One of these days, I’ll get back to blogging here regularly. Meantime, please do subscribe to the VINE Sanctuary blog, to which I do continue to contribute regularly. I’ve got a series on veganic gardening going on over there now, inspired by the past popularity of that topic on this blog.
Oh! and, I’ve got a new book out. That’s what I said last night, some way into a long talk with an old friend. And it’s true: The Oxen at the Intersection: A Collision has just been released in both paperback and ebook editions. After I turned it in to the publisher, I kept forgetting that I had written it. And, now that it’s out, I keep forgetting to tell people about it. And that’s a shame, because the author’s portion of the proceeds go not to me but to VINE Sanctuary.
So, please do me (and the sanctuary) a favor and pick it up. If you like it, please mention it on your own blog or other social media.
What’s it about? Let’s call it a case study in calamity, in the course of which I try to demonstrate a method of thinking through the ways that social, psychological, and material (economic and ecological) forces combine to set up the situations in which animals are exploited.
How do I feel about it? We’ll see. Early reviews suggest that I succeeded in making it engaging. But only time can tell whether my aim of sparking more careful, intersectional, and situational thinking among activists will have been achieved.
Good news for chimps this week! I just wrote a long post about that over on the VINE Sanctuary blog, but instead of feeling upbeat, I feel a combination of reeling heartsickness and sober determination.
The problem—and it’s not really a problem—is these two websites:
If you visit and spend some time with them (which I hope you will do), I won’t have to explain.
But let me explain: Each of these websites lists, by name, chimpanzees who were or are now locked down in vivisection labs undergoing behavioral or biomedical experimentation. Compiled by Wesleyan University professor (and Ethics and Animals author) Lori Gruen, both sites bear witness to animal experimentation. The first profiles—in almost unendurable detail—the first one hundred chimpanzees utilized in institutionalized research in the United States. We see their names, their dates and places of birth and death, and the names and fates of their offspring. We see their photos and learn what was done to them.
The second site looks forward to the event we seem to be moving toward—the release of chimpanzees from research labs to sanctuaries. That site lists the names, where known, of what we hope will be the last one thousand chimpanzees exploited in this way. That site also lists where each of those still captive is held, with the bright spots being the stripes of green for those who already have been retired to sanctuary. For those still captive… we know where they are, we sometimes know who they are, but we do not know what anguish they may be enduring right now.
I feel… No, I don’t want to try to tell you what these websites lead me to feel. I want you to visit them and have your own feelings. Go.
I’m supposed to be blogging for VINE Sanctuary right now. Instead I find myself sitting in seething stillness, wondering what to say. Lou is dead—disappeared in the middle of the night. A man who only days ago referred to Lou and Bill’s impending slaughter as “processing” now wants us to believe him when he says that Lou was euthanized and buried in an undisclosed location.
Maybe it’s true. Maybe Lou—who was seen walking easily in a pasture only hours before—really did suffer such a drastic deterioration due to a minor leg injury that a veterinarian decreed that treatment would be useless and life too painful to bear. Maybe this deterioration really did occur in the middle of the night, when an ox would usually be lying down asleep rather than up and evidencing deterioration of a leg injury. Maybe somebody just happened to be in the barn when that happened. Maybe that somebody called a vet and maybe that vet was willing to come out in the middle of the night rather than prescribing pain medication pending a morning examination. Maybe that vet really did both recommend and implement euthanasia for humane purposes and by humane methods. And maybe somebody with a backhoe came out in the middle of the night to dig a big enough grave for a 1,000lb ox in that undisclosed location.
All of that’s not beyond the realm of the imaginable, but it’s all very unlikely. Especially the backhoe.
Because here’s something I know: Digging graves for cows takes planning. At the sanctuary, we dig a few—just in case—before the ground freezes over in the winter. Even when the weather is mild, you have to call somebody to come with the backhoe to dig the grave. They usually don’t rush right over, and I have a hard time imagining somebody willing to do the deed in the dark, when it would be awfully hard not only to dig the hole but also to accurately lower the body into it.
This is all about bodies.
Here’s what I think: This killing was planned for the dead of night and had nothing to do with Lou’s condition.
Here’s what I think: No veterinarian was involved.
Here’s what I think: Either the secret grave was dug in advance or he’s not in a grave but at a rendering plant.
Here’s what I think: They had to haul him alive—alone and possibly in pain—to the site of the grave, if indeed there is a grave.
And then they killed him how?
This is all about bodies.
Here’s what I know: While vets don’t usually come out in the middle of the night, that’s exactly when animals are trucked to slaughter.
It’s also when people tend to be disappeared. Authorities or death squads come in the middle of the night and nobody sees them again.
When governments disappear people, it’s usually with the wish that, in so doing, they can disappear dissent.
My guess is that the authorities at Green Mountain College hope to do something similar and more.
My guess is that the authorities at Green Mountain College want the controversy that has engulfed them to just go away and they think that making Lou just go away will make that happen.
But the controversy will not go away. Everybody knows, now, that Green Mountain College schools liberal arts students in a particularly callous variety of supposedly sustainable agriculture. Everybody knows, now, that Green Mountain College faculty are willing to disseminate the most ludicrous arguments in service of their simulation of sustainability. Everybody knows, now, that students and faculty at the extremely insular Green Mountain College—like the subjects in some 1970s social psychology experiment—are particularly susceptible to groupthink, conformity, and obedience to authority.
And everybody knows, now, that–all of those hamburgers?–they’re all Lou. Or Bill. They’re not just some body, they’re somebody.
Why were the authorities so reluctant to show mercy to Bill and Lou, insisting that they must be made into hamburger? Could it be that, then, they would have to ask themselves: Why show mercy only to them? Why not show mercy to all of the animals we subject to needless suffering so that we can enjoy the brief sensory pleasure of a particular flavor or texture?
If they think that, by disappearing Lou, they can disappear that question, they are even more mistaken than they were when making illogical arguments in favor of slaughter. The question will not go away. The ghost of Lou will make sure of that.
But since this really is all about bodies, we should be thinking about how to bring our own bodies more fully into struggles like this. We erred, maybe, in going along with the Green Mountain College tactic of distancing themselves from the deaths they perpetrate by means of endless rational argumentation. So much of this struggle was conducted online, in the most disembodied fashion imaginable and mostly in the realm of logic rather than emotion. What might we have done instead? That’s the question that won’t disappear for me.
Folks, if you’ve not been following the saga of Bill and Lou, please head over to the VINE Sanctuary blog to catch up and learn what you can do. In brief, these two oxen have labored for Green Mountain College for ten years, yoked to plow fields or generate electricity.
Green Mountain College cruelty--yes, that's a whip!
Lou developed a recurring injury—recurring because the college kept trying to work him as soon as it showed improvement–and can no longer handle that heavy labor. Bill won’t work with anybody else. So, the college decided that the most humane and environmentally sound way to treat these two animals–beloved school mascots who the school called members of the farm team–would be to slaughter them and use their grisly meat in hamburgers at the school cafeteria.
Some people on campus were upset by this decision and, having been steamrolled by peer pressure on campus, turned to a local animal rights group, Green Mountain Animal Defenders, who contacted VINE Sanctuary—which immediately called the college to offer the oxen a permanent retirement home free of charge. Since the decision had previously been between (1) killing them, (2) paying for their care, or (3) selling them off to an uncertain fate, this should have led to a reconsideration of the decision.
Me greeting Luna on her first day at the sanctuary... Hope I can greet Bill soon!
Instead the college refused the offer and commenced to stonewall, offering an ever-changing and often contradictory set of reasons why the animals must be killed in order to abide by the campus commitments to sustainability and animal welfare. No, you didn’t read that wrong. Sometimes, they say that killing Bill—who has no injuries—at a slaughterhouse rather than via euthanasia—would be best for him… because the transition to a sanctuary would be just too emotionally difficult. More often, they say that these animals must not be allowed to consume any more resources now that they cannot labor on behalf of humans.
Again, you can read all about it on the VINE Sanctuary blog. At this point, we’ve appealed to the college Board of Trustees, but we still need people to take action, so please do express yourself to the college—especially if you are an environmental activist or a scholar in any field. Tell the Provost and the President how such specious arguments (and such a callously cruel action) undermine the college’s academic credibility, especially in the areas of environmental ethics and animal studies—both of which they pride themselves on.
And—please—sanctuary cofounder Miriam Jones and I met in the context of disability rights activism, so this is particularly important to us: Please explicitly tell the college that killing the elderly and disabled is not an ethical way to decrease resource usage by a population. If they are truly concerned by the environmental impact of farmed animals, they should quit breeding and buying animals and join us in the quest to develop a truly sustainable agriculture that can feed the world without wrecking the planet.
Ever since I moved back to the sanctuary, I’ve been fascinated by insects. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve always appreciated them. But something about moving to a place where the insects are unfamiliar to me (and visit regularly) has heightened my awareness of the many charms of Arthropoda.
Far from the light pollution of the city, nights are dark up on Slate Mountain, as we call the part of the sanctuary also known as “up the hill.” Often, the light over the writing desk in the Airstream is the only artificial illumination in sight. Moths and other night-flyers flock to the brightness. Delicate creatures in infinite shades of green wander among the words whenever I read a book by lamplight. Giant-sized jet-black jumpers drop in and then out again, as if on the way to or from some intergalactic disco.
I haven’t been in a hurry to learn the names that people have for these creatures, not wanting to undermine the awe-inspiring mystery. Nonetheless, I did feel compelled to figure out why these caterpillars were making me itch.
Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar (photo: Brookhaven National Laboratory)
Turns out that the hairs of these caterpillars, which feed on the beech trees under which I write, dropping onto my neck regularly, can cause allergic reactions—for me, just a brief, mild itchy-prickly sensation. Why? Because these insects absorb toxic chemicals from the plants that they eat, and then secrete those chemicals through their hairs as a deterrent to those who would eat them.
All of which brings me to the original subject of this post: the heretofore unsuspected solar capabilities of western boxelder bugs. Evidently, these bugs use sunshine to synthesize chemicals that protect them from fungi. This hit the headlines (or, at least, the geek headlines) last weekend, due to the publication of a new study, the methodology of which (deep sigh) appears to have involved removing these “highly gregarious” insects to a laboratory, rather than studying them unobtrusively in situ. These beseiged bugs, whom so many people seek to exterminate, turn out to do something no other animal is known to be able to do. This is not to say they are more worthy of respect for that reason (and certainly not to say that we ought to be interfering with them in order to discover the secrets of their success in this).
Boxelder Bug (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Boxelder bugs are, however, excellent exemplars of the solar-energized biological creativity that we call life. My point is simply that, so often, we know not what we do as we try to force nature to fit our fantasies, such as the notion that boxelder bushes are good and boxelder bugs are bad. Our awe is as insufficient as our pride is excessive.
I remember one day in my garden in Ypsilanti, where I took care to let the so-called “weeds” flourish anywhere they wouldn’t menace the vegetables. I was walking around in my steel-toed boots, making some decision or another, when I suddenly became aware of myself as I must have seemed to any insects or other small animals in the vicinity: a clueless behemoth trampling everything. I often return to the instructive sensation of that moment.
Yes, I know that squirrels and some birds also plant the seeds of their favored plants. And, yes, I know that other, larger, animals sometimes inadvertently trample smaller beings. I’m not saying it was wrong for me to plant squash or walk around. I am saying that—just as the smiles or frowns of other people can encourage us to keep on recycling or turn down the radio—the reactions of other animals could, if we heeded them, offer useful guidance.
So it seems—I didn’t know that’s where I was going; that’s the joy of blogging—I am arguing, yet again, for a wider conception of community. And I notice that, yesterday, I was talking about seeing animals while today I am talking about being seen by them.
Hens sunbathing at the sanctuary shortly after escaping an egg factory
But back to the train of thought that prompted me to start writing this post. I hesitate to mention this, not want to give the mad scientists any ideas for experiments, but I wonder if birds who sunbathe for similar purposes also release chemicals energized by the sun. Chickens sunbathe to synthesize vitamin D and also to solarize harmful microbes. It can be quite a shock to see them at it, because they sprawl in contorted positions in order to expose the undersides of their wings and places where the sun doesn’t usually shine.
I use the term “mad scientist” advisedly. I read New Scientist magazine regularly, and I notice that its editors seem persistently confused about the beliefs of those of us who critique genetic engineering or wonder whether space exploration is a legitimate priority. I consider it useful to separate mad scientists from the legions of scientists who, like me, value the methodical collection of evidence to support or refute hypotheses and theories. In my view, the defining features of mad scientists are (a) hubris, and (b) over-reliance on the intellectual and practical tactic of isolation. What I mean by the latter is this: It’s certainly possible to sometimes learn something useful by studying or thinking about a variable in isolation, but the presumption that such abstracted experimentation is the sine qua non of science leads to to a stunting of the capacity to think relationally or even see the inherent limitations of methodologies that break into ecologies, often producing skewed results due to the very act of isolation.
Mad scientists release genetically engineered organisms, presuming—due to hubris—that they can do a better job than nature and that there couldn’t possibly be any negative consequences that they, with their superior minds, can’t foresee. Precisely beecause of their over-reliance on isolation, they are unlikely to foresee effects such as the deaths of monarch butterflies exposed to the pollen of GM corn. And, of course, hubris leads mad scientists to presume the right to experiment on nonhuman animals while the cognitive habit of isolation leads them to not see the inherent invalidity of results derived from experiments on organisms removed from the social and biological systems in which they normally participate.
There are non-invasive ways to learn about and from other animals. Anything that can’t be learned that way—like all of the things we could learn if we subjected non-consenting humans to medical experimentation—must remain mysteries. We can’t know everything. And that’s OK. Indeed, it might be a significant step forward for our species if we were to develop more modesty about the limits of our knowledge, thereby exercising more caution before doing things like dumping iron in the ocean in hopes of capturing carbon and therefore mitigating climate change. Deliberately altering the chemistry of an ocean? No, nothing could possibly go wrong with that plan!
I recently re-read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which is my favorite of her novels and also one of the few books that have ever provoked me to heart-pumping stomach-jumping sobbing. Since it had been some years since the last reading, I wondered if it would have the same effect. It did—even more so because of the sanctuary work that has taken up many of the intervening years.
I’ll try to divulge only as much as I need to reveal to say what I have to say, but if you’ve not read the book yet and prefer to be completely surprised by plot twists, you’ll want to skip the rest of this paragraph and go onto the next. There’s a point in the book when my favorite character bursts into the funeral for a departed relative whose tragic death has provoked her beyond the brink. She speaks quietly to each mourner in turn, claiming the departed as a member of her family, and then shouts to the heavens, so that everybody will know, “And she was loved!”
No matter that I know it’s coming, that passage always leaves me feeling sucker-punched as I gasp to contain the fists of pain battering my heart and throat. Even more so, now that I know exactly what it feels like to have the burning wish to communicate that a being was loved.
I remember when Chickweed—one of the first birds rescued by what would become the Eastern Shore Sanctuary and then VINE Sanctuary—died, I dredged the house for objects to bury with him. I wanted anybody later coming upon those chicken bones to know: This wasn’t anybody’s dinner. This was somebody’s brother. This was somebody’s friend.
Why? The intensity of the impulse suggests a primordial root. We’re social animals, so much so that we construct our identities—originally and continually—from the reflections of ourselves we see in others’ eyes. And so… something about full personhood depends—or feels like it depends—on being seen by others. (Really seen. That’s why persistent misperceptions, especially by parents and partners, can be so damaging.) And then maybe… something about goodness—or, rather, the feeling of goodness—depends on being cherished by others.
And so when someone—especially someone from a despised or denigrated group—dies, those who cherished that being want everybody to know: This wasn’t just some body; this was somebody. What makes that most clear? That s/he was loved!
This train of thought was provoked by the death of a duck called Baltimore by those of us who loved him.
Please do go now and read his obituary, which I wrote with the intent of communicating these facts: He began life in a foie gras factory, enduring unspeakable suffering. He was rescued in an act of compassion that would be considered an act of terrorism under current laws. He lived out his life at the sanctuary, where he behaved kindly to other beings. And he was loved!
“Don’t need no hateration, holleration / in this dancerie”
I don’t know about you, but there was quite a bit of speculation, imitation, derivation in my kitcherie when Mary J. Blige came out with “Family Affair” back in 2001. I definitely remember telling incoming roosters that we didn’t allow hateraters at this sanctuary, and I’m pretty sure I drove Miriam halfway around the bend by adding “-ation” to random verbs and “-ery” to terminal nouns in the midst of otherwise unremarkable conversations.
All credit to Mary J. Blige, I argued, for audacity. Considering the spectrum of wordplay from bebop to hip hop, those coinages didn’t seem especially clever at first listen. But, the heavy-handed forced rhyme and alliteration of “hateration” and “holleration”–hit hard right on the beat–did capture the ugliness of the hating and hollering Mary J. was deriding. And then the flippancy of “dancerie” (as I imagined it was spelled) did seem the perfect antidote to mean-minded stomping in the first line of the couplet.
So, you know, it was poetry.
So, imagine my delight last week when, midway through a 1974 anthology of Caribbean literature, I happened upon this poem, written by Louise Bennett to mark the 1961 withdrawal of Jamaica from the Federation of the West Indies (which led to the collapse of that federation):
Dear Departed Federation
Dear Departed Federation
Bounce you eena outa space
Hope you fine a restin place.
Is a heavy blow we gi yuh
An we know de fault noh fe yuh
For we see you operate
Over continent an state.
But de heap a boderation
In a fe we lickle nation
From de start a yuh duration
Meck we frighten an frustrate.
A no tief meck yuh departed
A no lie meck yuh departed
But a Fearful meck we Careful
How we let yuh tru we gate.
Fearful bout de big confusion
Bout de final constitution
An Jamaica contribution
All we spirit aggrivate.
An we memba self-protection
All we ears of preparation!
Quashie start to contemplate!
Beg yuh pardon Federation
Fe de sudden separation
If we sufferin’ survive
We acquaintance might revive.
Dear Departed Federation
Beg you beg dem tarra nation
Who done quarrel and unite
Pray fe po West Indies plight.
Yes! Murderation. Botheration. Both clear antecedents of “hateration” and “holleration.” Of course, I don’t know whether Mary J. Blige ever heard or read that particular poem, but she did grow up in New York City, where plenty of West Indians live, so she may well have spent time in verbal environments where the playful creation of such coinages was common.
And notice: However playful the wording, that poem is serious. As is the call for a dancefloor free of hateration. As the subject of my previous blog post also knew, existing words aren’t always adequate to the task of saying what needs to be said. Indeed, divisive violence may be built into the words we use to slice-and-dice the world into bite-sized bits. If Audre Lorde was right and “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” then we need to feel free to create the tools we need, whether these be new words or new non-verbal strategies. Like peaceful danceries.
Lesbian-feminist poet, essayist, and activist Adrienne Rich died this week at 82.
Adrienne Rich in 1987 (Photo by Neal Boenzi, New York Times)
Here’s a quote from her poem, “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children“:
I am composing on the typewriter late at night, thinking of today. How well we all spoke. A language is a map of our failures. Frederick Douglass wrote an English purer than Milton’s. People suffer highly in poverty. There are methods but we do not use them. Joan, who could not read, spoke some peasant form of French. Some of the suffering are: it is hard to tell the truth; this is America; I cannot touch you now. In America we have only the present tense. I am in danger. You are in danger. The burning of a book arouses no sensation in me. I know it hurts to burn. There are flames of napalm in Catonsville, Maryland. I know it hurts to burn. The typewriter is overheated, my mouth is burning. I cannot touch you and this is the oppressor’s language.
Since I’ve been writing too many RIPs these days, that seems to be all I have to say.
I could tell you about the time I heard the line quoted in the title of this post, read out (as it happens) at a memorial service for Simone deBeauvior and was so moved that I tracked down the person who had read it, in order to learn that the poem she had read was Rich’s 1963 “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law.” Or, I could tell you about how heartening it was for me when Adrienne Rich, whilst signing books after a speech she’d given in Ann Arbor, told me to “keep up the good work.” Or, I could dig deeper, dredging up memories of long nights—many long nights, at many different times of my life—when the words of this woman either echoed my own anguish or helped me, so many years younger than she, imagine making my own way to the place of integrity she seemed to reach in her later works.
“But I just don’t have the heart for that right now,” I was going to say. But flipping through online lists of her books (all of mine, alas, are boxed in cardboard at the moment so I cannot flip through the books themselves), I came upon the first line of one of my favorite of her poems, which she wrote at 49 (I am now 50):
A wild patience has taken me this far
And, you know what? That’s true. And useful to remember. So, let me close by thanking Adrienne Rich for reminding me of that, and for all of the poems and essays that remain (despite her death):
Not sure which poems those last two quotes are from? Go searching. Find the words.
Big news, folks. Dunno why it’s taken me so long to announce this, but I am moving back to the sanctuary, where I’ll be living in a 1973 Airstream trailer, sharing my front yard with cows and chickens in the part of the mountainous sanctuary property we call “up the hill.”
My new home
As regular SuperWeed readers know, I co-founded VINE Sanctuary (originally Eastern Shore Sanctuary) with Miriam Jones in rural Maryland back in 2000. We both lived on site for the first several years. Then I managed operations on site while Miriam lived elsewhere (visiting frequently) for a couple of years. That experience—solo sanctuary work in rural isolation—really wore me out, so I’ve taken a break from direct animal care for a couple of years while Miriam has more-than-ably not only managed but significantly expanded the sanctuary following its relocation to rural Vermont. (She’ll still be running the show. I’ll just be pitching in with sanctuary chores while getting back to the steady schedule of writing and speaking that I used to maintain.)
Speaking of writing, I’m just now finishing what ought to be the penultimate round of revisions on the book about the sanctuary’s first decade (and so much more—it’s about birds and people, race and place, and the ecology of violence). I started keeping notes for that book shortly after we took in the first chicken, becuase it was already clear to me that other people both wanted and needed to hear the stories I was living and observing out in the chicken yards. I had a go at writing the book in 2005, but that draft was a disaster, partly because I was still in the midst of of its narrative and partly because I didn’t yet have the skills I needed to tell the tale adequately. So, I wrote Aftershock and then set about developing my creative non-fiction skills while continuing to live the story. The next big push to write the book started in 2009, as the sanctuary’s decade on the Delmarva came to a close, providing a natural endpoint for the narrative. Three years and heaven-knows-how-many rebuilds, rewrites, and remixes later, it’s really ready. Next step: Pitching to publishers, so wish me luck on that.
I’m excited about that and about the move, but I also have mixed feelings. While it will be very good for me to get back to the sanctuary and to pick up some of the work set aside whilst making my living by teaching, I’m going to miss teaching at MCTC and Metrostate here in the Twin Cities more than I can say. And there are people (and places) I’ll miss too. So, don’t be surprised to see some “what I’ll miss about Minneapolis” posts in the next couple of months. But do feel free to cheer me on as I prepare to segue to the next stage in my life.
Cyclepedia: A Century of Iconic Bicycle Design by Michael Embacher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The trajectory of my responses to this book: (1) Excitement, (2) mild disappointment, (3) growing admiration with every page turn which (4) canceled out any disappointment, all adding up to (5) five enthusiastic stars.
(1) Excitement upon discovering the book: Wow! I can’t wait to look at pretty pictures of well-designed bicycles.
(2) Mild disappointment upon initial browsing: Whoa! Many of these bikes are not much to look at and an awful lot of them are folding bikes, which aren’t particularly interesting to me.
(3) Admiration as I begin to read, growing with every page turn: The perfect blend of sharp pictures and clear text illuminates why each bike was chosen. Many bikes that seem bland at first glance prove, upon closer inspection by a now better-informed eye, to be subtly elegant paragons of good design. Meanwhile, as the pages pile up, the reader is learning–in easy, bite-sized steps–more than she knew before about the thousand-and-one questions involved in bike engineering and manufacturing.
(4) All disappointment vanishes as this leads to renewed appreciation for every bicycle, and numerous near-crashes as the reader turns her head (while riding her own bicycle) to look more closely at bikes passing by. Back at home on the couch, the pages of her notebook fill with scribbles and doodles inspired by the facts and images in this extraordinary book.
(5) Five stars: The book itself is well-designed, with just the right blend of text and photos for a book of this kind. Apart from the sheer physical joy of looking at (and imagining riding) these bikes, the close reader will be rewarded with information and inspiration.
In sum: This book is right on time. As the planet warms, we need more people to be inspired not only to ride but also to tweak and redesign bikes of all kinds.
View all my reviews