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Posts Tagged ‘mark bittman’

Communication and Miscommunication

On doing my nightly news reading, I stumbled across a feature on BBCNews about how plants use iridescence, of my interest ultraviolet iridescence–that is flashes of colours imperceptible to the human eye–, to communicate and attract pollinating insects. It was a short, but fascinating read that sparked further thought on an article I had read the night before on SciAm about the discovery of magpies and their ability to recognize their own reflection in a mirror–a distinction inclusive to very few species.

It’s fascinating what an array of communication is available in existence that is inaccessible to the human species. We pride ourselves in the elegance and complexity of our languages, in our words and symbols, and we fancy ourselves unique, and, for most people, they believe, superior to other species. Most people often don’t value the lives and the undiscovered, and, perhaps, fully incomprehensible complexities of the myriad of different species that share the planet with us.

Growing up, I often theorized, or perhaps, as a better term, fantasized that animals, though unable to speak our own vocal form of language, have, nonetheless, just as complex a means of communication as our English or Mandarin or Afrikaans. On camping trips, when I would listen to the canopy of birds chirping and hooting and warbling, I would romanticise that the birds are all having conversations of incomprehensible complexity. I did the same at night when I would hear the chirps of frogs that would engulf the aural atmosphere previously dulled by light. I was never able to assume, and still am unable to accept the notion that because these different species have smaller brains, they are unable to comprehend nuances in audible language beyond simple mating, danger and feeding calls.

I’d consider the bark of an old friends’ dog, Chance. I remember a particular night years ago sick and spewing in the backyard from too many shots of Jager or SoCo or whatever was the bottle of the month at the time. Chance also happened to be out in the backyard with me, noticed my abnormal and somewhat alarming behaviour and he started barking frenziedly to alert everyone else in the house. While I was drunk enough to purge the alcohol from my belly, I wasn’t drunken to a stupor, and I tried my best to convey to Chance that I was fine and that there was no need for alarm. He stopped and calmed down but continued to be attentive to me, I started feeling better and shared an appreciative moment for my canine companion. It was an act of compassion that’s rarely been shown in even that of most of the people I’ve known. It was an endearing moment and turned me into a dog lover, but it was also an instance where I truly realized the power of an animal of another species to understand. It was a ‘Lassie’ moment.

Communication is such an abstract form. Even between two people communication can often be misunderstood, and easily. I don’t think it’s beyond science that animals have the ability to communicate in as complex a manner as we in the human species. They may not be able to speak English or ask for a “venti soymilk chai latte,” but it’s not incomprehensible to me if scientists discover that the distinct warbles and chirps of birds, the songs of whales, &c. contain bits of precise nuance that is indistinguishable to the human ear and mind, but is concise and specific to the avian ear and mind, the cetacean ear and mind. With so many instances of misunderstanding between people every day, is it beyond a shadow of a doubt that our sciences are too under-informed, and maybe a bit misguided that it may one day discover a language of symbols shared among groups of species? Is it possible that because we are of another species, we are unable to fully understand the spectrum of complexity within the communications of other animals?

Beyond language, it astonishes me how similar animal behaviour is to human behaviour; and not just the things like maternal and paternal instinct, social hierarchy, &c., but even more complex and nuanced functions of behaviour. I’m reminded of an episode of either Nova or Nature on PBS broadcast years ago about the bowerbird (I have it taped on VHS somewhere)–nature’s architects/interior designers (they also do exteriors). The male bowerbird, in an attempt to attract a mate and in compensation for their lack of colour in their plumage, will collect exotic doodads, bright, kitschy instruments of design–brightly coloured bottle caps, glass, rocks, plastic, flowers, &c.–to meticulously arrange in and around their bower. Their bowers themselves are meticulously formed using grass and leaves and twigs; it’s a synergy of nature and aesthetic that puts to shame most human dwelling-places. They, like obsessive homemakers, even fuss about single objects if they are moved out of place by rival males or gusts of wind.

It’s a wonder why we don’t have more of a respect for the creatures of nature. Why they are discarded as nuisances, or as exotic wonders not deserving enough of our respect to treat them with compassion or respect. We encroach upon and eradicate their habitats, their homes, we industrialize them, force them into filthy, crowded pens and cages, inject them with antibiotics and hormones, and we massacre them for their meat, for their hide, and most of us could care less. Some even feel a sense of entitlement to treat these creatures with such derision. And such derision is partially the reason why we have a climate crisis, an energy crisis, a food crisis, and such derision is why they will continue to plague the human condition.

Call for Reform for Worldwide Agricultural Industries

I was also catching up on posts on the Bitten blog from New York Times food critic, co-host of the PBS gastronom series Spain on the Road Again (along with Gwyneth Paltrow, Mario Batali and Claudia Bassols), proponent for agricultural reform, and all around awesome foodie Mark Bittman. Bittman just released his new book Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, which I’ve nudged into my already crowded reading queue. The book focuses on the fallacies and impracticalities of the “American diet,” from how food is made to how food is eaten (it also contains some recipes on par with his previous books, How to Cook Everything, and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian).

All pretty much on par with his piece on meat over-consumption, titled “Rethinking the Meat Guzzler,” and his talk at 2007’s EG Conference:

Also on par with a fascinating parable given by chef Dan Barber at the Taste3 Conference last July involving foie gras and the goose farm of Eduardo Sousa in Spain:

As with The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan and his open letter to President-elect Barack Obama, and his talk at 2007’s TED Conference:

Leading agricultural reformers Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry also posted an op ed in the New York Times a few days ago calling for sustainable husbandry practices in the American agricultural industry, which mirrors a piece in early December on BBCNews titled “Food Needs ‘fundamental rethink’.”

Most of us are far too ignorant of how our food, both plant and animal, is produced. We fail to realize the strains it takes to accommodate for the gluttonous society that we have created. Thanks to the industrialization of agriculture, forgotten are the rural farms in favor of the super-farms and super-slaughterhouses that fuel our nations’ thirst for cheap food. Nevermind the taint of pesticides on our fruits and vegetables, and in our soil and groundwater, nevermind the massive amounts of petrol it takes to haul our food to the supermarket all across the nation, nevermind the taint of hormones and antibiotics injected into the beef and pork and poultry that most of us eat, nevermind the fact that we are putting these taints in our bodies passively refusing ourselves from considering whether if the chemicals used on our food is trickled onto our dinner plates (or fast food tray) or if the chemicals magically disappear and thus not inflicting harm us or the environment. Out of sight, out of mind.

Unfortunately, things don’t magically disappear just because it’s bad. Assuming there is or are Gods, they probably won’t be saving us from the sins that we’ve inflicted upon our global ecology, and unwittingly and ignorantly on ourselves. SciAm ran a story today about the trickle-down effect of chemicals and our beef, fruits and vegetables. Basically, the antibiotics injected in our beef is found in the manure used to fertilize the soil that is used to grow our fruits and veggies. According to the article, tests conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota found that the veggies contained concentrations of the antibiotics used in the beef that produced the manure.

All this, and considering everything that is unwittingly introduced into our water supply, and into other food sources (i.e. mercury levels in fish and shellfish) as a result of our societies’ practices, it’s no wonder why instances like cancer, heart and respiratory problems, developmental disorders like autism, &c. are occurring on an alarming scale. The FDA is reluctant to do anything to exacerbate the ConAgras of the nation who would rather take their business and their jobs north or south of the border or elsewhere where they can operate cheaper rather than act proactively for the health and wellness of the consumer.

It’s the consequence of living in a reactive society as opposed to a proactive society. We act reactively to disaster, and often only act proactively, having already crossed the point of no return. Unless the chemicals being pumped into the foods we eat and earth we dwell begin undeniably causing terminal illness or some sort of retardation or perversion of our minds and/or bodies, nothing will be done.

Well, I’ve ranted enough, and I’ve got things like ecological disruption and mountaintop removal mining and Obama policy percolating in my mind that will surely lengthen this post exponentially, so I will say adieu.

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