July 31, 2014

My Struggle, Book Three: Fire

What was it about fire?

It was so alien here, it was so profoundly archaic that nothing about it could be associated with its surroundings: what was fire doing side by side with Gustavsen’s trailer? What was fire doing side by side with Anne Lene’s toy shovel? What was fire doing side by side with Kanestrøm’s sodden and faded garden furniture?

In all its various hues of yellow and red it stretched up to the sky, consuming crackling spruce twigs, melting hissing plastic, switching this way and that, in totally unpredictable patterns, as beautiful as they were unbelievable, but what were they doing here among us ordinary Norwegians on ordinary evening in the 1970s?

Another world was revealed with the fire, and departed with it again. This was the world of air and water, earth and rock, sun and stars, the world of clouds and sky, all the old things that were always there and always had been, and which, for that reason, you didn't think about. But the fire came, you saw it. And once you had seen it you couldn’t help seeing it everywhere, in all the fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, in all the factories and workshops, and in all the cars driving round the roads and in garages or outside houses in the evening, for fire burned there, too. Also cars were profoundly archaic. This immense antiquity actually resided in everything, from houses – made of brick or wood – to the water flowing through the pipes into and out of them, but since everything happens for the first time in every generation, and since this generation had broken with the previous one, this lay right at the back of our consciousness, if it was there at all, for in our heads we were not only modern 1970s people, our surroundings were also modern 1970s surroundings. And our feelings, those that swept through each and every one of us living there on these spring evenings, were modern feelings, with no other history than our own. And for those of us who were children, that meant no history. Everything was happening for the first time. We never considered the possibility that feelings were also old, perhaps not as old as water or the earth, but as old as humanity. Oh no, why would we? The feelings running through our breasts, which made us shout and scream, laugh and cry, were just part of who we were, more or less like fridges with a light that came on when the door was opened or houses with a doorbell that rang if it was pressed.

—Karl Ove Knausgård, My Struggle, Book Three (Min kamp Tredje bok [2009], translated by Don Bartlett)

July 16, 2014

The Oxen at the Intersection: Review

A Collision (or, Bill and Lou Must Die: A Real-Life Murder Mystery from the Green Mountains of Vermont), by pattrice jones (2014, Lantern Books)

This book is a page-turner. Jones is an excellent writer. She provides not only a history of the whole fiasco of the plan to kill rather than retire the oxen Bill and Lou, and the efforts to save them, but also a concise overview of the mythologies, intersections of power relationships and prejudice, and psychologies that came into play. It is both a valuable case study for social activists and a good introduction to the holistic anti-oppression perspective of eco-feminism.

Regarding the case itself, Jones seems to betray some personal rancor over what can well be seen as "hijacking" of the issue by others not directly involved (Jones' sanctuary had been approached by concerned alumni). Critiques of some of those are warranted, but they probably wouldn't have mattered if there was more direct "face-to-face" interaction, which Jones notes as perhaps the biggest shortcoming. However, she doesn't acknowledge the difficulty of direct action in this case: Poultney is rather far from everywhere as well as unfamiliar to almost all of the activists involved. And rights activists in Vermont simply do not go against the farming industry. Even the abuses revealed in late 2009 by HSUS at Bushway Packing, an "Animal Welfare Approved" slaughterhouse where organic dairy farms sent their male calves to be turned into veal, made barely a ripple. In another case in the late 2000's, a jogger in Greensboro noticed a pile of dead and dying animals on a farm, alerted authorities, and – nothing happened. As in these cases, the media, when they paid attention at all, only helped to support the "right-to-farm" viewpoint and discourage questioning of what farmers actually do to their animals.

One interesting and damning aspect of the Green Mountain College farm program is revealed in the book regarding their treatment of animals. Jones describes Princess, a cow who was given to them from someone who had bought her from an "agricultural college". It was clear that Princess had been abused (beyond the "normal" routines of animal ag), and Jones had written about her just before the Bill and Lou affair began, not knowing what college she had come from. When the campaign to save Bill and Lou began, people at the college recognized Princess and accused Jones of a concerted campaign against them. Jones also describes the visit of a couple of her colleagues during an open house at the college, where they saw a calf with so many burrs around his penis that he couldn't easily urinate. That calf was later sold, no questions asked, on Craig's List, with the stipulation that the buyer never reveal where they got it – which appears to have been a condition for saving Princess as well. As Jones points out, the head of the college farm program is a mathematician. It is an extension of his own hobby farm, with the added inexperience (and callousness) of college students. The animals seem to be neglected and abused and then disposed of, without acknowledgement, when they become too much trouble. As Jones also notes from the visit, the college garden was smaller than the one at their sanctuary. And as satellite pictures show, the college's acres of meadow are far from enough to sustain more than a very few animals (for meat, that is; used for produce, they could in fact feed quite a few humans). In other words, the farm is a sham, but worse, the animals are treated like toys for these very unserious dabblers.


Back to the problem of direct communication, as Jones makes clear, the bottom line was that the college was not at all open to discussion, even within their own walls. They were determined to prove a point, their authority, their "mastery". Closed off as they were, then, it was clearly the chaotic clamor of the social media–fired campaign to save Bill and Lou that at least saved Bill (whose actual fate, however, remains a mystery; for that matter, the actual fate of Lou also remains a mystery). And as Jones notes, it was the uncontrolled barrage of telephone calls to nearby slaughterhouses that stopped the original scheduled plan to turn both of them into hamburgers.

Jones also mentions her doubts about the effectiveness of gory photos and videos of animal abuse and suffering in the fight for animal rights. I agree. People are already desensitized and, as the "conscious carnivore" pushback shows, actually relish the fact that a life is sacrificed for their passing enjoyment. As the chef in Peter Greenaway's film "The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover" observes, people like to feel that they are eating death. Shocking pictures only serve to reinforce the very viewpoint we are attempting to change. As with the picture of the Green Mountain College student grinning maniacally in a hand-scrawled "Death to Chickens" T-shirt holding a dead rooster up by its legs, or the students screaming at protesters that even though they're "vegetarian" they were "excited" to eat Bill and Lou, the people who need to be persuaded away from harming animals are more likely to embrace the imagery, to fling it back defiantly. Disturbing pictures can be effective – if they are used effectively for specific messages and/or to specific audiences, not for indiscriminate shock value.

Anyhow, this book is a stimulating and inspiring read, an insightful analysis of the mostly failed effort to save these two lives. It is also very nicely typeset.

Last known photograph of Lou and Bill, Nov. 10, 2012.
Lou was reportedly killed before dawn of the next day.

environment, environmentalism, human rights, animal rights, vegetarianism, veganism, Vermont, ecofeminism

July 6, 2014

My Struggle, Book Two

I smiled. She smiled. Around us all was perfectly still, apart from the occasional whoosh as the wind gusted through the forest. It was good to walk here. For the first time in ages I had some peace in my soul. Even if snow lay thick on the ground everywhere and white is a bright color, the brightness didn’t dominate the terrain, because out of the snow, which so sensitively reflects the light from the sky and always gleams, however dark it is, rose tree trunks, and they were gnarled and black, and branches hung above them, also black, intertwining in an endless variety of ways. The mountainsides were black, the stumps and debris of blown-down trees were black, the rock faces were black, the forest floor was black beneath the canopy of enormous spruces.

The soft whiteness and the gaping blackness both were perfectly still, all was completely motionless, and it was impossible not to be reminded of how much of what surrounded us was dead, how little of it all was actually alive and how much space the living occupied inside us. This was why I would have loved to be able to paint, would have loved to have the talent, for it was only through painting this could be expressed. Stendhal wrote that music was the highest form of art and that all the other forms really wanted to be music. This was of course a Platonic idea, all the other art forms depict something else, music is the only one that is something in itself, it was absolutely incomparable. But I wanted to be closer to reality, by which I meant physical, concrete reality and for me the visual always came first, also when I was writing and reading, it was what was behind letters that interested me. When I was outdoors, walking, like now, what I saw gave me nothing. Snow was snow, trees were trees. It was only when I saw a picture of snow or of trees that they were endowed with meaning. Monet had an exceptional eye for light on snow, which Thaulow, perhaps technically the most gifted Norwegian painter ever, also had. It was a feast for the eyes, the closeness of the moment was so great that the value of what gave rise to it increased exponentially, an old tumbledown cabin by a river or a pier at a holiday resort suddenly became priceless, the paintings were charged with the feeling that they were here at the same time as us, in this intense here and now, and that we would soon be gone from them, but with regard to the snow, it was as if the other side of this cultivation of the moment became visible, the animation of this and its light so obviously ignored something, namely the lifelessness, the emptiness, the non-charged and the neutral, which were the first features to strike you when you entered a forest in winter, and in the picture, which was connected with perpetuity and death, the moment was unable to hold its ground. Caspar David Friedrich knew this, but this wasn’t what he painted, only his idea of it. This was the problem with all representation, of course, for no eye is uncontaminated, no gaze is blank, nothing is seen the way it is. And in this encounter the question of art’s meaning as a whole was forced to the surface. Yes, OK, so I saw the forest here, so I walked through it and thought about it. But all the meaning I extracted from it came from me, I charged it with something of mine. If it were to have any meaning beyond that, it couldn’t come from the eyes of the beholder, but through action, through something happening, that is. Trees would have to be felled, houses built, fires lit, animals hunted, not for the sake of pleasure but because my life depended on it. Then the forest would be meaningful, indeed, so meaningful that I would no longer wish to see it.

· · · · · · ·

I got to my feet and trudged down to the road, from where you could see the whole district. The fertile, moisture-green fields between the mountainsides, the wreath of deciduous trees growing beside the river, the tiny village center on the plain with its handful of shops and residential blocks. The adjacent fjord, bluish green and totally still, the mountains that towered up on the other side, the few farms, high on the slopes, with their white walls and reddish roofs, their green and yellow fields, all gleaming in the bright light from the sun that was sinking and would soon disappear in the sea far beyond. The bare mountains above the farms, dark blue, black here and there, the white peaks, the clear sky above them, where the first stars would soon appear, imperceptible initially, like the color was vaguely lightening, then they became clearer and clearer until they hung there twinkling and shining in the darkness above the world.

This was beyond our comprehension. We might believe that our world embraced everything, we might do our thing down here on the beach, drive around in our cars, phone each other and chat, visit one another, eat and drink and sit indoors imbibing the faces and opinions and the fates of those appearing on the TV screen in this strange, semi-artificial symbiosis we inhabited and lull ourselves for longer and longer, year upon year, into thinking that it was all there was, but if on the odd occasion we were to raise our gaze to this, the only possible thought was one of incomprehension and impotence, for in fact how small and trivial was the world we allowed ourselves to be lulled by? Yes, of course, the dramas we saw were magnificent, the images we internalized sublime and sometimes also apocalyptic, but be honest, slaves, what part did we play in them?


But the stars twinkle above our heads, the sun shines, the grass grows and the earth, yes, the earth, it swallows all life and eradicates all vestiges of it, spews out new life in a cascade of limbs and eyes, leaves and nails, hair and tails, cheeks and fur and guts, and swallows it up again. And what we never really comprehend, or don’t want to comprehend, is that this happens outside us, that we ourselves have no part in it, that we are only that which grows and dies, as blind as the waves in the sea are blind.

—Karl Ove Knausgård, My Struggle, Book Two (Min kamp 2 [2009], translated by Don Bartlett)

July 2, 2014

Vermont's Greenhouse Gas Emissions

According to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, in 2011, Vermont’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were approximately 8.11 million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent. This represents a return to 1990 levels.
  • 46% of those emissions were from transportation
  • 32% from residential / commercial / industrial fuel use
  • 10% from agriculture
  • 5% from electricity consumption
  • 4% from various industrial processes
  • 3% from waste in landfills
Note that electricity consumption is a very minor contributor (granted, that’s due in large part to the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon, which is closing down later this year; but it’s also due to the predominance of hydro, especially that imported from Québec). So it seems all the more stupid to wreck the state’s ridgeline ecosystems to erect strings of giant wind turbines, which at best amount to little more than merely symbolic greenwashing anyway, or to pave acres of open fields with solar panels.

Wind turbine platform and road, Lowell Mountain - photo by Steve Wright

Also see: 
How many cows is wind energy equal to?
Vermont’s Rumsfeld Strategy [bombing the wrong targets]

environment, environmentalism, Vermont