Monday, June 20, 2011

Quote: Barry Lopez

This is taken from an interview the writer Barry Lopez did with Bill Moyers on April 30, 2010 (transcript here). Lopez described the unique blue color of the New York City sky. Moyers responded that it was hard for him to separate the beauty of the sky with what he saw on September 11. He asked Lopez how to reconcile the beauty with the horror, and Lopez responded:
It's a caution. That, you know, we have a way of talking about beauty as though beauty were only skin deep. But real beauty is so deep you have to move into darkness in order to understand what beauty is....And that's what you-- well, it's just what you said. You're talking to your wife [and] this blue sky goes gray. And a horror, a horror visits us. If you- try to separate these two things, you're in trouble. What you must do is build a system of civilization that is as aware of darkness as it is of beauty. I would feel on thin ice if the world were nothing but beauty.  
I got to see Lopez give a talk at Seattle Town Hall about a year ago. I can't think of any other living writer who thinks so deeply about the relationship between humans and nature, and can express abstract and complex ideas with such precision and command over the English language. You could open any of his books to any page and find something worth quoting, but I'm going to add one more here, from "Of Wolves and Men." This quote has stuck with me, because of my interest in human-predator relationships. My adviser asked me once (related to my research) why humans treat bears worse than any other wild animal. And my first thought was, no, actually humans treat wolves worse than any other wild animal.
The history of killing wolves shows far less restraint and far more perversity. A lot of people didn't just kill wolves; they tortured them. They set wolves on fire and tore their jaws out and cut their Achilles tendons and turned dogs loose on them. They poisoned them with strychnine, arsenic, and cyanide, on such a scale that millions of other animals--raccoons, black-footed ferrets, red foxes, ravens, red-tailed hawks, eagles, ground squirrels, wolverines--were killed incidentally in the process....In the twentieth century people pulled up alongside wolves in airplanes and snowmobiles and blew them apart with shotguns for sport. In Minnesota in the 1970s people choked Eastern timber wolves to death in snares to show their contempt for the animal's designation as an endangered species.
This is not predator control, and it goes beyond the casual cruelty sociologists say manifests itself among people under stress, or where there is no perception of responsibility. It is the violent expression of a terrible assumption: that men have the right to kill other creatures not for what they do but for what we fear they may do.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Travel: Orcas Island, art of the natural

Last Saturday I was lucky enough to take a short trip out to Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Islands in northeastern Washington state. My friends and I walked from the airfield into a town called Eastsound, the largest on the island with around 3,000 people. 

A lot of the island communities in Washington have an eclectic mix of residents. These areas were first inhabited by the Coast Salish--the name given to the various tribes that live(d) in the Pacific Northwestern coastal areas from Canada's Vancouver Island down to northern Oregon. In the mid-19th century settlers came from the mainland, mostly farmers and fishermen. In the last quarter of the 20th century the San Juans became a draw for artists and writers and people who own yachts and have a lot of money and time.

East Sound Bay, looking southwest
Outside the Orcas Island Historical Museum there is a large wooden sculpture of a heron with a red metal ball. I took a quick photograph, and later decided to dig up some more information about it (the museum was closed for the evening). 

The artist is an island resident named Todd Spalti.  The sculpture is an interpretation of a Tlingit story about the creation of people. (The Tlingit are a tribe that live further north, on the Alaskan and Canadian coast.)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Consumer reparations

I recently spent about six months in western China (I have a sister-blog about environmental issues in China here), and I once again noticed the pervasiveness of specialized fixers and menders in Chinese cities. I bought a used bike for about $15, not too nice, but functioning. The bike broke about every two weeks, and when that happened I would walk it to a bicycle repair man who had a small shop right around the corner from the classroom building I was in most mornings. I never spent more than 12 kuai (a little less than two dollars), and that was for a new tube. The cost to patch up a blown tube was only 1-2 kuai.

There are repair people all over Chinese cities, for every different type of appliance, and also for clothes. On my campus there was a seamstress who sat on a street corner with a chair and a sewing machine and a pile of commissioned mending. I'm aware that here in the US there are tailors and menders that can perform these services, but they're far less numerous and accessible, plus the pervasive attitude seems to be that if it's broken, buy a new one. (Unless it's something like high-end electronics or a car or bicycle, although with electronics most people would agree that if it keeps breaking, it's probably defective and the company should replace it.) 

Friday, January 7, 2011

Blood in the tap water

There is currently an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Korea, which has brought some--but not enough--attention to the extremely inhumane way that the Korean government deals with this problem: by dumping live animals into large holes and burying them alive.

Link to more info and photos at the Korean Animal Rights Advocates website

Apparently the vinyl lining on one of these holes got torn up when the panicked animals were struggling and dying, causing blood to leak into the groundwater. Here's an article about some residents of Paju city who have blood coming out of their taps. (Somewhere Stephen King is smiling slightly and stroking his beard, if he has one.)

Ummmmmm, this is really a clusterfuck of food safety, water quality and animal welfare issues, all rolled into something that I should try not to compare to wartime atrocities. We (animal welfare promoters) need some kind of metric for animal cruelty that doesn't hysterically invoke Nazis and Stalin, but damn if I know what it is. It's just dumping live animals in the ground and letting them suffocate, I guess. If that doesn't disturb someone on its own, then PETA rhetoric probably won't help.

Culling is not unusual in Korea (video)
Lots of photos (website in Korean)
Protests in Seoul against the culling

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A new way to experience art and nature

I just read this:
Geerat Vermeij, a biologist at the University of California-Davis who has been blind since the age of 3, has identified many new species of mollusks based on tiny variations in the contours of their shells. He uses a sort of spatial or tactile giftedness that is beyond what any sighted person is likely to have. (link to article)
This raises several interesting ideas for me. First off, how do people blind from birth decide what to do with their lives in not-blind culture and society? If everyone were blind then blind-culture would simply be culture. But instead they have to adapt to our culture—and blindness in not-blind culture is considered a limitation.* But clearly blind people should be out on the beach stroking mollusks with their super-fingers, or whatever other occupation that can stand in as a metaphor for.