Friday, May 23, 2008


I intended to spend much of the past two weeks hiking, before the trees leafed out and ruined the views and shaded the wildflowers out of bloom. So one day I headed out to Minnesota Point, one of my most frequent hikes in town. The entire land area is a sand bar stretching seven miles before broken by a shipping channel. The sandy beach, dunes, and pines remind me of Cape Cod. Usually I see a bald eagle on this hike, but on this migration season day I settled for a wide variety of other beautiful birds on land during my outbound hike through the pines, and in Lake Superior during my beach walk back. It didn’t take long for the waves to catch me and I was soon happily walking along in wet shoes.

The following morning, I woke up and knew it was kidney stone time again. I walked very slowly to the closest hospital in search of a couple prescriptions for good drugs. Not long after I got there, I was supine with an IV and a plan to keep me overnight and perform surgery in the morning. If I’d been more lucid, I would have objected to this from the start, but between the pain, the dope, and the vomit, (hey, I think that might be the name of a soap opera) I remember replying to a long description of the plan with something like, “You want me to stay here?”

My objection would have been based on my past history with this problem—namely, that once the first blast of pain passes (admittedly, a blast which can last quite a few hours), my body settles down and eventually solves the problem on its own. But being incoherent at the time, I wound up not being allowed food in a room with good views of the Lake and nearby pigeons, a morphine button I never got to use, and a nice nurse who joined me in a conversation about Lost. And I got to watch some cable shows about chimps which I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. By morning, the doctor had to agree that I didn’t need surgery and was going home. Shortly afterward, a breakfast tray appeared and after no food the previous day, I quickly had some eggs and coffee, each for the first time in years.

A week later, a couple days after I was fairly sure (and I’ll skip the details of why I wasn’t 100% sure) I’d passed the stone, I wasted an afternoon having an x-ray and follow-up doctor’s appointment. The doctor’s appointment was scheduled for an hour after the x-ray; it wound up being 2 ½ hours after and lasted approximately two minutes in which he asked if I’d passed the stone. Well, doc, I was gonna ask it on the x-ray?

I’ve added some new sites to the list at the right. My full list of links is guaranteed to have something to irritate everyone, including me. With one foot in the radical pro-animal camp and the other in the radical green simple living camp, it can get uncomfortable for me straddling the fence or even just standing on a side, but I believe both sides have valuable things to say. That fence could also be seen as the dividing line between the present and the future. Here’s a preview of the new sites.

  • Cage Free Family—a young family gives away most of their possessions and goes in search of a better way of life.
  • Casaubon’s Book—an author/farmer looks at our civilization’s dwindling “resources” and how to live with what the future will bring.
  • Elaine Vigneault—an outspoken feminist and vegan. This link leads to her animal blog.
  • The Third Wave—a college student explores issues of environmentalism, the natural world, politics, and religion.

I’ve also picked a date for the possible/probable temporary/permanent end of this blog but it’s still a couple months away so more about that in the future. In the meantime, I’ve been jotting notes for a few weeks for an entry on militarism and nationalism and someday soon will likely get around to writing it.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Choices 2

Recycling another old column.

I recently read “John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights” by David S. Reynolds. This cultural biography is primarily a book of history which examines Brown’s actions in the context of his times, but it also raises questions of conscience vs. law, the individual vs. government, and violence vs. nonviolence.

Brown’s actions included leading a group in the murder of five pro-slavery Kansans who had threatened anti-slavery settlers, and a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry which resulted in the death of innocent men. That would certainly qualify Brown as a terrorist to many people, but the book’s subtitle also indicates why he’s considered a hero by others. He was also one of the very few non-racists of his time.

Even Southerners who hated his ideas and actions came to admire Brown’s integrity while he awaited trial and execution. Thoreau, whose essay on civil disobedience was an inspiration of Gandhi’s nonviolence campaign, was an ardent supporter of Brown’s violence in light of the government’s endorsement of slavery. Emerson, in a speech entitled “Courage,” compared Brown to Christ, saying that Brown’s hanging would “make the gallows glorious like the cross.”

I come from a part of the country with a long tradition of individuals breaking laws they considered unjust and I’m proud of it: not only the Transcendentalists, but the Boston Tea Party and ensuing American Revolution, and the Underground Railroad. Obeying an unjust law or government is not the highest good.

The past two presidential elections have had highly questionable results (or Kennedy-Nixon in 1960—I’m not playing the political game) and yet we shrug our shoulders and watch our TV shows. As long as we have new stuff to buy, it’s OK. We might even raise our voices a little as long as it doesn’t threaten our middle-class lifestyles.

People around the world shake their heads at our acceptance of anything. But truthfully, how to resist? How would Brown succeed today in his cross-country fundraising from some of the most famous men of his time? What would be his chances with a plan that involved hiding in the mountains in a time of spy satellites and heat sensors?

More than Brown’s actions, it was his words and demeanor, widely reported in the press while he was in prison, which made his cause famous. That wouldn’t happen under today’s conditions of indefinite incarceration without trial for suspected terrorists. Years before the Patriot Act, the government effectively eliminated the opportunity for serious discussion about our society’s values by not allowing the Unabomber to stage a defense based on his political views. Since I largely agreed with him except for the killing people part, I had hoped his trial would provide a forum for a much needed discussion.

Folks who believe violence is not sometimes necessary to stop violence are living in a wishful fantasy land. I do wish they could talk people out of war and murder, just as I wish I could talk them out of eating that tortured dead animal for dinner.

I’m not trying to urge anyone to violence, but are signs and fiery speeches an appropriate opposition to bombs? If someone truly believes that over a million babies are being killed every year in this country by abortion, is writing a letter of protest enough? And how do I live with myself in a society which sees nothing wrong with killing over 10,000,000,000 (that’s ten billion) animals a year for food, amusement, fashion, and research? Does not committing violence make one a better person than allowing it to happen?

As Reynolds wrote, “America has become a vast network of institutions that tend to stifle vigorous challenges from individuals. Such challenges are needed if the nation is to remain healthy. There must be modern Americans who identify with the oppressed with such passion that they are willing to die for them, as Brown did. And America must be large enough to allow for meaningful protest, instead of remaining satisfied with patriotic bromides and a capitalist mass culture that fosters homogenized complacency. Unless America is ready at every moment to see its own failings, it is one step closer to becoming the tyrannical monster it pretends not to be.”

Choices 1

Expanding on comments I made in an online discussion.

Essentially there are two options. You can live as if humans are all that really matters and the planet and all other forms of life are just there for us to do whatever we want with. This kind of arrogance is what led us to the mess we're in now--overpopulation, greed, collapsing ecosystems, human-caused extinctions, nuclear waste, miles of plastic in the oceans, and the kind of people who post here as if killing is an amusing joke. They like to claim they're part of the food chain when actually they try to stay as far removed from being part of the natural world as possible, and because they are living as if they're not really dependent on that natural world, they deny or don't care about what happens to anything but themselves.

I think the person who claims "Food Chain!" in this kind of discussion is more likely to drive their air-conditioned SUV to a fast food joint and not raise any of their own food. It's like hunters who claim "Primitive History" as their rationale while they use 21st century technology in all aspects of their life. If folks think being part of the food chain is so important, they should spend time being stalked by a cougar.

Or, second option, you can see humans as one part of a big picture, act with humility and have respect for all the life around you, live as simply as circumstances allow, doing as little harm and causing as little violence and death as possible. Understand that every animal you choose to eat was an individual just like your cat or your dog; not an object for your use, but a creature who wants to enjoy his or her life as much as you do.

I believe we're nearing the end of a brief window in time which made those two options possible. The industrial world is winding down and the illusion of distance, superiority and control over the natural world, as well as the opportunity of living without deliberately causing the death of other creatures, are both going to come to an end. Whether I'm right or wrong about that, for now you do have that choice. You can choose to support unnecessary suffering and violence or you can choose to support love and respect. Just don't expect me to respect you equally whichever choice you make, because there's no doubt in my mind which is the more honorable choice.

If I am right, what’s the future lack of choice mean for people’s eating habits? I think the answers are hunting, gathering, and small scale agriculture. In that sense, people who are currently hunting for food or slaughtering their livestock (leaving aside bigger questions of whether a person has any right to “own” another being or land) are certainly more connected with the natural world than I am, and more representative of how future humans will be living.

In that aspect, it’s a way of life that I have more respect for than my own way of life. I’ve taken some of the tests which measure the effect of your lifestyle, and though I live much, much, much more simply than most Americans, we’d still need 2 or 3 planets if everyone lived like me. If I were willing to kill animals, I’d be living much more simply in a hut in the woods. But I’m not willing to end a life when I don’t need to, so People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals or People Eating Tasty Animals? In both cases we have people and animals presented as opposing entities, separated by ET. I just wanna go home.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Everywhere a Sign

“Free food, long line—a sign of the times”--so read the headline of the St. Paul newspaper article on a food giveaway in a small Wisconsin town where more people stood in line waiting than lived in the town. Like many others in the latest and maybe final recession, my unemployment runs out next month.

I recently and quickly read the fine science fiction/mystery/eco-novel Tomorrow’s World by Davie Henderson. This look at the near future has humans living in havens and going Outside requires wearing a filter mask in the aftermath of the Hydrocarbon Holocaust. My favorite line: “How could anyone have believed the convenience offered by a motor car was more precious than the life of a single hummingbird or butterfly?” Economics is defined as knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Interrupting for a few signs of spring...From my apartment windows, I see a small wooded natural area where additional brush and sod is dumped by groundskeepers. This has had the effect of making it wilder. The small trees which will later offer a variety of berries, are now budding. In the past few days the cat and I have watched a yellow-rumped warbler, fox sparrows, a downy woodpecker, and a rabbit making use of the area. On recent walks, I’ve seen catkins rolling down the sidewalk and creeks roaring with whitewater. Today was a very windy day with large beautiful waves along the Lakewalk. I miss the ocean.

As the result of a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace, the Bush administration has been ordered to stop delaying their decision on listing the polar bear as an endangered species and must make their decision by May 15th. Be watching for this one as they have to either go against their energy buddies or publicly shrug their shoulders and declare extinction no big deal. Battles will surely follow.

On the flip side of endangered species listing, the grey wolf has recently been taken off the list in some areas and in states like Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, this was the signal to let the slaughter begin. In Wyoming, a wolf was pursued by snowmobile for 35 miles before being killed. CBD, NRDC, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Humane Society of the US, and other groups have filed suit asking for the endangered listing to be reinstated. Read their press release.

Wolves do far more than human hunters to keep populations healthy, but those hunters along with welfare ranchers and macho cowboys have a deep-seated hatred of wildlife and the natural world. Read this good LA Times opinion piece for examples. One of the major reasons I moved to northern Minnesota was to be in the area with the largest wolf population in the lower 48 states, and hunting wolves will soon become an issue here as well.

Honeybees, ice shelves, and ecosystems collapsing. Unemployment, hunger, prices, human population and everyone else’s extinction rising. Happy May Day. Viva la Revolucion. Can’t you read the signs?