Armchair conservationists

On the first day we saw dolphins.
About ten of them breaching behind the swell,
some way out from the surfers,
swimming across the bay at Port Elizabeth.

The hotel dog barked when we got to the gate,
then sat with us while we waited for the room
and scratched her tummy. The big dog of silence,
hulking moves, who ate grass and looked so sick
palpitating her whole body to make herself vomit.
She silently padded up to our verandah.
I was reading Oliver Sacks, up to the part where he says
he feels like ‘a single leather animal’
riding tandem on his motorcycle.

On the second day we saw a lone wilderbeest
left behind by, or staying behind, her group.
Alarmed by the sound of the engine and the five of us
in the vehicle, she pushed herself up
off the ground and limped a few paces away.
When the engine was turned off and she saw
we were still, she settled herself down again.
‘She won’t make the night’; ‘food for the lions,’
we concurred, all believers in a pecking order.
‘We do not intervene,’ our guide said, ‘because
there are too many of them.’

We saw impalas, zebras, two hippopotamuses and giraffes,
two lions, young brothers, lying about,
their bellies round. ‘They have fed,’ we were told.
One had a collar round its neck, ‘to track him
because he is injured – see his eye.
That will hinder his hunting.’

At dinner, kudu was on the menu
(‘not from the reserve, of course’)
and other bovines that you can eat in South Africa
but not where we’re from.
Trophy cow skins were laid on the floors of our lodge
and the restaurant.

On the morning of the third day, we drove
up to the top of the valley into
clouds of mist. Our heavy ponchos saturated
with the moisture in the air.
Looking for elephants, anything –
all we’d seen was a lone impala, twice,
who did not appear injured, just preferred his solitude.
I looked at you with a massive smile on your face,
excited at what we were seeing, alert to any movement,
eyes out for spotting animals we’d never seen
without a cage around them.

‘There, there!’ A group of white animals in the valley.
‘Sheep,’ said our guide, reminding us
of the electrified gates we drove through
separating the farms from the reserve.
Running away from us, we saw impalas,
a jackal, bushpigs and warthogs, monkeys
and an elephant, through binoculars, who looked
like a tree one shade of grey lighter
than the ones it was eating, from the distance.

The engine in low gear and the jeep juddering over rocks,
it felt like we were in the film Ettrick, where the camera crew
drive through the Scottish countryside, concretising
their tracks as they go. The digital image is formed
of pixels that the human eye cannot see on the screen;
Perconte magnifies this so we perceive
the landscape’s dissemblance into pixellation.
Sheep graze through a field that is knitted into wool,
eating their way through the hair off their backs:
the animal consuming itself.

ettrick-sheep

From Jacques Perconte’s Ettrick

A thread comes loose, is pulled across the screen.
The overlay on the image is continuously changing, perceptibly,
from top to bottom, side to side,
a scatter of pixels at a time.
From the sheep grazing on the hills,
industrial looms in a textile mill
punch and weave texture on the screen.
The final act: a bulldozer tearing down trees.
Tree-lopping for timber? Or tree-clearing for animal grazing?

It was time to see enclosed lions and a leopard
at the reserve’s conservation centre.
They had been rescued from circuses and cages around the world,
brought here, to this bigger enclosure, their ability to live
independently having been stolen from them,
along with everything else, when they were enslaved.
In the afternoon we saw a group of elephants,
a group of rhinoceroses, a cheetah, all up close,
ticking off the appropriate box in the species checklist.

On the fourth day we stopped the jeep in the road.
All around us was the crackle of elephants,
pulling branches off trees. One mother walking
across the road changed her direction
and came towards us, eyeing us out of her
right eye, lifting her trunk up to smell us
as she passed. We also saw:
a group of buffalo, a group of zebra,
lots of impalas, ostriches, a hippopotamus,
and other animals that choose not to be near us.

As we drove out of the game reserve in our Datsun
we did not see the lions on the road that had been there
on the way back from our last safari drive.
We saw baboons on the Garden Route
(‘baboons are dangerous animals’).
At your aunty’s house we met many dogs and saw
guineafowl and ibises going about the suburbs.
On the beach, jellyfish
had been washed up on the shore,
a giant specimen looking like
a brain encased in jelly. We peered at it up close.

On the fifth day we saw owls, birds of prey,
peacocks with their feathers out, bright orange ibises,
cockatoos that had formerly been pets
and had plucked all their feathers out.
Monkeys, guinea pigs, chickens, pigeons, macaus
and a bat-eared fox (‘all the better to hear you with’).
Any indignance at seeing the honey badger
running round and round and round
in the stereotypical behaviour of caged animals
is quelled by the sign criticising armchair conservationists.
We thought of taking a photo to send
to our safari guide, who had not yet seen
a honey badger in the wild; but this
was no valediction.

On the sixth day we saw a dead rat
by the kerb of the road along the beach,
near a drain, its body mostly intact
but with blood on its face.

On the second-last day we saw a snake,
probably a mole, being pestered
by little birds in the botanic gardens.
It snaked over to the other side of the path
and we gaped at it a safe distance away.
On our way back along the coast
you were driving but managed to discern
out of the choppy waters the tail flop
of whales, many of them.
Without binoculars it was hard to see
but we stayed a long time, while the Israeli
tourists came and went (‘haval a ha zman’);
we almost left twice but then saw the whales
rise out of the water again.

At lunch we sat next to the table of a white man
who’d had his black maid walk his dog
to the restaurant for him. We asked the waiter
to get the dog some water, struggling in the heat
or struggling with an owner who was not listening.
Once back at the hotel we heard the howls,
pained cries of a dog hit by a car on the beach road.
She was curled into the curb but got herself up,
limping, and lunged at the approach of another dog.
A passerby and the driver of the car
lifted the dog in the car and drove away.
Our hotel concierge said she would have been
taken to a vet; ‘people love dogs here’.

Back home, I sprinkle cayenne pepper around the ant mounds.
They are excavating our limestone steps
to make their homes. Next, mint leaves, lemon juice,
then vinegar. Last resort: cinnamon tea
but all that does is stain the stone.
I put the harness and leash on our dog
and we go for a walk.

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And the gold logie goes to …

logie1_1904

Do what you have to do

It’s happened again: an invocation to eat meat for the ‘national interest’. Only this time it’s Lee Lin Chin who is the face of the promotion. What a coup for Meat and Livestock Australia! No one else could say ‘vegans’ in such a deliciously despising tone. The tone is so despising that ‘vegans’ have made the news by lodging a record number of complaints to the Advertising Standards Bureau about this year’s Australia Day lamb promotion. Perhaps the MLA hoped nobody would mess with Lee Lin Chin, not even hard-core, militant, extremist vegans, and let’s be frank: the only other kind of vegan is the bearded hipster variety. MLA, you got us in a corner. But you have also named us, and by naming us you empower us. Mwah-ha-ha.

The ad brings in all the usual tropes of MLA’s annual lamb promotion: getting together with your mates, having a barbecue, playing backyard cricket and drinking cold beer. What could be more Australian than that! The message is that if you don’t eat lamb on Australia Day, then Australia doesn’t want you. If you needed any other illustration of how exclusionary Australian nationalism is, look no further than ‘lambassador’ Sam Kekovich’s response to the vegan complainants. It’s in the same vein as male politicians responding to allegations of sexual harassment from female staffers (that is, ‘it’s all a bit of fun’). Lee Lin Chin commands Operation Boomerang from special ops headquarters. The boomerang on the campaign logo is made of two lamb chops. The big guns have been called out to recall all Australians who are overseas to rescue them from the sad fate of having to ‘lamb alone’ on Australia Day. Isn’t it precisely this parochialism that gives Australians a reason to emigrate?

How funny that this special operation takes as its moniker an Aboriginal word for an Aboriginal object that returns. But where are the Aboriginal people in MLA’s ad? Ah, they don’t need to be recalled because they haven’t even left. Indigenous people in colonised countries somehow missed out on the international mobility that their compatriots take for granted. Let alone this fact, perhaps the inclusion of Aboriginal people in an ad timed with Australia Day would raise the unsettling fact that the day in question is often called Invasion Day by Aboriginal groups and others of settler ancestry who choose not to whitewash our country’s bloody history. Australia as a ‘nation’ still has a lot of reconciling to do.

Exactly what form of nationalist pride are we meant to feel when we eat lamb? How exactly does eating lamb fit into the imaginary of ‘Australia’? The illogic of how eating meat could possibly turn you into a good citizen becomes clearer when you look at Australia’s colonial past, a history that can be seen everywhere we look today. There were 29 sheep aboard the First Fleet when it arrived at the so-called Botany Bay (some 15 evidently dying on the journey from the Cape of Good Hope, among the first victims of live export). By 1800, there were 6,124 sheep in the colony. Two hundred and a bit years later, Australia has approximately 80 million sheep and lambs. All those animals need a hell of a lot of land.

Land was the main reason that Europeans killed Aboriginal people: the land was needed for animals to graze on. Taking over this land meant taking over Aboriginal food sources. Death, whether by massacre or by starvation, was the result. Australia’s agricultural industry was founded on unpaid indigenous labour, also known as slavery. Land clearing also meant loss of biodiversity (half of woodland birds are extinct, for example) and exacerbation of the impact of drought and erosion. Kangaroos and wild dogs are known as pests today not because they are overpopulated but because their habitats and food sources have been taken over by farming, which uses about two-thirds of Australia’s land mass. The sheepmeat industry accounts for a third of all farms with agricultural activity. Given these disastrous impacts and shameful history, is it really in the national interest to support a handful of powerful farming companies?

This year’s ad is a slight change of tack for MLA, with a dose more humour than bullying tactics. The slogan ‘you’ll never lamb alone’ is far more palatable than the aggressive ‘unAustralianism’ – a springboard for racist violence – of campaigns past. But let’s not forget the invisible violence at the heart of the promotion and its victims: sheep’s young. Another example of how the fact of animal farming and animal killing is made invisible, even in a campaign that is so explicit about eating animals. The MLA is happy to tell you how many kilograms of lamb meat the average Australian eats (no doubt the vegans are bringing these numbers down) but if you’re looking for actual numbers of lambs killed, you have to go to animal advocacy groups. According to Animals Australia, about 20 million lambs are killed in Australia each year.

The MLA is always going to run into trouble when trying to tap into something as vague, abstract and fraught as the ‘national interest’ and what it means to be Australian. Let’s not let the MLA have the last and only word on what Australia Day is all about. But let’s thank them for naming a group that has the power to upset its agenda: ‘Vegans’.

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The milkshake that brings all the boys

Traditionally picked up by tradies needing a convenient beverage to go with their meat pie, flavoured milk is now being marketed to all ‘blokes’ of decidedly blokeish affectation. Of all the flavoured milks, iced coffee is the most mannish, with the energy kick from the caffeine apparently enough to overcome the more likely sluggishness from downing 600ml of lactose.

Two companies, with various brands, are involved in this milk war. Parmalat’s Oak brand is sold with the tagline, ‘kill hungrythirsty dead’. Male thirst is presented as some uncontainable urge which must be killed dead, not merely quenched. The thirst is so powerful as to be emasculating: ‘Oak knows the answer even if you’re too weak to know the question’.

Lion’s Dare is marketed by an aggressive ‘voice in the head’ of its consumers, so perturbed as to be almost psychotic, again presenting itself as the answer for men when they are not feeling their usual, hypermasculine selves. ‘When your place is all over the head, a Dare fix’ll fix it’. Lion also owns the Farmers Union Ice Coffee brand in South Australia, which has been promoted with the tagline ‘Harden the FUIC up’. Big M in Victoria is known as ‘Fuel for blokes’. And the connection is not confined to Australia: in an ironic nod to the simplified masculinisation of the sector, Wing-Co in the UK is marketed as ‘The manly chocolate milk for men with added man’. The tagline on the mustachioed plastic bottle echoes the Oak brand with ‘Shoots down hunger, fast’.

Men have always been encouraged to eat the flesh of animals, ideally while flicking through a soft porn mag. In The Sexual Politics of Meat, published in the 1970s, Carol Adams in the USA documented advertising which showed ‘meat’ as sexualised, merging the consumption of animal flesh with the naked flesh of a human woman. Adams theorised the ‘absent referent’: the naked body of a woman standing in for the dead body of the animal so as to hide the death. In both the advertising itself and our horror at women being labelled as meat, the violent subjugation of the animal and its death are absent.

In today’s advertising of flavoured milk there are no subjugated bodies depicted. As one commenter on The Gruen Transfer’s message board says, it is ‘victimless’. Though it may not feature naked women, the marketing extends the concept of the absent referent, only instead of animal death it is the exploitation of the reproductive capacity of the female dairy cow that is being concealed. Is it surprising then, that such advertising is aimed solely at men?

Now Lion’s WA brand Masters is getting in on the action, though focusing on a more amiable ‘laddishness’ rather than the aggressiveness of its other brands. The new campaign featuring people cavorting on the beaches down south dressed in cow costumes is all about ‘fun’ and a ‘good-natured irreverence’. Advertising company Gatecrasher explicitly named the values of ‘laddish humour and mateship’ at the launch of the campaign. The female reproductive capacity which produces all this milk for laddish consumption has been swiftly obfuscated in a techni-coloured friesian onesie. The Masters cows are ‘just a bunch of guys doing what guys do together’. Consuming the output of the female reproductive system – is that what guys do together? It doesn’t quite fall in the self-cannibalising category of Suicide Food because this cast is male. Has anybody asked themselves where the milk actually comes from?

Cows are, as we should have learnt in primary school, necessarily female. In order to keep a cow lactating, she must give birth to a calf every year, which is then removed from her within 12 hours while the milk produced for her calf is instead diverted for human consumption. A recent report from Voiceless into Australia’s dairy industry reveals more. The endless cycle of impregnation, birth and lactation has more than halved the dairy cow’s lifespan to seven or eight years, during which she will repeat this process about five times. Overworked and stressed, she has been selectively bred to produce twice the amount of milk she did 50 years ago. This massive volume of milk production does not come without a personal cost: as most nutrients go into her milk, the cow herself is left undernourished and susceptible to disease. Lameness and mastitis are rife.

The dairy industry, unlike most animal exploitative industries, is perceived to be somehow benign, involving no harm but simply taking advantage of the ‘natural’ functions of the cow’s body. But her body is manipulated to violent extremes in order to create a product that was never intended for human consumption. This violence is masked by dairy advertising. Even trade terms are deceiving. Soy milk is accurately described as a plant milk, while cow’s milk is commonly known as ‘white milk’ in the industry, a convenient forgetting of its origins.

Processors and distributors such as Lion and Parmalat, alongside supermarket giants Wesfarmers and Woolworths, have collectively driven down the price of milk, putting further pressure on farmers who in turn place more pressure on their cows. According to Lion, ‘Flavoured milk is one of the most attractive segments in the dairy market’, and bound to be even more so with multi-million dollar exports to China earmarked with the recent free trade agreement.

Marketing of flavoured milks creates an absurd confusion of thirst with a crisis of masculinity. The solution to this emasculation is to inflict violence on female bodies. We’ve been brought up to believe that cow’s milk is the most innocuous of beverages. As adults, we can do better to remember where this milk actually comes from.

Take a look at a previous post, Big Mac strikes again, for more about the (dis)appearance of the absent referent.

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