Not so much Brain as Earwax

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?















Previously Frozen

The thought occurred to me the other day that I’m in danger of becoming a Red Queen –you know, needing  to run faster and faster just to stay in the same spot. I doubt that Lewis Carroll had my particular concerns in mind, and yet there are probably many parallels with 1871 when he wrote the story. Sometimes, even with the best intentions, you simply can’t keep up with things.

To be clear, I’m not referring to anything as technical as Moore’s Law and it’s observation that things like computer technologies seem to double every 18-24 months –although that’s certainly too fast for someone my age. Nor, for that matter, can I even claim confusion about the vicissitudes of celebrities, or the vagaries of fashions –I simply can’t be bothered. And anyway, even the most cursory glance at Facebook would likely glut my already overburdened vessel –a surfeit of trifles is seldom healthy.

Except when it is. I often wonder how the important things –albethey in fine print, and sometimes far beneath the purview of the average progressive lens- escape relatively unexamined.

I’m referring, of course, to one of those items of the consumer society that we would not ordinarily include: food. Well, at least I wouldn’t have. At any rate, food slipped in unawares. I thought I knew food; I buy it, I cook it and then I eat it. I didn’t think I needed to study it as well… But when someone who did told me that a fish I kind of liked, orange roughy, was once called slimehead I nodded as if everybody knew that. I now pretend the reason I no longer buy it is that it was also deemed an at-risk species. You have to try to keep up with this stuff.

I read labels –they’re usually pretty big and tarty so they can wink at you from the shelf, but by and large, they don’t tell you much. So I usually search for the much smaller Nutrition Facts rectangle to see how many calories they say there are in one of whatever the package offers… Then I multiply it by the number I figure I’m going to need to eat to feel the effects of why I bought it in the first place. They always try to trick you unless you figure that out.

It’s the same with the Best Befores. I’ve discovered there is a difference between a Best Before, and an Expiry Date… You can die or something if you ignore the latter, whereas you’re allowed to put the former on sale a day before the date and make people think they are getting a deal. They probably won’t die. I Googled a reference to make sure:

But it’s sometimes hard to stay up to date with food things -the Previously Frozens, for example. I suppose it makes sense that if a food is properly frozen two days before its Best Before date, it should be edible for another two days at the start of the thawing process. But I can never remember when I froze it -and the labels are all covered with frost, anyway.  Definitely Red Queen material.

Of course so is my friend Brien; he has a thing with food but I’m never really sure if he’s serious about his ever-changing opinions on the topic. One moment he will wax eloquent, describing a science article he’s read on Facebook, and in the next breath, descend the staircase into some nutritional hodgepodge he’s found with clickbait. He has that unique gift of being able to hold two or three contradictory notions at the same time and understand none of them.

Take the Previously Frozens –the PFs as Brien calls them. He was sure the term just meant that since they had been frozen once, they were capable of being frozen again –that the PF acted as a kind of endorsement for the freezer, unlike, say, eggs –which are never labelled PF. Or lettuce, which he keeps in the very bottom compartment as a kind of memento mori… a reminder of the diligence required in the absence of any warning labels.

Even with the presence of warning labels, Brien is hyper-alert to the dangers of the post-truth era in which we are embedded. He suspects that False News has crept into the labelling industry as well as Facebook. It was his favourite topic for weeks, until he found a label he said he could finally trust.

I often pass his house on the way into town, and I saw him sitting on his porch staring at Sheda, his tree. It was a brisk fall afternoon and the wind was mussing the needles and making the branches wave at him. Brien needs to get out more. At any rate, I thought I’d join him on the porch for a while. That’s when we started talking about the value of really knowing what we’re eating. Of actually reading the labels.

“I’ve started to eat Ancient Grains,” he said, proudly, pointing at a crumpled plastic package at his feet.

“That’s nice,” I responded, not sure what else to say. “Why?”

He looked at me through his eyebrows and slowly shook his head at my naiveté. “It’s what the Neoliths used to eat,” he replied slowly, pronouncing the unusual word carefully in case he got it wrong. When I didn’t congratulate him immediately, he seemed disappointed. “Do you even know what Ancient Grains are? What they do?”

“I’m still working on Neolith,” I said.

He rolled his eyes. “The Grains were what our ancient ancestors decided to eat…” –he hesitated briefly, obviously a bit uncertain about the really early days- “It was when they were changing from hunters into gatherers…” He glanced at Sheda for inspiration. “Anyway, the Grains were growing in a big field so they started to gather them…” He stared at my blank face briefly. “The Grains are thought to be what drove human Evolution.” He sat back in his chair, smiling like a professor who has just explained a particularly difficult concept to a rapt class. “They made us who we are,” he added, reverently.

“I thought it was meat.”


“You know, the extra energy from meat is what made our brains grow. It’s why we’re so intelligent.”

Brien likes new ideas, but he seemed genuinely puzzled. He thought about it for a moment. “Then why don’t lions walk upright, eh?”

I stared at him and blinked. I had the feeling I was being led somewhere. “Uhmm…”

“Because the Grains have lots of omega-3 which wildebeest carcasses don’t,” he said smugly, confident he’d solved the mystery for me.

I have to say I didn’t know that, and picked up the crumpled package to see if that’s where he had found these words. And sure enough, as authoritatively as Wikipedia, and written in what I assume Big Agro thought would be ancient cursive, there was Brien’s argument brightly embossed beneath the label. “So, has it worked yet?”

“What do you mean?”

“Have you evolved more intelligence?” I said, pleased at my cleverness, and put the empty package back on the floor as respectfully as I could. Unfortunately, at that moment, a gust of wind blew it over the railing before I could stop it.

Brien looked at me and mounted a wry smile. “Well,” he answered, pointing at the package now scurrying over the grass, “it never blows away when I put it down…”