Breathing Life Into the World

The landscape moves as I walk.  This is a straightforward fact; I regularly observe it first hand.  It’s not an inference derived from an elaborate argument relying on abstruse or otherwise questionable premises.  It is a baseline starting point and not a conclusion.

Trees that are indistinguishable from a distance step apart from one another and become individuals.  Mountains alternate between hiding and asserting themselves.  The ground under foot rises up and can boost me into the sky.  Water sometimes rushes and sometimes meanders; it can travel a direct course or a more devious one.  The wind can hold me back or push me forward.

It takes more effort , circumlocution, and sophistry to deny this easily observed fact than to accept it and yet denial is currently the norm.  The evidence of one’s eyes is treated with great suspicion if not altogether discarded.  I can see mountains move—I suspect we all can—but to say it out loud is almost a heresy and makes one vulnerable to the ridicule that has always been the lot of truth-tellers.

The preferred discourse is that mountains are stationary and that as we walk our view of them changes; we are active and mountains are passive.  For the moment at least, I do not wish to deny the truth of this claim but rather highlight the fact that it’s a style of speaking that is quite miserly with respect to agency; needlessly miserly.  It is a style of speaking that doesn’t foster respect for others but rather deadens the landscape and alienates people from their own bodies asking them to pluck out their eyes.

Two radically different styles of speaking may have equal claims to being true and yet have significantly different consequences; when this occurs we need to seek out additional criteria for how to proceed.  We can opt for a style of speaking that highlights the moral significance of others, that has such reminders built into its very structure and vocabulary or one that lulls us into indifference or hostility undercutting out empathy.   The language can make certain questions more or less difficult to ask.

A straightforward example would be how we refer to individual animals.  Referring to animals with words such as “he”, “she”, or “who” sends a different message than using the deadening language of “it”.  The practice reminds us that animals are individuals.  Animal experimenters and their apologists often refer to “specimens” or “animal models” which serve to undercut the fact that they are doing great harm to others.  The former practice might suggest we learn about other animals through close but respectful observation whereas the later style of speaking sharpens knives and prepares cages.

We need language that unapologetically breathes life into the world.

Acknowledgement: this post was inspired by the the trees who live on the mile long stretch of land between my parents’ house and Lake Ontario.

Letter to the Editor re: “Raids to Free Minks…”

Letter to the Editor re: “Raids to Free Minks Ups Ante on Animal Rights”
Submitted: October 17, 2013
News outlet: The New York Times

“It’s our livelihood. They’re trying to put us out of business,” was the defense offered by mink farmer Virginia Bonlander whose business was targeted in the recent surge of raids that have been carried out by animal rights activists [“Raids to Free Minks Ups Ante on Animal Rights,” Oct. 16].

Bonlander’s defense of killing animals is both curious and commonplace.

That something “is one’s livelihood”—that one financially profits from engaging in a particular activity—cannot be allowed exempt that activity from moral scrutiny.  If anything, being paid to harm others may exacerbate, rather than mitigate, the offense.   That one has built their life around harming others and does so as a means to support themselves is reprehensible in a way that is quite different from someone who may harm others in a less calculated manner.

Yet this defense is commonly advanced by people in industries where the raw material is living, breathing animals who are then violently transformed into consumer products.  The assumption that profit is a legitimate defense must be challenged.

Gary and Virginia Borlander Photo credit: Darren Hauck for The New York Times

Gary and Virginia Borlander
Photo credit: Darren Hauck for The New York Times

Fleeing Humanity, Trees Head for the Hills

Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed — chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones.

–John Muir, Our National Parks

There are few safe places in the world for trees: few places where they may stand unmolested, in the company of their fellows, leading full lives, concluded only by a natural death, and a return to the forest floor.

A recently published study in Nature Communications found that “human impacts have resulted in a global tendency for tree cover to be constrained to sloped terrain and losses to be concentrated on flat terrain.”   Researchers suggested that “steep ground may act as a refuge for trees in human-dominated landscapes…because sloped terrain is more difficult to clear, benefits obtained by clearing are lower or the incentives to abandon cleared land are greater.”

Like the homeless men and women who seeks refuge in the most marginal spaces of the city so as to go unnoticed by cops and thugs, trees are compelled to seek out terrain that is difficult for their mammal predators to reach.  If the ground in which they have taken root is coveted, if it is commercially viable, they will be removed.

Furthermore, what is marginal today may not be deemed marginal tomorrow meaning that safe spaces are conditional and temporary; as the researchers say population increase “increases incentives to clear and utilize marginal land.”  Trees exist at the discretion of people and the decision to grant them space is always able to be re-negotiated.  Over 2.8 billion hectares of forest have been lost due to agriculture since 1850 and yet it is those who object to continued cutting who are deemed inflexible and unreasonable.  The goalposts of environmental destruction are always being moved; negotiations never take into account all that has already been lost or, more accurately,  all who have already been killed, converted to board feet, and sent through chippers.

In a very real sense, trees are fleeing.  They are running for their lives.  But humanity is in hot pursuit.


“Tree Dreams” by Mr. Fish (