Monday, June 6, 2011

Bear killing, Vietnam, the end of environmentalism as we know it

How do environmental advocates fit into a world that may not want them?

This is the third in a series of columns discussing the decline of environmentalism and environmental movement or at least a disconnect from larger social justice concerns. Read previous stories here and here.

I intended to start off this series on “environmentalism or environmental justice making” with a look at an exchange between hunter and non-hunter that took place more than 16 years ago in the pages of The Spokesman Review.

The exchange, which I read later, was typical of the pro-hunting and anti-hunting newspaper exchanges in my early years in Arizona and later in New Mexico and West Texas.

A former newspaper journalist who I’ve taught with at SFCC brought me photocopies of letters to the editor and a couple of columns all related to the same hunting “incident.”

It started as a story on a female hunter who killed her first bear, detailing her sweaty palms as she held her compound bow and sighted in a 7-foot-tall black bear. There were the descriptors of the stalk, the kill, and the jubilation.

It then described how this bear stalker/killer was worried about finding a taxidermist to denature the animal into a towering family room accompaniment and finding space in her home to display her trophy.

As with many Spokane issues, the 75/25 Rule quickly played out: a few letter writers (25 percent) were outraged by what for most (75 percent) then, and now, was just another story about a good ol’ girl killing a giant, hairy pest. A few attacking those anti-hunting animal lover letters got published.

One writer (of the 25 percent group) framed it this way – “It’s sad and scary to know there are people out there who don’t see the difference between a bear and a slug, since both, to them, are pests: who think ‘hunting plays an important role in our burgeoning society,’ who decorate their homes with carcasses of their prey; who claim to respect the animals they stalk and kill for fun.”

The bear killing story prompted my fellow community college teacher to deny the full hunter’s glory with a short piece decrying the trophy hunter mentality.

Back and forth the letters and columns went – one column defended hunting and brought out allusions to eating burgers as the same sort of “blood on the hands” decision as killing a bear for sport. Then vegetarians were attacked for liking salads and slug-killing poisons, too.

The other column – by the woman I’ve worked with for a decade since moving here from El Paso – first ramified her point in a short letter to the editor that won the Golden Pen award. She grew up with a hunter father who killed every sort of fish, bird and terrestrial mammal in order to supply the family with meat. No antlers or posed heads of those kills graced her family’s house in Alaska.

She wasn’t against hunting for survival, just against the blood sport trophy-seeking angle. We’ll get back to that particular reportage and journalist pugilism in a minute.

I was in Vietnam when this newspaper exchange took place — July 1994. My job was logistics support and team member for a British-sponsored biodiversity survey group from the UK, Canada and the US (just me). We went to Hanoi for two weeks of intensive medical and biological training, then off to Pu Mat, along the Laotian border.

We were living it rough, with no radio contact to the outside world. No gas stoves. Plenty of rice. No tents – we bivouacked with bamboo, palm fronds and drainage ditches. We took Russian-made enduro motorcycles through 26 treacherous river crossings to get to the nearest outback town some 20 kilometers away from camp for resupplying.

We live-trapped (and released) dozens of species of bats in some of the most surreal scapes on earth. Think zither music, barking dogs, valleys protected by limestone ramparts, boom box music from China, and a thick green jungle. We conducted transects of trees, insect life and birds in triple-canopy jungle. We were deep in primary forest away from everyone except the toughest rattan cutters and tiger hunters.

King cobras, foot-long centipedes, flocks of hornbills, along with gibbons, were part of our daily jungle life.

In that jungle (I’d been to others in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize), I encountered some of the most memorable significant emotional events of my life. At age 37 — the age my warrant officer father was (1967) as a member of a logistics communications team in the Army’s Big Red One fighting America’s longest war, 1960-75 — I was in a country we wanted to bomb back to the Stone Age. Richard Nixon wished he could have dropped nukes on the Vietnamese.

Poverty and acceptance. Mile upon mile of metallic-smelling bomb craters filled with mosquitoes and rusty decayed jungle and delta mud. Thirty-two colors and shades of green amongst the checkerboard of rice paddies and tea groves. A country that had been at war for 1,000 years, invaded continually by interlopers, from the Chinese, Japanese, French, and Americans. Almost everyone opened their hearts to us, me in particular.

After the survey, report, and bundles of photographs, I traveled along Highway One, from the China border, through the DMZ, into Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) on a beat-up Italian motorcycle. All I got was clamoring crowds and loads of questions.

People hunted in city parks and others logged and trapped huge animals in the national sanctuaries. Our job, unfortunately in our Western context, was to assist the university and state biologists to convince their communist government to hold off on huge logging and land exploitation in an area scientists have said has been climatically and geologically stable for a million years.

The year before, one of the volunteer team members – young science graduate students from Scotland and England who paid to get there — didn’t make it out of camp and through those river crossings alive as her brain swelled from black water fever, a type of malaria.

It was a four-prong assault for me in Vietnam: biological diversity studies; photographing the entire six-month trip; writing articles for the El Paso newspaper I worked with; and returning to my father’s war-scape.

While the environmental activism and follow-up environmental justice work were clear for me, there was the catharsis of being with my father’s former enemies – these former Viet Cong sought me out when I ended up in small villages with my friend and translator, Dr. Trang Viet.

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