colleyn, J.P. (2005). Fiction et fictions en anthropologie. L’Homme, 175(6): 147-163.
D., M. [ReelBlack]. (2015). Dick Gregory – On Slavery, Reparations and Hurricanes. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tF5mfhW1qBo
El dios Juracán era una deidad femenina. (2008). PrimeraHora. Retrieved from https://www.primerahora.com/noticias/puerto-rico/nota/eldiosjuracaneraunadeidadfemenina-215036/
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