Island Life


“Millions of chickens, pigs and cattle will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities, Tyson writes. The food supply chain is breaking.”

Just a little more than a year and a half ago, I was standing in my old neighborhood on the front steps of the house I grew up in. I was talking to a person from India, who happened to be the current owner of that house. He was and is a U.S. citizen, and as we talked, mostly about my recollections of the neighborhood from long ago, I got the sense that he was a conservative. Part of my reasons for assuming this were expressed in his feelings on and about climate change. As he stated it, his belief was that the primary source of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was not cars or coal power or industry, but rather that it has its origins in the raising of cattle- I did not ask whether he meant meat or dairy cattle, mostly because I did not want to sustain this part of the conversation for any longer than was necessary.

I also did not mention that, at that point, I had been a vegetarian for over forty years, and so to some degree I could agree with him on part of this assumption most whole-heartedly, because in fact some of that greenhouse gas blanket can be attributed to cows. From the CO2 from cow poop and, I guess, cattle belching, to the burnt fossil fuels and fossil fuel based fertilizers used to grow corn and sorghum and alfalfa and other forage and silage crops necessary for meat and dairy production, it would seem that there is a significant role that this part of the human condition is playing  in putting more carbon into the atmosphere. To admit that it was the entire fault of perambulating bovines would have come as a great stretch on my part. But I wasn’t there to argue the finer points of global climate concerns, and my intuition was that I would be better served to keep on nodding and be able to walk away without causing a ruckus when all was said and done. The myopia of his blaming the cows, and them alone, perhaps gave him some comfort in doing something about the climate, without doing much of anything- if he was a vegetarian himself. I do not know and did not ask whether he was veg. Having spent some time talking with a director from India about his film on bullfighting in India that screened at the Big Sky Doc Fest in Missoula last year, and having learned from him that the Indian sacred cow thing was not as nationwide a phenomenon as I had understood it to be, it would seem that a less than actual universal reverence for cow life in India would suggest that having birth origins there does not necessarily dictate a meatless lifestyle wherever one winds up. In many ways, it is likely that the Indian owner of my childhood residence did not have vegetarianism as a moral refuge in his carbon from cows global climate manifesto, and I guess it really doesn’t matter.

I think it was on my way back west on that first, sort of recent journey to my home town, when  I found myself stopping in Atchison, Kansas, mostly because it had gotten dark and that’s where I was. As it turned out, the innkeeper of my last minute, roadside, motel choice was Indian, and the next day we happened to get into a long conversation as I was checking out. As we were talking about a wide range of things, I decided to ask him about the phenomenon I was noticing as I stopped and stayed at numerous other small motels across these United States, and that was why there were so many Indian innkeepers all over this country.  According to him, apparently the word had gotten out a number of years ago in India- I think he said it was in the 1970’s- that America needed innkeepers, and so there was this migration, and mostly all at once, of people from a fairly small and specific region of India, who had been inspired by the word of this need, and so they came. He also mentioned that there were a number of people who were related who had come to take advantage of this business opportunity, and that their family name was Patel,  and that is a name which I have indeed seen at some of the motels I have stayed at. I cannot remember for certain, but this establishment in Atchison may have also been the motel where, along with the Gideon’s bible, there was also a copy of the Baghavad Gita in the bedside stand. I wondered if that too might help in good Rocky’s revival- you never know what might help.

Another thing that I have been somewhat surprised about in my two, round-trip road trips in the last two years is the proliferation of wind farms out there in the wide open, and I guess in the not so wide open of the hilltops of Vermont and elsewhere. I recall first being made aware of early wind power in Terrence Malick’s film, Days of Heaven and I think, maybe, Comes a Horseman, and which, as I’m remembering, both came out in the same year, 1978, and both had small, electricity generating windmills as incidental props. At the same time I began reading about early innovations in wind power design. And so it was when these behemoth towers began showing up along roadways as of late, I was fascinated as to how we got here from there. I was baffled by people’s dislike of their appearance, as to me they seemed to be simple, elegant sculptures, as well as being functional in power generation. It also seemed, given the alternative of having a coal-smoke belching generation plant with endless train cars hauling in loads of black rocks that were then burned and turned to coal ash on the wind, that having something that, instead, spins in the wind and puts out useable energy, just might be a vastly preferable contraption to have as a neighbor. One could mention the orange idiot-in-chief’s claims of the cancer causing effects of windmills, but then one now only need mention the words “bleach” or Lysol to remind us (not that we need reminding) that he really doesn’t know jack shit about anything, let alone running a country anywhere besides into the ground, but I digress.

I will say that as I was driving back through Kansas last summer, I happened upon a windfarm along interstate 70 somewhere east of Colby, Kansas, and I shot a brief film out the car window at 75mph as a kind of ode to wind power- if you search the youtubes for “a sunset wind in kansas”, you should find it. If you happen to watch this short, three minute piece, you might find it calming with its ambient music, pleasant sunset colors and gentle whirling of those giant pinwheels out to the horizon. One might even think, as I did at the time, which is why I shot it, that in at least a few parts of the world, some things might be more right than others. It would seem that in these times that are now ubiquitously labeled as “uncertain”, “trying” or “difficult” ( I think I prefer Brad Pitt’s recent characterization of “unnerving”), that an anchor and a beacon in a world of right would be a good thing. And then one more thing drops in this placid pool of purity and goodness that sends shock waves of tsunami proportions to the unsuspecting and already virus weary shores. That something would be Jeff Gibbs’ documentary, titled appropriately ‘Planet of the Humans’, with a font on the film ad that recalls that sixties fictional sci-fi classic, ‘Planet of the Apes’. Without having to issue a spoiler alert to the three or four of you out there who have not seen Charleton Heston’s surprise discovery on one of the beaches of ape world at the dramatic finale, it should be stated that I found repeated, revelatory shocks of a real world kind relating to icons and totems of the green revolution throughout this documentary that rivaled Heston’s beach pounding madness.

I should also say that I have been having a social media back and forth with another Islander about this. Their claim is that Gibbs’ film is riddled with inaccuracies and misstatements. I cannot speak to the hardcore science in dispute. What I can note is that the bigger picture which is being called into question here is that if we continue to overpopulate the earth there is no way we are going to “science” our way to survival as a species through deus ex machina capitalist ventures. As it is, there may be no way we are going to get out of this alive, regardless of whatever path we choose. As we look toward getting back to “normal” as we come out of this pandemic thing, if we do not take a hard and fast look at the lessons of the virus, specifically in terms of universal healthcare, job security and the overall effects of the capitalist system driven by fossil fuels, and then work to make some radical changes, then we are perhaps doomed as a species. One of the things that needs to be changed first of all is restoring what used to be known as the truth to the common discourse. For starters, right here and now one might ask what is the underlying truth in the statement quoted back at the beginning of this ramble? Here one might focus on the word depopulated. What that sounds like to me is that since the “food chain” has been disrupted and the suppliers can’t get their “product” to market in a timely fashion, then in corporate terms it would seem that these animal “products” in their continued pursuit in remaining alive would need to be fed and housed for a longer period than is dictated by economics and market forces, and therefore they now have become a liability and a burden of net loss on the system and therefore, in one of my favorite quotes from Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ in regard to the renegade Col. Kurtz, they should be “terminated… terminated with extreme prejudice.” I guess that one way or another they wind up dead in this system- being depopulated sounds more like disposing of waste, although one would suspect they would at least find a way to cut their losses in the best capitalist terms. On the other hand, that termination scene at the end of ‘Apocalypse Now’ was paired with the actual ritual slaughter of a water buffalo by the local tribe who were playing Kurtz’ adopted aboriginal tribe in the film, so there was a relative degree of dignity in that death, at least on the part of the humans. On the other had, one of the most graphic and disturbing scenes from ‘Planet of the Humans’ was one that showed live cows being forced into a metal pit where they were ground up to become burnable fat for fuel- an energy alternative. Whichever way livestock depopulation goes, we need to do better than this- much better.

Otherwise, why even bother with a cure for coronavirus or climate change? In the words and lyrics from that 70’s rock group, Emerson Lake and Palmer: “They said there’d be snow at Christmas- They said there’ll be peace on earth- Hallelujah, Noel, be it Heaven or Hell- the Christmas you get you deserve.”