» RABBIT, NUN & POWERS IN TIBET

by Brian Awehali

Rabbit, Nun and Powers in Tibet

Tibetan nun and rabbit, alongside Han Chinese roadbloack heading into Tibet. Photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

There’s really only one highway going from southwest China to Tibet, and it’s long, uneven, often blocked or jammed by convoys of military vehicles or commercial trucks, and subject to periodic closures.

It’s a sparsely populated area, but you can tell that the Chinese have big plans for it. Enormous electrical power lines lope over the hills, and in spots unpaved road gives way incongruously to new four-lane highways.

TibetHighwaySignThe picture at the top was taken at a routine road block that’s set up en route to Lhagong, which the Han call Tagong. If you can read Mandarin, the sign to the right will tell you all about that roadblock. There’s just a gate they drop over the road at a standard time every day, and everyone piles out to stretch, mill around, or stare at a handful of the locals. This monk was just standing around, smiling like some obnoxiously enlightened* being, looking radiant alongside the martial roadblock, as this rabbit followed her around.

At the daily roadblock into Kham. (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

As counterintuitive as it might seem, I don’t think the Han Chinese stand a long-term chance against this kind of power (or altitude), though they’re probably more than willing to dispossess, torture and murder thousands of Tibetans in order to prove this kind of wishful or hopeful thinking wrong.

Horse at Golden Hour in Lhagong, Kham, Tibet ( ཁམས)

Horse and prayer flags at golden hour in Lhagong, Kham, Tibet ( ཁམས) – photo (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

* Is there a word for the complex of resentment/hatred/suspicion a person from an “inferior race” experiences when encountering people they see as better or purer? I feel this should have shown up, maybe somewhere in James Baldwin’s writing. I don’t actually believe in purity or race-based superiority, but I’m talking about what might have been at play, for example, when the mass of mostly poor and desperate Euroamerican settlers came to North America and encountered civilizations largely without body shame, economic poverty in any real sense, or all kinds of disease?

» FREEDOM FROM, FREEDOM TO: Austin’s Limits, “Legibility” and Some Merits of Nomadic Living

by Brian Awehali

Texas clay soil in drought conditions, cracking

Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints [...] Positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes.

“Positive and Negative Liberty,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The more I examined [...] efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion [and] I began to see legibility as a central problem in statecraft.

–Yale Professor of Agrarian Studies James C. Scott, on efforts by nation states to “sedentarize” nomads, pastoralists, gypsies and other peoples living non-mainstream lives

This past April, my partner and I moved out of a spacious house in former Tonkawa/Apache lands — Austin, Texas — and into a full-time 75-square-foot RV, which we promptly steered westward.

Part of the reason for this was climatological: 110-degree summers and long-term drought conditions just aren’t appealing to me. My first month in Austin, the worst wildfire in Texas history flanked three sides of the city. All summer long, people waiting at bus stops flattened themselves like bats against slivers of shade from fences.

Another climate-related reality of Austin they don’t trumpet in their relentless promotional branding of the city (“inventive, creative, wired, rockin’, educated, fit and loved!”) is that because of drought, a huge number of homes in the area are developing major foundation problems. The clay soil of Austin contracts in times of drought, causing concrete house foundations to settle unevenly, drywall to splinter, and once-rectangular doorframes to go trapezoid. In a place plagued with drought and water restrictions, the least costly remedy for this is watering your home, and some local news media still encourage the practice. The costlier remedy is to have a foundation repair company jack your house back up for several thousand dollars. Then you can pay some contractors to fix all your doorframes and cracked drywall. Repeat every few years as needed. The problem is so big — and growing — that foundation repair companies can’t keep up with the demand.

TexasDeathRowAnother part of my decision to leave the Lone Star state was political. I was well informed before I moved there, but Texas’s longstanding support for capital punishment and private, for-profit prisons — 1,254 executed and counting! Guaranteed occupancy rates! Overwhelmingly non-white! — is another, far more heinous reality that Austin’s creative, wild, fun-, beer-, music- and new-media-lovin’ denizens are tacitly supporting with their tax dollars and promotion of the state’s capital. SXSW, Whole Foods and Dell, to name but a few prominent Austin-based businesses, make a ton of money for, and help whitewash the image of, arguably the most vengeful, prison-profiteering state in the Union. And that doesn’t even touch on the state’s demented, religiously-driven campaign against Planned Parenthood.

But hey, quit thinking about climate change, human rights, or women — especially poor women; SXSW, Whole Foods and Dell are trying to make money and grow an economy and capital city here, and they get really good tax incentives in Texas. The business of America, especially in Texas, is business. And the soundtrack for the movie of Austin, Texas is awesome! (Texas Quaker Friends: Respect.)

In 2012, Texas ignored the Supreme Court and put a mentally retarded man, Marvin Wilson — I.Q. 61 — to death. The courts and people who most make this kind of atrocity possible are in Austin. They are considered respectable people.

Werner Herzog’s harrowing 2011 documentary, Into the Abyss, featuring conversations with since-executed Texas death row inmate Michael Perry, his co-conspirators, and those affected by his crimes, is a tough look at the state’s capital punishment practices, but I’m pretty sure the movie’s dark title is also referring to the state of Texas itself:

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» CONSIDER THE COMPLETE CHICKEN

by Brian Awehali

San Juan Chickens Before Harvest - photos (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

San Juan chickens before harvest – photos (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

“I am largely worried about wingless chickens. I feel this is the time for me to fulfill myself by stepping in and saving the chicken but I don’t know how exactly since I am not bold. I only know I believe in the complete chicken. You think about the complete chicken for a while.”

Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor

I’d asked if I could come and see the chicken harvest. It was a sunny day in the San Juan Islands, and my acquaintance with two farmers had presented an opportunity to see a free-range, all organic culling, or harvest.

Chickens Clamoring for Feeding - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

“Do you think they have any idea that today’s different from other days?” I asked one of the farmers as he beckoned the chickens.

He paused handsomely in his well-worn green t-shirt with a large peace sign on the chest and scratched an unruly sun-bleached beard.

San Juan Chicken Portrait - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

“Nah. They have a simple life, and they’ve never known anything but this, so why would they?”

“And anyway, these are broiler chickens. They can’t live past about two years old, or their hearts give out.”

I watched the chickens, and the few dark ducks in the flock, who were eager to approach in hopes of being fed, and paid me no attention as I shot photos. A few had to be chased down and put into the enclosed truck bed, but most just filed in, clucking, in a way that made me think darkly of Black Friday.

About 9 billion chickens are harvested and eaten each year in the United States. Most are slaughtered in factory farms, where “cervical dislocation,” “asphyxiation by carbon dioxide,” and maceration (grinding) are considered the best “acceptable humane methods.” I was curious to see a smaller, sustainable family-run operation, where the farmers actually care about the quality of the chicken’s lives, care about what they eat, and where they participate directly in the harvest, rather than resorting to mass mechanical means.

Once all of the chickens were in the back of the truck, we rolled towards several white tents where the harvest would take place.

Chicken feet in a cone. - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

This type of chicken has been bred for early harvest, as well as for an easygoing temperament and generally pleasant appearance. They did not get too excited in the truck, nor did they put up much resistance before being placed headfirst into tapered metal bleeding cones, where their vivid yellow feet and bright red combs twitched as they bled out.

“When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the news. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been an anticlimax.”

– Flannery O’Connor

[Warning: graphic material follows the jump]

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» NEW MEXICO NOTES #1: Santa Fe Differs

by Brian Awehali

On by far my most memorable winter stroll around the then-deserted College of Santa Fe, on visits to the Santa Fe Art Institute, I peered around a corner into a courtyard, looking for some mundane scene to exoticize with my camera when I heard what sounded like a theremin being played. Perhaps some artist was noodling around with one? Then a low-pitched thrum and bright light settled overhead and seemed to move closer.

Just prior to the unfortunate alien incident while visiting SFAI. - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

Just prior to the unfortunate incident in the courtyard of the Santa Fe Art Institute (SFAI). – (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

When the hatch opened, I heard music that sounded a lot like the cantina music from the first “Star Wars” movie. Despite associations with the needless bloodshed of that scene, where Han Solo kills a business associate with his blaster, I was excited. Stories of alien visitation are common in New Mexico, especially around Roswell, but I didn’t take them very seriously, and I definitely didn’t imagine I’d be having any such experiences first-hand. I imagined, mostly because of the music, that there was a grand party going on inside, and that I’d soon be dancing, knocking back shots of oddly-colored liqueurs, or smoking alien herbs through exotic pipes with new friends.

Unfortunately, the visitors had traveled all these light years merely for the purpose of collecting stool samples.

* * *

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» OF BICYCLES, BIRDS & SPICES: A photo walk around Chengdu, Sichuan

by Brian Awehali

Pedal-powered creative re-use artist in Chengdu - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

Pedal-powered creative re-use artist in Chengdu – photo (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

The scale of things in China - (c) 2012 Brian AwehaliCar ownership is on the rise, but bicycle culture in Chengdu, and China generally, remains amazing. Many, perhaps most, main roads have dedicated bike lanes, and it’s really common to see things like hard-working (and exhausted) trash recyclers carting Seussian-levels of stuff around on pedal-powered vehicles (above), or a lone cyclist pedaling calmly through a terrifyingly busy intersection (left).

Fan of Babeel, former striker for Liverpoot? (Chengdu) - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

I’m sure lots of the Chinese (Mandarin) lettering on t-shirts I see in the U.S. is mangled or just downright wrong, but since I can’t read traditional or simplified Mandarin, that’s nowhere near as funny to me as the botched English translations I saw everywhere in Chengdu. There’s quite a lot of emulation and outright copying of Western culture — especially consumer culture. This teenager stalking into an underpass near the Chengdu bus station might be expressing his esteem for striker/winger Ryan Babel (not Babeel), the Dutch football player who used to play for… Liverpool (not Liverpoot)… but it’s just as likely that the kid just liked the way this looked.

At Chengdu International Airport, the wheelchair-accessible stalls in the men’s bathroom have the pictograph you might expect, with Mandarin lettering and then, below that, in English translation: “Deformed Man End Place.” Picture after the jump:

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» CHINESE PIGEON RACING & CONFINEMENT IN CHENGDU

by Brian Awehali

Kitebird at People's Park, Chengdu, (c) 2012,  Brian Awehali

Kitebird flown at People’s Park, Chengdu in 2010. – (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

Seemingly querulous racing pigeons in a Chengdu rooftop coop - (c) 2012, Brian Awehali“I’m very worried,” said Mr. C., our interpreter and guide, as our driver pulled into the courtyard. His eyes were wet. “Only two of my pigeons have returned from the race two days ago.”

Mr. C., a thin man with a sweet face, had arranged through a friend for us to make a weekend visit to a Chengdu suburb for a tour of a pigeon racing club and one racer’s private coop.

“How many pigeons did you release?” I asked.

“Ten,” he said mournfully. As we piled out of the sedan into a courtyard, he ran ahead.

Orderly pigeons in a Chengdu rooftop coop - (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

Orderly pigeons in a Chengdu rooftop coop – (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

The owner of this private coop, who was meeting us inside, was the editor of a newspaper, and also a prominent local member of the Communist Party. Most officials of any substantial-sized business in China probably are, and one might consider it an occupational hazard.

Ah, sweet release:

Photo-of-a-photo on the wall of a suburban Chengu pigeon racing club - (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

Photo-of-a-photo on the wall of a suburban Chengdu pigeon racing club – (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

» MISADVENTURES IN “ORGANIC” FARMING IN TAIWAN

by Brian Awehali

Daikon drying in the sun

A while back, I had a great time traveling through all but the southern portion of Taiwan. I’d gone for Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), and to do a bit of work trade with a WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming)-affiliated farm on the outskirts of Chunan (or Zhunan, depending on your preferred system of romanization).

The farm itself was mostly a disappointment to me. There is no internationally consistent standard for measuring what is and is not organic. Even in the U.S. (granted, no paragon of truth in labeling) the labeling of organics is tricky, often misleading and inconsistent [see an in-depth article from my former magazine, “Organics: Meaningful or Market Niche?“).

Sweltering farmland in Chunan

Seed trays soaked in water and sun

This farm, in Zhunan, in the province of Miaoli, was nestled right up against a major highway flyover, and perhaps one hundred yards from two tall, constantly belching industrial smokestacks. The smokestack exhaust might well have been filtered or non-toxic, but anyone with common sense who’s ever actually lived next to, or looked at land immediately adjacent to large highways, can tell by the sooty residue of automobile exhaust and dust that there’s nothing organic about the ground in these areas.

My host was really more interested in the local promotional opportunities of having travelers all the way from America coming to work on, and promote, his farm. After picking us up in his van and driving like a maniac back to his place (with his un-seatbelted young son in the front, many sharp-pointed tools laying unsecured on the floor), my host spent a good deal of the next ten days pressuring us in various forceful ways to appear on a television interview with him for a local news station where his wife worked, and to be a very public face for a farmer’s market he was trying to launch, on the grounds of a swank mountain restaurant.

I declined, repeatedly, and with less and less patience, explaining that I hadn’t come to WWOOF so I could be paraded around town to impress friends or appear on local television news programs I wouldn’t even understand. After several rounds of requests, I further explained that, by my standards, his farm actually wasn’t organic, and I didn’t want to publicly support it. I’d come, I said again and again, to learn more about farming.

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» GOLDEN HOUR THOUGHTS IN LHAGONG, KHAM, TIBET

by Brian Awehali

Golden Hour Thoughts in Lhagong, TibetTraveling through Kham, in what’s called the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), I had the considerable pleasure of staying in Lhagong. Chinese people will tell you it’s named Tagong, but re-naming is just one strategy of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Approaching this “stupa” on the edge of town during a clear moment in an otherwise rainy day, I couldn’t decide which idea held more magic for me: that this was a giant fortification full of monks and nuns who, not fearing death, were more than a match for any earthly army or floodtide of settlers, or an immense palace full of exquisitely beautiful people of belief, happily lashing their souls to some great transcendent hum.

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» APPROXIMATE DEMOLITION IN CHINA

by Brian Awehali

Approximate Demolition in Chengdu, by Brian Awehali

THE CHINESE ARE VERY SECRETIVE ABOUT THINGS WHEN THEY GO WRONG. You can’t just go online or read a paper to find out what happened with this gloriously wrong-looking demolition in Chengdu. I heard that one or several people were injured by debris, for example, but there seemed to be no way to confirm or disprove this. The site was fenced and there were multiple sentries posted throughout the day to keep people out, so this was taken at around 4am, while carefully avoiding the tents of full-time on-site workers, and using only the ambient light of Chengdu that reflects nicely off the ever-present canopy of mostly industrial smog.

Chaotic Demolition, Chengdu, Sichuan, China, at 4am