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.