A Busy Spring So Far!

Spring has been a bit of a whirlwind here so far! The last little while has been one of the most hectic times in recent memory.

I took an quick trip out to Edmonton for the Cross-Pollination workshop at the end of March. This was probably the best professional gathering I’ve ever attended – it was a small, invited group of people which allowed for really good discussions. There were no concurrent sessions and we all were asked to workshop our papers, which had been circulated ahead of time. There were so many interesting topics discussed and it was just amazing to have the opportunity to really think deeply about how “environmental thought and activism” (to borrow from the event sub-title) can emerge from the arts and the humanities. So many excellent papers and so many exciting ideas exchanged. I think I thoroughly enjoyed the entire event, but if I had to pick a highlight I think it would be Lyndal Osborne‘s discussion of her work. Absolutely incredible stuff! (and to think I used to be both a student and a sessional instructor in the same department as Lyndal but did not actually meet her until this workshop. How odd!)

While I was in Edmonton I got to have a quick whirlwind visit with my parents, which was lovely! We went for a celebratory dinner at Padmanadi, one of the most delicious vegan restaurants I’ve ever been to! The food is Chinese food-style, but made with analog meats instead of the “real deal.” Loads of yummy fresh veg too! What a treat it is to be able order anything from the menu!

I also got to spend a fabulous evening with Fiona, a good friend who I haven’t seen in ages because she has been living in places like New Zealand, the UK and Alaska. The stars aligned and we were actually in the same city for the first time in about 5 years! We went to the Hotel MacDonald for old time’s sake (we used to go there for drinks and to restore our sanity when we both lived in Edmonton) and had a blast ordering a ridiculous amount of ridiculously expensive appetizers ($10 popcorn anyone? But it was tossed in truffle oil, so…) We were too busy yakking to take any photos, but it was such a great night!

The week after I got back from Edmonton was the “Thinking About Animals” conference at Brock. It was so amazing to see such a great turn-out for this event. I don’t know the exact count, but people came from all over to discuss, debate and think critically about relationships between species. It was fabulous and I was sorry that I had to miss so many sessions due to teaching and other commitments. (the perils of attending a conference at one’s home institution, I guess)

The 2011 Niagara Social Justice Forum came on the heels of the “Thinking About Animals” conference. I was part of the organizing committee for the NSJF this year, so it was an especially intense time. We had a great day for the forum – beautiful sunny skies, perfect for the nature walks along the escarpment that were booked for mid-day. There were 18 workshops on a wide range of topics (everything from youth homelessness to water access and social media to the rates of diabetes in Aboriginal communities), an “art space” (featuring an exhibition of images to raise money and awareness for Toronto Pig Save, a children’s art competition and a craft table where participants could paint messages of social justice on a banner and make their very own compostable plant pot and then plant an heirloom tomato seed donated to the event by Tree & Twig), a performance by WomEnchant, and a screening of NFB’s Reel Injun. A long, wonderful, rich and rewarding day!

I thoroughly enjoyed all of these events, but I’m glad that the pace is going to slow down a bit now. Classes have ended and it is time to turn my mind to summer research/writing + gardening. I’m looking forward to some new adventures on both of these fronts!

“Do Not Refuse To Look At These Pictures”

The news about the abuse uncovered on an Ohio Dairy Farm by Mercy for Animals has hit the global media. The horrific film footage showing cows and calves being beaten, stabbed and kicked is stomach-turning.

I wish this were an isolated incident, but as anyone who has tried to learn more about where our food comes from knows all too well, abuse of animals in factory farm settings is not uncommon.

There is no doubt that this is difficult stuff to read about, look at, and discuss, but we need to know about it. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me “oh, I can’t look at that stuff. I can’t hear about animal abuse or look too hard into where my food comes from.” These are often well-educated, intelligent people who I love and respect. And yet on this point I must respectfully disagree. If you care about your health, the health of your family, about animals or the fate of our planet nothing could be more important than knowing these sorts of “dirty little secrets” that the factory farming industry would rather we didn’t know.

I’m not saying we should all make a bowl of popcorn and sit down with the family to watch the Ohio dairy farm footage on the big screen TV. And yet, as Ed Burtynsky pointed out during an interview on CBC’s The Current yesterday, imagery is often what brings much needed attention to an issue. Burtynsky was not talking about the Ohio Dairy Farm case but, rather, about another horrific story, the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The point, however, is valid in both instances.

As someone who teaches about and conducts research on visual culture, this point is one that I have spent a lot of time thinking about. Right now I’m doing a lot of work on 19th century animal welfare activism and, in particular, the use of imagery in that movement. The great 19th century reformer Frances Power Cobbe began one of her illustrated anti-vivisection pamphlets with the words: “Do Not Refuse to Look at These Pictures.” She went on to discuss why it was so important for people to see with their own eyes the ways in which animals were treated behind closed doors in medical laboratories. Cobbe recognized that most people would not be granted access to these labs (just as we aren’t easily granted access to factory farm complexes) and, as such, she strongly believed in the power of visual culture to convey this difficult information to a broader public.

Things haven’t changed that much since Cobbe’s day and here I’d like to repeat her plea — “do not refuse to look at these pictures.” We can not keep ignoring what is going on.

So Much Going On!

The last little while has felt like a whirlwind compared to the hermit-like state I’ve been in for most of my sabbatical thus far. Some highlights:

1)Last Friday I attended the Medieval Documents Symposium at Brock. This event was to celebrate the recent discoveries of some medieval documents in our Special Collections as well as some donations of documents to the university. My own area of research is the late 19th C/early 20th C, so it was a real treat to learn about an era so far removed from the one I spend all my time studying. This was a truly fascinating event. First of all, I’m always a little in awe when in the presence of material objects that have survived this long. It kinds of blows my mind! Secondly, the presentations made last Friday really embodied a spirit of interdisciplinary inquiry that I find especially engaging. For example, we heard from some of the folks involved in the DEEDS project at U of T. As I understand it, this is a piece of software that can calculate the approximate age of an undated Medieval charter based on the patterns of language that appear in that document. Very, very cool!

2)The 2010 Niagara Social Justice Forum took place last Saturday. I look forward to this event each year as it brings together faculty, students, staff, community members, activists, etc. for discussions, workshops and a chance to exchange ideas. The food that Strega provided was knock-your-socks-off delicious and it was pretty fantastic to have all that vegan/vegetarian food on campus. I just wish we had these kinds of eats at Brock all the time. Le sigh…

3)This week we had Erika Ritter come to campus to talk about her book, The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships. This is an amazing book that really delves into the many complexities of human relationships with nonhuman animals, both in our current era and in the past. The event on Tuesday included a lecture but also a discussion where most people in the room had an opportunity to ask questions or offer comments about the multitude of paradoxes that seem to define human-nonhuman relationships. It was a wonderful event, and I left campus that day feeling very energized and couldn’t wait to get back to work on my new research, a topic which is very much related to the themes explored in this book.

4)Tomorrow evening brings another animal-themed event, this time a book launch and fund-raiser. The book being launched is John Sorenson’s book, Ape (from the Reaktion series, Animal), and the funds are being raised for the Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary.

All this *AND* talk of a cross-lake ferry service between Toronto and St. Catharines makes it a pretty exciting week to be living in Niagara!

The Garden City Plan

An article in the St. Catharines Standard discussing the city’s “blueprint for the future” caught my attention this morning. The draft of the City’s new official plan is available online and makes for quite an interesting read. Of particular interest to me were the following points:

1) “The City will balance the provision of a safe, functional, and attractive pedestrian and cycling oriented environment with an acceptable level of vehicular traffic” and “The city will encourage alternative forms of transportation that promote energy conservation and a healthy lifestyle.”

2) “The City should establish a minimum 1 %, and work towards a target of a minimum 3 %, of the capital budget of all major public buildings and structures, for the provision of public art.”

There are, of course, many more things discussed in this document, but I find these two particularly encouraging!

There will be a series of open houses and presentations in the coming weeks so that members of the community can find out more about the plan and have their say.

Here We GO?

Last evening I stopped by the GO Open House/Information session at market square. In addition to a snazzy new tote bag, some GO Mints (??) and a free pen, I also received some very interesting information about the process of deciding how/where/why to put in expanded GO rail service. Market Square wasn’t packed, but it did seem like a good turnout — many local residents quite eager for this to happen, at least according to the snippets of conversation I heard as I walked around the event last evening.

For what it is worth, I think regular GO Train service to Niagara is long overdue. When I first moved here I was a little shocked to discover that GO service was not available in this region. It just seems like a no-brainer to me. Instead, we have jam-packed lanes on the QEW and increasingly long and frustrating drives to Toronto. (Is it any wonder that I rarely go in to Toronto?) With events like the 2014 Congress of Humanities & Social Sciences and the 2015 Pan Am Games (which will include Niagara sites) coming up, it seems like this sort of transportation system is not really optional.

Fingers crossed!

Transit Issues in the News

Today’s paper reports that the St. Catharines Transit commission is looking to improve service and expand routes. All I have to say is a great big, “hell yeah!”

Also of interest: more discussion on a regional transit system (come on folks, this is a desperately-needed service!) and an GO Transit open house tomorrow evening in Market Square.

[Update: And yet another article about transit in today’s paper. My favourite quote: “some politicians seem completely unaware that there’s a whole class of working adults who don’t drive cars.” Exactly!!]

Sabbatical Diaries — Day #10

Well, sabbatical hasn’t started off as I’d hoped. I got walloped by a nasty cold/flu thing this past week and spent 4 full days in bed. *blech* Much TLC, hot tea, and the occasional Chocolate MoMint biscuit have helped me beat it, so I’m back to work today.

Instead of spending any more time going down the rabbit hole of image permissions and copyright, I’m going to finish up the text portion of my manuscript and send it off. I’d like to finish it today. Then I can get back to dealing with the images. I love, love, love studying visual culture. I couldn’t imagine working in any other field. And yet, the frustration and stress around securing image copies and permissions, etc. is enough to make me lose my mind. I wish there were a straightforward checklist that one could use for this kind of activity, but it seems that every image I want to use (and those that my friends and colleagues seem to use too) is anything but “straightforward.” Ah well, it will be a learning experience I suppose.

In other news, I was delighted to see this article in the local paper today — I’d love it if St. Catharines became a hub for the GO train! Oh, and on the car-free front, I am not at all regretting my decision to “retire my ride.” I was a little worried about the hassle of cancelling my insurance — the last time I had to do that it was a royal pain in the neck and I got dinged several hundred dollars for “early cancellation.” It seems that this time I need not have worried. The good folks over at CAA have been super-duper helpful and, in fact, I received a refund cheque in the mail today. The only hitch is that I’m still waiting for my $300 from the “retire your ride” folks — it has been nearly 2 months since they picked up my car. I’m going to have to call and see what’s up.

Ok, time to get on with these final manuscript edits!

Notes from the Great Car-Free Experiment

The Great Car-Free Experiment continues and I’m happy to report that things are going well. Of course it is easier because I am attempting to get around in pleasant summer weather and I am on a summer timetable. I have, however, decided to take this experiment into September. I’ve been walking, biking, busing and car-pooling my way through August, and I want to see how long I can keep it up. I just cancelled my fall parking permit, so I guess that means I’m committed to this project.

The City of St. Catharines just announced another set of bike lanes, so this is certainly good news on the car-free front. The biggest challenge I’ve had with cycling around this region, however, is the lack of bike racks. I’ve been really surprised to discover just how hard it is to find a bike rack at retail centres. So far this has been the single biggest deterrent to getting around by bicycle. Today, for instance, I had to go to the grocery store — I could have easily biked, but I opted for the bus because I wasn’t sure if I’d find a place to lock up my bike in front of the grocery store. I thought I’d encounter more difficulties with the traffic, but that hasn’t been an issue as the drivers in this neighbourhood have been quite courteous. But bike racks? I didn’t anticipate this to be a problem. Come on people — there are all sorts of bike rack options out there, let’s work to make this region a little more bike-friendly!

Oh, and while I’m at it — how about making this dream of a regional transit a reality? I was chatting with a friend about going to see some plays this fall and I realized that it is easier for me to get to downtown Toronto (a distance of about 107km) to take in some theatre than it is for me to get into the Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake (a distance of about 20km). What the heck?!

I Miss the Bunnies!

I’m back home in Ontario but my mind is still in Victoria — such a wonderful conference, such a wonderful location. I want to blog about the conference in more detail, but first I need to unpack, do laundry and get some sleep.

After spending several days on the UVic campus I became quite used to seeing all the bunnies. Now that I’m back home it seems strange not to see bunnies hopping all over the place when I look out the window. (For those of you who have never been to the UVic campus, there are dozens and dozens of bunnies running all over the place!) I realize that they do present a number of problems, but as Andrew Revkin (who was a plenary speaker at the ASLE conference) asks, “what can be done about a pest that’s cute?”

I’ve blogged a bit about the graffiti I encountered while at the ASLE conference, so it seems fitting that just as I was leaving the UVic campus I spotted this piece of bunny-themed artwork. Excellent!