The Walrus Blog

Monthly Archive: March 2011

No. 5: Toby

A series of thirteen posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary

Nobody knows where Toby was born. Some say he was wild-caught in Africa, while others say he was born in a small-town Canadian zoo. Either way, Toby spent much of the first twenty-four years of his life at the Saint-Félicien Zoo on Lac-St.-Jean, Quebec. The zoo bought him to be a companion to its young male, Benji, who had recently been rejected by his own mother, Samba. Luckily, Toby and Benji hit it off, and soon they became as close as brothers.

When they were young, the youngsters were often taken home on the weekends by one of the zookeepers. It was on these excursions that they learned to wear children’s clothes, use utensils, eat potato chips, drink soda pop, and colour in colouring books. Partially raised by humans, Toby still enjoys donning a cool pair of sunglasses every now and then, or wrapping his wrists in bracelets.

Although the psychological consequences of being from one world (the jungles of Africa), living in another (a low-budget zoo in central Quebec), and occasionally visiting a third (a private home near the zoo) must have been immense, by all accounts Toby was a relatively well-adjusted ape. And when the Saint-Félicien keepers arrived one morning to find that he and Benji had broken back into Samba’s enclosure, and that the three of them were living peacefully together as if Samba had never abandoned Benji in the first place, the zoo allowed the three to live together as an adoptive family. In no time, Samba was treating Toby as her own. (more…)

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Depth of Field

What should be the ethic that grounds environmentalism?

When a forest is no longer sacred, there are no spirits to be placated and no mysterious risks associated with clear-felling it. A disenchanted nature is no longer alive. It commands no respect, reverence or love. It is nothing but a giant machine, to be mastered to serve human purposes.” — Andrew Brennan and Yeuk-Sze Lo, “Environmental Ethics” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

What on EarthThe passage above describes a fairly common vein of thinking in environmental circles. This “disenchantment,” beginning in the Enlightenment with Newtonian physics and philosophies like those of Kant, kicked off modern science as we know it: a universe composed not of spirits and essences, but of interlocking parts that act according to common rules, is one whose behaviour can be predicted — and thus controlled. The worst periods of European colonialism and the excesses of industrialization followed. As a species, we haven’t put our ever-increasing power over nature to the best of uses; hence a number of movements have attempted to repair our relationship with nature in one form or another. One of the most prominent of these in recent times is an ethical theory called deep ecology: proponents argue that the global ecosystem and everything in it are valuable in themselves — not to be protected because of their usefulness to humans, but for their own sake.

The phrase “deep ecology” itself was coined in 1973 by Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss, but the sentiment of deep respect for nature was already a part of the environmental movement, which began in earnest in the ’60s. Earlier books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise”) were part of a shift in environmental thought from the question of what is in the human interest to what is in the natural interest. The idea that we are integrated, responsible members of a natural community — not a mere collection of detached individuals — was a perfect fit with the burgeoning counterculture’s rejection of Western individualism and consumerism. The disenchanting legacy of Enlightenment science was, and is still, blamed for everything from nuclear war to runaway overconsumption, and not without reason. The effort at reenchantment, and the ethical claim that nature must be protected for its own sake, certainly capture something morally important to us — but the idea may have its pitfalls too. (more…)

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Between the Bars

On editing a writer who has been convicted of murder
Illustration by Mathieu LavoieMathieu Lavoie

In April of 2010, Walrus editor John Macfarlane and I received an email from Ken Klonsky, a BC playwright and author who works with wrongfully convicted prisoners. Klonsky wrote:

“I have a remarkable piece of writing from Atif Rafay, a man who is serving life without parole in Washington State for a crime of which he is unquestionably innocent. I advocate for Mr. Rafay on behalf of Rubin Carter at Innocence International. The piece in question is, on the one hand, an academic essay, but it is also a penetrating analysis of the American prison system by a Canadian whose story is the most tragic imaginable.”

This wasn’t the first time Klonsky and I had corresponded. Two years earlier, he’d emailed me to pitch a story on Rafay’s case. It was a non-starter — the proposed piece was too closely linked with advocacy efforts to free Rafay, and no new evidence had come up to exonerate him since his conviction in 2004. This second email, though, promised something else entirely. We were intrigued.

The details of Rafay’s case, briefly, were this: Police arrived at the Rafay family home in Bellevue, just outside Seattle, the night of July 13, 1994. Outside, they found Rafay and his friend Sebastian Burns, who had called 911; inside were the dead bodies of Rafay’s mother, Sultana; his father, Tariq; and his autistic older sister, Basma. All three had been bludgeoned to death. Rafay, eighteen, and Burns, nineteen, told police they had been out that night for dinner and a movie. Rafay had just completed his freshman year at Cornell in upstate New York, Burns his first year at Capilano College in North Vancouver. (more…)

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Cut Chemistry

David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World, discusses adapting his acclaimed novel for The Walrus
David BezmozgisDavid FrancoDavid Bezmozgis

In our April 2011 issue, The Walrus is pleased to offer its readers a sneak peek at David Bezmozgis’s long-awaited first novel, The Free World. Set in Rome in 1978, the book follows two generations of the Krasnansky family as they flee Russia and attempt to find their way to America or Canada. It’s markedly different from the book with which David made his name, Natasha and Other Stories (2004), yet it is equally remarkable, a novel of tremendous beauty, generosity, and sadness. “Rome, 1978,” the portion of the book which appears in the magazine, follows Samuil Krasnansky, the family’s patriarch. An excerpt also ran in The New Yorker last year, when David was selected as part of the “20 under 40” summer fiction showcase. We corresponded over email about the book and the process of adapting it for excerpt.

Jared BlandAs this excerpt focuses on Samuil, perhaps we can begin by you telling us a bit about his character. How did he develop for you?

David BezmozgisSamuil is part of a generation that is dying out. These are people who were born at the dawn of the Bolshevik Revolution and who still would have suffered from tsarist repressions. They are people who would have experienced every bloody episode of Russia’s twentieth century. And if they were Jewish, as Samuil is, they would have experienced it at a level even more brutal than the average Soviet citizen. My grandparents were of this generation and it still astounds me to think of everything they saw and everything they lost. When I conceived of the book, I felt it was essential that there be someone like Samuil, someone who could attest to this complicated, terrible history. In the book — and in this excerpt — he serves as a fierce, severe counterpoint to his modern, free-spirited children. (more…)

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Looking Back

A photographic record of touring Antarctica by boat with Students On Ice

A photographic record of touring Antarctica by boat with Students On Ice

A Zodiac visit to Gourdin IslandMaryam AljoaanA Zodiac visit to Gourdin Island
Fur seals play fighting in the surf at Brown BluffBruce KlockFur seals play-fighting in the surf at Brown Bluff

(more…)

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No. 4: Sue Ellen

A series of thirteen posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary

From a series of thirteen posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary

Sue EllenFrank NoelkerSue Ellen

Sue Ellen has a weakness for large, bearded men. This could be a remnant of her childhood spent in the circus. Gloria suspects that at some point in Sue Ellen’s difficult life, she enjoyed a deep and loving friendship with a broad-shouldered man who preferred not to shave, and that’s why she warmed up to me faster than any of the other chimps at Fauna. Apparently, I was just Sue Ellen’s type.

For the first week or so, my job in the Fauna chimphouse consisted of two simple tasks: stocking the dinner trolleys and washing dishes. And for the entire week, every time I looked up from my work, Sue Ellen was in one of the privacy rooms, sitting on one of the resting benches, adorned in whatever fashion statement she’d been able to rustle up, making eyes at me. Sue Ellen, otherwise known as Susie or Susie Goose, loves to drape herself in human clothing whenever she can. This is another legacy of having been reared by humans.

Whenever I approached her to say hello, which I did approximately twenty times a day, Sue Ellen would press her face against the caging between us and literally shake with excitement. She would purse her lips and squeeze them between the bars, offering a kiss. It didn’t take long for her to figure out that I wasn’t allowed to return the gesture, but Susie was not one to be deterred. She usually just left her lips out there for a while, thin and pink and mottled with black, and I could hear her stuttered breathing as she attempted to control her pleasure at my presence. (more…)

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Passing the Torch

A letter from the home office, after a journey to the bottom of the world

A letter from the home office, after a journey to the bottom of the world

Deception IslandDavid RusakDeception Island

Despite — or possibly because of — all the unspoilt natural beauty I took in during Students On Ice’s Antarctic University Expedition 2011, one of the most striking sights was a place of human intervention. Our group’s last day of visiting Antarctic terrain began at six a.m., landing inside a horseshoe-shaped caldera, the appropriately sinister-sounding Deception Island. The sun we had so consistently enjoyed throughout the trip had given way to a gloomy fog. This enshrouded the rundown structures and detritus left behind by early twentieth-century whalers, who made great use of the island until the Depression. The excesses of this industry were horrific: after hunting blue whales into scarcity, the hunters moved on to the next-most-profitable species, and then the next one after that, until a combination of ruined populations, changing public opinion, and long-overdue regulation put a stop to large-scale whaling in the ’60s. As if chiming in, the volcano at Deception Island erupted near the same time, laying waste to both more recent scientific stations and the whalers’ old boilers, tanks, and other structures. For our part, we wandered from over the ashy earth, stepping around chunks of brick and fragments of barrels, jarred after our time together in nature to see a place so littered with human debris.

Trip DiaryDavid Rusak’s posts about the Students On Ice Antarctic University Expedition 2011Orientation
From Argentina: prepping to set sail for Antarctica with Students On Ice

Crossing Over
Outbound from South America to Antarctica with Students On Ice

Landfall
Putting boots on the (dung-like, muddy) ground of Seymour Island, Antarctica

My Life is a Movie
Of penguins, seals, and humpbacks: the scene in Brown Bluff, Antarctica

Enjoy the Silence
Paradise Bay, Antarctica lives up to its name

Antarctic Meltdown
Reading cracks in the dramatically shrinking glacial ice at Neko Harbour

The Pursuit of Curiosity
Pristine Antarctica: the final frontier of modern wilderness tourism

It’s hard to conceive of the gulf between world views: the whalers hunted down, boiled, and dumped the remains of thousands of whales into this bay; mere days before, we had been scrambling out onto our ship’s outer decks in forty-five-knot winds, whooping and cheering at our first glimpse of a humpback fluke. We cherished their company as mysterious fellow mammals; the whalers created giant factory ships for the most efficient extraction of whale oil, and resorted to tactics like the deliberate wounding of calves, whose cries would attract still more victims. At least this insane style of hyper-exploitation — of those animals, in this area — has now ended. It’s a sign that humanity can, in fact, do better.

Another good sign is the quality of character of the students I travelled with. The gravity and complexity of conservation, particularly in a place as distant and different from home as Antarctica, was made clear to us by the professors and other experts who taught us about their respective fields on the trip. But, seeing the questions and interest at their presentations, it’s not hard to imagine a group this motivated and curious rising to the challenge. Students On Ice provided an ideal venue for this needed cross-pollination of disciplines, for making the connections the students will need if they want to do science in the polar regions, and for fostering the kind of personal engagement that really drives people to make a difference.

In his talk to us at the end of the expedition, one of the favourite phrases that SOI founder, executive director, and expedition leader Geoff Green returned to was “passing the torch.” It scarcely needs saying what a pleasure it was for me to join his group on this journey — but seeing in action their earnest commitment to spreading these values and knowledge was another pleasure besides.

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