Author Archives

All Flourishing Is Mutual

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In this beautiful piece for Hakai, ‘Cúagilákv (Jess Housty) talks about the importance of the salmonberry bush, whose fruit has nourished generations of her family. It is through salmonberries that the Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) children first learn about the connections that run through nature — being told that a good crop of salmonberries corresponds to a good salmon run and luck in the harvest. The salmonberry bushes themselves also benefit from a good run — being fertilized with salmon remains “so that they will bloom and bear fruit again in a cycle much deeper than any one season.” A recent paper published in Ecosphere demonstrates the accuracy in the ecosystem links that the children are taught, with researchers determining that increased salmon density in one season leads to increased density of salmonberries per bush in the next season.

Salmonberries glisten like small bursts of orange and red fish roe, nestled in the greenery beside magenta flowers and the hard, green clusters of berries still to ripen. On these shrubs, at the height of the season, you can see a whole life cycle painted across the riverbank in jewel tones. The salmonberry, from the same genus as raspberries and blackberries, has fruits that are composed of a chaotic heap of juicy drupelets that set a table to nourish a whole host of human and nonhuman kin: songbirds, small mammals, and black and grizzly bears. And the delicate fragrance and flavor are as satisfying as the dull thud of berries hitting the bottom of my bucket.

I treasure so many gifts from the salmonberries that help me through every season of the year, and my life: the fresh leaves that helped me through childbirth, the new shoots in the spring that I gently peel before eating them like licorice strings, the deep blush of blossoms that give me hope in the dark of early spring. And of course, the berries that talk to me, lovingly, of salmon as I fill buckets and bowls to make jelly for my precious ǧáǧṃ́. Salmonberries are my definition of comfort food.

 

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No Escape from Online Memories

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In the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a couple uses a medical procedure to erase each other from their memories after the relationship ends. It was a simpler time — that wouldn’t work now. Memories of relationships (and all life events), don’t just exist in our heads anymore, they are online, and online memories are very tricky to destroy

Social media memory prompts popping up over the past year have been challenging for everyone — photos showing our former, blissfully unaware selves, hugging family, having dinner with friends, going to a concert — constant reminders that thanks to the pandemic, we are now sitting at home in our pajamas binge-watching Netflix. But what if social media thinks even bigger life events are still happening? In 2019 Lauren Goode called off her wedding. The internet didn’t get the memo. In this fascinating article for Wired Goode explores what it means to be stalked by “a digital ghost, that is still getting married.”

Even if I could permanently delete my WeddingWire account, I had already shared uncountable bits of data with marketers during the time I used the website. “It’s one thing to say ‘I want to buy shoes’ and then have that ad follow you across the internet,” says Jeremy Tillman. “But there are specific life events that are these exclamation points for marketers. Like, I’m going to get married! Or, I’m going to have a kid! And the more valuable that data is, the more intrusive it seems.”

Tillman is the president of Ghostery, which offers an open source browser extension that shows you how many trackers are receiving data from the websites you visit—a mere glimpse at the network of data brokers that are creating shadow profiles of you. While I was on the phone with Tillman, I punched WeddingWire.com into a Chrome browser, navigated to a page for a wedding DJ, then clicked on the Ghostery extension. At least 16 trackers were identified—including Google Ads, DoubleClick, and Facebook Custom Audience. I had browsed web pages like this dozens of times in 2019. And then, suddenly, I had stopped.

“In your case, you have the life cycle of somebody that you’re not, following you throughout the web and beyond,” Tillman says. “It’s like a ghost life cycle that you never had the chance to live out.”

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The Silent Farm for Developmental Disabilities

Photo by Jesús Hellín/ Europa Press via Getty Images

This gentle essay by Mark Mann for Beside takes us into the understated world of David and Peter, who share a friendship spanning four decades, yet no words. Peter’s form of down syndrome means he is non-verbal, so ever since David first became his support worker they have been finding other ways to communicate — beginning with artmaking, to gardening, and ultimately, to farming. When David bought a 25-acre farm in 1998 he realized it was a place where he could “break the limitations imposed on people with developmental disabilities.” Abhorring the condescension he sometimes saw Peter face, on the farm David lets Peter take the lead in the quiet routines of  “preparing and sharing meals, tending to a few animals, and passing the time.”

This essay radiates with the peace that David has created for Peter in their silent sanctuary. It may not be a productive farm, but “rather than crops or yields, David and Peter’s harvest is each little detail noticed and celebrated: a trusting moment that passes between Peter and one of the horses, or the bright red sumac buds that David hangs above the kitchen table.”

Inspired by what David and Peter were doing at the Farm, others began joining them. David and Peter were connected to a larger network of families with members who were on the autism spectrum and used no spoken language, and some of these men became regulars. Neighbours started dropping in regularly, and friends and acquaintances from around Ontario began making the trip, to lend a hand and savour the atmosphere. (I was one of those, for several years.) The numbers have ebbed and flowed, but a small community has always coalesced around the Farm: loose, evolving, and delightfully unlikely. Today, it’s mainly just Peter and his close friend Kevin. Kevin doesn’t use spoken language either, but he, Peter, and David have found a rich and subtle terrain of conversation that goes beyond words: gestures, body language, touch, and eye contact.

… if everyone is feeling well, they make a trip to the barn. The 300-foot journey is as slow and deliberate as a religious procession, especially across the winter snow and ice. Once arrived, the atmosphere inside the barn is precisely like a cathedral, with its sombre light and air of stillness. One feels an instinct to whisper, and, like Peter and Kevin, to take careful, quiet steps.

The first order of business is to feed and water the sheep. On this particular day, we discover that one of the ewes has given birth. The little newborn is already skittering around on four legs while keeping close to its mother. Seeing the lamb, the quietness among the men intensifies. For several long minutes, they hover in the corner, taking in the scene. Kevin reaches out and removes some straw from Peter’s hat.

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Life and Love in the Utah Desert

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In this immersive piece for Outside, Mark Sundeen writes about his last two decades spent living in a trailer in Moab, Utah. An English major from San Francisco, when he first arrives in the “sweltering hamlet” Sundeen finds himself in awe of the rugged characters he meets. Ashamed of his own bookishness, he seeks to hide it and emulate their qualities, to become “the sort of man who is competent with chains and repairs, rough roads and icy curves.” He also finds himself drawn to the new type of women he meets, none more so than Wendy. Sundeen develops an obsession for the former rancher that lasts for years, to the detriment of other relationships. Sundeen describes his romantic history with great self-awareness, painting a vivid picture of the women in his life, as well as the arid atmosphere of the Moab desert that forms a backdrop to his personal development.

The upshot of seeing Wendy was that when I moved back to Moab in that summer of 1999, age 28, she rented me the trailer for $300 a month. I wouldn’t trouble her with complaints but would do any repairs myself.

I woke each night at 3 A.M. with my lungs clenched and visions of Q in my head. She’d been seen in Moab with that snowboarder. Now and then I’d call and tell her how she betrayed me. I wallowed in the fantasy of my unrequited longing.

The story I told myself eventually unraveled. I replayed the memories. That night she offered herself to me: I hadn’t declined out of some sense of chivalry. It was because, even as every molecule burned to make a child with her, I couldn’t envision us raising the thing. All I could see us doing was smoking in bed and engineering increasingly innovative paroxysms. Which was what I thought love was.

Q already saw me more clearly than I did. I had shown her my heart, and she’d seen the cautious vanity I couldn’t hide. In the future I wouldn’t be so embarrassed to be a delicate writer, and I would treasure the exchange of ideas about literature and writing with a woman. But not yet. I still couldn’t see past my own delusion.

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Before Donating Your Body Was a Choice

Items are on display at German anatomist Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds anatomical exhibition at VDNKh Exhibition Center. The bodies of donors are used for plastination. (Photo by Sergei SavostyanovTASS via Getty Images)

In recent years, museums around the world have been repatriating human remains — often gathered during colonial plunder — to their descendants. I myself am guilty of peering at human relics, having visited the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England, where shrunken heads of the Shuar people of the Amazon rainforest were once displayed (and have since been removed). 

But what about cadavers used for science? In Atlas Obscura, Jessica Leigh Hester deftly explains the dark history of obtaining bodies for anatomical study, with some also ending up on public display. “Harriet Cole,” a network of fibers fastened to a blackboard showing the human nervous system, is one of the most famous, receiving so much attention when first displayed in 1893 that Philadelphia physician William Weed van Baun wrote she “had greatness and world-renown forced upon her after her death.” It has been claimed “Harriet” was a black “scrubwoman” who left her body to the anatomist Rufus Weaver. However, once the story of “Harriet” is delved into, it seems unlikely that the body was a willing donation. In this piece, Hester discovers a world of the dead as full of social inequality as that of the living.

On a sweaty Saturday, before social distancing was the law of the land, a group of visitors gathered at Drexel University’s medical campus in Northwest Philadelphia to meet “Harriet.” The preamble to this encounter was a display case holding several unusual and meticulously prepared medical specimens, long used as teaching tools. Like “Harriet,” each had been created in the late 19th century by a star anatomist, Rufus Weaver. Now, behind glass, between the cadaver lab and a bookstore, a segment of intestine and a piece of a spinal cord sit in stillness. A dissected eyeball floats ethereally in century-old liquid, its separated parts looking like a tiny jellyfish, a bit of brittle plastic, a mushroom cap.

The practice of mainly white American physicians honing their skills on the bodies of disenfranchised people is a legacy of slavery, and an imagined racial hierarchy that propped up white supremacy. “It is one of the ironies of medical history that, although Blacks were generally regarded as ‘inferior’ or even ‘subhuman,’ their corpses were considered ‘good enough’ to use in the instruction of human anatomy,” write anthropologists Robert L. Blakely and Judith M. Harrington in Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training. In her book The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, The Value of the Enslaved, From Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, University of Texas at Austin historian Daina Ramey Berry describes how the cadavers of enslaved people came to hold a “ghost value,” based on their appeal to 19th-century doctors and medical students—a final way to extract work from a person no longer living.

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The Syrian Rebels Who Found Refuge in Books

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Darayya in Syria was rendered a ghost town by Asaad’s regime after civic resistance — becoming a town of rubble where a mere 12,000 starving survivors clung on. One of these survivors was Ahmad Muaddamani, who spoke to Delphine Minoui from The Guardian about a remarkable thing that he and his friends did to keep life in Darayya bearable — they built a library. In books, the people left in Darayya found a refuge and an “atmosphere of collective intimacy, as well as a sense of ethics, discipline and, oddly enough, normality” that was shared by both civilians and fighters of the Free Syrian Army alike.

Fearing reprisals from the regime, the organisers decided this library would be kept in the greatest of secrecy. It would have neither name nor sign. It would be an underground space, protected from radar and shells, where avid and novice readers alike could gather. Reading as refuge. A page opening to the world when every door is locked. After scouring the city, Muaddamani and his friends uncovered the basement of an abandoned building at the border of the frontline, not far from the snipers, but largely spared rocket fire. Its inhabitants were gone. The volunteers hurriedly constructed wooden shelves. They found paint to freshen the dusty walls. They reassembled two or three couches. Outside, they piled a few sandbags in front of the windows, and they brought a generator to provide electricity. For days, the book collectors busily dusted, glued, sorted, indexed and organised all these volumes. Now arranged by theme and in alphabetical order on overstuffed shelves, the books found a new, harmonious order.

These young Syrians cohabited with death night and day. Most of them had already lost everything – their homes, their friends, their parents. Amid the chaos, they clung to books as if to life, hoping for a better tomorrow, for a better political system. Driven by their thirst for culture, they were quietly developing an idea of what democracy should be. An idea that challenged the regime’s tyranny and Islamic State’s book burners. Muaddamani and his friends were true soldiers for peace.

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The Struggle of Having a Pandemic Baby

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Coping with the pandemic over the past year has been tough for many people — but imagine dealing with this strange new reality whilst also bringing a whole new person, or even two, into the world. Sophie Gilbert experienced this firsthand, explaining in The Atlantic how the only people to really see her pregnant were her husband, doctors, and doormen, with the isolation only increasing once her twins arrived. With powerful honesty, Gilbert explains the difficulty of becoming a new parent when your support systems are locked down. Not only do you have to figure a whole lot out for yourself, but your new identity as a mother occurs in a vacuum, with no one bearing witness to the transformation, or to the loneliness. 

Every person who’s given birth during the past year, I’d guess, has experienced a version of the same thing—a sense of isolation so acute that it’s hard to process. I was used to loneliness being something like a dull throb, a kind of ambient hum that rose or fell depending on what else was going on. The isolation of pandemic new parenthood was different. It felt like a wound. It stung bitterly from the very beginning, and every day that went by only made it more raw. Every milestone that my babies hit without anyone being around to witness it was colored with some grief. Every month we spent in the square-mile perimeter of our neighborhood made it harder to imagine ever leaving. Thanksgiving dinner, which we scarfed down on the couch after the twins fell asleep, was surprisingly comforting, but Christmas made me ache for everything it didn’t have. I can now see the same fragments of hope on the horizon that everyone can—vaccines, maybe a return to the office, some eventual imitation of “normalcy.” But the life that I had is gone, and I don’t know how to imagine a new one that has room for my children and anything else. Every second during which I’ve been a mother has been defined by closing off, shutting down, and retreating into a space small enough where the four of us can be safe.

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Forget the Sheep, Pass the Dog

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Dogs have long had a place by people’s side, and hundreds of years ago in southern British Columbia, small-sized domestic dogs were particularly abundant — although for a rather surprising reason: their fur.  Elders from the Nuu-chah-nulth communities on Vancouver Island’s west coast and Coast Salish elders on the island’s east coast and the mainland have an oral history detailing these dogs — which were small, white, fluffy, and loved. Women weavers would care for the dogs, who lived isolated on small islands to prevent interbreeding with hunting dogs. They were fed a special diet and a couple of times a year were sheered like sheep for their wool coats, out of which the women made blankets.

As Virginia Morell explains for Hakai Magazine, the arrival of the Hudson Bay company, and with it a supply of cheap blankets, gradually destroyed the need for the wool dogs, which merged with other domestic dogs and disappeared. Proving their existence has been a challenge for archaeologists. However, over the years new avenues of research have shown the importance of these dogs — with a particular breakthrough being made in 2002, when historian Candace Wellman in Bellingham, Washington opened a drawer and found a woollen pelt. The owner? A fluffy white dog from 1859 called Mutton.

Sometime before 1858, Mutton, a wooly dog, had found himself a new keeper, George Gibbs, a 19th-century ethnographer with the Pacific Railroad Survey and the Northwest Boundary Survey. Gibbs studied the customs and languages of peoples in the Pacific Northwest, and in his notes on the Nisqually language, he recorded the name of the dog wool blankets as Ko-matl’-ked. Mutton likely came from a Coast Salish village in British Columbia. Gibbs named the dog for his love of chasing sheep.

Not too much is known about Mutton in life, though apparently goats also attracted him. In 1859, Mutton ate the head off a mountain goat skin that was in Gibbs’s care, bringing a colleague to near tears. Naturalist C. B. R. Kennerly had meant to send the skin as a specimen to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. “[Gibbs] sent it to me yesterday & when I opened the bag & saw the injury I could almost have cried,” Kennerly wrote in a letter. And more ominously, he added, “Mutton was sheared a short time ago, & as soon as his hair grows out we will make a specimen of him.” Which they did, at some point. In death, Mutton has shared the very essence of himself—his pelt—likely the only known wool dog hide to exist.

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The Joy of a Pointless Walk

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Every time I call my mum in England I get an update on two things — the weather, (both current and the range of rain, from drizzle to pouring, that has been experienced over previous days), and how many steps she has managed on her Fitbit. Walking is truly an English obsession, and in my time I have done my fair share of trudging over soggy fields, on a path to nowhere in particular. 

I, therefore, took great delight in reading Monica Heisey‘s essay for The Guardian detailing a Canadian’s perspective on the English love for the aimless amble. A particularly exciting walk might end with a pint of beer in a country pub — a reward for slurping through the mud, but England is currently in lockdown and pubs are closed, so Brits are embracing walking simply for walking’s sake.  Heisey writes of her experience of this great British pastime during Covid-19 with wonderful humor — so take a break from your lockdown walk, make a nice cup of tea, and give this essay a read instead.

I am, it seems, comfortably in the minority. After the Great Walking Holiday of 2020, I encountered pro-walking sentiment everywhere. Friends tracked steps with competitive rigour, fighting to be the first to reach 10k a day, or announcing grand Sunday schemes to cross London on foot. Planning a weekend in Herefordshire, I was inundated with recommendations for the county’s excellent walks. In fact, Airbnb reviews in the UK tend to focus on two things: whether or not the property provides an adequate electric kettle, and the quality and abundance of nearby walking routes. Recently, watching The Crown on Netflix, I had the disorienting and novel experience of feeling sympathy for Margaret Thatcher who, in an episode set at Balmoral, is dragged out on the royal family’s favourite pastime, “walking around in terrible weather wearing the thickest socks imaginable”. The prime minister has not brought appropriate attire (brown shoes, aforementioned huge socks, waxed jacket, head hanky), and is treated with scorn for it. But why?

There is something in the British that mistrusts pleasure. Why sit and chat in your lovely rented holiday cottage when you can walk through 40 different kinds of mud wearing the wrong shoes, everyone trying tensely not to be the first person to suggest heading home? Why take a gentle cycle ride near your hotel (or tent or caravan) in the Lake District when you can load yourself up with too much expensive gear and walk for hours, the only delight ahead a faux chipper “Hiya!” to the other miserable, sunburned walkers you pass, everyone somehow too cold yet also sweating in their moisture-wicking gilets?

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“Can I Get You a Nice Chianti?”

Anthony Hopkins & Jodie Foster during Anthony Hopkins being honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame at Hollywood Blvd. (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage)

It’s been 30 years since The Silence of the Lambs was released, a film that introduced us to Hannibal Lector,  a cannibal who became the archetype of a serial killer. The plot is based around his relationship with trainee FBI agent, Clarice Starling, sent to delve into Lecter’s mind in an attempt to find another murderer named Buffalo Bill. I rewatched it a few weeks ago, and was as gripped and chilled as the first time I saw it (as a teenager, clutching a pillow to hide behind).

In this fascinating interview with Tananarive Due for Vanity Fair the two stars — Jodi Foster and Anthony Hopkins — explain what it is that makes the film so powerful, even though “there’s really no blood and gore,” and Hopkins portrays Lecter as “a gentleman. He has finesse.” Their pride in the film is evident, and even decades later when still teased with one of the film’s most famous lines — about a certain type of wine and some liver — they don’t mind “because it’s just such a damn good movie.”

You talk about the relationship between Lecter and Clarice as a kind of courtship. One of the elements is revelation and honesty: “Okay, tell me your worst childhood story, and I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

HOPKINS: I’ve never admitted this publicly, but when I was in the Royal Academy, there was a teacher we had, a Stanislavsky method teacher, and he was lethal. He was very charismatic, and he was deadly. He would rip you apart. He would just take you apart intellectually. He’d just smirk, and he’d say, “No. Do it again.” His name is Christopher Fettes. He’s retired now. You’d do a piece, and he’d say, “Do it again. No.” I based it on him: “No, Clarice.”

This teacher had stayed in my conscience all my life. I got a phone call afterwards: “Tony, it’s a wonderful performance. Did you base that on me, by any chance?”

[Laughter.]

FOSTER: Lecter needs, wants, to be seen as human. And if you don’t see him as human, you’re going to get eaten. So I think there’s something really beautiful about the fact that they relate to each other’s humanity. When Lecter takes in Clarice’s pain, when he breathes it in, or he hears her story about the lambs, it’s not because it’s a story that’s filled with blood and gore. It’s a tiny story of pain. And to him, that’s what connection is.

HOPKINS: The only physical connection that Clarice and Lecter have is when she takes the case file and they touch fingers. That’s a talisman of some kind—of relationship, of love, romance, whatever, had it been a different world.

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