THE APOCALYPSE ISN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE

Once and a while I’ll spot what looks like another sign of the Apocalypse — that is, if Tom Robbins had authored The Book of Revelations.

Last week, I was in traffic behind a Hummer bearing a bumper sticker reading “Namaste.” That’s right, a consumer-version military assault vehicle with a Sanskrit salutation on its butt end. Driven by a petite blonde.

I was tempted to follow the ponytailed pilot home and inquire how such things happen. But I didn’t want to alarm her — or worse, her partner, who I imagined as a tattoo-splattered behemoth with a cammo-patterned yoga mat.

Speaking of apocalyptic signs, by the end of December the jig is up. As we all know, that’s when the Mayan 10,000-year long count ends, along with TWAWKI (the World As We Know It). If you haven’t already made arrangements for an underground bunker or decommissioned missile silo, I recommend you enjoy your last few weeks of 2012 to the fullest.

Never mind that a group of indigenous Mayan people recently held a press conference to debunk Northerners’ misinterpretations of their calendar. Forget that New Age titles on the 2012 scare started showing up in bookstore remainder bins almost a year ago, or that self-made experts on Mesoamerican mythology are now furiously backpedalling. We need our prophetic nightmares wherever we can find ’em. They make life more interesting.

Perhaps our biggest fear isn’t that the world will end or transform utterly at the end of this year. Our biggest fear is that it will remain the same. Perhaps it will be business as usual right into 2013, with humanity doing two steps forward and two steps back — a jig at the edge of the cliff.

Call me a skeptic. Although I’m constitutionally allergic to prophecy, every once and a while something mythic will make me go “hmmm” — as when I recently discovered citations from the Mayans’ sacred text the Popul Vuh.

According to the Popul Vuh, the Gods initially created two races of people (mud and wood) who failed to embrace and honor the world. So they created a new race for the far-off future. “The corn people had great vision and understanding, too great in fact, so the gods veiled their abilities, which caused them to slowly move away from nature; they forgot how to respect the gods and the natural law,” notes writer Jill Ettinger.

That certainly sounds like the corn-fed citizens of the northern hemisphere. High-fructose corn syrup is almost every other thing we eat, mostly from genetically modified strains. “If you take a snip of hair or a nail clipping from an American and run it through a mass spectrometer, you will discover that most of the carbon in his or her body… originally came from corn,” observes author Michael Pollen.

A-maize-ing.

Not only that, a combination of global trade liberalization and massive subsidies to agribiz firms have allowed the US to dump corn on the world market, at prices undercutting small farmers in the southern hemisphere. The massive exodus of poor Mexicans across the US border beginning in the nineties is largely due to northern-engineered market dislocations of Mexico’s biggest cash crop.

To paraphrase a famous Latin American figure, the corn people “have a lot of ’splainin’ to do.”

There’s more. In the documentary Genetic Roulette, a conga line of scientists, doctors, veterinarians and health activists rhyme off the dangers of genetically modified foods. They claim the explosion in recent years of chronic illnesses, food allergies, and immune system disturbances are traceable to our monkey wrenching of plant DNA – principally corn.

Still, mythic prophecy hasn’t had much of a track record – except for the Aztecs, of course. By sheer chance or some perverse click of cosmic gears, the appearance of the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez in 1519 coincided with the prophesied return of the their culture-giving god, Quetzalcoatl. With his fair skin and red beard, Cortes was a dead ringer for the Big Q. He used this fortuitous case of mistaken identity to launch war on the godsmacked people. The Aztec priest class, not incidentally, were big on human sacrifice to demanding deities, just like those of the Mayans.

The Aztec conquest remains a cautionary tale for today’s End Times enthusiasts, or anyone planning their life around prophecy. That said, the corn people connection has me scratching my head.

The Vancouver Courier,  November 21, 2012

Cross-species friendships offer teachable moments

Years ago, I used to visit a hobby farm owned by a girlfriend’s father. The mad animal antics at the place were like something out of a James Herriot novel as reworked by Kurt Vonnegut. Strange bonds and alliances had formed among completely different critters.

I remember seeing a goose waddle around the property, plaintively honking for a duck, its best friend. The duck was off at the vet, I learned, and the goose was stricken by its absence. The platonic pals did everything together, and for several days the goose was inconsolable.

An association between a duck and a goose doesn’t seem a stretch, since they’re both species of waterfowl. By now anyone with an Internet connection knows all sorts of weird bonds can form among domestic and wild animals. Scientists are now even prepared to describe such connections as “friendships.”

Last week’s episode of the PBS series Nature, “Animal Odd Couples,” showed how a Great Dane, Kate, adopted an abandoned fawn. Kate’s owner, photographer Isobel Springett, named the fawn Pip and the two animals often played together in a weird gambol that looked half-dog and half-deer. Even though Pip eventually grew up and joined a herd, she regularly returned to the property for playtime with Kate, awkwardly prancing about like Elaine from Seinfeld.

The creatures profiled in “Animal Odd Couples” cavort, cuddle, and sleep together in an apparent “screw you” to Chuck Darwin. Another pair is Mtani the retriever and Kasi the cheetah, a pair that met in 2010 at Busch Gardens theme park in Tampa, Florida. But surely the most surprising association is between Jack, a 16-year-old goat, and a blind 40-year-old horse named Charlie.

“Jack essentially became Charlie’s eyes, and would lead him around the ranch property where they both lived,” according to the Nature website. Apparently every day Jack walked Charlie to the horse’s favourite patch. Charlie eventually died and Jack abandoned the walks that seemed to give him purpose, dying soon after his friend.

What was going through Jack’s avocado-sized brain remains unknown. The conventional scientific wisdom has long been that only human beings need “purpose.” Animals, in contrast, are black boxes: stimulus in, response out, and little in between.

The simplistic models of behaviourists of the early 20th century were built on the Cartesian notion of animals-as-automatons, which in turn drew from the Judeo-Christian myth that humans are the crown of creation and the creatures we feed off are dumb as a pile of rocks. Today, behaviourism is deader than a Texan gun registration bill, and the notion that animals are unfeeling gene-machines is now on the wane as well. Verified tales of cross-species bonding aren’t as readily dismissed as outliers. As one researcher remarked on the Nature doc, “the plural of anecdote is data.”

Hardcore rationalists warn against projecting human qualities onto nonhuman creatures. True enough, but these folks often don’t get how subjective states can be shared by two or more beings of different species. “Intersubjectivity” is not limited to people and their pets. Every time you see another YouTube clip of a crow caretaking a kitten, a deer cuddling with a koala, or a dog merrily wrestling with an orangutan, you’re witnessing one of nature’s deeper routines, in which the separation of form is breached, if only briefly, by touch.

Human involvement obviously amplifies the opportunities for such animal connections. In the wild, living creatures spend much of their time involved with the “four f’s”: Fight, Flight, Feeding… and Mating — but when they’re not busy with survival, they obviously have little better to do than kibitz with whatever presents itself, as long as it appears safe. The same applies to humans, every time one of us bends down to pat a strange dog.

Read up on the latest reports on avian minds, and you’ll start questioning the “bird brain” tag. Check out the cognitive studies of cuttlefish and other cephalopods, and you might feel differently about seafood. Learn of the emotional lives of elephants and you’ll definitely be less fond of circuses. Hear fantastic claims about cetaceans communicating with people through human-sounding vocalizations, and you might even have doubts about public aquariums.

The Vancouver Courier, Nov. 16

Hopeful headlines from a parallel universe

Tories still reeling from effects of Harper cycling accident

Ottawa — In the days since he returned from his overseas tour and an accident in India, the Prime Minister’s behaviour has become increasingly erratic, according to Tory insiders. “First, he refused to ratify FIPA when he got home,” said a Conservative MP who wishes to remain anonymous. “He’s been going on and on about Canadian sovereignty and the importance of the environment.”

Last week, Harper was rushed to a New Delhi hospital Imagewith a concussion after a cycling collision with a pedicab. Some colleagues are concerned there may have been damage to the frontal lobes, a common source of personality changes in victims of head trauma. Others insist it was unnatural for the Prime Minister to have been riding a bicycle in the first place, especially in a foreign country. They speculate his unstatesman-like behaviour may have been indicative of a mid-life crisis, impending psychotic break, or unapproved photo opportunity.

“He’s a limo/SUV guy. Seeing him on a ten-speed is like seeing Margaret Atwood on a Jet Ski,” said a long-time Harper handler.

“The holidays are approaching, and we’re worried about a “Scrooge moment,”” the official added. “Rehiring National Research Council scientists, renewing environmental protection departments, speaking freely to the press; that sort of thing. He’s already hugging his kids. We’re really scared.”

The damaged bicycle has been acquired by the Ottawa-based Polaris Institute. The think tank announced that if Harper continues on his present course of rapprochement with Canadians, they will “repurpose the crumpled cycle as a national monument.”

Globe and Mail fires, rehires Margaret Wente as humour columnist

Toronto — Under fire for retaining editorial page writer Margaret Wente after allegations of plagiarism, Globe management fired the longtime scold on Monday and rehired her Tuesday as a “humour columnist.”

Editor-in-Chief John Stackhouse insists his paper is not simply branding Wente as a reheated Dorothy Parker. “This is simply a signal to readers that no one should ever take Peggy’s material all that seriously,” Stackhouse wrote on his blog. “Readers can expect the same cutting (but not pasting) Cruella de Ville material as before, but now they might have a sharper eye for irony, unintended or otherwise.” Considering the new space is called Déjà View, the cribbing commentator is rolling with the punches if not the punchlines.

Twin scientific discoveries indicate cosmos isn’t random, meaningless, stupid affair

Bern, Switzerland — In the wake of the Higgs Boson discovery, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider today announced the isolation of a fantastically unlikely subatomic particle dubbed the “Whoton” (rhymes with “crouton”). “When we amplify the signal we can hear someone or something calling. It may be a cry for help,” said lead physicist Sheldon Nerdwitz. “We theorize this isolated Whoton is an entire world, occupied by intelligent beings.”

Just days earlier, physicists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory revealed the existence of the 119th element, hopeium. Though highly unstable, scientists believe hopeium can open a portal into other dimensions, including the afterlife. But most importantly, its energetic properties promise flying cars and jetpacks.

“Our long national nightmare is nearly over,” a beaming Barack Obama crowed to a crowd at a post-election stop in Pennsylvania. “No more foreign wars for oil. No more carbon emissions. By 2016, American families will have Flubber.”

At a packed lecture hall at Cambridge University, professor Stephen Hawking explained what these twin discoveries mean. “This is the newest paradigm, not something from a suburban slacker who has modified his leafblower into a giant bong,” he insisted in his halting, computer-synthesized voice. The gnarled genius then quoted turn-of-the-century Canadian doctor and proto-hippie, Richard Bucke: “The cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence. The soul of man is immortal and the universe is so ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all. The foundation principle of the world is what we call love and the happiness of every one in the long run is absolutely certain.”

Hawking continued in his own words: “The human race must abandon its insane pursuit of nuclear brinksmanship and military adventurism. We now have a higher purpose, and that’s to preserve and protect the inhabitants of Whoton.”

Vancouver Courier, November 7