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The First 100 Days: From Superfund to SuperFun! Sites

1 May

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Planet Home: Part II

12 Nov

“…a staid old house, where hoops and powder and patches, embroidered coats rolled stockings ruffles and swords, had had their court days many a time.  Some ancient trees before the house were still cut into fashions as formal and unnatural as the hoops and wigs and stiff skirts; but their own allotted places in the great procession of the dead were not far off, and they would soon drop into them and go the silent way of the rest.” — Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

“The negro [sic] has an artistic charm that the white man has not.  The negro has inherited the charm of music, the love of nature and the simplicity of life.” — “A Talk Given by Mr. Louis P. Wilson in the Salon of the Art Center Association,” typescript, 2 pp. Scrapbook 293: Exhibit of work of negro artists (first of two scrapbooks), The Records of the Harmon Foundation (Box No. 121, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

I have come to detest lawns.  My step-father decided that a rock garden with shrubbery was preferable to a lawn as he designed the front landscape for our home in Southern California.  Still, the back yard featured a lawn with lovely jacaranda trees and a border of mint.  Very few neighbors on the block understood that an arid climate would not naturally support the production of lawns, and so, also cultivated rock gardening with heat and drought tolerant plants.  With an unlimited supply of water diverted from and piped in from sources hundreds of miles away, what resident would think about their use of an absolutely precious commodity?  Los Angeles and the history of its misuse of water is widely known.  Still to this day, over a century since it exhausted its own water tables, the city and county consumes water from afar.  The battle for the survival of Mono Lake (http://www.itvs.org/films/battle-for-mono-lake and http://www.monolake.org/about/film) is epic in proportions, a water source that, quoting the second website cited here, underwent dramatic change: “From 1941 until 1990, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) diverted excessive amounts of water from Mono Basin streams. Mono Lake dropped 45 vertical feet, lost half its volume, and doubled in salinity.”  Activists were able to stop the death of this lake.

The problem of natural resources is not confined to the illogic of pumping water to a naturally waterless terrain.  Communities across the planet are now fighting against the incursion of global corporations that have usurped local rights to water, begging the question, “Is water a human right or a commodity to be bought and sold in a global marketplace?” (http://www.thirstthemovie.org/).  Waterways have been besieged for decades by pollution at our hands.  When I was a child growing up, the use of natural gas seemed absolutely benign.  It is only now, in very recent time, that I understand that the extraction of natural gas through “fracking” pollutes water tables and waterways (http://www.gaslandthemovie.com/whats-fracking).

My interest here in the extraction of resources, though, cannot be separated from man’s desire to transform environments into aesthetic and fashionable enclosures for the pursuit of comfort and pleasure.  Man has separated himself from nature during a very long history.  The separation between civilization and wilderness, between communal ecosystems and forest and other natural ecosystems is age old and universal.  Man’s fear and abhorrence of nature runs deep.

Within the United States, the encroachment of industrialization produced an irrational formulation of a pre-industrial man representing a oneness with nature.  By the 1920s, finding a symbol for this mythic being was directed at African Americans.  Observing the effects of the industrial age, Daniel Gregory Mason, in his book The Dilemma of American Music, wrote: “Perhaps the  most insidious one is the jaded emotional state…The fatigue-poisoned mind and body, too dull to enjoy quiet beauty and true thought, crave the crude excitements so abused among us; restless speeding in motor cars from nowhere to nowhere;…violent plastic arts using harsh angles and garish colors; noisy, mechanical, over-accented music.  The ‘jazz age’…is a joyless age, incapable of the happy serenity of creative leisure.” (William Heard Kilpatrick quoting Mason in Our Educational Task As Illustrated in the Changing South [Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1930], pages 61-2).  Thus, the Negro, to use the term applied extensively at the time, long before popular usage of Afro-American or African American, was singled out for being an emotion-centered being, childlike, “primitive,” and, so, as close to nature as man could be.  The evidence of this belief could be found in the extensive writings of the period praising the qualities of Negro spirituals.  Never mind that popular music such as ragtime and jazz were also cultural products of African American creativity.  Music critics and musicologists before 1930, such as European American song collector William Francis Allen or European pianist and folklorist Albert Friedenthal, predominantly found in this output of musical creation another type of the “primitive,” an expressed belief by some in a “savagery” that could be linked back to Africa.  African American writer Benjamin Brawley perceived even in the spiritual something akin to the primitive.  Critiquing London-born Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Brawley found his music based on Negro folk-songs to be “characteristic of the melancholy beauty, the barbaric color, and the passion of the true Negro music” (Brawley, The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States [New York: AMS Press Inc., 1971; reprint of 1930 edition published by Duffield & Company, New York], pages 164-5).

The modern Western mind has been searching for the primitive font of wisdom for several centuries.  Frances S. Connelly’s book, The Sleep of Reason: Primitivism in Modern European Art and Aesthetics, 1725-1907, is a good source for reading about eighteenth and nineteenth century attempts to derive inspiration from “primitive” cultural sources.  The cultures of Archaic Greece, Gothic Europe, even European folk cultures, served towards this end.  By the advent of Cubism early in the twentieth century, the artifacts of non-Western cultures were already being aggressively plumbed for aesthetic borrowing. Two occasions in New York during 1985 redirected my thinking about the use of cultural artifacts.  With the occasion of Te Maori: Maori Art from New Zealand Collections, an exhibition organized by The American Federation of Arts, the process of interpretation was no longer a Western enterprise.  Maori writers and spokesmen shaped both the exhibition and catalogue.  I saw this incredibly beautiful show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Through the catalogue, I learned of a Maori oral tradition, which accomplished the feat of recording Maori history for posterity over centuries.  By contrast, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) offered “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: The Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, with a team of cultural analysts seemingly replaying the tropes of Western cultural appropriation and manufacture.  Although both exhibitions were breathtaking, MoMA’s show stirred considerable controversy, with criticism, such as Thomas McEvilley’s now classic essay, “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief: ‘Primitivism’ in Twentieth-Century Art at the Museum of Modern Art,” questioning the very basis of placing Western and non-Western cultural objects within a comparative analytic framework.  The entire enterprise of colonialism in a post-colonial world had become suspect, and the narrative of great Western artists deriving inspiration from the forms of colonial subject manufacture had become hollow.  As much as I love African art, I knew then that, taken out of cultural context, objects considered art by Western standards did not speak for the culture from which these objects sprang.  The standard art history textbooks at the time relegated African art to a minor chapter.  These objects were described as fetish objects without any clues to the nature of the spirits they supposedly represented nor the character of the ancestors they supposedly worshipped.  The only obvious factor involved was that Westerners were fetishizing objects from outside their realm of experience.

This is why I greeted the film Oka! with mild concern.  That I wanted to see it was certain.  I just did not want my enthusiasm to be distracted by the burdens of representation.  The film was recently playing here in San Francisco for a very short time.  Based on ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno’s more than twenty-five years among the BaAka, or Bayaka, (“Pygmy”) in Yandoumbe, Central African Republic, the story tells of one Larry Whitman, played by Kris Marshall, who travels to Africa to record the music of this community.  The BaAka play the characters of this story, characters who represent people in Sarno’s life from an earlier generation.  Directed by Lavinia Currier, and co-written by Currier and Sarno, the film is filled with rich acoustic and visual textures.  The performance by a group of non-actors is excellent.  I am reminded of earlier attempts to film stories within traditional cultures using non-actors.  Director F.W. Murnau’s Tabu, a Story of the South Seas (1931) advertised the fact that only native-born South Sea islanders, “half-castes,” and Chinese played the roles portrayed in the film.  Michael Powell directed The Edge of the World (1937) at Foula on the Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland, focusing on two families that are torn between preserving their native island culture and younger members leaving for a modern world.  Powell did use professional actors but drew the acting corps from true islanders.  Salt of the Earth (1954), directed by blacklist victim Herbert J. Biberman, involved actual Mexican American miners and their families in telling the story of the 1951 strike against Empire Zinc Company in Grant County, New Mexico.  Director Gillo Pontecorvo strove for realism in The Battle of Algiers (1966) by employing Algerian non-actors.  Rolf de Heer’s production of Ten Canoes (2006) involved an Arnhem Land, Australia community casting themselves as actors based on a 1936 photograph taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson and shown to director De Heer by actor David Gulpilil.  The BaAka are master storytellers, as Sarno relates in his memoir, Song from the Forest: My Life Among the Ba-Benjellé Pygmies (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1993).  The acting demanded of them for the film ushered in a new dimension of story telling and required a different understanding than their familiarity with the documentary film process (refer to http://okamovie.com/).

My only experience with Pygmy music was through Deep Forest, Michel Sanchez and Eric Mouquet’s 1993 debut album.  The musicians combined New Age electronics with UNESCO field recordings of music from Zaire, the Solomon Islands, Burundi, Tibesti and the Sahel.  The vocal recordings of the Pygmy on the album are enchanting.  In the film Oka!, the title taken from the Benjellé meaning “listen,” the music of the people and the sounds of the forest merge and separate in subtle ways, an orchestration that makes this film an aural pleasure.  Steeped in the love of music, having once had the boyhood ambition of later becoming a composer, Sarno was reawakened by a song heard on a Flemish radio station.  Leaving from Paris with a one-way ticket and what remained of his savings, Sarno traveled to Bangui in Central African Repulblic.

The journey that Sarno (and Whitman) take is problematic for its exploration of an exotic people.  Sarno’s first impression at the camp where the BaAka live, is that “the Pygmies of Amopolo had strayed far from their roots and had degenerated into a decultured people” (Sarno, 46).  But, like the narratives within Tabu and The Edge of the World, there are forces from the outside world greater than a people can merely deflect.  Amopolo is a government-directed community, the BaAka considered uncivilized by their Bantu neighbors.  They have been forced to leave their ancestral home in the forest in order to live a civilized life, which also does not permit them to hunt.  Amopolo is near the Sangha-sangha village Bomandjombo, where the BaAka depend on a steady supply of manioc, cigarettes, marijuana, and mbaku, a locally produced moonshine.  In exchange, the Sangha-sangha depend upon the BaAka for meat (illegally hunted) and raffia.  Sarno’s relationship to his hosts is problematic for the fact that from the beginning he provides money and other goods in exchange for the privilege of living with and recording the music of the BaAka.  As Sarno himself muses, “Yet what, I now wondered, could I have brought such a culture but corruption, jealousy, and rivalry, with my cigarettes and gifts?  What could I have been to them but a kind of Pandora’s box, unleashing hungers that could never be satiated?” (Sarno, 291).

Sarno’s place within his adopted community gradually changes, so much so that he enables the BaAka to return to the forest.  In the film, shaman Sataka and wife Ekadi, played by Mapumba and Essanje, respectively, live continuously in the forest, refusing to partake in the Bantu’s terms of civilization.  They function as a mythic ancestral couple.  Unlike Adam and Eve of the garden who did not know their god, they know the forest and the spirits within.  It is their wisdom that draws the BaAka away from conditions that are unhealthy.  In Sarno’s narrative, the forest-cleared, sandy encampments that the BaAka live in are rife with mosquitoes and chigoes, sand fleas that burrow into human flesh.  Malaria kills a number of people.  Excessive mbaku consumption and other forms of aberrant behavior are rampant.

Another thread within both Sarno’s narrative and the film’s focuses on the destruction of the forest by non-African logging interests.  When Sarno first arrived in Bomandjombo, the logging company was run by Yugoslavians.  Their business eventually failed.  An attempt to revive the sawmill failed in 1989.  In the film, the Chinese businessman Mr. Yi, played by Will Yun Lee, who manages the mill, has a keen interest in hunting animals, and hopes, through a corrupt Bantu mayor, to implicate the BaAka in an elephant hunt, forcing them permanently off the reserve for the crime of poaching and, thus, opening the land to unlimited logging.

I recently attended a SF Debate event hosted by the Commonwealth Club.  The resolution posed to the group was: “This House supports the Occupy Wall Street Movement.”  Opening pro and con arguments were formally presented by two members.  Thereafter, discussion was opened to attendees.  One of the criticisms of the Occupy Wall Street Movement was that the movement’s concern over income inequality was misguided.  A young person, by my consideration, of little practical experience or knowledge of history, offered his insight to correct this.  Outside of the homeless, a “miniscule” portion of people in our society (those apparently dispossessed of possessions), people in poverty still had many consumer goods, including flat screen TVs.  Obviously this was a sign that our economy was healthy.  Of course, as a person who is temporarily housed, but still homeless, I challenged the ability of anyone present to accurately assert the number of people homeless.  But I also challenged the notion that wealth could be measured in terms of the production of consumer goods.  Where is our moral compass when a health prognoses upon our society is based on common access to  a select group of goods within a steady stream of consumption?  The poor in this context are so much like the BaAka under the civilizing terms of Bantu supervision.

I often think in mythic terms when questioning the viability of an earth mastered and run by a human population with an unlimited appetite for its resources.  In San Francisco, I see signs of engagement with the earth that envisions a symbiosis not based on exploitation for the material consumption of plastic goods and electronic gadgets.  During many Sundays in 2010, I participated in communal activities at Hayes Valley Farm, a volunteer-run farm on land temporarily leased by the city (http://www.hayesvalleyfarm.com/).  The push there is to regenerate soil through practices that do not take healthy soil from other areas of the state; the products of the farm are simply handed out.  There is a green movement afoot that I want to see succeed, that will take us, in Joni Mitchell’s words, “back to the garden.”  A garden conceived in our own moral health and the health of the natural world surrounding us.

Untitled, digital photograph, Felton, California, 2006.