The Last Furriers

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From The Paris Review:

One of Werner Herzog’s lesser films is about fur trappers in Siberia: big men who sled for eleven months of the year in pursuit of sables, the small and silky martens that live east of the Urals, burrowing in riverbanks and dense woods, emerging at dusk and at dawn. Russian sable—barguzin—is one of the most expensive furs in the world. The trappers make their skis by bending birch with their own hands, the same way trappers have for a thousand years. They see their wives for only a few weeks a year. They seem to have no inner life, neither anxieties nor aspirations: no relationships besides those with their dogs, no goals beyond survival. “They live off the land and are self-reliant, truly free,” Herzog tells us: “No rules, no taxes, no government, no laws, no bureaucracy, no phones, no radio, equipped only with their individual values and standard of conduct.” The film is called Happy People.

There was a year in which I tried very hard to make a film about the decline of the fur industry in New York City and Connecticut, and all I ended up with was a fox’s foot, a holographic poster for vodka, and a hard drive full of footage that, had I ever finished the film, would have been strung together as an incoherent montage of fragmented memories.

I remember eating General Tso’s chicken and drinking sugary deli coffee while people paid in thousand-dollar rolls of bills and tipped in edibles. I remember watching a woman get fitted for a blue leather catsuit, and the way she laughed into three mirrors when the tailor told her to unhook her bra and bend over. I remember a Greek furrier with slicked-back hair and a camouflage bandanna who shooed a family out, shouting, “I don’t want your money!” He told me they were “Gypsies.” I remember asking a sweet salesgirl with plump hands about parties where people wore two or three furs and tried to sell them through the night.

I remember sitting in what seemed like a storage unit out on a weedy section of Connecticut Route 10, amid unused pizza boxes and a jukebox and blow-up guitars and ten thousand holographic posters of a tiger. The owner was an attorney of uncertain penchants: “In Boston, some Italians got me into garbage law,” he kept telling me. He was trying to get out from pizza and out from music and out from law and into vodka. He looked panicked and vaguely taxidermic. When I asked why he didn’t want to be a furrier, he said he didn’t want to be like his father in any respect.

I remember Fred, out near New London, a town of salt-whipped, faded Victorians that in its whaling days was the richest in America. Women kept coming in with their dead mothers’ coats and being told they were worthless. Fred told me that even if fur were to become popular again, there was simply no one left who knew how to sew it. I remember two Greek brothers in New Britain who’d grown up in a dirt-poor tobacco village. After years of struggle, they’d bought a store with a cherry-red, mid-century marquee, a store that now had trash piled up in front of a sign that read “95 Years! Sorry We’re Closed—Forever!” In an online “Immigrants Hall of Fame” entry, one brother had written about how he had “achieved the American dream as a business owner.” He now worked at a Jos. A. Bank in the Boston suburbs. A little badge on his LinkedIn profile photo read #opentowork. When I asked the other brother about the decline of the fur industry, he looked away and said, “It hurts. It hurts!” When I asked him about my generation, he said, “Good luck!”

I remember a bald Greek man in Adidas track pants with big, naked-looking eyes, like a deepwater creature, who hobbled on his cane. In the dark of the fur freezer, with minks and sables and leopards all around us, a column of light scattered on his round face, he told me that one must learn how to make fur, how to sew for that many hours, as a small, small child because, “After seven, it is difficult to sit in a chair.”

And I remember, now, Pascal’s pensée: “All of man’s misery derives from a single thing: his inability to sit alone in a room.”

Until a few years ago, the only person I’d ever known who wore fur was a French professor I’d had in college, a woman who showed up to a three-student seminar on surrealism in a dim room in the math building wearing stiletto boots and carrying a Coach handbag and saying that she’d just gotten back from Paris. She chain-smoked Parliaments and put heavy cream in her coffee, and she had red hair and a figure like a woman in a fifties movie who’s going to do something terrible. When the weather hit fifty, she donned a honey-colored mink that went down to her feet, which were always in heels. Everyone in Gainesville, Florida, a town nick-named “the swamp,” swarming with sorority girls and gargantuan flies, seemed utterly perplexed by her. She tended to see men who were two decades younger and owned boats. She was the first adult I’d met who seemed happy to be alive.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

For the record, PG grew up on ranches and farms where animals were raised for the purpose of selling them for food after they reached a certain size.

He will be happy to assure one and all that a steer or a pig won’t make a very good pet.

For those who would condemn ranchers and farmers for raising animals that people like to eat, PG wonders if they’ve ever eaten seafood or a hamburger.

He has known some vegans and respects their choices. He would hope that they would respect his choices as well. He also recalls some reliable reports to the effect that plants have a measurable reaction when their leaves are cut.

PG’s quick and dirty online research indicates that, while it isn’t known whether plants feel pain, they definitely feel sensations. Studies show that plants can feel a touch as light as a caterpillar’s footsteps.

However, it is possible that plants have intelligence and sentience that we cannot yet detect. One day, we might learn that plants have ways of experiencing pain that we have yet to comprehend.


13 thoughts on “The Last Furriers”

  1. So, I suppose the only solution is vat-grown food, but then we’d have to wonder if yeast feels pain too, and I’m not giving up beer (which involves feeding the yeasts until they poison themselves).

    • Not soon.
      The emerging era of plant-based meat…ain’t.

      Actual vat meat?

      “There are about 170 companies around the world working on cultured meat, but Good Meat is the only company to have gained regulatory approval to sell its product to the public. It began serving cultivated chicken in Singapore in December 2020.”

      Like Tokamak fusion it is years away and will likely remain that way forever, or a couple generations, anyway.
      Activists aside, the business case for artificial meat vs old fashioned butchery doesn’t add up. Complexity adds costs.

        • …largely because a lot of the costs of operating a feedlot (or farm) are hidden and externalized in a way that they aren’t as to a factory. It’s rather a compare-an-apple-to-a-plastic-cast-of-an-apple thing.

          Consider, for a moment, the obvious CERCLA distinctions between waste-water runoff from a factory and waste-water runoff from a feedlot. There are presumptions built into both the directives (statutory and administrative) and case law that make them… unequal, even for otherwise-identical runoff.

          And I’m not saying that they’re equal; I’m saying that because the measures are noncomparable we don’t know.

        • Yup. One of my uncles owned a chicken “ranch”. Not much land or work needed either. Lots of eggs and good meat cheap.

          Also, the activists blocking SPACEX are idiots.
          The STARSHIP, whether it gets beyond the moon or not, will enable this:

          The UK has an official plan to build a £16B solar power constellation by 2040. The EU, US, and China all have similar if undated plans. And Tesla is one of the biggrst solar cell providers this side of China. 2+2=4, right? 😉

          Even without fusion there’s enough new tech in reach to get to net zero (profitably!) if the idiotpoliticians™ would simply get out of the way.

  2. Chickens are mean and combative.
    Nasty dinosaur descendants; if tbey were bigger they would be eating us so I prefer them roasted.

    • I forget who said there are animals stupider than chickens, and there may even be animals more malicious than chickens, but not even humans can match them on combined points.

    • Agreed, F.

      Aggressive behavior is how chickens determine their pecking order. It’s their instinctive way of establishing a social structure for the flock.

      I don’t know what would happen without such a social structure, but I expect it’s an evolutionary behavior that has developed to improve their survival rates in the wild.

      • Or leftover from their T-Rex and Raptor ancestors? 😉

        I’m pretty sure if a T-rex time warped to the present it would definitely taste like chicken. 😀

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