Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Pine by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet

A lot of local people are upset because last night someone used a chain saw to cut down a large white pine would stood on the highway median north of Duluth. Some people knew this as the honking tree because they would honk when they passed it returning to the area. Others knew it as Charlie's tree after a man who used to eat lunch beneath it and may have been responsible for the fact that it wasn't cut down when the highway was built in the 1960s.

There are currently 11 pages of comments on the newspaper's website--almost all sad and/or angry at first, but then as the day wore on many people felt the need to insult the people who cared about a tree, and stand up for private property, Richard Nixon (seriously, even though no one had mentioned him), and the human right to do anything it wants with the world. One suggested in fractured English that tree worshippers should be shot and claimed he was serious. As often happens, the newspaper's website is having problems and I can't get to the comments to give you an exact quote right now. It's always amusing to see what they'll post since being taken over by right-wingers from Fargo.

Nowhere was there a comment about the effects on any wildlife which may have used the tree; I think there may have been a couple about the tree's (non-monetary) value as a tree and part of the world rather than just as a symbol in human ritual or history.

Is the cutting of this tree on public property actually any more heinous than the legal cutting of the trees I've mourned a block away or just across the alleyway? Is the unnecessary killing of this tree worse than the unnecessary killing of deer or cattle because a human feels like eating one? Oh, and the circus is in town this weekend, speaking of unnecessary animal abuse. Ultimately, it's the notion that anyone can own a tree or an animal which causes far more harm to human society and the world than the cutting of this particular tree.

I'm feeling rather swinish; how about you?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Phase 3

My impression, which I haven't tried to verify, is that the earliest days of this blog were primarily about individual animal ethics issues, and then moved on to more ecological issues and books. Now I suspect the focus is going to be more personal for the next couple months. None of this has been deliberate, and nothing I've written has been renounced--it probably has as much to do with who's commenting as what I'm writing. I think all three areas were intended from the first post, have always been included in the mix, and should be.

I went down to St. Paul yesterday to sell some more stuff. Made about a 300% profit over the cost of the bus ticket, and undoubtedly many times as much of a loss over what I originally spent. The temperature was in the 60s with a nice breeze and after getting rid of the books and dvds and cds and videos and cassettes, I spent most of the day wandering along the river or sitting in parks.

I admit to taking pleasure in the fact that my appearance frightens the average Minnesotan a little. Throw in carrying a few big bags and I get really scary. Someone walking? Carrying stuff? So I indulged the homeless frame of mind. In the river, a few large dead trees were trying to make their way to N'Awlins. A mallard hitched a ride on one; I wondered how far I'd get trying the same. Too damn many dams, my woody friends.

I sat in a park where some of the living trees had a variety of objects growing from their branches, jotting these notes, listening to sparrow song, watching people and squirrels and pigeons. The poor females just wanted to eat; males strutted around them, puffing out their chests, displaying their tails, cooing nonsense. The pigeons acted similarly. I felt at peace. Give me a bathroom and a safe place to pitch my tent and being homeless would be fine with me. I don't need the things I'm selling and my thoughts are freer when I'm outside.

St. Paul, St. Paul, got a hell of a neighborhood--sung to the tune of Paul Simon's Papa Hobo (!)--Detroit, Detroit, got a hell of a hockey team. I've been consolidating email accounts and forwarding and rereading some messages I saved. Back in 2006, many were about the possibility of moving to St. Paul and how much I loved this neighborhood. I came very close to getting a job with the county (not a lineman), and how different the past three years and present would have been.

Visiting now is not only a case of weight off the shoulders, and appreciating new life in the trees and the predominant attitudes of the people. St. Paul will always be the woman who almost became your lover, but the timing was never quite right. The eyes met, the interest shown, the flirtation---but the commitments, the responsibilities, the doubts. Yesterday, I settled for a bag of bagels.

Duluth, of course, is the relationship stayed in much too long. A few years of ecstasy, but by 2004 those emails were already about leaving. When the city allowed deer hunting in 2006, there was no hope of reconciliation.

Three things made me stay--my inertia, the natural beauty, and the stray cat I rather reluctantly took in in 2004. Couldn't let him die. He took a vacation recently, though not a relaxing one, spending a week and a half with a couple friends and their couple cats as a test. It certainly didn't go perfectly but wasn't the complete disaster I expected and they've agreed to take him when I leave. If it doesn't work out, I know they'll do their best to find another home for him. So no matter what else happens in my life, no dead cat guilt. Whew.

He has a habit of sleeping under blankets, and also hiding under them when frightened--no doubt learned from his need for safety as a kitten in the wild. When I got home late last night, I could tell from the condition of my bed that something drastic had gone on yesterday.

This morning, I see what. The alleyway is covered with sawdust, and the trees in the small natural area across the alley have been butchered. I believe they call it pruning, like the harvesting of deer, the development of land. They do love their euphemisms. By god, there's a branch within a yard of our wire, we can't have that. I'm glad I wasn't here to witness it--if there's one thing I've learned from 50+ years in this society, and I've been given this lesson many times, it's that impotent fury doesn't make for a good life. One more reason to move on, looking for a branch with new life.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bookstores and Beyond: Amazons and Little Guys at the Garden Party

I received an email from someone who appreciated my recent review of Charles Bowden's book but has a low opinion of Amazon and its effect on local bookstores and wondered why I took part in that. I decided I'd respond with a post as it might get an interesting discussion going, and because I've got some history with the issue from a few perspectives. And then it somehow led back to the book.

I lived in Boston or the surrounding area for most of my life, and I expect to be moving back there at the end of June. One of my favorite things about the Boston area is the large number of bookstores.

My long time favorite was WordsWorth in Cambridge--well over 100,000 titles at its peak, all discounted, a strong nature section where I bought many books. Amazon started online in 1995; WordsWorth tried adding an online presence to compete but eventually closed in 2004 after I'd left the area but it had been in decline for quite a few years. No doubt that was in part due to Amazon and its deeper discounts; I certainly was doing most of my bookbuying in the late 90s, the period of my life when I had the most disposable income, most of which got spent on books, at Amazon. I liked (and still do) the usefulness of its enormous selection
as a research tool and, as a thrifty New Englander, its cheapest prices.

So I'm sure I played my small part in the closing of one of my favorite stores and I thought it was a shame when it closed as most of us tend to think of all change to places we love. But a few blocks down the street was Harvard Book Store (not University affiliated) which opened in 1932 and is still open and thriving, regardless of Amazon and the internet and the megachains.

The biggest bookstore in Boston was Waterstone's, part of an international chain. They had a huge selection which I enjoyed browsing but I rarely bought anything there because they charged list price; they closed following a fire. Another favorite was Avenue Victor Hugo--the store closed but remains alive online.

Over in Brookline, where I lived for a few years, Brookline Booksmith has been a local favorite (though never one of mine) since 1961. Lots of people were predicting doom when a Barnes & Noble store opened a few blocks away in the 1990s. I recently read that the B&N store has closed; Brookline Booksmith is still open.

In the late 90s, I managed the small bookstore of a professional college where we sold mostly textbooks and equipment. We not only had students who bought items online at a lower price than we could afford to charge; they actually had the nerve to have them shipped to the bookstore to be picked up since they weren't home during the day. The college store later stopped selling textbooks which were instead offered at a nearby Barnes & Noble.

Here in Duluth, there's a small bookstore which had a great bookclub run by a friend who used to work there, but otherwise I've never had any affection for the store though I recognize its contribution to the community. And over in Marquette, MI is a great little bookstore called Snowbound Books. It's been around since 1984 and I'd hate to see it go out of business, but I wouldn't mind at all if Amazon helped put a regional chain which has a store there out of business.

All of which is to say that while Amazon and other large online or physical stores have undoubtedly contributed to the closing of some stores, others have survived and beaten the giants. Although I'm more and more sympathetic to the viewpoint as I get older, picking one point in time and saying that's how things should remain, whether it's in retail stores or societal values or in determining which species are considered native or invasive, is arbitrary and really just a denial of change.

If a small bookstore wanted to offer me free books in exchange for writing reviews on its website I'd be perfectly willing to do so, but I also have no regrets for the thousands of dollars I spent at Amazon over the years. They offered me better selection, better prices, and more convenient, less hassled shopping--should I be required to support a business which offers me less? And where exactly would we stop on that trail? Should we not buy books from national publishers which have offered authors more money than local publishers? Should we stop reading the authors who leave those local publishers for a better deal?

Sure, I'm not a fan of globalization and large corporations just as I'm not a fan of much of the change which is going on in the world. But if I were to be 100% consistent with those beliefs I not only wouldn't shop at Amazon, I wouldn't be using a computer or electricity or living indoors.

I suppose one's choices depend on individual priorities (for example, I think not eating animals is more important than whether someone shops at Amazon or Walmart or who they vote for) and that we're all better at living our ideal lives in some ways than others. I'm proud to have never owned a car and to that extent not contributed to habitat destruction, road kill, oil drilling, war, and a wide variety of pollution, but it's probably due at least as much to the fact that I hated driving as it is to the values which have led me to choose a simple life in many other ways. And though it's rare, I'm not so pure that I won't gladly accept a ride when it's necessary or sometimes just because I want to make my life easier.

And some of the choices may be a matter of that acceptance which Bowden writes of. Can I stop climate change or globalization or all the suffering our species causes other species every day or what's coming for billions of humans? No, I can't. It seems to me that an awful lot of the small number of people who even bother to think about such things need to tell themselves they can. I don't know, maybe they really believe it, maybe they need hope, or false hope, or faith. Maybe I need the pain and sadness which is part of accepting what I see as the truth. I only know that as in that Bowden quote, for me there's only one Garden of Eden worth believing in.

There have been many times when I wished I lived in a much earlier time, or a commune, or a monastery, anywhere where I could deny or not take part in what is happening all around me. But though I choose to not take part in many of the typical ways of life of this time and place, this time and place is when and where I live whether I would have chosen it or not. On different days, either the acceptance or the resistance will run stronger and the days will be dominated by sad smiles, or angry frustration, or deep breaths of peace. Some days I'd rather be an ecoterrorist; other days, a Taoist. Either way, I'll still be here tomorrow. Until the day when I'm not, cast out of the ever-changing, uncontrollable Garden.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Today's Quote--How We Live

The modern environmental movement is a messianic mission to save wild ground and at its heart--at spots like this unnamed canyon where we sit on a rock and eat while a cold front beats against Pusch Ridge--it always seems to me that the center of the movement is a kind of empty barrel. The barrel at first looks full, in fact, overflowing with slogans, calendars, environmental impact statements, critical habitat lists, natural area plans, mitigation schemes, and big shovelfuls of tradeoffs. But after sorting through this barrel, I never find much that explains why I come to spots like this unnamed canyon. We have developed a new language of bureaucratic forms and categories and we wrap the wild ground in this gibberish. But we generally skirt the real issue. The way we live and work kills wild ground and when the wild ground is gone, we will vanish also.

Those of us who hunger for these places live as a kind of holding action, a group of marginal human beings huddled in the firestorm of energy called industrialism, people who retreat from time to time like ancient druids to this pagan ground that stamped us with our truest sense of self. --- Charles Bowden, Frog Mountain Blues

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Some of the Dead are Still Breathing

This title by Charles Bowden made up for all the less than great books I've read for Amazon's Vine program. I was delighted to see this book offered for review, but also surprised and I expect it to get a lot of low ratings from readers new to him and just trying it out--this book is explicit and about subjects most people don't want to hear or think about. You often hear a book described as a love it or hate it experience--with Bowden's writing, it's possible to love AND hate it.

I don't have any interest in most of his books which follow from his experience as a crime reporter in Tucson--drugs, murder, sex crimes--but some like this one have more of a focus on nature, a word he has no use for, and a broader view of this time in history. Who are the dead of the title? Take your pick--war veterans, dying individuals, doomed species, collapsing civilizations, the comfortably numb, the quietly desperate.

Even in this book there are plenty of his usual topics mixed in
--I thought one section which makes up 1/4 of the book was tedious and repetitive. To be fair, perhaps it's meant to be that way as it describes life on the road, hotel room after hotel room, an obsession with proving that a man was murdered, and a dark period in the author's life. And elephants.

But this book is real and honest and self-examining and culture-examining to a degree you'll rarely find. Along with the drugs and violence and sex and thoughts of homicide and suicide, it's about cardinals, and New Orleans, and death and birth, and the future which is now and the end which is here, and rattlesnakes, and alienation from a civilization which is about isolation from other species, and desire vs. reason, and Sea Shepherd, and Melville, and drift nets, and too many people, and the acceptance which is not submission.

Because it is real and honest, it's not about economic systems or politicians or borders on a map (except for their consequences), or false illusions or denial or delusions that everything can be fixed, or future or past utopias, or editing out the rough edges of a book or a life so that everyone will approve. It's about life, the real one.

My copy's heavily marked and there's so much I'd like to quote here even though we're asked not to do that because the advance copy is not the final version and could change. I hope to buy the official book which is released today. Because as he writes repeatedly, it's about yes. Yes, even to what isn't pretty or reassuring. If you're up to it, and don't mind a free flowing writing style which circles back to what came before, and care about these issues and know these feelings, read this book.

And because, like Bowden, I don't always do as others want me to, I'm going to quote one section because it speaks for me so well.

When I try to speak of these matters, I cause pained expressions. The younger people tell me it does not matter, the world is fucked. The older people tell me they do not wish to think of such things. The officials tell me I am crazy. I am left with the beasts, and others tell me they do not matter because they are dumb. Or I am left with the trees and grasses and bushes, and others tell me they cannot feel and are beneath notice.

I have never believed in the Garden of Eden except for the one I live in.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Extinctions, Previous and Present

Last night, Nova had an episode titled Last Extinction. You can probably tell by the title of this post that I didn't think much of their title. And honestly, I didn't find the program that compelling either, but I am fascinated by the subject of what caused the geologically sudden disappearance of North American megafauna such as mammoths and mastodons and sabertooth cats and sloths and camels and glyptodonts approximately 13000 years ago after they'd dominated the continent for 100,000 years. I don't know about you, but I'd love to see a woolly mammoth while strolling through a snowstorm like the one we had yesterday (thank you, weather gods, for one last (?) Superior storm).

You can get a good introduction to the subject here, particularly by reading "End of the Big Beasts" and "The Extinction Debate". There are several theories attempting to explain the extinction. The most widely accepted is that newly arrived humans hunted them to death, and I'm waiting for an interlibrary loan book titled Twilight of the Mammoths which seems to be the primary book available on the subject
for the general public and which supports that theory.

Lord knows I'm not a big fan of humans who have certainly eliminated plenty of other species, but I find it a little hard to completely accept that a relatively small number of humans (who apparently disappeared at the same time) with primitive weapons wiped out a continent's worth of a dozen or three species in a short period of time. Other theories include climate change, disease, and that which this program explores, a comet strike. The main evidence supporting this is a layer of tiny diamonds found in a glacier.

The book I referred to above is subtitled Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America, and the references include Dave Foreman's book Rewilding North America. If you'd like to hear a lecture Foreman gave last week on the subject, you can listen here. Foreman talks about those and more recent extinctions, the fact that human population has tripled in his lifetime, the effects of the absence of large carnivores, and reads from Aldo Leopold (and I'll point out again that the turning point in what Foreman calls the most important conservation book is not a vision of continental wilderness or a scientific respect for ecosystems and species, but the look in the eyes of one individual animal). The lecture's conclusion is a fine rejoinder to those who insist that deep ecology is all about hatred and misanthropy--it's about joy and connection.