Thursday, July 31, 2014

Of Rainbows and Revolutions

Listening to the fireworks of summer independence day festivities always makes me glad not to be hearing gunfire. It also stands as a reminder of the work we are all still doing to live together free of fear. 


On Sunday July 27, 2008, Jim David Adkisson walked into Knoxville’s Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church and opened fire on the congregation as they were watching the youth program perform a musical. Two adults died, and seven people were seriously injured trying to protect the children. One of my best friends from high school shattered both kneecaps falling to the floor to shield her two young daughters from the bullets.


Above, the TVUUC church that was built in the shape of a Chalice, which is the symbol of the Unitarian Universalist faith. It was also a good shape to save an ancient tree that was growing on the building site, and whose leaves can be seen above the top of the building (accessed 7/1/13  at www.tvuuc.org).

Adkisson’s shooting spree in Knoxville that hot summer morning was “politically motivated” according to the investigations following the violence, as reported by local media (and wikipedia). A veteran of the U.S. Army, his very vocal hatred of "Democrats," "African Americans," and "Homosexuals" fueled his opposition to TVUUC. Testimonials from those who were in the church at the time of the shooting reflect on why it is a risk and a privilege—apparently one even worth dying for--to be a congregation that welcomes all spiritual beliefs, races and sexualities in today's U.S.:                                                                                                                 
     ...There has been some speculation as to why the shooter did it. Some speculate mental      illness--and anyone who would do something like this has to be at least a bit mentally          ill--but some point out that we may have been targeted because we are a welcoming          congregation…I will say, though, that we'd not long ago put up a banner announcing          the fact that everyone is welcome in our church, regardless of race or sexuality. If this          shooting was politically motivated, well... it wouldn't be the first time we've dealt with          hatred because of our beliefs. Back in the fifties, before we had our own church                    building, many people refused to rent space to us because we had a mixed-race      
     congregation. We're not afraid to do the right thing, and, even after these events, we will      still be unafraid. We are a loving and welcoming congregation, and we are strong.       
     Thanks again to all those who are keeping us in their thoughts and prayers      
     (http://salvador-dalai.livejournal.com/4220.html). 

One congregant looks back on the bravery that limited the death toll to two. In those split seconds, many individuals, acting together, had the instinct to place themselves between Adkinsson and the others in the room:

…thank you to at least three heroes that I know of. Greg McKendry, one of the two who died, apparently blocked the first shot, saving who knows how many people. After the second shot, several members of the congregation charged the shooter. Among them were John Bohstedt, a history professor at UT, and... well, as a parent I know him as "*** Birdwell's father." There were others…the shooter had a lot of ammo. A lot. If he hadn't been stopped, even the 3 minute response time from the police wouldn't have averted an even greater tragedy.

Another victim of the TVUUC shootings, Tammy Sommers, spoke publicly about her trauma a few summers ago, in order to express solidarity with victims of a shooting in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in August, 2012. She noted, with a wry sense of disbelief still lingering in her voice:  "He was entering the sanctuary when he opened fire…The toughest memory that I had was I bled on my children in a way a mother would never wanted to."[1] 
   
Today I am a member of a UU congregation that is bigger than the one I recall from East Tennessee, where the man "in the pulpit" (though most UUA congregations have soaring, spare modern rooms for meetings) was former UUA President John Beuhrens. John is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and expert on biblical scripture. My childhood church was one of his first ministries, and he both learned and taught a LOT. He and his wife, an Episcopalian Minister, were beacons to all of us, demonstrating how dual careers of care in the world can work without depleting marriages and families. When he officiated at my wedding in the monument to social justice that is Timothy Dwight chapel on the Yale University campus he offered spare but grave advice to me and my husband: "Take Care of Each Other." In times of trouble, we cleave to that.

The Minister in my new church, First UUAA, did not study scripture for years to get there. As she tells it, she was working as a sorry-for-herself, snowplow-driving dyke in Maine when she found her calling. Later, she gained  wide acclaim for her first sermons, which obtained standing ovations around the country. She spoke with conviction, humor and honesty about her own journey from devouring anger as a marginalized American to a stance of active, transformative love and a generous ministry. 



My new church’s tree is a Downy Hawthorne, documented as the largest of its subspecies in the United States…possibly in all of North America. It stands behind the church on the large parcel of rural land the congregation bought to build on and have preserved as a network of trails and outdoor recreation or meditation sites. My daughter and I often walk out after church to sit under it and pray when we are worried for the health of grandparents, concerned for friends in places torn by contemporary political conflict, or just in need of guidance and peace in our own lives.  Hawthornes are sacred in much of Europe; they provide flowers for Mayday festivals and fertility rites of spring. They are Shakespeare's "fairy groves." I can see why, sitting out there of a Sunday in all seasons.

In front of the church, at the main entrance, flies the Rainbow Flag. My daughter learned this year in her Spiritual Growth class on Sunday mornings about the rainbow as a symbol of the covenant between God and Noah as the floods receded and the earth again became a hospitable place for human (and other species) habitation. She has also learned that the rainbow is our church covenant, as a welcoming and tolerant congregation that believes in embracing the complexity of social identities, of science, of collective action and individual moral stands against the floods of hatred, bigotry, and environmental harm, even in the face of armed anger. 


Places of worship aren't the only targets for armed anger; one thinks of Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords, attacked in a secular site--an Arizona supermarket. Her survival seemed so unlikely, after being shot through the brain by a disaffected and disoriented young man in the parking lot outside the store where she was meeting and greeting constituents in 2011.  Several victims in that shooting died, including a federal judge and a nine year old girl. This photo  depicts Giffords returning to the House Floor, nearly six months after the shooting, triumphant but terribly fragile. Today Gabby and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, are organizing Americans for Responsible Solutions, a broad, non partisan call to action in the face of special interests that dominate gun control discourse about rising death tolls in the U.S. from gun violence.  

But in searching for news archives on the TVUUC story, I found instead articles about a wave of increased gun violence in Knoxville neighborhoods in recent summers, and seminars in the East Tennessee area on “how to survive workplace shootings” as professional training for employees of banks and other likely targets. During a lockdown on my University campus a few years ago, as people sat behind office doors, phones switched to silent, barely daring to breathe, i marveled at how that can be "freedom." 

Such concerns are not limited to college campuses; my daughter began learning tactics for such scenarios in elementary school. One day her after school report over snacks included the comment "I felt so bad for my friend; he thought the drill was real and wet his pants he was so scared." The principal later explained to me when I inquired that realism in such exercises is crucial to their success in preparing students to survive a shooting. Wow. 

Ok maybe if such drills had they been part of our every day church life in Knoxville, they'd have helped Greg McKendry or John Bohstedt in those seconds when they crudely and courageously gave their own lives to save others. All i know is, accepting these as reasonable risks is a glaring symptom of our inabilitto make social changes at more structural levels that reduce risk and fear in our lives as a society. 


On the 4th of July, U.S. citizens celebrate our country’s victory in a war for Independence. Some also get dressed up and drink a glass of wine or two on July 14 to celebrate France's revolutionaries who stormed the Bastille prison. What we are really celebrating is, at least in part, the distance we have traveled from those original gruesome struggles. Or have we? Back then the political stakes of power sharing seemed clear enough to motivate self sacrifice on a massive scale in the name of transformation. What passes for political motivation behind the violence in our public and sacred places today seems tragically out of step with collective mobilization for positive social change. It comes from mostly mentally ill, tragically alienated Americans. Many of them have been wronged by our society, or just have something that is wrong with them. Too often, they express that pain through murdering those who are living happily in dynamic, changing communities.  

Today's Knoxville TVUUC Minister Chris Buice helped his congregation heal from the shooting. The church moved from annual rituals of rememberance to marking the event once every ten years. TVUUC members consistently reach out to others who are victims of similar violence (such as the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, or the school in Newtown, Massachusetts, or that in Oregon a few years ago, or…). 
Buice notes that one of the hardest things to handle is the forceful hatred--of self and others--that animates the perpetrator. Survivor Tammy Sommers concurs: “It is important to stand on the side of love, peace, and kindness.” It is that simple. 

Many members of Unitarian Churches around the world found their way to it from a life of being bullied and derided as "geeks" or "freaks" or "queers" or "green radicals." They stand on the side of love because they know that asking hard questions about social norms, embracing social difference and protecting nonhuman lives on our planet has historically been punished with stonings, burnings, draggings, and--perhaps increasingly--shootings.  As the water protectors movement gains momentum in the U.S. and beyond, and the stakes in wildlife conservation get starker than ever, these are not just U.S. challenges. All around the world, wealth inequalities that worry us show no signs of abating. There is no clear single new Bastille for us to storm, no single Evil Empire against which to stand. That makes things complicated.


Nonetheless, let us rally: "Vive la Love." Let us not forget those who, unarmed, have bravely given their lives for this principle. Let us honor rather than denigrate those who show up for the marches, and churches, and rallies where they risk being targets for the violence that flows from angry fear of change. Just because some cannot trust diversity, complexity, and equitable representative political process to work for humanity's future does not mean that future is beyond our reach. Sure, we have not yet perfected the practice of these principles. But we owe it to those who brought us this far on that path to continue walking toward it, reaching for it even in the face of fear. 

As we celebrate historic political and social victories in summer’s heat each year, let it renew our vision of human connections in the face of retrenchment, fear, authoritarianism. We cannot be cowed by the "isolated incidents" of murderous anger our society refuses to term "terror." Despite very real fears of being shot for being tolerant and open, members of my childhood church stand on the side of love. For them it is no mere mantra. It is a memory, and a lived commitment that they know is fundamental to a peaceful and prosperous society. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Get thee to the Peonies

Just a few days ago, my friend Stephanie Preston sent me the link to this recent and beautifully rendered piece of reporting about a secret corner of the Nichols Arboretum.

As I read it, I was sitting in a lounge chair under a Douglas Fir tree on the shores of  Hood Canal in Washington state. I was a guest in a very simple but stately resort called Alderbrook, built in the first decade of the twentieth century. It still has a sense of old world charm, despite being in the midst of a region that knew all too well the ravages of large scale logging operations. Today, the area radiates only peaceful repose. The loudest sounds are seaplanes occasionally arriving or departing; or the noise of an entire group of conservation experts, assembled by NOAA for a meeting on indicators of community well being in marine conservation areas, giving a collective "whoop" and throwing themselves simultaneously into the cold salty water after too long sitting in conference rooms.

Reading in that idyllic Pacific Northwestern setting about the harm to the Arb made me reflect on how different spots on this planet, at various scales, have their times for damage and their time to heal. I perused the comments that accompany the slideshow of Schoolgirl's Glen in Ann Arbor, smiling to myself. I love when my colleague, Bob Grese (pictured here) shares his outdoor literacy. One cold morning when another colleague and I found a small bird outside the Dana building that seemed injured, we brought it inside. Of course it escaped from us, fluttering through the corridors just outside the main administrative offices. We attempted ineffectually to trap it, squawking about like birds ourselves. Bob arrived and with quiet confidence secured the poor, confused creature. He gently placed it back where it belonged. You might say he mediates the surrounding environment for a lot of us, in small and large ways, suffusing that work with his own scholarly understandings of the art and science of landscape.

As Director of the Arboretum, Bob has been working for years toward healing the land in this corner where woods once opened in gentle slope down to a riverbank.  Studying the images online, arranged like a naturalist's notebook, I learned to recognize scars that would otherwise simply have struck me as "rocks" and "mud," (no, that is "pre-glaciation sediment" which, while of interest to geologists, should NOT be exposed under our feet!)

This morning, on a run in the arb with my collie Stella, the two of us briefly explored the mouth of School Girl's Glen. Sure enough, right at the base near a lush bend in the river (a heron lifted off as we were exploring) the former glen was traversed by drainpipes, and the breeze carried whiffs of human sewage. Above our heads we could hear the beeping sounds of trucks backing up and moving around in construction sites around the ever expanding (and excellent) hospital complex atop the hill.

Troubling, to think of the hospital infrastructure, which never seems able to grow quite fast enough to keep ahead of all of our cancers and cardiovascular disease, all of our diabetes and strokes. Ironically, many such illnesses might have been mitigated before reaching crisis proportions in our bodies and societies,  just by time spent moving through a place like the Arb. Certainly i never ran there, until cardiologists sternly admonished me to do so.

The healing benefits of such exercise seem to pertain, whether in the arb as it used to be (oh, to stroll with schoolmates of a morning, gathering wildlflowers to press in the afternoon) or as it is now (quick Stella, we're late for my next meeting, let's go!). But they are all the more urgently needed in the hurried, stressed out lives we lead these days.

Stella, usually so sure footed and nimble, stumbled repeatedly on the loose, round boulders so raw and exposed, as if they were angrily deterring us from clambering over a gaping, open wound.  We turned around to re-establish our running pace on the less damaged paths of the arboretum.

No, Schoolgirl's Glen is not the place it once was.  Still it offers surprisingly timeless scenes: two young men were out fishing together in the Huron River (oh, dear...effluent?), wading into the cool water that wet their shorts, bare-chested but for their vests. Two others sat on stumps under a blossoming tree, locks of sunlit hair falling over their foreheads as they gazed down at the ground, lost in emotional discussion. Yet another sat alone on a picnic table, stroking his strawberry blond beard and gazing out at the river's continued rush in this long, wet spring.  Several pairs of forty something women triathletes-in-training also ran by, their pace so much faster than mine as to be a bit embarrassing. And then, at last, Stella and I arrived at the peony beds, clustered like a glorious shawl around the shoulders of that ravaged part of the Arb's body.



From the entrance to the peony beds one can peer down into a ravine at what is left of School Girl's Glen, seeing the erosion in sharp relief. Then, upon pivoting, one's eyes fill with the ephemeral beauty of the spring peony peak: a rich spectacle for all those of us who don't have the time to collect and press wildflowers.
 

The field of peonies was strangely empty this morning, wildly fragrant with the notes of earth, citrus, and rose being exhaled respectively by the thousands of different varieties of peony blossoms. When we had come yesterday evening around 8:30 pm, hundreds of Ann Arborites were strolling through these beds. Some were dressed in medieval garb and gadding about as four star crossed couples for the final dress rehearsal of As You Like It, this year's Shakespear in the Arb offering.  Others were in contemporary dress and seemed to actually BE couples (but, then, all the world's a stage?), swooning amidst the blooms  for photos that would announce their imminent weddings. Larger groups sat on blankets and lawn chairs, breathing in the aromas and drinking in the visual abundance of so many blossoms, along with their actual picnic suppers.

Whatever else is happening, and despite disregard for the buffer zones it desperately needs, the Arb continues to heal both itself, and its community. Those of us who benefit from that should listen closely to the words, spoken in frustration by Le Beau to Orlando in the second scene of As You Like it.  Truer ones cannot be found for our ongoing dance withe the soil and stone, blooms, and roots that embrace us, and all the creatures around us:
Hereafter, in a better world than this,
I shall desire more love and knowledge of you.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Gender, Diversity and Legality in African Extractivisms: Fish

Critiques of dominant sustainability discourses don't get much more gun-slinging than this TEDx talk by the dulcet, dimpled Jennifer Johnson (she even wore the cowboy boots):


Watching her TEDx talk reminded me anew of why I have been so lucky to teach and learn with Jennifer. When she was a Masters Student it thrilled me to see a sharp girl who spent summers in holiday cottages on our own Great Lakes come of intellectual age navigating the blighted cities and development dead ends of the rust belt where once Rosie the Riveter reigned. Now she is wading for real into the fray about African fisheries, offering a most unusual mix of outrage and optimism.

Watching her also reminded me why the TED form is so useful, as it interacts with the much more elaborate narratives many of us produce. It distills things down to a powerful story, but one that is enriched by much more complex thought and work. It is vernacular, and intricate, and compelling. For an audience, it brings things to life. For a scholar, it reminds us why we do the work.

I would be remiss not to also mention so many of the undergrad students from my "Culture, Adaptation and Environment" class, past and present. Great to see them captured on camera sitting in that audience for Jennifer's talk (shout out Max, training your own guns on timber certification's imperfections when it comes to the gleam in your guitars!)

Thanks TEDx team, i know how many long hours go into this work (to hear some of the minds behind it talk about putting that event together, tune to their show for It's Hot in Here).

And may I also commend this campus for fostering such vibrant out-of-the-classroom interfaces for grad and undergrad minds to connect and create? That, too, is the Michigan difference.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Wolf Hunt Revisited

As the data keep coming in from the wolf hunts in Michigan over the last few years i can't keep myself from updating this post.

Yes, the jury is STILL out on the way that hunt is going to play into wolf populations here, and how it will shape interactions between wolves and humans in the long run. You can read the incremental coverage of this long running debate in various outlets: There is a 2014 Huffington Post story, or Fritz Klug's report from early that same year, and a follow on from John Barnes's report that March. Barnes wrote as a Federal Judge had stopped the kill by reinstating wolf protection, and as opponents of the hunt were organizing themselves for another petition against the hunt, and succeed in getting it back on a ballot for November 2014. But citizen votes to keep wolves protected met almost instant opposition from others in the state. By February 2015 Michigan's DNR was appealing the re-listing of wolves as endangered species, noting that it left many farmers in Michigan's UP without recourse when wolves threatened their livelihood. By July of 2015 a judge had upheld the Legislature's approval of the Scientific Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, giving the NRC the ability to designate animals as game species. Later that same year, however, Michigan's U.S.  Senators issued a call to action for wolf conservation on Isle Royale.  Fast forward one year, to spring 20-16, and  some of the first extensive ecological surveys of wolf populations in Michigan were underway, even as members of the US Congress and Senate considered measures to permanently resolve the question by delisting wolves as protected species in Michigan and three other states where these debates rage. As they say, "it's complicated."

If you are interested in teaching or learning about these questions, create an account and check out our new Wolf Wars case along with others for classroom or community use. It is open access, a manageable module, and really well built. It is a new way my colleagues at Michigan are bringing together ecology with culture, politics, and economics to try to help those younger than we are do better job than we have at making "complicated" decisions.

This is not an issue that is going to be easily resolved, neither in Michigan, nor more broadly. This year's entering class of masters students at SNRE again sat with the dilemma of whether to open a wolf hunt in Michigan, during their orientation up at the Biostation; some had to play the role of hunters, others of scientists, others of animal advocates. It was uncomfortable. Wolves always make people uncomfortable.

In my last entry on this issue I offered you clips from the film Twilight. But the lone wolf in the animated tour de force "Fantastic Mr. Fox" reminds us  in a different way of the wolf's utterly unique symbolic weight in most cultures (and popular cultures). The scene reminds us to consider that hunting wolves is not necessarily anathema to respecting their animality. And protecting them doesn't always mean letting them remain free. Do those on both sides of the wolf debate in Michigan share the kind of respect-tinged-with-fear that Mr. Fox, with all his talking,  finally shuts up and just feels?

Here is Jason Schwarzman's account of how that scene got made (he voices the role of Ash Fox):

Well, okay. I’m just gonna say it. There’s a scene at the end of the movie when George Clooney’s character, myself, my cousin and the opossum, Kylie, are all on a little motorcycle driving back to our home... And we stop and we see a wolf on a distant hill... a beautiful moment between these foxes and little animals and this really like mysterious wolf who we’ve heard about the entire movie and who doesn’t talk in this scene and he’s not wearing clothes. He’s kind of, he represents I guess, the wild. ...they have this great connection, and in that moment, it really like to me the point of that scene is let’s keep on being free. Let’s keep on being animals. And it’s such an uplifting moment. When I’ve seen it with audiences, a bunch of people break into huge cheers and hooting. It’s such an awesome, awesome scene. It really just blows my mind.



 (videoclip from youtube; text from http://cussyeahfantasticmrfox.tumblr.com/)

And actually...we did the movie basically live together as a cast. We didn’t do the scenes, none of us really did it separately in recording booths, which is how typical animated movies are done. This one, Wes Andersen had us literally go and move onto a farm together and we all lived together. And we’d wake up in the morning, have breakfast and then if there was a scene, for instance, that took place underneath a tree, George Clooney and Bill Murray, everyone, would walk over to the tree that we’d find, we’d take our scripts out and we’d just start acting out the scenes. And it was basically like doing a movie just with no cameras. So there were actors, the director, Wes, and a sound man. And we were running around, growling and hooting and hollering, and if we had to eat a bunch of food like in the movie we always are eating like French toast or biscuits, we would literally be eating French toast and biscuits...

Anyways, one day when we were doing this particular scene with this wolf...Wes said, you know we should really get someone to play the wolf so that the guys have someone to act opposite. And we looked around and Bill Murray was standing there with his hands in his pockets. He took his hands out and said, “I can be the wolf.” And Bill Murray just took off running, or I guess trotting. And he ran, ran, ran, ran really far away until he was tiny. And he turned around and actually became the wolf, like he, it’s almost as if he embodied the wolf. And he acted it out for us, and it was so inspiring and so beautiful. And Wes actually took out his camera phone, filmed it, and then sent that footage to the animators to base the wolf off of Bill Murray, so Bill Murray is the uncredited wolf in this movie. And he...was so good, it was as if he practiced it. I mean, it was incredible, his wolf performance...


Jason's comments reveal a lot of important ironies (they are also incidentally, a tribute to the ways that actual ensemble acting can enhance the high tech feature films of the computer animation generation). I digress.

The naive but earnest engagement with "literally" going and moving onto a farm together, and having breakfast, and being under a tree, is striking to any of us who have ever or whose friends have ever farmed for real. Certainly the film set farm is a far cry from the Michigan livestock operations where lots of folks seek the right to shoot wolves. Yet it does suggest that there can be a place for the wild in the new landscapes humans are crafting to meet our food and energy needs and our seemingly limitless aspirations for residential domination of the natural world. Maybe that new "wild" won't be a place or system  that works like it used to (on my after dark dog walks around the Huron riverbanks my collie and i keep meeting bedraggled, exhausted foxes and coyotes...they seem to be uprooted; fleeing sewage spills, luxury home building and new road grading they only seem able to look at us plaintively for a moment, then flee).

Whatever wild will accompany our new "Food Water Energy" matrix world with open floor plans and pleasant recreational spaces, it will have to somehow justify how it  enhances our world, and perhaps also our imaginations? The wild is icon, is beacon, is emblem for the various struggles we face as humans. It thus remains a crucial resource and one that more and more different kinds of people seek--if more and more through film and other digital media, and less and less through getting out there to hunt or fish or hike. Many only experience "the wild" through the kind of brief immersive experience that some shoot, or retreat, or reunion has afforded. Yet it stays with us, unforgettable, shaping all of the days we spend not doing that wild thing.  And maybe, on some of those days, we weigh in with a vote, or a "like" or a meeting, or a conversation, as the policy wheels turn on what to do and not do to wolves in our own backyards.


Wolf Hunt Revisited

As the data keep coming in from the wolf hunts in Michigan over the last few years but the jury is still out on the way that hunt is going to play into wolf populations here, and how it will shape interactions between wolves and humans in the long run. You can read the incremental coverage of this long running debate in various outlets: There is a 2014 Huffington Post story, or Fritz Klug's report from early that same year, and a follow on from John Barnes's report that March. Barnes wrote as a Federal Judge had stopped the kill by reinstating wolf protection, and as opponents of the hunt were organizing themselves for another petition against the hunt, and succeed in getting it back on a ballot for November 2014. But citizen votes to keep wolves protected met almost instant opposition from others in the state. By February 2015 Michigan's DNR was appealing the re-listing of wolves as endangered species, noting that it left many farmers in Michigan's UP without recourse when wolves threatened their livelihood. By July of 2015 a judge had upheld the Legislature's approval of the Scientific Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, giving the NRC the ability to designate animals as game species. Later that same year, however, Michigan's U.S.  Senators issued a call to action for wolf conservation on Isle Royale.  Fast forward one year, to spring 20-16, and  some of the first extensive ecological surveys of wolf populations in Michigan were underway, even as members of the US Congress and Senate considered measures to permanently resolve the question by delisting wolves as protected species in Michigan and three other states where these debates rage. As they say, "it's complicated."

This is not an issue that is going to be easily resolved, neither in Michigan, nor more broadly. This year's entering class of masters students at SNRE again sat with the dilemma of whether to open a wolf hunt in Michigan, during their orientation up at the Biostation; some had to play the role of hunters, others of scientists, others of animal advocates. It was uncomfortable. Wolves always make people uncomfortable.

In my last entry on this issue I offered you clips from the film Twilight. But the lone wolf in the animated tour de force "Fantastic Mr. Fox" reminds us  in a different way of the wolf's utterly unique symbolic weight in most cultures (and popular cultures). The scene reminds us to consider that hunting wolves is not necessarily anathema to respecting their animality. And protecting them doesn't always mean letting them remain free. Do those on both sides of the wolf debate in Michigan share the kind of respect-tinged-with-fear that Mr. Fox, with all his talking,  finally shuts up and just feels?

Here is Jason Schwarzman's account of how that scene got made (he voices the role of Ash Fox):

Well, okay. I’m just gonna say it. There’s a scene at the end of the movie when George Clooney’s character, myself, my cousin and the opossum, Kylie, are all on a little motorcycle driving back to our home... And we stop and we see a wolf on a distant hill... a beautiful moment between these foxes and little animals and this really like mysterious wolf who we’ve heard about the entire movie and who doesn’t talk in this scene and he’s not wearing clothes. He’s kind of, he represents I guess, the wild. ...they have this great connection, and in that moment, it really like to me the point of that scene is let’s keep on being free. Let’s keep on being animals. And it’s such an uplifting moment. When I’ve seen it with audiences, a bunch of people break into huge cheers and hooting. It’s such an awesome, awesome scene. It really just blows my mind.



 (videoclip from youtube; text from http://cussyeahfantasticmrfox.tumblr.com/)

And actually...we did the movie basically live together as a cast. We didn’t do the scenes, none of us really did it separately in recording booths, which is how typical animated movies are done. This one, Wes Andersen had us literally go and move onto a farm together and we all lived together. And we’d wake up in the morning, have breakfast and then if there was a scene, for instance, that took place underneath a tree, George Clooney and Bill Murray, everyone, would walk over to the tree that we’d find, we’d take our scripts out and we’d just start acting out the scenes. And it was basically like doing a movie just with no cameras. So there were actors, the director, Wes, and a sound man. And we were running around, growling and hooting and hollering, and if we had to eat a bunch of food like in the movie we always are eating like French toast or biscuits, we would literally be eating French toast and biscuits...

Anyways, one day when we were doing this particular scene with this wolf...Wes said, you know we should really get someone to play the wolf so that the guys have someone to act opposite. And we looked around and Bill Murray was standing there with his hands in his pockets. He took his hands out and said, “I can be the wolf.” And Bill Murray just took off running, or I guess trotting. And he ran, ran, ran, ran really far away until he was tiny. And he turned around and actually became the wolf, like he, it’s almost as if he embodied the wolf. And he acted it out for us, and it was so inspiring and so beautiful. And Wes actually took out his camera phone, filmed it, and then sent that footage to the animators to base the wolf off of Bill Murray, so Bill Murray is the uncredited wolf in this movie. And he...was so good, it was as if he practiced it. I mean, it was incredible, his wolf performance...


Jason's comments reveal a lot of important ironies (they are also incidentally, a tribute to the ways that actual ensemble acting can enhance the high tech feature films of the computer animation generation). I digress.

The naive but earnest engagement with "literally" going and moving onto a farm together, and having breakfast, and being under a tree, is striking to any of us who have ever or whose friends have ever farmed for real. Certainly the film set farm is a far cry from the Michigan livestock operations where lots of folks seek the right to shoot wolves. Yet it does suggest that there can be a place for the wild in the new landscapes humans are crafting to meet our food and energy needs and our seemingly limitless aspirations for residential domination of the natural world. Maybe that new "wild" won't be a place or system  that works like it used to (on my after dark dog walks around the Huron riverbanks my collie and i keep meeting bedraggled, exhausted foxes and coyotes...they seem to be uprooted; fleeing sewage spills, luxury home building and new road grading they only seem able to look at us plaintively for a moment, then flee).

Whatever wild will accompany our new "Food Water Energy" matrix world with open floor plans and pleasant recreational spaces, it will have to somehow justify how it  enhances our world, and perhaps also our imaginations? The wild is icon, is beacon, is emblem for the various struggles we face as humans. It thus remains a crucial resource and one that more and more different kinds of people seek--if more and more through film and other digital media, and less and less through getting out there to hunt or fish or hike. Many only experience "the wild" through the kind of brief immersive experience that some shoot, or retreat, or reunion has afforded. Yet it stays with us, unforgettable, shaping all of the days we spend not doing that wild thing.  And maybe, on some of those days, we weigh in with a vote, or a "like" or a meeting, or a conversation, as the policy wheels turn on what to do and not do to wolves in our own backyards.

If you are interested in teaching or learning about these questions, create an account and check out our new Wolf Wars case along with others for classroom or community use. It is open access, a manageable module, and really well built. It is a new way my colleagues at Michigan are bringing together ecology with culture, politics, and economics to try to help those younger than we are do better job than we have at making "complicated" decisions.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

U-M students compile list of top ecological conflicts in US history

This just in:

U-M students compile list of top ecological conflicts in US history


Backstory: Alejandro Colsa Perez walked into my office with a smile last year, and said in his Spaniard's lilting lisp, "Hi Rebecca! I thought I would talk to you about my interests for a thesis or project...see if you have any suggestions?"

I was at a complete loss.

Here was a student who had come all the way from Spain on a Fulbright to learn about U.S. grassroots environmental activism. He was my advisee, and i wanted to offer good guidance. But my own knowledge about those issues suddenly seemed paltry. Sure, I could talk to him about wildlife conservation, conflict minerals, and civil rights in the Congo or Kenya, but how would I guide him toward a goal of building better  bridges between Europe and the U.S. on environmental health issues?

"Ummmm...." I said to him, my weary brain wheels turning.

I had nothing.  Where was the professor in me, able to go on interminably about anything, however constrained my actual knowledge base?  "You're Spanish, right?"

He gave me a patient smile. "Right."

 "Maybe you should do a literature review, maybe look at work by European scholars so you can frame your interests in terms of their current debates....let's see...Joan Martinez Alier, at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, he's Spanish!"

"Who?" Alejandro perked up.

"Surely you know his work on The Environmentalism of the Poor?" I said, suddenly regaining a smidgeon of professorial composure.

"No...no not all..."

"Well, look it up and come see me next week."

A few days later Alejandro popped back into my office with a full fledged plan, hashed out in convivial rapid fire Spanish with Martinez Alier himself, on the long distance telephone. "He wants us to put together a team to review U.S. environmental conflicts for his EU-funded environmental conflict atlas project...and i'm flying to Barcelona next month to meet with him and his team!"

Alejandro had already recruited the keen intellect of Katy Hintzen, who also dropped by my office to express her enthusiasm. Her piercing blue eyes sizing me up, as she eloquently explained how her own childhood as the daughter of an environmental organizer in the Chicago area had put her on a path to studying policy and activism. I could tell they were going to put together a great project team.

"Help!" i said, to my colleague Paul Mohai, one of the catalysts and long time contributors to the "Michigan Coalition" of academic research that has fueled and followed impacts of EJ activism in the U.S.  I implored him: "I know Martinez Alier, and I know these students, and we have an all star team with potential for wide impact; we just need someone who knows, respects, and is respected by leaders of the U.S. movement. Can you co-advise?"

Paul stepped up. And so did SNRE student Sara Orvis, from her background in upstate New York with its legacies of burning finger lakes, an alienated working class, and American Indian communities fighting for the control and safety of their lands.  When the team found methodologically savvy Bernadette Grafton, who had an interest in brownfield redevelopment and the interface of rural and urban environmental issues from her years of study in Ohio, we knew we were ready.

Sure enough, they came up with a winning recipe: start with peer reviewed literature, media and grey literature review, to guide a list of eligible cases. Then, divide the U.S. into four regions and review cases within each region to see which should figure on a survey that requests impact rankings from respondents. Be sure you design it as an adaptive survey instruments where people can rank, comment on, AND add to your list. Get the survey maximum visibility on the EPA's Environmental Justice Blog, to elicit a combination of internet based citizen science and expert opinion. With high response rates and disparities between expert and public responses, use techniques for weighted analysis that also balance media bias in the findings. If you want icing on your cake, you can enhance these quantitative results with follow up qualitative research including semi structured interviews and oral work histories with a selection of respondents from a range of stakeholder categories, to learn about how organizations themselves are changing over time.

In this way, our team has come up with something their European collaborators refer to, shorthand, as the "Michigan Method." It allows sifting through varied national and regional environmental movements and conflicts, to obtain synthetic results about wider impacts, key trends, historical junctures, and networks of actors. It drills down far deeper than a mere "pins on a map" approach, and helps each of those pins represent some combination of breakthrough legislation, organizational transformation, public visibility, and impact on public environmental attitudes and policy action.

This team honors legacies of EJ leadership here at UM's School of Natural Resources and Environment. They have educated me about how environmental conflict, while place-placed and regionally specific, is also a major transnational phenomenon in need of better connection across grassroots  organizations. Such small scale, community-based initiatives across the globe are facing the challenge of how and whether to formalize their status to gain better visibility, and wider impact. Such Environmental Justice Organizations or EJOs are an important counter to what many call "BINGOs" or Big international NGOs, who are almost all linked with sophisticated corporate social responsibility campaigns, corporate donors, or corporate board members.

The team was in Lund, Sweden, and Copenhagen, Denmark in March 2014 to meet with European environmental policy makers and scholars. In the photo, above, Masters students (front center) Katy Hintzen, Bernadette Grafton, and Alejandro Colsa and SNRE Professor Paul Mohai (back left) meet with Professors Joan Martinez-Allier (front left), Beatriz Rodriguez Labajos (front right), and Alf Hornborg at EJOLT and ENTITLE Conferences at Lund University in Sweden.   We have since revised two article, one accepted for publication in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Politics, Groups and Identities, and also in a forthcoming issue of Environmental Research Letters.  And (of course) they did a stint with great tunes and talk on our freeform environmental talk show "It's Hot in Here" on Ann Arbor's WCBN FM 88.3 which aired on April 11 2014 at noon.

Or why not, as they call for on the radio, go further? An Italian team is attempting to implement what they are calling the "Michigan Method" now, but you can do your part, too. Simply log on to ejatlas.org and see if there are cases of environmental conflict YOU know about  that should be up there? The work goes on...and the more discussion and debate about which cases, why and where, the BETTER.



















Wednesday, March 5, 2014

On Interspecies War and African Technologies





Thanks to colleague Clapperton Mavhunga for briefly addressing the challenges to us in even conceptualizing what he terms an 'interspecies war' between humanity and other life forms, playing out at this time on African terrains.

Journalist Kate Brooks does not mince words about why "war" is the right word to use.
see a rough cut of footage from kenya here.

What are the stakes involved in using such words? The question reminds me of a project from several years back, a book on Elephants and Ethics, edited by Wemmer and Christen. It seems prescient, given the current levels of elephant poaching in remaining wild populations:  Barnes and Noble has a nice writeup here

What does interspecies conflict studies look like? Melissa Remis and I visited anthropologist Cat Bolton a few months ago at Notre Dame to present an early version of our efforts at accounting for the ecological costs of current conflict in Central African Republic. While there, she spoke to us of her growing interest in chimp sanctuaries in west Africa. The animal turn in anthropology is moving beyond those interested in emergent phenomena, cognitive and cultural ecology approaches, or science studies. We are starting to see streams of historical, ethnographic and political economic work interspecies interaction. Bravo!

Of course, work on conflict between animals and humans must unfold alongside that chronicling their relationships of intimacy or companionship. When I visited Jamie Lorimer a couple of years ago at King's College in London (he is now at Oxford), he shared a fantastic piece he had writtenon elephants as companion species (you can read the abstract here). For the Elephants and Ethics article, I recall arguing that solidarity among those who share substantial time and energy with these animals would be required to save them; this would connect handlers, hunters, ecologists and others in communities that see high value in remaining populations of these animals outside private hands (material from that chapter can be seen here).

Alas, too much of my time is still spent trying to build better bridges across the divides between academic circles and field conservationists, between social and veterinary or ecological expertise...these battles are far from won. Meanwhile, the more important ones proceed, transforming the world we live in, while we try to get better at working together.

Clapperton's campus, MIT, is hosting a huge Africa Innovate conference in April, looking at technology and entrepreneurship on that continent. Their keynote speakers have successful mining portfolios, e-book companies, and supermarket chains. It is sponsored by Chevron and Coca Cola, among others. I hope that among the tech talk, guns are not forgotten as a technology around which Africa's wealthiest and most innovative minds must do some good work, and fast.










Monday, February 17, 2014

African Valentine: the Modern Griot


Last Friday, Valentine's Day, I felt shot right through the heart by the end of my interview on air with music phenomenon Habib Koite for our weekly radio show "It's Hot in Here" (IHIH) on WCBN FM, 88.3 Ann Arbor (catch the interview and the stone cold february grooves at http://www.hotinhere.us/archive.html).  His words of hope, and his sense of the work that is required to restore peace and prosperity in his country, Mali, were as moving as the soulful, intricately rhythmic music from his new album, SoĆ“, from which he will be performing at the Ark Tuesday night (doors open at 7pm, details here: Habib Koite - The modern griot).

Dorothea in the field
What, you may ask, is a griot? Griots are a bit like the troubadours of medieval European courts. They are composers and praise singers, but also keepers and recounters of details about the past, revisers of political narratives, weavers of historical meaning. My friend Dorthea Schultz, an anthropolgist in Cologne, Germany, has written wonderful books about griots, contemporary media, and islam in Mali (www. http://ethnologie.phil-fak.uni-koeln.de/schulz.html?&L=1). Habib confirmed what she has taught me; Griots were often cared for--housed, nourished, protected and celebrated--by nobility in Mali, by the great families with significant wealth. But that tradition is dynamic, and lives into today.

"So," I said, "if you are a modern griot without nobility, who cares for you?" He laughed as he answered me, after thinking for a moment, and cited his audiences all over the world, from Norway to Michigan, buying tickets and turning out to hear him sing and play.  He spoke about the warmth and spontaneity that came from recording this work, about home place, and harmony, and a feeling of belonging, from the comfort of his own home. He noted this move was partly a response to the growing expense of producing albums. But it was also his response to changes in his lineup of musicians, in his own life, and his focus on how home comes to be, and the work it takes to make peace at every level, from households to communities to states, like Mali.

Habib at the Hague
Recall that in 2012 Mali lost control of its three largest northern cities, Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu, in a broader region known as Azarwad. This wresting of power from the Malian state occured through a fragile alliance between the Natioanl Movement for the Liberation of Ansarwad (or NMLA, a group largely oriented around securing rights and status for Mali's marginalized Tuareg populations)  and insurgent islamist forces (backed by Ansar Dine and a number of other small islamist groups). That alliance eroded as islamist forces  imposed strict sharia law. This allowed the Malian state, supported by both French and African Union troops, to regain control of the region. International media flocked to the area to interview Malian women, again allowed into public areas without covering their heads and bodies. However, the internal issues surrounding religious and environmental differences amont Tuareg and various other Malians have not been fully resolved, and fighting continues despite French troop reductions and withdrawals.

From left, IHIH founders Sara Cwiek, Hugh Stimson, and Jennifer Johnson
Just before Friday's discussion with Habib, we dipped into the WCBN
archive from Hot in Here's first season, 2008. It was haunting to hear
my own voice, expertly guided by SNRE alumna and radio professional
Sara Cwiek, now reporting on Detroit for Michigan radio. She led me through a discussion about natural resource conflict and social violence in central Africa. To hear Habib talking last Friday, things have only gotten more challenging in that part of the world, where social and sectarian violence surge like horrible symptoms of festering conflicts over land, water, and other resources in these parts of Africa at present. This socio-environmental malady compromises states
that were already struggling as containers for diverse, prosperous, peaceful communities. As Habib put it, "our country's flag, the flag of Mali, has been throw into the mud. It will require every person's hands, all working together, to lift it out and make it proud again."

He listened with empathetic sadness as I spoke of related violence unfolding at present in sites where I have worked in Central African Republic (CAR). We both know that similar situations such as that in Darfur, Sudan, have ceased to draw so much international attention and student activism on campuses like UM, but they have not ceased to simmer, and to cause suffering. Habib's music is both a balm and an urgent call for engagement on these questions. You can learn more about the conflict in CAR here. You can learn more about Habib's music on his website

Better yet, be his nobility. Come out to the Ark on Tuesday night, and celebrate the beautiful sides of the human spirit: fingers dancing on strings, bodies dancing and voices lifting, together, despite the darkness.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Land Management on Interspecies Dynamics in Rural Kenya | MCubed Symposi...



"Three's Company" read the headline in the Magazine about SNRE, which regularly circulates on campus and to our alumnae. There we were: Me, Johannes Foufopoulos, and Joe Eisenberg, our arms around each other, smiling for the camera as if our work were not about one of the most infectious pathogens on the planet, spread through animal poop, or placentas, and known to cause heart failure and reproductive complications.

Public Health and Environmental collaborators; photo by Dave Brenner
This Thursday, we'll be explaining why we have felt smarter in conversation with one another about Q fever in Kenyan wildlife and livestock rich landscapes. Through a poster at the UM Symposium on MCubed initiatives, we'll show how we are learning to measure exposure to the disease in animals relied upon by rural Kenyans, and to model how transmission between those animals and humans likely happens, and might be prevented.

This is especially important to our Kenyan colleagues in rural health care centers, and at University of Nairobi, the Mpala Research Centre, the St. Louis Zoo's Institute for Conservation Medicine. These colleagues, along with Eric Fevre, and Salome Wanyoike, leaders in the field of zoonotic disease who are working with other East Africa experts to plan an upcoming regional conference,  we published an article in Ecohealth last year. The piece, entitled  featured the hard research, analysis, and writing work of talented UM graduate students as well as faculty.  Our data demonstrate that this pathogen is out there in rural Kenya, and merits closer attention. Here is a short video, in which we explain why.

Even in an age of Ebola, where spectacular and terribly virulent pathogens garner deep concern and media attention, we must not lose sight of those silent epidemics of pathogens that can be chronic, but extremely severe if left untreated. In modeling and monitoring them, we may find keys to understanding and interrupting the cycles of zoonotic disease that are among the most horrifying emblems of our interconnectedness as a species, and with others species on this planet.