Chris Tharp

NAME THAT RAT

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2014 at 2:05 am

nutria-portrait-ed

Recently I read about a 20,000 won ($20) bounty that the Korean government is offering for carcasses of river rats, which have invaded the Nakdong River basin near my home in Busan. This reminded me of a passage cut from my book, “Dispatches from the Peninsula,” where, on a motorcycle trip, we come face to face with these a few of these beasties. I make no claims that this is fantastic writing, and there is a reason this was sliced from the manuscript, but it still pleases me that it finally has managed to find an audience. Enjoy. 

Often the most satisfying – or at least the most memorable moments of a motorcycle trip – are those which are unplanned, those impromptu decisions to follow a small road sign and see what it is actually pointing you towards. We never know what the destination will have to offer, but often we are surprised. Such was the case with our last pit stop at Upo Wetland.

Real wetlands are few and far between in overly-built up Korea, where habitat preservation has taken a back seat to progress, so when we took the spur road that lead to the huge swamp that makes up Upo, we were suitably impressed.  The place sits in a massive bowl, ringed by steep embankments. It is host to a huge bird population, both year-round and migratory species. Upo is quiet, with just the whispers of hikers, photographers, and birders, along with the slow crunch of cars winding along the gravel road. We dismounted our bikes and took in the swamp from the main viewing area.  A whole day could be spent at Upo, hiking any one of the trails that rings the marsh, but we were short on time and just took in what we could.

We noticed a man in a small boat which he propelled with a long pole. He slowly made his way into the swamp and jumped out on a small island made from dirt and bushes. He produced a snare from his boat and lowered it into the brush, hooking what sounded like a moaning animal. The thing wailed and screamed like an infant as he wrested it from what seemed to a trap and then lifted the thrashing creature into the boat.

“What the fuck is that?” I asked. “A cat?”

“Yeah,” said Sir David. “They may trap cats out here to protect the native birds.”

“Cats, in swamp? I thought cats hated water.”  BC was more than skeptical.

“There’s no fucking way that’s a cat,” Sam chimed in. “Maybe it’s a nutria.”

“A what?” said BC

“Or a bagder,” Will opined.

We watched enraptured, as the man moved to a second island, and extracted a second creature.  It too screamed and moaned as he plucked it from the mud and into the boat.  For a couple of seconds we got a glimpse of the beast, but it was too far away to make out clearly. Once in the boat, the man went about to stuffing the creatures in what appeared to be large, empty rice bags.

“I don’t think they’re badgers.  I think they’re some kind of otters. Yeah, that’s an otter.”  I was sure. “They’re probably eating the bird eggs.”

“Why ain’t he killing it right then and there?  Why bother taking it in?” David was confused.

“Maybe they eat them in the village over there. Might be a delicacy,” Will thought.

“Could be a big ‘ol swamp rat.” said Sam.

“I don’t know… did you see the size of that thing?  Rats don’t get that big,” said BC.

“Swamp rats do,” Sam replied.

The trapper now poled the boat back towards shore, and we, along with a handful of Koreans, headed down to the embankment to see the creatures in person. Before he reached the shore, the man reached into the water and grabbed a few handfuls of aquatic plants. Food for the beasties.

I addressed the old man as he drifted in on boat. “Ajosshi, what kind of animals are those?”

“Nutrias!”

“I was right!” Sam was vindicated.  Nutrias are an invasive species from South America, a kind of semi-aquatic rodent.

When he reached the shore the trapper lifted one of the creatures out of the bag by the snare and set it on the ground, in front of us and a few gawking, photo snapping Korean tourists. The varmint hissed and gnashed its frighteningly long, yellow front teeth.  The thing looked more like a beaver than anything else, though a very ratty beaver. The old man poked at it with the stick for effect, and the critter at once gnawed at the poker.

“Wouldn’t want to stick your finger in there,” Sir David remarked.

The trapper put the nutria back into its bag and hauled both of them down a trail, with the group of us in tow.  The trail ended at a large cage, in which the trapped animals were deposited, along with their “feed” that was extracted from the swamp.

“Why are you saving them?” Sir David asked.

“Food.” The old man implied.

Sir David continued: “Are your going to eat them?”

“No!” He shook his head in disgust. “They’re for the lions!  The lions in the Seoul Zoo!”  He smiled, lit a thin cigarette, and marched off proudly.

“Wow.  Lion food.  Not a bad idea, really,” remarked BC.

With that, he hiked back to our bikes, fired them up,  and made off  towards the unfortunate town of Miryang.

 

 

EASTER SUNDAY, KOREA, 2014

In Uncategorized on April 20, 2014 at 3:49 am

lily

It’s a cloudy morning in Busan, another in string of dreary, cool days, but at least I’m up to enjoy it. One of the pluses of my recent motorcycle wreck and subsequent hospitalization is that my sleep schedule has shifted. For the first time in life I can count myself as an early bird, though I doubt this distinction will hold after I’m up and moving 100 percent. Like my mother, I have always been a decidedly nocturnal creature. I am convinced that such proclivities course through our veins, that they’re buried deep in our DNA.

Today is Easter, which makes me think of family, especially my mom. She was an avid celebrator of holidays, and Easter in our house was no exception. In the days leading up she’d marshal a couple of us to assist in the dying of the eggs, an activity that I fervently relished as a kid. Every year it was the same: a big pot of boiled white eggs and Paas Easter Egg dye, which was mixed with water and vinegar to achieve its result. The sharp odor of the vinegar pricked my nostrils and stung my eyes; even today one whiff transports me back to the dining room table with my sister Molly and my mom–hard at work dipping–a cigarette in one hand and a thin wire egg holder in the other.

On Easter morning we were treated to baskets filled with chocolate and of course, dyed eggs. Sometimes even a small wrapped gift was included, transforming the setting into a mini springtime Christmas. The chocolate usually took the form of a giant rabbit–the bigger the better. Afterwards I would compare my booty with that of the other kids on my road. Most prized was the solid chocolate bunny. The cheaper hollow version was usually consumed over the course of the day. The solid rabbit was an investment in chocolate. It literally could be gnawed and sucked on for days to come. Often the owner of the prized solid bunny would never even finish the thing: by Wednesday the half-melted hindquarters were eventually discarded, covered in a nasty film of dirt, dust, and drool.

Though my parents were certainly guilty of going all-in with regards to the commercial aspects of Easter, they didn’t indulge our every whim, and they made sure that we never forgot just why we were celebrating this day: All sugary contents of the basket were to be left untouched until AFTER mass.

And Easter mass was long, the longest mass of the year, clocking in at a good three hours. I remember being too small to see over the pew, essentially walled in as the old French priest droned on over the microphone in completely unintelligible English, blessing what seemed to be every single item in the church: In the costume and prop-heavy world of Roman Catholicism, this adds up to a lot of stuff. I fidgeted and wormed and swung my legs, dreaming of release, when I could run free, giant chocolate rabbit in hand. My mother acted as camp guard, silently castigating me with offended brown eyes, non-verbally suggesting that my squirreliness was an affront to God himself. The only respite from my utter, existential boredom was the constant shifting of positions: STAND, SIT, KNEEL, repeat. I am still convinced that these were invented solely to occupy those of us who find sitting still for long periods of time an exercise in torture.

After mass we’d pile into the big brown Chevy and head back home for a home cooked feed. On a couple of lucky occasions, I recall heading up to Tacoma, where we met up with some other relatives and were then unleashed upon a proper restaurant for Easter brunch. There were six of us in my immediate family and we could eat. We ‘d decimate the buffet, piling up on bacon, sausage, biscuits, home fries, pancakes, french toast, custom omelets and eggs Benedict smothered in oozing lakes Hollandaise sauce (my aversion to mayonnaise goes back as far as I can remember so I never partook of the latter). One year, after the meal, we posed for pictures in front of a rhododendron bush in bloom. A few years ago I came across some of these photographs when cleaning out my mom’s stuff: My dad wears a grey jacket and blue tie, and is puffed up with pride (and food)–all bushy mustache, glasses, and a closed-lip smile. My mom sports a pink dress and smiles uneasily; unlike my hammy father, she was never comfortable in front of the camera.

*          *          *

Despite my parents’ best efforts, religion never really stuck with me. This, combined with the fact that I have no kids of my own, means that I haven’t celebrated Easter since I was a child myself. Over the years I would call home on Easter, knowing that it was an important day for both my parents, whose faith was deep; but they’ve been gone for sometime now, so the day barely registers in my mind. It’s  just a thing that I used to observe, from a period so long back that it seems like another lifetime.

This year is different. I sit here, at my desk, in my tenth year in South Korea. The TV rests just feet away, flashing endless images of the Sewol ferry disaster. My wife sleeps poorly, splitting her time between the tiny screen of her phone and the larger screen of the television, starved for a morsel of good news. So far there’s been none.

It was Wednesday when the boat went down. I first learned about it just after eleven A.M. at the beginning of a class I teach for housewives. It’s a free talking course and the women in it are sharp as it gets. The Sewol came up immediately. They were all noticeably worried, but these concerns were immediately put to bed when one of the women stated that she had just heard great news during the drive to class: All the students had been rescued.

The women collectively exhaled and smiled. The crisis had been averted. In a perhaps patronizing turn, I remarked on how far Korea had come, how the country’s past reputation for public safety was less-than-stellar, how twenty years ago the outcome would have not been so good.

The women agreed and we quickly switched subjects.

It wasn’t until later in the day that I began to doubt the “everyone is rescued” story. Articles and posts on the internet presented wildly conflicting information. It seemed that many people, perhaps hundreds, were still missing. Did that mean they were still in the ship? Or perhaps, in the chaos of rescue, they had just not managed to count everybody.

Minhee and I went out for dinner at a shabu-shabu restaurant near my school, and it was here where we learned the grim reality of the situation. 179 people had been rescued, but nearly 300 were still missing. The earlier count had been wrong, mistakenly doubled up. The passengers–almost all students from Ansan’s Danwon High School–were presumed trapped inside of the ship, which had been almost fully submerged for hours now. Their parents were gathering in a gymnasium in the small port of Jindo, near the scene of the sinking. Both authorities and them were holding out hope. I could find none. It was now dark and the water was cold. Perhaps a few air pockets existed, but hypothermia would set in soon. The Sewol had been transformed into an underwater tomb.

As the days the wore on and scenes from the choppy grey water were replayed, the tally on the upper right screen of the TV changed little, with just a few numbers added to the official “dead” category. As of writing this, it stands at 179 rescued, 28 dead, and 269 missing. At this point we can probably merge the “missing” with the “dead,” which now includes a former member of the “rescued:” Danwon High School’s vice principal, Kang Min-kyu, who was so wracked with guilt and grief that he hanged himself from a tree.

This story has just been an endless barrage of bad news, cock-ups, and seemingly willful ineptitude. It’s been a cocktail of incompetence and negligence that far surpasses the criminal. The captain wasn’t on the bridge at the time, despite the fact that the area was known to be treacherous. And most unbelievably, after the ship began listing, he told the students–over the loudspeaker–that they should sit down and “stay put,” essentially passing a death sentence on hundreds. He was among the first to be rescued, in flagrant violation of every maritime convention known to mankind, and once safely ensconced in the hospital, he inexplicably saw fit to dry out his roll of fifty thousand won bills that had gotten soaked during the sinking. This was his priority.  He seems to have done almost everything wrong, and, not surprisingly, the country is calling for his head.

And then there’s the government response. Despite the fact that hundreds of divers have been on the scene, almost none have made it inside of the ship. Weather, poor visibility, and strong currents have been blamed. Offers of on-the-water aid from both the U.S. and Japanese navies has been spurned. Information has been spotty, contradictory, and inconsistent. Parents have been stonewalled, and to the outsider it appears that the rescue effort has consisted mainly of putting around on boats and some pulling bodies from the sea.

What I do know is that this country is in shock, but that shock is turning to grief coupled with incandescent anger. This is a national nightmare for Korea, by far the biggest catastrophe this nation has faced since I moved here nearly a decade ago. Watching the endlessly looped footage takes me back to a massive tragedy that struck my country: the attacks of 9/11. Though different in nature and circumstance, I can imagine that the Korean people are going through a similarly harrowing emotional process. My heart aches when I see shots of those students longing to see their friends once more, or those parents screaming out their children’s names. I too am sickened inside, and burn with indignation when I contemplate the details of this fiasco and clearly see just how preventable these deaths were.

So here we are, Easter Sunday, Korea, 2014. Hopefully the observant can find some joy in the spirit of the day. But for most folks, there will be no solace, because unlike the story of Christ’s resurrection, no one trapped in that boat is ever coming back.

RAGE ON THE RANGE

In Uncategorized on April 12, 2014 at 10:49 am

cliven-bundy-1 It’s so seductive, so romantic, so quintessentially American: One man, a rugged individualist, standing up to an overreaching, abusive government that has singled him out for example-making. He is a quiet, industrious man just working the land, just as his family has done for generations before him, and now Big Brother wants to put an end to it, in the name of a tortoise. But the jack-booted thugs have crossed the line in the desert sand. This old coot is not going to budge. He’s going to make a stand. Is it any wonder why so many people in America are coming to defense? Or are the issues really that cut and dry?

This story caught my eye earlier in the week when it popped up on my Facebook feed. A friend of mine linked it, applauding Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who has been embroiled in a dispute with the federal government for over 20 years now. Bundy owns a 150 acre cattle ranch near the town of Bunkerville, but he also grazes his herds on a 600,000 acre tract owned and administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Ranchers who graze on BLM land are required to pay grazing fees (which are really a pittance). After all, they are using public land to turn a personal profit. Seems fair enough.

Cliven Bundy

Not for Mr. Bundy. In 1993, the BLM adopted new regulations for the Bunkerville tract in order to protect the habitat of the endangered Mojave desert tortoise, restricting the amount of cattle Mr. Bundy could graze to 150 head. The old cowboy took umbrage with this, and has since refused to pay his grazing fees or reduce his herd, increasing the population to over 900 head of cattle. TortoiseC_000

Damned ecoterrorists! Spoiling it for the rest of us job creators!!!

Two decades have passed and the case has been in an out of court, with Bundy losing every decision. The BLM claims that he currently owes over a million dollars in grazing fees and penalties, but Bundy still refuses to cough up or remove his cows. So after several federal court orders, the BLM moved in last Saturday, and with hundreds of armed agents–along with trucks and helicopters–and began the arduous task of removing the trespassing beasts. As of now they have removed over three hundred. Mr. Bundy claims the he and his family are exempt from paying grazing fees or following the rules, since his Mormon family has been farming and ranching in the area since settling it in the 1870′s. He’s referred to the Bunkerville tract as “my land,” and repeatedly says he doesn’t recognize the federal government’s authority over any state land. He even is on camera claiming that he “(doesn’t) recognize the U.S. government,” period. He has threatened a “range war,” if the feds make good on their promise to remove his cattle, with his wife saying “I’ve got a shotgun and I know how to use it. We’re ready to do what we have to do…”

This, predictably, has blown up in the media, with the usual right-wing suspects throwing gasoline on the range fire, applauding Bundy for making a stand against a “tyrannical” (it’s always ‘tyranny’ with them–get a new word already) government.  And now the “militias” are following suit, sending their armed to the teeth wannabe warriors into the fray to protect the rancher from Obama’s freedom-hating agents. Hundreds, if not thousands of these camo-wearing faux soldiers are at the ranch already, turning the place into a powder keg, rekindling memories of Waco and Ruby Ridge, times when the government went in guns a-blazing.

Whatever your opinion on the matter, THIS has become the story to watch. These militia types must be creaming in their Duck Dynasty underwear. They have made this their flag issue and I’m sure are eager for shots to be fired, so they can ignite the “Second American Revolution” that these guys have been drooling over for years now. Check ‘em out here, protecting old Bundy (second from the right, white hat).

Rancher Bundy is escorted in Bunkerville

“Can we hit Taco Bell after watering the tree of liberty?”

And as stirring as the image of the old man standing alone against the evil feds is, I have zero sympathy for Mr. Bundy. Like most Western ranchers, I imagine that he’s a very wealthy man, and now he’s demanding that he use our land–public land–for free. He doesn’t think the rules should apply. He believes that he should be able to do as he please and profit from it. He’s essentially asking for handout (so much for the rugged individualism) at OUR EXPENSE. And I thought that these right wing/libertarian types were against freebies. Mr. Bundy, like many ranchers in the West, has a twisted sense of entitlement, and at first I was so surprised that his cause was eliciting so much sympathy. This isn’t the story of a poor farmer getting bullied by the nefarious forces of Uncle Sam. This is the tale of a rich white guy refusing to pay his fair share. It’s Wall Street on the high desert.

fatcat

And that’s just the deal now, isn’t it? These militia and Tea Party types despise the “parasites” and “takers,” as long as they are poor (Being brown or black helps as well). Rich white folks are always “decent” and “hard working,” even when their privileged lips are clearly and firmly suckling on the public teat.  Imagine how they’d be reacting if this was the story of a black guy in an urban environment refusing to pay rent to a slum lord. I think we can safely assume that the tubby militia cavalry would’t be riding in pell mell to save the day.

But the government–surprise surprise–is clumsily misstepping here. Yes, the recalcitrant Bundy clan issued some vague threats, but did that really require the BLM and other agents to move in with 300 heavily armed men, posting snipers, and acting the part of paramilitaries? People have been roughed up. Bundy’s son was tazed and arrested.

Most egregious are the “First Amendment zones” set up for journalists and protesters. The BLM insists that these are just for everyone’s “safety” (always the excuse to take away rights), as if the guarantee of freedom of speech can be geographically contained. I don’t recall reading anything about that in the Bill of Rights. But this bullshit has been going on for years now. I remember taking part in the WTO protests in 1999, as well as the DNC protests in LA in 2000. Both events saw the authorities set up “free speech areas,” in clear violation of our rights. Straying out of those areas without proper accreditation resulted in an immediate beat down and arrest. I guess such penning up of the opposition is de rigeur  these days. Welcome to modern America.

blmranchers

The government’s plodding, heavy handed response has only served to feed the sympathy for Bundy, serving as evidence, in the eyes of anti-government types, of the malignant forces at work here. I get it. People are losing patience with the growing fascism in our government, as seen in the NSA, the TSA, and the ever-growing list of police abuses.

Storms

But… that doesn’t excuse Bundy. He has flouted the law for over 20 years now. In this case the BLM has been more than patient. Should they just shrug, and allow him to continue violating the law? Should ranchers be allowed to graze on public land at will, with no regard for the rules and regulations that allow us all to enjoy it? When I am home, I spend tons of time camping, hiking, and above all fly-fishing on BLM land. I pay the fees. I follow the rules. Why shouldn’t everyone else?

Bundy and his supporters refuse to even recognize the authority of the BLM, which took over huge areas of open range land in the 1930′s. Bundy claims his family was using the land before that, which is probably true, but it doesn’t mean he owns it. He has no title, no deed. He just claims “ancestral rights,” which have not been recognized in court. In absence of any real defense, he just tries to wish the law and the authority away.

cowboy flag

If they hate the government so much, why fly its flag?

Allow me to indulge in an analogy here: I think the War on Drugs is a total waste and failure, not to mention a harmful and immoral undertaking that has destroyed far more lives than it has saved. The DEA is the authority that most represents this failed policy and prosecutes its battles. If I traffic cocaine (which, like refusing to pay grazing fees, is clearly against the law) and get busted, how much sympathy do you think I will elicit when I moan about “not recognizing their authority?” They are the actual agency in charge, whether I like it or not. The BLA owns the land Mr. Bundy grazes and the desert tortoise is protected whether he likes it or not. Tough titty, old man.

Authority is not always in the right and not all laws are just, but many actually have made our society a better place to live. People cannot arbitrarily decide which laws to obey and which not to and expect no sanction. If a certain law is odious, it should challenged and changed. There are legal channels, and then there’s civil disobedience, the path that Mr. Bundy has chosen.

But is the law he despises–federal ownership of land–really so terrible? I personally LIKE the fact that large amounts of land are protected by the feds and open for all who agree to the terms of use. This is one of the richer legacies left to us by wise policy makers of the past. But Mr. Bundy, in mumbly interviews, maintains that it’s against the Constitution for the federal government to own land and make/administer the rules regarding its use. Has he ever read the Constitution? Or is he just a wheezy right-wing gasbag who tosses around the word “unconstitutional” for laws that get in the way of him turning the highest profit possible? I suppose he would like to see all federal land in private hands. After all, shouldn’t all land be squeezed for a dollar?

I’m fascinated (if not a bit obsessed) by this story and am interested in seeing how it goes. I hope no blood is shed, but these militia dudes have a lot of hardware and itchy fingers, though they are sadly deluded if they think their intervention  will spark the oncoming race war, or culling of the socialist leeches, or whatever comic-book fantasy they’ve concocted to make up for the fact that they feel flaccid and powerless in real life.

Vienna-sausage

In the meantime I’m moving home to set up a methlab in the Mt. Rainier National Park. My family has lived in the shadow of the mountain for three generations, and I refuse to recognize federal sovereignty in Washington State. Any Oath Keepers care to join me? I’m buying the beer.

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