Thursday, August 30, 2007

Summer reading, some are skimming

I started a lot of unusual books this summer which I expected to love, but wound up not finishing. The most well-known is World Without Us by Alan Weisman which examines what would happen to our artifacts and the natural world if humans disappeared. I take great pleasure in seeing plants forcing their way through human construction but this book is actually a mishmash of unrelated chapters, some of which actually cover the main topic. As a Bostonian, I especially enjoyed the chapter which describes the gradual collapse of New York City. Unfortunately, too much of the book actually deals with the present and past.

Another book begun but not yet finished is Endgame by Derrick Jensen. Jensen presents his anti-civilization view step by step with a lot of spur trails along the way, and then questions what we need to do to end the mess we've created. He even advocates what's misleadingly called ecoterrorism these days. I have no problem with that, it's just his rambling conversational writing style which makes it hard for me to finish his books even though I usually agree with all his points.

I also traveled some of Wild:An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths. This is a much more literary rant against modern civilization, a 21st century political feminist version of "In wildness is the preservation of the world." In the sections I read, the emphasis is on the wild human as she travels the world. She lives an unpampered lifestyle, takes drugs with the natives, and uses all the four letter words, not as insults or adjectives as commonly abused, but with the real meaning of the words. At another time I might love this book, but I found it a little too much about her for my interests on this reading.

Unlike all those eagerly anticipated but disappointing books, my favorite read of the summer is a few years old and I'd never heard of it until a few weeks ago. City of Pearl is the first of six books in a sci-fi series by Karen Traviss. The final book is due out in April 2008 so my timing has worked out well, if the series continues with the topics and quality of the first book. Here are some of my favorite highpoints from almost 300 years in the future as humans meet several species new to them:
  • A gene pool of the only remaining earth crops not owned by corporations.
  • An alien who wipes out a city to protect an endangered species. It's nice to have might on the right side for a change.
  • A colony of 1000 or so vegan humans who take their dead to be eaten by a native species rather than filling them with poisonous chemicals and locking them in a box.
  • A scientist executed for vivisection of the child of another species.
  • A cop who helps ecoterrorists and is haunted by her memory of a lab gorilla who kept repeating the same signs to her. Lied to by the lab worker, she later learns the true meaning of the communication: "Help me, please."
  • The philosopher Targassat: "The universe is not here for our convenience alone. If we assume it is simply our larder, we shall starve. If we think that damage we cannot see cannot cause harm, we shall be poisoned. Wess'har have a place in the universe, but we should take no more from it than we absolutely need. Being as strong as we are now, we can take everything from other beings. But we have a duty not to, because we have a choice. Those who have choices must make them. And the wider the choices one has, the more restrained one must be in making them."

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Omnivore’s Disdain

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan is widely considered a well-written book. I haven’t read it because I have no interest in supporting a man with the values on display in the book, but I have read a lot about it, most recently in an excellent article called “Hard to Swallow” by B.R. Myers in the September Atlantic. I urge people to read this article on the subject of gourmets and morality. My comments on a couple bits from the book quoted in the article follow.

“I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater. Yet part of me pities him, too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris.”

While there are some vegetarians who do have a childlike illusion that they’re living a life with no harmful side effects, I’ve found a lot more who have thought much more deeply about these issues than Pollan and act as they do because of their understanding of reality and the consequences of their choices. In any case, his last sentence above more widely and accurately applies to Americans’ view of themselves in the world.

Edited 9/26 to add OOPS! I got the following quote from a blog which presented it as a quote from the book itself, but it is apparently actually from the article by Myers.

“How arrogant, in other words, how pitifully close to mental illness, to want to be a better person! But this is where the Christian and the gourmet part ways.”

That is where the atheist and the gourmet part ways as well. I do not believe that all choices are equal, or that a person seeking to reduce the amount of suffering and violent death in the world is pitifully close to being a mentally ill serial killer. But Pollan’s disdain for ethics certainly explains his own behavior.

Yes, on the subject of diet at least, I think I’m a better person than Pollan and make no apology for it. I think the 15 year old vegetarian whose questions about killing chickens Pollan wouldn’t answer at the dinner table is a better person. For that matter, I think the wild pig he shot and chicken whose throat he slit for the sake of his book were also better people. But then, I don’t have very high expectations of someone who believes his appetite more important than ethics, and considers the hurt human feelings he imagines while playing at vegetarian to be of more significance than the lives of the animals he eats.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Bye bye, Bubba

Though I’m a former zoo docent who played catch with Bubba a couple times, I have to say I never felt any particular connection with the polar bears. They were the zoo’s most popular attraction, but I preferred spending time with the brown bears, cougars, ravens, magpie, eagles, hawk, the snakes and other education animals, and in the nocturnal section.

So when word came of Bubba’s death from what is believed to be liver disease, I didn’t feel any strong reaction. It wasn’t until I read comments on the zoo’s website from people describing their sadness and tears that I started to feel a little choked up myself. I was glad to see people not only had been affected by an animal’s life and death but were willing to acknowledge those feelings.

At the same time, I understood the reason people had those feelings, and why this bear had been more important to them than the other animals at the zoo, was because they saw him as an entertainer, not a bear. If he hadn’t thrown a ball back and forth, he wouldn’t have been the star attraction. He would have been another animal briefly stared at before the people moved on to the next cage. Even assuming the best intentions, the zoo couldn’t really teach people about Bubba as polar bear because once he was captive in a cage instead of living life in his own ecosystem, surrounded by predators and prey and cohorts, affected by the weather and moving with the seasons, he really no longer was a polar bear. One learns biological data such as skin color and insulation properties, but one doesn’t learn the being. Learning and appreciating the actual beings which surround us would lead to societal changes in the behaviors which are likely to cause the extinction of wild polar bears. Has society changed its behavior because of its great love of all the Bubbas in its zoos? In fact, they’ve used their cars to get to the zoos and sped up the process.

I went to the zoo (by bus, slightly better than a car) for the day of Bubba appreciation and asked a docent I knew if any changes had been noticed in Berlin’s behavior after Bubba’s death since they had lived together all their lives. I was told there has been some pacing behavior (always bad news and something you’ll see almost all zoo animals do, at least until they lose even that much spirit of frustration and resistance) but she is eating, and I’d seen pacing in the past. Berlin was swimming and seemed OK when I saw her. Since the zoo’s loss of accreditation, they are not allowed to get another polar bear so solitude is her future which may not be so bad in this case since they are solitary animals anyway. The advanced age of many animals, the fact that many can now not be replaced when they die, and the lack of funds to make the improvements needed to regain accreditation may mean the fate of this zoo is already determined but just needs to be played out.

I shake my head at the idea of searching for intelligent life in space because I think we show very little of our own here and have no appreciation for that of other species because it is exhibited in ways other than our way which obviously must be superior. Rather than making the logical assumption that all beings have emotions, we caution against applying “human emotions” to other animals. Keeping that wide divide between ourselves and other species is the only way for people to live with their treatment of other beings and maintain the economic system which depends on their continued abuse. Our civilization has used the same bigotry to destroy other forms of human society which lived in closer harmony with the natural world.

Being a docent was a great opportunity and experience for me, but it was an opportunity taken at other beings’ expense, not an experience shared freely. Ultimately, a zoo is a place of sadness for me, and after being away for over a year, this one was even sadder for me with many animals I used to watch now gone. It seems unlikely I’ll be going back, and that’s a sadness of another kind.

Monday, August 13, 2007

On the other hand

Last month I wrote about the local hiking and the beauty of the land as being examples of why this is a special place to live. That's still true; this morning I spent a couple hours enjoying the Lake from the ledges area though of course I had to walk through the destruction zones to get there. A goldfinch about to land was startled to see me sitting there and changed his mind. Later on the Lakewalk, a swallowtail caterpillar got an assist from me out of the way of tourists in horseless carriages. As I stood in the shade watching him, a red-breasted nuthatch flew by and explored the tree a foot in front of me. Good moments, but...

A lot of major negative things have happened in this town in the past 2-3 years which have made it a much less desirable place to live for me. I recognize that others may see my negatives as positives, and before griping I'll salute the completion of the Superior Hiking Trail and all the other trail work being done in town as the biggest positive of the past couple years.

At the top of the list of evil: hunting being allowed in town. It's a short list of things I consider as vile an act as modern day hunting: animal experiments, working in a slaughterhouse, child abuse. I've written many letters and columns on this subject and I'll collect my points into another post, but the City Council's unanimous approval of this guaranteed that none of them would ever get my vote again.

The loss of the foghorn, caused by the Coast Guard, the city, and a small number of residents, removed one of Duluth's best qualities. Gone from the fog was the atmospheric sense of history and mystery, and the feeling of being in a unique location. Instead we were left in a dreary bland anywhere with an annoying whistle like a hated pop song ringing in our ears.

Those destruction zones mentioned above were mirrored in all directions. From shoreline to ridgetop, wetland to forest, downtown to outskirts, a city with a declining population, many struggling to survive, allowed the building of more condos and houses to cater to those with too much money. A green building (from so-called environmentalists) where there were green plants is still destruction.

Everyone involved should have known the zoo's loss of accreditation was coming as the city let years go by without meeting its financial responsibility there as in many other areas. More importantly to me, it didn't meet the moral obligation it took on by having a zoo. As a former docent, I know the people who work there care about animals, but unless a deep-pocketed benefactor appears, I don't see anything but continued deterioration in the zoo's future and hope they shut it down before it becomes much worse.

The arts in town continue to be completely unstable. Music venues come and go, the Norshor couldn't make it as a movie theater but someone thinks one replacing the Red Lion can, the community wouldn't support American National Ballet (if only the country worshiped dancers as professional athletes instead of football players), KUMD seems on the verge of becoming a radio station I'll no longer listen to.

As everywhere, civilized humans do their best to destroy the natural world. Remote location, few overpaid jobs, and rugged winters (well, we're losing that one) have combined to save more of this area than in most of the country and I remain grateful for that. It's quickly becoming one of the last reasons to live here.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

It's a strange world, Sandy

I watched Blue Velvet again a few days ago, one of my favorite films by David Lynch, one of my favorite directors. Hence the title which is just seeming appropriate these days.

While waiting for the bus today, a beautiful and underfed calico cat befriended me as I feared I was about to see him run over before my eyes. I debated taking him home to at least feed him but didn't, primarily because of the other cat on my lap as I type this. Based on a cat sample of one (no doubt unscientific), Walden seems to get along much better with cats than he does with humans. Like human, like cat, I suppose. But I worried about the possibility of calico fleas and more life-threatening problems, the fact that I may very well only be able to take care of the cat I have for another year or so, and given the record number of shelter kills this year hoped that someone else would take him in. I was reminded of a similar situation a couple years ago when I visited a friend in Ohio and we found a new mother feline in a wooded park which neither of us could take. We brought food back which was eaten but couldn't find her again a few days later. I've helped a few animals in my time but I'm always troubled for a long time by each one I can't save.

When I started writing this blog, I told myself I wouldn't write about jobs at all, but yesterday was too unbearable to not mention and after all, I am just a temp soon to be gone anyway. In the course of 4 1/2 hours in a loud office where it's impossible to not hear others' conversations (especially since they're just shouted out to the crowd) I heard about an attempt to run over a rat which turned out to be a skunk, the dragging of a deer carcass back and forth along the road (maybe the only deer tale of recent months which didn't include joking reference to the Wisconsin guy who likes to have sex with non-human animals), shooting at raccoons on a bird feeder, and that a new restaurant sucks because they make their own ketchup instead of serving Heinz. Is it any wonder I try to work as few hours there as possible?

Why are there people like Frank?

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Values of Deep Ecology

When I peeked out from the avalanche of library books I’ve been reading, I noticed that a class was apparently told to blog their thoughts about deep ecology...something I’d been planning myself since it expresses many of my core values. I’d been formed by the 60s and Thoreau but it was deep ecology, probably first encountered through Earth First!, which really led me to my deepest and most important beliefs.

Here is the platform first formulated by Arne Naess:

1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent worth). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.

2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.

3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.

4. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.

5. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

6. Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.

7. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between bigness and greatness.

8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes.

There’s not anything there I disagree with, and to me it can largely be summed up with the words respect and humility. It’s about catchphrases such as quality vs. quantity, wants vs. needs, small is beautiful, and being a part of nature instead of apart from nature.

I believe the majority of people who first advanced these ideas thought of them primarily in terms of species rather than individuals. I find that adding respect for the individual increases the platform’s relevance to daily life. The platform as is justifies my opposition to all new human destruction of natural space for homes, businesses, highways, etc. It’s empathizing with the individual life which leads me to not eating animals, spending some of my sidewalk time avoiding stepping on ants, and feeling as much wonder and delight when watching a common rock dove as when watching the rarer peregrine falcon.

I own five books with “Deep Ecology” in the title; a quick check shows four of them unfortunately out of print, although I do think more people are now aware of the ideas above. Despite the mainstream awareness of global warming at the moment, I find far fewer new nature titles of interest to me being published. Time to do some rereading when I get all these library books off me.