The Casual Blog

Tag: Klemtu

Spirit bears, dental hygiene, and why our eating matters

A rare spirit bear, also known as a Kermode bear, near Klemtu, British Columbia

During my recent trip to the wilds of British Columbia, I didn’t have room for all my new photo files on my hard drive, so this past week I bought a massive (14 TB) new one.   Once I got the new device running, I edited more of my wildlife photos. Those included shots of the very rare spirit bear, an osprey that had caught a salmon, and a humpback whale, some of which are here.  It was a moving experience to share space for a little while with these creatures.  

This week it was time for my six-month dental check up. I’m a big believer in good tooth care, since we each get only one set of teeth, and it’s much more difficult to eat without them.  So I put some effort into rinsing, brushing, and flossing, since if I don’t, who will? Well, actually, it kind of takes a village. I’ve got a whole team giving advice, encouragement, and occasional repairs at Dr. Williams’s general dentistry practice.  

Of course, my tooth health depends on a lot of others.  I’m thinking of all the hardworking folks who make the dental floss, toothbrushes, and tooth paste, who wire the building and and keep the electric grid working, who put in the plumbing, who operate the water system, and trusted teachers from my childhood, especially my Mom.  

An osprey and its prey. Moments later, the fish got loose, and was caught mid-air by a bald eagle.

But of those closest to my mouth now, I want to thank  D, my latest dental hygienist, who pushed me hard to add a Waterpik to my routine, which I did a few months back.  I used to think Waterpiks were silly and useless gadgets, but I’m now a believer. D says my Waterpiking has been very good for my gums.  

I like that D is truly passionate about tooth care, and I always learn some interesting tooth facts in our cleaning sessions.  She pointed out that TV and movie people all whiten their teeth nowadays, whereas in older movies teeth are grayer. She told me that drugstore whitening products use the same chemical as custom work (that is, peroxide) and generally work fine, but they likely won’t go on as evenly. 

In moments of existential dread, I’ve sometimes wondered what’s the use of worrying about teeth, or any bodily maintenance issues.  With all the enormous risks on our horizon, including nuclear weapons, asteroid strikes, antibiotic-resistant superbugs, runaway superintelligent artificial intelligence, and of course the dire effects of global warming, it’s difficult to factor in individual bodily worries.  The vastly different scale of the two sorts of problems prevents comparisons.

But we can’t help but feel that we as individuals have some significance, and our lives are worth taking some trouble over.  Along this line, I’m reading This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, by Martin Haaglund, a Swedish philosopher at Yale.  Haaglund suggests that each individual carries various identities, such as parent, child, professional, church goer, and customer, which may be added to or fluctuate over time.  Part of the essential work of living a life is choosing how to realize the goals associated with those identities and prioritizing when the identities conflict. Haaglund’s theory is thought-provoking, and I expect to have more to say about it in a future post.  

But for now, I’m comfortable that having serviceable teeth is not inconsistent with trying to stop environmental degradation or prevent nuclear accidents.  Our identity as caretakers of our bodies is entirely reconcilable with our identity as citizens trying to avoid catastrophe.  

Grizzly bear cub

 In fact, the issues of personal health, societal well being,  and the environment are interconnected.  One of the great ironies of modern first world life is how, with all our wealth and knowledge, and with the miracles of modern dentistry, we eat so poorly.  Most of our deadliest health risks, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and obesity, are closely related to our typical food choices.  

In my nature photography travels over the last few weeks, I’ve shared meals with a lot of prosperous, well-educated, and gifted people, who have traveled widely and made some beautiful photographs.  Much as I enjoyed our talks, I was really saddened to see how poorly a lot of them nourished themselves. Offered a choice between French fries and fruit, most always took the fries.

Grizzly mom getting a plant food snack

 I’d have to be nuts to think of taking away anybody’s French fries (and I admit, I enjoy them from time to time), but I’m just saying, fruit is generally the better choice.  Given how important eating is to our health, it’s remarkable how little most of us think about it, and how many of us do it unwisely. How well or poorly we nourish ourselves is a major determinant of the length and quality of our lives.  It’s a really big deal.  

So I was glad to see this was the subject of a recent op ed  piece in the NY Times entitled Our Food Is Killing Too Many of Us  The authors explained that our typical diet accounts for elevated death rates, and noted that this is a political issue that is not being discussed by politicians.   They proposed thinking of how we eat as a medical issue, and encouraging healthy eating as a fundamental part of a healthy life. They had several practical ideas for new policies, including getting doctors to put an emphasis on nutrition and discouraging junk food with taxes.  They suggest that improvements to our eating would simplify the problem of how we provide health care, since we wouldn’t have to provide so much of it.   

All this seems sensible, but somehow our nutrition system is harder to talk about than our healthcare system (which is also hard).  The food industry has done an amazingly effective job at conditioning us to think of food as primarily about fun, rather than survival.  Even suggesting that we should eat more plant foods and less processed junk sounds kind of grumpy and unfun. At parties, insisting on talking about healthy eating is a good way to get some alone time.

But this mindset may be slowly changing.  There was a report this week that the meat industry is fighting the growing popularity of plant-based meat-like products, like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat.    The industry is pushing for new state laws to outlaw using the word meat to describe these products.  My first reaction to this was outrage, but then I realized, it’s kind of good news: leaders of possibly the cruelest business on the planet are worried about their continued profitability.  They must view plant food as serious competition.

And there’s increasing awareness  (though still not enough) that better diets are good not just for individual human bodies, but for the planet.  For example, industrialized meat production is a significant contributor to global warming. As the Times noted this week, even reducing our meat consumption by 25% would significantly lower our collective carbon footprint.    

But while I was organizing these thoughts, the Washington Post reported that in connection with  the next version of the federal dietary guidelines, the Trump administration has prohibited the use of scientific studies likely to support eating less meat, dairy, sugar, and processed food.    There is, of course, a lot of science that points in that direction, and it’s beyond irresponsible not to at least take a close look at it.  If your objective were to destroy more of the natural world and maximize people’s likelihood of an early death, one way to get there is exactly this:  suppress the science.

Near where we saw the spirit bear

Canadian forests and bears, and where we got our racism

Last week I went out to the west coast of Canada to photograph bears.  I stayed in Klemtu, B.C., a small community in Great Bear Rainforest, which is the largest temperate rainforest on the planet.  It was vast and beautiful there, with evergreens covering mountainous islands surrounded by intricate waterways. The area is home to the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nation, members of which served our group as guides.

The travel involved some bumpy boat trips, hiking, and sitting for hours, often in the rain, watching hopefully for bears.  I found the waiting challenging, especially when the rain got heavy, but also learned some things. Sitting in the woods or on the boat watching and listening very closely for long periods became a type of meditation.  Getting really externally focused helped in making a good shot.  

We had good close views of  black bears, grizzlies, and a rare spirit bear, a white relative of the black bear which is found only there.  We also watched humpback whales and orcas diving and occasionally breaching. There were lots of bald eagles and ospreys.  One day we saw an osprey that had caught a fish drop it, and then an eagle caught the unfortunate fish in mid-air.

The trip was organized by Muench Workshops and led by Kevin Pepper, who gave me friendly encouragement and guidance.  The six other amateur photographers in the group were very well traveled and experienced. We were all surprised to find that every one of us, including Kevin, had the same camera:  the excellent Nikon D850.  My equipment worked well, except that I maxed out my hard drive halfway through the trip.  I ordered a new one, and should have a few more wildlife photos to share next week.  

It was a long trip home, starting from Klemtu by boat, then a cab to the Bella Bella airport, and a prop plane to Vancouver, and the next morning a flight to Seattle, and nearly missing the connection to Raleigh.  

 

One thing I like about long travel days is the chance to get immersed in books.   On the trip home, I finished Bill McKibben’s recent book, Falter:  Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? The book is about the existential risks that we’re now facing, especially climate change.  McKibben strongly lays out the imminent threats of rising temperatures, storms, fires, droughts, ocean acidification, and others. His account of how the fossil fuel industry consciously misled the public and prevented remedial action is clear and infuriating.  Some of the factual information was familiar, but I still found McKibben’s framing readable and worthwhile, and appreciated his note of hope. 

It was good to get back to North Carolina.  On Friday, I stopped by Jersey Mike’s for lunch.  I like their veggie sandwich (the number 14), which I get dressed “Mike’s way.”  They know me there, and I usually get a smile when I order. But this time I noticed a young black man behind me did not get such a friendly reception when he ordered.  The woman at the counter, who’d been friendly and warm to me, turned sour and cold to him.  

Did it have to do with his color?  I’m pretty sure that it did. Of course, there’s nothing unusual about this:  in our racial caste system, a lot of people treat others less well based on skin color.  Sometimes it’s subtle, and for those of us in the privileged caste, it’s easy not to see.

Grizzly cub

As I noted here recently, I’ve been thinking about some of the non-obvious effects of American racism, including its polarizing impact on our politics.  I learned more about those issues this week from the 1619 Project, an excellent series of essays in the NY Times on American slavery and racism.  The series makes a strong case for viewing slavery not as a momentary aberration in the American experience, but a central element of our foundation that continues to affect us today.   

The 1619 Project notes how the heritage of slavery explains many of the problems in our housing, schools, employment, health care, and criminal justice systems.  The essay by Matthew Desmond  was particularly intriguing.  Desmond points out that the version of capitalism that Americans think of as normal is actually quite different from capitalism in most countries in that it largely ignores concerns for workers’ welfare.  He argues that this is the result of attitudes and practices worked out in the extremely profitable cotton plantations of the early 19th century. Plantation owners pioneered many modern business and financial systems, and also developed a mindset that tolerated extreme inequality with wealth and privilege only for a lucky few.  Their success depended on the brutal exploitation of kidnapped Africans.  

The brutality of that system was justified by the pseudo-science of racism, with otherwise respectable scientific minds purporting to show that Africans and their American descendants were inherently inferior.  Ian Frazier has a very fine piece in this week’s New Yorker on that subject, including the early 20th century work of Madison Grant and his popularizer, Lothrop Stoddard. 

Reading this history is helpful in showing that our racism is not natural.  It was a human invention. It’s turned out to be surprisingly durable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be undone.  Since we had the power to set it up, we clearly have the power to undo it. But plainly, fixing it will take hard work.  For most of my life, I thought that the system was gradually disappearing on its own, but recent events have shown how wrong I was.  

Grizzley mom

If we take on the hard work of breaking down our caste system and its underlying psychology, it’s bound to make us better, at least a little.  Less hatred and fear equal more happiness. Our current system requires that we accept as normal unfairness, injustice, and brutality. It desensitizes us and leaves us morally numb.  As we overcome that system, we’ll be better able to connect with people different from ourselves, and even with ourselves.  

The moral numbness of our racist system may also account for part of our problems connecting with other living things in the natural world.  As we clear away racist ways of thinking, we may find ourselves seeing more of the beauty and wonder of nature, and how fragile it is. It might motivate us to get to work on mitigating the existential threats facing our planet.