Outside World

Over the holidays I spent almost two weeks in New Jersey, the land of my birth. Whenever I return to the east coast, I feel as if I have reached civilization. Although I pride myself on not being one of those uppity mofo’s from the east coast who believe nothing can exist outside the Northeastern bubble, I do feel as if I’ve returned to civilization when I see glitz and glamour of the Northeast corridor from my plane window. When my plane is descending into Newark and I peer out my window, I sigh a breath of relief upon seeing the lights of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings. (more…)


I celebrated New Year’s in the wonderful city of Seattle. It didn’t rain when I was there. Well, until the morning I left and my plane was delayed. Whatevs, I had two full, beautiful days in Seattle and was almost convinced to move there after grad school. Here’s the thing—Seattle is a great city. There’s a great neighborhood feel to it, and yet it still has big-ass buildings to make you feel like you’re somewhere important. Yes, I do require big buildings to make me feel like I’m somewhere worthwhile. Big buildings convince me that I’m part of civilization. It’s a personal thing, probably resulting from living in small towns outside of New York for most of my life. (more…)

About three weeks ago, I had a political discussion with Mary Kate to distract us from the interminable drive across Wisconsin. An analogy occurred to me that MK and I agreed was surprisingly–and somewhat disturbingly–fitting.

Here is the context, as per my understanding and our conversation:

America claims to be leading a War On Terror, a war with vague intentions and shifting enemies. So far, this war has been focused on the Middle east, while also holding an Afghan front and an aggressive posture toward North Korea. Our American “leaders” tell us that this war is waged to make the world a safer place, a claim which I have always assumed to include the aside “except those places in the world we are bombing the shit out of.”

There are some obvious religious similarities between the countries towards which we have recently been rattling our sabers (or swinging them viciously), but there seems to be a divide in American opinion as to the nature and relevance of this trend.

One view seems to be that the cultural and religious similarities between the targets of American cruise missles is merely coincidental; that America is not specifically targeting Muslims or vise versa, but it just so happens that many Muslim countries are currently unstable and are subject to strong-arm leaders and terrorist cells as a result.

The other American viewpoint, still largely regulated to quiet conversations in backrooms and the occasional rantings of some in the extreme right, is that there is something inherent to Islam that makes it fundamentally incompatible with democracy and Freedom (however that last word is defined). This view, while perhaps never saying so outright, implies that nations with Islamic governments will always harbor terrorist groups (aka jihadists) and human-rights infractions because those elements are integral to the Islamic legal and moral system. Within this worldview, it is to be expected that the War on Terror will focus on Islamic countries, and that it will continue to do so until some type of Islamic frameshift occurs.

My understanding (which is very limited, I admit) is that most of the Muslim world has picked up on this latter American stance, but for them it is largely deduction. Given our track record, it is no surprise that so many Muslims feel that they are being targeted in a cultural war, not just bystanders in a scattered attack on Terror.

When Ayatollah Khomeini called America “the Great Satan” in 1979, we had not yet begun our bombardment of the Middle East. Though he probably did have some very plausible worries about it, an American military invasion was not the Ayatollah’ s prime concern. As he saw it, Iran was already under invasion, not just from Western colonialism, but also from McDonald’s, Disney, Coca Cola, and Levi-Strauss. The real enemy of a fundamentalist Islamic government isn’t democracy, it’s free-market capitalism and the American social/moral codes that have gone with it since WWII.

In this way, the paranoid American pinheads are right: Islamic governments, especially if fundamentalist, will never be compatible with American Freedom because many of the social standards inherent in our idea of freedom are banned by Muslim law. Our free market says that men can drink alcohol and woman can dress like dancers in a rap video. The Koran says that this things are immoral and are not to be allowed.

When America brings Freedom to some ‘backward, intolerant’ country like Afghanistan, it is often overlooked that our brand of capitalism goes along for the ride. But even if we do see it, we can easily dismiss any damages by saying that we are just giving the people what they want. People want Desperate Housewives, Harry Potter, stylish jeans, Cinemax, and Marlboro Lights. This in the 21st century, man! If people want to wear revealing clothes, get drunk, and sleep around, that is their right. We’re just trying to bring modernity and basic human rights to the world, and these fundamentalist religious governments are resisting us; trying to hold their citizens in thrall, prevent them from moving forward.

The funny thing is that I remember when this happened once before; when a large, modernizing, secular country invaded and liberated a smaller, less technically advanced, state religion-run country. It was when Mao Zedong led a communist invasion into Tibet, overthrew the theocracy, and redistributed land to the serfs and peasants.

Now, the People’s Army also killed thousands of monks and destroyed most of the Buddhist temples in Tibet, which is something that we haven’t quite managed yet in our liberations, but the Chinese sentiment then was not so different from ours now: here is a country ruled by religious zealots, with obvious class lines based on the state religion, where cultural and technological modernization are being thwarted by the ‘holy men’ at the top of the heap. Mao just wanted to give basic freedoms and equality to his Tibetan brothers and sisters. Sound familiar?

Before I’m attacked with undue viciousness: I know that the Chinese invasion and subjugation of Tibet was far more brutal than any recent American military action, and that all religious practices were barred in Tibet (China, as it was fully integrated), a goal that we are not shooting for. But while the military strategy of the two wars may vary, the moral intents are remarkably similar. And yet, the Taliban leaders have not yet announced any speaking tours, authored now books on tolerance, and I have yet to see a single “Free Afghanistan” bumper-sticker.

This weekend, I drove about three and half hours upstate to the “Cry of the Loon” lodge, for the annual Creative Writing department September retreat (and, this is the second to last retreat EVAH, which is sad). The cabins were right on the lake: i.e., the lake was mere steps away, unlike my family’s cabin in Canada, where the lake is located down a perilous slope. Minnesota is, famously, the land of a thousand lakes (more…)

I have come to the righteous conclusion that rainforest suck.

They are valuable, perhaps even crucial to the continued existence of life as we know it. They are home to an unparalleled diversity of species. They host a wealth of medicinal plants that modern science is only now beginning to learn. They house countless cultures, some of which stand the peoples least affected by globalization.

And they suck.


As the name implies, there is the constant rain to deal with; you become soaked almost immediately, regardless of protection or the amount of current precipitation. What is not soggy from sky, vegetation, or sweat quickly becomes musty and damp from the humidity.

Vegetation is so think that travel must be accomplished either on trails or on waterways, the latter by boat or by wading. Firstly, no matter what anybody says about macheteing a trail out of dense forest, it’s a bitch. Secondly, due to the nature of rainforest, any trail you do succeed in clearing turns instantly to a long, narrow mudhole, and is then soon recolonized by vegetation unless steady traffic or maintenance beats it back.

Boats typically work well, if you have one. Most visitors are lucky to have a raft or canoe, which are fine for dinking around, but are less than ideal for daily work. Oh, and ‘typically’ does not apply to the twisting, rocky rivers of B.C., because you can’t get a boat through boulder rapids in four inches of water. But that’s why you brought chest waders! Because you really enjoy twisting your ankles on unseen and uneven stones and salmon carcasses, trying to avoid grizzlies in the one place they are sure to be found and where they are also unable to hear or smell you, walking kilometres at a stretch against flood currents, every day. Except it’s not every day, because the river floods when it rains and you can’t get to your study sites anyway.

Speaking of not being able to reach the study sites, why am I here again?          

I write now from the coast of British Columbia, in the midst of the Great Bear Rainforest. I am sitting on a couch with a cup of coffee at my elbow and the smell of fresh-baked cookies in the air. To say that I am roughing it would be something of an exaggeration. In my defence, however, I will add that this is my first day off in two weeks, and the first in the same period where I have not paddled and dragged a canoe through ten kilometres of estuarial river. While the smell of chocolate oatmeal cookies (yes, I bake) is certainly a pleasant one, I can assure you that the rotting carcasses of hundreds of pink and dog salmon is less than enjoyable.

            I am currently employed by Round River Conservation Studies on behalf of the Heilsuk First Nation and the land they control. Myself and two others (and I use that number loosely) are collecting data on grizzly bears and salmon in this, the Kvai, watershed. [Note: while the river appears as ‘Koeye’ on the maps, the Heilsuk spell it ‘Kvai’ and pronounce it ‘Quay.’ We defer to the Heilsuk.] The data we gather will be added to years of research in forming a Conservation Area Design, which the Heilsuk will refer to when making decisions affecting land use and wildlife policy. Distillation: we field biologists slog through the rivers and forests, counting fish and collecting bear hair off barbed-wire snares.

            The Kvai is special for a number of reasons. The Heilsuk have used this watershed for thousands of years, both as a source of food and materials, but also living on its banks in many temporary camps and villages. Four species of salmon (no Chinook) still run this river in good numbers, though are much affected by sport and commercial fishing in the area. The mouth of the Kvai forms a small protected bay, which supports a variety of marine life that tend to be quite scarce in this area. It is also one of the few watersheds in all of coastal B.C. that has never been logged. Though we can look out the window of this lodge and see cruise ships plowing through the Inside Passage, the low mountains around us are still dense with giant spruce, fir, hemlock, and ceder, the undergrowth so thick as to be nearly impenetrable without sweaty hours of machete work. For us, travel is restricted to the waterways, the few blazed trails, and a few meters up along the banks.

            So why am I sitting in comparative luxury? The Heilsuk bought a lodge that had been used to house fishermen-tourists back in the day. Now it is used primarily for a summer camp for tribal children, but is also rented out for events ranging from company retreats to weddings. We are based out of the lodge because most of our work is on the lower river and is accessible by canoe and one main trail. We have some sites at Koeye Lake, about fifteen kilometres inland from here, and we camp on the shore while we are there.

            Given that the only power we have here is from a small generator, I will cut this post here and give further updates as warranted and possible.  


To you all out there, stay warm and dry, and don’t get eaten by bears.