Ever wonder about intelligence? No, not your own –leave that to other people to figure out. But about what actually constitutes intelligence apart from the ability –or not- to solve the NY Times Sunday cross word puzzle before the next one arrives. Perhaps it is a comment on my own particular neuronal configuration, or an admission that, like St. Augustine’s view about Time, I only know what intelligence is if not asked about it. I like to believe that it is a perplexing issue, however, and that I could be excused if I never did quite satisfactorily pin it down. But I have come to see it as a quest, nonetheless.
I think I can remember how it all started. I was having a discussion –or, come to think of it, an argument– with an omniscient city friend, a reporter for a community newsletter, who I should never have invited over to see my rural property for her feature article. With all the authority of an urban transit official, she pontificated on the growing need for vegans in an eco-destructive world.
I wasn’t quite sure of the exact parameters of veganhood, but I gathered from her tightly compressed face that it probably avoided anything that was able to move on its own steam. She also seemed unhappy with things that had a recurring need to eliminate waste gases that would turn the air into a giant greenhouse. When I pointed out that a diet of lentils and couscous chili would turn even the most pious vegetarian into a methane factory, she dismissed it with an eye roll. “You don’t know us, dear… And anyway, it’s not right to eat animals,” she added with a sudden softening of her expression as if she had just recited the Lord’s Prayer –the ultimate and unarguable coup de grâce.
I could understand that, but I felt it was incumbent on me to point out that predators had been doing it for… Well, for years.
“That’s different,” she said with a wave of a beringed finger. “They have to do it; we don’t.”
“But there must be a zillion cows out there already, Janice,” I said, trying to plead for them with my eyes. “What are we going to do with them all?”
Her expression immediately hardened again and she stared at me like an impatient teacher. “Attrition, of course. Companies do that instead of laying off workers –they just don’t replace the ones that are retiring.”
“So you just wait until there are bodies lying in the fields?” I wasn’t happy with that idea.
She thought about it for a moment. “No, of course not! We eat them until they’re all gone. I mean somebody’s already eating them anyway.”
“And wool?” I said, glancing out of the window at a few of my sheep wandering by au moment critique. “Are we all going to have to wear hemp or corn leaves?”
“You’re so naïve!” she hissed, and tried to amputate my face with a withering stare. “We can switch to synthetic fabrics.”
“You mean using non-renewable petroleum products?” I asked, trying desperately to remember if that’s how they were made.
She struck me with a glare so sharp it almost pinned me to the wall. “Cellulose!” she shouted.
I almost ducked as she flung the word at me with an atavistic ferocity. “Uhmm…”
“What do you think plants wear?” Her eyes were angry dinner plates.
I finally blinked. I wasn’t sure if she was serious.
Her face relaxed at the blink, and a smile tried unsuccessfully to muscle its way onto her lips. “I was merely being poetical,” she added, as if it were a common urban metonym that she felt obliged to explain to a bumpkin. “Plants don’t really wear clothes, per se,” she admitted after an initial hesitation, while leaving some wiggle room with the ‘per se’ anaphora –unfair, really.
I think I missed a vital part of the main thrust of her argument, but I managed to parry it with what I hoped was an effective antithesis. “Plants don’t wear cellulose because they are cellulose. I, on the other hand, am protein which is complex, delicate, and in sure and certain need of external protection…” I added the ellipsis to indicate that I was still developing my rebuttal in case she jumped in with an effective counter-argument. Also in case I had committed a biological gaffe –proteins were never my strong suit.
She was silent for a moment, politely waiting to say something when I had finished. I couldn’t think of anything to add, however, so she sighed. “Okay, I suppose we could leave a few sheep around for their wool.” She looked at me, her face all pleased and wrinkly at the compromise.
“How about chickens?” I asked, hoping for another concession. “Just for their eggs, though,” I explained, so that she wouldn’t think I might actually want to eat the source. “I mean how many greenhouse gases can the average chicken produce, eh?” Actually, I wasn’t sure about that so I added the Canadian ‘eh’ to indicate that not all the evidence was in yet.
She crossed her arms tightly and I could hear her tapping her feet in frustration. “Like yours, for example? Honestly,” she said, shaking her head slowly in time with the taps. “We’ve got to stop somewhere!”
Wow –italics followed by an exclamation mark. She was really getting worked up. I was beginning to worry about her article. She had come out at my invitation to see how ecologically sensitive a farm could be. My six ewes seemed safe enough now, but my three-chicken flock was not, and without them, I might get audited by the tax people for claiming a deduction as a mixed farm. Mind you, I still had the apple tree… As it was, though, I was already scratching the barrel’s bottom, as it were. I needed to nip this in the bud; not too many people probably read her community newsletter, but I knew she often added a post on Facebook about it as well… And Governments hire people to read Facebook…
“I can tell this is all very important to you, Janice. And it is to me as well,” I added, laying my hand on her shoulder for effect. “We all have to do our part, however small, to help the ecosystem.”
She nodded her head enthusiastically, and a thin smile managed to crack the concrete of her lips.
“So, if I were to show you some eggs…?”
She looked surprised. “Eggs? I don’t understand.”
I pretended to roll my eyes. “Look, a good part of ecological stewardship is buying locally, right?” She nodded. “And I’m local…”
Gradually, as awareness crept in, her eyes told me she understood. “And if we each take small steps as individuals…”
I smiled broadly and took her hand. “So how many eggs do you want to buy today, Janice?”
She cocked her head. “Buy…?” I don’t think she topped her class.
I nodded. “It’s the only way I can continue to offer this service to the community…”
“Okay,” she said and chuckled conspiratorially, as my meaning trickled in. “How about a dozen?”
I blinked. “Actually, how about three eggs? I’m thinking of expanding the business, though…”
I never did see that article, but I have noticed several unknown, long distance numbers on my call display that I’ve never followed up… They’d have left a message if it was important, wouldn’t they?