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Seasonal WOE

June 12, 2018

A Whole Food Plant Based diet, that’s my goal.  But even this label is misleading if you haven’t heard of it; it isn’t just plant based, as though there are then animals stacked on top.  I eat plants.  I use non-diary milks and cheesy things.  I make these choices because we, as a species, cannot be trusted to be good stewards of the lives with which we have been entrusted.  We treat living, breathing, feeling creatures like objects and products; it makes me sick and unspeakably sad.  However tasty bacon and roasted chicken may be, if I can’t know those beings weren’t made to suffer because a decent life before a humane slaughter is too expensive, I just can’t stomach it.  I do use honey from people I know who love their bees, take care of them, and do not abuse them with being hauled across hell’s half acre to pollinate mono-culture crops (which is a rant for another day, but soon, given that Bayer has just swallowed Monsanto like so many aspirin). I even wear leather boots because one pair will serve my true needs for many many years, and the other side of the coin is petroleum-based, breaking down quickly, and requiring more frequent replacement.  No, I’ll never be vegan… unless I move back to the tropics and no longer have need of trusty boots.  So, my vegan-ish ways are more what the cool kids call a Way of Eating, WOE.  Yeah, I know, but it seems to have stuck.  People are choosing WFPB for a wide variety of reasons, from wanting no part in the commoditization of lives for profit to their own scary numbers from the doctor’s lab to feeling better for eating plants rather than animals to believing Albert Einstein (that smarty pants) when he said, Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.  There you go, not just filthy hippy tree huggers, although if the patchouli fits . . .

When I was a child, my mother used to take us to a produce stand in the summer.  Being the ‘70s, an era full of ‘time-savers for busy housewives’ that came in boxes from the supermarket, it was novel to go to a place where the food just sat there in crates, naked for crying out loud.  You could touch it!  and smell it . . .  and pick it out for your own self.  I hadn’t thought of that old stand, long since built over with some suburban McMansion, in decades, but sometimes things, and if you’re very lucky, good thing come full circle.  This is how I, now older than she was then, acquire most of our food.  Two or three times a week, I walk up the hill to a little store full of wooden crates (often being dollied in and out as I shop) with the freshest, mostly local produce you’re ever going to get.  It’s run by a woman and her two daughters.  They have put the man and me together, the two strange Americans who shop on different days, and have begun to remember our favorites and idiosyncrasies ~”…the woman will buy all the fresh mushrooms, don’t try to give them plastic bags, she loads her canvas sack so precisely, saving delicate delicacies for the top ~ and seem to find us amusing.  Occasionally, I burden them with the knowledge of what I’m going to do with their fruit and veg.  I am anathema, causing centuries Italian nonne to spin in uncountable graves.

Trying to limit the kilometers our food travels, local means seasonal.  I enjoy watching the changing of the seasons in those wooden crates.  It struck me that summer has arrived when, the last time I filled my bag after weighing and paying, the daughter commented that everything is delicate today: peaches, tomatoes, cherries, kiwis, romaine.  She didn’t know what to put on the bottom.  It caused me to think back six months, when everything could go on the bottom: whole squash, cauliflower, apples, potatoes, carrots, broccoli.  I never mourn the passing of cruciferous vegetable season, and not just because that means corn-on-the-cob season is just around the corner.  This has only recently become the case.  Up until a couple of years ago, corn ~everywhere in cans; they do eat corn, even beyond polenta~ was not to found fresh, on the cob.  Then, a few cobettes wrapped in plastic and styrofoam began to appear.  I couldn’t bring myself to buy individually plasticized servings when I know full well that they grow in their own perfectly good, biodegradable packaging.  Then, lo and behold, the organic grocery had some for a month one summer.  The next year, our regular Frutta Verdura ladies did, too!  If they didn’t think I was cracked before, the happy dance I did in the middle of their shop clinched it.

All the privations and unpleasant surprises we began with here have jaded me, crushed my expectations to where is it going to kick me next?, but I also appreciate every little advancement now.  New people don’t know that we didn’t see an avocado for many years.  Now we have them much of the time.  Even the little local grocery, that reminds me of Crescent Market on Siesta Key of my childhood vacations, carries tofu, seitan, and faux burgers.  It is so much easier, and more interesting, to eat no animals (at least in my own home) than it used to be.  But my day-in day-out eating starts and ends with whole plants, food without a label, no ingredient list.  I know what I’m putting in my body.  I feel good about it, where it came from, what it cost.

And if you happen across flat peaches ~might be called Saturnia or tabacchiera, try them.  I told the daughter that I call them pesche ciambelle because they are so sweet. She looked uncertain.  Word play is very tricky here.  “Doughnut peaches,”  it took her another second, then she said, “Ah! Homer Simpson!”

From this side of Rainbow Bridge

March 13, 2018

“Monti is dead.”  He’d suddenly fallen very ill two weeks before, but Monti was such a big magnificent cat, I really thought having come through the crisis, he would rebound to his glorious self and remain among us a while longer.  But there the text sat, like cold lead in my stomach.  It was a hidden time bomb circulating through his regal body.  He’d been living on borrowed time already, despite being the picture of feline strength and superiority.  I wanted to tell my man the horrible news, but I couldn’t repeat those words: Monti is dead, so final, so static.  All I could say was, “Monti died,” an action, his final action, but still a thing he did with his last breath.  It’s just verb conjugation, language, means the same thing in the end, but why can I accept that he died, hold that in my sorrowful heart, but not that he is dead?

You were too grand, too much, for this world.  May we meet again in the next, my sublime friend.

A Day Among Giants

November 25, 2017

8:00 at Volunteer House, Buin brings breakfast from the kitchen.  Just for me, as I am the sole volunteer at Wildlife SOS right now.  It’s well before monsoon season, so it is dry and ferociously hot.  I have never been so thirsty, all the time, even as I am drinking, I’m still thirsty, all day.  I digress.  Eggs, chapatis, toast, cheese, fruit, and tea are standard breakfast fare.  I supplement with peanut butter someone left behind.  Between 8:30 and 9:00, my handlers -Shivam and Hari – collect me in the minivan for the drive up the highway to the WSOS Elephant Conservation and Care Center (ECCC).

The elephants have already had their breakfast and been for their morning constitutional.  Their caretakers are up early with them every day.  This walk is the long one for their daily exercise.  Volunteers no longer assist with the morning walk as the practice included many extra bananas and the elephants were putting on too much weight.  Volunteers are suckers.

My first responsibility is to rinse the fruits and vegetables for their lunch, then chop them up, weigh, and divide it all into their individually labeled buckets.  It varies by season, but in May there are watermelons, cucumbers, winter squash, and bananas.  We chop it up to slow their eating and make the activity more interesting for them.  For the most part, everyone gets 10kg of whatever is available (3 times per day), a serving of grain porridge, and green fodder suspended from the rafters as if they were trees for grazing.  Suzy, however, gets special treatment because she has no teeth to speak of.  Her watermelon will be just the best bits, no rind, and her bananas are only the ripest ones.  And, as mentioned previously, Laxmi is served softened soy nuggets instead of the nearly solid porridge the others have.  The creation of faux trees is a variety of “enrichment,” to mimic natural situations in order to engage their minds.  Other forms of enrichment include tires and perforated barrels full of nuts.  Laxmi uses the halyard, which lifts bundles of browse, to scratch her back and, improbably, to floss her teeth.  She’s a clever girl.

But before lunch time is bath time!  In the wild, their mothers, aunties, and grandmothers would have taught them how to care for their hides, where to bathe and how to scratch, but being kidnapped as infants, this they never learned.  So it is my great honor and pleasure to bathe these giants.  They come up on the concrete pad in their enclosures, except the ones who prefer to stand in the yard.  It’s their choice.  Phoolkali stands patiently as her keeper begins to hose her down.  “Now.  Here. Scrub.  Scrub hard!”  He doesn’t have much English, but sufficient.  “Scrub bum!”  He finds this hilarious.  And I am scrubbing an elephant’s bum!  Also, I’m sure my soaking head to foot isn’t accidental.  But as I mentioned, it is tandoori-hot, so a mid-day drenching isn’t unwelcome.  (Yes, well, there was that rash.  But it cleared up. . . eventually.)  Volunteers are discouraged from random physical interactions with the elephants because as strangers, our only purpose is to provide food.  If we don’t have food, they see this as a confusing breach of contract.  But bath time is different.  They know the routine, so it is perfectly acceptable to sneak in some hugging along with the scrubbing.

After everyone is fresh and clean, the buckets come out.  As the veterinarian and his assistants make their rounds, part of lunch is doled out during medical treatments.  The practice of target training is employed to facilitate examination and treatment.  The elephants learn what is expected of them and they are rewarded for compliance.  There is a small gate in one wall especially for mani-pedis.  One day, on my way to the barn, I heard someone trumpeting repeatedly, unusual.  It was Laxmi with her veterinarian.  He was working on a new behaviour with her, to be able to examine her more easily.  But last time they had been working on “speak,” which is easier than “kneel”, that day’s lesson.  Laxmi knew that speaking had been sufficient to merit her reward before and thought if she just kept pushing, he would relent.  In the end, the banana was worth kneeling for, especially to dear Laxmi dumpling.

Giant grass-like greenery forage is then distributed, hung about the barn, with which the elephants may amuse themselves for much of the afternoon.  Humans have lunch and take a siesta.  Ours is delivered to the Office/Meeting Room/Volunteer Base stacked in tiffins which fit into something like a giant thermos:  chapatis, curry, rice, veg.  It’s too hot to work in the middle of the day, so everyone takes a break.  I flop down flat on the floor and take a nap, because elephant keeping is hard work!

After siesta, it’s chopping time again.  The wasps (they call them bees, but I don’t know about that) are on full detail, keen for the watermelons.  The keepers seem to be experimenting with how best to deal with them.  I agree that leaving the watermelons whole in the bottom of the buckets to be cracked on demand is a good plan.  Have you ever opened a watermelon with an I-beam?  Or a pumpkin with a concrete floor?  I have.  My world felt very small and fiddly upon returning from living with giants.  My cat’s litter box with its little scoop was nothing compared to picking up elephant poops.  The keepers do it bare handed, but the rubber gloves provided were only a polite fiction anyway.  Surprisingly, being herbivores, the smell was remarkably unoffensive.  The Forest Department takes and uses it to fertilize their projects.

Evening Walk is the most beautiful time of day.  We lead the elephants out into their wide open field, then they are free to wander as they please.  Or to stand where they like.  Or tear up vegetation or scratch against a tree.  For intelligent, sensitive beings who have spent decades, lifetimes, never being able to make a choice for themselves and the choices made by others bringing only suffering, I cannot imagine what it means to them to have this freedom.  We sit on the ground, watching them in their peaceful magnificence.  When it’s time to go in, their caretaker calls to Maya.  She walks away from him…. because she can and no one is going to beat her for it.  He calls again.  She stops, her back to us.  Then I feel it in my chest.  Phoolkali is calling her.  With a nearly subsonic oceanic purr, she rumbles to her friend.  I am thunderstruck.  They had spent their lives alone, with no herd, no companionship, no sisterhood, no one to talk to.  Maya slowly turns around and makes her way back to us.

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Dinner is served, including porridge, vegetation hoisted, and I am done.  I tell those dear ladies goodnight, and am conveyed back to Volunteer House.  The keepers will check on them again later, refill their amusements/snacks for the night, then do it all again the next day.

I tuck into the dinner Cook prepares for me as I am ravenous, every night.  Then I post a few unbelievable pictures from my day on social media and sleep like the dead for 10 hours.  I am grateful for being the only one in the House.  I’m giving everything every day to those elephants; I don’t have an ounce left for small talk with shiny kids on their Gap Year, bless ‘em.  In fact, having signed up for two weeks rather than the standard suggestion of one, was perfect.  When it was over, I was sad to be leaving them, but I had nothing left to give.  I’m not as strong as I was . . . 20 years ago when I hung shutters for a living.  I could feel my reserves draining, each morning the tank was a little farther off Full than the morning before. It was entirely worth it, every minute, and I will do it again.

A farewell trunk-fist bump with sweet Phoolkali, until we meet again

Summer HermArtage Wrap-up

August 29, 2017

It has been a rich season.  The man escaped the heat for a total of five weeks, between working north of the North Sea and eclipse-chasing in the PacNW, leaving me to run CatCamp and make art and enjoy the solitude.  Our village is chock-a-block with tourists; I can hear them; that is sufficient.  The repetitive dance track in the distance is party enough for me as I read myself to sleep with two cats on the bed.  It has been an excellent time of both learning and introspection.  The interwebs bring wonderful artists and teachers to my desk (Beth, Tam, Amber, and Whitney, to name a few).  Using the Great American Eclipse as occasion to consider my own Shadow and what of myself is being eclipsed has been . . . illuminating.  The big project, as with many summers, has been Il Soleone, the Lion Sun of August, Leo in all his flaming glory.  I’m a poor and untrained artist, but as a protagonist in a story I’ve otherwise forgotten asked her wanna-be-artist boyfriend, “Is there anything you’d like to see that no one has ever seen before?”  That is where my art begins.  If the thing existed, I could google a photo and show you.  But it needs me to make it, to bring it into the world for someone to see.  So every project is an experiment, with something I’ve never done before.  Some creations land in the world closer to my vision than others.

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Gattuso the Floorca dreams of being a purrmaidThis year, Il MerSoleone manifested himself into my studio.  Probably inspired by my Purrmaids duvet cover and the fact that I do live by the sea ~also the existence of the Merlion in Singapore Harbour, which had completely slipped my memory until Il MerSoleone was already well on his way~ this year I needed to paint a sun-lion-head on a fish-body.  There is no photo of this to reference.  Someone else could certainly do it better.  But he was in my head and on my heart, so his creation was left to my hands.  He is unlike previous Soleoni in other ways, as well.  This year has been a rough one.  Il Soleone 2016 looks almost benevolent in comparison.  He has no idea what lay before him.  2017 needs roaring at:  too much destruction, injustice, incompetence, meanness, greed, and devastating loss is happening all around us.  And he’s not having it.

India 2017 part 4: Wildlife SOS, an Introduction

August 17, 2017

The day finally came when Craig could say, “I took my wife to India . . . and left her there.”  My train ride from New Delhi to Agra was pleasant, uneventful.  I stepped off the train into a sea of people, all with a better idea of where they were going than I had.  But standing still is hazardous, as well as making one a target for pickpockets and con artists, so I flowed along through the station and out the main doors.  Just across the street was my name!  on a card held by a nice looking man in front of a sedan.  The last of my worries for the day evaporated.  Madhumitha, the volunteer coordinator whom I’ve been pestering for nearly a year, had come through despite the change of plans, which I will not go into here as it left me quite cross with our Intrepid Travel leader.  I’ve yet to send in my review, as requested.  Whatever time I have to write about India, I’m going to spend it on the good stuff first.  So, 12 hours late, but just in time for orientation, I arrived at Volunteer House.  Alone, yes!  Not only a room to myself, but the whole place, including Buin the House Steward (totally guessing at the spelling there) and Cook, who fed me very well.

I’ll give you a bit of background on how I came to find myself there.  Through the magic of the interwebs, I became aware of Wildlife SOS.  Their original mission was to rescue all the “dancing” bears in India.  And they have!  It was a 400 year old tradition among the Kalandar people and not only have these bears been rescued from slave trade, the programs of Wildlife SOS are retraining the old masters in new professions and their wives and providing schooling for their children.  Education is the key to breaking the cycle.

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With all the bears retired to peace and comfort, the organization has moved on to general wildlife rescue in the areas where the operate.  They get calls for everything from deer hit by cars to jaguars down a well to cobras in the living room.

Never again

Then there are the elephants.  I hardly know where to begin.  They are enslaved, chained in dark cement temples regarded but not treated as gods, required to walk hot pavement begging in traffic, and made to perform unnatural stunts in circuses.  Most are malnourished, without any veterinary care, are beaten into submission, and emotionally devastated.  There are currently 21 rescued elephants at the Mathura sanctuary.  Land has been purchased for expansion, but the need is overwhelming.  Still, every life saved is the diminishment of suffering and means everything to that elephant.  So, we set our sights high and carry on, one amazing pachyderm at a time.

A couple of years ago, during a fund-raising auction, I bought an elephant footprint!  One of the gentlest souls at the Elephant Conservation and Care Center was happy to tromp through paint and over some canvases for extra bananas.  Her name is Phoolkali.

As it turns out, being so gentle and even tempered, she and her best friend Maya are often given to volunteers to be cared for.  My heart nearly burst meeting her after having her footprint hanging in my home.  To be scrubbing the very foot that made it sealed something between us, at least on my side of the brush.  Elephants give the impression of thinking slowly, deliberately.  They communicate in very low frequencies.  I have felt the oceanic elephantine purr.  By the end of my two weeks there, Phoolkali had decided she knows me.  We parted with a friendly trunk-fist bump.  I look forward to returning to her because elephants do remember.

But here we are at the beginning of My Time With Giants.  I would love to show you photos of the enormous males who live there, but most are still in some level of legal battle and I was requested to keep those to myself.  But I did see Mohan, Raju, Rajesh, Suraj, Bhola, Walnut, Macadamia, and Sanjay.  Because they are so large and strong, also when any of them are in musth (a natural and cyclic hormonal state in male elephants) they all can become more unpredictable, volunteers do not interact with them.  It was enough to watch them walking out across the fields, majestic and at liberty to wander wherever they choose.

Briefly, here are the ladies whom I did have the pleasure of meeting:

Elephants are herd animals, so it is one more misery for them to live alone in their incarceration.  These five have bonded as a family now and have made it very clear that they will not abide being separated.  Suzy, who is blind and toothless and the oldest resident at ECCC in her late 60s, welcomed Asha and Lakhi to her barn.  Then Peanut and Coconut, along with Mac and Wally over in the frat barn, were rescued from the circus together.  They joined matriarch Asha’s little herd which has become known as the Peanut Gang.  She is the youngest at 8 years old now, probably the least psychologically damaged because of it, and the most rambunctious.  She is adorable.  These 5 live together in one barn, while 7 more females live in the other sorority barn.  None of the elephants at WSOS can ever go back to the wild.  Most if not all were kidnapped as infants, thereby missing the education their mothers and aunties would have provided on feeding and personal hygiene, how to be an elephant.  But they are all learning.  As their broken spirits heal, their true elephant natures blossom.  It is a joyful challenge keeping up with them.  The caregivers are learning right along with the elephants who they are, what they desire.

Asha, Lakhi, Suzy, Coconut, & Peanut ~ they are very close

Mia has terrible arthritis in her knees and her feet are in awful shape from standing stationary on filthy pavement all her life, although they are improving under the careful ministrations of her veterinarian and caregivers.  She lies down more than most elephants to ease the pain.  Her dear friend Rhea often stands watch over her while she sleeps, snoring.

Rhea & Mia

Chanchal is a bit of a social butterfly, having changed best friends a time or two since she’s been here.  Currently, she is pleased to have Bijli and Laxmi in her court.  Laxmi was a begging elephant and subsisted on the cheap fried potato sandwiches people would buy for her.  This is not a good diet for anyone, particular an elephant.  She was both malnourished and dangerously overweight.  But sweet Laxmi really just likes food, whatever it is, so she transitioned easily to a healthy diet at the ECCC.  If you look closely at the dinner photo above from Volunteer House, you will see along with potatoes another variety of chunks in the curry.  These are the very soy chunks Laxmi receives instead of the higher calorie porridge the other elephants eat.  First I laughed, then I wondered what Cook was trying to tell me.

Bijli, Laxmi, & Chanchal (+ friends)

And here are Maya and Phoolkali, the remarkable ladies with whom I would spend most of my time.

Feel free to browse around the Wildlife SOS website, use the search bar to find their blog posts on specific elephants and rescue ops.