Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Nose on Aurora's Face by K.Linda Kivi

What is it that divides humans into those who attempt to live with ecological integrity and those who don’t? A strong sense of place? A compassionate giving nature? The way we are raised (see Jan. 18 blog entry)? A culture of conservation?

This is, of course, the million dollar question. If we had an answer for this one, we could be far more effective in changing the course of environmental destruction currently underway. My time in Aurora, Ontario, has been fascinating in that I’ve been living among people who’s environmental ethic seems to begin and end with filling up many blue boxes worth of recycling a week. These boxes get put out weekly alongside piles of usable appliances, furniture, sporting gear, electronics, toilets, etc., as well as bags and bags of garbage. I really have no idea of where to begin a conversation within my neighbourhood where there seems to be no qualms about waste and consumption, be it in the form of “trash”, gas-guzzling vehicles or monster houses.

So, I’ve been following the local story of the Nokaiidaa Trail and one woman, Heidi Stoecklin’s, campaign to keep the trail from going through the local McKenzie Wetlands with curiosity. As someone from rural BC who is accustomed to large areas of wilderness, I’ve asked myself, what’s the big deal? Why is Heidi so passionate about this one little patch of swamp? And where does she get the energy and patience to attempt a conversation of this kind with clearly clueless politicians and public? Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that they are not clueless so much as holding values that have little to nothing to do with ecological or social integrity. Part of me thinks: why bother talking to these people anyway?

With that attitude, it was easy for me to dismiss the McKenzie Wetlands campaign as a waste of time. It’s just a tiny remnant of an ecosystem anyway that has been battered and fragmented beyond viability. Like some of Aurora’s residents and politicians, I asked myself what difference would a little boardwalk through a tiny wetland make, the whole area is surrounded by the suburbia of World Wreckers anyway?

The letter to the editor of the local Auroran newspaper that I finally wrote and sent, more as a tribute and encouragement to Heidi than anything else, outlines the ecological services provided by wetlands and pointed out, the obvious, that humans are part of that greater ecology. But surely these people know that? Then why don’t they live as if they understood the implications of their behaviour?

Equally puzzling, though more laudable, is what motivates Heidi to keep on attending the meetings, write letters to the editor each week that basically say: look, you have a nose on your face? And: look, how much money are you spending trying to convince your face it doesn’t have a nose? Meanwhile, the politicians seem to be unwilling to look her in the face, nose or no nose.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Heidi is a gift to Aurora. Every community needs its Heidi, someone who’s willing to take the time and put in the energy it takes, with such grace and respect, regardless of the outcome. Heidi is starting where she is. She’s starting where the people of Aurora are at. She’s starting with a microcosm of the larger ills and insisting that people listen. We can only hope that some of them will hear. One thing is certain: if she doesn’t speak up, nobody will hear. And at this point, until we figure out what the magic formula is, simple, heartfelt, insistent communication is still all we have to go on. Maybe the act of speaking to one another is what creates a common language.

Where does that leave me? Not sure. My investment in this community is small. My commitment here is to caring for my ailing parents. All my actions, prior to this letter to the editor have been small and covert. The one conversation I had with an Auroran – a very nice, smart man in my meditation group - about the state of waste in the neighbourhood was met with: oh, I haven’t noticed. And: you can’t sell used furniture any more, so we have to put it out in the garbage. Sigh. But what happens to me and my integrity when I choose not to engage, but simmer in my disgust and despair instead?

Any ideas?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

January Journal by Luanne Armstrong

January diary:

For too much of January, I felt like bad old sad old country song; lost my dawg, lost my car, lost my dear old Mom…plus it’s deep dark miserable January and it’s raining and so on and so on…and so on.
But mostly, in amongst the various griefs, I was (and am), also relieved; so hard to watch the dog get old, and older and struggle with keeping his dog dignity, running, barking, peeing and shitting outside. How do dogs understand old age anyway?
And all fall, going in to see my mom as much as I could manage, trying to be with her and watching her decline and decline. In some odd way, her death has given her back to me, my lovely, laughing, always busy Mom, who was never quite the shrunken white haired woman in the wheel chair watching the door for me to come in.
And the car is now fixed and spring will come and a whole week of family and visits and people and phone calls and organizing is over—over—over. Now can I have my nice dull writing life back, I hope. Before Christmas interfered, I was having a dull and boring life for the first time in my EVER and I liked it! Didn’t expect to and I was always only a hair away from boredom but it was all so manageable instead of chaotic. And I was getting work done, and keeping up with teaching and even having odd moments to go for a walk. Lovely! Amazing. Who knew order and lack of crazy busyness could be so liberating.
So tonight here I am again, alone, (except with a shiny new floor) rain on the roof and the deck, silence and darkness outside, only one dog snoozing on the rug, and the revisions to the new book sitting beside the computer.
It is ridiculously and unseasonably warm and I am paying no attention to the whispers from the greenhouse, the trees and plants. My brother was out pruning trees briefly today but we both know in our bones it is too early to pay any attention to the garden, even when the false and lying sun pokes out from behind the clouds with actual warmth in it. It isn’t warmth but light that triggers growth. For me, it is the smell of earth, when I am outside on a cold spring evening and I can smell the ground, a smell of cold and mold and earth and anticipation. But right now, the light is still telling me, sleep, sleep, and Sunday night, after the kids left, after the funeral was over, after the house was clean and quiet, after I emailed all my students, after a week of decisions and dinners and the jangling and jostling and banging of various people, emotions, sensibilities and ideas, I let it go, I curled under a heap of blankets back in my own bed, and slept and slept.
But then of course, the next day, and the next and the next, there are the banalities of the ordinary, bills, money (and the lack thereof), letters, emails, revisions, chores. I need a new thought, or a new project, or a new something, but as always, gotta finish off the old before the new will wander in the door.

But spring will wander in soon -- time to get those seed orders done!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Mothers, Others and the Giving Place by K.Linda Kivi

I have long been fascinated about fear, fears about the natural world in particular, since those fears very much colour our sense of place and our interactions with the natural world. Which of our terrors – be they of heights, snakes, spiders, mice, bears, falling trees, etc. – are rooted in ancient instincts and which are outgrowths of our current cultures? Obviously, our places of discomfort have been used by modern media and political interests to manipulate us but I’d assumed that the answer to my question about the root of our fears was largely unanswerable. Wrong.

My friend Karen Warkentin, professor of Biology at Boston University, gifted me with a wonderful book recently. Evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding is a compelling and informative exploration of the theory that cooperative breeding among humans has given rise to both our current morphology as well as our cultures as distinct from the other great apes. The book is chock-a-block full with fascinating comparisons between our child rearing practices and those of other primate and mammalian species as well as how the influence of multiple caregivers affects human psycho-social development. I was particularly captivated by the information on the role of grandmothers and post-menopausal women in the survival rates and development of children in a community.

Following on my observations about the fearful children of “the World Wreckers” in my previous blog entry, I was delighted to encounter a mention of how our relationships with other humans might affect our relationships to the natural world. Synthesizing the work of a group of psychologists led by Barry Hewlett, the team found that, “the way children interact with their caretakers influences their sense of belonging and shapes how they feel about the environment they live in.”

The children of traditional foragers (as well as the adults), tended to “view of their physical environment as a “giving” place occupied by others who are also liable to be well-disposed and generous.” In contrast, the children of other subsistence folk such as farmers or those of upper middle-class Americans, were more likely to be fearful of strangers and of their environment. Yet even among farmers and post-industrialites, “children who were accustomed to multiple caregivers grew up less likely to fear strangers.”

If indeed the isolation experienced by infants in the nuclear family unit has given rise to people less positively connected to their environment, how in turn does that lack of connection play out in their lives? Are they likely to behave in more destructive manners towards the environment? Are they prone to be greedier, less concerned about their impact they might have on others with whom they share the finite resources of the planet? If there is even an inkling of these behaviours being rooted in our upbringings, wouldn’t that suggest the most radical act for the future of the planet would be to ensure that children are indeed raised by a village instead of just one mother and maybe a father?

Hrdy notes somewhere else in the book that the US government earmarked $1.6 billion for educational campaigns to reinforce the nuclear family; she comments that if that sum was put into better childcare options for working families, a culture that was more caring and compassionate might begin to re-emerge. The point here is that it is no coincidence that the greed of the wealthy is running rampant, destroying life support systems for all the inhabitants of Earth. Everyone’s tax moneys are being funneled into propaganda to maintain a system in which humans might evolve away from our origins as an empathetic, interactive species. She posits that “compassion and the quest for emotional connection will fade away as surely as sight in cave-dwelling fish” And without that curiosity and empathy for others, just what will our relationship to the natural world become?

So, are you game? Ready to trade in the nuclear family and return to our origins of communal care? By letting whole villages raise our children again, we might create the pre-conditions for the survival of our species and the planet we call home. Stay tuned as I look further into Hewlett’s research. In the meanwhile, read Hrdy’s book and learn something new about what makes us human.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Time among the World Wreckers by K.L. Kivi

When I walk among them, the children of the World Wreckers in Orchard Heights do not reply to good morning greetings in the street. Against the backdrop of 4000 square foot houses, three car garage, one acre Orchard Heights properties, the ten-year-old girl and the twelve-year-old boy just behind her seem oddly afraid. The blank windows of the luxury prison homes stare silently at us all, as if in mute indifference to the children’s furtive gazes. The tinted-glass SUVs and 8-cylinder sedans squat like sinister ornaments among the ubiquitous, landscaper-groomed front yards. Except for the scurrying children in the street, the place looks sterile and uninhabited.

This was, once, a place of work and food, not a chilled hideaway for the ultra rich, but a hillside orchard, a farm habitat interspersed among woodlots, a place know for its productive soils and vibrant agricultural culture. Here once stood row upon row of trees, providing myriad varieties of apples to Torontonians just south of here. The apples now consumed in Toronto and here come from as far away as Aotearoa (New Zealand). Gone is a culture connected to soil and weather and neighbours, a life known for its ups and downs, good times and difficult ones. This place is anathema to the rural community I come from in the Kootenays.

Here, the culture of the land has been replaced by the culture of wealth, a blank-faced neighbourhood and the spawn of the good life. But why do they not say good morning, or even nod, from their place of supposed security? Is it that economic security has not amounted to a sense of security in the world for them? Or is it perhaps that when economic security is actually excessive wealth, their fear is well justified. On some level, the people who consume far more than their fair share of the Earth’s bounty must know that they are purchasing and consuming and polluting at the expense of others. They must know that their lives that are grounded in the accumulation of stuff, none of it from here, are unsustainable. How could they not?

Noted climate activist and writer George Monbiot wrote in a recent article in The Guardian that the very wealthy are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gases currently generated on the planet. He challenges the notion that population growth is the key issue in the climate change debate. “It’s time we had the guts to name the problem,” he writes, “It’s not sex; it’s money. It’s not the poor; it’s the rich.” Where those of us who have the cash to drive hybrid cars and dutifully fill our blue boxes fit into this picture is debatable but the places where 63% of the world’s population growth happens produce negligible greenhouse gases. These are the majority of the planet’s denizens who never even dream of owning a vehicle much less live in a culture where anything packaged is ever purchased.

It is the mega-rich among us who create the problems the rest of us must live with: those who head up tar sand extraction industries, who jet about in private planes or at least with private rooms, who move money in perpetual quest of the financial bottom line, who heat, air condition and provision dozens of far flung monster houses, who cruise around in yachts that consume 3,400 litres per hour and send their children to exclusive private schools.

The ten-year-old girl, blond braids bobbing against her shoulders might not know why she is afraid; even her parents might not be aware how afraid they are. Fear is part of the culture of wealth. It seeps into every decision they make. Acquiring wealth is one thing, but hanging on to it is another. They must be constantly on the look out for anyone who might envy their riches a little too much. Who knows what guise they might take! Part of the problem with cultivating a consumer culture is that people end up wanting what the rich have. That is, of course, part of the point: to create want alongside creating the illusion that wealth is possible for anyone who has the smarts to go after it. This is what is called the free market economy of the so-called democratic world. A lot of money goes into convincing the masses that this system actually functions freely and that the only reason you and I are not rich is because we’re stupid or lazy. And if we reject that whole story, we must be stupid and lazy or criminal and deluded.

The poor are afraid, but of different things. They have little need to barricade their doors, hide in gated and alarm-ridden neighbourhoods and cower in heavily guarded countries. The poor have no need to lock up their potential enemies or send armed forces against them. Mostly, the poor are too absorbed with surviving their lives to bother with the rich. And in our increasingly economically segregated communities, few of us brush up against the truly wealthy. The bastions of the world’s filthy rich are well removed from our feeble protests. Long forgotten are the slogan’s of sixties leftists like “Eat the Rich!” Monbiot asks, “So where are the movements protesting about the stinking rich destroying our living systems?” Perhaps those few of us who live among the World Wreckers, in their neighbourhoods and in the countries that provide them haven, have still too much to lose. We cuddle up to the few of the public perks that haven’t yet been eroded by privatization and parallel private services – the occasional good public school, some well-funded hospital or other public facility.

Yet, their excesses threaten to swamp us wholesale. As I turn a corner and head toward the two-car-garage, 3000-square-foot neighbourhood that cosies up against the flank of wealth, I see no signs of more consciousness. The first week I witnessed garbage day in Orchard Heights I thought it was a special, large item pick-up day. I made a mental list of what was being thrown away in this one square kilometre of suburb: three couches, three computers, two end tables, three stools, many toilets, enough plastic lawn furniture to seat a celebrity wedding, computers, a photocopier, fridges, sports gear, enough carpet to do Buckingham Palace, etc. Then, two weeks later, it happened all over again. More plastic lawn furniture – it seems people here think it’s a disposable item, like menstrual pads – more toilets, office chairs, desks, goalie nets, more carpet, always computer monitors, lamps (which look very nice in my basement with the gold-rimmed lamp shades I picked out later), tobogannes, a Bosch hammer drill, slide projector…

But no, I can’t keep listing. Some garbage days, I can barely go out, I’m so appalled by the unadulterated waste. These people don’t even donate their off-casts to charity. The children stroll past this excess every two weeks, just like I do. It is no wonder they are afraid. There is the man in the red van who is perusing for a bicycle for his son; there is the man with the pushcart who picks through their blue box for returnables; there is the middle-aged woman (me) who carts pedestal sinks and mint condition, state of the art office chairs home. These scavengers must remind the children that their families have too much, other families have less and that they waste unnecessarily. These children must know that they are watched.

What will it take to stop the World Wreckers? What will be required to topple the culture of World Wrecking? And if substantive change to the world of the wealthy ever did occur, what would become of the miles upon miles of mansions that accommodate one small family each, sometimes one small bloated person? Would the sprawling fields of the mega-estates that surround Orchard Heights with their thoroughbreds be returned to the agriculturally productive state they once knew? Will ten-year-old girls smile and reply to their neighbours when they wish her a good morning?