Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Killing things

One of those odd moments occurred last week in which a distinctly coherent topical thread seemed to emerge out of my usual relatively-random media perusal routine.

And that thread was, cheerfully enough, on the topic of killing and/or being killed.

1. At Orion Magazine (which I only recently discovered and which seems to be generally quite good) Robert Michael Pyle, in 'Licence to Kill', considers nature, which he finds, indeed, to be rather red in tooth and claw. We are all, he also suggests, in some way complicit in the slaughter:

Thoughtful people can take fewer lives than those who stomp every spider without a thought, or worse. Yet there remains the matter of exerting our weight upon the earth, so richly populated with tiny lives. Of eating, whether cattle, pigs, or krill, grains, beans, or spuds, butchered or harvested by the diners or their paid proxies. Of clothing, since cultivating cotton and hemp means displacement (read: killing) of prior residents with pesticide and plow, and the harvest exerts its own toll. And of shelter, because putting up houses means taking down trees. Our transportation, whether Hummer or Prius, train or plane, mines living mountainsides for metals. Communications and energy? Try mountaintop removal for coal, open-pit mines for copper, salmon-stream dams, and the entire oil imbroglio, none of them noted for their nonlethal qualities.

I'm not entirely convinced by his essay's final argument to suspend our judgements of the choices others make in the broad spectrum of killing (I mean, there seems to be a somewhat broader distinction between using antibiotics or swatting flies on the one hand and lion hunting, say, or conducting medical experiments on apes on the other, and this gets a bit lost here). However, I do think his thoughts here are a useful antidote easy moralistic posturing on the matter.

2. Cruelty toward and the treatment of animals, of course, is an important issue. As Alex Renton points out in 'This is one happy cow' at the Guardian, more humane versions of cattle farming have also made economic sense.

It may seem screamingly obvious that there's a connection between the way you treat an animal and the taste and quality of its meat, but it is a notion that has taken a while to penetrate the cost-driven consciousness of the modern meat industry. 'What's interesting,' says Tom Gatherer of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 'is that what would seem commonsense is now being scientifically proven. It's true that the best-raised animals make better meat, and the industry is taking that on board.' Andrew Lane, one of the founders of Loch Fyne Oysters, and in charge of sourcing meat for the group's shops and restaurants, says simply: 'You can tell the mood of the cow by the taste of the meat.'
The article still deals with slaughter, so it may not appeal to the more faint-hearted or convince the committed vegan; nonetheless, the practices he examines seem to mean a great improvement in the quality of life (and death) of the cattle in question.

3. In The Observer, Thomas Quinn goes hunting in the Scottish Highlands and kills a deer. The piece is somewhat interesting, even if its narrative framing as a city-boy-becomes-a-man-in-the-wilderness story gets a wee bit relentless by the, um, bloody end.

He's right about one thing though:

Telescopic sights aren't as straightforward as you'd think from the movies. Your eye has to be exactly the right distance from the lens. A half-inch either way and shadow obscures the view.

4. I also ran across an older (2004) article by Dave Cullen at Slate on the Columbine school shootings which is fascinating. Based upon FBI investigations into the massacre, it gives a clearer picture of what happened and dispels a number of inaccuracies and myths about the killings and the killers.

The killers, in fact, laughed at petty school shooters. They bragged about dwarfing the carnage of the Oklahoma City bombing and originally scheduled their bloody performance for its anniversary. Klebold boasted on video about inflicting "the most deaths in U.S. history." Columbine was intended not primarily as a shooting at all, but as a bombing on a massive scale. If they hadn't been so bad at wiring the timers, the propane bombs they set in the cafeteria would have wiped out 600 people. After those bombs went off, they planned to gun down fleeing survivors. An explosive third act would follow, when their cars, packed with still more bombs, would rip through still more crowds, presumably of survivors, rescue workers, and reporters. The climax would be captured on live television. It wasn't just "fame" they were after—Agent Fuselier bristles at that trivializing term—they were gunning for devastating infamy on the historical scale of an Attila the Hun. Their vision was to create a nightmare so devastating and apocalyptic that the entire world would shudder at their power.

5. Also less than recent, an interview by Ron Hogan with Jim Crace in which Crace talks about his novel Being Dead, which centres on the murder of a couple on a beach and then traces their process of decomposition over several days.

I recently read it and found it to be incredibly engrossing and emotionally moving. Highly recommended. (A good summary is given in this Salon review.) And my enjoyment of the book is not diminished in the slightest by the knowledge that Crace had not -- as I at first thought -- done extensive research to make his book realistic:

RH: Uh-huh... One of the things I like about the narrative structure is the way that it not only peels back from the moment of death, it also goes forward, even before their bodies are discovered, to continually isolate what is happening to their bodies as they lie there. One of the most remarkable chapters is the one where you describe the animals discovering the bodies, and provide intricate detail on what happens as each species approaches the corpses to feed.

JC: And I have to tell you . . . I mean, I wonder where you're heading there, but of course it's not researched, and the description is bogus. If you're like me and you do any country walking or you do any beach walking, you encounter dead otters or a dead squirrel or a dead seagull, and you go up with your boot and you turn it over and you see what happens, you see what putrefaction is. You see how the body decomposes. You might even look, peer in and you might see all sorts of bugs there. It doesn't feel like a morbid analysis of death, nor does it seem disrespectful or undignified. It seems like part the natural world. So I wanted the bodies [of Joseph and Celice to just rot away and I could have gone and done some real research, but being the kind of writer I am, I made things up. None of the animals that you encounter going into their bodies are real animals. They don't exist. The detail is actually invented because this whole book is a narrative rather than a work of natural history. They [the insects] don't exist. I've invented them. Did you realize that?

RH: No, you had me fooled with that one, too.

JC: But it doesn't matter. It's only modern day conventions that make one feel nervous, that everything's got to be real if you read it in a novel. What a ludicrous reaction to the novel! Why should everything be real? Make everything up. This is the traditional way of storytelling. If you look at any of the old stories...the cyclops doesn't exist, the minotaur doesn't exist. The whole traditional way of storytelling always uses gross inventions, and I think that's the tradition that I'm part of.

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