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Writing about Nature and Environmental Issues
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Date:2006-12-16 14:23

I am completely bombarded in all spaces by the imminent apocalypse. Everyday, all the time, like a grating pop song with tinny drum machines that plays ad nauseum on the radio in convenience stores, subway terminals, and hot dog stands. Today, again, the end is nigh. The dirty homeless guy is muttering to himself about it, the 6 o’clock news buzzes in the background as I make dinner and I hear, “North Korea…. Nuclear… Testing”. I change the channel, trying to find something that isn’t fuzzy, but TV evangelicals are making a mockery of me. Revelation is a pretty powerful book. Early Christians who were persecuted no doubt found it comforting to know that they, the few, would survive the impending fire and brimstone. We haven’t seen it yet, but there always seems to be somebody saying, “just you wait”. The apocalypse supporters have diversified their portfolio. There is the biblical apocalypse, inevitable because of our immorality and God’s obvious wrath. There is also now, the secular apocalypse, there is the idea that we have enough power to actually destroy the earth or at least our species. Apocalypse scale human threats are: nuclear bombs and meltdowns, global warming, mutant viruses and the spread of diseases like the avian flu, and the list goes on.
I should have hated Naausicaa. On principle, I think it is counter-productive and self indulgent to frame a discussion in apocalyptic terms. It places it outside of human reach. But, I didn’t hate Naausicaa. As art it was incredible, the fantasy, the drawing, the story of the evil forest. It seems as though the creator was trying to draw in all of the oldest stories ever told, every trope was whistling on the story. As an apocalypse story this was as good as it gets, it raised an environment ethic while the fantasy element allowed the creator to avoid assaulting viewers by explicitly saying “the end is nigh”. The most important aspect of this film, is that it is heart-wrenchingly beautiful. The very presence of such beauty in the film draws out in the viewer all experiences in nature and serves to connect them to the images in the film. The images of the forest, of the desert and sands and of the insects were incredibly powerful in soliciting carnal responses.
I prefer Naausicaa to Revelation as an apocalypse. Both involve Messianic rhetoric, but Revelation’s God is unknowable whereas the Princess in Naausicaa is known and seen throughout in a sincere way. In Revelation there is no intellectual dialogue between the reader and the Messiah, and I always feel left out in the cold. Inevitably, sinful and silly in any attempt to try and understand. At the end of the day the book is telling me I’m going to hell, and no matter it’s importance in the cannon and lyrical beauty. I just can’t get over that.
Naausicaa, I believe, is a powerful film. It’s nuclear warning comes from the wounded soul of Japan, one of the most affected places in the world by environmental catastrophe. The rebirth of Japan after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has a half-century long history. The Japanese voice against environmental catastrophe comes from the most sincere place, from a tradition of art and writing, a whole culture that has experienced catastrophe and had their whole aesthetic changed by the experience. Although Naausicaa does not explicitly tell he viewer to buy a hybrid car, the painful history and the artistic tradition the piece is attached to give it a depth of feeling, a deep and resonating place in the heart of the viewer and can help to build an environmental ethic. Kolbert’s book, does give you the facts and tell you how to get involved in fighting climate change. It was a well rendered presentation of the facts. It is necessary for people to know the extent of climate change, to become educated. But Kolbert’s book will not nurture an environmental ethic, it is not soulful, for me it is not art. Both the book, Field Notes to a Catastrophe, and the film Naausicaa are necessary and interesting ways of approaching the environmental catastrophe, but Naausicaa is ephemeral and beautiful it has depth. Field Notes is nothing more than a well written history, and is ultimately expository.

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Date:2006-12-16 14:13
Subject:Environmental Media: The Table Tent in The Dining Hall

It says “Stop Killer Coke” in bubble letters. Each letter is a different colour, orange, blue, green, yellow, red. The little information pamphlet is hand written on cardboard- fun facts about dangerous organic carbons are presented to me in scratch and sniff pink in concise bullet points. Someone cares a lot about coke. I learn about water scarcity, dangerous toxic emissions and spills. I am directed to a website but I don’t care because whoever wrote this. I believe them. I believe them because there is an aching sincerity in the analog. The scratch and sniff is real, it is truer than science this morning.
It gives me a pang. Because it is 9:00 am and I am drinking a coke. I am always drinking coke. Coke is sold everywhere. I think of the last five places I bought a coke. The man in the couscous kitchen van on Mass. Ave, yesterday afternoon. I had been craving some grapeleaves and needed something to wash it down. He sells coke for 75cents and I always think that’s a deal. The van is kind of gross, it doesn’t look very clean. Gritty and pungent are words that come to mind, but I need something tart and dripping with oil. I am also tired. So I could use a coke. Later that day I buy a coke from a friendly lady who wears a headscarf and has very long fingernails in the subway at Harvard Square. Next is in the library, from the ghastly glowing vending machine. There is a thunk, the sound of a small animal dying when the coke is dispensed. I have one with my dinner in a little diner where they have peeling paint and many potted ferns, it is fizzing against the back of my teeth and I know it isn’t healthy. Coke, from the 24hr convenience, that I sip daintily on the bus home. A little girl in pig tails eyes my sweating can that shimmers under the city bus fluorescents. I wished she wouldn’t. Children make me uncomfortable when I’ve had too much caffeine. Coke is sold everywhere. Mostly, because people like myself buy it, people who are needy. Insomniacs, overeaters, sugar fiends, the bored. Coke is a panacea.
I know that coke is horrible. So do you. It rots your teeth, it’s an irresponsible corporation that’s appropriated Christmas. It’s a multinational corporation that has disegard for the safety and health of their workers in places where there are no unions. Coke makes you fat, diet coke might actually cause cancer. Yeah, I know it’s bad. Coke might kill me, I wouldn’t be too surprised. Coke will probably kill other people too, their factory workers, the people whose fresh water supply they are exporting, many unhealthy and obese Americans. But from beyond the scratch and sniff letters, a little voice called to me, “you know I’m not doing it you shouldn’t either”. There is a humble legitimacy in the way they chose to spoke to me. And in an era where media are merely excuses for advertising space, this pamphlet seems uncompromised. I am now drinking tap water. I am going cold turkey.

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Date:2006-12-16 14:07
Subject:Class Presentation

The feedback I received on my class presentation, for the paper I am writing called, The Hand of Franklin, was very helpful. This paper treats the cultural, scientific and political implications of climate change. Many students felt that I needed to define who my audience was. They were helpful in pointing to ways in which I could improve my papers appeal to a wider audience, both Canadian and American by drawing a comparison between the Northern Canadian Frontier and the American Frontier in the west. Faith was helpful in pointing out that I should appeal to the cultural sensibilities of Americans and Canadians in a more neutral way. This means not being so derisive to the Americans in the story of the Northern Frontier. The class also helped me significantly in the discussion of my papers structure. They suggested the extent to which I should include interviews and gave me helpful tips on how to weave them into my paper. When I asked if the class felt that I should use fewer academics and more average people who would be affected by climate change, they suggested that this might be a good idea. I plan on talking to some residents of the Great North about their concerns and perhaps eliminating the interview with the Canadian culture academic.
The class was very helpful in narrowing down my decision of how to integrate photographs and diagrams into my piece. I plan on integrating photographs of early explorers and some of the more modern vessels that now pose a threat to Canadian sovereignty in the North. It was very helpful and encouraging to discover that the class was interested in the subject of the North West passage as I was concerned that it might only be of interest to Canadians. George gave me the very helpful idea of expanding my comparison between the Panama Canal and the Northwest Passage. I have started to research these comparisons as I agree with him that it would make my piece more interesting to a general audience.
In future oral presentation I plan to be less verbose, or wordy. This happens to me often if I am in a stressful situation. I gave too much of a synopsis of the paper and even then I felt that some of my questions were much too specific. I did not proceed well in explaining the status of the draft and where exactly I needed help. It would have been more successful had I started out highlighting some of my problems. I do not feel as though I used the classes time most productively. The handout was not very helpful and too wordy, I feel that I can take a note from Matt’s handout. I said “ummmm” too often and my sentences go up in the end. I feel that I was very nervous and this was a problem. I also should have stuck to the plan of presentation that I had, I wavered a little and this made me become more nervous and confused. I will also try to be more aware of the people sitting in the back row, sorry George.

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Date:2006-12-12 08:22

After my oral presentation a few people suggested that I should try to personalize my essay by including my own views on the issue of tiger conservation. As it would be hard for me to personalize such a topic people suggested that I write about why I find the tiger to be an interesting animal and why I chose to write about it. My oral presentation seemed to lack discussion about what I actually wrote in the essay and just addressed the issue in general. My oral presentation had a report like tone to it. I think it might have been a result of including too much research in my paper and not having had any personal experience on the issue. To remedy this I plan to include an experience in which I saw a tiger when I visited a wild life sanctuary. Some of the audience did find the topic inherently interesting as they identified with my love for the tiger. I hope to bring out this affection in the readers by writing about what it is that makes me like the tiger. It was suggested that I write about what the reader could do in response to the tiger issue. There were other issues with m presentation such as some of the audience found my voice to be monotonous. I was a little fidgety with my mechanical pencil was shaking my foot on occasions. I got lost and paused in some places. Some pauses had a tick 'Uh'. I think I could eliminate that by practicing my presentation several times over. My voice became softer and less audible towards the end. I think I could make a note to myself to try to be audible in presentations in the future. Some in the audience found that I lacked in eye contact while some thought that I had enough eye contact.

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Date:2006-12-11 22:05
Subject:Advice on finishing my paper

I am writing a paper about cow waste products and their impact on the environment. The first draft of my paper has been mostly about the concrete facts of manure management. This makes for a rather boring paper, and after the fairly strong anecdote in the beginning it seems a shame to let the rest of the paper be facts only. My peer reviewers suggested that I needed more information about greenhouse gases and water contamination. I agree with them. Rereading my own first draft made me decide that my transitions between paragraphs are too abrupt. I am not quite writing enough, and I think the paper is hoping that the audience can read my mind to fill in the details. I’m working on that….

Talking to my classmates in an oral presentation setting helped me with some ideas as to how to make the essay less like a science project type report. They suggested a discussion of mass-produced beef and milk as opposed to family farms. They also suggested that I mention my own determined omnivorous status, pointing out that there is already enough environmental literature written by vegetarians hoping to convince everyone to follow their example. The point of my essay is certainly not to make the reader feel guilty about eating beef. If I mention being an omnivore, should I also throw in the crazy idea I had one day, concerning the saying that, “If you can’t bring yourself to kill a cow/chicken/pig/sheep, you have no right to eat beef/chicken/pork/lamb”? Then the idea is that everyone should be given the opportunity, perhaps during high school, of visiting a slaughterhouse and proving to themselves whether or not they have the above stated right. Everyone who gets grossed out by that field trip would then know that they ought to be vegetarian. That was really a rhetorical question. If the idea fits, it will go in, if not, it will stay out.

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Date:2006-12-10 19:42
Subject:Oral presentation feedback

Going into my oral presentation last Thursday, the biggest problem I faced with regard to my essay was in its content and direction. I had so far written an environmental autobiography - a recollection of all the environment-related education and activities I have participated in. I wasn't sure if emphasizing the importance of environmental education was a strong enough theme to pursue for my third paper, and if so, I doubted my personal experience alone would provide enough to talk about. As a result, I used a presentation to seek advice from my peers on what I should do about the content and purpose of my essay. I received useful feedback on what I could do to improve on the content of my essay:

- Several people said they were interested to find out a lot more about my experience with Shell, and how that shaped my environmental perspectives. Some thought it would be a good idea for me to contrast how environmental education can come around fairly easily, but it's hard to apply once you go out to the corporate world, due to cost constraints and such.

- Some of my peers asked me who I really wanted to target, and suggested that an essay on environmental education might be more effective if it was targeted at ppl who will be educating our future generations (i.e. parents, young adults of today).

- There seemed to be a general concensus that my essay needn't be exclusively focused on myself; I could reference external sources and other people, without losing the personal, autobiographical touch.

-Structually, people suggested I do a kindergarten-middle school-high school progression, and then a discussion about environmental education in non-academic environments (i.e. through mass media or in the workplace).

After reading through the written feedback and my peers' comments in the discussion about my essay, I think I will make environmental education the main focus of my assignment. However, I hope to broaden my sources and not just talk exclusively about my own experience - I plan to do some research and find sources that show how effective environmental education can be. Nonetheless, since I don't want this to become an academic paper, I will look to keep as many of my personal experiences as possible, to maintain a fairly casual tone throughout my essay. I also think I will target young american adults who will be instrumental in educating our future generations.

With respect to my oral presentation, I received generally good feedback about my presentation skills (volume of voice, articulation, engagement with the audience). However, some people did point out some of my ticks (holding my hands after gesturing with them), so that is definitely something I can work on. My presentation was also on the shorter side, and people thought I could have explained the current status of my essay in a little more detail.

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Date:2006-12-06 23:57

After peer review, further research, and my oral presentation, I am beset by many suggestions, plenty of advice, and a great range of ideas. I now face the challenge of incorporating all I have found to complete my final draft in a strong, clear, and convincing manner. From the oral input I received from the audience during my presentation, as well as from my peer review, I feel that one of the most important things to add to my paper is a very clear and fairly detailed discussion of the life-cycle of Salmon in the Columbia River and how dams and other obstacles are impeding their progress and leading toward the decline in population. I think making this clear will help raise concern and awareness for the plight of salmon better than the discussion of solutions will, though both are important parts. Secondly, I think I should build on the success of my anecdote in the rough draft. This was a well liked part and I think it helped make the issue seem more real and tangible to people who have never been anywhere near the Columbia River. If I can include some personal commentary and imagery, it should broaden the appeal of the piece and draw in a wider audience. This brings me to the question of what to do about my intended audience. From the input I received it seems to me that the choice in audience should reflect my goals in writing the draft. If I want to raise general concern then I can probably maintain a more general audience across most of the country, provided I am able to make it engaging to a variety of people. However, if I want to instigate instant action, then focusing on the region beset could be more useful. After going through my presentation, I think my primary goal actually is to raise concern before action and I will probably try to reach a general audience. To this end I think I will stay directed in a more general way, but add some portions that try to relate this local problem to national issues, especially symbolically. However, I feel that I may be able to add a portion near the end giving interested readers the opportunity to provide direct assistance to the salmon recovery effort (this part would be directed more toward local residents, but still open to the entire audience). Adding all this will make my paper pretty full. I received a suggestion that I could add a fact sheet as a figure and reference it when needed to save space. I'm not sure I want to go this route on this paper, but I will consider it. I just want to make sure that including this doesn't interrupt the flow of the piece and force readers to flip around to find any information. However, if upon revision this option fits with what I want to accomplish, then I may attempt to add the fact sheet. Beyond that there isn't much specific left to do, just general improvements and a smooth combination of all my new ideas. Basically the thoughts are all there and now I must do the actual work.

In reference to my oral presentation itself, I think it went all right, and was certainly useful, but I feel I have a ton of room for improvement. My organization seemed pretty clear to most listeners (although some would have liked more details, which I can include when time permits). I've never used handouts before and I think my attempt here was kind of useless and didn't have the effect I'd hoped. If I ever need to use one in the future I'll try to reference it a bit during my speech, or seek a different approach to convey information. The biggest thing I need is more practice delivering my speech. I didn't fare too badly, but got a few negative comments from various listeners. My voice variation tends to reduce from its already low levels when I'm focusing hard on speaking (in other words I'm a bit monotone). I need to make sure not to make too many hand motions either. Also I just need more experience speaking to keep my voice stronger and more consistent. I already knew that I had a tendency to swallow the ends of my sentences, and I need to continue working on that as well. The underlying thing that will make me better at presentations is confidence. It'll make my voice clearer, my presentation more relaxed, and generally lead to a better result. I was extremely tense about this presentation, more so than I have ever been before, and had a tough time staying calm during my presentation. Generally I have been a bit nervous, but feel confident enough during the speech. I'm not sure why this one was worse. Maybe because it was college, maybe because I knew everyone was judging my presentation, maybe because I wasn't sure what the question and answer period would be like, or maybe I just didn't practice enough. Anyway, a bit more practice with a particular focus on my known weaknesses should bring my presentations up to a more respectable level in the future, though I felt I did all right on this one.

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Date:2006-12-05 14:24
Subject:Oral Presentation

Oral Presentation: The Northwest Passage

I wrote about the Northwest Passage, an arctic channel in the waters of Arctic Canada that is the subject of folklore and the pinnacle experience of explorers.
My idea was to discuss the extent and implications of global warming on a scientific, political and cultural level in this region, and why changes are relevant to Canadians.

The piece is currently in draft form and I am in the process of incorporating interview material. I am re-evaluating the structure of the paper and some of my choices for content.

The audience are politically aware, educated Canadians with an interest in regional affairs. Aimed for eventual publication during the Polar Year, 2007 in Alternatives magazine.

Concerns/Places where I feel the need for some direction:
-That interviewees and sources are too academic to entice a public audience.

-That it is amateur for a student to present the interests of her professors in a popular media.

-What do you feel is an appropriate amount as a percentage of the text of interview material- at what point do you feel that interview material becomes tiring and uninteresting. Is sticking to this kind of resource adding multiple voices to my piece or is it limiting the register?

-I am concerned that the Northwest Passage is not a compelling space to talk about, or rather I am not succeeding in making it compelling.

-Do you feel that you have any particular cultural or historic interest in the Arctic?

-Do you have any successful strategies for rendering the arctic context in a way that prevents it from seeming unduly remote.

-Is the current scientific situation (melting) of interest? Do you feel it has been exhausted in print media if so in what kind of outlets?

-Is my discussion of the history of the passage compelling?

-Is it believable for me to generally state that Canadians have a cultural stake in the Northwest Passage or would another strategy such as anecdotes work better? To what extent is an academic construction of this idea appropriate, I am concerned that it is not?

-What do you feel constitutes a “cultural stake” and can you provide examples in your own lives of natural spaces in America, (I believe that I would find this helpful).

-Is my inclusion of the famous folk song about the passage successful/compelling?

-To what extent should I attempt to include photography, should I expand my use of photography? Personal photographs, scientific photographs or historic photography -what is most appropriate in this kind of essay?

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Date:2006-11-21 06:06
Subject:On Nausicaa

I enjoyed watching the movie Nausicaa; I think it does a great job at portraying an apocalyptic perspective on Man’s relationship with Nature and the environment. However, while the movie was apocalyptic, it had ended happily, as humanity and nature finally came together. Compared to the other apocalyptic literature we have dabbed on, I think Nausicaa is the most explicit in transmitting the message of apocalypsis; it is clearer than the Book of Revelation, and its fictional nature generates a more extreme sense of apocalypsis than Kolbert’s Field Notes of a Catastrophe, which is based on real events. Part of it is that Nausicaa takes a more romantic and emotional approach than Kolbert; the images of people dying and Nausicaa crying had a stronger and more immediate effect on me than a set of figures showing the reduction of the earth’s ice caps over the last decade. As a result, I think Nausicaa is targeted to a wider audience than Kolbert’s work; the latter is better suited for people with more education and a better idea of the ongoing environmental debate.

What caught my attention about Nausicaa was the countless number of metaphors I kept establishing between the movie and our present world while watching the movie. For example, Princess Nausicaa and the evil, metal-armed princess resemble two extreme stances that people often assume when discussing environmental issues; on one hand, Nausicaa symbolizes individuals who believe we should embrace the earth’s resources and minimize human impact on the environment; on the other hand, the evil princess symbolizes people who believe that the earth’s resources exist to be exploited. Also, the clean water and air beneath the toxic forest suggests that some environmental issues, such as global warming, might be a product of the earth’s natural cycle. Furthermore, the failed attempt to use the giant warrior to defeat an imminent apocalypse suggests that Man shouldn’t use artificial mechanisms to revert effects on the environment. All in all, I believe the movie tries to portray Nausicaa as the ideal person to resolve the conflict between Man and the environment, because she is opposed to violent resolutions, and constantly seeks to understand the other side (nature) better.

From an artistic point of view, I think the sounds and colors throughout the movie made a lot of the scenes more poignant. For example, the color blue was always associated with calm and good news: the clean water was blue, as were the beasts’ eyes when they meant no harm, and Nausicaa wears a blue dress when she becomes the hero in the end of the movie. The lack of green in the movie helped it seem more futuristic, as many of the sceneries were very different from current landscapes, with dark tones generating polluted and lifeless scenes.

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Date:2006-11-20 22:21
Subject:Nausicaa as an apocalypse story

The movie Nausicaa, Valley of the Wind certainly follows the apocalyptic pattern of political trouble, followed by clashes between good and evil, and ending with a miracle happening and everyone living happily ever after. Nausicaa is the representative of good and the princess who could be her older sister as far as looks are concerned is the representative of evil. The story is quite engaging. There is fighting, beautiful scenery, and a revelation concerning the true nature of the toxic forest. The bad guys are not one-dimensional, which makes the story better, since one-dimensional antagonists are really, really boring. The only thing wrong with this story is that it ends immediately after the miracle. I’m really not convinced of the happily ever after ending. The miracle doesn’t seem like enough to ‘bring men and nature back into harmony’ as the prophetess says it is supposed to. I think Nausicaa still has her work cut out for her, but the last scenes were just cheering and happiness.

The movie has a message about environmental catastrophe, and the message differs from the one in Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe. Kolbert points out an impending disaster, and says, “Can’t we at least try to fix this?” Miyazaki’s message seems more on the order of, “Most of you are doomed, but maybe the survivors will come to their senses and retake their proper place in relation to nature.” And by proper place, I mean something harmonious. The people in the movie are antagonistic towards nature, except for Nausicaa, and Nausicaa is supposed to be our role model. Another message in the movie is that Nature will take care of herself, but might be forced to wipe out humans while she works on repairing herself. Nevertheless, the end of the movie leaves the audience feeling triumphant for Nausicaa’s miracle, and people probably left the movie theater smiling.

People for whom environmental concern takes a low priority would not bother reading Kolbert’s book. Even if they did happen to pick it up, they’d probably put it down after a chapter, unless someone or something made them feel obliged to read it through. Everyone might watch the movie and sit through all of it. Kolbert’s book has a specific and obvious message. The movie has a slightly subliminal one.

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Date:2006-11-20 21:08

Nausicaa is an interesting combination of imagination and apocalypse. The apocalyptic events were rendered in quite spectacular fashion, very flashy and showy, not too subtle. From flashbacks to the seven giant monsters ravaging cities to huge tracks of poisonous forests to massive swarms of angry ohms attacking civilizations remnants, the ideas of destruction and devastation were clearly at the forefront. It certainly paints a strong picture of the sort of thing that could happen if pollution and other environmental disasters continue unchecked. Of course, elements such as the giant fire-breathing monsters are not likely to surface, but the toxic jungle of the film is more representative of the kind of apocalypse we could face. Our impacts may not destroy all life on the planet, but we could certainly put ourselves into a situation where we had to struggle just to survive.
Now, the film is too far out to make me panic and fear that such a story will come to fruition, but it does raise some legitimate concerns about pollution. The setting of the story also projected (to me at least) an element of fear. The landscape that these civilizations lived in clearly was not at all idyllic. Rather the societies had to carve out small niches in which they could survive as long as possible while the inevitable death of the toxic environment crept onward. I think that images of the villagers in the valley, banding together, trying to remain cheerful even though they knew that life was short and tough really struck me as something that could happen to modern society. The environment would be different, but should some catastrophe arrive, I can well imagine that the people of today would form groups just like the groups in the film.
I liked the movie far more than Revelation, primarily for its clarity, but also for what I felt was a better portrayal of the plight of the humans caught in the middle of the disaster. Giant bugs and weird monsters aside, Nausicaa seemed to provide a scenario more like what modern society might encounter one day. The film is very different from Kolbert's book, despite the same undertones of disaster. I can almost imagine that events like those in Nausicaa are the sort that may unfold should the ideas in Kolbert's book come to pass. In that sense it seems that each deals with a different kind of apocalypse. Kolbert speaks from a world of comfort to prevent future troubles. Nausicaa speaks from a world already undergoing troubles and working to avoid making them worse. To this end, Kolbert takes a practical, rational, and factual approach while Nausicaa presents a more emotional and imaginative feel. Kolbert's book is more likely to draw action to the specific issue of climate change, but Nausicaa is more likely to plant fear and concern for pollution and the future. It's hard to say which approach is better. That depends on what goals the writer/director wishes to accomplish. In the interest of inciting action, I think Kolbert's book is more effective, but to spread awareness and build support, Nausicaa's approach is probably more accessible. And they do each speak to a different audience. Kolbert primarily targets those people in high positions with many resources as the best audience to help promote changes. Nausicaa is something less concrete and more general that people with less power can also appreciate. Of course there is plenty of overlap between the two audiences, but Nausicaa probably carries a broader appeal. While Nausicaa, by itself, is not likely to enact immediate changes, its emotional approach coupled with factual concerns like those in Kolbert's book could be a powerful tool to influence people toward environmental action, or at the very least, environmental awareness.

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Date:2006-10-14 14:41
Subject:NYTimes Magazine article on the changing culture of elephants

An Elephant Crackup?

Published: October 8, 2006

"We’re not going anywhere,’’ my driver, Nelson Okello, whispered to me one morning this past June, the two of us sitting in the front seat of a jeep just after dawn in Queen Elizabeth National Park in southwestern Uganda. We’d originally stopped to observe what appeared to be a lone bull elephant grazing in a patch of tall savanna grasses off to our left. More than one ‘‘rogue’’ had crossed our path that morning — a young male elephant that has made an overly strong power play against the dominant male of his herd and been banished, sometimes permanently. This elephant, however, soon proved to be not a rogue but part of a cast of at least 30. The ground vibrations registered just before the emergence of the herd from the surrounding trees and brush. We sat there watching the elephants cross the road before us, seeming, for all their heft, so light on their feet, soundlessly plying the wind-swept savanna grasses like land whales adrift above the floor of an ancient, waterless sea.

Then, from behind a thicket of acacia trees directly off our front left bumper, a huge female emerged — ‘‘the matriarch,’’ Okello said softly. There was a small calf beneath her, freely foraging and knocking about within the secure cribbing of four massive legs. Acacia leaves are an elephant’s favorite food, and as the calf set to work on some low branches, the matriarch stood guard, her vast back flank blocking the road, the rest of the herd milling about in the brush a short distance away.

After 15 minutes or so, Okello started inching the jeep forward, revving the engine, trying to make us sound as beastly as possible. The matriarch, however, was having none of it, holding her ground, the fierce white of her eyes as bright as that of her tusks. Although I pretty much knew the answer, I asked Okello if he was considering trying to drive around. ‘‘No,’’ he said, raising an index finger for emphasis. ‘‘She’ll charge. We should stay right here.’’

I’d have considered it a wise policy even at a more peaceable juncture in the course of human-elephant relations. In recent years, however, those relations have become markedly more bellicose. Just two days before I arrived, a woman was killed by an elephant in Kazinga, a fishing village nearby. Two months earlier, a man was fatally gored by a young male elephant at the northern edge of the park, near the village of Katwe. African elephants use their long tusks to forage through dense jungle brush. They’ve also been known to wield them, however, with the ceremonious flash and precision of gladiators, pinning down a victim with one knee in order to deliver the decisive thrust. Okello told me that a young Indian tourist was killed in this fashion two years ago in Murchison Falls National Park, north of where we were.

These were not isolated incidents. All across Africa, India and parts of Southeast Asia, from within and around whatever patches and corridors of their natural habitat remain, elephants have been striking out, destroying villages and crops, attacking and killing human beings. In fact, these attacks have become so commonplace that a new statistical category, known as Human-Elephant Conflict, or H.E.C., was created by elephant researchers in the mid-1990’s to monitor the problem. In the Indian state of Jharkhand near the western border of Bangladesh, 300 people were killed by elephants between 2000 and 2004. In the past 12 years, elephants have killed 605 people in Assam, a state in northeastern India, 239 of them since 2001; 265 elephants have died in that same period, the majority of them as a result of retaliation by angry villagers, who have used everything from poison-tipped arrows to laced food to exact their revenge. In Africa, reports of human-elephant conflicts appear almost daily, from Zambia to Tanzania, from Uganda to Sierra Leone, where 300 villagers evacuated their homes last year because of unprovoked elephant attacks.

Still, it is not only the increasing number of these incidents that is causing alarm but also the singular perversity — for want of a less anthropocentric term — of recent elephant aggression. Since the early 1990’s, for example, young male elephants in Pilanesberg National Park and the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa have been raping and killing rhinoceroses; this abnormal behavior, according to a 2001 study in the journal Pachyderm, has been reported in ‘‘a number of reserves’’ in the region. In July of last year, officials in Pilanesberg shot three young male elephants who were responsible for the killings of 63 rhinos, as well as attacks on people in safari vehicles. In Addo Elephant National Park, also in South Africa, up to 90 percent of male elephant deaths are now attributable to other male elephants, compared with a rate of 6 percent in more stable elephant communities.

In a coming book on this phenomenon, Gay Bradshaw, a psychologist at the environmental-sciences program at Oregon State University, notes that in India, where the elephant has long been regarded as a deity, a recent headline in a leading newspaper warned, ‘‘To Avoid Confrontation, Don’t Worship Elephants.’’ ‘‘Everybody pretty much agrees that the relationship between elephants and people has dramatically changed,’’ Bradshaw told me recently. ‘‘What we are seeing today is extraordinary. Where for centuries humans and elephants lived in relatively peaceful coexistence, there is now hostility and violence. Now, I use the term ‘violence’ because of the intentionality associated with it, both in the aggression of humans and, at times, the recently observed behavior of elephants.’’

For a number of biologists and ethologists who have spent their careers studying elephant behavior, the attacks have become so abnormal in both number and kind that they can no longer be attributed entirely to the customary factors. Typically, elephant researchers have cited, as a cause of aggression, the high levels of testosterone in newly matured male elephants or the competition for land and resources between elephants and humans. But in ‘‘Elephant Breakdown,’’ a 2005 essay in the journal Nature, Bradshaw and several colleagues argued that today’s elephant populations are suffering from a form of chronic stress, a kind of species-wide trauma. Decades of poaching and culling and habitat loss, they claim, have so disrupted the intricate web of familial and societal relations by which young elephants have traditionally been raised in the wild, and by which established elephant herds are governed, that what we are now witnessing is nothing less than a precipitous collapse of elephant culture.

It has long been apparent that every large, land-based animal on this planet is ultimately fighting a losing battle with humankind. And yet entirely befitting of an animal with such a highly developed sensibility, a deep-rooted sense of family and, yes, such a good long-term memory, the elephant is not going out quietly. It is not leaving without making some kind of statement, one to which scientists from a variety of disciplines, including human psychology, are now beginning to pay close attention.

Once the matriarch and her calf were a comfortable distance from us that morning, Okello and I made the 20-minute drive to Kyambura, a village at the far southeastern edge of the park. Back in 2003, Kyambura was reportedly the site of the very sort of sudden, unprovoked elephant attack I’d been hearing about. According to an account of the event in the magazine New Scientist, a number of huts and fields were trampled, and the townspeople were afraid to venture out to surrounding villages, either by foot or on their bikes, because elephants were regularly blocking the road and charging out at those who tried to pass.

Park officials from the Uganda Wildlife Authority with whom I tried to discuss the incident were reluctant to talk about it or any of the recent killings by elephants in the area. Eco-tourism is one of Uganda’s major sources of income, and the elephant and other wildlife stocks of Queen Elizabeth National Park are only just now beginning to recover from years of virtually unchecked poaching and habitat destruction. Tom Okello, the chief game warden at the park (and no relation to my driver), and Margaret Driciru, Queen Elizabeth’s chief veterinarian, each told me that they weren’t aware of the attack in Kyambura. When I mentioned it to the executive director of the wildlife authority, Moses Mapesa, upon my initial arrival in the capital city, Kampala, he eventually admitted that it did happen, but he claimed that it was not nearly as recent as reported. ‘‘That was 14 years ago,’’ he said. ‘‘We have seen aggressive behavior from elephants, but that’s a story of the past.’’

Kyambura did look, upon our arrival, much like every other small Ugandan farming community I’d passed through on my visit. Lush fields of banana trees, millet and maize framed a small town center of pastel-colored single-story cement buildings with corrugated-tin roofs. People sat on stoops out front in the available shade. Bicyclers bore preposterously outsize loads of bananas, firewood and five-gallon water jugs on their fenders and handlebars. Contrary to what I had read, the bicycle traffic along the road in and out of Kyambura didn’t seem impaired in the slightest.

But when Okello and I asked a shopkeeper named Ibrah Byamukama about elephant attacks, he immediately nodded and pointed to a patch of maize and millet fields just up the road, along the edges of the surrounding Maramagambo Forest. He confirmed that a small group of elephants charged out one morning two years earlier, trampled the fields and nearby gardens, knocked down a few huts and then left. He then pointed to a long orange gash in the earth between the planted fields and the forest: a 15-foot-deep, 25-foot-wide trench that had been dug by the wildlife authority around the perimeter of Kyambura in an attempt to keep the elephants at bay. On the way out of town, Okello and I took a closer look at the trench. It was filled with stacks of thorny shrubs for good measure.

‘‘The people are still worried,’’ Byamukama said, shaking his head. ‘‘The elephants are just becoming more destructive. I don’t know why.’’

Three years ago, Gay Bradshaw, then working on her graduate degree in psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute outside Santa Barbara, Calif., began wondering much the same thing: was the extraordinary behavior of elephants in Africa and Asia signaling a breaking point? With the assistance of several established African-elephant researchers, including Daphne Sheldrick and Cynthia Moss, and with the help of Allan Schore, an expert on human trauma disorders at the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at U.C.L.A., Bradshaw sought to combine traditional research into elephant behavior with insights about trauma drawn from human neuroscience. Using the few remaining relatively stable elephant herds in places like Amboseli National Park in Kenya as control groups, Bradshaw and her colleagues analyzed the far more fractious populations found in places like Pilanesberg in South Africa and Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. What emerged was a portrait of pervasive pachyderm dysfunction.

Elephants, when left to their own devices, are profoundly social creatures. A herd of them is, in essence, one incomprehensibly massive elephant: a somewhat loosely bound and yet intricately interconnected, tensile organism. Young elephants are raised within an extended, multitiered network of doting female caregivers that includes the birth mother, grandmothers, aunts and friends. These relations are maintained over a life span as long as 70 years. Studies of established herds have shown that young elephants stay within 15 feet of their mothers for nearly all of their first eight years of life, after which young females are socialized into the matriarchal network, while young males go off for a time into an all-male social group before coming back into the fold as mature adults.

When an elephant dies, its family members engage in intense mourning and burial rituals, conducting weeklong vigils over the body, carefully covering it with earth and brush, revisiting the bones for years afterward, caressing the bones with their trunks, often taking turns rubbing their trunks along the teeth of a skull’s lower jaw, the way living elephants do in greeting. If harm comes to a member of an elephant group, all the other elephants are aware of it. This sense of cohesion is further enforced by the elaborate communication system that elephants use. In close proximity they employ a range of vocalizations, from low-frequency rumbles to higher-pitched screams and trumpets, along with a variety of visual signals, from the waving of their trunks to subtle anglings of the head, body, feet and tail. When communicating over long distances — in order to pass along, for example, news about imminent threats, a sudden change of plans or, of the utmost importance to elephants, the death of a community member — they use patterns of subsonic vibrations that are felt as far as several miles away by exquisitely tuned sensors in the padding of their feet.

This fabric of elephant society, Bradshaw and her colleagues concluded, had effectively been frayed by years of habitat loss and poaching, along with systematic culling by government agencies to control elephant numbers and translocations of herds to different habitats. The number of older matriarchs and female caregivers (or ‘‘allomothers’’) had drastically fallen, as had the number of elder bulls, who play a significant role in keeping younger males in line. In parts of Zambia and Tanzania, a number of the elephant groups studied contained no adult females whatsoever. In Uganda, herds were often found to be ‘‘semipermanent aggregations,’’ as a paper written by Bradshaw describes them, with many females between the ages of 15 and 25 having no familial associations.

As a result of such social upheaval, calves are now being born to and raised by ever younger and inexperienced mothers. Young orphaned elephants, meanwhile, that have witnessed the death of a parent at the hands of poachers are coming of age in the absence of the support system that defines traditional elephant life. ‘‘The loss of elephant elders,’’ Bradshaw told me, ‘‘and the traumatic experience of witnessing the massacres of their family, impairs normal brain and behavior development in young elephants.’’

What Bradshaw and her colleagues describe would seem to be an extreme form of anthropocentric conjecture if the evidence that they’ve compiled from various elephant resesarchers, even on the strictly observational level, weren’t so compelling. The elephants of decimated herds, especially orphans who’ve watched the death of their parents and elders from poaching and culling, exhibit behavior typically associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related disorders in humans: abnormal startle response, unpredictable asocial behavior, inattentive mothering and hyperaggression. Studies of the various assaults on the rhinos in South Africa, meanwhile, have determined that the perpetrators were in all cases adolescent males that had witnessed their families being shot down in cullings. It was common for these elephants to have been tethered to the bodies of their dead and dying relatives until they could be rounded up for translocation to, as Bradshaw and Schore describe them, ‘‘locales lacking traditional social hierarchy of older bulls and intact natal family structures.’’

In fact, even the relatively few attempts that park officials have made to restore parts of the social fabric of elephant society have lent substance to the elephant-breakdown theory. When South African park rangers recently introduced a number of older bull elephants into several destabilized elephant herds in Pilanesburg and Addo, the wayward behavior — including unusually premature hormonal changes among the adolescent elephants — abated.

But according to Bradshaw and her colleagues, the various pieces of the elephant-trauma puzzle really come together at the level of neuroscience, or what might be called the physiology of psychology, by which scientists can now map the marred neuronal fields, snapped synaptic bridges and crooked chemical streams of an embattled psyche. Though most scientific knowledge of trauma is still understood through research on human subjects, neural studies of elephants are now under way. (The first functional M.R.I. scan of an elephant brain, taken this year, revealed, perhaps not surprisingly, a huge hippocampus, a seat of memory in the mammalian brain, as well as a prominent structure in the limbic system, which processes emotions.) Allan Schore, the U.C.L.A. psychologist and neuroscientist who for the past 15 years has focused his research on early human brain development and the negative impact of trauma on it, recently wrote two articles with Bradshaw on the stress-related neurobiological underpinnings of current abnormal elephant behavior.

‘‘We know that these mechanisms cut across species,’’ Schore told me. ‘‘In the first years of humans as well as elephants, development of the emotional brain is impacted by these attachment mechanisms, by the interaction that the infant has with the primary caregiver, especially the mother. When these early experiences go in a positive way, it leads to greater resilience in things like affect regulation, stress regulation, social communication and empathy. But when these early experiences go awry in cases of abuse and neglect, there is a literal thinning down of the essential circuits in the brain, especially in the emotion-processing areas.’’

For Bradshaw, these continuities between human and elephant brains resonate far outside the field of neuroscience. ‘‘Elephants are suffering and behaving in the same ways that we recognize in ourselves as a result of violence,’’ she told me. ‘‘It is entirely congruent with what we know about humans and other mammals. Except perhaps for a few specific features, brain organization and early development of elephants and humans are extremely similar. That’s not news. What is news is when you start asking, What does this mean beyond the science? How do we respond to the fact that we are causing other species like elephants to psychologically break down? In a way, it’s not so much a cognitive or imaginative leap anymore as it is a political one.’’

Eve Abe says that in her mind, she made that leap before she ever left her mother’s womb. An animal ethologist and wildlife-management consultant now based in London, Abe (pronounced AH-bay) grew up in northern Uganda. After several years of studying elephants in Queen Elizabeth National Park, where decades of poaching had drastically reduced the herds, Abe received her doctorate at Cambridge University in 1994 for work detailing the parallels she saw between the plight of Uganda’s orphaned male elephants and the young male orphans of her own people, the Acholi, whose families and villages have been decimated by years of civil war. It’s work she proudly proclaims to be not only ‘‘the ultimate act of anthropomorphism’’ but also what she was destined to do.

‘‘My very first encounter with an elephant was a fetal one,’’ Abe told me in June in London as the two of us sipped tea at a cafe in Paddington Station. I was given Abe’s contact numbers earlier in the spring by Bradshaw, who is currently working with Abe to build a community center in Uganda to help both elephants and humans in their recovery from violence. For more than a month before my departure from New York, I had been trying without luck to arrange with the British Home Office for Abe, who is still waiting for permanent residence status in England, to travel with me to Uganda as my guide through Queen Elizabeth National Park without fear of her being denied re-entry to England. She was to accompany me that day right up to the departure gate at Heathrow, the two of us hoping (in vain, as it turned out) for a last-minute call that would have given her leave to use the ticket I was holding for her in my bag.

‘‘My dad was a conservationist and a teacher,’’ explained Abe, a tall, elegant woman with a trilling, nearly girlish voice. ‘‘He was always out in the parks. One of my aunts tells this story about us passing through Murchison park one day. My dad was driving. My uncle was in the front seat. In the back were my aunt and my mom, who was very pregnant with me. They suddenly came upon this huge herd of elephants on the road, and the elephants just stopped. So my dad stopped. He knew about animals. The elephants just stood there, then they started walking around the car, and looking into the car. Finally, they walked off. But my father didn’t start the car then. He waited there. After an hour or more, a huge female came back out onto the road, right in front of the car. It reared up and trumpeted so loudly, then followed the rest of the herd back into the bush. A few days later, when my mom got home, I was born.’’

Abe began her studies in Queen Elizabeth National Park in 1982, as an undergraduate at Makerere University in Kampala, shortly after she and her family, who’d been living for years as refugees in Kenya to escape the brutal violence in Uganda under the dictatorship of Idi Amin, returned home in the wake of Amin’s ouster in 1979. Abe told me that when she first arrived at the park, there were fewer than 150 elephants remaining from an original population of nearly 4,000. The bulk of the decimation occurred during the war with Tanzania that led to Amin’s overthrow: soldiers from both armies grabbed all the ivory they could get their hands on — and did so with such cravenness that the word ‘‘poaching’’ seems woefully inadequate. ‘‘Normally when you say ‘poaching,’ ’’ Abe said, ‘‘you think of people shooting one or two and going off. But this was war. They’d just throw hand grenades at the elephants, bring whole families down and cut out the ivory. I call that mass destruction.’’

The last elephant survivors of Queen Elizabeth National Park, Abe said, never left one another’s side. They kept in a tight bunch, moving as one. Only one elderly female remained; Abe estimated her to be at least 62. It was this matriarch who first gathered the survivors together from their various hideouts on the park’s forested fringes and then led them back out as one group into open savanna. Until her death in the early 90’s, the old female held the group together, the population all the while slowly beginning to rebound. In her yet-to-be-completed memoir, ‘‘My Elephants and My People,’’ Abe writes of the prominence of the matriarch in Acholi society; she named the park’s matriarchal elephant savior Lady Irene, after her own mother. ‘‘It took that core group of survivors in the park about five or six years,’’ Abe told me, ‘‘before I started seeing whole new family units emerge and begin to split off and go their own way.’’

In 1986, Abe’s family was forced to flee the country again. Violence against Uganda’s people and elephants never completely abated after Amin’s regime collapsed, and it drastically worsened in the course of the full-fledged war that developed between government forces and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army. For years, that army’s leader, Joseph Kony, routinely ‘‘recruited’’ from Acholi villages, killing the parents of young males before their eyes, or sometimes having them do the killings themselves, before pressing them into service as child soldiers. The Lord’s Resistance Army has by now been largely defeated, but Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for numerous crimes against humanity, has hidden with what remains of his army in the mountains of Murchison Falls National Park, and more recently in Garamba National Park in northern Congo, where poaching by the Lord’s Resistance Army has continued to orphan more elephants.

‘‘I started looking again at what has happened among the Acholi and the elephants,’’ Abe told me. ‘‘I saw that it is an absolute coincidence between the two. You know we used to have villages. We still don’t have villages. There are over 200 displaced-people’s camps in present-day northern Uganda. Everybody lives now within these camps, and there are no more elders. The elders were systematically eliminated. The first batch of elimination was during Amin’s time, and that set the stage for the later destruction of northern Uganda. We are among the lucky few, because my mom and dad managed to escape. But the families there are just broken. I know many of them. Displaced people are living in our home now. My mother said let them have it. All these kids who have grown up with their parents killed — no fathers, no mothers, only children looking after them. They don’t go to schools. They have no schools, no hospitals. No infrastructure. They form these roaming, violent, destructive bands. It’s the same thing that happens with the elephants. Just like the male war orphans, they are wild, completely lost.’’

On the ride from Paddington that afternoon out to Heathrow, where I would catch a flight to Uganda, Abe told me that the parallel between the plight of Ugandans and their elephants was in many ways too close for her to see at first. It was only after she moved to London that she had what was, in a sense, her first full, adult recognition of the entwinement between human and elephant that she says she long ago felt in her mother’s womb.

‘‘I remember when I first was working on my doctorate,’’ she said. ‘‘I mentioned that I was doing this parallel once to a prominent scientist in Kenya. He looked amazed. He said, ‘How come nobody has made this connection before?’ I told him because it hadn’t happened this way to anyone else’s tribe before. To me it’s something I see so clearly. Most people are scared of showing that kind of anthropomorphism. But coming from me it doesn’t sound like I’m inventing something. It’s there. People know it’s there. Some might think that the way I describe the elephant attacks makes the animals look like people. But people are animals.’’

Shortly after my return from Uganda, I went to visit the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, a 2,700-acre rehabilitation center and retirement facility situated in the state’s verdant, low-rolling southern hill country. The sanctuary is a kind of asylum for some of the more emotionally and psychologically disturbed former zoo and circus elephants in the United States — cases so bad that the people who profited from them were eager to let them go. Given that elephants in the wild are now exhibiting aberrant behaviors that were long observed in captive elephants, it perhaps follows that a positive working model for how to ameliorate the effects of elephant breakdown can be found in captivity.

Of the 19 current residents of the sanctuary, perhaps the biggest hard-luck story is that of a 40-year-old, five-ton Asian elephant named Misty. Originally captured as a calf in India in 1966, Misty spent her first decade in captivity with a number of American circuses and finally ended up in the early 80’s at a wild-animal attraction known as Li on Country Safari in Irvine, Calif. It was there, on the afternoon of July 25, 1983, that Misty, one of four performing elephants at Lion Country Safari that summer, somehow managed to break free of her chains and began madly dashing about the park, looking to make an escape. When one of the park’s zoologists tried to corner and contain her, Misty killed him with one swipe of her trunk.

There are, in the long, checkered history of human-elephant relations, countless stories of lethal elephantine assaults, and almost invariably of some gruesomely outsize, animalistic form of retribution exacted by us. It was in the very state of Tennessee, back in September 1916, that another five-ton Asian circus elephant, Mary, was impounded by a local sheriff for the killing of a young hotel janitor who’d been hired to mind Mary during a stopover in the northeast Tennessee town of Kingsport. The janitor had apparently taken Mary for a swim at a local pond, where, according to witnesses, he poked her behind the left ear with a metal hook just as she was reaching for a piece of floating watermelon rind. Enraged, Mary turned, swiftly snatched him up with her trunk, dashed him against a refreshment stand and then smashed his head with her foot.

With cries from the townspeople to ‘‘Kill the elephant!’’ and threats from nearby town leaders to bar the circus if ‘‘Murderous Mary,’’ as newspapers quickly dubbed her, remained a part of the show, the circus’s owner, Charlie Sparks, knew he had to do something to appease the public’s blood lust and save his business. (Among the penalties he is said to have contemplated was electrocution, a ghastly precedent for which had been set 13 years earlier, on the grounds of the nearly completed Luna Park in Coney Island. A longtime circus elephant named Topsy, who’d killed three trainers in as many years — the last one after he tried to feed her a lighted cigarette — became the largest and most prominent victim of Thomas Edison, the father of direct-current electricity, who had publicly electrocuted a number of animals at that time using his rival George Westinghouse’s alternating current, in hopes of discrediting it as being too dangerous.)

Sparks ultimately decided to have Mary hanged and shipped her by train to the nearby town of Erwin, Tenn., where more than 2,500 people gathered at the local rail yard for her execution. Dozens of children are said to have run off screaming in terror when the chain that was suspended from a huge industrial crane snapped, leaving Mary writhing on the ground with a broken hip. A local rail worker promptly clambered up Mary’s bulk and secured a heavier chain for a second, successful hoisting.

Misty’s fate in the early 80’s, by contrast, seems a triumph of modern humanism. Banished, after the Lion Safari killing, to the Hawthorn Corporation, a company in Illinois that trains and leases elephants and tigers to circuses, she would continue to lash out at a number of her trainers over the years. But when Hawthorn was convicted of numerous violations of the Animal Welfare Act in 2003, the company agreed to relinquish custody of Misty to the Elephant Sanctuary. She was loaded onto a trailer transport on the morning of Nov. 17, 2004, and even then managed to get away with one final shot at the last in her long line of captors.

‘‘The details are kind of sketchy,’’ Carol Buckley, a founder of the Elephant Sanctuary, said to me one afternoon in July, the two of us pulling up on her all-terrain four-wheeler to a large grassy enclosure where an extremely docile and contented-looking Misty, trunk high, ears flapping, waited to greet us. ‘‘Hawthorn’s owner was trying to get her to stretch out so he could remove her leg chains before loading her on the trailer. At one point he prodded her with a bull hook, and she just knocked him down with a swipe of her trunk. But we’ve seen none of that since she’s been here. She’s as sweet as can be. You’d never know that this elephant killed anybody.’’

In the course of her nearly two years at the Elephant Sanctuary — much of it spent in quarantine while undergoing daily treatment for tuberculosis — Misty has also been in therapy, as in psychotherapy. Wild-caught elephants often witness as young calves the slaughter of their parents, just about the only way, shy of a far more costly tranquilization procedure, to wrest a calf from elephant parents, especially the mothers. The young captives are then dispatched to a foreign environment to work either as performers or laborers, all the while being kept in relative confinement and isolation, a kind of living death for an animal as socially developed and dependent as we now know elephants to be.

And yet just as we now understand that elephants hurt like us, we’re learning that they can heal like us as well. Indeed, Misty has become a testament to the Elephant Sanctuary’s signature ‘‘passive control’’ system, a therapy tailored in many ways along the lines of those used to treat human sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder. Passive control, as a sanctuary newsletter describes it, depends upon ‘‘knowledge of how elephants process information and respond to stress’’ as well as specific knowledge of each elephant’s past response to stress. Under this so-called nondominance system, there is no discipline, retaliation or withholding of food, water and treats, which are all common tactics of elephant trainers. Great pains are taken, meanwhile, to afford the elephants both a sense of safety and freedom of choice — two mainstays of human trauma therapy — as well as continual social interaction.

Upon her arrival at the Elephant Sanctuary, Misty seemed to sense straight off the different vibe of her new home. When Scott Blais of the sanctuary went to free Misty’s still-chained leg a mere day after she’d arrived, she stood peaceably by, practically offering her leg up to him. Over her many months of quarantine, meanwhile, with only humans acting as a kind of surrogate elephant family, she has consistently gone through the daily rigors of her tuberculosis treatments — involving two caretakers, a team of veterinarians and the use of a restraining chute in which harnesses are secured about her chest and tail — without any coaxing or pressure. ‘‘We’ll shower her with praise in the barn afterwards,’’ Buckley told me as Misty stood by, chomping on a mouthful of hay, ‘‘and she actually purrs with pleasure. The whole barn vibrates.’’

Of course, Misty’s road to recovery — when viewed in light of her history and that of all the other captive elephants, past and present — is as harrowing as it is heartening. She and the others have suffered, we now understand, not simply because of us, but because they are, by and large, us. If as recently as the end of the Vietnam War people were still balking at the idea that a soldier, for example, could be physically disabled by psychological harm — the idea, in other words, that the mind is not an entity apart from the body and therefore just as woundable as any limb — we now find ourselves having to make an equally profound and, for many, even more difficult leap: that a fellow creature as ostensibly unlike us in every way as an elephant is as precisely and intricately woundable as we are. And while such knowledge naturally places an added burden upon us, the keepers, that burden is now being greatly compounded by the fact that sudden violent outbursts like Misty’s can no longer be dismissed as the inevitable isolated revolts of a restless few against the constraints and abuses of captivity.

They have no future without us. The question we are now forced to grapple with is whether we would mind a future without them, among the more mindful creatures on this earth and, in many ways, the most devoted. Indeed, the manner of the elephants’ continued keeping, their restoration and conservation, both in civil confines and what’s left of wild ones, is now drawing the attention of everyone from naturalists to neuroscientists. Too much about elephants, in the end — their desires and devotions, their vulnerability and tremendous resilience — reminds us of ourselves to dismiss out of hand this revolt they’re currently staging against their own dismissal. And while our concern may ultimately be rooted in that most human of impulses — the preservation of our own self-image — the great paradox about this particular moment in our history with elephants is that saving them will require finally getting past ourselves; it will demand the ultimate act of deep, interspecies empathy.

On a more immediate, practical level, as Gay Bradshaw sees it, this involves taking what has been learned about elephant society, psychology and emotion and inculcating that knowledge into the conservation schemes of researchers and park rangers. This includes doing things like expanding elephant habitat to what it used to be historically and avoiding the use of culling and translocations as conservation tools. ‘‘If we want elephants around,’’ Bradshaw told me, ‘‘then what we need to do is simple: learn how to live with elephants. In other words, in addition to conservation, we need to educate people how to live with wild animals like humans used to do, and to create conditions whereby people can live on their land and live with elephants without it being this life-and-death situation.’’

The other part of our newly emerging compact with elephants, however, is far more difficult to codify. It requires nothing less than a fundamental shift in the way we look at animals and, by extension, ourselves. It requires what Bradshaw somewhat whimsically refers to as a new ‘‘trans-species psyche,’’ a commitment to move beyond an anthropocentric frame of reference and, in effect, be elephants. Two years ago, Bradshaw wrote a paper for the journal Society and Animals, focusing on the work of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, a sanctuary for orphaned and traumatized wild elephants — more or less the wilderness-based complement to Carol Buckley’s trauma therapy at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. The trust’s human caregivers essentially serve as surrogate mothers to young orphan elephants, gradually restoring their psychological and emotional well being to the point at which they can be reintroduced into existing wild herds. The human ‘‘allomothers’’ stay by their adopted young orphans’ sides, even sleeping with them at night in stables. The caretakers make sure, however, to rotate from one elephant to the next so that the orphans grow fond of all the keepers. Otherwise an elephant would form such a strong bond with one keeper that whenever he or she was absent, that elephant would grieve as if over the loss of another family member, often becoming physically ill itself.

To date, the Sheldrick Trust has successfully rehabilitated more than 60 elephants and reintroduced them into wild herds. A number of them have periodically returned to the sanctuary with their own wild-born calves in order to reunite with their human allomothers and to introduce their offspring to what — out on this uncharted frontier of the new ‘‘trans-species psyche’’ — is now being recognized, at least by the elephants, it seems, as a whole new subspecies: the human allograndmother. ‘‘Traditionally, nature has served as a source of healing for humans,’’ Bradshaw told me. ‘‘Now humans can participate actively in the healing of both themselves and nonhuman animals. The trust and the sanctuary are the beginnings of a mutually benefiting interspecies culture.’’

On my way back to New York via London, I contacted Felicity de Zulueta, a psychiatrist at Maudsley Hospital in London who treats victims of extreme trauma, among them former child soldiers from the Lord’s Resistance Army. De Zulueta, an acquaintance of Eve Abe’s, grew up in Uganda in the early 1960’s on the outskirts of Queen Elizabeth National Park, near where her father, a malaria doctor, had set up camp as part of a malaria-eradication program. For a time she had her own elephant, orphaned by poaching, that local villagers had given to her father, who brought it home to the family garage, where it immediately bonded with an orphan antelope and dog already residing there.

‘‘He was doing fine,’’ de Zulueta told me of the pet elephant. ‘‘My mother was loving it and feeding it, and then my parents realized, How can we keep this elephant that is going to grow bigger than the garage? So they gave it to who they thought were the experts. They sent him to the Entebbe Zoo, and although they gave him all the right food and everything, he was a lonely little elephant, and he died. He had no attachment.’’

For de Zulueta, the parallel that Abe draws between the plight of war orphans, human and elephant, is painfully apt, yet also provides some cause for hope, given the often startling capacity of both animals for recovery. She told me that one Ugandan war orphan she is currently treating lost all the members of his family except for two older brothers. Remarkably, one of those brothers, while serving in the Ugandan Army, rescued the younger sibling from the Lord’s Resistance Army; the older brother’s unit had captured the rebel battalion in which his younger brother had been forced to fight.

The two brothers eventually made their way to London, and for the past two years, the younger brother has been going through a gradual process of recovery in the care of Maudsley Hospital. Much of the rehabilitation, according to de Zulueta, especially in the early stages, relies on the basic human trauma therapy principles now being applied to elephants: providing decent living quarters, establishing a sense of safety and of attachment to a larger community and allowing freedom of choice. After that have come the more complex treatments tailored to the human brain’s particular cognitive capacities: things like reliving the original traumatic experience and being taught to modulate feelings through early detection of hyperarousal and through breathing techniques. And the healing of trauma, as de Zulueta describes it, turns out to have physical correlatives in the brain just as its wounding does.

‘‘What I say is, we find bypass,’’ she explained. ‘‘We bypass the wounded areas using various techniques. Some of the wounds are not healable. Their scars remain. But there is hope because the brain is an enormous computer, and you can learn to bypass its wounds by finding different methods of approaching life. Of course there may be moments when something happens and the old wound becomes unbearable. Still, people do recover. The boy I’ve been telling you about is 18 now, and he has survived very well in terms of his emotional health and capacities. He’s a lovely, lovely man. And he’s a poet. He writes beautiful poetry.’’

On the afternoon in July that I left the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, Carol Buckley and Scott Blais seemed in particularly good spirits. Misty was only weeks away from the end of her quarantine, and she would soon be able to socialize with some of her old cohorts from the Hawthorn Corporation: eight female Asians that had been given over to the sanctuary. I would meet the lot of them that day, driving from one to the next on the back of Buckley’s four-wheeler across the sanctuary’s savanna-like stretches. Buckley and Blais refer to them collectively as the Divas.

Buckley and Blais told me that they got word not long ago of a significant breakthrough in a campaign of theirs to get elephants out of entertainment and zoos: the Bronx Zoo, one of the oldest and most formidable zoos in the country, had announced that upon the death of the zoo’s three current elephant inhabitants, Patty, Maxine and Happy, it would phase out its elephant exhibit on social-behavioral grounds — an acknowledgment of a new awareness of the elephant’s very particular sensibility and needs. ‘‘They’re really taking the lead,’’ Buckley told me. ‘‘Zoos don’t want to concede the inappropriateness of keeping elephants in such confines. But if we as a society determine that an animal like this suffers in captivity, if the information shows us that they do, hey, we are the stewards. You’d think we’d want to do the right thing.’’

Four days later, I received an e-mail message from Gay Bradshaw, who consults with Buckley and Blais on their various stress-therapy strategies. She wrote that one of the sanctuary’s elephants, an Asian named Winkie, had just killed a 36-year-old female assistant caretaker and critically injured the male caretaker who’d tried to save her.

People who work with animals on a daily basis can tell you all kinds of stories about their distinct personalities and natures. I’d gotten, in fact, an elaborate breakdown from Buckley and Blais on the various elephants at the sanctuary and their sociopolitical maneuverings within the sanctuary’s distinct elephant culture, and I went to my notebook to get a fix again on Winkie. A 40-year-old, 7,600-pound female from Burma, she came to the sanctuary in 2000 from the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisc., where she had a reputation for lashing out at keepers. When Winkie first arrived at the sanctuary, Buckley told me, she used to jump merely upon being touched and then would wait for a confrontation. But when it never came, she slowly calmed down. ‘‘Has never lashed out at primary keepers,’’ my last note on Winkie reads, ‘‘but has at secondary ones.’’

Bradshaw’s e-mail message concludes: ‘‘A stunning illustration of trauma in elephants. The indelible etching.’’

I thought back to a moment in Queen Elizabeth National Park this past June. As Nelson Okello and I sat waiting for the matriarch and her calf to pass, he mentioned to me an odd little detail about the killing two months earlier of the man from the village of Katwe, something that, the more I thought about it, seemed to capture this particularly fraught moment we’ve arrived at with the elephants. Okello said that after the man’s killing, the elephant herd buried him as it would one of its own, carefully covering the body with earth and brush and then standing vigil over it.

Even as we’re forcing them out, it seems, the elephants are going out of their way to put us, the keepers, in an ever more discomfiting place, challenging us to preserve someplace for them, the ones who in many ways seem to regard the matter of life and death more devoutly than we. In fact, elephant culture could be considered the precursor of our own, the first permanent human settlements having sprung up around the desire of wandering tribes to stay by the graves of their dead. ‘‘The city of the dead,’’ as Lewis Mumford once wrote, ‘‘antedates the city of the living.’’

When a group of villagers from Katwe went out to reclaim the man’s body for his family’s funeral rites, the elephants refused to budge. Human remains, a number of researchers have observed, are the only other ones that elephants will treat as they do their own. In the end, the villagers resorted to a tactic that has long been etched in the elephant’s collective memory, firing volleys of gunfire into the air at close range, finally scaring the mourning herd away.

Charles Siebert, a contributing writer, is at work on “Humanzee,” a book about humans and chimpanzees.

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Date:2006-10-14 00:37


Mr. Uday Bhawalkar is the father my friend and runs a vermiculture institute in my city in Pune, India. Vermiculture is the use of earthworms in fertilization of soil in agriculture. Burrowing earthworms can also be used to process organic waste. The article by Stephen White in the magazine 'In Context' gives us an idea as to how earthworms can be used to increase productivity of farms as well as in the processing of waste. I found this article quite interesting as it gave an example of a simple efficient technology which can be employed without having any bad effects. The article gives details as to how the earthworm creates a healthy soil for agriculture which requires no further tillage. The soil is less subject to erosion and moisture loss. It also has microbial life which gives rise to healthier crops. The use of earthworms avoids the use of artificial fertilizers. The article describes the worms as 'biomanagers' which regulate the moisture and bacterial activity of the soil. They produce the right nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous, vitamins, antibiotics and hormones for the plants. It says that the earthworms gut includes beneficial bacteria for he soil. The article also supports its claims with data where actual vermiculture experiments increased production of wheat in the Pune district. It tells us that vermiculture experiments are being carried out in the US in Eden, Maryland.

Earthworms are also used to process organic waste. Food waste can be used efficiently as a fertilizer with the use of burrowing earthworms. Experiments in the University of Oregon have processed 2000 lbs. of waste daily.

I think the article gives a lot of useful information to farmers and people who could implement vermiculture on their own. People who farm in their backyard could use this technology to get rid of their waste as well as grow crop efficiently. The article is well researched and creates an awareness about a new technology. It supports its claims with enough data. It educates the readers about the benefits of vermiculture and encourages them to use it. It contains a detailed explanation as to why the use of earthworms is helpful for agriculture.

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Date:2006-10-12 02:31
Subject:Blog 2: Wendy's Blog

Wendy Richardson is an author for the Nerdy Books publishing company, where she helps write books that provide tips and information for complicated subjects in a fun and easily read format. Nerdy Book’s philosophy is that "any topic– no matter how complex– can be broken down into easily digestible nuggets of information." Nerdy Book’s publishes a series of eBooks, CD’s, and books called "Just the tips, man," which mostly give useful computer software tips and shortcuts to their readers as an alternative to long, boring software manuals. There are about a dozen different computer and software manuals available for purchase on the site. But there is also one other "Just for tips, man" book, written by Wendy, that stands out from the other books in the series. Wendy’s book is "Just for tips, man: For protecting the environment." I saw this and said to myself, "Whoa, how random. A book about the environment thrown in the mix with computer software shortcut manuals. Weird."

Wendy goes further, and even has a blog on the Nerdy Books website, where she posts her ideas and feelings about nature, environmental books she has read, and environmental issues that come up in the media. Actually, her blogs aren’t that far from what we do in our class.

The issues she discuss are like Nerdy Books literature; straight forward, easy to understand, and written in an informal yet informative language. In one blog, entitled "Speaking to a Bunch of Eco-Unaware Third Graders," Wendy talks about her experience as a guest speaker in her daughter’s class. She discusses her amazement at the amount of ignorance America’s youth has when concerning the environment. Her account is something that everyone can relate to. We have all either talked to other people about recycling, or had other people talk to us about reducing wastes. Remember back in elementary school when we would watch the videos about the 3-R’s? Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle! Remember Captain Planet? He was "our hero, taking pollution down to zero." In another one of Wendy’s blogs, entitled "School cafeteria trash heaps," Wendy goes into an account of the measures she takes to reduce her wastes and conserve energy. She actually encourages her kids to bring home the little plastic Ziploc baggies they carry their lunch in, so that she can wash and reuse them. Her real life accounts are so down-to-Earth, that anyone can read, relate, and adopt the concepts she teaches.

In search for the perfect environmental media to write about, I came across lots of highly scientific or political news columns that, honestly, seemed very boring and too technical to understand. Why did I choose this one? Well, it caught my eye. I hate to sell out to commercialism, but the site looked cool. I liked reading Wendy’s personal voice and accounts, as opposed to hearing a news report about far off events and scientific discoveries.

Here’s a scenario: Johnny is searching the web because there’s nothing good on television and he hates reading books. He comes across a boring CNN article about Congress considering passing a bill to raise gas prices so that less people would waste gas and more people would exercise by walking. Johnny isn’t interested; he doesn’t drive and he doesn’t know that much about Congress and governmental and legal procedures. Next website. Ok, so here’s this site at www.nerdybooks.com/blogs. The graphic design and font look appealing, so Johnny’s short attention span has been captured. He clicks on a blog posting and scans over it. He absorbs the words "sandwiches," "Ziploc baggies," and "reuse." Now Johnny’s on to something. He love’s sandwiches. And he makes sandwiches and puts them in Ziploc bags. And now it hits him, he can actually reuse the sandwich baggies! Johnny’s saving money, and he’s saving the earth, all at the same time.

True, most articles about the environment are written by ecologists and biologists and hippies who really care about nature and the world. They want to spread their knowledge, love, and concern to others through literature and media. But writers don’t just write to see their own thoughts on paper. Writers write to be read. They write to convey information. I respect Wendy’s blog because she has found a way to convey useful information about the things she cares about, but also keep my interest and make me want to care too. She provides small things that I can do everyday to help out the environment, where as Dr. Random Ecologist over there wants me to send money in support of saving a rare breed of Egyptian spotted locust that’s battling extinction. In my observations, one of the leading causes in world deterioration is apathy. No one really cares, because they feel like they have to put forth too much effort, and the direct return is not worth the investment. They try to read the articles and watch the pollution specials on the discovery channels, but why bore themselves when they can watch Law and Order: SVU ( I love that show!). At least Wendy tries to reach out to her audience (her audience being apathetic America) and urge them to do little things that, in the long term, help out everyone.

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Date:2006-10-12 01:40
Subject:Defending our Oceans

Link: http://oceans.greenpeace.org/en/ocean-defenders-tv

I found the website of a Greenpeace coalition called Ocean Defenders, dedicated to addressing some of the major issues surrounding the relationship between Man and the Ocean. Part of this initiative involves a TV show called Ocean Defenders TV, a series of documentaries narrated by Greenpeace activists. Some of the issues discussed in the documentaries include the benefits of marine reserves, whaling, and the impact of some commercial fishing techniques, such as deep sea bottom trolling.

The TV show effectively captures the beauty and diversity of life in the oceans, by showing stunning footage of schools of colorful fish swimming in a dark blue sea, and bright coral reefs moving in harmony with the current. However, these images are a strong contrast to the drastic captions of whales getting harpooned by whalers and stingrays getting run over by trolling nets. I think this sharp contrast helps to enhance the show’s persuasive power, convincing viewers that activities such as whaling and trolling are destroying our beautiful underwater ecosystems.

Ocean Defenders TV offers another valuable perspective by presenting the views of local inhabitants on global oceanic concerns. For example, one documentary interviews a Spanish fisherman who talks about a local marine reserve that has helped restore fish populations along the Spanish coast. Nonetheless, the show doesn’t forget about the global nature of many of these issues; for example, it follows the 58th Annual International Whaling Convention.

I think the show achieves a healthy balance between showing the splendor of oceans and tackling the issues at hand. However, I don’t believe it gives the viewers a full picture of the topics discussed, as the show doesn’t give the opposing side (commercial fishermen, whaling countries) a chance to explain their actions.

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Date:2006-10-12 00:53
Subject:Environmental News

If you’re looking for a place for environmental news, there is a website called the Environmental News Network (ENN) that provides some. Each week the editors of ENN choose what they regard as the ten most important environmental stories out of all the stories written by Reuters and the Associated Press (and perhaps other services, but for the week of October 2 those were the only two services used). The articles are the quality one learns to expect from Reuters and AP: short, to the point, not in any extreme depth. The news coverage is broad rather than deep. The majority of the articles are quite gloomy, although three out of ten for the week of October 2 were not. It seems to be a good place for up-to-date news about the environment, with some hints for where to look for more analysis on the stories.

The stories of the week of October 2 included ones about sewage threatening marine life, global warming effects on states like Massachusetts, pollution-caused deaths, ozone hole same size as in 2000, and the possibility of half the species on Earth being wiped out within the next 100 years. The less gloomy articles speak of a proposed canal, koala contraceptives, and the fact that the tropics are more diverse than, say, Antarctica.

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Date:2006-10-12 00:54


“Disney Vet Brings Elephant Vasectomies to Africa”
I enjoyed this article. By bringing up the issue of elephant population control, it evokes the larger issues of human control of nature. At the same time the topic is hilarious in its absurdity, which is probably why it was reported in the first place.

As a piece of environmental writing, the article is thought-provoking and fun to read. It manages this without using imagery or directly addressing philosophical issues. The writer does not take a stand, but it does provide the opinions of various scientists. I would have preferred that it go into more detail in examining the extent and types of problems surrounding a large elephant population instead of just mentioning that there is controversy about the issue. However it is a short article so that can be expected.

It did serve to get me thinking about elephant population control and since the goal of environmental writing is in part to make the reader think about and question their views of the environment, the article is a success. After reading the article I went from having no opinions on elephant vasectomies to being an opponent of them.

Beyond questioning whether the elephant population needs to be controlled, the article explores other methods of population control: killing and culling. The killing option is not discussed at length but the article does mentioned that around the world, elephants are viewed as a symbol for conservation efforts and so perhaps killing elephants is not something the people in power want to talk about. Culling is cited as being disruptive to the social structure of the elephant population and also a cause of violence towards humans from elephants. So I gather from the article that birth-control is the politically safe way of dealing with the problem. But of course it is an absurd, even criminal solution, considering the health-care shortages around the world. If the elephant population level is truly a problem, then it should be dealt with in the most cost-effective way. I conclude from this that the final outcome of the elephant situation will be a program to shoot elephants in a quiet way. However, with this new vasectomy procedure available, and articles being written about the subject, it will now be hard to keep any solutions to the problem quiet. This could result in the population not being controlled –perhaps resulting in larger nature parks and more nature. Even though the author does not seem to have an agenda, by reporting on the topic they are increasing nature awareness and possibly the existence of natural places.

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Date:2006-10-11 20:05
Subject:Nuclear Waste Disposal Commentary

Finch’s commentary on the issue of nuclear waste disposal is quite intriguing. By all appearances it is well researched, well thought out, and fairly reliable. Finch includes huge amounts of scientific data to support his ideal site for disposal of nuclear waste. He includes figures from sources such as the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Nuclear Energy Institute (through Steven Kraft) that seem to reflect solid scientific thought. While he may not address all potential issues, he raises a number of environmental and political concerns to waste disposal and is able to provide satisfactory evidence to show that the Yucca Mountain site holds much promise. Of course, his commentary also shows through. This is entertaining and is the source for much of his persuasive strength. Yet it also means that I as a reader would feel compelled to compare his information with other sources before fully evaluating the potential environmental consequences of his decisions. He also doesn’t give much mention to the potential negative environmental impacts should such a program fail. What are the impacts that nuclear waste could have upon the Yucca Mountain environment should the storage system be subjected to some unplanned failure? Still, I think he makes strong enough points about waste storage sites near major cities to convince readers that the current state of nuclear waste is unacceptable. Certainly he falls back on reputable scientific sources at any points of contention in his piece to lend credence to his argument. Overall I feel that his piece is presentable and flows well. His personal voice shines through strongly, perhaps a bit too much to consider him a completely reliable source, but his arguments seem to be based primarily on rational decisions, not only on political views.
(essay is at http://www.theconservativevoice.com/article/18541.html)

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Date:2006-09-13 00:16

Nature is any place where I feel I have escaped from the insanity of human society. It offers me peace, excitement and wonder. Nature is walks in the woods, but not walks in the woods where there are a hundred people walking and they have there little kids with them and the kids are complaining and there are candy-wrappers on the ground and people yelling at each other. Nature is looking at a city at night, even walking and biking through the city at night and stopping to listen to the people playing music on the corner. But if the walk is on the way to a restaurant to meet my friends and then run to a movie showing at 9:45, that walk is no longer in nature. Nature is hiking up a mountain and getting to the top and looking back the way I came and even being able to see the path I followed because it went along a river and the trees are greener along that route. But if at the top of the mountain I look out at the other mountains and one of them has the bare stripes so distinctive of ski-slopes I sort of shield my eyes and look the other way because it no longer feels 100% like nature anymore and I hope that maybe if I don't see the scars they will go away.
I am very secretive and possessive about my connection to nature. If too many people know about this way of escaping from society, they will come in and fill the places which were once left alone. It might sound here like I think people are all bad and that is not true. There is nothing wrong with people on an individual level. But in society there is a constant push of people trying to take advantage of you and control you. This is the aspect of society that I am escaping from when I look for nature. This is why a walk path, a city and a ski-mountain can be parts of nature, but only until they start making demands on me to treat them as a part of society. Once society reappears with its constraints, the nature is gone.

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Date:2006-09-12 08:49
Subject:Concerning the nature of Nature

I have never in my life set foot in a place where no man has gone before, nor do I have any aching desire to do so (at least in the literal sense, the intellectual world is an entirely different matter). I live in a world of plumbing, walls and prepackaged food, and I’m comfortable here. On the other hand, there are times when I have no wish to be around other people or cooped up in a building surrounded by man-made junk. That’s when I want to see Nature, the Nature I’m used to, in the form of the National Parks. There, if you walk far enough, human sounds entirely disappear. I have a very vivid memory of standing near the top of a mountain in Zion National Park and hearing utter silence for the first time. The hum of electricity and the rumble of vehicles had completely disappeared. The sky was blue, the rocks were orange, the horizon was endless, the air was clean, and there was a light wind. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and I mean that literally. Paris doesn’t compare. That place was the prettiest, but my favorite part of nature is shallow, flowing water with rocks. It invites the construction small dams, or attempts to jump across on stepping stones, or many minutes of watching things float by. It is both playful and powerful. It is also common. I can find places like this all over the U.S. Nature is a wonderful place to visit, but in the end, I always return to civilization, where boxy buildings cut into the skyline, and libraries await with open arms.

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