Archive for the ‘Encounters’ Category

Coming down from the mountain #2

September 6, 2013

The long awaited

Before it slips too far out the back door of my memory I’d better do a brief report back from the ‘final’ Uncivilisation Festival as organised by members of the Dark Mountain Project (the founders say it’s just the end of the ‘official’ festival as an annual event because they want to focus more on publishing the writing and other works, but others are free to organise their own events under the same banner). I missed the first one in Wales, but have attended the subsequent three at the Sustainability Centre in East Meon, Hampshire. All three have been slightly strange experiences in different ways, but over all very satisfying and good for my general mental wellbeing. The effect of it wears off in time after returning to the lowlands, but while it lasts there’s a feeling of serenity, magnanimity and generosity towards others, and a sense of having finally been listened to with the certain darker portions of the psyche brought to light and acknowledged instead of forever being suppressed and attacked – both by others and by the dominant Self. All this seemed to happen regardless of how much speaking I actually did…

One of the big selling points of the festival has been this thing of creating the space & time, as well as a particular kind of psychological opening for a certain kind of conversation to take place – a kind of talking it’s more or less impossible to find anywhere else. So the important stuff doesn’t really happen in all the scheduled events so much as in the incidental conversations that happen over lunch or by the fire or inside a hexayurt at two in the morning. While this always sounded good to me in theory, in reality it led to a ridiculously high expectation which was bound to end in frustration. Dammit, I’m a shy guy who has been routinely damaged by attempting to engage others in Deep&Meaningful conversations in the past only to be misinterpreted or rebuffed by denial, existential freakouts or personal attacks. I have responded by keeping most of that shit underground until the foundations of a solid relationship have been built, interpersonal ties have settled in and there’s enough trust to feel secure enough to embark on that Difficult Journey. Since there’s never enough time to do that in modern living I have mostly responded by keeping that shit underground. And then I expect to have the ability to blast all those barriers wide open, with no preparation or any kind of ‘halfway house’, for just one weekend among near total strangers? WTF, of course that’s not going to work!

What has happened has come in fits and starts, and the beginnings of relationships that get built on slightly via email and very occasional meetups thenafter. It’s good stuff though. Not exactly life-changing (or world-changing) in a big way, but important baby-steps nonetheless. So without further ado…

This year’s lesson was Humility. The weather kicked my ass in a big way. I was trying to be all primitive with my tarp and groundsheet (I tried making pegs out of broken twigs but they wouldn’t go in the ground until a neighbouring woman lent me her tent-peg mallet) and it was more or less okay for the Friday night, but the rain through Saturday crept in and puddled in a few places making it impossible to sleep, even fully clothed. I tried my damndest of course, even with a sore throat and a cough coming on, but gave up at about 1am with water starting to squelch around my knees. Such an idiot… I eventually got my damp stuff together and wandered to the main building of the centre, intending to sleep on a bench or something, but a guy there told me there was a fire at the woodland stage cob-walled building and I was less likely to get disturbed there in the morning. So that’s what I did, finding Chris T-T and a few others wrapping up a fireside jam. I played some L.Cohen and other songs on the travel guitar while attempting to dry my sleeping bag out on the back of a couple of chairs (moderately successful) and eventually got an okay night’s sleep  on a rather hard bench next to the fireplace. Later I heard Martin Shaw talk about his arrival that same night and his awe at the deep mists that were supposed to represent female sexual arousal or something in Chinese mythology and how there was always something to learn from the weather; something to appreciate. What a bastard…

So what things did I go to?

Friday night I watched a bit of the music in the woodland stage. The Songlines Choir made some pretty awesome sounds and had a good attitude and rapport. Marmaduke Dando’s set was relentlessly depressing but in quite a beautiful way and he holds himself and grabs your attention quite well. The folks playing homemade instruments did some interesting things and some rather limp neo-folk. Then Tom Hirons fireside tale went on for ages but was awesomely well-told and well-accompanied by Rima Staines as usual. Unfortunately my body wouldn’t allow me to stay right through to the end. Probably something to do with being up since 5.40am and working all day despite my boss originally telling me I could have the day off. Grrr…

Saturday I woke up with enough time for porridge and tea, then went to the intro talk and the next one in the main marquee ‘The Death of Nature Writing’, which was okay as far as I remember. The main point: there should be no ‘nature writing’, just ‘writing’ because everything is ‘nature’ so don’t try to parcel it off as marginal interest. I made some point in the Q&A about making editorial space for lengthy pieces because soundbites and twitter posts aren’t adequate for effectively challenging the manufactured ‘common sense’ of the status quo, which requires detailed, in-depth debunking and then regular recapitulation in order to neutralise its toxic effects. Felt a bit weird mentioning Noam Chomsky to that crowd, but I used his ‘brevity favours propaganda’ spiel as an example [quote now in comment thread].

Wanting to do something physical, I decided not to go to Gathering Night (‘A vivid imagining of how it might have been to live during the Mesolithic period’) author, Margaret Elphinstone’s talk and do wiry Brazilian, Jorge Goia’s capoeira-based ‘Games you can’t play alone’. Good fun and nice building trust with others in fall&catch style games. A couple of women fell through at or just after my point in the circle (one stands in the middle while the others support and spin them round the perimeter) because I was trying to avoid touching their breasts and couldn’t get decent purchase anywhere else. Managed to drop in on Elphinstone by the end of her talk, where my friend Nick was giving her the third degree over something-or-other. Bought her book and got her to sign it as well as getting a few leads off her for info on the Mesolithic and Hunter-Gatherer life in Britain. Seemed like a nice lady, eager to talk and enthuse even when hungry for lunch.

I stuck around for a few minutes of the ‘Taking it Home’ discussion on where now for DM, but soon decided to go to the construction of the Life Cairn in the woods. ‘What does it mean to be alive in the midst of the sixth mass extinction?’ Obviously I had to be there. It was raining and there were only a small handful of us, but we went ahead with the ritual of naming extinct species from Andreas Kornevall’s little scraps of paper. I didn’t know most of them, so it felt slightly alienated until we started talking a little about the lives of these creatures, where they were from, how they were killed off, how they affected the ecology around them while they were alive and what effects their disappearance caused. It was quite poignant and solemn in the end, with the bell ringing after each naming and several glugs of mead in a wooden Saami spoon that got passed around. Mead was supposed to represent the tears of the Earth Goddess (Freya?) or something in various Norse cultures. Definitely a valuable thing to do. I didn’t realise the Galapagos giant tortoise was totally extinct. I asked what it meant to mourn the passing of species with whom us civilised humans have no ecologic relationship with, but I wasn’t really expecting an answer and didn’t really get one other than an acknowledgement that it was a good question. It was more a statement of exasperation anyway. By the twisted values of civilisation the extinction rate is actually a measure of success as more land comes under sole cultivation for the human demand and the biologic wealth swells in the storehouses, stolen from the others who must now starve to death.

I went on Fergus Drennan’s wild food walk, which was good although he recapped a lot of what I saw him talk about two years previously in exactly the same spot. I told him I’d send some money to support his proposed ‘Wild Food Year‘, which looks like it could turn up some really interesting things.

Next, more humility as Naeem Akram put us through our paces and basically told us that everything about how we stand, move, walk and run is wrong and has been fucked up by shoes and other aspects of civilised living. We went for a barefoot run in the rain and I learned that landing on the balls of the feet, as I’ve been teaching myself to do for the last couple of years in an attempt to do away with the damaging heel-strike, might not be appropriate for walking and jogging (although perhaps for sprinting) as it can seize up the calf muscle and disallow the full rocking flex of the ankle joint. Seems like flat-foot landing is the order of the day, with a reduced stride length trying to keep the legs under the torso and keeping the big toe pointing forwards to keep the knee in line. Big project… Also we were all humiliated by his core strength / connective tissue exercise of lifting the whole body while face down with only the hands and toes touching the ground. He was able to lift himself bodily a good distance off the ground, while the rest of us strained and folded up at our weak points. So that’s something to work on… Damn you Naeem – I though I was good at this stuff!

The Arcadia talk was all right. Marmaduke introduced it with a reading from Kevin Tucker’s preface to the Against Civilization book edited by John Zerzan. A few people in the audience objected to the generalised ‘romanticisation’ of the primitive lifestyle which they clearly felt was more ‘nasty, brutish and short’, although they didn’t supply any contradictory evidence. My contribution was to point out the high rates of defection from early European settlements in the Americas to their native tribal neighbours – it got to the stage where they had to outlaw & punish it harshly, but whites continued to leave and never come back, even leaving wives, husbands and children behind. Clearly they knew what was good for them. I felt the urge to butt in on a few more exchanges, but held my tongue for fear of monopolising the discussion. I wish in hindsight that I’d shared more of my understanding of the spread of agriculture through Europe and its arrival in Britain, though. The discussion would have benefited from being pinned down to the specifics of this island rather than dealing in nebulous terms of civilised vs. primitive. Who were the uncivilised native people in this country? Are they still here in any form? What can we learn from them? How can we ‘go native’ ourselves without their living example to consult and emulate?

It was very surreal going from this kind of questioning to a talk by a heritage wheat farmer whose name I forget [update: his name is John Letts]. He spent the first quarter of an hour or so talking about the origins of agriculture and the domestication of wheat, airing out a lot of the usual theories and some new ones I’d not heard. He was aware of the health defects recorded in the archeology and of the ‘Diseases of Civilisation’ which were unheard of before the advent of large-scale grain consumption, and even spoke about Weston A. Price and the paleo diet, which I think he said he had tried himself (!) When pressed he admitted that he thought wheat should form only a small portion of the over all diet and not the major staple, both for health reasons and for the sake of the environment. I tried to ask about the long term sustainability of wheat farming – whether growing the plant year after year in a monocrop depletes the nutrients in the soil beyond possible replenishment – but I think my question got a bit garbled by the sound of rain hitting the parachute above our heads (plus I was getting very croaky with my sore throat) and he didn’t come up with a direct answer. Loads of interesting info though, like the prevalence of sourdough bread in medieval times; that peasants ate mostly rye with the wheat being reserved for the lords and monks or for festive occasions; that ergotism was rife but the souring process killed it off, although the ‘St. Anthony’s fire’ of the LSD-like ergot poisoning came when the peasants were given wheat bread, risen with yeast; that wheat actually doesn’t like too much nitrogen, which causes it to grow too tall and fall over (though this is good for growing thatch – a more lucrative crop for farmers to cultivate than the grain these days) – modern wheats have been bred for shortness so they don’t suffer in the same way from being drenched with petrol-based nitrates. He was also very knowledgeable about the seed-saving regulations and the predatory behaviour of Monsanto and others in trying to hook farmers and gardeners on their ‘terminator seed’ GM crops. Some really ugly stuff happening there. Also, he described industrial breadmaking as basically a recipe for widescale gluten intolerance and increased virulence in the other wheat allergies. They actually produce gluten separately and add it to the flour to make it rise quickly and conform to the fluffy texture the supermarkets have come to require. It’s all deeply fucked – see this article for example. Anyway, I had more respect for the man than I thought I would. Also I’m coming to realise that I eat a whole lot of bread and don’t seem to be able to replace it with anything else, so maybe I ought to find the best way to rewild my relationship with wheat and show some respect to the plant which, for better or worse, has gone some considerable way to making me what I am. The medieval practices certainly have a lot to recommend them in contrast to the modern techniques in fields, factories and kitchens.

I can’t remember what happened after that. There was more rain, I think, and I made dinner in a dark tent on my stove. My lighter was wet so I took the gas stove to the firepit and was about to try and light it directly from the flames when the intelligent part of me issued a cautionary alarm and I lit it with a smoldering twig instead. Got chatting to a nice young couple (I think) from near Sheffield (I think) and got them to try one of the whole acorns I had in my lentil stew after they expressed an interest. So I got to impart some of my Useful Knowledge to at least two people, and it sounded like they were keen to try out the leaching process this Autumn.

Saw some of the Uncivilised Stand-up, which was pretty rubbish although the room was in a good mood so it didn’t matter that much. I mean, not planning your act is fine, but if you’re going to bill yourself as a comedian you should at least be able to come up with a few jokes rather than sitting there like a plum and trying to get the audience to do your work for you. Anyway…

I missed the midnight ritual, which I’m told was ecstatic for some. I bet I would have hated it, just playing along with the usual phoney self-persuasion. At least the people howling in the woods for hours on end provided a welcome distraction while I was trying to fall asleep in my soggy sleeping bag (!)

Sunday was better, mostly because of the weather. I went to Steve’s ‘Full Circle’ session which relaxed a lot of mental tensions for me in a nice meditative way. My shoulders also felt better for the full-circle group massage! It followed the same pattern as the capoeira-style session in that you do the exercise and then sit down and talk about your experiences. Lots of interesting stuff came out which probably won’t sound as interesting here.

Martin Shaw’s talk was as brilliant as last year’s, what with terrific praise poems about women and breasts and a wonderful recounting of an East-European folk tale which seemed to have to do with female initiation into adulthood. Many moments of hilarity, especially when he breaks style and uses modern idioms. I failed to do as instructed and retell the story to somebody, human or otherwise, within seven days. I hope the punishment isn’t too severe…

After that I um’ed and ah’ed for a bit over whether to stick around for Shaw’s discussion or to go to the Deep Green Resistance discussion in the tee-pee. I listened to him start, but it wasn’t ringing my bells so I eventually plucked up the courage to walk into the tee-pee in my perfect attire of green raincoat, green&white checked shirt, jeans and big brown walking boots and black&green bandanna holding the hair out of my face. There were only three young guys (including the one leading the talk) in there to start with but we were eventually joined by a pair of older folk and a couple of young women. The atmosphere was surprisingly pleasant, with much of the usual DGR spiel (have a look on youtube for some talks by Aric McBay, Lierre Keith or Derrick Jensen to get the general picture) being met with understanding nods and positive discussion. The guy kept using the phrase ‘destruction of property’ which made me tense until I prompted him to explain that this wasn’t the goal in itself and it wasn’t intended to be indisciminate. I guess my reaction was on the behalf of your average Briton who actually has a little bit of property which they’ve managed to wrestle off the powers-that-be and into which a lot of their life work has been invested (I know, weird, because I don’t have anything like that myself). There was a fear-response from the older guy who insisted on telling us about this supposed new government weapon of radio towers triangulating to blow up certain areas, but couldn’t tell us why he thought this was relevant. A bit of acrimony surfaced over a misunderstanding about the relative values of taking down civilisation vs. building something that will survive its collapse and provide a home for people afterward. Withdrawal vs. combative engagement, that kind of polarity. The younger women tried to laugh it off by talking about planting radical cabbages. I spoke to the representative afterwards about the fear response, which he told me was very common. We agreed that this was probably what lay behind Alistair McIntosh’s outbursts against DGR and possibly Paul Kingsnorth’s comparing them to Anders Breivik a short while after (although he has come around a little since then). This will probably change as people find they have less & less to lose. I for one don’t give a shit about drones, internet surveillance (howya doing, all you NSA operatives?) or newfangled crowd-control weapons. The state will do what it always does – what’s new there? We, however, are responsible for our own actions, be they creative or destructive. Past a certain point I think you have to operate from the understanding that this agency is primary and everything else is reactive and secondary. You do what you have to do and others either support you in that work or they don’t, that’s all. Still, getting down to talking about how this works in practice scares the pants off me, and talking to the older lady afterwards made me realise just how far off this kind of action is for me personally. I could tell that so many things were in place and ready to go for her through a long career in activism that weren’t at all sussed out in me. An emotional readiness is necessary which, I think, has to come through a great deal of pain and grief. I bought the DGR book, which is turning into a great, albeit stark and horrifying read. Also there’s now a UK-based group who have a website here [see cautionary note in comments before you do anything hasty].

Mark Boyle’s talk was pretty cool. A very down to earth guy who also name-checked Jensen and Endgame, along with a good many others. His discussion about a wild economy was priceless: (paraphrasing) A bird doesn’t think it’s doing an environmentally responsible action by shitting on the ground. It just shits on the ground. We need to get (back) to the place where we can act like any other species and do helpful, ecologically beneficial things just because it feels like the obvious thing to do.

The final farewell with the rain tipping down on our gathering will be an enduring and fond memory, although for me the winning reaction was still one of ‘I need to get somewhere dry, fast’ rather than anything more spiritually transcendent. I caught up afterwards with most of the people I’d met and come to know a bit over the years, said some goodbyes, drank and shared some nettle beer, felt all fuzzy and empathic and soon enough it was time to pack my still rather damp things in time for the last shuttle bus back to the train station. I’m glad I managed to catch Paul Kingsnorth and say thanks for organising the festivals and starting the whole project, and that personally it had been ‘something of a lifeline’ for me in the dreary commuter-belt landscape of Tory-blue Surrey. I think that’s pretty true. It’s all well and good reading these books from far-out types in the US, but there’s a real need to connect this to something real in your own country, wherever you are. I can’t afford to move to Portland, Oregon, so I’m beyond grateful that we’re finally whipping up something similar in our own neighbourhoods. Long may it continue, in whatever new forms it may take.

70%, 60%

June 22, 2013

***Updated July 6th***

A highly distressing new report from Friends of the Earth Europe: ‘Weed killer found in human urine across Europe‘. If you live in the UK there’s a 70% chance that you have Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup, in your body. What’s it doing to you while it’s in there? How long does it stay? How can you get rid of it or at least build up a personal resistance as the superweeds have done? Answers to these questions are not available because of the usual industry-sponsored silence.

I definitely have it in me because we carry it around in the back of our work van all week (garden maintenance). I’ve refused to use it personally but my coworkers aren’t so scrupulous. I’ve worked on a Roundup-sprayed driveway at least once, suffering mild headaches, dulled awareness and difficulty engaging with the outside world for a number of hours afterward. (I figure I’m basically a plant person now so it’s bound to affect me more than the average post-industrial human being…) One of my colleagues has developed the recent worrying tendency of suggesting we reach for the weed-killer when this proves more economical for our time than weeding by hand, although the cost of the chemical – in more ways than one – gets passed on to the client. They responded to news of this recent report with tangential comments about the safety of drinking water, ignoring the threat sitting right there, a few feet away. I really don’t want to be around when they commit these atrocities, if I can’t first persuade them to not do it. My boss, who has previously worked with Monsanto and accepts their safety claims at face value, is broadly sympathetic to my decision (he doesn’t spray it on his own garden, possibly in part because of the concerns I’ve expressed) but insists that the herbicide has a place in the service we provide, again for economic reasons when it’s cheaper to do the requested work that way, eg: clearing weeds [sic] off driveways, patios etc.

Anyway I recommend reading through some of the different pdf sections via the above link to educate yourself a little about this chemical and the corporations pushing it on you. It’s not just direct contact you have to worry about. As they say, ‘All volunteers who gave samples live in cities, and none had handled or used glyphosate products in the run up to the tests’ and:

Once applied, glyphosate and its break down products are transported throughout the plant into the leaves, grains or fruit [5]. They cannot be removed by washing, and they are not broken down by cooking [6]. Glyphosate residues can remain stable in foods for a year or more, even if the foods are frozen, dried or processed [7]. (‘Human contamination by glyphosate‘ – pdf)

Even if you’ve found a way to avoid ingesting GM foods you’re probably not safe thanks to an insane practice used by farmers called ‘dessication':

glyphosate-containing herbicides may be sprayed just before harvest onto non-GM cereals, pulses, sunflowers and oilseed crops. This is done to remove weeds and dry out the grains (ibid.)

ie: to kill the plant and pump it full of poison just before it gets isolated from the environment and passed on for consumption by humans. Genius.

But it’s not all about us of course. I found the ‘environmental impacts of glyphosate‘ (pdf) to be the most harrowing read. Turns out that, contrary to Monsanto’s lies*, glyphosate does not biodegrade, stay where you put it, cause no harm to mammals, birds, fish, pets, children, gardeners… In fact it fucks up the lives, lifecycles, hormones, body development and ecological feeder relationships of birds, butterflies, frogs, fish, mussels, invertebrate insects, ocean- and river-dwelling microfauna, and, of course, plants – ‘undesirable’ or otherwise. Anything it touches, basically. Read this and weep, made especially compelling after the recent news that 60% of species in the UK are in decline:

Common weeds can be important food sources for insect, bird and animal species in agricultural areas. Weeds provide food and nectar sources for insects, which in turn feed birds. Weed seeds can also be vital winter foods for many declining bird species, such as corn bunting and skylarkxxxi. Farm Scale Evaluations (FSE) of GM crops in the UK between 1999 and 2003, examined the number of weeds and their seed production in non-GM intensively-managed sugar beet fields, compared with those in GM glyphosate resistant sugar beet cropsxxxii. The results showed a significant loss of weeds and weed seeds in the GM glyphosate resistant sugar beet, compared to the conventional crop. The UK government’s scientific advisory committee spelled out the significance of the results, stating that ‘if [GM glyphosate resistant] beet were to be grown and managed as in the FSEs this would result in adverse effects on arable weed populations [which] would be likely to result in adverse effects on organisms at higher trophic levels (e.g. farmland birds), compared with conventionally managed beet.’xxxiii

A follow-up modelling project concluded that the effects of GM glyphosate resistant crops could affect different species, depending on their feeding and life cycle requirements. The authors noted that, in the results of their model, “Skylarks showed very little response to the introduction of GMHT rape. By contrast, the consequences of introducing GMHT sugar beet were extremely severe, with a rapid decline, and extinction of the skylark within 20 years. This contrasts with the cirl [sic] bunting, which showed little response to the introduction of GMHT beet, but severe consequences arose as a result of the use of GMHT rape”xxxiv.

Join the dots, people.

I think I’m going to start wearing a black armband with the extinction symbol on it:

Extinction Symbol

Otherwise, I believe the roots of dock, dandelion and burdock are the place to go to get support for an overloaded liver and kidneys. But I consider it insufficient to merely adapt to the new toxic status quo in this way. What I’d like to see is the toxic behaviour of Monsanto et al cut off at the source so the planet no longer has to deal with the cascading negative effects of their appalling chemical weapons in the first place. Here’s a petition for starters, but I don’t think it’ll be enough on its own.

Oh, and this is what happens after long-term exposure to Roundup and/or Roundup-Ready GM crops (industry regulations only required a 90-day trial):

GM corn fed rats with cancer tumors during study headed by French biologist Gilles-Éric Séralini‘One of the rats fed GM maize NK603 for two years. The animal has developed an abdominal cancer tumour. Photograph: Tous des cobayes/J+B Sequences’ – source

In a peer-reviewed US journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, [Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini, professor of molecular biology at Caen university in France] reported the results of a €3.2m study. Fed a diet of Monsanto’s Roundup-tolerant GM maize NK603 for two years, or exposed to Roundup over the same period, rats developed higher levels of cancers and died earlier than controls. Séralini suggested that the results could be explained by the endocrine-disrupting effects of Roundup, and overexpression of the transgene in the GMO.

Less toxic than table salt my arse.

—————————

* – A brief reminder of the claims made in adverts which a New York attorney forced Monsanto to pull back in 1996 – exhibits A through J:

a) Remember that environmentally friendly Roundup herbicide is biodegradable. It won’t build up in the soil so you can use Roundup with confidence along customers’ driveways, sidewalks and fences …

b) And remember that Roundup is biodegradable and won’t build up in the soil. That will give you the environmental confidence you need to use Roundup everywhere you’ve got a weed, brush, edging or trimming problem.

c) Roundup — biodegrades into naturally occurring elements.

d) Remember that versatile Roundup herbicide stays where you put it. That means there’s no washing or leaching to harm customers’ shrubs or other desirable vegetation.

e) This non-residual herbicide will not wash or leach in the soil. It … stays where you apply it.

f) You can apply Accord with … confidence because it will stay where you put it … it bonds tightly to soil particles, preventing leaching. Then, soon after application, soil microorganisms biodegrade Accord into natural products.

g) Glyphosate is less toxic to rats than table salt following acute oral ingestion.

h) Glyphosate’s safety margin is much greater than required. It has over a 1,000-fold safety margin in food and over a 700-fold safety margin for workers who manufacture it or use it.

i) You can feel good about using herbicides by Monsanto. They carry a toxicity category rating of ‘practically non-toxic’ as it pertains to mammals, birds and fish.

j) “Roundup can be used where kids and pets’ll play and breaks down into natural material.” This ad depicts a person with his head in the ground and a pet dog standing in an area which has been treated with Roundup. (link)

—————————

UPDATE:

I portrayed my boss too generously. Weedkiller came up in conversation between us during a lunch break and I mentioned this report and its main findings. At first he wanted to know, reasonably enough, what concentration of glyphosate the research found in peoples’ urine. I didn’t know at the time but went away and looked into it (results below) and may pass on my findings at some point. But after a short spell of silence I was treated to a barrage of denial, justification and misdirection. Highlights included ignorant smears against FoE (a leftist conspiracy against Monsanto: “They’re like a dog with a bone”, “They’re anti-business”, “They hate success”), evidence-free assertions that glyphosate isn’t as bad as some of the other chemicals out there (“I’m sure there are much worse things on my driveway”, “What about all the petrol fumes and machine oils?”), strong implications that there’s nothing you can do about it and you just have to accept & cope with it as best you can, blaming consumers for demanding cheap food with disregard for the consequences (an old disagreement – I think the manufacturing processes call the tune and people adjust their habits accordingly, largely because they have no choice. If it’s all demand driven why the need for so much advertising?) and reiterating the supposed economic imperative of the company needing to use Roundup because “If we don’t someone else will – they will get the work and we will lose out”.

I couldn’t think of any way to respond productively to all this, so I did my usual bit of listening while The Man With Experience lays out The Story of  How Things Are, while making a conscious effort to keep it at arms length and not internalise it all automatically, reserving my own conclusions for a later date. For now, apart from having the usual Upton Sinclair quote ringing in my ears (‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it’) I’m thinking this ‘If not me someone else – but worse’ is a bullshit excuse that has probably been used by every tyrant and holocaust-facilitator in history. But what’s the truly responsible course of action? Personal boycotts might be morally satisfying but they don’t really have an effect on the system as a whole unless coordinated and specifically targeted (so why not conspire against Monsanto :D ). Otherwise I think it’s broadly true that you just take yourself out of the competition, leaving another to take what would have been your share. You may not consider it to be worth taking in the first place, but that’s irrelevant if your concern lies with how things play out in the bigger picture. My unscrupulous colleague has more earning potential than me by not ‘turning down work’ in this way. One day this may be the crucial difference between us if the boss decides to lay one of us off. Whatever happens those driveways will continue to get sprayed in the meantime…

Maybe the answer lies in talking to the clients and wider public, ensuring this information gets out to them and perhaps persuading them to change their habits. Comparing the garden sheds of older and younger generations offers some hope – you often find a massive cocktail of lethal, long-expired chemicals in older sheds and much less in the younger ones, indicating a growing distrust of these industrial poisons and a greater inclination towards organic principles. But then, if this process of change is in reality driven by manufacturing practices and mass PR indoctrination rather than consumer demand, appeals to reason and emotion might not cut it. Answers on a postcard as usual!

Here’s the stuff on urine concentration:

***

Having checked out the original paper, I see that, of the ten samples from the UK, seven had a level of glyphosate higher than 0.15μg per litre of urine (the ‘Limit of Quantitation (LOQ)’ below which the chemical is apparently considered to not be present) – hence the 70% detection rate, which could actually be 100% as far as I can make out. The mean average is 0.47μg/L, second only to Malta at 0.82μg/L, with the lowest averages coming from Switzerland, Macedonia and Hungaria at 0.09μg/L. There were two UK results over 1μg/L with the highest coming in at 1.64μg/L, second only to the unfortunate individual from Latvia with 1.82μg/L (see table 4 on p.12). The paper gives a ‘reference value’ of 0.8μg/L but I don’t understand what this is meant to indicate and can’t make head or tail of their explanation:

The reference values for Glyphosate and AMPA are only tentative. They were derived from an urban collective (n=90) and are defined as the 95. percentile of the measured values. They were established by Medical Laboratory Bremen in 2012 during the process of the method validation. Strictly speaking they are only valid to the region of Bremen.

Any enlightening comments from someone from a more scientific background much appreciated! It doesn’t seem like regulators have decided on a ‘safe’ level of glyphosate in human urine. The main focus (and controversy) revolves around something Orwellian called ‘Acceptable Daily Intake’ relative to the total body weight rather than the fluid content of urine. In the EU this has been set at 0.3 mg  per kg of body weight (mg = 1000x greater than μg) but there is a stink about the way in which they arrived at this figure – from the FoE report, ‘Concerns about glyphosate’s approval‘ (pdf):

One of the core purposes of pesticide safety assessment is to set the ‘acceptable daily intake’ (ADI) for people’s everyday exposure to the chemical, for example through residues in food. In its 1999 evaluation of glyphosate, the German authorities proposed a high ADI for glyphosate of 0.3 mg per kilogram of body weight. They calculated this figure by reviewing the industry feeding trials using glyphosate and choosing the one they felt to be most sensitive to the effects of the chemical. In this case, the German authorities considered the most sensitive test to be a rat feeding trial. From this they calculated the ‘no observed adverse effect level’ (NOAEL). The ADI was then set at 100 times lower than this [10]. This ADI of 0.3 mg/kg was agreed by the European Commission, and is now law. But even four of the companies applying for approval of glyphosate differed in their interpretations of the industry feeding trials – based on the same studies; they suggested the ADI should be lower, ranging from 0.05mg/kg to 0.15 mg/kg [11].

In 2012, the ADI for glyphosate was re-examined by a group of scientists (including four professors) from universities in the UK and Brazil [12]. When they looked at the industry-funded feeding trials assessed by the German authorities, they noted some studies showed adverse effects at lower doses than in the rat feeding trial, but these findings had been ruled out for various reasons. They claim this led to “significant bias” in the data used. They commented that, if all the industry-funded studies had been included, a “more objectively accurate” ADI would be 0.1 mg/kg bodyweight per day. The group then examined the findings of independent trials of glyphosate published in scientific journals since 2002. Based on these, they concluded the ADI should correctly be 0.025mg/kg bodyweight per day, or “12 times lower than the ADI… currently in force in the EU”.

The ADI for glyphosate is not monitored.

I don’t know how the concentration of glyphosate in urine would relate to the concentration coming in the other end. What seems obvious is that the approach of finding an ‘acceptable’ level of any poisonous substance favours the industry manufacturing that substance at the expense of those humans and nonhumans who get lumbered with the job of storing it in their bodies. ADI? Try UDI!

Coming down from the mountain #1

August 28, 2011

So, nearly two months out of the country, forty days of which spent in the Julian Alps of NE Italy, for once surrounded by the beauty of living beings and not having to blinker my sight or otherwise dull my senses to a large portion of the landscape, and coming back to England has felt so strange.

Well, the weird feeling began down in the valley, waiting for the train. So hot, sweaty, stifling in the late afternoon; such a bleak flatness to the land, largely devoid of trees; dust in the air, the noise and hurtling carelessness of roads, the jarring sight of squatting box supermarkets and the glaring bare tarmac of their welcome-mat carparks. And then the sights from the train window: more flatness, rusty-grey blurs of industry, sweltering cornfields, uneasy whitewashed residential areas marked by a shrieking crescendo of train noise as concrete barriers bounce the sound back towards its source, sparing the residents the worst of it (one assumes). Like the whole land is being weighed down by a sickness; a blanketed malarial fever… A young black woman relentlessly talking down the friend or relative of her elderly Italian companion in French as he sits in glum silence, occasionally offering mild resistance but neither agreeing nor disagreeing (perhaps grateful for the company). A nice moment of recognition, pulling out of a station when the thick-necked thirty-somethings in the aisle opposite notice the pigeon I’ve been watching – sat on a platform sign while his buddy pecks at the parasites on the back of his neck and around his blissfully closed eye – and share with the laughing and pointing.

Then Venice itself: the air humid, muggy as always. Perspiring backpackers swirling in stressed-out eddies; smokers, lovers, snackers lining the steps outside the station facing hotels, a bridge, more crowds, architecture, a huge cigarette billboard across the first canal. I don’t have time to wander, so I sit up against the glass wall of the station and make greasy, satisfying sandwiches of mouldy cheese, smelly salami, sliced tomato and oregano, using the side of my shoe as chopping board and table. Then, averting my eyes and satisfied with the filthy, eccentric reality of the portrait I’m presenting, I pluck melodies from the air and from the movement of greedy pigeons; fingers greasing up the fretboard and strings of my mandolin.

Then the sleeper train with the pleasant French/Canadian family (wife/husband and two young girls) and drummer psychologist. Red sun over the Venice lagoon, drying my face in the warm rush of air coming through the one broken window. Chiming in to R.D. Laing’s suggestion that ‘a toxic environment may render us insensible to its toxicity’ and vowing to resist and not succumb to the ‘anaesthetizing noxious sublethal environment’* by keeping my senses alive, no matter how painful it may be to receive their input. Then – immediately provided with the opportunity to do just this – looking the other way with the other men in the couchette as the mother smacks the younger child for her excited fidgeting which repeatedly crumples up her bedding. I wince almost as much at the statement she reiterates: “Tu es vraiment insupportable”, but do nothing to intervene except to smile at the child in such a way as, hopefully, to show at least one person willing to tolerate, even ‘support’ (if not defend) the expression of her fragile personhood. Weird how difficult I find it to screw my attention to the meaning of the words:

Insupportable – the mother finds her child literally ‘unbearable’, like a load that’s so heavy she has to drop it to the ground; coupled with the violence of the ‘you are’ – unrelated to specific behaviour in a specific circumstance, but rather a state of ‘being’ built into her bones - semper et ubique – which she can do nothing about and never escape.

and then feel my own reaction to them. The despair and disgust; the fear and anger still buried in similar memories of violence on my own person which the dominant part of me would rather forget. As with the Lester Luborsky experiment†, I know exactly when to stop listening.

Then the white, middle-class fear of banlieue-black Otherness, ricocheting to an inauthentic desire to ‘empathise’ and ‘understand’ in the middle of the night, naked but for underpants, listening to the same wife/mother confront a French youth who was speaking a loud (drunken?) patois in the corridor, the train having halted at a grim, grey inner-city station. He maintained that he couldn’t understand her – was she speaking Italian? She refused to be spoken to in ‘tutois’‡ and stood her ground when dealt further insults. I didn’t feel at all prepared to wade in in defense of the family if things got uglier. Even the scenes I was rehearsing in my head all ended in disaster and/or humiliation. I thought of my uncle who deliberately raised my cousins in both city and country surroundings so that they could navigate both environments without getting screwed over, victimised or killed. It occurred to me, a lifelong suburbanite, that the gift of my upbringing was to get forever caught in the middle, never feeling a sense of true belonging in either of the contrasting situations (though for sure I felt more at home in one of them!)

Then Paris, evercrowded on the metro, eyeing my scruffy reflection and bent backpack posture in passing windows, spending ten minutes staring at a fruit stall before deciding to buy a Spanish melon, lunching with my Grandmother, talking about relatives I’ve never seen, walking a local walk, her remarking on the changes in her lifetime – they never used to let the mauvaises herbes grow on the pavement like they do now – sampling the fruit trees in the park, seeing what grew on the ‘waste’ ground, again saying how remarkable it was for them to leave it like this. (Then, of course, on the return journey seeing a giant lawnmower vehicle noisily sucking up all the plants we’d been admiring. Exasperated laughter.) Later, on the bus to Paris Nord, rushing around myself to follow the suggestion of the woman to my right that I take my bag off my seat and put it in front on the floor where another lady was standing. She moved, interrupting her conversation, but didn’t sit down as I thought the plan was, instead getting off rather huffily at the next stop. Trapped in my own earnest foolishness; my eagerness to ‘be a good boy'; my fear of engendering the slightest disapproval – a pointless pained expression on my face.

And then England. What to say? The first English voices with no balancing lilt of Spanish, French, Italian, Czech, German, Polish (always a multicultural crowd that comes to stay in the mountains) pretty stark and brutal. The depressing notices about taking violence seriously, warnings about flu and terrorism, the pinched faces and brisk manner of the two male customs officials. And then coming through the tunnel, emerging into a sea of grey… I walked through some of this area of Kent and the South-East just over four years ago – sleeping in the hills as the motorways (M’s 25,26,20 and 2) and Eurostar trains rumbled below – and the new grey constructions of motorway, bridge, rail, industrial estate, retail park etc. have always (especially since) left an unsettled, slightly nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach. Here the land lies bleeding, deeply wounded by these sterile, gleaming operating theatre instruments. But the sickness feels more cancerous; the chemical and deep surgical treatment itself nearly as destructive and life-threatening as the underlying disease; a permanent post-op dullness to the experience.

Then the cold prison atmosphere of St. Pancras station. I start talking back at the tannoy anouncers, collect over £10 in change from the ticket machine because the queue was too long and I only had a £20 note, barrel down the escalator – “S’cuse me: Wide Load coming through!” – and hop on the train, grinning incongruously just before the doors close. The Anaesthetic starts to kick in, localised at first to my eyes which practically glaze over and stop looking outwardly with any kind of curiosity… An odd conversation with a blonde lady in a business suit who wanted to know where I’d been traveling. She expresses her jealousy after my story, then we get on to careers, rent, the importance of doing what you want and of living on your own terms, the dangers of burnout when required to do the thing you’re ‘passionate’ about all the time etc… Her parting shot (which everyone seems to be trying to hammer into me lately): “You need money!” I remain unconvinced, but don’t think to start on explanations of where to find burdock root, how to squat on abandoned property, what to make soap from, how to build shelter from recycled or harvested materials etc &c. Why do I never have the courage of my convictions? I have direct, lived experience of many of these things already! Why do I always defer to the stunted imagination of my peers?

As I get into familiar surroundings I let my legs and feet go into autopilot and eyes descend to the pavement below, the upper bands of vision obscured by the rim of my habitual baseball cap… So yes, this ‘culture shock’, this ‘state of bewilderment and distress experienced by an individual who is suddenly exposed to a new, strange, or foreign social and cultural environment': the word that comes to mind is Oppressive. I never quite noticed before how oppressively the social and built environment strikes me in England. I re-read Paul Kingsnorth’s excellent ‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist’ the other day in the first Dark Mountain book (having read it online here about a year previously) in which he describes a similar experience coming back to the country after a two-month spell in Indonesia:

Now, back home, the world seems changed. A two-month break from my country, my upbringing, my cultural assumptions, a two-month immersion in something far more raw and unmediated, has left me open to seeing this place as it really is. I see the atomisation and the inward focus and the faces of the people in a hurry on the other side of windscreens. I see the streetlights and the asphalt as I had not quite seen them before. What I see most of all are the adverts.

For the first time, I realise the extent and the scope and the impacts of the billboards, the posters, the TV and radio ads. Everywhere an image, a phrase, a demand or a recommendation is screaming for my attention, trying to sell me something, tell me who to be, what to desire and to need. And this is before the internet; before apples and blackberries became indispensable to people who wouldn’t know where to pick the real thing; before the deep, accelerating immersion of people in their technologies, even outdoors, even in the sunshine. Compared to where I have been, this world is so tamed, so mediated and commoditised, that something within it seems to have broken off and been lost beneath the slabs. No one has noticed this, or says so if they have. Something is missing: I can almost see the gap where it used to be. But it is not remarked upon. Nobody says a thing.

The adverts especially got me too, this time round. I felt them as a withering, almost physical assault from which there was no escape except through willed unawareness; through succumbing to the Anaesthetic. Walking down a typical street was like getting slapped in the face a hundred times. I’m finding the sounds from the TV (I’ve mostly managed to avoid the screen since coming back – a state of affairs I’m looking to prolong) exceptionally ugly and distasteful. The news is the worst – I have to shut the door from the next room when it’s on to keep the shrill lies and distortions of fear at bay as much as possible. Maybe things have gotten worse since the riots and the response which the sane people say they’re even more disturbed by. I heard various things about it while away, but felt no compulsion to find out more other than to quietly note what the internet lefties & greenies were saying. There was an Evening Standard by the loo with eyecatching pictures and a provocative headline and I read about a paragraph before putting the paper back, face down, saying: “I don’t want to hear about this from you”. So easy to get sucked into the Unreal. You can get lost for hours before coming back to emerge, blinking into the sunshine.

It was nice to see the changes in my wildly overgrown garden; the apples slowly russeting and weighing down the branches of our baby apple tree. Nice to settle into pruning the big old pear tree – over a hundred years old according to one elderly neighbour; to step out gathering nettle seed, hawthorn berries, yarrow blossom; to look at the hazels, beechnuts, limefruits, acorns swelling and maturing on the trees… You might call it a selective, blinkered vision but witnessing, feeling these things makes me feel good; provides me with the experience of an environment that I want to expand.

Oh, and advice-to-self (thanks H): Remember where you’ve been.

#2 will follow…

——————————–

* – full quote:

We only know whether or not the environment influences us by noticing we are influenced. If we do not notice we are being influenced, we cannot know we are.

We may still infer it. Some E [environment of genetic system] may be of the order that its influence is to render us unaware of its influence, in inverse proportion to its influence, e.g. a toxic environment may render us insensible to its toxicity.

Are we re-creating around us an artificial environment which has a tendency to induce in us an unawareness of its noxious characteristics: an anaesthetizing noxious sublethal environment? (The Facts of Life, p.31)

† – see Derrick Jensen’s interview of David Edwards, ‘Nothing To Lose But Our Illusions‘, from which:

A man by the name of Lester Luborsky used a special camera to track the eye movements of people who were asked to look at a set of pictures, three of which involved sexual images. One, for example, showed a woman’s breast, beyond which could be seen a man reading a newspaper. The results were amazing. Many viewers were able to avoid letting their gaze stray even once to the sexually suggestive parts of the pictures, and later, when asked to describe the content of the pictures, they remembered little or nothing suggestive about them. Some people couldn’t even recall having seen those three pictures at all.

What interests me is that, in order to avoid looking at the objectionable parts of the pictures, those people had to know in some part of their minds what the picture contained so that they could know to avoid it. In other words, when the mind detects something offensive or threatening to our worldview, it somehow deflects our awareness. This avoidance system is incredibly efficient. We know exactly where not to look.

‡ – ‘Tutoiement et vouvoiement‘ (fr) – basically ‘tu’ is the familiar form of ‘you’, whereas ‘vous’ is considered more formal, respectful. Friends and equals ‘tutoi’ eachother, but you would ‘vouvoi’ a superior, a stranger, someone older than you. This came from Roman emperors who introduced the ‘royal we’ of nos, impressing upon others to use the plural vos in reply. English uses just the familiar ‘you’, although oddly enough this used to be the deferential term! Apparently we have the Quakers to thank for this – as a mark of egalitarianism they would refer to everyone in the then-familiar ‘thee’/’thou’ form, but for some reason this lost its subversive sting and became quaint & old-fashioned, even swinging over to the more respectful, polite side when used among the respectable, affluent Quakers. More info at the bottom of this page.

Risking Life on a Limb

March 7, 2011

An interesting exchange / confrontation today after climbing a tall oak by the side of a pathway on top of Box Hill.

H & I had seen the pair earlier on in the afternoon: a grey-haired, grey-bearded man with glasses, maybe in his fifties; a slightly younger-looking woman with medium-length straight brown hair – both wearing fluorescent jackets, carrying clipboards and walking around the carpark looking up into the many mature standard trees and making notes. The man had a strange red contraption that looked like a hammer attached to a board with two straight wires poking horizontally out the other end.

At the end of our walk, I spotted the oak as we went past it and decided that it looked friendly enough to climb, so up I went. It was fairly easy going with maybe two occasions where an arms-only pull-up was required. There were a couple of wrist-thick branches that I shied of putting my full weight on because they looked fairly dead, even at the usual strong point by the main trunk. Here’s a photo of the view from near the top (it split into two just before this point and went on for another 5-10 metres above my head, but I didn’t feel secure going any higher at the +/- 20° angle):

…and looking down:

Well, when I was about halfway down the surveyors came up to the foot of the tree, telling me (in case I didn’t know) that what I was doing was ‘very dangerous’ and asking me to come down. I said ‘Yes, I’m coming down now’ and they offered to stay and make sure that I made it ‘safely’. With my new audience, I actually found myself making slightly faster progress than usual, in some moves almost playing up to them with fast switches, more arm-reliance than strictly necessary and a swift, flashy dismount – probably not the intended consequence! (Although – who knows? – maybe it’s like Jean Liedloff describes with parents making predictions doubling as expectations – “you’re going to fall”, “don’t touch that, you’ll break it” etc. – which the child then dutifully fulfills.) The exhilaration of the climb left me pumped up to face the music.

The woman did most of the talking. She asked what ‘the heck’ I thought I was doing and repeated her judgement of how dangerous it was. I said something unconvincing about how there was a nice view up there and explained that I had climbed trees before and felt reasonably assured in my abilities, flexing & examining wrist and fingers for effect. She pointed out that there was a purpose-built viewpoint about 20m away before telling me about her son who was a tree surgeon and had gone through all the necessary training with ropes, safety harnesses etc, and thus was ‘professionally qualified’ (possibly not her exact words, but that was the gist). This was meant, she explained, to show that she had some personal knowledge about the risks & dangers – or at least, I interpreted, some experience of watching another person take them on, presumably attempting to minimise them as much as possible.

I expressed mild interest, before asking them what they were doing. The man chipped in, saying that they were examining the trees in the public area for dead wood and other possible hazards. Without my asking he added that they weren’t all about felling but, in his curious way of putting it, they were ‘looking after the health and safety of the people, but also of the trees’. Um, okay. I don’t know if this was meant to imply that I was damaging the oak by climbing it. He went on to point out that this was ‘National Trust property’, though he didn’t say that treeclimbing was illegal thereon – in fact the woman later suggested I go climb one of the smaller trees further down the trail – and said that he didn’t want to be the one responsible for cleaning up the ‘jam’ if I were to fall (I didn’t ask if that was part of his job description as tree surveyor). In fact he assured me that I would have fallen if he hadn’t been there to warn me about a dry branch he thought I was about to put my full weight on with my left foot (actually I was testing it out while fully braced with both arms, and about to reject it myself anyway, but what could I say?) He said this tree looked especially dangerous to him because of the amount of deadwood he could see in it. I tried to explain that yes, I had seen it there too while I was climbing up and trusted myself to know when and what to rely on, but that didn’t impress him visibly.

From here the conversation / lecture shifted on to ‘always have someone with you on the ground in case something goes wrong’. I neglected to mention H waiting by the coffeeshop, not feeling like arguing the point or roping her in. Anyway it was winding down by now, and the three of us were walking back in the direction of the carpark. The man talked about how some of these trees were up to a hundred years old. ‘Yeah, they’re beautiful,’ I replied, hoping to build some common ground and show that I had some respect. I can’t remember what he said next, but I got a smile and some recognition out of him when I responded with ‘I think they want to be climbed’.

I think I handled the exchange fairly well, compared to some similar ones in the past. Standing firm, looking them in the eyes, trying to empathise and understand their point of view, but taking care not to apologise gratuitously or fall over myself in trying to agree with their assertions. I could have put across my side of the story more strongly or challenged the woman when she basically suggested that only trained professionals should be allowed to climb trees. Also I could have asked why it had anything to do with them, what I chose to do with my body, but I don’t imagine that would’ve gone down well… I missed an opportunity to get properly into NVC by reflecting the woman’s pronouncement – “it’s not safe” – back to her as an emotion, for example: “it sounds like you feel scared of the possible consequences when you see other people doing things you consider to be dangerous”, though I’d find it hard to know where to go from there, other than to say “sucks to be you”(!)

Weird, this safety culture. Most often the concern doesn’t seem genuine to me. These people didn’t even know me, after all. It feels to me more like an attempt to shut down expressions of freedom and/or self-direction beyond the drastic limits imposed by ‘normal’, that is to say accepted standards of behaviour. I guess they’re only treating others the way they’ve learned to treat themselves. But then what do I know, right?


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 32 other followers