Jo-Anne McArthur Archive

Activism, Animals, Blog, Churchill 2014, Reviews

The Ghosts in Our Machine

Ghosts-1

There is a guy sitting in front of me crying. He looks like the kind of person I’d be friends with—I don’t know why, it’s just a look. I later find out his name is Dan, he’s a schoolteacher, and just a year ago he met the woman sitting next to him, with her hand on his shoulder, at a half-marathon race. She was vegan at the time, active in animal rights; he was vegetarian, sometimes. (Over the next year Dan turned vegan, dropped ten pounds, took ten minutes off his half-marathon time. He speaks of quickened muscle recovery and ‘living aligned’. They both think that each of them has lucked-out in finding the other. He tells me all this the next morning as we run together. Near the end of the run he stops, waits for his girlfriend, and I go on alone.) There is a fresh and loving intimacy between them, as she cares for this man crying in her arms, that I crave. It is perhaps a little of why I’m crying too, because what I’m watching is hurting, and I need support.

It’s the scene in the fur farm. It’s Jo-Anne McArthur’s still pictures, used so affectively as they are woven into the urgency of having to break in to the farm facility, take her pictures, and then leave without being discovered, and without saving a single one of these scared creatures. It is what McArthur says in the foreword to her book We Animals: for all those I could not save. It is why I am crying now (watching the film; writing these words). For every good thing we do, we don’t save these individuals in front of us. They are already dead. The use of the stilled images makes this point strongly, sadly.

Still life. It makes me think of when my grandmother died. I was in Australia on a gap year, travelling. My family told me not to come back, to continue on my journey. My grandmother was ill, cantankerous, gave up on life early, except her sherry and her cigs. The only affection she ever really showed late in life was not towards us, but towards Scruffy and Tigger, their cats. So I did not go back. I send instead to my grandfather a condolence card with the image of a bowl of fruit on the front. On the back, it’s title: Still life. But she was dead. I don’t think my grandfather ever forgave me for not returning, for doing everything I could to get there. This is strangely the same feeling the film leads me to: please, let me go back to this farm, save them, do more. This is perhaps why Dan, I, others, so many others, are crying here as we watch The Ghosts in the People Barn at Farm Sanctuary. Have we done everything we can? For these foxes in the fur farm, death is not still life. Who will forgive us for not doing more?

The Ghosts in Our Machine is an elegy. A plaintive poem, a funeral song and lament for the dead. And because it is this, it knows it needs to hold its nerve. To stay in this tone of the elegiac, edited to perfection in the film, never missing a melancholic beat. To break this tone will be to lessen the story’s power. Even when animal protection workers know that a single story is more powerful than the facts and figures (85 billion animals each year, one cow every 12 seconds…) or a combination of both, they cannot seem to resist drawing us back to the incomprehensible, the overwhelming. I don’t know why this is. It’s like that episode of Friends where Monica wants to make everyone cry at her parents’ wedding anniversary. Perhaps the animal rights campaigners and communicators secretly want to not only stir emotions in others, but overwhelm us, be the one who has the power to do that. Secretly, they all want to be Ross (his first word has everyone crying; Monica flounces off). Ok! I admit it—I want to be like Ross, to write with impact. Comically, Ross has ‘it’. The Ghosts has ‘it’ too, but with a markedly different soul. What makes The Ghosts exquisite is that it holds its nerve all the way through, beyond the credits. The tone never wavers. And so, pure, it will linger on in ways that is, most of all, respectful to the lives lost, of all the lives lost.

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Churchill 2014, Nature Stories, Projects

Churchill Fellow for 2014

Winston Churchill memorial trustSometimes when you have an idea, you don’t know where it’s going to go. Sometimes, it goes straight into my ideas box (a small, silver gift box I didn’t send the gift in(!), but kept and is now full of post-its and scraps of paper with ideas that I wanted to not lose, but needed to park for later). Sometimes you act on the idea, and it takes off. It forms a trajectory of its own. And it begins to change from a trickle to a stream in your life. And then who knows, perhaps to become the whole ocean of what it is you are, or what you do.

That seems to be the way my writing work around animals and conservation is heading. With the wonderful news that I’ve been awarded a Churchill Travel Fellowship for 2014, to research best practice in the USA and Canada in the field of writing practice as it takes place in the field of conservation education.

The Fellowship, one of 137 this year, out of around 1,200 applications, gives me the opportunity to spend six weeks developing knowledge and practice in conservation education, learning from some of the world’s leading organisations and individuals in taking conservation education to school and community groups.

The main focus of this work so far has been on marine mammal conservation. It began when I got involved with the charity ORCA and their cetacean data project in the North East of England–whale and dolphin watching, basically, to gather data about the populations in the sea along the North East coast, and in the North Sea, seen from the DFDS Ferries that cross to continental Europe.

But I wanted to do more, and learn more. So I applied for a small grant from HEFCE via the Unlimited Fund, which supports new social enterprises. And I was successful — and Nature Stories was born. ORCA already did school visits, taking the school kids out on the ferries to Amsterdam, to see the whales and dolphins. I then proposed writing workshops with them afterwards. You can read more about that on the project overview.

This work seemed so important I wanted to take it further. And the Churchill Fellowship looked like a good way to do that. And I was delighted when I was awarded the grant.

So I’m beginning to plan out the trip, which will take in some writing for/at the Vancouver Aquarium; joining Jackie Hildering the marine detective on some killer whale education boat tours with the Killer Whale Center; a visit to San Juan’s Whale Museum; attending the Mid-Atlantic Marine Educators Network Conference in Maryland; and then back over to Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (with, I hope, time for a trip to Farm Sanctuary and Animal Place in between).

I’m also going to spend a week of my own time in Toronto with the marvelous Toronto Pig Save people, and Jo-Anne McArthur, the author of We Animals, and who runs the Humane Education project, because I want to extend this work into writing practice around farmed animals too, seeing how writing (my own, inspiring that of others) can generate greater awareness and deeper reflection, leading to change, in people’s treatment of animals, and an improvement in the recognition and interests of animals, especially those billions (fish, farmed animals) who are all but invisible to us as living, sentient beings. Who are, as the film suggests, the Ghosts in Our Machine.

I’ll be using the Nature Stories site as my project blog to record the experience and connections, ideas, and discoveries — of which I hope and expect there to be many.