The Rapidly Approaching Horizon

Many thanks to friends outside of Canada checking in on us. We are far from the Halifax fires, about 25 km, and it is primarily affecting a suburban community. But the air quality is impacted everywhere in the province.

There are also other fires raging across the Maritimes, with an enormous 20,000 hectare one in Shelburne County. And thousands of people have been displaced, with many losing homes, animal companions, lifelong memories. This is not to mention the tremendous loss of wildlife.

This week, Nova Scotia is set to have record breaking temperatures as high as 30C (86F) by Thursday. This, combined with dry conditions and low precipitation, has created a tinderbox of our forests. Any incendiary can ignite a blaze. But there is an elephant in the room.

Less than a year ago, hurricane Fiona caused widespread damage across Atlantic Canada. It was the most costly weather event ever recorded in the province. Now, Nova Scotia is seeing an early wildfire season. In fact, we’ve seen more wildfires at this point in 2023 than in all of 2022. And our region is not alone. Across Canada, the catastrophic impact of the climate emergency is fast becoming a new normal.

In addition to this, the forest industry has commodified vast swaths of wooded land, stripping it of its biodiversity. Sprawl and loss of habitat has devastated urban wetlands, which are instrumental in halting or slowing fires. Add to this a renewed “gold rush” and it is a recipe for future disasters and an acceleration of climate change.

We can’t reverse climate change. It isn’t even likely that we could slow it down. And there is no indication that anyone in power is doing anything substantial to seriously address the crisis anyway. In fact, under the current arrangement of power, the economic elite continue to ravage the living earth, suck out its primordial blood, and stuff their coffers with coin unabated. Our collective future isn’t even a footnote in their forecasts.

But the rest of us will all need to navigate this new and terrifying world soon and mitigate the suffering that will undoubtedly come with it. We will have to take our place within the intricate web of nature that, for too long, we have rejected for the dangerous and self-destructive myth of human supremacy.

No one will have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines merely watching things unfold on the horizon. Because that horizon is rapidly approaching us all.

Kenn Orphan, May 2023

*Photo is of the fire in the Upper Tantallon area of Halifax.

A Message to Americans Regarding Migrants

Dear Americans,

People aren’t desperate to get into your country because it is the greatest nation on the planet. They aren’t risking perilous journeys on rafts or trains of death, traversing rivers and tumultuous seas, through rainforests and scorching deserts, past criminal gangs, because America is some shining star.

They are trying to escape the threat of death and a misery that has been caused, in large part, by ruthless, decades-long, economic, geopolitical and environmental policies your government, at the behest of corporations, has implemented throughout the Global South. Policies which have decimated their livelihoods, robbed them of their resources, destroyed their ecosystems, and propped up ruthless regimes that rule them with terror and brutality.

Seriously, do you really think most people would want to go voluntarily to a nation where there is no universal healthcare, homelessness is ubiquitous, gun violence is rampant, racism is normalized, and immigrants are demonized by the press and at least half of the political class? You are the only option they have left. Think of it as a choice between the lesser of two evils.

Sincerely, Reality.

Kenn Orphan, May 2023

*Photo is of migrants via the New York Times.

A Meditation on Solitude

What is it about solitude that so many of us fear? Perhaps it is because it is only in solitude that we are forced to listen to the silence. Forced to face the realities of possessing a body that so often feels separate from the natural world we inhabit. For many of us, there is a strange comfort that comes with being surrounded by others. It can sometimes serve as a distraction from looking deep into ourselves.  

I know that for me, solitude has often been filled with a sense of dread or terror. And yet, I’ve often felt alone even when amid people, even people I know and love. Part of this comes from living in my head so much. Some may understand that people with a propensity for melancholy usually dwell in a space we carve out in our minds. Sometimes it can feel like a refuge. A sanctuary. Other times it feels like a prison. Solitude is not necessarily loneliness, but it can often feel like it.

Several years ago, I took a road trip on my own. I packed a bag and drove up the California coast with no real destination in mind. No itinerary. Stopping wherever and whenever I wanted to. Staying long if I wanted at places others might have become bored with. Staring off into the distance atop an oceanside cliff. Sitting cross-legged in a forest as the twilight gathered around me.

It was in the forest that I felt most at home. I observed creatures scurrying about or still. Some were communal, others were decidedly solitary. Life was teeming under the soil, in the bark of the trees, in the skies above. Everything was connected as if it were a tapestry. I imagined myself staying there forever. Letting this body decay to compost. Nourishing something far greater than myself.  

In my youth, I was raised in Christianity. And I was taught about Jesus and his solitary sojourn to the desert. Even though now, I have left organized religion behind, that story still speaks to me. It revealed a need we all have to seek out that which cannot be found in the midst of others. And to face our demons, as Jesus faced Satan. In a sense, facing the darkness within us.

This solitude isn’t the same as the type of aloneness which modern society imposes on us. We have created a kind of atomized existence where we are expected to be independent. Individual fortitude and self-reliance have become virtues that are endlessly lauded. While the sages and scions of our age continually tout “wellness”, the model so many of us have internalized is “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps”. Ironically, when that phrase originated, it was intended to mock such a concept as ridiculously impossible.  

Now, as we find ourselves in the maw of late capitalism, we see how that idea has worked out. Our fragile biosphere, the living web of life we all rely on, has been given a backseat to the “economy”. The irony of this is that this economic arrangement was never built to benefit all of us. And we are only now beginning to see this Faustian bargain for what it is: self-destruction.

None of this is to suggest that everything about modern life is evil or destructive. There is still art, music, literature, dance. And I am not a Luddite. I appreciate the sciences, the advances of modern medicine, the exploration of the universe and of this wondrous world we live on. And I enjoy electricity and other technological conveniences. Even social media, with its copious flaws, still has room to make real connections with real human beings. And it can galvanize people to take a stand against injustice or brutality.

But all of this is tenuous if we think and act as though we are above nature and not dependent upon it. Or if we become convinced, we do not need other people in order to thrive and feel meaning. And I fear that too many of us are attaching our mental, emotional and spiritual health to a system that, in the end, doesn’t care for us in the least except as a commodity to be traded when it is profitable.

Solitude gives us a chance to pause in this frenetic and abusive culture. If we listen closely, it forces us to realize that this is not the way things are supposed to be. If we feel alien to this world of illuminated screens and sprawling concrete, maybe it is because we are. It was not designed for us to pause. Not created for us to connect with each other. A world of endless distraction and obfuscation. So, to stand outside of it, even for a short time, can be a revolutionary act.

Kenn Orphan, April 2023

*Photo is one of my own, and is Mushamush Lake, Nova Scotia.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers: a Meditation about Empathy on a Dying World

Recently, I’ve been listening to The Lost Birds: An Extinction Elegy, by American composer Christopher Tin. It is an arrangement based on the poems of Emily Dickinson, Sara Teasdale, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Christina Rossetti. It is sung beautifully by Voces8 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Tin composed this marvelous arrangement as a memorial to various bird species that have been driven to extinction by habit loss, pollution and encroachment. The pieces soar and dive in a powerful rollercoaster of emotion, especially when one has been a student of extinction for as long as I have.

But it also got me remembering an incident from my childhood. I think I was around the age of 13 when I saw this. I was coming home from school. Actually, I was just outside the school entrance. A small bird was screeching up at me. He seemed inconsolable. I couldn’t understand why, until I saw him hopping up to a mutilated figure. It was the crushed body of a bird like him. Back and forth, he bobbed and shifted. Looking at the crushed corpse, then looking back up to me. I felt its desperation. It was as if to ask why? Why?

It was at that point that I realized species, other than my own, felt. They felt pleasure and pain. But more, they felt sorrow. How else could I explain it? Self interest? Yes, but isn’t sorrow about self-interest, at its core? We feel sorrow because we loved greatly. I know, with confidence, that this small creature had as much feeling as I had on any given day when I felt grief. It felt passion. It felt love. It felt confusion. It felt injustice.  

That experience has haunted me throughout my entire life. I can still see that bird. Its eyes. Its frantic movements. I can still see the crushed cadaver of his mate. And I can still feel the sting of guilt that I didn’t do more. But what could I have done? I remember kneeling and telling him how sorry I was, but what good was that? I gently moved the body of his love off the pavement and under the shade of a shrub nearby so that he could attend to her without danger. Then I walked away, unable to reverse the enormous injury to this small, sentient being.

Birds loom large in our collective storytelling. Anzû wreaked havoc over the ancient Sumerians, Vaqub governed the Mayan underworld. A crow was often associated with death in many European folklores. And Impundula worked with Zulu witches to prey on the vulnerable. But they also come as an omen or as teachers. To the Chinese, Jingwei taught us perseverance. To the Medieval Saxon, partridges taught us kindness. And according to many Indigenous North and Central Americans, hummingbirds taught us love. But these are symbols. Birds, of any variety, exist independent of our anthropomorphism, and they have suffered enormously from our avarice, apathy and cruelty. Still, I cannot deny the influence of these stories on my own reflection.

Fast forward to a time when I worked in hospice care. As a grief counselor. Once again, I was there, kneeling at the bedside of the dying and the bereaved. Feeling useless. Feeling inadequate to the task of stopping the misery that was unfolding. But eventually learning to fill the role I was given. Being there. Offering an ear. Helping with final arrangements. Telling difficult truths about death and preparations and burial. Explaining civil documents. Bringing a cool or warm beverage. A blanket. A hug, when asked. A warm human body.

I’ve realized since, that empathy isn’t about solving anything. It is about presence. It is about being with another in a time of joy or a time of sorrow, without judgement. It isn’t about doing anymore than that. Of course, if someone is in jeopardy our task is to administer assistance as best we can. But so much of life is about coming in after a tragedy has occurred. The aftermath. Arriving at the scene. Sifting through the wreckage. Finding the wounded. Applying healing balms and bandages. Handing out blankets and water. Breaking bad news. Holding and warming. And paying honour to and burying the dead.

I am grateful to have been on both sides of this transaction. Not that I have enjoyed being in either, just that it has given me some insight. Grief is an unforgiving and intrusive visitor. A mood and vibe killer. Bursting in like an insolent, seemingly inconsolable child and smashing all the crockery while they demand even more of your attention. More of your attendance. It is no one you’d consciously invite into your home, much less your head.

But I will admit, these experiences have helped me traverse some dark inner terrain, many of them in recent days. Because some days I feel lost in the miasma of my own grief or melancholy, and this hyper-capitalist dystopia we call civilization. These lanterns help to light my way. And it has deepened my empathy for the wider world of species who suffer daily from our kind. From our endless consumption and trashing. Our mindless drive toward the destruction of the only home we’ve ever known.

Empathy is what makes us human. And it exacts a toll. But its absence is lethal to us and the planet. In a sense, we are all arriving at the scene of a tragedy. The aftermath of an unfolding disaster we often feel powerless to stop. The Sixth Mass Extinction. If we can feel the despair of one small bird, we can surely feel the sorrow of an entire species. We can be present in this moment and provide comfort while paying respect to those beings now gone forever. And right now, this is the best starting point for protecting and preserving what we can, while there is still time left to do so.

Kenn Orphan, March 2023

Photo Credit: Stutchbury Lab: Behavioural and Conservation Ecology

From Iraq to Ukraine: the Destination is the Same

It was a crisp, sunny day in San Diego 20 years ago, when I stood on the curb next to friends and comrades. My placard read: “No War for Oil! No to Imperialism!”. We waited for hours before George W. Bush’s entourage arrived, there to protest his illegal war against Iraq. On the opposite side of the road, counter-protestors jeered and mocked us. One held a sign that said the exact opposite of mine. It became obvious that despite the spin of the Bush administration, his fans knew exactly what this was about. And they reveled in the idea that the American Empire could invade any nation, take anything that it wanted by force, and no one would be able to stop it.

Over the next months to years, those of us on the left endured near constant harassment for our antiwar positions. “Freedom fries,” an imbecilic jab at France for not joining Bush’s “coalition” of death. Journalists and academicians banned, silenced or fired from their jobs. Death threats and accusations of treachery. Indefinite detention. The normalization of “pre-emptive” war. Demonization, attacks and persecution of Muslims. Intrusions into citizen’s (and foreigners) private lives. This was the aftermath of the attacks on 9/11. The malignant growth of a militarized surveillance state that would have repercussions into the present day.

Bush’s unprovoked war on Iraq would proceed to claim hundreds of thousands of lives. Millions more would be forever displaced, scarred and mutilated from the carnage. Fathers and sons would be tortured at Abu Ghraib. Innocent men would be spirited away to a concentration camp in a US-occupied section of Cuba. Children born after battle would suffer from horrific birth defects and cancer thanks to the use of depleted uranium in armaments. An entire region would be destabilized for decades to come. And the US would never have to answer for any of its crimes.

Today, we are witness to the horrors of another war. Putin’s assault on Ukraine. And if one is honest, it is impossible to miss the many similarities to Bush’s war on Iraq. Similar excuses being made to justify barbarism. For Bush it was a “war on terrorism”. To fight an enemy “over there” rather than on US soil. For Putin, it is a “war against Nazis”. To protect Russia from the encroachment of the West. Just like Bush, Putin has persecuted dissidents who oppose his war. Threats, demonization and even imprisonment have awaited many who dissent. In both cases, truth was replaced by meaningless slogans, vulgarity and sentimental nationalism. And in both cases, real flesh was torn, real bones were crushed, real blood has been spilt, and real people have been killed, all thanks to propaganda and lies.

But as Putin justifiably faces charges of war crimes in the International Criminal Court, I cannot help but see the glaring hypocrisy of it all. Bush, a man who destroyed countless lives, walks free. He gets to paint portraits, go to football games with celebrities, and occasionally share wistful nuggets of wisdom to a fawning and forgetful press.

And how many other world leaders and military or state officials are living a life free of prosecution after committing similar crimes? Netanyahu. Modi. Kissinger. Salman. Bolsonaro. Assad. The list is long. Men (and some women) who committed war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing, toppled democratically elected governments, oversaw brutal occupations, apartheid, drone bombings of ambulances, weddings, funerals, a grandmother picking okra in her field, a teenager sitting at a café, or provided cover for these crimes. They are not only free from criminal prosecution, they enjoy the spoils of power or prestige as if nothing ever happened. In a sane world, wouldn’t they all be on trial in the Hague?

We are told by some that we are living in a multipolar world now, and that we should be happy about that because the evil American Empire is no longer the primary global power. But this simplistic worldview conveniently ignores other forms of despotism, imperialism, colonialism and oppression. It makes it seem that the US is the sole arbiter of barbarity and injustice. It makes it easy for some to erase the lives of others who languish and suffer under a different sphere of oppression. And it obliterates solidarity for the international working class, which exists independent of the government it languishes under.

Regardless of whether we are living in a unipolar or multipolar world, the effects of this arrangement of power remain virtually the same for most of us. The powerful, in whatever polarity they may reside in, use their assets, armaments, institutions and political leverage to avoid prosecution for their crimes. All the while, they get book deals, go on speaking tours, get wined and dined at lavish restaurants and resorts, and stuff their bloated coffers with coin. In the meantime, ordinary people, especially in the Global South, are exploited, slaughtered, displaced, disappeared and brutalized. And the living earth itself continues to be besieged and rendered unlivable thanks to their unbridled greed and rampant militarism. It is worth reminding that unipolarity or multipolarity are meaningless terms on a dead planet.

Twenty years ago I protested an illegal, unprovoked war of imperialism against a sovereign nation. Today, I protest the same. Unequivocally. Because the stench of hypocrisy is more than I can bear. Because solidarity with people is far more important than solidarity to any state entity. I choose a sane world, however elusive, where all power is held to account, over normalizing, justifying or providing excuses for the insanity and barbarism we see around us today. Because, no matter who it is, be it the US, NATO, Russia or any other powerful state actor on the world stage today, their destination for us is the same. And it leads to our collective demise.

Kenn Orphan, March 2023

Beware the Ides of March…

The other day, as I left a store and walked out on to the pavement, the sky was a deep lavender colour with a streak of blazing orange underneath it all. The sun was setting, and I stopped and stared at. I reached for my phone to snap a photo, but I realized it was fading too fast to both enjoy and take a picture. So, I left it in my pocket.

We live under a tyranny of screens. They dominate our consciousness. Small ones, big ones. Portable ones, and ones that stretch out over walls. They dictate how we feel. How we express. How we connect. What we share. And it often feels strange to detach from them, even for a blip of time.

So, instead of that sunset that I didn’t capture, I am posting this photo. It is out a window on to a park next to my sister’s house. The window covered with streaks of rain. Wind howling outside. Winter is giving us one last kick in the jaw before it retreats. And I know early spring will undoubtedly hold a few icy slaps and uppercuts for any of us who may dare feel too optimistic, too soon.

Winter is generally like this photo for me. Black and white. I’ve always felt that winter was like being a foreigner in a hostile land, and I’ve made no secret of that. I am not fluent in the native tongue, so I pantomime my way through its streets and back alleys. Perhaps it is the Mediterranean half of my ancestry that drives this lust for sunlight and warmth.

I didn’t even have to do any editing on this photo. Nature, itself, drained the colour from the frame. But I’ve gained a new appreciation for the strange, mercurial power it has. One day being so rich with luster, another day being devoid of any. And how it so often mirrors my own dark times of loss and grief. Devoid of colour, streaked with tears. A heaving beast that cannot seem to be sated by anything. But a power to be respected and reckoned with, nonetheless.

Tomorrow is the Ides of March. That place on the Roman calendar where debts are to be settled. A day we are supposed to be wary of. But I welcome it. And this storm seems a fitting end to winter. A debt paid. That, at least, felt very good. Because, whether it be on the calendar or within the soul, every season has a beginning and an end.

Kenn Orphan, March 2023

God in Drag

With the recent spate of vicious attacks on drag performers and drag shows, I’ve been thinking a lot about a brilliant quote by the late Ram Dass: “Treat everyone you meet as if they were God in drag.” And I think it gets to the heart of this manufactured controversy.

We are all in some kind of drag. If we live in community with other human beings, then we don our masks and costumes every time we walk out our front door. Most of us wear what our society expects us to wear. The masks and costumes created for us, not by us. We do this to fit in, to conform. But drag tosses all of this pretense out the window. It recognizes that identity is a construct, not a constant. In fact, there is nothing permanent about identity.

The irrational fear of drag queens and drag shows betrays a deep-seated fear of the authentic self. The self that transcends the ego. And it is driving this crusade against those who are daring to live their authentic lives out in the open. Drag is radical because its over-the-top form challenges the status quo definition of identity.

The claim that bans on drag shows are to “protect children” is ludicrous. Most drag shows are for adults, and those that aren’t, whether they are library readings or birthday parties, do not have adult content.

But it is worth reflecting upon our own childhood. A wondrous time when the characters of a story or a song came alive. Drag reminds us of a time when we could be whatever we wanted to be, regardless of gender, ethnicity, skin colour, religion, body shape or societal standing.

This freedom to be whatever we imagined ended for many when the first adult stepped in to shame us. Thus began the long, painful death of our imagination and the long slog toward banality.

And perhaps this is why it is feared so much by some. It makes them aware, whether conscious or not, of the drag they are currently wearing. Of its blandness and of the dissatisfaction it has caused them throughout their entire lives.

In the end, it comes down to what Ram Dass said. It comes down to how we treat other human beings. And if we saw the Divine spark behind the masks and costumes we all wear, how much better this world would be.

Kenn Orphan, March 2023

Aya: One of Us

This is Aya. She was pulled from the rubble in Syria after hours of frantic digging by rescue workers. Sadly, her mother, father and four siblings were killed in the earthquake, but Aya was saved thanks to her mother. She was still attached by her umbilical cord.

Another woman, who had given birth herself just two months ago, stepped forward to breastfeed her. Two women, through the fragile veil between life and death, saved her.

Aya means miracle in Arabic.

I can’t stop thinking about this little soul who, out of such destruction and tragedy, has graced our world.

I’ve been dealing with my own shadows of late. The dark corners and passages that often confound me, sometimes leaving me feeling lost or broken. I’ve been looking in some wrong places for comfort, as well as some right ones.

It’s a fact of life that if we are breathing, we will encounter rough patches. People will disappoint you. You will disappoint people too. Health and finances may fail. Grief and loss will undoubtedly visit you. Injustice and cruelty may feel overwhelming. At times, the crushing weight of things may feel like more than you can bear. But then something truly miraculous will happen. You are witness to a wondrous thing like this. And you remember how fragile life is, and how miraculous too.

Aya isn’t an angel or saint. She is one of us. A fellow human being, with all the same flaws, failings, grace and beauty. And her survival amidst this terrible catastrophe is a reminder of that. The real miracle is when we recognize this.

Kenn Orphan, February 2023

Cop City is the Future they Want, Unwavering Resistance must be Our Answer

Over this past weekend I went to see the new Avatar movie. I had seen the first one and, although it had flaws, I saw the overall message as compelling. Fair warning, here is a small spoiler: Simply put, the plot is one where humans in the future, with the help of gargantuan and lethal military might, attempt to colonize a planet called Pandora. It is another solar system many light years from earth, and it possesses many extraordinary and rare minerals and resources, as well as incredible biodiversity and Indigenous societies. In the sequel, the humans of earth have returned, and their goal is nothing less than total colonization of the planet for the purpose of resettlement. Earth, as one cold hearted military general says, is dying.

Hollywood produces a lot of rubbish. I mean, a LOT of it. And we are living in an age where fast paced computer-generated graphics and imagery have taken the place of meaningful dialogue, acting and plot development. Much of this is nothing new, the film industry has long collaborated with the Department of Defense, the Pentagon and the CIA in its productions. How else could a blockbuster movie have access to so much military hardware? Major box office money makers, like the braindead “Top Gun” series, rely enormously on the US military industrial sector.

Thus, much of the messaging in today’s blockbuster movies is lockstep with that of modern American imperialism. The military is almost always portrayed as a flawed, yet thoroughly heroic force for good in the world. Foreigners, especially if they are in the Global South or from Arab or Muslim countries, are othered. They are often depicted in racist stereotypes, stripped of their humanity, and given the role of a sinister or backward troll bent on the destruction of all that is good in the world.

So, watching the new Avatar film provided a refreshing break from such racist and ludicrous plotlines. Here, imperialistic military forces are portrayed in the more accurate light of world destroyer. One scene, in particular, is reminiscent of the American military’s murderous assault on Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 70s. Giant starships make landfall on parts of Pandora’s pristine rainforests, setting everything and every living being ablaze. It is scorched earth policy seen for what it actually is, ecocide.

Without a doubt, Avatar has many flaws. It is still very American-centric. And there is still the stench of “white savior” mythos haunting many of the scenes. But it is visually stunning. And it is a departure from most of the films generated by the film industry these days. I cannot imagine most people coming away from the movie with anything other than disdain for militarism and all of its nauseating jingoistic platitudes. What struck me the most is that while I was watching this movie about an assault on the ecosystem of a fictional planet and its Indigenous peoples, another was unfolding on a real forest and on the people attempting to protect it from destruction. That forest is in the city of Atlanta, Georgia.

On January 18th, the Atlanta police assassinated one of those defenders. Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, affectionately known as “Tortuguita,” or “Little Turtle” was gunned down in cold blood by a stormtrooper raiding a peaceful encampment. The defenders have been in the Weelaunee Forest (also known as the South River Forest), south-east of Atlanta, for nearly two years protesting the construction of a massive $90 million dollar, 85-acre, police training facility. According to Truthout, the project has the backing of major corporations like Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Delta Airlines, UPS and Cox Enterprises. The latter owns the Atlanta Constitution-Journal which has published endless articles in praise of the Cop City project and demonizing anyone who dissents or protests it. The citizens of Atlanta, where a majority has opposed the facility, will nonetheless be paying for a third of its cost.

The Weelaunee Forest was land stolen from the Muscogee people who were marched westward, many to their deaths, in the infamous Trail of Tears. It is also located in a predominantly working-class Black neighbourhood. And it had been slated as a much-needed greenbelt for the city and to mitigate the damage from climate change. It has been aptly named “Cop City” by many protestors and critics alike.

With all these characteristics, the assault on this forest and its defenders is one of the best analogies for our current predicament. It also parallels the ongoing war against Indigenous peoples in the Amazon or in Central America, where scores have been murdered by armed militias and illegal loggers and ranchers who have been decimating the rainforests for decades. But it also signifies something even more chilling.

The authoritarian state, now in the most dangerous and destructive phase of late capitalism, is ramping up its efforts to suppress any meaningful dissent. With each passing year it becomes more brazen. So sadly, in all likelihood, the Weelaunee Forest will be razed, and Cop City will be built. The state is already unleashing its arsenal and declaring protestors “domestic terrorists,” a term which has been made meaningless with each passing year as it is applied to virtually anyone who exposes or opposes state violence, mindless militarism, rapacious consumption and corporate ecocide.

Police forces are now being trained, not to protect people from harm, but to protect state and corporate power. And this marriage is classic fascism. They will be trained in urban warfare against civilians, primarily the poor, working class and people of colour, and all under the guise of “fighting crime and keeping people safe.” The real purpose is far more ominous.

As our climate becomes more precarious and erratic, social and economic tensions will continue to be exacerbated. Instead of dismantling the planet-killing arrangement of power currently in place, those on the top are seeking to bolster its defenses. And they will defend this racist, ecocidal and untenable fortress at all costs. But does it need to be this way? And how complicit are we in this scheme?

As I watched Avatar, I found myself thinking of this unfolding drama in the Weeluanee Forest. I thought of the two Indigenous Pataxó land defenders who were just murdered in Brazil. I thought about the protests happening in west Germany to oppose a mine, where Greta Thunberg and others were just arrested. And I felt myself grieving that many of us seem a bit too comfortable with the theme of abandoning our precious home world within the realms of science fiction movies. I understand that the broader message of films like this may be to defend what we have left here, but how often is this understood by the larger audience? How often do they recognize that they represent the fictional “Sky People” or at least tacitly support their destructive policies and projects by their silence?

The species on fictional Pandora aren’t more wondrous than the real ones who inhabit our fragile and beleaguered biosphere. Not by a longshot. I’ve been fortunate to witness so many of them when visiting various places around the world. From bioluminescent algae in the sea in Panama, to marsupials in Australia, to howler monkeys in Argentina, to sequoias in California, to glow worms in New Zealand, to sea turtles in the Caribbean Sea, to lynxes here in my native Nova Scotia. And the Indigenous peoples and cultures of that fictional world are no match for the real ones who still live among us, in our times, and who are at the forefront of this ongoing war being waged for profit, against the biosphere on which we all depend.

Resistance to colonialism, militaristic, state violence and ecocide isn’t fictional. Cop City is the future they want, but there are courageous people pushing back against that nihilistic narrative everywhere. It is a resistance that is happening now, in big ways and small, on this world, and in places not far from where you live. But it needs all of us, or it will fail. And this wondrous, real world, and all that rely on it, will be lost forever.

Kenn Orphan, January 2023

*Photo is of Tortuguita (Manuel Esteban Paez Terán), may he rest in peace and in power, and may we who are left behind on Turtle Island resist, with conscience, kindness and integrity, in solidarity with each other, until the very end.

On the nature of memory, a gift we cannot keep

Since the onset of my mother’s dementia, I’ve thought a lot about the nature of memory. I never realized fully how malleable it is. Or how subject it is to the influence of trauma or ecstasy or boredom or sensation.

We tend to think memory is forever. That it is a constant. I think this helps us to feel less terrified at the randomness that often seems to define our days. But it isn’t.

I never imagined my mother would forget that I am her son. Worse, I never imagined she would eventually forget the love of her life. But my father, many years gone, has gone too from her memory. Perhaps only returning like some draft from a door left ajar on a blustery day.

Memory is the foundation of so many things’ we humans consider essential. It has been passed down in spoken stories, scribed on great scrolls, etched in stone, printed in bound up reams of paper, digitalized. It has been studied, examined and analyzed for court documents and civil arrangements. Used as a bludgeon by some, and a caress by others. And yet, even after the thousands of years our ancestors descended from the trees of the savannah, it is a mystery.

A couple months ago, I drove by an old cemetery. They are quite common here in Nova Scotia. Sometimes meticulously maintained, but often covered in bramble and vines. This one was a bit of both. I stopped the car and ambled toward the gates with a bit of trepidation as I went.

After a time, I realized that I had been standing in front of one tombstone. My mind had drifted to another place, but my body stood in this one. I looked at the engraving on the stone:

Gone, but not forgotten

A simple wish. A fervent belief. A last gasp of grief. I could not know what feelings or thoughts were going through the minds of those left on this side of the veil. But I could fathom the pain. We all want this, after all. To remember. To be remembered. Because we all know we will eventually be gone from this earthly plain. And then I thought of my mother. How she has forgotten. And she is not yet gone.

But I began to realize that memory is more than the pieces and shards of recollection we store in our heads. There is memory in our skin. Memory in our breath. Memory in every part of our senses. There is the memory of water. The memory of stone. The memory of soil. The memory of sky.

This thought provided me some comfort as I wandered back to the car. But I would be lying if I said it wiped away most of the fear or pangs of grief that seem to meet me at the most inopportune times. Because these days, I am living in my head. And this is where memory asserts itself like an insolent child. Demanding my attention every minute.

Since my mother’s diagnosis, I’ve feared losing my own memory. Any inkling that this is happening is met with a fierce internal battle. I SHALL NOT FORGET! I shout it in my mind. As if to defy Mnemosyne, the god of memory. As if to mark a moment in time, a line in the sand that cannot be crossed. But the truth is that I may forget, and probably will.

When I got home, I had a message from a friend who had end stage cancer. It said: “hope to talk to you soon.” I felt a sudden sting of panic and called him within minutes. I thought, lest I forget. “Tomorrow, I am going to visit my mother,” I told him. “I remember her. One of the kindest people I’ve ever met,” he replied. I didn’t realize that this would be the last time I would ever speak to him.

The next day I saw my mother. She was sitting up, doing a word search puzzle in a book that seemed to weigh more than she did. “Hi mom. How are you?” She looked up at me from the intensity of the printed conundrum and replied with a bright smile; “Hello Kenny.” I knew that she wasn’t greeting me as her son, but as one of her brothers. Because her life as my mother is all but forgotten to her. Decades are now erased from her world. But she still remembers my name. So, I will take that as a gift. Because it is. And because I’ve come to realize that memory, itself, is a gift. And, like all gifts, be it water, or breath, or life, it must eventually be returned to its source.

Kenn Orphan, January 2023