Biting the hand that funds you

Eco-artist, Chris Drury, has been ruffling a few feathers in Wyoming, according to this Guardian article.  His land art installation, Carbon Sink, implicitly links the coal industry with climate change, pine beetle infestation and dead trees.  While the work was commissioned by the University of Wyoming, the university is heavily funded by the coal industry.  They and their Republican supporters in the state legislature aren’t happy.  Veiled threats have been made.

I’ve always thought that art should be subversive, anything on the spectrum from mildly unsettling to completely outrageous.  If it’s not subversive, if it’s only a cozy affirmation of the establishment world view, then it’s nothing more than interior (or exterior) decoration.

Judging by all this brouhaha, Chris Drury is obviously on the right track.  Let’s hope the University of Wyoming stands its ground on the issue of artistic and intellectual freedom.  See his blog for updates and more photos of Carbon Sink.

The Bear Family & Me: Autumn

I watched the last segment of this documentary with some apprehension.  The first two – Spring and Summer – created an emotional charge that got me deeply involved in the lives of the bears, particularly Lily and Hope, her cub.

At the end of Summer, Hope was fending for herself (with some help from the besotted Gordon) after being abandoned by Lily.  But she was still in great danger from predators.  Autumn found her, against all the odds, reunited with Lily whose maternal instincts were once again in full flow.  Gordon’s relief and joy are palpable, particularly because her condition is so much better: “Hope, you look like a proper bear!”  Still not enough body fat for hibernation, but getting there, confirmed by a visit to Lily’s Aunt Juliette and her 3 cubs for comparison.

In between walking with his bear family, Gordon is looking at the wider context of their existence in the Minnesota woods.  He talks to Charlie, who lives in the remote community of Eagle’s Nest.  Like some of his neighbours, Charlie feeds the bears that come to his property.  For him, bears are not a problem, but the inevitable consequence of living in the woods.

Then there’s a visit to a gun shop – “guns for everyone” – and the culture shock, sharpened by Gordon’s love for the bears, is evident.  But he does try to understand the other point of view.  He visits Dave, a local hunter, whose walls are crowded with hunting trophies, and eats a bear-burger (enjoys it too).  Dave is “one of the good guys” who don’t shoot bears with radio collars.  He even goes with Gordon to meet Lily and Hope.  Gordon is definitely in the business of changing hearts and minds, as he persuades Dave to feed the bears from his hand.  It’s a lovely moment.

But his main mission is to protect the bears, because it’s now the hunting season: “This time, I’m no longer just a cameraman – I’m a bodyguard.”  Down to the bullet-proof vest.  It’s illegal to shoot radio collared bears when a researcher is with them, so Gordon, Lynn and Sue try to walk with the research bears during daylight.  The bears also wear bright pink and yellow ribbons on their collars.

Another concern is that Hope will not get fattened up in time for hibernation.  Lily must soon start building a den for the winter, taking them out of harm’s way.  But the hunters are in Lily’s territory, and she’s unable to move into other bears’ territory without challenging the occupier.  This has already happened – another bear, Sarah, has challenged Lily twice and been driven away.

The tension cranks up as the programme progresses.  I found myself looking at the elapsed time counter, thinking, “well, not long to go, and nothing terrible has happened yet.”

But it does.  Sarah, the bear who challenged Lily, is shot – despite wearing a collar and a brightly coloured ribbon.  Her collar is shoved, anonymously, through the the letter box of the Dept. of Natural Resources.  Coming as it does after we’ve come to know these bears as characters, it feels like an utterly despicable act.  Sue, one of researchers, says it best: “I feel like crap.  It’s so hard to understand the way they think.”

Then it’s time for Gordon to return to Scotland, but not before seeing Lily make a start on a den.  He has changed from the wary cameraman, who only filmed wild animals from a relatively safe distance, to someone who has lost his fear and bonded with these animals.  My guess in the opening segment, Spring, is borne out in this one when he says, “I’ve fallen in love with these bears.”

And so have I.  I can usually take or leave nature programmes, but this one went straight to the heart.  For the most part due to Gordon’s empathic connection with the bears and the humane research carried out by the Wildlife Research Institute.

This is inspired television, presented with wit, courage and passion.

The Bear Family & Me is available on DVD at the BBC Shop.

The Man Who Planted Trees

The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jean Giono (Peter Owen, 2004)

Jean Giono wrote this book in 1954 as a fable about the symbiotic relationship between the Earth and its inhabitants.  His narrator, while walking “in that ancient region where the Alps thrust down into Provence,” meets a shepherd who gives him food, water and shelter for the night.  Not before time, because he is seriously dehydrated.  He discovers next day that the shepherd is planting trees so that the bare, dry hillsides and valleys, scoured by fierce winds, can live again.  The shepherd, Elzeard Bouffier, doesn’t care who owns the land, only that it should be healed.

The narrator, let’s call him Giono for simplicity, invests Bouffier with mythical attributes from the first paragraph:

For a human character to reveal truly exceptional qualities, one must have the good fortune to be able to observe its performance over many years. If this performance be devoid of all egoism, if its guiding motive is unparalleled generosity, if it is absolutely certain that there is no thought of recompense and that, in addition, it has left its visible mark upon the earth, then there can be no mistake.

After this first meeting in 1913, Giono does indeed observe Bouffier in his visits over the years, until their last meeting in 1945, when Bouffier is 87, two years before his death.  During that time, Bouffier transforms the landscape, tirelessly, methodically planting 100 trees every day.  He switches from sheep-herding (they cause too much damage to the young trees) to bee-keeping, so that plants and flowers can be pollinated.

Jean Giono (1895-1970)

Giono sees the changes at each visit, separated by years, and this becomes the narrative.  With reforestation comes the return of streams, small farms, breezes instead of gales, and the embittered inhabitants become kinder as the environment brings out their better qualities.  Young, adventurous newcomers settle there, the old ruined villages are rebuilt, and once more it’s a place fit for civilized human beings.  And vice-versa.

I said the book is a fable.  Two world wars pass the region by and even a government commission sent to investigate this remarkable natural resurgence of forest is able to do no harm.  The implicit assumption is that Bouffier is so in harmony with the natural world that all obstacles just fall away.  But if this is achievable only through the deep altruism displayed by Bouffier, well, it’s a steep learning curve.

That said, The Man Who Planted Trees is a moving and inspiring book, made all the more beautiful by Michael McCurdy’s evocative woodcut illustrations.  And Giono made it freely available for publication by anyone, after its initial rejection by the American company that commissioned it. They wanted a story about a real Unforgettable Character.  Giono created a fictional character who does what most of us are incapable of – carrying through an altruistic impulse as a personal, lifelong mission.

There is an afterward by Norma L. Goodrich, in which she visits the dying Giono in 1970 and talks about the influence of this book and his other writing.  Essential for someone like me who is completely unfamiliar with his works.