Monthly Archives: September 2013

How Bilbo Baggins saw the world, clinging on to Gwaihir’s back?

Well… maybe… not quite, because this doesn’t exactly looks like Middle Earth this bird is soaring over:

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No, this is not an excerpt of a CGI scene from The Hobbit movie. Nor does the bird look quite like the greatest Eagle who ever lived in the annals of human mythology.

Better still – this is a clip from a real video camera mounted on the back of a real eagle, almost literally giving us the bird’s eye view of the Alpine landscape of the Mer De Glace area of Chamonix, France.

Pretty damn cool, eh?

Come with me… for a quick snack… from the world of Chipotle’s imagination!

So this creative little advertising film is making the social media rounds and earning kudos from food activists fighting Big Ag:

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chili plant ablaze

A chili plant ablaze with fruit in our suburban yard

It is a lovely, and lovingly put together film indeed, and the kudos are definitely well earned by the creative team at Moonbot Studios who created it. As many have noted, it is visually beautiful, accompanied by a haunting re-imagination of a classic song (Pure Imagination) from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and full of pathos both for the “food” animals being processed in the factory, and the farmer/factory-worker who is the protagonist and surrogate for us watching what the factory does, and for Chipotle which seems to offer an alternative. That it is an advertisement for a fast-food chain which wants to set itself apart from the rest of the pack, only sneaks up on us late in the film – and some (like my daughter) are put off by the final cut to smartphones showing some video game version, presumably, of this scary factory farm (Scarecrow).

As ads and commercials go, this is surely one of the most creative ones in recent memory, especially since it is offering a critique of Big Ag and the food processing industry that has so much of our global food production in its sights if not its claws right now. Many of us want to break the stranglehold of Monsanto/Cargill/Tyson et al which grows stronger by the day, gobbling up farms, and communities, animals and habitats, and biodiversity (the particular concern here among us Many of us hunger for better choices of food in the market, especially among the fast food outlets which form the primary source of nutrition for an increasing number of people across the planet. And we can use allies from all corners, including corporations who want to change things.

It is fascinating, therefore, to see Chipotle Mexican Grill, which has grown into a massive restaurant chain (1400 stores), thanks in no small part to McDonalds (yes, that McDonalds, which would seem to be amongst the targets of the above film, was a major investor in Chipotle from 1998-2006), position itself as such a strong alternative to the factory-farmed-and-processed fast food experience. See the Food With Integrity section of Chipotle’s website for all the proclamations they make about how they do things differently (with Integrity!) and are trying to change the way the fast food business works. And more power to them for doing all of these good things, despite some dubious passages (involving immigrant labor) in their own history. In taking this position, Chipotle is also giving us enough assurances via their website and this advert for consumers to be able to hold it accountable if they don’t keep their promises. We need more corporations to do the right thing, and the popularity of this video may help move the conversation forward.

I do wonder about a few things in the film, though.

Isn’t it convenient that the farmer/factory-worker (our protagonist) who is so saddened by the sight of the cow with the ear-tag heading for the factory chute, happens to have his own little patch of land and home where he can grow all the vegetables to put into the tacos he sells back in the city later? Must be nice for him to still have access to land that hasn’t been taken over and devastated by Big Ag. What brought him to that factory job in the first place, if he still has such a productive farm? And what a bummer of a commute between his oasis of a home to the big city surrounded by a post-apocalyptic hellscape! His rediscovery of the bright red chili and the other produce on his farm almost reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s classic short story “Good Taste”. Our food processing industry hasn’t quite reached those science fictional depths yet, but not for lack of trying!

Also, while it is nice to see him cheerfully chop up the chile and lettuce and all the other vegetables to lovingly put together the food that entices customers away from the factory-processed “100% beef-ish” substances – what about the delicious carnitas and barbacoa and chicken which are also major draws on Chipotle’s menu? Were the scenes of his humanely slaughtering his beloved cow (Bessie?), ceremonially slicing off steaks from her flanks, and lovingly grilling her tender flesh, cut out due to concerns the film may not merit a PG rating? I guess some things we don’t really want our children to see, even as we want to be honest about where our food comes from…

Finally, on behalf of my fellow Coyote Jennifer of The Corvid Blog, I have to ask both Chipotle and the Moonbot creative team: What the heck did a crow ever do to you to make you cast it in such a darkly villainous role??!! Crows are cool, and they would love some healthy food choices too, thank you very much!

A robust looking House Crow

“What did a crow ever do to you, Chipotle?” Asks this Indian House Crow.

A hummingbird defends its territory with a barbed wire fence.

On the perils of drawing permanent lines on a fluid canvas, or demarcating landscapes on a dynamic planet

My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition earlier today. The full transcript as well as audio of me reading it is available in the archives. Here I share a somewhat longer version of my essay where I ponder the predicament our species finds itself in, having gone extremely territorial in its conquest of the planet’s resources.

A hummingbird defends its territory with a barbed wire fence.

A hummingbird defends its territory with a barbed wire fence?

Territoriality is the bane of human existence. We human beings are an aggressively territorial lot, willing to defend what territory we claim to be ours against all comers using whatever means we can devise. By no means the only species to be strongly territorial, we surely are the most extreme in our territoriality.

Many animal species like to mark out and defend territories to ensure access to crucial resources such as food, water, shelter, nesting sites, and mates. Many will defend their territories aggressively, even risking injury or death to stave off challengers. You can see this every day all around us: in the sweet song of birds in our gardens, which are usually males proclaiming dominion over the garden, and in the way our dogs mark their territories at every fence- and lamp-post we happen to walk them by. Even plants show subtle territoriality, engaging in covert chemical warfare underground to prevent other plants from growing under their canopies and sucking away “their” supply of water and nutrients.

Yet hardly any other species takes territoriality as far as we have done. Most species reserve their hostilities towards members of their own species and maybe a few other direct competitors. Even when they physically or chemically mark the boundaries of their territories, these demarcations are hardly permanent. Scent marking, scratches in tree barks, vocal proclamations: these are what reinforce the shadow lines by which most animals carve out the world’s resources for their exclusive use. And, of course, these boundary lines are just as ephemeral as the lives of the individuals (and sometimes families) marking them.

Each individual may develop a strong sense of place, even an emotional attachment to some piece of land, or coral reef, or tree, or rock, but only rarely do they pass this on to their progeny, who often tend to disperse away into new areas to seek their own fortunes, set up their own new territories. Boundaries may be defended fiercely, but they remain fluid and diffuse and are ever changing, especially as the geographic ranges of species wax and wane and change on our dynamically changing planet.

Human beings have taken territoriality to whole new levels. We have not only sought to make our territories permanent, building fences and walls to keep intruders out, but even enshrined territoriality into elaborate systems of laws regulating ownership and inheritance. Unlike in any other species, we exhibit territoriality across a whole hierarchy of social levels: from individual and family homes to clan and tribal domains to kingdoms and empires to modern nation states and coalitions among them.

We have demarcated the Earth’s entire surface in cartesian lines scaling up and down these territorial hierarchies. We even carve out and defend boundaries in the ocean and the air and the very skies. Uniquely, we also seek to control every element that occurs within our domains, extending our territoriality against every other species on the planet. Whether it is ants or cockroaches in our kitchens, geckos in our living rooms, squirrels and monkeys in our gardens, or invasive species we label as aliens within our national boundaries, our pan-territoriality puts us at constant war against a whole host of species merely trying to eke out a living in the interstices of our rigidly demarcated landscapes.

Political World Map as Pangea 200 300 million years ago  Imgur

Unfortunately, our extreme territoriality flies in the face of a dynamic planet on whose surface hardly anything has ever stayed put in one place for ever, not even the very continents over which we continue to wage epic and devastating wars for resources. A key to evolutionary success on such a dynamic planet is a species’ ability to adapt to the changing landscape, and a fluidity of movement to match the ever changing zones of suitable climate and geology. Yet we have painted ourselves into cartesian prisons, investing so much in defending pieces of land and volumes of water that may not remain the same for long. Rising sea levels threaten cities that we thought we were building for eternity. Sandstorms herald the march of the deserts as climate zones shift, and glaciers and polar ice sheets melt, drastically changing the shape of the lands, with no little help from our own industry. And every other species tries to pick up and move along with these changes, extending its range towards the poles—or to the brink of extinction as suitable habitats disappear permanently. Yet we continue to cling to our cities and homes, unable to move, like deer frozen in the headlights of climate change. We are setting ourselves up for inevitable disaster, like a child building elaborate sand castles below the high-tide line on a beach, or an obsessive compulsive painter desperately trying to draw permanent lines on a liquid canvas.

Much of human history can be told as a series of tales about individuals and groups of people fighting each other over pieces of this demarcated landscape. History is also generally written by the victors and the survivors. To be able to write our own future history, we must first figure out, collectively, how to survive past our own ecologically disastrous fossil-fuel-burning industrial age. If we are to ride the tides of climate change and other unpredictable events our planet throws at us, we must find ways to ease our attachment to rigid territories, soften our boundaries, and allow other creatures, and ourselves, more room to share the resources of this pale blue dot.

Do you know more about ants than a second-grader?

Perhaps not as much as these second graders, who asked some great questions of the good folks over at Your Wild Life who visited their classroom recently:

Over the last couple years, we’ve worked with outstanding K-12 educators on a number of projects, including Belly Button Biodiversity and School of Ants. We enjoy collaborating with teachers on curriculum modules, and then actually visiting students in classrooms when we can. Last week, Lauren Nichols, De Anna Beasley, and Mack Pridgen of Tar Heel Ants joined me on a visit to to the bustling second-grade classroom at the Central Park School for Children in Durham, North Carolina.

Prior to our visit, these curious students submitted some hard-hitting, dare I say philosophical, questions about ants and their biology: “How did ants exist before we did?” and “What is a colony?” We had a blast answering the students’ questions and sharing live ant colonies with them. So much so that we made a little video so you could check out the second-grader-inspired ant Q & A for yourself — Enjoy!

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via Ant Questions Answered!

And here’s a bonus ant doing a kamikaze attack on a spider… FOR THE QUEEN??!!!

For the Queen!