Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Land and Being: by Luanne Armstrong

Land and Being:

Writing about love is hard. A love story tends to always veer into romance, or sentiment, or lyrical grandiloquence. And yet a love story is impossible to avoid. It wants to be told. It trumpets its own eloquence. How can I avoid it?
And yet, I have no idea if that is what I am writing. It's like walking in my own Zen Koan; I go around and around inside this story. What do I love here about this place, and why? How many ways do I see this place? And how many eyes here, also see me? What do they see? How do we see each other? Is this even a relationship? Is it all a one way emotion, and me, the odd human stalker, wandering around wanting to be loved?
I ask myself at odd and various moments, what am I doing here? While I bend over the garden, plantng. In the spring, breathing on tulips. Or listening to a lone frog, both of us awake on a March night; or in August, listening to the Northern harrier crying over the burned-to-golden summer field as I sit peeling peaches in the hot slanting sun. Watching my foolish farmer self, at harvest, harried by nature, wild turkeys in the grapes, deer eating the apple trees, voles eating the garden, small lost bear in the pears. Around and around we go, a palimpsest of footprints telling an infinite number of stories, over my lifetime, over so many lifetimes.
If I put my ear to the ground, if I lie down, can I hear the past banging its way under the grass roots, the tree roots? Can I hear the banging of all those other feet coming by? Can I hold eternity by the hand, like a child with almost no sense of myself, listening, at last, inside this place and so end in dreaming? If I wasn’t walking here, I would be walking somewhere, my head in the sky and my feet shuffling in grass, in leaves, in multitudes. And wondering how to grasp it. The intricate complexity of a field, a patch of moss, a flower opening. What do I really know?
Walking here, listening, every day I grow smaller and larger. Raven comes by on my solitary mornings in the winter, as I throw hay to the cows, which stand ankle deep in yellow mud and manure. At night, the dogs and the coyote yell challenges, or greeting or some other complexity. What do I know? This fall, I missed the swallows leaving and felt an acute sense of loss; I was interrupted by inattention, my being busy. No excuses. And the ospreys left as well, without saying goodbye. No, it was me that didn’t say goodbye, stomping around picking apples and preparing for my own winter. Another year going around; all year we chase each other, the seasons and I, round and round, I am lost inside and lost outside and occasionally, glad to be so lost.
The elements bind me together; fire inside my belly, fire in the sleepy animals, fire in the woodstove, lake always glinting in its cleft home between mountains, my feet banging, banging on the earth while I listen, In love with here, with land and being. And late at night, I curl under many covers, listening to snow hissing at the windows, wind banging the tree branches together, in an odd syncopation, in my bed house, my bed-balloon, my bed cocoon, tethered to the night sky, swinging and whirling in the wind,
Travelling all night; never lost.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

December Journal by Luanne Armstrong

December Journal:

And I suppose, also, the end of this year’s journal, typed to a background of an utterly confused and confusing blare of noise from Copenhagen. Only two writers have made any sense of it so far for me, Michael M’Gonigle, writing in the Tyee, and George Monbiot writing in the Guardian. Other than that, the mainstream media is as silly about Copenhagen as it was about H1N1.
It was a good year for me, if not for the planet. My house is full of food from the abundant garden, the chimney is clean, the wood is dry, the house is warm, small things that make a world of difference. And despite the environmental degradation in the world, we see more animals and birds around here, not less. Wolves were here one afternoon, above us on the mountain, howling on their way through from somewhere to somewhere else. A cougar tracked through the pasture. Then the other day my brother came in with a hunk of grey hair. Something had broken the bottom two strands of barbed wire in the north fence and left a chunk of hair behind. We looked at it mystified; not deer, not moose, not anything we knew. The next morning, he came back, gleeful. “A grizzly,” he announced. Not everyone would be thrilled at the sign of such large predators around but we are glad at this sign of a functioning and intact ecosystem.

Partly it is because there are fewer hunters and fewer people here in the winter; driving along the lake road means driving by many huge and shuttered houses. Even the few people that still live year round tend to go away for large chunks of the winter. Even so, many of the house still sport large yard lights and outdoor lights. From my house, at night, in a landscape that was once pristinely dark, I can now see three sets of yard lights. I have no idea what purpose these lights achieve; they burn all night and every night, (one is on an empty house) when I look out, they irritate me like an itch I can’t scratch.
But mostly the farm is quiet; the pigs are gone. The empty pigpen is oddly sad. The garden is asleep under the snow. The greenhouse is shut down. A few birds eat dried Saskatoon berries and rose hips. Flickers occasionally come to drill my house-logs for dinner. An eagle goes by on its way to harass the coots but the ravens don’t chase it as they usually do.
Walking is an experience of black and white and grey stark beauty, grey water sloshing restlessly under the wind, black rocks, black trees, snow layered on every surface. It’s a great time to look for tracks, for the record of the busy restless life that still continues all around me.

And it’s the social time of the year for me as well, and conversely, also the quiet time; time to write, to think, to walk. When I arrived in Vancouver ten years ago, I arrived on the verge of Y2K, and a great chorus of confusion of what might happen. Nothing did, partly because a great many technical people spent a lot of time and money making sure it wouldn’t. But now that the world stands, again, facing a great historical turning point, there is, yet again, great confusion. Despite the many apocalyptic voices around, no one really believes that disaster will come – not yet. Just as people partied in Paris while German troops were marching towards them, and the radio went on announcing that all was well, so we drive and shop and live our lives. I do it as well. I loathe the pressure this time of year to shop but I like the part that is about friends, family, connection, community, making music and art together, catching up after a too busy summer and fall.
Christmas, solstice, the turning of the year, the time when there is still abundance left from harvest, when the freezer, the cupboards, the canning jars, the dried fruits, the boxes of huts and onions and garlic are still here. The hungry time of the year is still to come. No wonder Christmas is a festival of life and Easter is a festival of death. Traditionally, Easter would have come at a time when the cupboard was empty and the garden not grown.

But all is well at Kootenay Lake. I write and listen to the radio and read and study.

And I listen and wait. And while I do that, I plan the next garden.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Idiocy of... by K.Linda Kivi

“We have mixed our labour with the earth, our forces with its forces too deeply to be able to draw back and separate either out.”
Raymond Williams

It is late April. As I make my way up the path to check on our hydro-electric system’s intake, I take in the leaves of the deciduous trees which are opening in a spring chorus of myriad shades of green. Light jumps everywhere: in the froth of the gushing creek, on the black backs of the happy ravens, through the forest’s new beginnings. All I want to be, is outside. Interesting how we “be outside” like being happy or sad, a state of existence rather than how we speak of finding ourselves in places, like “in the house” or “at the beach.”

All of my body wants all of this being: the warming sun, the cool breeze on skin, the fragrance of life, the chatter of squirrels and wrens, my spring song, the textures of last year’s dead greenery against black soil, the itchiness of hands wanting work. The last item, the work, is particularly compelling. Perhaps if I was an urbanite, I’d be itching to go for a cycle or put the canoe in the water, but outside is where a rural person works; and in spite of the repetition and cyclical nature of the work, it is what I most want. Our garden is already turned over, peas and greens planted, beds reinforced, compost distributed, new gate built and hung weeks before the official gardening season begins. My land partner Joe and I have been felling and bucking up dying birch since late March, unable to still our hands any longer. But we are not working regardless of fatigue and weather. We are working because of weather, necessity and glee. The harder times will come later - in the heat of the summer, in the scramble to be ready for winter - but for now we are contented and eager.

Some thinkers claim that modern life can free the human from the “idiocy of rural life”. The idiocy of … I run this phrase through my mind as I continue my way up the path, noting fallen trees that need to be cleared, and try to imagine what they could possibly mean. The OED defines idiocy as “utter foolishness”. How could it be considered foolish to have to go outside? To have to work hard, regardless of how one feels, regardless of the ferocity of the storm, the muck or the numbing cold might be drudgery perhaps, but foolishness?

Last week, I visited with Brenda of Elderbee Greens as she and her daughter pricked tiny seedlings from trays and transferred them into the larger pots they sell each year to legions of dedicated gardeners. There was no idiocy or foolishness or even drudgery there, in the balmy warmth of the greenhouse, the worktable covered with first leaves reaching toward the sunlight, innocent and irresistible as happy puppies. I joined the work, dipping my fingers into potting soil and we talked, conversing about my first novel, which she had recently read, the upcoming elections and the outrageousness of politicians who refuse to understand the perspectives and ways of rural people.

This time last year, I was cycling through the Estonian countryside, the houses streaming past like a scarf of stone, wood and thatch strewn among the tentative green. People were outdoors, raking and digging and puttering for as long as the light would let them. I stopped now and again to chat with someone across a fence, hedge or mossy stone wall, our conversation turning more often than not to European Union politics, the emptying of the countryside, about the impact of capitalism on agriculture and rural life. Only three kinds of people remain in much of the Estonian countryside year round: the elderly, the troubled (alcoholics and crazies), and the very stubborn and brave. Sometimes, the last are grouped in with the second. What grieves rural people is not the idiocy or drudgery of their lives close to the Earth, but rather decisions made by people in far away cities that do not consider their wants or needs.

And here in North America, where in a mere 50 years the balance of the population has shifted dramatically from rural to urban, how are we seen? Do the majority of Canadians, urban people, understand that being rural means working and that our work brings deep, necessary pleasure; the symphony of muscles stretched and filled, of joints and tendons moving, resisting, giving way, of the heart, lungs and other organs working toward a crescendo? Working the land imbues us with a rightful sense of place, of participating in the living world, of kinship with every other being who must find home ground, harvest food, create shelter, weather the elements, create and raise young, survive. Good work is hard. It asks something of us, whether it is feats of strength, acts of endurance, the union of mind and fingers, focus in spite of repetition and boredom, problem solving skills, calm in the face of calamity or finding harmony and rhythm with co-workers. Hard work demands both courage and humility. A life lived close to the land makes us humble.

As I arrive at the top of the last rise, I look down into the treed gully at the damn that feeds our water intake for both domestic and power use. The water is gushing at full force, up to eighty times its regular volume during the rest of the year, the unnaturally straight line of the waterfall beautiful none the less as it sluices over the entire eight foot width of the metal between two concrete abutments. This hydro-electric system reminds us on a regular basis that although we may have the ingenuity to design and build such a technological wonder, nature is still not under our command. Over the years, our power has gone down over sudden high flows and debris flows that have filled in the small black pool behind the damn to the brim. Months of excavating sand, mud, rocks and logs in chilling spring water is nothing if it is not an exercise in humility. And I like it. I like being reminded that I am but a small part of a much larger entity, a force that encompasses me like a parent, like a teacher, sometimes gentle, sometimes fierce.

I scramble down the steep, snow-pocked slope hanging onto the ropes we have tied to the trees for that very purpose. At this time of year, we check the intake daily in order to adjust the clean out gate/overflow so that the right amount of water – not too much, not too little – flows over the intake screen. Someone must be here in April and May to do this job. Either that or do without electricity for a while. In this way, the choice to live a life tied closely to land does sometimes preclude other choices. The chickens need to be fed, the harvest brought in, the goat milked, a day of work abandoned because, oh well, it’s raining and the intake visited and adjusted accordingly. In North America, we love to love choice. We have been taught that it is a value above all others. Choice implies we are free of necessity, that we have risen above the plain cut of survival. Choice makes us feel powerful. It makes us arrogant.

I pull up the clean out gate another notch and head back up the slope, leaning out as I seize the rope and clamber up like a rock climber. I am full of energy, a veritable spring of vigour, as I run back down the path for the sheer pleasure and challenge of hopping over roots and rocks. There is absolutely nowhere else I would rather be. As I slow down to climb a short snowy section, I wonder which modern thinkers will expound on the idiocy of urban, industrial life?

Agrarian thinkers like Wendell Berry spend much of their energy extolling the virtues of the rural lifestyles that are being abandoned, of the life that is being lost. They write about what they know about – the goodness, the beauty of a life lived close to the land. They respond to the Urbanist attack not by counter attack, but with passionate defense. Humble, they want only to preserve what they cherish, not to force it on everyone else. Yet it bears some consideration: if the problem with rural life is that we have no choice but to go outside, shouldn’t it be equally problematic that most urbanites have no choice but to stay inside? Who in urban settings rejoice at being indoors when the leaves unfurl and shoots push up through greening earth, when the sun is rocketing diamonds out of the new snow, when the heart yearns for the texture of tree or wind or rock? When urban people go outdoors, it is when their work is done. And work, to many of them, is a due they must pay so that they can go outside, when it’s over and rest and recreate. Thus, urban and rural people live their lives in reverse.

But the idiocy of urban life isn’t necessarily in the reversal of the inside/outside situation. It’s more in the disconnection of work from the meeting of basic needs. There is a rightness, a deep satisfaction, about pulling up a carrot that I can’t imagine a bureaucrat feeling as they fill out another form or put in a showing at a meeting. So many of the basic animal tasks of survival have been co-opted. The Belgian/African a cappella group Zap Mama wrote and recorded a song about one of the women’s grandfather who came to visit her from Africa. During the song, we share in his discovery that the modern world has stolen all the tasks of his body. Some machine has cut the bread, leaving his hands bereft. He encounters an escalator, which has stolen the work of his legs. “Escalator, machine encore!” he cries out. The pinnacle of this robbery occurs when he discovers that television wants to do the work of his dreams and imagination. His entire body of work has been robbed, rendering limbs, brain, even him, meaningless.

Increasingly, urban people give bodily meaning to being outside through modern activities called exercise and sport. Like work, exercise can bring deep, necessary pleasure; the symphony of muscles stretched and filled, of joints and tendons moving, resisting, giving way, of the heart, lungs and other organs working toward a crescendo. Outdoor exercise can imbue a person with a rightful sense of place, of participating in the living world, of kinship with other beings. Good exercise is hard. It asks something of us, whether it is feats of strength, acts of endurance, the union of mind and fingers, focus in spite of repetition and boredom, calm in the face of calamity or finding harmony and rhythm with one’s companions. Some outdoor sports demand both courage and humility. But, if you don’t feel like going, or the weather is kacky, you don’t have to go. Also, unless you are a professional athlete or a recreational professional (eg. ski guide), when the work of exercise or sport is over, you still have to do the work of feeding yourself, of providing shelter, power and transportation, of fulfilling your need to be productive and contributing to society.

For urban people, outside is a dreamland, especially at this time of year, the yearned for territory of weekend warriors. City people who dream of moving to the country often return to cities when they realize how much work is required. Either that, or they create urban lives in the countryside and hire rural people to do their work. Cycling around the Estonian countryside many of the rural Estonians I encountered working – fixing fences, planting flowers, repairing roofs and outbuildings, airing out houses, raking yards, pruning trees, expelling rodents, cutting firewood – were doing so for absentee landowners. On the island of Saaremaa, many of the people we met were working on the waterfront summer residences of Swedes, Finns and North Americans. The owners often came for only a few weeks in the summer to experience the idyll of country life. If a springtime visit was in the works, the local hirelings would be hurrying to “get the place ready for the owners”. Getting the place ready meant removing the work, especially the outdoor work. These places are, in the words of art critic Lucy R. Lippard, “ landscapes in transition between labor, abandonment and recreation.”

I live on land, in a life, that sits on the active fault line between labour and recreation; these two forces actively battle over my soul and that of this mountainous terrain. In Estonia, these forces are only beginning their struggle as consumer notions of leisure filter into the economy and psyche of the nation. Here in the Columbia Mountains as in Estonia, the forces of labour want to harvest the trees, mine the rocks, exploit the soil, to make things out of resources, to draw material wealth from the bounty of the land. The forces of recreation want to admire the standing forest, swim in the unmarred sea and lakes, to draw solace from the Earth’s grandeur and gifts. Those two desires coexist among traditional rural peoples and both desires are paid their dues. It is only in our modern, industrial society that the two have been separated, that we have been asked to choose one or the other.

Through industrialization, outdoor work and outdoor recreation have been posited as incompatible opposites, and have thus become polarized. Indeed, industrial forestry with its roar of machinery does not know or respect the sacred or ecological necessity. And modern recreation sees wilderness as the place where no people dwell in interchange with the land. In seeing land as a blank slate, it can be as destructive as industry. We understand community best from within; the ecological community is no different. Traditional (as opposed to industrial) rural life, where people live with and inside the land, is the middle ground between these two forces. It is no coincidence that this lifestyle is not just devalued by modern society (try telling city folk you’re a farmer, hunter, trapper or wildcrafter and see how they treat you), but it is often rendered invisible.

In the cusp between rural and urban, half my work is done sitting, often in front of a computer while the other half occurs outside, my body eager to excavate its own true rhythm. Sometimes I relax indoors, sometimes I recreate outdoors, pressing my body into service climbing mountain trails or paddling rivers and lakes. I see my work in front of the computer as a necessary evil, both to provide for myself monetarily but also to participate with my thoughts in a society that no longer provides as many forums for people to meet and discuss ideas in person. I see my outdoor recreation as a social compromise, a way to participate with those who are seeking to know and love the land but are no longer rural. My favourite trips are ones that involve some kind of productive work, be it berry picking, firewood gathering or just salvaging scrap along the way. My favourite work is that which I do outdoors.

From my recent spring hikes, I have come home with bags full of False solomon’s seal, fiddleheads, nettles, watercress, wild salad greens. The forest has been feeding me for weeks now. My body yearns for that: for the emerald food of spring that answers my hunger for its cleansing and renewing properties. On my walks, I have shared my glee about the bounty of the Earth with friends by showing them how to harvest wild ginger without killing the plant, or talking about the plants I will gather for my tea blends when the time is right. Each time I wander, I engage in the work of observing the forest, of noting its steadiness and its changes, of including myself in its beauty. After the winter lull, my energy rises, flaring like an enormous cottonwood full of pungent buds. Outside is not just where I work and survive, it is where I thrive. What’s so idiotic about that?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Part 2: Animals R Us, by Luanne Armstrong

These days, attitudes towards animals conflict and clash with every person; my brother walks up the mountain to be with animals, he watches and notices everything but he still rages, much as our father did, about bears in the fruit trees and deer eating the garden. He loves ‘his’ animals but he is still more aligned with our father’s values then with mine. But it doesn’t matter; we share enough similarities and the same ideas about care and respect.
Last week, I went to visit a new neighbour, a wealthy German industrialist who has spent a lot of time and money and energy landscaping his place, making a garden that looks quite natural and beautiful. He has also built a series of ponds on a hill, and each pond is surrounded by an electric fence to keep the otters from eating ‘his’ goldfish. I pointed out, rather mildly, that otters are endangered here and goldfish breed so fast they tend to become a nuisance. He shook his head impatiently at me. “The otters live in the swamp,” he said as if that somehow justified everything. I liked his garden but I didn’t like him.

It never fails to astonish me how much emotion people invest in their relationships and ideas about animals, both positive and negative. They either love them passionately; or, just as often, are terrified of, or hate them just as passionately. Stories about animals seem to be either long or short; in either case, they are usually not stories about animals at all, but about people’s ideas and involvement, however profound or superficial, with animals. Which is very odd, because animals don’t seem to have similar kind of passionate feelings towards us although of course we matter to them in all kinds of ways. But of course, we don’t know, because we haven’t yet learned to communicate with animals in such a way that their communication matters to us, as well as ours towards them, and most of us still tend to assume we know how they think and what they feel, often without a lot of evidence.
But there is a slow change going on…there are a lot of people working with animals in positive ways, interesting books, about a parrots, bonobo monkeys, about chimps, about bears and wolves; like most other information not amenable to mainstream thinking, none of this gets widely covered or talked about.
Most of these books are still focused on how much animals are or are not like us; whether they have language, whether they have culture, how they feel about us. But I was very happy to read about a man named Lynn Rogers, a biologist who has spent time with bears in the northern US woods. Rogers is no sentimentalist. Even after devoting 40 years of his life to the back bear of Minnesota he is under no delusion that his interest is reciprocated. The bears don’t really like him, he says.
"June, she has no feelings for me,” he is quoted as saying. “If she had feelings I think she would want to seek out company like a dog does its master," he said. "But she doesn't think of me in those terms. I'm just the guy that brings her a treat once in a while and that she can ignore and not pay any attention to and that is what makes her so valuable to science."

I also like this quote from a book called Landscapes of Fear, “We tend to suppress the knowledge that fear is a universal emotion in the animal kingdom from our consciousness, perhaps because we need to preserve ‘nature’ as an area of innocence to which we can withdraw when discontented with people.” Yi-Fu Tuan.
Craig Childs, a biologist who makes a living looking for water in the desert, says: “The life of an animal lies outside of conjecture. It is far beyond the scientific papers and the campfire stories. It is as true as breath. It is as important as the words of children.”
Or, as Barbara Noske writes, in Beyond Boundaries, “perhaps what I am looking for is an anthropology of animals, a place where the human-animal interface thins and disappears, where “Otherness” isn’t any longer an excuse for “objectification and degradation, either in practice or in theory.” (p.170

The reality of animals will never really be accessible to me or to people in general. But knowledge of animals is a different thing. But people who work with animals or encounter animals on a regular basis, (and these people are getting fewer all the time) farmers, hunters, animal trainers, etc., usually have a very specialized and often quite deep knowledge of particular kinds of animals and particular kinds of knowledge about animals; my sister, for example, is a horse trainer and knows an immense amount about horses but isn’t interested in dogs. My friend George, who is a hunter and a fisherman, knows his local landscape and the habits of the animals within that landscape amazingly well, but is suspicious and resentful of what he sees as the intrusive meddling of ecologists and wildlife biologists meddling with his choices and telling him what to believe.
Scientists, while they are often are extremely knowledgeable about particular kinds of animals, seem to often know little about animals in general. But they are also constrained by the requirements of science and what often appears as a rather almost comic fear of not anthropomorphizing animals, which often then excludes anecdotal evidence or local knowledge or indigenous knowledge – in addition, science seems very slow to take up on the idea that knowledge of animals gained in a library or through scientific methods is itself biased and oddly skewed to a particular point of view. Science needs to do more research that is both respectful of animals and their actual lives.
But at least people who work or live or hunt or depend on animals are in relationship with animals; and while this relationship takes an almost infinite variety of forms, depending on how such people characterize animals, it does exist and can be leared from. But then of course, this is also the great difficulty, that people are free to characterize animals according to whatever cultural and social framework they happen to be working with; from a woman getting her poodle dyed to match her apartment; to the Inuit hunter dependent on his dog’s sense of smell to get him home.

I still spend a lot of time these days with animals though much less than I did when I was a child,. When I was a child, I was sure my father knew everything about animals. He knew a lot, and everything he knew was constrained by his view as a pioneering small farmer, desperate to survive and make a living.
But now, I listen more. I listen and watch. The swallows sit on the porch in the early morning, gabbling and yelling, sounding exactly like a crowd of people at a party or in a restaurant. When the hawk comes by, or the golden eagle, the ravens come out to meet him or her. There is obviously lots of communication going on, wing tip to feather lift and I am blind and deaf to it.
I know something about domestic animals, less about wild animals, almost nothing about insects and lizards and spiders and wasps and flies. I share the farm in June and July with an almost infinite number of mosquitoes and I truly can’t come to any understanding about them because no matter how equitable I am determined to be about our shared life, they in fact, drive me quite mad. Screaming mad. Raging mad. They do it to anyone and everyone. Nothing about it is personal.
And while I am picking raspberries and the mosquitoes are ranging in and out of my ears and eyes, I try to remember we are here together, living our lives in some kind of strange and unknown partnership/relationship, each with our roles and our umwelt; mine is of heat and berries and itching and satisfaction and theirs is one being mosquitoes, blood, smell, pursuit, reproducing. In our own ways, we are doing exactly the same things.
But for most people, especially those that rarely encounter animals, the idea of animals remains an area of innocence, an area of sentimentality, an area of the unknown where humans can endlessly project needs, desires, their own humanness. And in this territory, we lurch from sentimentality to cruelty and back, a lurching horribly and eerily similar to historical positions previously help by whites about blacks, the church about Indians, Southerners about slaves.
It is no longer politically acceptable for men to say what women are feeling, or for white people to assume they know and understand the reality of people of colour. But it is still perfectly acceptable to assume we know what animals are thinking and feeling. But we don’t. And can’t.

This spring, a neighbour phoned my house. Her voice panted in panic. The night before, a cougar had broken into someone’s chicken shed, she said, the person had surprised it and the cougar had run away. Someone else might have seen the same cougar, she thought, of course they weren’t sure, but she was phoning everyone with children or grandchildren to warn people keep them inside.
What I didn’t tell her was that my brother had come down from his walk on the mountain, a few days earlier and told me he had just found a cougar den with a female cougar and two kittens. We were both glad about it; there are too many deer and not enough predators in our neighbourhood. I didn’t tell my neighbour this..
Neither of these stories is a judgment; one person is terrified of cougars and one is not. The difference is that my brother walks up the mountain every day and has all of his life; he walks up to deer, ravens sit on his shoulder. He’s not a Thoreau kind of guy; he’s redneck logger who loves the place where he lives and knows enough about it to walk through it with no fear and a sense of comradeship.
But my neighbour’s fear is a lot like being terrified of terrorists; if they never attack, the unfearful people can crow triumphantly, (after a long while) that nothing was ever wrong but it only takes one attack for the fearful people to consider their fear justified. It only takes one bear/cougar/wolf/coyote attack for all kinds of stories and fear to circulate. People are terrified of cougars, bears, wolves, because of the possibility, however remote, that they can hurt people.
Whether any of the stories of people being in danger or hurt are true or not, what caused the animals to act the way they did, never seems to be an issue.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dreaming about Bears by K.Linda Kivi

A topic I’ve always been interested in and that ties in nicely with Luanne’s previous blog entry about the umwelt, or perceptive world, of animals, is our human fear of wilderness and of animals. Our human umwelt. So much of the way we interact with nature is coloured or even dictated by these fears. They are so pervasive in modern urban culture, I believe, that most people don’t even discuss, much less question these fears, they are just taken for given. When someone steps out of that unwelt of human fear, they are seen as excessively brave, strange or just plain crazy.

A conversation that I keep wanting to have is: what are we afraid of? Why are we afraid? What is the result of this fear? And if we don’t like the results, is there anything we can do to alleviate or transform our personal and collective fears?

A conversation of this nature can begin in many places but since it’s just me here at the keyboard, I’ll begin with my own experience.

All through my teens and twenties, I suffered from chronic and re-occurring nightmares. In these dreams, I was relentlessly pursued and attacked by various animals, wild and domestic. One night, I’d be wrestling to the death with some giant fish on a bathroom floor. The next, I’d be climbing on furniture desperate to escape the menacing claws of a trio of ocelots (how do I even know what ocelots look like?). But the most frequent scenario was one of being pursued by bears. Sometimes there was just one, other times, lumbering groups of them, but always, as soon as they saw me, they’d come for me with the intent of tearing me to pieces and eating me up. I’d inevitably jolt out of sleep, heart pounding, hands sweating, limbs and lungs primed for flight. I would resist falling back to sleep for fear that the bears were waiting for me on the other side of that thin curtain of consciousness.

This night-time torment translated, not surprisingly, into a fear of bears. Okay, it was a terror of bears. To put this into context, I’m generally not a fearful person. In fact, when confronted with something worthy of fear, I’m more likely to go in search of it rather than retreat. Hence, my solo travels across Africa as a 20-year-old, my fascination with motorcycles and my adventures into the worlds of troubled people like convicts. In retrospect, it’s no surprise that I moved to the Columbia Mountains, a region known for its bear population.

I could spend a few pages elucidating the psychological roots and symbolism of my bear nightmares, but more interesting is what has become of my bear phobia in the past 20 years that I’ve lived among them.

My first waking encounter with a bear came just weeks after I moved to the Kootenays. I hadn’t yet found a place to live and was sleeping in the back of my truck where ever it was convenient to park. It was one such night when I was parked in a wild area that I was jolted awake by the rocking of my truck. I sat bolt upright, only to find myself nose to nose and paws with a small grizzly, a mere plexiglass window between us. Adrenalin hit the system at full gallop. Once I caught my breath, I grabbed a pot and lid from the food box (which should have been elsewhere, not with me) and banged them together with the full ferocity of fear. The bear fell back on all fours in a very leisurely way and snuffled back up the road to where its massive grizzly mama was waiting for it. Yikes.

The nightmares intensified.

Fast forward two years. I was in New Mexico on a winter adventure when I spotted an ad requesting chronic nightmare sufferers for a nightmare reduction study. At the few sessions I attended, the group of us were taught a relatively simple nightmare management technique which is based on the theory that nightmares are a bad habit in response to stress, much like biting one’s nails. The technique was supposed to deal a blow to my bear dreams within three months.

About two months later, having been diligent in the practice of the technique, I had a classic bear pursuit dream. The snarly, fang-toothed fur beast is after me and I am panicked, unable to move fast enough to evade it. My legs are gluey and slow, it is coming closer, closer… I wake up, as much frustrated as scared, and immediately practice the technique that involves creating an alternate version of the dream. I choose to imagine the bear eating me. I then will myself back to sleep. In my sleep, the dream continues where it left off. The bear devours me. And then the most extraordinary thing occurs: I become the bear.

Being the bear is both a visceral and mental experience. I am struck by the sensation of my solidity, of being hunkered down, all my innards protected beneath me. I also feel sluggish, as though it takes so much more energy to move this body and mind around. As I gaze about me, I realize I’m in my own back yard, but my vision is different – I can see more to the sides. My nostrils fill with a odour: the rotting, sweetness of compost. Compost, I think, the thought a scent image not a word. I lumber towards the pile. I wake up.

Who can say what happened in my psyche that night. I have no logical explanation for that distinct sensation of being that was entirely different, entirely alien to me. Who knows how closely it resembled the bubble of perception, the umwelt, of a real bear. But it had an effect (as have the other two dreams I've had about being a hawk and being a deer). What I understood from that experience is that bears aren’t really interested in me, that’s just my paranoid fantasy. They have a world unto themselves that I may enter from time to time in a peripheral way, but a bear is all about itself. What entered me that night was curiosity and respect.

I stopped having bear nightmares and my irrational fear of bears began to subside. I have had many, many close encounters with bears since. I now meet ursine wanderers with the knowledge that I am not all that important to them, just an odd figure that may cross their paths. Even when one attacked my outdoor fridge at 2 a.m. (yes, I know, I’ve brought it indoors), I wasn’t afraid to go out and yell at the big black bruin. It wanted food and I let it know that this food wasn’t available. I also have met numerous people who have been attacked by grizzlies in unfortunate circumstances. Consequently, I do my best to not create unfortunate circumstances when I’m in bear country. I make sure my umwelt includes bears in the most positive way possible, as fellow inhabitants of my homeplace who need more space than we humans often afford them. I view them as equals, whatever that means.

This evolution of my psyche has profoundly altered my relationship with the natural world. I am not adversary, I am not separate, I am not irrationally afraid. There is no longer a sharp line between me and the wilds. I am now “us” and I move through the world in that “usness.” It is what propels my environmental activism. It is what informs my each and every day as I rise and step out my door into home. This is not to say that I live in beautiful harmony in eternal connected bliss. No, it’s more real than that and my relationship to all the animals I encounter continues to evolve, as does my human community's relationship to wilderness, as do I. As do I.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Animals R Us. Part One by Luanne Armstrong

When I was a child, I lived far more intensely with animals than with people. I spent a lot of time by myself in the woods and at the lakeshore. There were always a lot of animals at the farm, and, my brothers and sister and I made pets of all of them, every calf and pig and dog and barn kitten. We also brought home fish, turtles and sad baby birds that always died. The only things that weren’t pets were the chickens. There were simply too many of them. But one of my favourite jobs was to care for the hundreds of baby chicks that we ordered every year. They came cheeping and thirsty, in shallow boxes cardboard boxes. One by one, I picked them up, showed them the water and grain in their new home, the floor spread with clean sawdust, They huddled together under a metal hood, where a glowing red sun lamp mimicked the warmth of their lost mothers. I fussed over them, if they huddled together too much, they’d smother; if they were chilled, they’d get sick. But usually, they thrived and then one day, always exciting, I opened the door to the big world, a pen full of green grass and sun and watched as one by one, cautious and fearful, they ventured outside.
Eventually, the hens went off to the big chicken house and the roosters went into the freezer and I lost interest in them. There were so many other animals. Late one rainy spring night, my father came home. He called us downstairs, brought his hat out from under his jacket, full of wild baby mallard ducks. Their mother had been killed on the road. The ducks followed us to the beach all summer and then flew away that fall but for years, they, or their descendents, nested in our pasture. The fish, turtles and frogs went into the small pond we had made beside the house. They always escaped. We didn’t mourn them. There was more.

I also began a life-long habit of reading about animals. Stories about horses were my first choice but any animal book would do. In most of these books, the animals were braver, kinder, smarter and in general, more likeable than the human characters. And the people clearly, most of the time, didn’t understand animals. They beat them (Black Beauty) took them away from the people they loved and were faithful to, (Lassie Come Home) loved and lost them, (The Yearling.) I hid upstairs in my room on rainy days, curled up under the covers and wept over Lassie, starved and sick, sitting outside the school, waiting for her boy. I learned pretty much every lesson about being human from reading about animals.
Now, much later, I’m reading about animals again, but now I am looking for a particular kind of book, a book by someone who knows something about the animals they are writing about. Perhaps he or she is a scientist; perhaps not. I don’t care. What I want is for the writer to know and care about animals as what they are, no children or proto humans, but splendidly and only, themselves, in so far, as humans, that we are able to know that. Perhaps I am still looking for that ethical edge, that sense of care and morality towards animals that traditional morality still insists should only be extended to humans.
Ethical considerations didn’t really enter into my childhood relationships with animals, although I did have an ongoing constant argument with Wally Johnson, our neighour. He was a trapper; my mother always said that the dogs could smell him coming. He smelled like death, she said, and indeed, the dogs did howl when his truck turned the far corner, came down the highway to our driveway and turned in. Wally was a wonderfully kind gentle man who believed that the only animals that really deserved to live were deer, trout, and songbirds. Everything else he saw as his job to kill, as many as possible, as often as possible. We were fascinated by the carcasses of dead animals in the back of his tiny green Austin pickup. He was always bringing things to show us; he knew more about animals than anyone else we knew, and when he sat at the kitchen table, with a glass of dandelion wine, we sat and listened to stories of cougar, lynx, coyotes, beaver, marten and min. In these stories, all the animals died. I was both drawn in and repelled. I didn’t mind helping my dad kill the farm animals, but wild animals seemed to me to belong to a different realm, one with which I sympathized, even felt akin to.
Wally took my arguments about animals and nature seriously. Somewhere I had heard or read about the phrase, “the balance of nature.” I wasn’t sure what it meant but even at seven or eight it seemed to me obvious that killing all the predators in the woods wasn’t a good thing and I told him this. In fact, we argued about it for years, neither of us ever convincing the other. But Wally also knew the woods and mountains in a way that very few people do anymore. When he was in his eighties, he hiked over the Purcell Mountains with a package of salt and fishing line. He took a young nephew along.
Wally told me this while standing on his head on the board swing tied to the giant walnut tree in the north garden. He had just had couple of glasses of my mother’s dandelion wine. He always did love both my mother and her wine.
Wally was always interested in my or my brother’s stories of what we had seen in our travels around the farm or in the woods. If we said we had seen a bird or a fish, he always immediately demanded to know where we had seen it, what it had looked like, what it was doing. He liked children because he was something of a sad child himself. He had been born in North Dakota in 1900; he often told us stories about how harsh his childhood had been, how little they had to eat and how he had left home at 12 and never gone back. His wife Nettie was the shyest woman around; she wore long skirts and head scarfs and made lard laden greasy doughnuts which we always politely ate on our visits even though they made us feel sick. One day we arrived at their house and somehow, their truck had gotten stuck in the mud. Wally was sitting in the front seat, gunning the motor and screaming, “Push, Nettie, push,” while Nettie struggled along grimly behind the truck, covered in black mud from the spinning tires.


The animals I loved best and thus knew best were horses. I first learned to ride on our neighbour’s half-wild horses that they captured, tied in a corral until they were ‘broken’ and then turned them over to us kids to ride. Eventually, after much stubborn begging and pleading, I got a horse of my own. We couldn’t really afford a horse. Such an animal had no use on our farm. Everything we had we used to survive; a horse was purely a luxury. So my father bought her and then resented her for every mouthful of grass she ate. Eventually, he complained so bitterly that I let her go. But I never forgot what I learned from her. When I got her, I knew almost nothing about horses or riding and there was no one to teach me. The horse had never had any training either, so we learned together through a constant series of trial and error encounters, where she learned to figure out what I wanted and I somehow learned to communicate it to her.
My sister is now an accomplished rider and trainer. She says that a trained horse with a trained rider enter into a kind of consciousness where the rider really communicates by thinking, do this or go there and the horse feels the slightest shift in the rider’s body and responds. I never got even close to being that good a rider, but it is pure pleasure for me to watch my sister working with a horse, to watch the horse respond, to see the connection between horse and trainer.
One night, listening to the radio, as I often do when I am lying in bed waiting for sleep, I was listening to a program on whales and the commentator began talking about a term I had never heard before. Later, I looked it up. The word ‘umwelt’ is a German word that means environment, but it also has a specific meaning in the world of consciousness studies. It was coined back in 1930 by a German biologist named Jacob Von Uexkull. Von Uexkull was fed up with the era's dominant behaviorist view of animals, which considered only how animals acted – their behavior. He was more interested in what animals experienced, in the texture and quality of their felt sensory worlds. In an attempt to address this question, he published a monograph called A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men.
To get a glimpse into how animals experience their environment, Von Uexkull writes, "We must first blow, in fancy, a soap bubble around each creature to represent its own world, filled with the perceptions which it alone knows."
As we step into each of these bubbles, Von Uexkull goes on, "a new world comes into being." Each "new world" Von Uexkull called an Umwelt, a richly-detailed self-world which corresponds to the unique senses and environments of each animal. By imagining these Umwelt bubbles, he believed he could also imagine his way into the reality of the animal in question.
But to truly be able to do this, a human would have to stop assuming he or she knew the actual realty of the animal, stop thinking of it in human terms, stop comparing the animal behaviour and rating it by how close it is to human, stop in fact, making assumptions and just be in the animal’s space. My sister does this by thinking and acting, as much as is possible for a predator human, in a way that will make sense to a horse. And she watches the horse for its reaction to her. It’s a relationship in which they are both fully engaged.
At the farm now, I am far more conscious of the weird ethical contradictions that are involved in our relationship with animals, with which we are still surrounded. My city son-in-law always marvels at how, as he puts it, “In the Kootenays, the animals are just as important as the people.” And indeed, at the farm, we tell endless dog, and chicken and coyote and cow and pig stories. There is people gossip and animal gossip. Both are equally fascinating and equally necessary. The people gossip keeps us informed about our friends and who is doing what; the animal gossip plays a slightly different role. A lot of it is necessary information about how the animals are doing and what needs too be done or not done. In addition, the behaviour of animals is endlessly fascinating and intricate and we are always trying to understand and come to terms with it.
This year, we bought 20 baby pigs to raise. They came to the farm in the back of my brother’s pickup and were unloaded into their new clean pen. These pigs had never been outside, had been born in concrete pens and raised on concrete. They were terrified to go out so eventually my brother pushed them out the door of their shed, one at a time. And then one of them began sniffing the dirt. And then shoveling through it with his nose. And then tasting dirt and grass roots. Pigs really do caper and kick their legs in the air and this one did. He was manifestly in love with dirt. He kept snuffling through it and then looking at us. If a pig could smile, he did.
These pigs were still in a pen but they had a creek, shade, a mud wallow, grass. Every morning, all twenty baby pigs snorkeled their way through the mud pool. They liked to stand in the mud every morning after I let them out and have an amazingly long pee. The pigs quickly became a tourist attraction, people stopped on the road, brought their children to look, took pictures, wrinkled their noses at the smell and the proliferation of flies and black hornets and asked questions like “Do they bite?”

At the farm, we still love and care for animals. And then we eat them. And we are always just slightly uneasy about it but it feels all right. Recently, we killed five young roosters, gorgeous happy strutting roosters, with colourful feathers. But a flock of chickens only thrives well with one rooster; in nature, they would be driven off and probably eaten by predators. Here, we are the predators, big alpha predators with teeth. We don’t hunt and every year, I think I am going fishing but I don’t. I haven’t solved the bait problem. I am not, any longer, willing to squish worms or grasshoppers onto hooks. If I can find a passive, non cruel bait that works, I might, again, go fishing.
And I am also comfortable with the bargain we make with our animals; that they are loved and fed and cared for and then, they go from a living being to food as quickly and humanely as possible.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bonded by Swine

My brother and I were talking about the swine flu the other day. To my astonishment, I discovered he’d just gotten vaccinated. He was surprised by my surprise and suggested that my mistrust of government and health authorities was an ongoing manifestation of my parents’ deep-seated lack of confidence in people and societal norms. It is true that we were brought up to keep our heads down and trust no one other than family. These were obviously necessities of survival in the young adult lives of my refugee parents. But does this modus operandi have deeper roots than recent wars? What purposes are served by blending in and relying only on familiar folk?

Trusting the known undoubtedly has deep roots in Estonian as well as other peasant cultures. Rural folks have learned to rely on their own eyes, their own intuition and the collective experience of their families and communities for survival. Why? Because living within the natural world involves knowing the specifics, not generalities, of where you are. Each place has its own soil, its own weather patterns, its own predators, its own weeds, its own ambience, its own human culture. Very little of this information can be found in books – it is kept alive through story telling as a living, collective resource that changes and grows day to day through the participation of the inhabitants.

This self reliance was spun as stupidity, xenophobia and incompetence by popular culture in the 1960s and 70s. That was the era in which the capitalist project included industrialization of farming; getting those pesky, independent-minded farmers to move into cities was no easy task. Remember shows like Green Acres, Petticoat Junction and the Beverly Hillbillies? The characters were rarely, if ever, shown as having the profound and highly functional knowledge of place that characterizes rural people.

But what about drawing attention to oneself? Why has that not been well looked upon? Could it be because in more traditional settings surviving and thriving is a communal affair instead of a personal quest? One head sticking out may jeopardize the idea of collectivity as well as draw very real, unwanted attention to the group. It’s important to differentiate between drawing attention to oneself and being one’s unique self. The former involves expecting and striving for rewards while the latter simply asks for acceptance. Drawing attention to oneself takes a person out of the collective.

Interestingly, modern urban, capitalist culture asks people to do precisely the opposite on both counts. In order to get ahead among the masses, we’re supposed to jump up and down loudly proclaiming our unique worth. And since we don’t have contact with primary producers, we’re supposed to trust labels, guarantees, warranties, economic forecasts and the claims of myriad snake oil merchants. Chia seeds anyone? In the mad rush of a consumer culture, there’s no time to know who and what is around you. There’s no time to develop your unique self in your unique setting beyond taking on entertainment and style likes and dislikes. Most urbanites become passive consumers rather than creators of culture.

Of course, this culture of “look at me” embedded in sameness has made inroads into rural cultures as well. However, Luanne’s tale of the Armstrong pig raising venture shows how our mistrust of authority and the machinery of consumer culture can bring rural people back to some of those values. People who slaughter pigs together, inevitably, in spite of differences, bond on a primal level. Killing is an intimate act. Every time one of the slaughter crew eats a pork chop, ham or sausage this winter, they will have a bodily, as well as mental, memory of that day at the Armstrong farm. Their psyches will conjure up the people who were there with them, the flavour of the autumn air and the tang of the land that took up the blood of their efforts. Nobody was a star, everybody had a role, everybody was required.

Though I missed the Armstrong Farm pig slaughter, I did my own bonding through swine last week. When I got my flu vaccination the natural way – one short, achy bout in bed was what the dreaded H1N1 amounted to – my land partners and I had plenty of time to visit, take each other soup and remedies, and mull over the early snowfall. I feel fortunate to live in a place where so many in my community have refused to bow to the media hysteria about the flu pandemic and the government’s promotion of the pharmaceutical industry’s profit margin. Instead, we entrusted ourselves to each other’s care and wisdom. And it was good.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

October: Community and Harvest

October was a busy month, it whizzed by in patterns of dark and light, rain and sun, cold and warmth. Today, the beauty of this place is like a shout, like a hurrah, it is so bright and astonishing. Dark royal-blue lake, gold leaves, smoky blue air,
The whole month’s events blurred and melded into one another. Partly because I have my head down now, seriously pulling the plow, teaching and trying to write.
And oddly, whenever I do get seriously into writing, the farm, the house, my life seems to disintegrate around me. I wake up to dog puke on the rug and piles of paper fluttering to the floor and dust and dying plants even though I have only been ‘gone’ a couple of hours and not really gone at all…just my mind and spirit and perhaps some form of energy that animates the farm and keeps it functioning turned away. I’ve noticed this before; how much the farm is like a live creature, a creature of spirit and energy and how, when my father finally got old and discouraged, some feeling that used to animate the farm and connect it together faded and almost disappeared. The more people and energy there are about the place, the more alive it becomes. So then I think I can either be a writer, or I can be a farmer but stubbornly and idiotically, I persist in both. And stubbornly and idiotically, it does work, most of the time. Just far more slowly than I would like.
I have been thinking this month a lot about that strange word, community, mostly because Maa Press is going to put out a book on community and I would like to write something about it. It seems odd to me that the idea or discussion of community mostly arises in times of crisis, when, indeed, people are often magnificent in their caring for one another. But it is more the day-to-day arising and dissipating of community that interests me, although it isn’t dramatic but mundane, - conversations over coffee, meetings, concern, information about someone in need or what can be done.
Or, as happens, at the farm. Some days, especially in the fall, the farm is a very busy place. Inadvertently, the government has done us an odd favour by making it illegal for us to kill our animals and sell the meat to our neighbours. This means that legally, people have to come and ‘help’ kill the animal that we have sold to them while it was alive. Most people these days have never participated in killing anything. There is always an initial yuck factor. And then they come and the pig which was alive and smiling and eating apples is soon a carcass hung up and scraped clean and emptied of guts and ready to be taken to the butchers and hung and smoked and made into bacon and ham and pork chops.
I usually stay in the house and produce coffee and cake and soup and juice. People come tramping in, wash the blood and mud off themselves, sit down, eat and drink, full of the energy produced by physically hard work done well. My hands are too crippled to scrape the pigs. I like the traditional role as long as it’s an occasional choice. But one day this month, it got a bit overwhelming; 7 or 8 people doing pigs, 4 people pressing apples for juice, a couple of young men splitting and stacking wood. I had made a banana cake but clearly that wasn’t going to be enough. And one iron-clad rule of rural life is that people who come to help, are fed.
So my lovely friend of 35 years now, Yvette, looked in the dying garden and found leeks and potatoes and made soup; I had buns and sausages in the freezer. And I found time, (while doing the prep work and marking for my UBC classes) to make cookies. We sat on the porch in the late October dusk and ate and drank and were done for the day. The conversation was about gardens and dogs and weather and the pigs and community news.

Meanwhile as I harvest and teach and write and read, the world creeps on, getting stranger and stranger. People cheer the Olympics torch while the government chops money from funding for kids and seniors and arts and libraries and heath care. In the US, the banks announce bigger and bigger bonuses for their employees while unemployment creeps up and up – more and more people go hungry world wide, scientists get increasingly urgent in their messages about global warming, the price of oil creeps up and up, and in Vancouver, the streets are choked with cars, the restaurants and malls choked with people, the Olympics are coming and if a few civil rights have to be given up and a few homeless people booted out of doorways, not many people protest.
Someone asked me the other day if I wasn’t pleased by the number of people standing on bridges on November 26 yelling about 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the air as a good number to aim at. No, I wasn’t. It’s going to take a lot more than a few people on bridges to slow down global warming. It’s going to take a lot more than a few valiant protestors standing on street corners to disrupt the corporate Olympics ‘show.’ Everyone supports the athletes and their ideas but that is far different than supporting the corporate mishmash boondoggle that the Olympics has become.

And me, I wander about the farm on mornings like this and wonder why the beauty of this world and the abundance and wonder and amazing diversity of animals and plants and clouds and weather and gold and blue October mountains isn’t enough for this world.

Monday, November 2, 2009

We're blogging!

posted by K.Linda Kivi
Welcome to the spanking new Maa Press blog. Luanne Armstrong and I will be posting weekly over the winter, sharing our thoughts on what it is to belong to place, to inhabit place and, more specifically, about the place we both call home, the Columbia Mountains of Western North America.