Tuesday, March 30, 2010

March Diary: Spring Noise by Luanne Armstrong

March Diary:

March is full of spring markers; one of my most cherished is the first swallows arriving, always so excited, dive-bombing each other, playing in aerial acrobatics. These swallows have already moved on north, the next wave will stay, build nests all over the porch, raise many babies and in the early mornings, as I drink my coffee on the deck, they will sit on the log over my head and gabble swallow talk.The frogs started early as well; now they are a brilliant chorus, not music exactly, but sound that punctuates and swells and billows through the cold spring nights.
We are early with everything this year; it was a dry warm winter and will undoubtedly be a dry and fiery summer. Already the gardens at the farm are dug and ready to be planted. Several people are gardening here this summer, which takes the burden off me and makes the work so much easier. It’s one of the paradoxes of small farming; the more people who are involved, the more work gets done, the more food can be grown, the more people can be fed. There’s a limit of course, but even a few acres of intensely cultivated land can produce an astounding amount of food.
March is always a mixed up month; storms and squalls barrel across the lake, huff and puff, blow away, the sun comes out, it’s hot, oh no, it’s cold again, it’s impossible to put on the right amount of clothes, I don’t need a fire and then I do. It’s too early to plant the garden and then, maybe it isn’t. Maybe the onions can go out—or the broccoli. Or maybe wait.
There is lots of noise in the neighbourhood this month; not just frogs, unfortunately. Last week, I went for dinner to my friends nearby who have now lived here for thirty-four years. They came in 1974, built a house in the woods up on the side of the moutain, and lived there in utter peace until a few weeks ago when the land next door to their house was bought by a man who proceeded to cut down every tree, dig up the ground so it will erode in the rain, park a whole series of ancient travel trailers on it, then he bought a generator and hooked it up to a bank of enormous arc lights that buzz and spark all night. What this man thinks he is doing; what the story is that he is telling himself about his relationship to this place is incomprehensible to the rest of us. He has announced loudly in the community that he is making an RV park with 450 sites. Well, we’ll see.
Neighbours in the country have so much more impact on each other than neighbours in the city. Each noise has a meaning, has a story, and the stories clash, compete with, and contradict each other.
So March has been noisy in many ways. April is here, Easter is next week. I have two hens setting so perhaps baby chicks will appear if the eagles, weasels, skunks, or coyotes don’t get them first.
It always amuses me somewhat that baby chickens and rabbits are symbols of Easter. Apart from their traditional meaning, in previous agriculturally-dependent times, March and April would have been the hungriest times of the year. No food in the garden yet, no fruit on the trees and most of the last year’s storage exhausted, what would there have been to eat? Unlike the abundance of Christmas, Easter is about staving-off-starvation foods, eggs, and rabbits, and perhaps, if you were really lucky, a lamb. Just as the earth is resilient under its burden of noisy human needs, so our once-upon-a-time culture as people of the earth remains resilient in our traditions and our foods.
Speaking of culture, my very favourite book this month was called “Intelligence in Nature”, by Jeremy Narby. What became really obvious to me after reading this book is that most of what people believe about the nonhuman world are ideological beliefs, based on very little knowledge or actual experience. Various fragmented parts of the science world are now re-defining what is meant by such words as intelligence, or culture, also a deeply contradictory and biased words. Do animals have culture? Do the swallows above my head in the morning, ‘talking’, what else can I call it, have culture? Do humpback whales, singing, changing their songs, changing the patterns, communicating all around the ocean have culture? Why or why not? The answer is, we don’t know. The answer is, the human meanings of such words are by definition, exclusionary and therefore only applicable to humans. We have no language for what animals do or what we see them do. We have no way to interpret or describe what they do or feel. When I say the swallows sound happy or excited, I am describing my human interpretation of what they sound like.
My friend Kuya tells me that the Buddha said the greatest human illusion is that our bodies end at our skins. I have never felt that way because my body is part of the farm, an extension of it, and every sound that happens has a meaning, not a human meaning, but a meaning that is part of the whole gestalt of existence here. Even the human neighbours tearing up their small part of the world and cutting down all the trees are part of this existence. A frustrating and occasionally, to me at least, maddening part, for sure. From my view on the deck, I get to watch not only the swallows, the eagle on the pine tree every morning, the slow emergence of buds and seeds, but the strange and often incomprehensible panoply of human ‘culture’, whatever that means, whatever it is.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Security by K.L. Kivi

What is the difference between having security and feeling secure? Or is any security nothing more than a feeling? And who do we become, how do we behave, in the face of this presence or lack of security or a feeling of security?

I was recently talking with my brother and sister-in-law about anthropologist Barry Hewlett’s work on hunter-gatherer childhoods (Hewlett et al, 200, Internal Working Models, Current Anthropology, 41:287-297), about Hewlett’s findings that forager peoples tend to have very secure sense of themselves within their environment. Unlike traditional agriculturalists, people from industrialized cultures and everyone in between, hunter-gatherers are much more likely to view their environment as a giving place, trusting that it will provide them with the essentials of living.

Hewlett calls this sense of self an “internal working model” and posits that these models are formed in early infancy based on the responsiveness of caregivers. Since forager peoples tend to hold their infants more than any other human cultural groups, he argues that their sense of security is rooted in the child rearing practices of their community. Among people like the Ake of the African rainforest, infants are held, both while awake and while sleeping, upward of 90% of the time. They are passed from hands to hands, the community taking collective responsibility for the holding of babies. Among the nearby agriculturalists he studied as well as North American families, babies were held far, far less, especially when asleep. And they were held by fewer people. Correspondingly, people from those communities had a less benign notion of the natural world. Overall, they were more fearful of the environment and other people.

My brother was challenged by the notion that security was a feeling and not an objective fact. That foragers, who do not store food but eat only what they find on a day to day basis, should feel secure. And, correspondingly, that those of us who live in abundance and the security of stored food, stored wealth and luxuries, should feel so insecure. “No, no, this is backwards,” he argued. “The foragers don’t have any security. They are not secure.”

“Why then,” I asked, “do they feel so secure and we, who have so much, do not?” And still he struggled to understand everyone’s wrong thinking.

“It doesn’t matter what they feel,” he argued, “what matters is if they are secure.”

But is does matter. If you look around us here in North America, you can see that the feeling matters as much or more than sums in the bankbook or the food in the fridge or the size of the house. In fact, this vast accumulation of stuff beyond what can be used by the possessors might be precisely the outcome of a sense of insecurity. It’s always amazed me how some of the richest people of Earth can feel so fearful of lack, whole industries forming around retirement, insurance, investment and other hoarding behaviours. As Hewlett notes, “internal working models and consequent styles of social relations can generate a diversity of cultural institutions, kinship structures, social roles and sharing patterns.”

Where am I going with this? What does this have to do with sense of place and the environment? Those are my questions precisely. How do these insecure working models of our culture play out? Is greed an outgrowth of the quest for security? If so, our desperate insecurity has a huge impact on the environment. We often wonder how we can halt, change, redirect all the ecologically damaging activities of our fellow humans. If Hewlett is right, that it’s all rooted in the simple act of being held as infants, then we should start, right now, by holding our children all the time and finding others to hold them when we cannot.

But it can’t be so simple. Holding a child. Perhaps the complexity comes into the equation when we start thinking about finding others to hold our children when we cannot. The rich are the only ones who can pay for such a service and often do, but that doesn’t seem to be enough. Could it be more about the quality with which we hold our children and that quality is something that must be cultivated instead of bought. And in the cultivation of a community of child rearing, what else do we cultivate amongst ourselves? Trust, obviously. A community of trust. And does that trust extend out, once established, beyond the cluster of people? Or is the place an integral part of that community of child rearing?

Perhaps this is the point that Hewlett misses in his research: that for foragers, the specific land where they live, is part of their known and loved world. To use a word of Luanne Armstrong’s, they have “agency” within it, ie. the ability to interact with it in a very profound way that it based on skills and knowledge that are generations deep. So the trust is not just from your own lifetime of being held and cared for but from generations of being held and being in relationship to the land. Their trust is not random, but specific, based on the community of land and people they know, and know well. And once you trust someone or some place, how do you treat it?

Hewlett’s premise turns environmental destruction and healing into a psychological issue, with a psychological answer, along the lines of “love is the answer,” and “it takes a village to raise a (healthy) child.” But does that get us anywhere even if we believe it’s true? You can’t make anyone love something. Can you even teach people to love things that they fear? Or make love more important than fear? And even if you could, how would you go about unravelling the insecurity that binds our culture to its collective fears about the natural world?

I’ve long believed that knowledge and agency are key to this question, that we must re-establish our dependent relationship to the land in order to find our way back into the community of land and people which, in turn, will foster the sense of security we so desperately yearn for. And if the process of passing our sense of community onto future generations is better grounded by holding children more, why not begin now? Given our current ecological crises, it’s an experiment worth trying.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Writing about Interbeing: Human/nonhuman Part One

Writing After Nature:
Luanne Armstrong

It would begin with the dogs howling.
“Here he comes, “ my mom would say. “It’s Wally Johnson, the dogs are howling because he smells like death.”
And sure enough, when Wally’s old green Austin pickup rattled into our yard, we would run out to meet him because the back would always have several dead animals in it. We kids would gather around, fascinated as he explained what they were and where he had caught them. Wally was a trapper and his life and his livelihood was animals, their lives and their deaths. In order to track, trap and kill animals, he had gathered a broad and expert knowledge of place, wilderness, animal habitats, animal behaviour and his own survival throughout the winter, snowshoeing from small trapper’s cabin to cabin, living on animals he trapped or shot. Wally was a man of his time and understanding; he loved birds, fish and deer. Everything else, especially predator animals, he believed should be exterminated. Even at the age of seven or eight, I knew he was wrong and I argued with him about it. And Wally, to his credit, listened carefully and gravely to my arguments and then argued back. In Grade Four, I wrote an essay titled “The Balance of Nature,” to encapsulate my arguments. So in an odd way, reaction to Wally was the beginning of my environmental understanding.
Because I grew up on a farm on the edge of wilderness, because my father was a subsistence farmer always fighting with weeds, weather, coyotes, bears, ravens hawks and owls, because my mother loved all animals, I grew up with a contradictory and conflicted view of human-nature relationships. My brothers and my sister and I spent out time when we were not in school, either working on the farm or exploring the wood and lakeshore around the farm. And because as a child I lived far more intensely in my relationships with animals than I did with people, I was never quite sure where my loyalties should, or did lie.
I am still not sure although I am sure that I am not a fan of Western Civilization or the false idea of ‘progress.’ I do think change and resilience are both factors that continue to profoundly affect human nonhuman relationships as well as writing about such relationships.
In my own Kootenay Columbia region of the world, new residents and visitors often perceive this place as a somewhat peaceful near-wilderness. But in fact much of the fish population in Kootenay Lake is artificially maintained, the main rivers all have multiple dams on them, the forests have all been logged and least once and sometimes twice, many of the animal populations are at risk, and environmentalists fight to keep giant ski resorts off the glaciers, methane drilling out of the last few undisturbed areas, private power projects off the smaller creeks. In my own wandering around, in my relationships with the dwellers that live there with me, including wasps, mosquitoes, bears, birds, frogs, dogs, pigs, horses, cows, and one demanding cat, I watch as parts of it change and parts of it stay the same.
These days, I am a part time farmer, a full time writer, and a sort of academic. I write stories and poems and I go for walks and write a lot about the thoughts and ideas that emerge while I am walking around. I also read pretty constantly books about place, or nature or animals. And if I start from walking around, from looking at what is going on with the people around me, as well as animals, both domestic and wild, birds, insects, plants, trees and the interrelationships among them, then the questions that arise connect me both to the local and the global; how we live, ethically, here and elsewhere, I am always both leaving and coming home, always both in a place of discovery and a place of familiarity. I live in a place where there is constant interaction with the non-human world and the contradictions between how both myself and other people interact with this world continue to puzzle, fascinate and confound me. And these contradictions are constantly being made sharper and more poignant both by the growing environmental crisis in the world, the resulting growth of environmental awareness, particularly in the sciences and some other sectors of humanity, and the changing nature of our relationship with the non human world. In fact, as warnings of environmental problems continue from many quarters, the stakes get higher and higher. The environmental problems, if you are paying attention, will scare you into the heebie jeebies, global warming, water scarcity, oil shortages, polluted oceans with giant floating islands of plastic…and even if many of these effects will be mitigated by environmental efforts, there is still enough there to give any conscious person, especially those of us with grandchildren, at least pause for thought.
And some consideration of the irony of it all. After all, what will be the vaunted philosophy of humanity, the loftiness of the human story and the illusion of our superiority if life on earth as we know is undone by something so powerful and mundane as the weather?
Or, as Kate Rigby, an Australian writer who has done of lot of thoughtful writing on this subject puts it:

“…the incredibly complex and diverse matrix of life into which scientists now believe modern humans evolved some forty thousand years ago currently appears to be changing in ways that cannot but seem privative. Pollution, habit loss, global warming: none of this might spell the end of life on Earth; but the tidal wave of extinction that such anthropogenic factors is now engendering surely threatens the particular oikos, the planetary community of living beings into which humanity was born, and to which we owe our evolutionary emergence. Are we then in the midst of our own endgame?” (Issue 39 - 40, September 2006 Australia Humanities Review)

Such warnings continue almost nonstop these days and in the meantime, very little changes, or seems to change, in the modern way of life. So what then is the role, or should be the role, or could be the role of writers in general, and nonfiction writers in particular, who want or choose to write about the nonhuman world?

As Rigby continues:

We are going to need the very best science and the greatest technical ingenuity that we can muster both in moving towards a post-fossil-fuel economy and in preparing ourselves for the potentially catastrophic climate change impacts that are now already inevitable. However, climate change is not just a technical problem requiring a technical ‘fix’. Both in its causes and effects it is also a socio-economic, political, cultural, and ethical problem."

And that is where the writers must, and I hope will, start to weigh in, in bigger andstronger numbers than they have done so far.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

walking the lines in February

February: 2010

This has been a strange month full of complex odd contrasts. Today, Sunday, the end of February, although the major earthquake in Chile has been the second item on the news, the first item all day has been – a hockey game. Yes, THE Olympic hockey game between the US and Canada. All month, the radio has been blaring the Olympics, day after day – I tried turning the radio off but I have been sitting and typing with CBC in the background for so many years, it is hard to work into the silence. So it goes back on but at a low buzzy level where I can barely hear it. It isn’t the Olympics that really bothers me, not the athletes, not the events even, or people having fun; somehow it’s an odd sneaky tone of triumphalism that creeps into the media; that says, see, naysayers and doommongers and liberal bleeding hearts do-gooders, the world really does belong to Coke and corporatism, so all you negative people can just shut up. And the thing that made me rejoice about the Olympics is that in some odd way, the people and the athletes took it back from the corporate spin, if only very briefly.

And today, my dear friend Mair Smith is in a hospital in Edmonton dying of thyroid cancer. She and I worked in the Alberta Status of Women together and did other feminist work ; we had long conversations about all kinds of ideas but our relationship changed somewhat after she went to Findhorn and became ‘spiritual.’ And today I sat on the porch with dear friends and had a conversation about how thin are the lines between spirituality, religion and superstition. Mair walked those lines with elegance and, yes, occasionally drove me crazy with her enthusiasm.

Yesterday, I read on some news site online about a woman who is running for governor of Texas who declared that all the government anyone needed was the right to private property, and the right to own a gun. Yes, I can occasionally see the temptation of such simplistic bizarre thinking in which you never again had to think about or consider anyone else.
And all month, I have been dealing with our beloved farm as a piece of real estate, a dichotomy that drives me really, really crazy.

But at least today was sunny. The heavy grey sky lid day after day, that sits over the lake and screens off the mountains, that seals in damp and despair, burned off by noon and I went outside, pulled my baby maple trees out the sawdust and watered them, planted some sprouting apricot pits and went for a walk.
We made a number of decisions about the farm this month, most notably, to invite a couple of our close friends to put RV’s on sites near the beach – a break with our traditional family culture of proud solitariness– but we did it because of money, because a farm endlessly needs money, needs infrastructure, needs fences, barns, pens, tractors, seeds, mowers, and so on. Needs to pay its taxes.
We also contacted a lawyer and real-estate agent and met with both of them in order to finish our subdivision, and put conditions on the sale of the lake shore lot that we must sell in order to buy out our sublings.
We met with the bank loan officer and I drafted a ‘business plan’.

This will all be an ongoing process for a while. And I hate it, loathe it, loathe the concept of land as real-estate. Want to hide from it all. My druthers would always be to leave the farm untouched and intact; to even let it go back to wilderness as much as possible. Instead, inch by inch, we are surrendering to civilization. To roads. To people. To buildings.
Everything we are doing makes sense and it’s all for the best of reasons. The people with RV’s are people who would be visiting and sharing the beach anyway. Our friends. The lot sale has to go ahead in order to save the rest of the farm. The lawyer is a good guy as is the real estate woman.
And it all makes me crazy. This land is not real-estate. It’s my home, a place I only want to protect and care for, a place that protects and cares for me. Not as real-estate, Not as private property. Not as a place that gives me rights or that I would shoot other people to defend.

Nor am I a person who should have to deal with money, real-estate, wills, taxes, contracts, or any kind of paper work,…I am a writer. Right now, I steal time to write; I steal time to work on my presentation on the new nature writing for the Banff nonfiction conference, the presentation I didn’t give last year but that is good because I have actually done a whole lot of work and research on it. I have a new YA book jumping at me, but not begun, a sequel to the last one. I am going to the coast in March to do research on the ethics of nonfiction book. I am almost done a series of essays on land issues. It all creeps along far too slowly, in among meetings and teaching and anxiety.
At night I huddle over the computer, watching BBC Mysteries, falling into them as if falling into a pool of deep water, wanting only distraction and escape.
This is a world which makes it endlessly hard to walk in balance, where contradiction lurks in every corner, where values shift and change, where the future lurks like a menacing shadow, and even a two week Olympic binge, however distracting it was, only staves off that shadow for a brief period.
How thin are the lines we balance upon. How deep and wide the contradictions.