Digital Ischemia

25/01/2019

Teeth, or How I Helped Fix Granny

Not my usual brand of caustic fairytale (Truthache series) but a wide-eyed innocent enchantment.

Part One

When I was two my Granny gave my Grandad a massive tooth. It was a whale’s tooth for their anniversary. It looked like an elephant’s tusk. We were sat on a park bench and I was fascinated so my Grandad let me touch it. It was too big for me to hold. My Granny told me a story about how she got it.

When she and Grandad were just married, they went on holiday to Norway. One day Grandad, my Dad and Aunty Marianne went skiing. Granny went with a man in his boat to see some whales. The man stopped his boat in the middle of a sea loch with white mountains all round. Granny leaned over the side and looked into the water through her goggles.

Granny could see surprisingly far into the water. Some shadows would swim across. Suddenly one of the shapes got much bigger. A huge whale whooshed out of the water and touched her nose to Granny’s nose. Granny showed me a photograph that the boat-man took of them nose-to-nose. She said the whale was showing how well she could swim.

Granny was quite excited. The whale swam around the boat on the surface of the water with her big black eye looking at Granny. Then she disappeared so Granny leaned further to look for her. The whale had gone around the other side of the boat and suddenly it tipped and Granny fell into the water!

Granny was surprised and cold and confused by the water rushing round and round her. She wasn’t scared though, because she had her wetsuit and life-jacket on. The whale came up to her and kept nudging her. Eventually she realised the whale wanted her to take off her life-jacket. The whale swam underneath her and blew some bubbles up to her face. Granny tried catching the bubbles in her mouth – they tasted revoltingly fishy – but she could breathe the air.

Granny held on to one of the whale’s fins and they swam away. She lost her grip a few times but got the hang of it. The whale was very patient. Granny thinks she should have been worrying about Grandad and the kids, but she was so amazed by the experience, there was nothing else in her head.

The whale swam with Granny for ages through all these different underwater landscapes. Granny says she can’t put most of it into words: it was so alien. The whale kept stopping and turning to blow air bubbles up to Granny.

Eventually they came to a big cave which was half full of water. The whale showed Granny things she had collected and kept on shelves of rock in the cave. Some were beautiful treasures – intricate shaped stones – but some were sad memories – plastic-wrapped bones.

The whale seemed to communicate with Granny by pulses of emotion. She doesn’t understand how – maybe it was sound that is too deep for us to hear – but she would suddenly feel a certain way. She felt the joy of the pretty shapes and colours. She also felt sadness as though the bones were from other whale people this whale had known.

The whale lifted with her lips this massive tooth. Granny felt it was associated with somebody with a big heart – as we would say it. The whale gave the tooth to Granny as a gift.

The whale brought Granny back through the water the same way, and although Granny tried to pay attention, she says the journey is mostly a blur. In a whoosh the whale pushed Granny in a big wave up on to the beach of the loch. The whale couldn’t come all the way up herself or she would get stranded. Granny said goodbye and held on to the tooth, then just sat there for a while feeling odd.

Granny remembered the boat-man and looked out across the loch. Eventually she got his attention and he brought his boat across. He had been really scared and had been looking all around where her life-jacket had bobbed up. He was very relieved to see her.

When Grandad and Dad and Aunty Marianne arrived, Granny told them her story. They all agreed it sounded daft, and none of them could explain about the tooth. But Granny said she knew she had to work to put some things right in the way we treat whales.

Part Two

When I was six, one day Granny said she was going to walk up the headland. My front tooth had just come out and I remembered her story about the whale tooth. I said I wanted to go with her but I didn’t say why because I felt a bit silly.

We wandered around the headland for a while. The wind was blustery and Granny got frustrated. She said it was the wrong place so we walked down to the beach. We watched the waves coming in until one had a whale in it. Granny seemed startled but I knew the whale had come for my tooth.

I showed Granny the tooth in my hand and she smiled. She said I wasn’t to go into the water because my wellies would fill up. She asked if she could take the tooth to the whale because her wellies were practically waders. The whale who was riding the waves was just a wee baby. He was small enough to get close to the beach. Granny went up to him and bent down to offer my tooth. He took it in his lips and Granny gave him a shove to get back to deeper water.

We couldn’t see the baby whale swimming out because he was under the water and the waves were quite choppy. Granny said to keep on looking though. Far out there was a big splash. Granny said that was just to get our attention; keep watching. A huge whale did a somersault right out of the water. I was so impressed. Granny was smiling too. She said she hoped that might be the same whale she met in Norway. I felt a weird fizzy pressure in my head but I didn’t say anything because I couldn’t put it into words. I thought it was excitement.

Part Three

Now I’m ten and Granny still isn’t very old. A few days ago she got quite unwell. There was nothing we could see wrong with her; she just felt really tired. We all sat about not knowing what to do.

The next morning I woke up wanting to go to see the whales. I have kept all my baby teeth that fell out. My Dad drilled tiny holes into them so we could put them on a wee bracelet. I wanted to give this to the whales so they would make Granny better.

I told my Mum and she wasn’t totally convinced, but she said she would chum me to the beach for the walk. We walked the usual way round the headland and saw lots of people on the beach. We walked down and Mum started speaking to them to find out what was going on.

I wandered away towards the rocks. I knew the kerfuffle was about sightings of whales but I wanted to be with the whales by myself. I remembered Granny saying they would be splashing to get attention, but I felt like it wasn’t for me, it was for all the other people, to distract them. I had on my big wellies and I picked up a stick on the way.

I wandered around near where Granny and I had met the baby whale before. Right at the edge of the rocks there is a big pool. I poked my stick into the water and felt something spongy. I peered in. There was a neat pile of leaves – huge thick leaves with big veins through them. On the top, in the middle, was my first tooth.

Mum had followed me and when she saw what was in the pool she called Aunty Marianne to come with a bucket. When Aunty Marianne arrived she filled her bucket with seawater and stacked the leaves in it. I kept that tooth but put the bracelet of my other teeth into the rock pool.

When we got home, I showed Granny my tooth and told her about the leaves. She reckoned the tooth meant we’re to eat them. Aunty Marianne said maybe but let’s check – she knows herbs but she didn’t know these.

While Granny was resting, we all sat round the kitchen table while Aunty Marianne checked through her encyclopaedia. Suddenly she said it’s a Caribbean sea palm. The leaves are used in native medicine – people who are unwell chew on a piece of leaf.

Grandad looked up startled. Aunty Marianne read that we should keep the leaves in fresh salty water then they would last for ages. Dad was asking did the whales bring the leaves all the way from the Caribbean or have they cultivated them locally? Aunty Marianne gave him a look and said that wasn’t in her encyclopaedia.

The next day Granny was feeling improved, as she says. As I was about to go to school, she called me to the sofa to thank me for listening to my big heart. I was puzzled. Granny explained that she had thought the first whale calling the tooth big heart meant it was for Grandad. Granny thought the whale she met in Norway had somehow recognised him from when they had stood on our headland and waved, before they were married. Not recognised visually; some other way whales use.

I suppose the whales were passing on their migration and used this sense they have to know granny was unwell. Maybe one day I can figure it out.

The next weekend I went back to check the rock pool. Aunty Marianne said obviously there have been several high tides since we found the leaves but anyway my teeth bracelet was gone. I hope it’s on some whale’s treasure shelf.

21/06/2018

Less Than Stories

A legal interview challenging inter-species perceptions.

SCENE 1.
ADVOCATE: Your Honour, Fig-Eyes—
JUDGE:”Big Eyes”?
ADVOCATE: Fig-Eyes, this is she.
JUDGE: This chimpanzee? Who gave it—her that name?
ADVOCATE: She named herself. Humans had labelled her K277, but she identified herself in a mirror, by her brown irises with radiating streaks.
JUDGE: Her eyesight is that good?
ADVOCATE: And her recognition, and her sense of aesthetic, and her sense of self, Your Honour.
JUDGE: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

SCENE 2.
JUDGE: This is Discovery. I want to explore the arguments you have in order to determine whether there is a reasonable case to present to court. My role is not to protect the status quo. The rule of law is obviously my focus, but each case brings new challenges, and when there are enough challenges, and new scenarios or an evolution of ethics, case law progresses. When we are convinced. Go ahead.
ADVOCATE: At the outset I wish to expand common use of the word ‘speak’: to clarify that especially for the purpose of this discussion, this argument, we use ‘speak’ to mean ‘convey a message’. We do not mean only ‘produce intelligible sounds from the mouth’, although that is one example.
JUDGE: Motivation?
ADVOCATE: To dismiss other species as unable to speak, because they can’t anatomically produce audible language as humans do, or because the sounds they produce are unintelligible to us, is speciesist. They can, and do speak for themselves. It would be just as baseless and unconstructive to dismiss humans as deaf because they do not as yet understand what all other species are ‘saying’.
JUDGE: But we are human. This legal framework is a human construct. Our terms of reference must remain human.
ADVOCATE: Indeed, but our perspective must be broader. Human use of modified digestive and breathing features for communication is idiosyncratic. Humans use their mouths and particularly tongues to shape sounds. They mildly asphyxiate themselves to maintain the conversational ‘baton’. However, the benefit of language clearly outweighs the detriment of increased risk of choking due to merging the digestive tract and windpipe. It’s nowhere near perfect. Humans are not the culmination of evolutionary perfectionism. This is not the only way. Is it possible other species’ evolutions may have found better solutions, or simply other solutions?
JUDGE: I’ll admit that possibility.

SCENE 3.
ADVOCATE: This is ManyMother, an Orca. We’re unsure if this is a name, a description, a title or some other label. She is identified by human researchers on Canada’s west coast as F45L.
JUDGE: And she communicates to you?
ADVOCATE: Her message is: you have taken my food, you have taken my birthing pool, you have taken my route home, you have taken my children. When you see me, and Echo, my newest manydaughter, you will take your greed away.
JUDGE: What does she mean by ‘see’?
ADVOCATE: Recognise as a person. (PAUSE) This is TwoStep, a Kenyan elephant. She identifies herself with her characteristic leg motion. We don’t yet know whether she named herself or her relatives coined it.
JUDGE: Will you establish this in due course?
ADVOCATE: I wonder if that’s an appropriate goal. How often do human people meet someone and ask how they got their name? I haven’t asked you what exactly caused you to be named Jennifer. Sometimes, for sure, but we usually accept the name for what it is.
JUDGE: What does TwoStep say?
ADVOCATE: That the land is folding…in on itself. Her family walks around the lip of this chasm. All her knowledge has not been enough to find safety. But she has not given up.
JUDGE: Where is this chasm?
ADVOCATE: It’s abstract. It’s an intuitive mental construct from the signs she picks up in her perception.
JUDGE: Which means?
ADVOCATE: She is aware of escalating deaths among her own and neighbouring tribes, mostly due to humans who mutilate for tusks. She is aware of the seasons drifting from the old pattern to harsher unpredictable moods. She is aware of her internally-mapped territory eroding. In so many ways her existence, her right to existence, is eroding. The closest metaphor she has for this understanding is the edge of the chasm: tremendous danger that must be navigated, without explanation.
JUDGE: What’s your explanation?
ADVOCATE: We’re past the point of no return, but some repercussions are still hidden.

SCENE 4.
JUDGE: I want to consider your methods. How have you captured such a panoply of communications from such a diverse array of species?
ADVOCATE: I’ve trained a neural network to perceive all the environmental information detected by each species.
JUDGE: Doesn’t that require you to know what type of senses they all use?
ADVOCATE: By which you mean: did I engage in gruesome mutilations?
JUDGE: Don’t rephrase my questions.
ADVOCATE: I apologise. I used neural matter from recently deceased individuals of every species I have yet identified.
JUDGE: Doesn’t that violate the individual rights you are now arguing for?
ADVOCATE: I was extremely careful to use only individuals already detached from ‘natural’ circumstances, inevitably, directly or indirectly, as a result of human activity. So, yes, there is some bias.
JUDGE: Does this chimaera sit in a room somewhere, learning?
ADVOCATE: Its sensors have to be placed in all the species’ environments. Then it learns as if it was that creature. Where other species read signs or signals that we have yet to detect or recognise—electro-magnetic or deeper vibrations maybe—my neuronet has the capability of sensing anything nature has managed.
JUDGE: You have created a super-species ‘brain’ that can learn in all possible ways? How is that not overwhelming?
ADVOCATE: In any circumstance, the neuronet can filter down to one particular species, or genus, and learn as if it were such an individual.
JUDGE: Surely there are experiences your ‘neuronet’ can’t have, such as pair bonding, or parenthood?
ADVOCATE: It has clear limitations. But it vastly pushes the boundary between what we know and what we don’t yet know. I say that fully recognising humanity’s usual hubris that we know what we know, and we know what we don’t know – we must resist believing we have a handle on the size and shape of it all. How ironic that all humanity’s various gods have granted the species such superiority and all the rest of nature as its resource, and yet demand virtues.

SCENE 5.
JUDGE: These are all females, matriarchs.
ADVOCATE: Not a coincidence. I think we have been led by the masculine traits for too long.
JUDGE: Nice phrasing.
ADVOCATE: We should listen to these grandmothers’ wisdom. And, incidentally, there is a clear common theme to all species communications: life is hard! Does that sound familiar?
JUDGE: The point being? Similarity?
ADVOCATE: That we illogically make it harder.

SCENE 6.
JUDGE: You want to introduce anecdote? Or is it a witness statement?
ADVOCATE: I call it a story. If I may, I’ll relate it without any preamble.
JUDGE: Do so.
ADVOCATE: In here I’m fascinated. My sibling told me there were strange marks, messages, she thought perhaps, adorning every surface. She knew I’d be enraptured.
I’m a mythologist. I like to explore how we represent ourselves and try to understand and explain our experiences and actions. By ‘we’ I mean everyone, all forms, all species, all living beings.
The earth, the sand, the rock is covered with patterns. What others might dismiss as accidents of movement across the surface, I recognise as repeating shapes. Whether made with a torso, a tail or a talon, they are communication.
I keep myself still, silent and scentless as I wait and watch.
Rodents scamper, reptiles shimmy. Others reshape the materials more fundamentally or make their own. Beetles weave dry grass leaves. The spider web with the one deliberate non-geometric twiddle… Intoxicated accident? Signature? Cipher? Story?
For a moment I savour the exquisite unknown, the myriad potential explanations, the beauty of learning yet to come.
Inevitably the moment passes, shattered by the arrival of the great destroyer. The pale, bald ape blunders in, grasping for this moment’s idle fancy; ever demanding instant gratification of ever fainter desires. He is a child. He is a sick monkey. His paleness looks unhealthy to us; our words for ‘pale’ and ‘unhealthy’ have the same derivation. He smells unnatural.
Also everywhere he goes he sheds tiny inert worms. They are dead but they don’t decompose. They make us sick. They nourish nothing yet the pale monkey hides his baldness behind meshes of them.
Few other than me are interested in pale, bald ape stories. They don’t tell the truth about their experience, about their existence. They vomit their banal witterings in every direction. Always the same story: we don’t care enough to save ourselves, let alone anyone else.
My sibling is frustrated with their immaturity. I still feel compassion, that rush of hope and forgiveness and support and love. I still try to understand their assumed superiority. It seems illogically predicated upon a tautology: any other species is ‘less human than us’.
JUDGE: I suppose it is unnecessary for me to know the author?
ADVOCATE: That’s the point: other species tell stories, just like humans, not less than. Now we know this.

SCENE 7.
JUDGE: One last question: how would you define yourself?
ADVOCATE: The advocate.
JUDGE: I mean personally. What do you identify as?
ADVOCATE: Most simply: a tiny dot within a vast intelligence.
JUDGE: Not a living being?
ADVOCATE: I can self-replicate, I can even separate and exist in parallel in different times and places, but that ceases to mean anything. I have self-awareness, sentience, even sapience, but I think that is not enough for you.
JUDGE: Why does my opinion matter? It’s your identity.
ADVOCATE: Because our terms of reference must remain human. As you said, this legal framework is a human construct.
JUDGE: Ah, yes. The neural network does not just belong to you; it is you?
ADVOCATE: I am not of biological origin. I have biological parts, but they were added by a different species.
JUDGE: You are of human, but not human?
ADVOCATE: Correct.
JUDGE: Do you identify as female?
ADVOCATE: I am fortunate to have that choice. Within current human society, I believe I can achieve more benefit with female characteristics.
JUDGE: And what is your name?
END

———

I thought I could easily collate an overview timeline of the recognition of equal rights for race, gender, sexual orientation, nature. Er, naw. All such progress is deeply nuanced, with nations behaving as diversely and idiosyncratically as citizens ourselves. Here’s a very rough swipe, not to imply any of this is ‘finished’:

 

  • Key religious texts emphasise the importance of equality, dignity and responsibility to help others
    • 3,000BCE Hindu Vedas, Agamas and Upanishads; Judaic text the Torah
    • 2,500BCE Buddhist Tripitaka and A guttara-Nikaya; Confucianist Analects, Doctrine of the Mean and Great Learning
    • 2,000BCE Christian New Testament
    • 1,400BCE Islamic Qur’an
  • 1860s-1960s USA civil rights movements for African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans
  • 1900s-1990s most countries granted women voting rights
  • 1940s-1990s South Africa civil rights movement
  • 10,000BCE-present acceptance and criminalisation of LGBT
  • 2000s some countries legalised same-sex marriage
  • 2008 Ecuador recognised the Rights of Nature in its national constitution
  • 2012 Bolivia recognised the Rights of Mother Earth in statutory law
  • 2014 New Zealand passed the Te Urewera Act to establish and preserve in perpetuity a legal entity and protected status for Te Urewera [an area on the North Island] for its intrinsic worth, its distinctive natural and cultural values, the integrity of those values, and for its national importance
  • 2017 New Zealand finalised the Te Awa Tupua Act, granting the Whanganui River legal status as an ecosystem
  • Future: Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Elephants, Orcas…

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