Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Stories of Africa, and telling them

I was recently invited to do a guest blog by Karen Chace. In it I discussed the use of images during storytelling sessions and my hypothesis that they may have a very ancient origin that goes back as far as the artists who made petroglyphs and pictographs. Some of the art work is of stunning quality, and as good an example of that as any lies in the extraordinary Chauvet caves of southern France, a subject I have blogged about before .

Giraffe, eland and freinds at Twyfelfontein
Of course these are not the only examples of cave art. I have chosen this one, a photo taken at Twyfelfontein in Namibia because of what comes below.

You can easily link to that guest blog here.

I posted the link to several of my contact pages and it has generated a lively discussion on one of the LinkedIn ones. a members only group one can join StoryTellers - The Oral History Group.
A general conclusion is emerging that there are many ways to tell stories and we should open our minds to them.

I mentioned that I use both oral and visual telling techniques, sometimes in one presentation. For those who use PowerPoint (the latest evolutionary form of cave art) this is simply done in the middle of a talk by hitting the “B” key (I'm a Mac guy, don't know about PCs). The screen goes blank and one can then step up and let the audience focus solely on the teller. Hit the “B “ again and one is back to the picture.

Here is a brief example from a recent school tour. Using no pictures I opened with a bit about myself and how my first memory was of a giraffe’s legs heading away through the trees. Then I told the children about my return to Kenya after vet school in Glasgow and how the very first animals I saw were three giraffes peering at me from inside Nairobi National Park.

Next up was a description of how, three days after arriving as an intern at the Kenya vet school I had to treat a giraffe with footrot. This term is self-descriptive, and needs no gory technical explanation. However, some of my audiences have been in rural schools and many of the kids knew exactly what I was talking about. Of course this gave me the chance to link to their own experiences of watching a vet or parent medicate a cow with the condition.

This let me describe the problem of injecting a giraffe and let me use this phrase: “Of course there were as many giraffe in Glasgow (where I graduated from vet school) as there are in "Homeville" (name the community I'm in). I then climbed the imaginary walls of the chute where the giraffe was standing to inject him high above my head. (Actions: climb, stretch, grunt, inject)

With the three giraffe images now established I switched to the old folk tale about how the giraffe became so tall.  It involves a conversation with an owl, a long walk, a witch doctor, a magic potion and the failure of giraffe’s friend the none-too-intelligent rhino, to arrive on time at dawn to get his own helping of the potion.

Of course this set up later folk story about another stupid rhino, again told after the “B” has been touched.

After that fun account I ran the projector again and showed the kids an entirely silent movie clip that I made myself in the early 1970s of rhino capture. It runs about 4 minutes and as it has no script I made the odd remark, telling the tale of how and why we did the work. I can't add it here, but if you haven’t seen it, it lies embedded under the video tag on my website. The kids were enthralled.

Mum waits in case the little guy needs help. He didn't
To wind up this post I have added a few pictures that I showed the children. These ones were of the Aaaah, or Ooooh variety and needed few words. They are examples of things that the kids may not have seen or can enjoy for the images' own sake.

The shy little girl with her Teddy Bear, knitted by ladies of a group who call themselves "Teddies for Tragedies" is probably receiving her first ever gift. She is one of 147 kids in an AIDS orphanage school we linked with and supported.

I showed the baby rhino being bottle fed after the capture movie. A winner!

This is a humorous one, again needing no script.  As one teacher said to me after the talk, "Anything with bums or poop stories will be a winner."

If it itches, scratch it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Chinese Ivory Industry

Reporter Bryan Christy recently attended a meeting convened by US  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The subject was the illegal wildlife trade entitled Wildlife Trafficking and Conservation: A Call to Action.

Here are some of the statements that Christy made in his blog about that meeting. You can see the rest of this material and links to other reports he has made by dipping into the site.

The Chinese government, through its company China National Arts and Crafts Group Corporation (CNACG), aka Goalmark, is the world’s largest ivory purchaser, carver, and retailer. It purchased two-thirds (40 tonnes) of the roughly 62 tonnes of ivory sold at auction to China in 2008, and it controlled the import price on the remaining 20 tonnes sold to the three other Chinese bidders.

The Chinese government is expanding its ivory consuming capacity. In 2009, it built China’s largest ivory carving factory.

Chinese ivory carving is big business involving a small number of individuals—perhaps a few hundred, based on my observations—only about a dozen of whom are recognized national master carvers.

As long as the Chinese government is in the business of expanding the ivory trade, ivory-related crime will flourish.

On the other side of the story, Chinese basketball star Yao Ming has recently been trying to raise the profile of this issue. A couple of UK newspapers, the Guardian and the Times ran stories about his visit to Kenya. He is reputed to be much loved and respected in his home country. Will his efforts make any difference? I do hope so, but I’m not overly optimistic. He is fighting a “City Hall” but one with serious muscle.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Polar Bear Studies

I’ve started on a new manuscript, hoping to get it done in a year or so. My working title is From Polar Bears to Porcupines. No subtitle yet, but obviously something to do with wildlife vets.  Met with my writers group yesterday for a first run through with one of the chapters about bears that will likely be somewhere in the middle.

Here is the first draft of the last 580 or so words. The events took place in the early 1980s and were part of a large study of bear ecology and population structure in the days before the polar bear became the poster child for global warming.

We have finished working with a sow and her two tiny cubs south and east of Pond Inlet on Baffin Island. They have been weighed and measured. All the samples have been collected and there is one last task to carry out before we let her go back to a normal life. I’m working with wildlife technician John Lee and helicopter pilot Tex Walker.
Out on the sea ice near Pond Inlet. John weighs a cub during our work on the bears

Now came the last mucky task. Once more into the bag. This time John emerged with his tube of Lady Clairol hair dye and a brush. Before long a huge black X, each arm about sixty centimetres long, followed by the number 5 covered the bear’s back from side to side. I had deduced, on the first bear we had worked on, that this unconventional use of a famous product was to prevent us from capturing this bear again this same year.

“How long will it last?” I had asked. “Quite a while,” John had replied. “Long after we are done with our capture program this year. It’ll be gone by next year.” 

There was no need to paint the cubs, as they would be with their mother for the rest of the season. I wonder if the folks at the Clairol company had ever imagined the scene we now saw.

I did the rounds with the stethoscope again and John read off his checklist to make sure that we had not forgotten some vital element. I took care to avoid getting the dye on myself, as John had inevitably had after dippng his brush into the black goo, and smearing it over the bear.

Now we had to hunker down and wait for the cubs to recover.  For the mother bear I had an antidote to the carfentanil that we had used to immobilize her. Not so for the ketamine/Rompun mixture that was keeping the cubs quiet. Of course I could not wake the mother up until we knew that the little guys were alert, but that did not take long. In fact they had already started to show signs of recovery, moving their tongues and heads as we finished up collecting our various samples. From that point their recovery was rapid and they soon snuggled up to their mother.

Ten minutes later, and after yet another check of the vital signs, I drew up the antidote into a syringe and injected it into the vein on the underside of her tongue. John and I had already packed up a our bags and closed the lids, as neither of us wanted to be fiddling with that sort of detail when the bear awoke, as she would do within a couple of minutes, if our experience was anything to go by.

John had already signaled Tex to start up his engines by whirling an arm above his head. Tex needed time to get his machine warmed up and airborne. Again, should my patient decide to turn and come for us we wanted to be up and away before she reached us, and a bear can cover a lot of ground very quickly if it decides to.

We walked as briskly as the snow would allow, rather than run and risk falling, back to the chopper and climbed in.  Tex upped the revs as we put on our headsets. When the bear rose, stumbled once and moved away Tex lifted us off.

         With the work on this bear finished we climbed above the site and I looked down. I could see our tracks and the trampled snow where the helicopter had been and realized that the evidence of our approach and work pattern closely resembled the symbolic shape of a Valentine’s Day heart. The chopper had been at the pointed bottom. Our own footprints and the deeper scars left where we had crawled made the arches and the trampled snow where we had worked on the bears was the point in the middle where those arches meet. 

I looked over to where she was walking with her cubs.  The hair dye stood out clearly and we could avoid harassing her again. It was time to move on.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Litfest 2012 in Edmonton

Last weekend I was lucky enough to be involved in Canada’s only purely non-fiction literary event. Litfest takes place each year in Edmonton and runs over ten days. Dozens of authors are involved and talks of varying length and styles were given in several venues.

David Cheoros and Jerry (l) sorting out some admin details. (ph Kim Fong)
David Cheoros and his wonderful team organized everything to a “t”. My flights were booked and when I arrived in my hotel I was astonished to find an empty beer carton with a carefully labeled sticker attached. The sticker stated “beer in fridge.” Many volunteers ran me to and fro  - thanks to Pamela, Kathy and John.

Dr. Ole Nielsen at Litfest
My presentations started in the Strathcona County Council chambers in the community of Sherwood Park.  It was here that friend and former dean of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Ole Nielsen, introduced me. I was given 40 minutes, which is a long spot at a literary event, and so that rather than reading from my “Of Moose and Men” book I told some stories in the style of the ancient Cantastoria tellers who used picture boards and drawings to engage the audience. Of course the most modern form of this art is electronic and I used a PowerPoint presentation to share some of my experiences with this most remarkable animal. To pay homage to Ole I also started with the opening paragraph of the book, which is a telegram sent to him from Rwanda after he had offered me the job that launched me on my university career. It reads:


In one segment of the presentation I told about how moose have been domesticated through the ages. There does not seem to be an old history of domestication in Eurasia, but we do now that the Aboriginal peoples of North America were using them in this way from at least the 1600s.

School bus, or fun outing in Russia.
They have been ridden, used to pull sleighs and buggies and kept as pets. The grainy B&W pic showing a sleigh full of small children being pulled by a cow moose caused much amusement. Was it a “school bus” or an outing for fun? I have no idea.

Tatiana Minaeva at milking time
In Russia there are at least two moose farms, and it was from Dr. Alexander Minaev that I learned about a farm at Kostroma where moose are routinely milked every day. He has a fascinating web site that shows many aspects of the operation and here are some pictures from that site. The milk goes to a local sanatorium for medical use, particularly for patients with stomach problems.

One account of a moose farm in Sweden has it that this is the source of the world’s most expensive cheese. I know that one audience member tweeted this little gem and before that day was over she received notice that it has been RT’d four times. I wonder if this was because the price, at last report, was a mere eleven hundred dollars per kilo. That is $1100! Any orders out there?

My next event was at a dinner in the Santa Maria Goretti Centre as one of four authors. This centre uses the same parking lot as Commonwealth Stadium, so it was a good thing that the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos were not playing at home that night. After a chicken meal served “family style” and some excellent wines sponsored by Naramata Bench Wines we all read or told sections from our books.

First up was Marcello Di Cintio who read a section about the Mexico / US fence from, his book Walls. As he said, the entire book, by its very nature, is pretty dark. For instance one of the walls he visited during his research was the one that divides Gaza from Israel. His fence piece told the story of a musician who ”played” the wall.

Telling about large antlers after dinner (ph Kim Fong)
Then I came on. I read a short piece about the confusion caused by the Scottish use of moose as opposed to mouse and Robbie Burns’s famous poem. I followed this with a reprise of my Montreal Story Slam about the role of antlers in during the rut of moose. I have posted this one on YouTube and if you haven’t seen it you might enjoy it.

After the dessert Carmen Aguirre read from her book Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter. The story she tells is a harrowing one and as she read an account of her struggles against the Pinochet regime in Chile I was much moved.    

AndrewNikiforuk wound up the session with a piece from his book Empire of the Beetle. He chose an account of the role of bark beetles in forest ecology. Of course, as far as Canadians are concerned the pine beetle that has wreaked such havoc in British Columbia was the main theme. As he pointed out, the beetle has been the principal regenerator of forests from time immemorial, long before humans began to try and manage the resource.

Pamela, Candace, me and Andrew at the panel session. (ph Kim Fong)
The final event of the entire festival found me at a panel session in the Milner library in downtown Edmonton alongside Andrew Nikiforuk again and also Saskatoon’s and East End's own Candace SavageOur topic was Fauna. We each read short pieces from our work, Candace from her book A Geography of Blood. Then we had to try and field questions from our moderator, Pamela Anthony, and from the floor. We tried to answer some of the questions, but as Candace carefully dodged one impossible one I realize that we would need weeks, if not years, to make any kind of meaningful reply.

We all, panel and audience alike, realized that humans are the main driver of changes in both Canadian and global fauna. I did make a point from my African experiences. Why would a family living on a dollar a day be concerned about preserving the lions that kill their cattle or the elephants that devastate an entire year’s supply of staple foods such as maize or millet in a single night’s feeding? Thoughts of conservation are all very well for us in Canada, but these folks may have a different view, and who would blame them?

In the spirit of the whole event. Jerry and Pamela (ph Kim Fong)
All-in-all the festival was an amazing experience. Thanks to David and his team for all their hard work.