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Photo: Alan Cressler.
Archaic Period pictograph of a hunter and prey dated to 6,500 years ago. Indigenous art like this in the American Southeast is less well known than that in the Southwest.

You knew that tribes in the Southwest made paintings centuries ago, but did you know that indigenous people were also making art in the caves of the American Southeast? Jan Simek, a professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee, fills in the blanks for us at the Conversation.

“On a cold winter’s day in 1980,” he writes, “a group of recreational cavers entered a narrow, wet stream passage south of Knoxville, Tennessee. They navigated a slippery mud slope and a tight keyhole through the cave wall, trudged through the stream itself, ducked through another keyhole and climbed more mud. Eventually they entered a high and relatively dry passage deep in the cave’s ‘dark zone’ – beyond the reach of external light.

“On the walls around them, they began to see lines and figures traced into remnant mud banks laid down long ago when the stream flowed at this higher level. No modern or historic graffiti marred the surfaces. They saw images of animals, people and transformational characters blending human characteristics with those of birds, and those of snakes with mammals.

“Ancient cave art has long been one of the most compelling of all artifacts from the human past, fascinating both to scientists and to the public at large. Its visual expressions resonate across the ages, as if the ancients speak to us from deep in time. And this group of cavers in 1980 had happened upon the first ancient cave art site in North America.

“Since then archaeologists like me have discovered dozens more of these cave art sites in the Southeast. We’ve been able to learn details about when cave art first appeared in the region, when it was most frequently produced and what it might have been used for.

We have also learned a great deal by working with the living descendants of the cave art makers, the present-day Native American peoples of the Southeast, about what the cave art means and how important it was and is to Indigenous communities.

“Few people think of North America when they think about ancient cave art. … As the earliest expressions of human creativity, some perhaps 40,000 years old, European paleolithic cave art is now justifiably famous worldwide.

“But similar cave art had never been found anywhere in North America, although Native American rock art outside of caves has been recorded since Europeans arrived. Artwork deep under the ground was unknown in 1980, and the Southeast was an unlikely place to find it given how much archaeology had been done there since the colonial period.

“Nevertheless, the Tennessee cavers recognized that they were seeing something extraordinary and brought archaeologist Charles Faulkner to the cave. He initiated a research project there, naming the site Mud Glyph Cave. His archaeological work showed that the art was from the Mississippian culture, some 800 years old, and depicted imagery characteristic of ancient Native American religious beliefs. Many of those beliefs are still held by the descendants of Mississippian peoples: the modern Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Coushatta, Muscogee, Seminole and Yuchi, among others.

“After the Mud Glyph Cave discovery, archaeologists here at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville initiated systematic cave surveys. Today, we have cataloged 92 dark-zone cave art sites in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. There are also a few sites known in Arkansas, Missouri and Wisconsin. …

“The Mississippian Period (A.D. 1000-1500) is the last precontact phase in the Southeast before Europeans arrived, and this was when much of the dark-zone cave art was produced. Subject matter is clearly religious and includes spirit people and animals that do not exist in the natural world. There is also strong evidence that Mississippian art caves were compositions, with images organized through the cave passages in systematic ways to suggest stories or narratives told though their locations and relations.

“In recent years, researchers have realized that cave art has strong connections to the historic tribes that occupied the Southeast at the time of European invasion.

“In several caves in Alabama and Tennessee, mid-19th-century inscriptions were written on cave walls in Cherokee Syllabary. This writing system was invented by the Cherokee scholar Sequoyah between 1800 and 1824 and was quickly adopted as the tribe’s primary means of written expression.

“Cherokee archaeologists, historians and language experts have joined forces with nonnative archaeologists like me to document and translate these cave writings. As it turns out, they refer to various important religious ceremonies and spiritual concepts that emphasize the sacred nature of caves, their isolation and their connection to powerful spirits. These texts reflect similar religious ideas to those represented by graphic images in earlier, precontact time periods. …

“That archaeologists were unaware of the dark-zone cave art of the American Southeast even 40 years ago demonstrates the kinds of new discoveries that can be made even in regions that have been explored for centuries.”

More at the Conversation, here.

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One of the better aspects of the 2015 Massachusetts Conference for Women was hearing speakers like Candy Chang, an artist who engages ordinary people in public discourse.

At the December conference, Chang focused on Neighborland, a service co-founded with Dan and Tee Parham, that helps “residents and organizations collaborate on the future of their communities.”

This is how it works. Organizations start by posing a question. For example, they might hand out cards that say, “I want [blank] in my neighborhood,” and a resident might write in, “a night market.” Next, using Neighborland tools, ideas are collected from workshops, public installations, SMS, and Twitter. They are then discussed and voted on. The website says Neighborland has “sophisticated moderation, clustering, and de-duplication tools for organizers to aggregate all of the data from residents. Our reports make it easy for organizers to see trends in the data, make decisions, allocate resources, and keep participants involved in the fun part – making their neighborhoods better places.”

In this example, National Gardening Association’s Jenna Antonio DiMare reports on Adam Guerrero,  his Memphis, Tennessee, team of blight-busting ″Smart Mules,″ and their efforts to create a greener and more sustainable city.

“During the month of October, National Gardening Association (NGA) partnered with Neighborland to challenge Memphis residents to propose innovative projects to make their city and neighborhoods more sustainable. With a $1,000 grant awarded to the most promising project, Neighborland’s simple platform empowered local Memphis residents to ‘connect and make good things happen.’

“Despite receiving many inspiring project proposals, from founding an urban agriculture school to growing a newly established community garden, it was clear to NGA that the ‘Smart Mules’ project would have the greatest impact with the $1,000 award. …

″ ‘We are fighting [urban] blight, raising neighborhood morale, engaging our local government, and investing in a future for the neighborhood, all at the same time,’ writes the ‘Smart Mules’ team. To accomplish these goals, ‘Smart Mules’ provides work for many young, at-risk males who have been ‘largely dismissed’ or disenfranchised, according to team leader Guerrero.” More here about the work these young men are doing for sustainability.

(A couple years ago, I wrote about Candy Chang’s “Before I Die” interactive street art.)

Photo: Neighborland.com

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Early this month, my colleague Bo went to Tennessee with friends to see synchronous fireflies.

The one week of firefly watching is a real happening. Bo told me that, to get tickets, he went online twice at exactly 10 a.m. The first time he missed out. They go fast. He said that these special fireflies (which start flashing together and stop together) were long known in Southeast Asia but thought to exist nowhere in North America.

The way he heard it, one day a woman from Tennessee was chatting with a firefly expert somewhere in the South and happened to mention the behavior of some fireflies she loved to watch back home. And that was the first time the word got out to the scientific community that synchronous fireflies existed in North America. Now it’s practically Disney World out there — controlled, but crowded.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park website posted this before the great annual event: “The firefly shuttle operating dates for 2015 will be June 2-9. Advance reservations of parking passes have sold out, however an additional 85 passes will be available for each day of the event. These 85 passes will go on sale online at 10:00 a.m. the day before the event and will be available until 3:30 p.m. on the day of the event or until the passes are all reserved. Passes can be purchased at www.recreation.gov or by calling (877) 444-6777.

“During the program operating dates, a parking pass is required for evening access to the Sugarlands parking lot and the firefly shuttle to the Elkmont viewing area. There is a limit of one parking pass per household per season. …

“Synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) are one of at least 19 species of fireflies that live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are the only species in America whose individuals can synchronize their flashing light patterns.

“Fireflies (also called lightning bugs) are beetles. They take from one to two years to mature from larvae, but will live as adults for only about 21 days. …

“Their light patterns are part of their mating display. Each species of firefly has a characteristic flash pattern that helps its male and female individuals recognize each other. … Peak flashing for synchronous fireflies in the park is normally within a two-week period in late May to mid-June.”

More at the great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Personally, I’d be happy to see any kind of firefly at all. There used to be so many. They were like fairies. I’ve read that lawn chemicals are responsible for their decline. The video below covers both the science and the happening. See the fireflies flash.

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When a river is full of trash, polluted, and maybe locked in a below-street culvert,  returning it to glory may seem too great a task. But that is what cities around the country are doing, “daylighting” urban rivers, cleaning them up, and ensuring they become the featured assets they were meant to be.

Sometimes this starts with just one person.

John tweeted an article about such a person today. CNN’s Kathleen Toner and Erika Clarke wrote from Memphis, “In the past 15 years, Chad Pregracke has helped pull more than 67,000 tires from the Mississippi River and other waterways across the United States. But that’s just scratching the surface.

“He’s also helped retrieve 218 washing machines, 19 tractors, 12 hot tubs, four pianos and almost 1,000 refrigerators.

” ‘People intentionally dumped [these] in river and also littered,’ Pregracke said. ‘Even 100 miles away, [trash] will find its way into a creek or a storm drain and into, ultimately, the Mississippi River.’

“For Pregracke, removing this debris has become his life’s work. Sometimes called ‘The Rivers’ Garbageman,’ he lives on a barge about nine months out of the year with members of his 12-person crew. Together, they organize community cleanups along rivers across the country.

” ‘The garbage got into the water one piece at a time,’ Pregracke said. ‘And that’s the only way it’s going to come out.’

“It’s a dirty job, but Pregracke, 38, took it on because he realized that no one was doing it. It began as a solo effort, and over the years his energy, enthusiasm and dedication have helped it grow. To date, about 70,000 volunteers have joined his crusade, helping him collect more than 7 million pounds of debris through his nonprofit, Living Lands & Waters.”

More here. You can vote for Pregracke as Hero of the Year if you click there.

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