Writers’ Workshop in Stellenbosch

Mont Fleur

Mont Fleur

Near the end of last month, I went to Stellenbosch with some other members of the Division of Human Genetics to attend a writers’ workshop. I’ve already dealt with the academic portion of workshop in a post on the Human Genetics website, so this one will focus more on the casual aspects and some thoughts stemming from it. While we were there, we stayed at the Mont Fleur conference venue which is amazing. The staff are polite and helpful, the accommodation is clean and spacious and the food is unbelievable. All that in an incredibly beautiful setting.

I had only been there a short while before I had my first encounter with an animal, a dragonfly that flew into my room and proceeded to get stuck trying to get through some windows. Normally, I’d catch and release it but due to the arrangement of the room it was completely out of reach. I mentioned it to one of the members of staff when I was trying to get connected to the internet and someone came with a can of poison to kill it. I felt rather bad then as it seemed unnecessary to kill it when it was harmless. We thought it had died or escaped on it’s own as it had stopped flying into the window, which had been causing a lot of irritating noise. It hadn’t escaped but was just resting and, the following day, it flew away from the window and landed on my pillow. From there it was easy to catch it and release it outside.

Mountain waterfall.

Mountain waterfall.

I’d consider that particular anecdote to have opened a whole lot of questions, starting with why didn’t I want to kill the dragonfly. I don’t know if I’d consider it sentient (though perhaps some insects…), so it’s suffering shouldn’t have come into it. And there are insects who would be of equal moral consideration, e.g. cockroaches, which I wouldn’t have any problems with killing. Then perhaps it’s purely an issue of what is appealing and what is not. I certainly wouldn’t be the first or last to have such a feeling but there’s no justification for such a position. It’s like those who eat pigs or cows protesting when others eat cats or dogs. There is no ethical difference between them and the distinction between pet, pest and food is as fluid as it meaningless.

Perhaps the best refuge would be the position that killing the dragonfly was unnecessary and refraining from it was a desire to minimise death and destruction. I’m sure most people can sympathise with that. As living beings we are constantly struggling to overcome entropy, so, perhaps, creating disorder is repellent to something in our very nature? For example, I have no problems with cutting or removing plants when gardening. However, I would not feel comfortable with chopping up a plant just for the sake of it. And, I doubt the average person would, when coming across an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere, just smash a window on impulse.

Snake in the bushes. Click on the image for much larger size.

Snake in the bushes. Click on the image for much larger size.

Aside from the dragonfly, there were a couple of other animals that I saw. There were lizards all around the venue, which I did try to catch at one point, without success. When hiking, we passed by signs of porcupines. Apparently they have a nest nearby but, since they’re nocturnal, I didn’t even catch a glimpse of one. Perhaps the most startling sighting was of a large snake in a bush just outside my room’s window. It doesn’t show up well in the picture but was easy to spot when it was moving. I still don’t know what kind of snake it was but I was assured that it was common and wasn’t venomous. Whether that was true or just the thing that is said to not scare guests, I’m not sure.

As I said before, the food was absolutely delicious. I assume it was the same for everyone else as well but, as the only vegetarian there, I got different meals to everyone else. I highly doubt I was missing out though, which is really good. If only such tasty vegetarian meals were commonly available we might not see the current worrying global trend towards more meat in diets. Scandinavian countries are pretty much the only ones where meat consumption is decreasing but they are already above average anyway.

Bird in what appears to be a protea bush.

Bird in what appears to be a protea bush.

Even ignoring any potential ethical issues, the increase is worrying from an environmental perspective. It’s not mentioned in the linked news article but the scientific article makes the point that there is a large loss of energy as you move up trophic levels (i.e. from plants to herbivores to carnivores). So as human diets move to include more animal products they become more wasteful as you need to put in a lot more plant matter to feed an animal than you will get out in meat. Farming meat is more intensive in land use, water use and carbon emissions. All of which are especially concerning with a growing population, imminent threat of global warming and shockingly short-sighted decisions on the parts of governments around the world.

There were some other fun activities which did not lead to any particularly deep thoughts. A group of us went hiking up a mountain to a small waterfall. That was good fun and the pictures scattered throughout this post. I didn’t go on the second hike as the day was just far too hot. There were some good conversations, which I don’t remember in detail but were entertaining at the time. I also had the opportunity to play some pool again. It would be nice to have a pool table, particularly one like this. All in all, I had a wonderful time there.

View from the mountain.

View from the mountain.

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