Sunday, July 4, 2010

(Be)heading West, or Mass (media) Murder...

It was another beautiful, sunny morning in the mountains. Oh, sure, I was surrounded by death, but that didn’t seem bother me, or anyone else, for that matter. In Valemount, the mountain pine beetle had swept through the lodgepole stands and made devastatingly quick work of the trees, leaving little but riddled boles, reddening needles, and little piles of frass all around. In addition to the insect, the area was infested, almost stem for stem, with dwarf mistletoe, a parasitic plant that weakened or killed almost all of the trees that survived the onslaught of coleopterans. I stared out the window of the hotel restaurant into the increasingly thinning stands as I nibbled on my toast, appreciating the colourful beauty of the quasi-natural destruction, oblivious to the much more interesting death afoot.

Turning my attention back inside, my eyes were seized by a television, one of many waiting to draw my focus from the real world around me. Despite the fact that I was in British Columbia, the dial was tuned to CNN, a fact of some significance, but little surprise when over a third of broadcasts come from south of the border. What was interesting, however, was the origin, and the content of the news that was being reported. The images on the screen showed road flares, and the flashing lights of RCMP cars somewhere along the #1 in Manitoba. Overdubbed was the voice of a representative of Greyhound Transportation in Dallas, Texas, commenting on the stabbing, beheading, and cannibalization of Tim McLean by Vince Weiguang Li near Portage la Prairie. Something terrible had occurred.

And I will admit that I too was taken in by the story. But it wasn’t a visceral kind of response. I wasn’t disgusted by the crime, or afraid that it might happen to me. I was fascinated. We hear about murders all the time, but this was something different. This was a true statistical anomaly. The perpetrator and victim were unknown to one another, drugs were not involved, there were no financial motivators, and it was not a serial occurrence. This was beyond a one in a million event. This was interesting. I stepped closer to get a better listen.

As I stood in front of the television, a server joined me in staring at the screen. “The world’s going to hell in a handbasket…” she said.

I turn to her. “Well, the murder rate is the lowest it’s been since the seventies…”

“Well I don’t believe it,” she replied, then she turned away, and went back to her duties.

This experience made me smirk. I could only smirk. It was the one thing I could do ease the thought that there were many just like her. People who are afraid, for all the wrong reasons.

Unfortunately, such myopia is not isolated. Stephen Harper, just a few months before, made a speech extolling the efforts and accomplishment of his government, not the least of which was the Conservative’s ‘get tough on crime’ direction.

“Some try to pacify Canadians with statistics.” He spoke.

“Your personal experiences and impressions are wrong, they say; crime is really not a problem. These apologists remind me of the scene from the Wizard of Oz when the wizard says, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”’

"But Canadians can see behind the curtain. They know there’s a problem.”1

You said it, Steve.

Unfortunately, as much as it may be in the interests of Harper’s government to convince people that crime is a problem, people’s gut feelings are about as accurate at determining crime levels as they are at, say, predicting the weather: not very.

The fact of the matter is that homicides in Canada have been mostly declining since the peak of nearly 3 per 100 000 in 19762 (curiously enough, also the year the death penalty was abolished). Other violent crime and property crime continued to climb in Canada until 1991, at which point they began to decline, as they have done largely continuously since then. In the United States, despite overall crime rates of all kinds being higher, the upward and downward trends were similar (despite homicide declines not being quite as pronounced)3,4.

Now, this could easily become an entry about the whether or not Harper’s proposed longer sentences would reduce crime, but that is not the goal. It will suffice to say that there very little evidence that longer sentences reduce crime, and that which does carries significant caveats. However, despite the lack of conclusive evidence and Canadians’ oft-perceived moral superiority over the American justice system, the majority are in favour of similar mandatory minimum sentences, longer incarcerations, and capital punishment.5 What may not be considered, though, is that longer sentences will cost a lot of money to the taxpayer, since you could give each convict two decent full time jobs for the cost of incarcerating him or her. Moving on…

What I’m interested in, instead, is the perception of crime, and its effect on the social psyche. Because as my waitress exemplified and Stephen Harper pointed out, there is a disconnect between what is happening in people’s heads, and what is actually happening outside, in the real world, vis-à-vis crime.

A report by the Department of Justice published this year dissects the perception of crime among Canadians, and its relation to the media and the actual crime rates. Not a page into the report is found this: “Canadians reject the notion that the media play an influential role in determining their attitudes towards crime.”

I admire the Canadian public and their resoluteness on not being swayed by the potential bias of the media. Unfortunately Canadians are either not being honest, or, more likely, they are not as critical as they consider themselves to be. Because immediately following that statement is this: “The public is of the opinion that increases in violent crime, youth crime and crimes in general are real and not simply a result of media coverage.”6

Now, I could understand the confusion if even one of these crime categories had notably increased, but as discussed, violent crime and overall crime have been on the decline. Perhaps, as the public suggests, the ‘youth of today’ are just more criminal than they were back in the good old days. Unfortunately for the public (but fortunately for the Public), youth crime is also on the decline, with incidents down 25% from their peak in, you guessed it, 1991.7

Now there is much speculation about why the crime rate peaked in 1991, and has been dropping since, and again, in-depth discussion is beyond the scope of this writ. Some say it is due to the economic growth in the nineties (despite a recession, and constantly increasing wealth inequality). Others attribute the changes to the toughening of gun laws (although less than 4% of crimes involve guns in Canada), and some even attribute the decline to the legalization of abortion decades prior (read Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics). But regardless of what the causes of lower crime rates may be, the decline still isn’t making it into the collective consciousness.

Interestingly enough, the most factual of the crime reporting (that done by peer-reviewed academic researchers and Statistics Canada) is not seen as the most credible. The sources considered the most believable by the public are chiefs of police and victim’s groups, notably those who stand to benefit the most from an overestimation of crime levels in terms of funding and/or agenda setting.

Of course the media play a role, and if the journalistic adage “if it bleeds is leads” applies, then crime will almost certainly be overrepresented. In Canada, the overall crime rate sits near 7 500 incidents per 100 000 people annually. If we consider the ratio of incidents per capita to equate roughly to the number of stories, only 7.5% would be about crime, less than 1% about violent crime, and less than 2/1000ths of a percent about murder.8 If the media were to accurately portray this, based on an average 16 stories per newscast (~1.4 minutes each), two newscasts per day, 365 days a year, assuming no repeated coverage, it would result in: 1 226 minutes of reporting about crime in general, and of these, 155 minutes would be about violent crime, and only 20 seconds would pertain to murder each year. By contrast, an average of 21% of TV news coverage is about crime, or an equivalent of 3 434 minutes, and most of this (16 of 21%) is regarding murder (an approximate 2 616 minutes worth).

Another noteworthy trend is that the number of murder stories began to increase sharply right around the time actual homicide rates started to drop. By the mid-1990s, the average number of stories about homicide had more than doubled, while the murder rate had gone down almost 20%.9 And as the homicide rate continued to fall during the 00s, reporting stayed largely the same, leaving a massive gap between what was shown to be occurring by the media, and what was actually happening outside.

One of the most critical details in all this homicide reporting is the kind of murder stories that are being run. According to the CBC’s self-published report On Balance, roughly half of suspects in its murder stories were unknown to the victim.10 Like the story of Tim McLean and Vince Weiguang Li, this is anomalous. In Canada, an average of 83% of murderers are known to their victims, almost half being friends or acquaintances, a third being family, and the remaining 18%, strangers.11 This is tremendously significant, because not only is murder overrepresented in reporting by a factor of almost eight thousand, but it is over-reporting random murders by a factor of over twenty thousand! No wonder the world seems like such a scary place.

Now of course there are policy implications for this, but what I really want to get at is the effect it has on the way people interact. Now, most of us have never been the victim or perpetrator of a murder, or even a violent crime, so our understanding of these topics is bound to be a bit fuzzy (mine included). But the skewed media coverage of murders (and crime in general) is bound to have an impact on how we interpret the safety of our society (and we have already established that is has). If people feel that they might be the victim of a crime perpetrated by a stranger, in all likelihood, they will be less trusting of strangers. If people are more skeptical, they are less likely to be kind. And less kindness is returned, in kind. And thus begins a vicious circle, leading to a mistrustful and unkind society. But perhaps I exaggerate.

However, a recent study was released regarding the empathy levels of college students in America (a nation which, despite higher crime reporting overall, follows similar reporting trends as Canada).12 The report found that the level of empathy in this demographic was the lowest it had been in three decades, down by 40%, based on responses to statements like: "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective" and "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me."13

The causes of such a drop are, at best, speculation, but the researchers postulate an increase in media consumption, and the advent of social networking media creating a disconnect with real people. As for the latter, I can’t say I necessarily agree, since other studies have shown that users of sites such as Facebook actually have better developed social skills than non-users (although whether ‘social skills’ and empathy correlate is another question altogether). As for increased media consumption, well to me, that seems downright likely.

Today’s college students are likely to be 20ish years old. If you look at the dramatic increase in crime reporting (which started around 1993) that would be just around the time these children would have started watching television. This means that all the television news reporting of crime during this cohort’s lifetime would have been at the (massively) elevated level. It is probable that this would create a higher level of stranger anxiety compared to previous generations. And numerous studies have shown that when people dwell in a state of fear (even if diffuse), they are less likely to act with empathy.14

Now, just because the media over-report crime, it of course doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is going to be mean to one another, or that society will collapse. But I think it’s reasonable to assume that fear-mongering and fear are related, and that those who are concerned first and foremost with their own well-being are less likely to be concerned about others.

Clive Barnes once said, “Television is the first truly democratic culture - the first culture available to everybody and entirely governed by what the people want. The most terrifying thing is what people do want.” In the case of crime news, our own fascination with suffering and death has resulted in getting us more of what we want: material to feed that fascination, which in turn makes us more fearful, and less happy about the world we live in, even if things are, in fact, getting better.

And I am certainly no better than anyone else. Because while many in the quiet town of Valemount sipped away at their coffee, and drizzled blueberry syrup on their flapjacks, there I was, 7 AM, watching the gruesome denouement of Vince Weiguang Li’s horrific act. Fascinated by what electrochemical switches had misfired to make an otherwise normal man cut another’s head off.

But I can say with confidence that I am not afraid. I acknowledge that the murder was a one-off, a freak of chance, a statistical anomaly. I have little fear that when I board for another bus ride, I will become the next Tim McLean, and I have ridden the Greyhound with impunity several times since then, and slept like a baby (meaning I awakened in discomfort every few hours, in true Greyhound style). No, if I have a fear, it is not of murder or its attempt, violent crime or property damage. My fear instead comes from the perfectly level-headed and law-abiding, who in their proclaimed independence from influence, clamour for the expense of harsher sentencing, when social programs for the most vulnerable (and most prone to offend) are underfunded because we just can’t give a damn, anymore.
















14 Preston, Stephanie D., and Frans B. M. de Waal. Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases. Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2002) 25, 1–72.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Black fly jams; or, Animal Preserves...

"How are the bugs this year?" I asked the faceless man on the other end of the phone.

"All you can eat," he responded with a chuckle.

I laughed too. I knew what he was talking about. Even then, I knew what I was getting myself into. There can be no exaggeration. Way up north, in the wilds of Manitoba, the bugs are quite simply Hell.

When one is preparing to displace from a waterless, sun-baked climate to the treed muskeg of the northern boreal, there must be more than a simple nod to the fact that the insects will be worse. In truth, there can be no possible comparison. If you wish to subsist in the land of black spruce, you have to understand, and be okay with the fact that you will be eaten alive by bugs that don't simply show disregard for your suffering, but take pleasure in every drop blood they coax from your skin.

Studies have been carried out showing that the large ungulates of the north: the caribou, moose, elk, and deer, can incrementally lose the equivalent of half of their total blood volume from parasites in a month. Mind you, these animals are somewhat larger that we are, but even if you scale it down, it would be akin to a human being robbed of nearly 100 mL of that essential fluid per day. In the early spring and late summer, it often reaches points where these grazers will be driven mad by mosquitos and black flies, and gallop aimlessly through the forest, bouncing like pinballs off the trees they are too small the demolish, often running headlong into highway traffic in pursuit of a moment's respite from the incessant torment. Even when the bog has frozen over, and the buzzing has been silenced by the winter chill, the battle is far from over. Ticks, arguably the most gruesome of the bloodsuckers, will hold fast to the warm mammalian skin, sheltered from the cold by a thick layer of fur, feeding and swelling to store ever more nutrients and energy. The host will of course do its utmost to shed the parasite, but this too has its risks. Many of the great beasts of the forest will meet a frigid death, hypothermia brought on by the loss of fur from endless scratching.

Mind you, we humans have certain advantages. Our simian design allows for an incredible range of motion, allowing us to swat and smack in nearly all directions. Failing that, we can add additional layers of 'fur', ones impermeable to insect attack. The only weakness to this measure being that black flies get underneath loose clothing, and mosquitos through the tight, and if you apply both, the heat of the summer sun will make you almost as uncomfortable as the bugs would. There are other options, though. DEET, a synthetic toluamide, has been scientifically proven to prevent arthropod bites. It also is readily uptaken through the skin, where it is rapidly distributed though the lymphatic system to glands throughout the body. It has been associated with mild to moderate toxicities (individually variant), and there is some evidence pointing to carcinogenic tendencies from long term use. It also smells bad, tastes worse, numbs sensitive tissues and melts plastics. There exist botanical repellants, but they don't work at all. Bug netting is quite effective, but unfortunately won't last a day amid the clawing limbs of a thrifty spruce stand. Of course, there's always the option of staying inside, but that somewhat defeats the purpose of going out into the forest to work. In short, there is no solution. You are going to be eaten. But then, I suppose that's the way it goes. Eat or be eaten. Or, in this case, eat and be eaten. Thus is nature.

There is an interesting dichotomy that I've noticed. Those who spend most of their time in urban centres are likely to refer to time in the forest as 'being in nature' , while those in rural areas overwhelmingly call it 'going to the bush'. I think this is telling. There is a certain romance in being out in nature, and conversely, a sense of burden attached to heading to the bush. Certainly, there is component of exposure to this: there is no challenge in romanticizing that which is seen rarely. From a park campsite on a long weekend, it is easy to see nature as essentially life-giving, benevolent, and beautiful. But that is only one side of the equation. The rest of the place, and the rest of the time, nature churns on in a manner completely indifferent to us. The sun bakes, the rain soaks, the frost chills, the bugs pester, and the predators devour. It is only by our ingenuity and ceaseless effort that we avoid falling victim to these dangers. And even the ingenious and tireless sometimes fail.

But our ingenuity seems to have gotten ahead of these days, and for the most part, it's not us that need to be protected from nature. Perhaps, for the first time in the history of the planet, it is the other way around. At least that is the notion behind the modern environmental movement. That our abilities and desires have overshot our needs, and that this is causing us to destroy nature, and we should therefore take action to prevent this. Seems reasonable to me. However, not everyone sees it this way, and environmentalists have been castigated for a number of reasons, although typically not for their fundamental belief: that nature should be protected. After all, who could hate nature?

Well, George Carlin took issue with this principle. He didn't hate nature, but he stated that environmentalists represented the lowest of the unenlightened self-interested, since their desire to protect nature existed only to maintain a clean habitat for themselves. Now, the rant is funny as hell, but I don't think George quite hit the nail on this one. To be quite honest, if the environmental movement was so pragmatic, I would probably be much more involved. But I don't think we need environmentalists to look after the human habitat on earth. I believe that as a species, despite our shortcomings, we are far too intelligent to make the planet uninhabitable for ourselves. We might destroy nature, as it were, but we won't kill the planet. Will we net every last wild fish, convert every square metre of arable land to monoculture, and manage every forest as a tree farm? Absolutely. Will we poison every catchment, render our air unbreathable, and blare Fergie 24-7? Obviously not. We'll leave that for the developing world.

I think the reality of the environmental movement is a little more abstract. Environmentalists aren't in it to simply protect their own habitat (although that would certainly be a byproduct of their goals). No, the environmental movement is about protecting an idea. The idea of nature.

How can one be certain that environmentalists are fighting for the idea of nature? It's quite simple. Nature doesn't exist outside of human conception. We invented it. It's true, I swear. Before humans, there was no nature at all. Oh, sure there were furry things, and slimy things, and feathery things, and leafy things. But nature hadn't been invented yet. There was just a planet with billions of organisms all respiring, some photosythesizing, all of them eating and some being eaten. Those that procreated survived genetically, and those that starved before maturity didn't. And there was swimming and walking and flying and hanging out in trees, and it all sounds a lot like nature but it wasn't. It simply was.

And for a long time our great-great-great...-grandparents were part of this 'great was' until, after sufficient selective pressure and massive consumption of animal protein, all of a sudden a lightbulb went on over the wrinkly brain contained in someone's head, and there was a recognition that we were humans, and that we were something different. Something special. And the rest of that 'great was' was something else. It was special alright. But we were more special. And thus nature was born, as those furry things, and slimy things, and leafy things, et c., which existed outside of us.

There are some who argue that we diverged from nature when we ceased to be hunter-gatherers, or later, when we started burning coal. Some tribal cultures even claim to have had no distinction between themselves and nature, but this is not true in a rational sense. There may have been an understanding that humans were a product of nature, and that they had to interact with the natural world, but there was still a clear hierarchy that placed humans at the top. Otherwise the culture would have rapidly died out for lack of food. To eat is to kill. To kill is to establish separation and hierarchy. If a human kills another animal, and shares it with another human, then there is a recognition that the humans are more valuable than the animal. Otherwise, why should the animal die, and the humans live? There may have been an element of respect, but respect is not equality. If humans were to survive, it was to be at the expense of nature.

But now we rest so dizzyingly high above nature that we threaten to wipe it all out. Or so we assume. But a big part of the problem is that we haven't defined what it really is we're trying to save. Because 'nature' in the vernacular, is a suitcase word: it carries all kinds of baggage. If the goal is to maintain untouched wilderness from human intrusion, we've already failed. You can fly to the most remote swamp in the most undesirable bush in one of the least populated places on earth, and when you hit dry ground you'll find a steel can rusting on the forest floor. Or perhaps it's animal habitat we want to protect, so we establish more provincial parks. But any kind of boundary we lay down will invariably contradict the organic character of the land. The overlapping patchwork of habitat types means that if you cover all the moose, you cut out half the caribou, or something of the like. Or maybe we want to just leave things as they are now. But is it really best to leave nature to its own devices? If we don't suppress fire, then hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest will surely burn. Sure, it's natural. But dead is dead. Does it matter what the agent was? Would it have been better to at least make some jobs out of the lumber before it went up in smoke?

I'm certainly not saying that nature isn't worth being protected. But when I get into a helicopter in the morning and lift up over the boreal, all I can see in every direction is an endless expanse of poplar, Jack pine, and black spruce, spreading out across the land, flat as a pancake, disturbed only by pockets of deep blue water, I think, "this is infinite, and those who care about it don't know, and those who know don't care". And I wonder if those who are are trying to protect the 5% of this forest that might ever get cut have any idea how generally unproductive, expansive, and invariant it is. Or if they understand that this forest will be wiped out once a century, whether we touch it or not. Or if they realize that their concept of this forest is just an idea. The idea of nature that they aim to protect. Protect because it has 'implicit value', an implicit value that, oddly enough, only humans seem to attribute and recognize (or discount, at their leisure).

In forest management, there is heavy emphasis placed of maintaining the 'triple bottom line' of social, environmental, and economic value. From the moment I first heard this term, I knew it to be ridiculous. Really, there is only one bottom line. And no, it's not economic. It's social. After all, economic and environmental values are both social values. We're certainly not paying the earth for what we're taking, and the fish don't get angry at us for silting the stream. What forest managers (and politicians) are concerned about is keeping people happy, whether it's by making jobs, hiking trails, or wildlife preserves. And even if wildlife preserves may often be ineffective at actually preserving wildlife (a failure to respect environmental values), at least it gives people the idea that something is being done, thereby conforming to our social values. And since environmental values are just a kind of social value, everybody wins. Except the poor caribou, of course, but we're oblivious to his suffering, so we can't be held responsible.

And as I float some two hundred metres above the treetops on my way to the bush, chance should have it today that I see a woodland caribou labouring his way through the muskeg. This is noteworthy, as my two months here have yielded the sight of only three ungulates, even from above. We're somewhere near the Grass River Provincial Park, and I wonder if my antlered friend is in the safe zone, or if he has wandered beyond the imaginary line, and runs the risk of being picked off by a keen-sighted sportsman. As the animal shrinks to nothing in the distance, it ceases to be real to me, and becomes just a memory, an idea of the wildness it represents. But I still feel a sense of empathy for it, a hope that, for some reason I can't explain, the caribou will survive, and prosper, and procreate, and get all those things in life that caribou need to be happy. It's silly, I know, but despite the irrationality I still feel this way.

The chopper sets me down in my own patch of muskeg, and in a whirl of grass and seeds and dew, the machine is gone, and I'm left alone there. Alone as the caribou in this never-ending bush that stretches for literally thousands of kilometres in every direction. It's calm at first, but as the sun rises, so too does the mercury, and it doesn't take long before I'm wading my way not only through the bog, but also through a sea of black flies. The swarm is so thick that I can barely see. They're in my eyes, in my ears, in my mouth. Sometimes they bite, but mostly they just crawl around, which is almost worse, since they're not stationary enough to smack, and when I let down my guard they go in for a drink. I take off my hard hat and swat at them, and the cloud disperses a moment, but in a few seconds reforms to its original strength. There is really no winning this war, so I resign myself to that fact, do my best to ignore them, and pray for the wind to pick up, an idle prayer in densely treed forest like this.

And I think about my friend the caribou, who has it even worse than I do, what with his planar limbs and tiny tail, and no pick-up coming at the end of the day. And even if he does survive the insects, and the cold, and the predators, he still runs the real risk of being shot when he migrates in search of food. It's not an easy life, out there in nature. There's danger at every turn. God the Father may love all of creation, but Mother Nature frankly doesn't give a damn.

But even if the caribou ends up staring down the barrel of a .303 on the edge of the park boundary, does it mean that our efforts to protect him were in vain? I mean, it was a nice idea, right? We did do our best to maintain a nice little piece of nature for him, within reason. And after all, it's not actually a caribou, but an idea we were trying to protect, so in a real sense, isn't it the thought that counts? If it's just the idea of nature, the idea of doing the right thing that lets us sleep at night, haven't we succeeded formidably? I mean, I'd like to think that there's more to it than that, but I can't in all honesty say that there is. There could be a a spark and a hot dry wind just waiting to take out thousands of caribou, and none of our efforts would have mattered anyway.

Then there's the romantic in me. There's that part that wants to believe that my actions count, and that there are beautiful and incomprehensible qualities worth protecting. That there are things that have implicit value, and that in my quiet moments, I can feel this in a way I can't rationalize, and there there's a sense of completeness: warmth and sadness, conflict and peace, clarity and confusion all rolled together, and I feel alive, and I become acutely aware of the blood pumping through my veins, and the lively electrical impulses firing throughout my brain. And everything seems to make sense despite the underlying confusion. In these moments I think that even if, in our drive to preserve nature, we neglected the caribou, and he's left with a bullet in his lungs, it was still worth it. Because in our goal to protect something worthwhile, whether it be tangible and in front of us, or an idea a thousand kilometres away, we shouldn't think about how we failed, or what we've lost. We should focus on how we succeeded, and how we can continue to succeed, and keep some of that beautiful nature out there, silent and unknown, so we can feel better about ourselves, and know that regardless of the outcome, we've done something right. So that maybe our children can experience this nature, and feel this well-being too, even if it is all just an idea, somehow.

Because even if we couldn't save our caribou from a cruel death by hemorrhaging and shock ... at least he doesn't have to deal with the black flies.


-Neil A.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Lines you amend; or, Johnny get your gun...

"So you're a gun lover, then?" he asked.

"Well, I wouldn't say that," I replied.

Gun lover? Even innuendo aside, the thought was a strange one. Gun lover? Gun lover? There was no way I could cosign that. Really, what's it supposed to mean? That cuddling cold blue steel in bed at night makes me feel complete? Or perhaps that I should be proud of a twelve gauge for its performance on a test? I mean, really, what is there to love? Steel, plastic, and wood? Ingenious engineering? The power to kill? Or perhaps phrased more palatably, the ability to defend?

"Appreciator, perhaps. Let's just say that I don't think that a place where only the State is armed is the safest one," I rhetorically spouted.

The ageing ex-marine replied, "I hear ya, buddy," and slapped me jovially on the back, his hand resting there a moment longer.

It was strange. In any other setting, there is little chance this man, or any of the other 3000+ (almost exclusively) men in this warehouse would have had any reason to talk to me. But here, at the Crossroads of the West Gun Show, it's like I've become part of some bizarre club, where the only requirements are to be white, male, and possessing an interest in (if not the physical substance of) firearms.

But it's more than just an interest in firearms here. An American gun show is an event, first and foremost, about values. This is an event driven by, and reinforcing of a distinct set of values, a unique culture. A culture wrapped in independence; a culture wrapped in pioneer spirit, in family, in strength and security, in revolution, in life, and liberty and the red, white and blue. And as with any coin, there is, of course, a less marketable, but still palpable flipside: a culture of violence; one of reactionism, misogyny, homophobia, racism, insecurity, and, staring down the barrel, death.

Of course, any reasonable gun owner (and there are many of them), would disavow the latter characteristics of this culture. And in their hearts, they may believe what they say. But when the elected leader of the National Rifle Association, the voice of the gun lobby, and one of the most powerful interest groups in the United States, comes out publicly against gays in the military to thunderous applause at an NRA convention, it becomes difficult to separate the two issues, whether you personally agree with his statement or not.

It is often suggested that the essentially masculine gun culture is related to its constituents’ insecurity about the calibre of their members. And I’ll grant that, for some, this may play a role. But to say that the American infatuation with firearms is a mere matter of penis size is, I think, an oversimplification of the issue. I've met many gun owners completely at ease with themselves who are vocal advocates of their 2nd Amendment right. Of course, we weren’t so intimate that I might ask to them to pull down their pants, so I can never know for sure, but I think there’s a lot more to it than simple penile insecurity.

Of course there are those who say, “just look at the shape of a gun. It’s clearly a penis extender!” Well, granted, there is that one scene in Full Metal Jacket where the recruits alternately hold their M-14s, then their packages, referring to the former as their rifle, and the latter as their gun, but I don’t think that a gun really equals a penis. Yes there is a similarity of shape, but the same could be said about a great many things. Like a garden hose nozzle, a caulking dispenser, a painting attachment for an air compressor, or a blow dryer. These things, and many others, have roughly the same form because their function is similar. They are compact projectile tools designed to be operated manually. And a penis… Well, you get the picture. So, I think if one is going to engage in intelligent discussion about gun culture, I think it’s too loaded an association: too testy and far too English Lit. After all, I’m not trying to degrade anyone. I’m just trying to get to the bottom of why so many American love their guns.

So to get to the root of this I think we have to go back, way back, to the very founding of the United States of America. After the revolution, there was seen a real need to defend the fledgling republic against potential attack in the absence of an organized national army. So in the nation’s new constitution, an amendment, the 2nd, was included, stating: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This granted Americans the right to possess weapons to defend their country, to be used within the context of a well regulated militia. Although there have been many legal contradictions regarding this amendment, to me it means this: you can bear arms, if you are going to use them in defense of your country. Or even more simply: if you join the army, you can have a gun.

Read this way, almost every country guarantees this right. If we are going to send you to die in some god-forsaken hole for the sake of a flag, you are granted the right to carry a gun for that purpose. Seems pretty reasonable to me.

Ironically, the interpretation by the majority of gun owners of the 2nd Amendment is almost the opposite of this. To most I asked at the gun show, they saw their right as one to bear arms to protect themselves from their country, not to protect their country from anything at all. They were mostly concerned that if citizens did not have guns, it would be easy for the State to take away their other rights. And granted, given that the US constitution was drafted following a revolution against the pre-existing State, it’s easy to see how this interpretation could arise. But there’s really nothing in the constitution that legitimizes taking arms against the State. That would of course be a recipe for disaster. But even if we grant that this majority interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is the correct one, I still think we should look into the feasibility of this interpretation in a modern context.

So let’s first take a look back to the 1770s, when the 13 American colonies took arms against the British government. Let’s look foremost at the technology of the time. What kinds of weapons were being employed? Guns, yes, but what kind? Muskets. That’s correct. Muzzle-loaded firearms, where even the finest soldiers could sustain a rate of fire of only 3 rounds per minute. And this applied to both sides. Although the British had weapons better somewhat better suited to war, the difference in technology between both warring factions was marginal at best. The firearms used by citizens for hunting could be easily turned to the battlefield with lethal results to protect one’s home and hearth from attack.

In this kind of situation, it’s easy to see how the right to bear arms could be seen as effective method of preventing oppression. If the British came with their muskets, you could pull out yours, and with the benefit of surprise and a keen eye, you could get the drop on them. Freedom protected. Mission accomplished.

So, in the 18th century, the 2nd Amendment would have been an effective tool to ensure freedom from oppression. But over the course of the next few centuries, a lot changed in military technology. The increased specialization of military weapons made them impractical for any sort of civilian use. So even if exploding artillery could legally be procured by American citizens under the 2nd, there is no way that the man buying them could justify the expense to his wife when the plough horse was on his last legs. And this trend continued, with governments devising more and more effective methods of separating flesh from bone, while the civilian was stalled in progress with little more than a rifle.

So by the time the First World War rolled around, with governments worldwide in control of aircraft, machine guns, submarines and dreadnoughts, there really wasn’t a lot of reason for the average American to get in a clamour about his 2nd Amendment rights being violated. His 2nd Amendment rights were already useless. If the State wanted his land, his wife or his horse, there wasn’t really a damned thing he could do about it. And this was before the poison gas, tanks, rockets, ICBMs, satellites, unarmed drones, microwave pain inducers and nuclear weapons that were to come.

Even if we look at (non-military) police forces dealing with armed opponents, there isn’t much hope for our 2nd Amendment advocate. Compared to military units, police use a fantastic amount of restraint, not only in their level of weaponry, but also in the way they engage foes. Police use exclusively small arms, non-lethal whenever possible, typically give warning, and aim to capture, not kill. And those who stand against them almost never win.

Even drug dealers, who are often armed with the best weaponry illegal money can buy, rarely even get a shot off when their compounds are raided. Why? Because police are trained to win without firing a shot. They observe cautiously, and raid when thugs least expect it. And drug dealers know that lifting a gun toward a cop is death, but clever litigation might just get them life (even if behind bars). How can an average citizen, however armed, expect to stand against the State, especially in a situation where the State disregards all other basic rights?

The point is this: This is the 21st century. The 2nd Amendment is dead. There is no possible way that an American citizen can hope to defend his liberty by the gun. If you come out saying "you can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers," you can rest assured, that when the smoke clears, they most certainly will.

The 2nd Amendment today is a symbol, no more. So why is it so important in this day and age?

Well, if the 2nd Amendment exists to defend against oppression, then what is of real value is the freedom that it works to protect. The right to bear arms is, in and of itself, a right of secondary importance (perhaps why it is the second, and not the first amendment). Again, the right to bear arms exists only to defend other rights. And these other rights are the ones with which virtually all Americans primarily associate. Like the right to express yourself in whatever way you see fit, or the right to walk free of arbitrary detainment, or the right to believe in what you want, free of coercion.

But just because the 2nd Amendment has been rendered ineffective, I don't think it means that Americans should lay down their arms and accept oppression. It simply means that the battle for civil rights has been moved to a new arena. This battle is no longer fought in the fields of war, but in the halls of courthouses, and the houses of government. The gun lobby groups have clued into this, but they only have half the picture. They are out there, litigating and pressuring to defend the rights of Americans, but they are only concerned with a right that is useless in the information age, a secondary right. What they should really be doing is fighting against arbitrary imprisonment, unjustified search and seizure, censorship, and inequality. If your average gun-owning American skipped on guns, and invested the same time and money into the legal battle to protect their rights, one can be certain that they would not have eroded so precipitously in the last decade.

But policy makers were able to hoodwink the American people by publicly trumpeting the symbolic 2nd Amendment, while whittling away the real rights of freedom of speech, and right to a fair trial. If gun owners had been really concerned about their civil rights, and not about their damned guns, there would be no way Americans could be arrested and held without charge under the guise of 'national security'. But here, at the gun show, this celebration of an American right, no one's really thinking about rights. They're thinking about guns, pure and simple.

I’d like to share my thoughts with the people around me here, but I don’t think it would be too well received. Reason isn’t really part of the equation here. The mythology runs too deep. Criticizing the 2nd Amendment is like criticizing independence, or liberty, or ‘our troops’. Question gun ownership at a gun show, and people are liable to get nasty. Armed people. Armed nasty.

But otherwise everyone is really friendly. After all, I am part of the club (shhh…) Who could fault a young man for taking an interest in firearms? This is America, right?

But it doesn’t take long for my interest to wane, and I decide it’s time to leave. On my way out, I run into the same retired marine. We chat briefly, and I try to veer away from guns in the conversation. I learn that he’s from Escondido, the town nearest to Palomar Mountain, where I’m staying. We talk about what a dry summer it’s been, and the dying of the orange orchards.

“Heck,” he says, if San Diego keeps growing, it’ll be just like Orange County, not an orange in sight!”

He seems to have taken a shining to me, and maybe I’m just skeptical, but to me it seems slightly excessive. He looks at me in this way makes me just a wee bit leery. Like there’s something else going on, to which I am not quite party. But I push the thought away.

I eventually bid him adieu, and head to the parking lot. I’m half way to the car when I see him again. He hands me a piece of paper.

“It’s my number,” he says. “Give me a call when you’re in town. I’d love to sit down and have a cup of coffee with you.”

I tell him that I’ll try to, and wish him a good weekend.

As I sit in the car, about to start the ignition, I wonder what that was about. Was he just a lonely middle-aged man looking to make a friend? Perhaps he wanted someone to go shooting with down at the range some afternoon. Or maybe, as the hum tone of tension suggested, he was quietly hitting on me. Or maybe he just didn’t want it to be interpreted as such, and his nervousness made the interaction awkward. Not that I would be bothered by it. I just prefer to know what people’s motivations are.

And as I drive away, I think it could be alright to have someone to go shooting with in Escondido. I mean, I’m not much of a firearms enthusiast, but it might be fun. Yeah. Why was I being so weird about it? He was just a nice man.

But then, who knows, after all, he might just be trying to get his hands on my gun.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Hills are Alive; or Organic Trans-Plants...

Penned June 25th, 2009

After twenty-seven years of perfectly satisfactory life in Canada, economic conditions led me pursue my career to the United States of America. To some, this may seem an act of hypocrisy, to others, a great opportunity, but to me it was just logical. I needed a stable job, and I got one. It just so happens to be in San Diego County, rather than the Kootenays or the BC mid-coast I would have preferred. So it goes.

Thus, I currently find myself in Palomar Mountain, California. Palomar Mountain rests about 45 kilometres northeast of, and about 1700 metres above San Diego. Palomar literally means ‘pigeon coop’, which is strange, since I have yet to see one on the hill, amid the healthy populations of turkey vultures, brown hawks, and bald eagles.

Other than the wildlife, there are several things of note on the mountain. One is Palomar Observatory, which houses the Hale telescope, which from 1948 until 1975 was the largest in the world (with a 5.1 m focal length!). The next is Palomar Mountain State Park, which offers fantastic views of the valley below, when it isn’t obscured completely by mist (which, in my opinion is more impressive, since the floor of clouds gives a decidedly heaven-like impression). The last is isolation, which draws the certain breed of people that give the town its unique cultural flavour.

On this topic, it should be noted that there aren’t many people on the mountain. Basically, the ten of us on this project from out of town represent about 5% of the population of the area. Of the permanent residents, only one is an attractive young lady, whose parents are missionaries and whose place of employment is the Christian Conference Centre a ways away. This could be a terribly long contract.

The remaining 199-odd residents fall into four general categories. The first is the true mountaineers, whose pappies were born on the mountain, grand-pappies were born on the mountain, great-grand-pappies were born on the mountain, great-great-grand-pappies were born on the mountain, and so on. A number of these families have been on Palomar for six generations, and have no intention of leaving.

The next group is retirees, who moved up to get away from the bustle of the city below. They are nice people, but are horrifically boring, enjoying mostly satellite television, and, well, that’s about it.

The third group is the weekenders, who live down in the city and come up Saturday morning for margueritas in the sun (it is sunny here 99.83% of the time- even at night). I would like to get to know some of these people more, so maybe we could arrange a time share. Then I could potentially take care of their house on the hill during the week, and when they come up on weekends, I could sleep in their place city-side at night, while lazing all day on the beach. No takers, so far.

The final, and by far most interesting group, are the crazies. Now, I don’t mean these people are bat-shit crazy, but they’re not just you and me crazy, you know? These are the kind of people that choose to live on a mountain because they are leery of society, and realize that you get much better rifle range from an elevated position. Now, these people aren’t essentially violent, but they do have a somewhat excessive fear of authority, and correspondingly vote for the Republican Party due to its doctrine of small government (while ironically pushing for stronger armies, and more cops on the beat). Far from being stand-offish, I’ve found these people to be the most willing to share their illegal fishing spots with me, an outsider, and are probably the ones best equipped to help me if I roll a vehicle into a ditch. The crazies, overall, represent probably 10% of the people on Palomar, but make up 90% of the character of the mountain. And Jim, for one, just happens to be one of these characters.

Jim is an engineer, of sorts. He originally studied physics, and later biotechnology at Berkeley. He has worked for numerous biotech firms, as well as running his own consulting company, and over his career has done numerous contracts for NASA, among other reputable organizations. His work is largely of the design variety: he makes metal bits that go inside people to make them better. There can be no doubt. Jim is brilliant.

When I first met Jim, he was drunk. Not plastered, but certainly good and drunk, what with some slight slurring, and excessive volume of speech. It was 9:30 am. He told me that though he had registered for the program for which I work, he had changed his mind, and no longer wanted in. He didn’t want any representative of the government on his property. I told him I understood, and we continued chatting a while about the role of the State, which led into a longer conversation about a number of topics. This eventually culminated in Jim showing me around his home office, a very impressive affair, which included a complete computer-controlled machine shop, a vintage radio (with jazz on), and a fridge full of Coors. He showed me the stupefyingly complex designs for his newest project, a prosthesis, designed to help those with musculature problems in their latter years. I was duly impressed.

Health sciences led to health care, and Jim and I got to talking about socialized medicine. Like many people on the mountain, Jim isn’t enthusiastic about the idea of publicly funded health care. Far from wanting to deny anyone access to services, he was concerned about people’s health being put in control of the government, the potential inefficiencies of such a system, and individuals’ ability to choose their physicians; the kind of arguments often heard regarding the topic. The kind of arguments that are getting thrown around quite a lot in America, these days.

Of course, the subject of health care is all the rage these days in the U.S. of A. President Obama is pushing for support in both Democrat and Republican camps to construct a universal health care system for the people of the United States. As a human being prone to reckless behaviour, I support this move, since as a US resident I am currently paying a stupid amount for health insurance. I assure you, it sucks.

What I question, however, about President Obama and his health care plan is the wisdom of his timing. Currently, in both Canada and the United States we are waiting on the wings of the largest relative retirement cohort in history. Now, I’m happy to see my parents’ generation take a break from middle managing and buying minivans, but what I’m not so stoked about is their general health. Of course, as people age their health tends to deteriorate. And as this happens, the costs to take care of them are bound to increase. Because of this, in every constituency of the OECD, health care costs are rising faster than the growth of the economy (even ignoring these current tough times). That means that soon, if not already, we will not be able to pay for the health care that the baby boomers require. This forces a real, honest to goodness dilemma. We either ring up unheard amounts of government debt (literally trillions in the US), or we limit the scope of our health care services, potentially leaving those with the most expensive services unassisted.

Now, I don’t want to see mine, or anyone else’s parents die. Death isn’t fun, and the void left behind by the departure of someone we love hurts, and never disappears as long as we’re around. But at the same time, it must be acknowledged that everyone certainly will die. We all want to have our families with us for as long as we can, but if we are spending literally hundreds of thousands of dollars, expending large amounts of scarce resources to extend someone’s life for just a few more years, we can justifiably start to wonder if maybe we could be saving a lot more people’s lives by investing those resources elsewhere. No one wants to think of it in these terms, but perhaps the greatest good isn’t served by trying to maximize people’s quantity of life just before the end.

I’m not going to question the use of ibuprophen for joint pain, or vaccinations for crippling diseases, or antibiotics for infections. I’m only calling for a reexamination of our desire to use medical skill and science to fight tooth and nail against the natural disposition of our bodies to break down as we age. I mean, we begin to age the moment we’re conceived, but from the age of eighteen onward, it’s a pretty much downhill battle. However, instead of living healthy lives to let our bodies do what they do best (which is live), we tend to ignore them until they start to fall apart at fifty or sixty, then expect our children to pay the debts for cobbling our bodies back together with artificial hearts, lungs and livers, because we feel entitled to live to eighty or more. To me it just doesn’t make sense. There has to be a breaking point. A point beyond which we have to say, ‘this is ludicrous’, and make some tough decisions. Tough decisions like the United States is facing right now. Like whether or not it should adopt a universal health care system, what form it will take, and how it is going to pay for it.

The tendency when weighing life versus dollars is to assume the former is sacrosanct and that the latter is ‘just money’. But the reality of the matter is that money and time are one and the same. Money isn’t free, and the time you dedicate to earning it comes at the expense of something else, like, for example, spending time with your family. So if you’re paying to extend dad’s life so you can spend more time with him (your family), but missing out on time with your children (your family) because you have to work more, is it really the best thing to do? What if you factor in the effect that extra work and financial stress has on your own life expectancy, and how that will affect the time you have with your family when you get old?

I’m certainly not saying that anyone should be denied a life-saving surgery because they don’t have the cash in the bank. That’s not fair, and in no way does it contribute to a happier, healthier or more functional society. But I do think that we should differentiate between true life-saving technologies, and life-prolonging ones, and use them accordingly.

These issues are never black and white, and the more you look into them, the greyer, and more muddled they become. I’m still a fan of universal health care, and I think there should be a strong social safety net to catch those who fall off the fringes of society. But I’m certainly concerned about what’s going to happen in the future given the rocketing cost of health care with an ageing population, and increased global economic constraints. Sadly, I have little expectation that there will be much health care accessible to me in my old age. I just don’t think there will be capacity bankroll it. The flipside of this coin is the impetus for me to actually take care of my body, and get as much life as I can out of it by giving it what it needs to do what it does best. I know it sounds crazy, but I’m going to eat right and exercise. I may not live to eighty, but that’s okay. I’m sure I’ll have a good run.

So in the end, I must admit that I’m opposed to what Jim is doing. And no, Jim isn’t making the next false kidney, or designing a drug to replace the spleen. I’m fact, Jim’s invention could neither be considered a life-saving, nor a life prolonging health care technology. So what is it that Jim is working on?

Jim is designing an artificial sphincter. That’s right, a device to keep human digestive wastes inside until an appropriate toilet can be reached. Prototypes are currently being tested on pigs, and, if successful, they will be available as implants for humans. Now, I want to deal with unwanted faeces as little as the next guy, but I’m concerned about what Jim is doing. Why?

I’m not opposed to Jim’s work based on any of the ideological or financial concerns raised above. I don’t feel that the invention will make people live longer lives than they are entitled to, nor am I afraid that artificial anuses will send the American empire into bankruptcy. No, my leeriness regarding Jim’s invention comes from a completely different place altogether. My issue is this: There are already so many regular assholes in the world today, I really don’t think there’s any need to be making more of them.

But then, I'm still young...


Spaced out...

Penned September 10th, 2008

It is an area filled with mystery. But here is not mystery of the conventional kind. It is not the mystery of Poe, Hawthorne, or King. It is a mystery of a different sort than is usually attached to the land. It is not the mystery of the dark and foreboding, the unknown and unseen, represented by creaky closing doors, shadowing canopy, or concealing mausolea. None of these are found here. You would be hard pressed to find much of anything, in fact. And that itself is the cause of the fear and wonder. The secrets held in these lands are not so much in what dwells here, but instead, what may have have dwelt here, but for a brief moment, and, some say, are bound to come again.

Again, this is a function of the land itself. If a man ill-prepared were to find himself here, it would not be long before hallucination would be upon him. If it was not the starvation-driven consumption of the local psychotropics, then the heat, dehydration, and fatigue would certainly give rise to mysterious visions. But even the well-fed, well-watered, and well-rested are prone to be rapt by the mystery of the land, and taken to seeing things that others may not. But I am being misleading. The land here hides no secrets. Amid the sand, sage and saguaro, there is little to hide. The snakes and scorpions are rare, their numbers held in check by the same want of water that curses all living things in the desert. There is little to fear on land, here. The mystery of this place is in the sky.

It's impossible to not feel a tinge of insignificance when you look into the night sky above Southwest desert. There is no end to the sea of black that spreads itself across your field of vision like a quilt, light piercing through the pinholes of the stitching to reveal the crude and imaginative renditions of hunter, bull and crab. Judaic mythology teaches of the firmament encompassing the planet, the abscesses in which showed us literally the light of heaven, twinkling just beyond our earthly grasp. Perhaps crazy to some, when you look into the sky over the desert, this view seems strangely real. To the Navajo of this land, the stars were ornaments placed above by the Holy Ones, when Coyote, the trickster, stole the bag of stars and swung it open, spreading a milky stream across the night sky. Perhaps it is the trickster still who fools some into seeing visions in the night sky here. The night sky that goes on and on, uninhibited by edifice, timber, or peak, whose end is dictated only by the disappearance of the stars, black otherwise persisting in all directions. Directions which, in the lack of a compass, become all but figurative to those illiterate to the stars, whose bearing is surely lost in the dizzying array.

And below this array lies the Very Large Array, deep in the desert amid the Plains of San Agustin, New Mexico. The Very Large Array, a collection of twenty-seven massive radio telescopes arranged in a Y, continuously scans the sky for incoming radio waves, low frequency radiation emitted from bodies deep in space. When melded with skill and technology, this information is pieced together, and images are rendered of dying stars, supernovae, black holes, brown dwarves, red giants, and other wonders far off in the Kosmos.

But brown dwarves and red giants aren't the only strange visions to be seen in this desert. This is the place of science fantasy. To the north lies Area 51, the supposed examination facility for alien corpses and spacecraft. Officially, the area surrounding the base was used for the development stealth planes. Some allege these high tech aircraft were reverse engineered from alien technology. Others claim UFOs seen in the area were simply these advanced aircraft in flight. The truth, of course, remains unknown.

To the east is Roswell, the legendary UFO crash site. Far from denying this event, the recovery of a 'flying disc' was reported by the Roswell Army Air Field. Later that day, the statement was amended to admit the capture of a weather balloon only. Controversy has persisted ever since. Regardless of the validity of any of these reports, this area garners some of the highest numbers of UFO sightings anywhere, and feeds the imaginations of dreamers worldwide. Dreamers, well, like me.

I've never been a UFO aficionado, but I admit that there is this part of me that yearns for the knowledge that there is something else out there. The reinforcement that we are not alone in the universe. I mean, perhaps it's silly, given that there are plenty of intelligent creatures on earth: dolphins, bonobos, octopi, elephants... not to mention the 6+ billion of us that crawl the surface of this rock. I don't know, I guess it's perhaps just a lingering desire for that mystery, something that we seem to have so decisively banished from our psyche through reason. Maybe if we were to find extra-terrestrial intelligence, that mystery would, too, vanish, like our infatuation with the moon when we set foot on her. But that doesn't mean we should stop searching.

I'm sure I'll take criticism for this, but I think, regardless of anything, we can never cut the space program. I understand that people are starving, and kids can't go to school, and there's mercury in the oceans, and on, and on, but to me there is something greater at stake. I feel that there is something pure, almost altruistic in our desire to explore space. Just learning, and knowing that what we learn will do nothing to improve our lot. That our knowledge will be virtually useless, but for its own sake. It strikes to the heart of science, heartless itself, wishing only to comprehend, not to feed greed, or mouth, or build any empire but of understanding alone. And to me there is something beautiful in that. Almost like having a zen garden, or doing crossword puzzles with the heavens.

And I feel that in some way, in this hunt for the unknown, we gain a better understanding of ourselves. I believe that in trying to understand what goes on so deep in outer space, we'll gain just a little more understanding of our inner space: who we are, from where we came, to where we are headed. That if we can find something else out there, then we no longer have to be the butt of some cosmic joke: the random planet, near a random sun, that looks for significance in everything to find a reason for its being beyond randomness. Or maybe we'd just feel like we weren't special anymore. Who knows.

But I've spent too much time in musing. We have to be in Dallas by tomorrow. I take one last look up at the night sky. It really is stunning. I fear having to enter a metropolis again, where the stars are all but drowned out by the noise of the city lights. But for now it's all just beautifully black and white. I try to soak it all in, close the shutter of my eyes, and let the image soak into film of my mind, an image I can take home with me, because no picture I take could ever do it justice.

I open my eyes as I head back to the car, and out of the corner of my eye, I see something flash across the sky. And I feel a tingle of excitement and wonder. I think that perhaps all those locals aren't so wrong. Perhaps there is something in the sky above this desert. Maybe there is intelligent life out there. And maybe, if we work hard, and keep searching, it will be revealed to us, and we won't have to feel so alone in the universe.

But then, there's very good chance it was just a weather balloon.


The 'Kusp of a New Era...

Penned June 1st, 2008

I turned on the TV today. This, in and of itself, is novel. I don't have one at home, and though I periodically catch a downloaded episode of South Park or The Boondocks, I definitely don't consider myself part of the 'viewing public'. The last time I can recall actually turning on a television to be mindlessly entertained was last summer in Grande Prairie, and I remember being curiously impressed by George Strombolopolous' "I'm changing the subject without you noticing" interviewing style. I hadn't turned on the power since.

But today, on the fifth of the five days I am slated to be in Nakusp, I caved and pressed the red button. I feel no shame about this. Well, almost none. It was genuinely out of curiosity. What are people watching these days? I hear snippets about idols and choppers, and I'm pretty sure I'm not losing out on anything, but it's sometimes good to take a glance at pop culture, so at least no one can say I don't know what I'm missing.

Pressure applied, there is a softened click, a louder pop, and colour rises to the surface of the screen, feeling its way across the flat glass of the tube. It settles into focus to reveal Charlie Sheen being lambasted by a stereotype of a vegetarian, a girl who tasted meat in his kiss. Well, it's good to know some things never change. I settle on the CBC for the national news to collect a few sound bytes, and maybe draw me from my (most enjoyable) self-imposed isolation.

There is hockey this, murder that… the usual fare. But one image intrigues me. It is of three people, standing near a grass hut. One is in the background, her colour pigmented black by natural dyes. In the foreground stand two men, their skin a vivid orange-red, bows arced in the air, arrows at the ready, a menacing gesture directed at the person on the other side of the aperture. These are a few of the world's remaining wild peoples, members of the up to sixty-eight uncontacted tribes left in the world, hidden only from the world outside by the dense, multi-storey ceilings of the Amazon jungle.

The images were released by Brazil to publicly prove to Peru, and those pursuing mineral and petroleum claims in the area, that these people do, in fact, exist. The rationale is that if international attention is drawn to the issue, then perhaps the government on the other side of the border (a border non-existent to the tribesmen) will disallow mines and well sites that would drive out or extirpate these peoples.

Of course the existence of this tribe in particular is no secret. Local farmers have lived in their vicinity for decades, and FUNAI, the Brazilian government's version of Indian Affairs, has well documented information dating back at least twenty years. The fact of their materiality is not novel, but the pictures of them certainly are. It takes but a moment for the gravity of the images to sink in. These are the only free people left in the world, the few who have no chains. By fortune and goodwill, they have been spared the vortex of complexity of which you and I are part. They are the ones who looked at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thought the fruit looked sour, and kept playing under the canopy. They never learned of their nakedness, were never ashamed, and never needed toil to squeeze from the soil their daily bread. They are the Adams and the Eves, what we once were, living in the garden to which, to our own detriment, we can never return.

With this thought, I turn off the television and go outside for a walk. To my right, well beyond its apex, the sun descends through its roundabout southern arc. One would not expect sunset so early this time of year, but the austere and lordly mountains project a dominating presence on the horizon, and by eight the sun hovers mere inches above their snow-capped ridges. Atop the peaks across Arrow Lake, hues of pink cum red cum orange are reflected off the clouds, which themselves are reflected of the water. There is dazzling colour in every direction, and I believe with sincerity that this is the most beautiful place I've ever seen.

But it's not the untouched aesthetic alone that seduces me. It's everything about this place. Despite its attractiveness, Nakusp seems free of pretense. Absent are the faux chalets of Jasper, and château of Lake Louise. The town is unique, but I resist the use of the word quaint, because although there is an innocence to this place, it is not to be confused with naïveté- the village subsisted off industry for many years before tourism took flight, and there is still that working class self-respect in the air. There are well-groomed flowerbeds, but they are tended by local citizens, not exorbitant property taxes and union wages. And Nakusp is virtually without chains. Aside from a grocery store and two gas stations, nothing in the town is run outside the town. No London Drugs, no Radio Shack, no 7-11/Mac's/Mike's Mart/Winks/Becker's/Couche-Tard, not even a Tim Horton's (*gasp*). Nakusp is indeed a unique place.

However, things are changing in Naskusp. Last year, the Revelstoke Mountain Resort announced its plans to invest, get ready… One billion dollars (that's a one followed by nine zeroes- more than even your dad makes) into the facility, with the intent of creating the longest skiable slope in North America. This has triggered real estate speculation all though the area, including Nakusp (a mere hour away) driving property prices up as high as the mountains. Now, of course, it's all supply and demand, so if there was more land to go around, then perhaps it might remain affordable for the people who grew up here?

Enter Pope-Talbot. Or, perhaps, exit Pope-Talbot. The lumber mill, and Nakusp's major employer, recently closed its doors due to skyrocketing fuel costs, the weak US housing market, and the strong Canadian dollar. This now creates a dilemma for the town, as its people struggle with the decision to move in search of work, or attempt to make ends meet in tourism.

But the fallout doesn't quite end there. Pope-Talbot's holdings, due to be liquidated under receivership protection, includes 6 400 hectares of property in the Nakusp area, much of it waterfront. With the price of land as it is in the region, the company's creditors, mostly American financial institutions, potentially stand to see a good portion of their money returned.

The mayor of Nakusp, Karen Hamling, has been entreating the provincial government to disallow the sale, a sale which would devastatingly alter the character of her town. And, in this case, Mrs. Hamling has the law on her side. Because the land falls under a provincial tree farm license (TFL 23), it cannot be sold outright. Unfortunately, precedent is against her, since the province allowed Western Forest Products to sell some 28 000 hectares on Vancouver Island under TFL to developers in 2007.

Regardless of whether or not the sale of the Pope-Talbot properties go through, things are bound to change in Nakusp, The development in Revelstoke, coupled by the economic crippling of the timber industry is almost certain to result in a major demographic shift as the middle class migrate outward, and the upper class move in.

It's strange. Before I even knew about the economy and politics of this town, I had this impending feeling that this oasis was to be dashed. Maybe it's just my Marxist leanings, but I knew that this was going to happen. As it almost always does. People who care make something worth caring for. Then they get priced out. Like Kensington. Like Kitsilano.

When I walk down the street now, I want to grab people, grab them and shake them and scream:

"Understand! Understand this thing that you have here! Don't allow money to destroy this beautiful community!"

But of course it's out of their hands now. There are forces larger than them at play. There's a billion dollars sitting on top of a hill a hundred clicks away betting against them. Just like there's a billion dollars in the office of an oil company somewhere, betting against the last remaining tribal peoples on the planet.

Market forces are an undeniable reality of our modern existence. And far from just affecting those of us who are born into this lifestyle, it reaches beyond to those blissfully ignorant of them, pushing them in ways they cannot even comprehend.

I'll refrain from any attributions of right or wrong, my finger is tired of wagging these days. I'll say only that it's sad. Sad because I really like this town, and, like many of the currents residents, I won't be able to afford to live here. Short of striking it rich on some South American oil prospect, of course.

I'm not much of a skier, but I hear the powder at Revelstoke is to die for. Last year my roommate kept saying that I should book off a weekend and hit the slopes with him out here. I was captivated by the pictures he showed me, and I'll admit that it was tempting, but it just never worked out. I said that we'd do it the next season, for sure.

In light of everything, though, I think I might not go skiing in Revelstoke this year. At least I won't have to burn oil getting out here.

No, on second thought, I think I might be better off just staying at home and watching TV.