Sunday, December 21, 2008

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind, but now I see.

-John Newton, December 1772


I always thought that “Amazing Grace” was a Negro spiritual.  The simple beauty of the hymn, I imagined, was an expression of the appeal of faith to a displaced people.  My mental image was of the healing power of song and belief in the long held promise of the deliverance from suffering.  Aretha Franklin, Paul Robeson, and Mahalia Jackson have all recorded versions of this song.  Their versions are just part of the over 1700 versions of the song listed on  

Today, reading “Bury the Chains” by Adam Hochschild, my “Amazing Grace” assumption was left in pieces. 

John Newton, the author of this hymn was a slave trader.  He sailed the triangle in the 1700’s from London, to West Africa, to the East Indies.  He carried slaves, sugar, and tobacco.  There is no evidence of him being an exceptionally cruel slave trader, although, like other traders of his time, he presided over massive cruelty and human suffering.  Slave ships were packed with slaves in disease ridden and dirty conditions.  Many slaves died on route to the East Indies.   Conditions were so bad that captains were constantly fighting two things: slave revolts, and slaves trying to end their lives to escape bondage.  They addressed both through extreme force and intimidation.

The point of this post is not to horrify with details of the slave trade, but to talk about the great power of the human mind to ignore suffering.  John Newton, was, by all accounts at the time, a kind and religious man.  He was good to his wife, didn’t drink or take prostitutes and eventually retired from the slave trade to pursue a career as a minister in the Anglican Church.  He was a devoted and fervent believer who made his name by writing hymns, such as “Amazing Grace.”  It’s hard to understand, from a modern perspective, how his roles as slave trader and hymn writer are reconcilable. 

There were some very isolated instances of opposition to the slave trade around this time, like the Quakers, but the majority of society did not consider it to be wrong.  In fact, it was part of the culture.  The example of John Newton is most striking because it speaks of an entire culture that is morally depraved yet entirely insulated from introspection.  

I wonder what we co-exist with today that exudes this same type of deep, societal, hypocrisy.  Part of me thinks that it is the way we confine and treat animals.  I often find it too difficult to think about the conditions that our beef, milk, eggs, cheese, chicken, pork and other animal products are raised in.  I know about animal confinement, but I actively ignore it at times, especially at this time of year.  What would it be like, if at the dinner table at your in-law’s house, you were to say something about the way that the Christmas ham is treated?  I am not capable, at most times, of broaching this subject around friends and family that serve me food.  In some ways, it’s a betrayal of our social contract, but should it be? 

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Gypsy Zoo Keepers (Part 1!)

To truly catch up on the traveling ruminations, we have to start in Lander, Wyoming, in the beginning of October. Central Wyoming was in one of its worst droughts in history and at the time we showed up had less than 5 inches of rain for the year. Julia and I were walking the goats up onto the tops of steep sandstone bluffs to get to the few grass plants that the cows didn‘t eat.

We had accumulated a ridiculous amount of domestic dependents for our mobile lifestyle. We were awash in Border Collie puppies. Bailey had given birth 6 weeks ago and we had 3 of her little puppies living in a little plywood fold-out portable box under the overhang of our 5th wheel trailer. We didn’t want to give them serious names(we only kept one) and thanks to a flash of irreverence they bore the names Bicycle, Chlorox, and Verizon.

Our newest additions were two little munchkins (both 3 weeks old) that are Bailey’s full brother and sister. We decided, based on how great of a dog Bailey is, that we wanted a few more pups from her full genetic pool. We drove to Arlington, Wyoming and picked out two speckled pups, one male and one female(Sly and Nell), from a breeder who uses Bailey’s parents to manage a herd of 800 steers that graze under a wind farm. Bailey’s full father, we found out, is an exceptional dog. He can walk a single cow with a calf out of a field and into a barn a half of a mile away.

3 week old puppies are almost completely helpless. They can barely move and basically just cry and drink milk. At about 5-6 weeks they start to get a little bit of personality, but before then their entire purpose is to fill their bellies with milk. When we traveled with the puppies we put them in the small bathtub in our trailer, along with our kitten(YES we had a kitten too), and covered it up with a piece of plywood to keep flying objects and a milk goat from crushing them. After a few hours on the road we would stop and heat up some milk to feed them.

For anyone still successfully following this blog I want to quickly summarize our life in October of 06 with a roster of animals:
1. 2 adult border collies
2. 6 border collie puppies ranging from 2 to 12 weeks
3. One kitty of unknown age picked up from a barnyard in Judith Gap, Montana
4. One unusually mischievous milk goat
5. Two slightly insane people (Julia and I)
Housing: One 25 foot 5th wheel trailer
To be honest it really didn’t seem ridiculous to me at the time, and I’m not entirely sure why. Stay tuned for part two to find out how and why we moved back to California with our gypsy zoo.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Exploding vestigial organs!!!

The cecum is the beginning of the large intestine. The size of a mammal's cecum has to do with the amount of cellulose, or difficult to digest plant matter, an animal eats. The koala bear, whose diet is exclusively eucalyptus leaves, has a cecum equal in size to the rest of its intestine.

The human cecum is relatively small. The green plant matter that we do eat tends to be low in cellulose. Most scientists who study human anatomy think that the appendix, a 2-6 inch protrusion from the end of the cecum, is a leftover from a time when our cecum was much bigger and our diet was much higher in cellulose. That is why most people (with the exception of those who don't believe in evolution) call the appendix a vestigial organ. Comically, there are several web sites by people who, in an effort to disprove evolution, come up with functions for the appendix has in the human body.

That little vestige of times past caused me some trouble this week. When the appendix starts to get infected it feels like a stomachache. After a day or so it feels like you have a little fiery cauldron in the lower part of your abdomen. Every time you move or go over a bump in the car, the cauldron spills over and its hot contents scald your abdominal area. Over the next period of time, the exceedingly stubborn (read: ME) try to dismiss this continually heating cauldron as advanced indigestion. Pretty soon, however, the cauldron itself starts cracking.

It was about this time, at Julia and Nina's urging, that I walked into the emergency room. A few hours later I was blissfully sedated with an IV of saline and antibiotics while a surgeon was removing the burst appendix from my body. My first Valentines Day present was a syringe of morphine into my IV in the post-operative recovery room.

As I sit here on Friday, one day after being released from the hospital, I feel extremely grateful to be alive. One or two generations ago the same condition could be fatal. Modern medicine has its problems, but its hard not to be in awe of its ability to pluck people from the depths of illness. Antibiotics, for example, are so ubiquitous these days that we are developing some highly resistant bacteria. Without them, however, my recovery process from a gut full of intestinal juice would not have nearly as smooth.

Even the IV itself, which hydrated and relaxed me when my body was starting to shut down, was not in use as a common practice 100 years ago. Surgeons would commonly lose patients to shock while performing surgery.

So I have to be largely off of my feet for the next few weeks, and I figured it was as good a time as any to get rumen-ating again.


Friday, August 18, 2006

We have new family members!

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Monday, July 10, 2006

Grazing, grassland and history

When Louis and Clark traveled up the Missouri River, they described stopping for hours to wait for a large herd of buffalo to cross the river. It is hard for me to imagine a herd of this magnitude. When Julia and I move our 600 goats around, we get many incredulous looks. Most people have never seen such a large herd of goats, and possibly not a herd of any ruminant (cow, sheep, bison ect.) so big and concentrated. These two observations give me perspective on the effect of humans on the land between the Mississippi and the Rockies in the last 200 years. Perhaps no difference is more fundamental than the way that we relate to our grasslands and the animals that graze them.

Large herds have a rejuvenating effect on grasslands. With electric fences and dogs, we simulate the effect of a large herd. Hooves of the animals push grass seeds into the soil and trample old brittle grass. They graze off the top part of the grass, turning the mature leaves into fertilizer for the root systems. In arid, brittle environments, these manure pies serve as biological refuges for microorganisms that cannot survive in the dry soil. Grasses depend on the disturbance of grazing animals to stimulate new growth, and to protect and feed them.

Grazing animals, however, are not conscious of the important role they play in these ecosystems. They do this by simply protecting themselves, and sating their voracious appetites. Without predators to keep the herds together and moving, our grasslands would not be the same

When Lewis and Clark traveled along the Missouri they found mostly healthy grasslands. They found, besides millions of bison; wolves, coyotes, and Native Americans that all depended upon the health of the grass and the ruminant animals. White settlement changed these patterns drastically. First, hunters killed buffalo for their tongues and winter hides, leaving the whole carcass to rot. Then, urged by a new technology in leather tanning that gave value to hairless summer hides, the killing was wholesale, virtually eliminating the bison in a period of less than 15 years, ending in 1883. In the next 20 to 30 years cattle ranchers moved up from Texas. In the areas with especially rich, deep topsoil, the plows sunk into the ground to grow wheat. Small pox and genocide eliminated most of the native tribes, and the wolves were successfully hunted out of existence (the state of Montana had a $15 dollar a head bounty on wolves in 1915). In 100 years these plains changed from a grassland ecosystem with millions of bison, Indians, and predatory animals, to small groups of Eurasian cattle, barbed wire and cowboys.

With our small herd we can imitate the effect of millions of bison that came before them: our herding dogs are our wolves. Bailey and Kodi know how to keep the herd bunched together. They provide the steering for our mass of goat hooves and mouths.

Lewis and Clark would be shocked if they tried to travel up the Missouri today. They would both be pleased with the modern improvements that we have made, like the ease of attaining food, clean water, and the effortlessness of transport. But Lewis, the trained naturalist who surveyed the grasslands and recorded and named many of the species found in the northern plains, would be sad to see our losses in diversity. He would probably lament the acres of land degraded by erosion, overgrazing and invasive weeds. The land, if one knows where to look, tells the story of our success and failure. Fortunately, history is not static, and we do not have to live with the results of our failures. We can, with good grazing management and knowledge of the mechanisms of our grassland, bring back some of the ecological vibrance of the past.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Friday, May 19, 2006

Julia looks away while Bailey chases goats
More Bailey chasing goats
Sunset in Bridger 5/18 Posted by Picasa

Goats grazing in Bridger, MT
Snacking on Russian Olive
Leafy Spurge plants secreting latex sap after goat's first bite Posted by Picasa