Monthly Archives: January 2014

Poetry and Activism

Report from the Republic of Poetry, Part 3

Festival Logo
Festival Logo

Two distinguished poets at the International Festival of Poetry in Trois Rivières, Québec (2013) spoke from places of extreme violence. Their poems were of the utmost tenderness and beauty, answering an unasked question: what can poets do, as poets, in the face of violence?

This post is dedicated to Tal Nitzan and Maram al-Masri, and includes links to videos I made of them reading.

Tal Nitzan is a remarkable Israeli poet and activist, and Maram al-Masri is an acclaimed Syrian poet living in Paris. Each of these beautiful and talented women offered a poetry of conscience that spoke profoundly both through what was said as well as through all that was not said. Neither woman was polemical, and both deliberately avoided the style and language of violence. As I listened, I knew of course of the horror that is on-going in the West Bank and in Syria, and my inner knowledge resonated with the beauty and generosity of the poetry to create an intensely powerful and ethical response.

The violence of both places is experienced primarily by the defenceless. ‘Horrorism’ is the term the Italian scholar Adriana Cavarero uses to address the fact that contemporary violence is directed primarily against the helpless. Here is the key point: ‘violence against the helpless is becoming global in ever more ferocious forms, [and] language … tends to mask it.’ The masking language draws on images of warfare, but there are huge differences. In war armed combatants face each other knowing they are aiming to kill each other, and knowing they may be killed. Violence against the helpless is inflicted for the sake of making life utterly miserable and uncertain, fraught with fear, with arbitrary displays of force, and random death. This type of violence should be named as a hideous phenomenon in its own right. Horrorism, Cavarero explains, describes actions that ‘dismember and disfigure the body, the social relations, the uniqueness of that way of life’.

Both Tal and Maram focus their poetry exactly on the defenceless. They bring tenderness into juxtaposition with violence, and speak both for and to those who suffer. They carry a disruptive ethics of care straight into the heart of the chaos, for they do not engage with justifications or rationales, but rather situate the poet, the poetry and the listener in the place of suffering and in a mode of responsibility.

Tal Nitzan has edited a book of Israeli protest poetry titled With an Iron Pen. In the introduction, she speaks of the sense many activists have of being part of a disregarded minority, of being unheard and perhaps irrelevant. She asks what the purpose of poetry is in such social contexts, and her answers speak to all of us who know of the violence carried out in our name and oppose it from the depths of our being.

Tal states as a first response that there is no choice. She offers, therefore, an ethics of response and responsibility that refuses to justify itself, and thus refuses to make itself answerable to instrumental logic. She goes on, though, to speak of the role of prophecy and, I would add, its close cousin lamentation, in awakening conscience and the awareness of responsibility. She claims poetry as ‘a rebellious act that unsettles axioms, generates question marks, and asserts the right of readers and writers as one to doubt, protest, and rise up.’ In conclusion, she reminds us that ‘throughout history, literary creations have expressed the forbidden and the revolutionary and have … precipitated’ great changes.

Tal Nitzan, courtesy of Amit Zinman
Tal Nitzan, courtesy of Amit Zinman

Tal Nitzán is an Israeli poet, editor and a major translator of Hispanic literature. She is the recipient of numerous prizes, has published five poetry collections, along with the edited work of protest poetry. The English version of With an Iron Pen (2005) was done with Rachel Tzvia Beck, published by SUNY Press, USA; the French version with Isabelle Dotan is published by  by Al Manar. Her poems have been translated into over 20 languages, and collections of her work have been published in French, Spanish, Italian (two books), Portuguese and Lithuanian.

Her activism focuses on the  Israeli occupation of the West Bank now. She describes this horror as ‘a multifaceted, multifront phenomenon that has spanned four decades, wherein trauma follows trauma with relentless speed, horror, and frequency.’ One of her poems was written for her godchild, a Palestinian child born into a family with whom she works toward peace, and named for her. I reproduce it here with permission.

Maimed Lullaby

To Tal Ashraf Abu Khattab, born in Gaza on May 1, 2010

The baby who bears my name is a month and two days old.
Unaware she has been born into hell, she wrinkles her tiny nose
and balls her hands into fists like babies everywhere.

Her four kilos and the cake her grandpa didn’t bake
weigh on my heart.
If I send her a teddy bear, it will sink like a stone.

The sharp fin traces its circles. I climb up,
my foot on the deck, shame and alarm on my face.
My baby has been left behind.

(Tal Nitzan)

The reading that I video’d (view here) took place at the Bar Hexagon in the Hôtel Delta. Tal reads in Hebrew, and Alexandre Faustino, a Canadian poet, reads the French translations. Léo Guilbert, the compere for the session, is seen in the background of the video.

******

 

Maram al-Masri
Maram al-Masri

Maram al-Masri was born in Syria and now lives in Paris. She is a writer and translator, and is regarded as one of the major women voices of her generation. She has been awarded numerous prizes, and is the author of five books, the most recent of which is Elle va nue, la liberté. In this book she directly addresses the war in Syria, focussing on the women and children, the suffering of the helpless, and through it all the deep desire for freedom.

Of herself she writes:

Comme des lionnes en cage,
les femmes comme moi
rêvent…
de liberté…

{Like caged lionesses /  women like me / dream…/  of freedom…}

Before war broke out in Syria, Maram wrote of love and freedom. A description of her English language translated work A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor: Selected Poems offers insight into this period of her writing. ‘Syrian poet Maram al-Massri writes of love and the place of women in the modern age with striking candor and intensity. “I am this mix between the submissive and rebellious woman,” she writes, “my freedom is so difficult and so desired.” Her poems invoke a world where women are trapped and men flow freely, of the intoxicating power of seduction and the intensity of lust, of the security of relationships and muffled explosions of emotion.’

Like grains of salt
they shone
then melted.
This is how they disappeared,
those men
who did not love me.

I made a video (view here) of Maram reading at the Maison de Culture, accompanied by Afroworlbeat. Her poetry in this reading addresses Syria, the refugees, and horror. The compere Stella Montreuil reads the French translations, while Maram reads in Arabic. The reading starts with her poem on Syria, with its stunning opening words:

Syria for me is a bleeding wound
It is my mother on her death bed
It is my child with her throat cut
It is my nightmare and my hope
It is my insomnia and my waking

 

Resources:

More information on both these outstanding women can be found on the web. A few sites to start with are:

http://www.facebook.com/l/vAQHwnEcgAQEkEzgy40A4TzVcz2lOpegGmvaBMCAPbbbCmw/www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poet/item/20051/12/Tal-Nitzan

http://www.facebook.com/l/CAQERbKW4AQH9IzmsS_lTOWZM95A1PrRDOKdYtpA7tlcUKA/www.lyrikline.org/en/poems/6847%23.UuWYhBD8IdU

http://www.facebook.com/l/NAQEuaxGwAQHqrBe-kzh2KcIPw88N1GTVPa-t6Lup0eVQZg/www.transcript-review.org/en/issue/transcript-29-bordered-by-the-sea/tal-nitzan

http://www.facebook.com/l/LAQFanGW9AQG1Q4Yj_H8lCs2v2g-ncZ9bFFB3OGjmWTFvpw/www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/cou_article/item/20066/Intimacy-and-politics-An-interview-with-Tal-Nitzan

***

http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/pageviews/2013/09/maram-al-masri-violence-and-syrian-literature

http://www.threemonkeysonline.com/the-poetess-of-naivet-interview-with-syrian-poet-maram-al-massri/

http://www.mhpbooks.com/new-syrian-poetry-emerging-amid-violence/

 

What’s In A Whale?

One wouldn’t know this without having been there, but apparently ‘the stomach juices of a whale are unbelievably foul’. I gained this gem of information while reading a delightful book: The Odyssey of KP2: An Orphan Seal, a Marine Biologist, and the Fight to Save a Species. Written by the charismatic marine biologist Terrie Williams, it is inspired by her love of marine mammals, and her wide experience of them through close encounters, most especially her encounter with a young Hawaiian monk seal. Williams is a terrific story-teller, and she takes up a range of issues that affect not only monk seals but all marine mammals.

Hawaiian monk seals, mother and pup, Kaua'i
Hawaiian monk seals, mother and pup, Kaua’i

One story tells of taking part in the necropsy (an autopsy performed on an animal) of a whale that had washed up dead on a beach directly in front of a resort hotel on the near-paradisiacal island of Kaua’i in the main Hawaiian islands. The big scientific question was: how did it die? (The logistical question was how to get it off the beach and safely ensconced in an appropriate burial site.) Williams was part of the investigative team, all of whom ‘dreaded the oils and acids that would permeate our skin and clothing for weeks in spite of numerous washings and bleachings’.

Williams got the task of going into the whale’s belly to extract the contents, and she managed to bring out the cause of death. As she tells the story: ‘At first it looked like the partially digested tentacles of an octopus, and then some type of elongate brown worms. The veterinarian … took a piece of dried cane stalk and began to probe the brown ball…. The mystery unravelled with his probing. What I had grabbed was not biological at all: it was man-made. The long tentacles turned out to be rope. I had extracted rope and nylon-filament twine from the stomach of the young whale. There were yards and yards of fishermen’s netting. It was the kind of netting thrown into the oceans to drift aimlessly on currents to catch squid until the owner retrieved it a later date.’ The young whale had gone after squid and had got the whole mess.

The whole mess, drifting the seas through lethal negligence, had killed him.

This wretched story plays out again and again amongst marine mammals and other creatures including pelagic birds – they become entangled and strangled, they eat and die, they think they are ingesting food whereas actually they are ingesting death.

Monk seal rescue. Photo: NOAA/Yoshinaga
Monk seal rescue.
Photo: NOAA/Yoshinaga

Williams tells another side to the story of what goes on in the gut of a whale. This is a story of faeces. Both whales and seals, along with other marine mammals, shit in the sea. If these deposits were on land, we would call them manure, and like manure they are fertilizers. In the ocean, marine mammal manure provides nourishment for phytoplankton. These drifting plants provide food for zooplankton, and they are food for small fish; small ones are food for larger fish, and so on along the nutrient webs. The whole oceanic ecosystem is fertilized by marine mammal manure.

Furthermore, phytoplankton consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. According to one report, about half the world’s oxygen in produced by phytoplanktons. Their health enables the health of the oceans and the health of planet. Keeping them well fertilized seems like very good sense.

These thoughts were fresh in my mind when I read for the first time about the annual slaughter of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands. The article is put out by ‘Campaign Whale’. It came to my eyes just a few days ago, and I actually couldn’t quite grasp that I was seeing the bloody froth of a hands-on massacre.

A human has about five litres of blood in their body. A dolphin has about twice as much, perhaps ten litres. A pilot whale is large compared to a dolphin, and small compared to a big whale. It has perhaps 100+ litres of blood. Like all sea mammals, the blood has high levels of oxygen, making the muscles almost black and the blood itself,  when it flows from the body, is an unearthly crimson. The photos of the slaughter show waters that are so intensely red that it is difficult at first to take in the fact that this is blood.

When a pod is in the area the islanders send word around to get the boats out. They drive the pod into a bay where the whales are beached. People wade in amongst the whales, striking them with steel hooks and cutting their throats. The water churns a brilliant crimson, and both whales and humans are washed in blood.

The Faroe Islanders who support this slaughter say that it is a cultural tradition and is integral to their identity. The health experts say that whale meat, particularly the organs, have high levels of mercury and other heavy metals, along with a range of other toxins including PBC’s.

Pilot whale Wikipedia
Pilot whale
Wikipedia

The ‘Campaign Whale’ people say that the slaughter is unacceptably cruel, and that the Faroe Islanders no longer need the whales for subsistence. They note the well-documented fact that marine mammals are experiencing a great many threats to survival: ‘climate change, toxins, over-fishing, entanglement, hunting, ship strikes, disturbance from oil and gas extraction seismic surveys, boat traffic, and lethal military sonar.’ Every slaughter adds to the burden of this larger multi-pronged lethality.

It is fair to say that the visibility of the Faroe Islanders’ slaughter makes them an easy target for public criticism. Much of the suffering and premature death in the oceans has a human origin, but most of it takes place far from human eyes. The problems are known, and are much larger than any quick fix can address. Some of the problems are entangled in political and military objectives that seem close to unstoppable. A recent news report describes the US Navy’s plans to increase its sonar testing. The Navy’s own estimate of impact tells an awful story: ‘The Navy estimates that its activities could inadvertently kill 186 whales and dolphins off the East Coast and 155 off Hawaii and Southern California, mostly from explosives. It calculates more than 11,000 serious injuries off the East Coast and 2,000 off Hawaii and Southern California, along with nearly 2 million minor injuries, such as temporary hearing loss, off each coast.’ Dr Reese Halter, also known as the Earth Doctor, spoke scathingly about the Navy’s decision in a recent ABC radio broadcast.

Numbers matter, but at the heart of these issues are individual lives and the lives of species. Pilot whales are among the largest of the group of oceanic dolphins, the only larger species being orcas. Like every creature on earth, the more one knows about them, the more fascinating they become. Pilot whales live and travel in family groups (pods) that have a matrilineal structure. Both sons and daughters stay in their mother’s pod. Pods congregate at times and the whales mate outside of their own group, returning to it for everyday life. Within the pod there are individuals with personalities and roles, including nursing females and hungry calves. Babies are nursed for three years or more, creating strong mother-child bonds. Unusually among marine mammals, females go through menopause. They stay with the pod and continue to lactate, and thus continue to care for dependent young even though they are not themselves giving birth. Each pod seems to have a unique mode of communication, and members show strong levels of responsibility for each other.

The Faroe Islanders’ impact is small when weighed against the whole suite of problems. And yet it is exactly because it is visible and stoppable that it must stop. I am not dismissive of cultural traditions. On the contrary, I am full of respect for their continuity and adaptability. A living tradition, like any living thing, must change and adapt in order to survive. An inflexible tradition is a dead one, and human-whale relationships do not have to be based on killing.

Whale killing is a community ritual whereby humans and whales meet at the oceanic threshold of the human community. Once it was necessary for human survival, and most probably it involved gratitude and respect. A new incarnation of an old ritual would articulate encounter, gratitude and respect in a mode of peace. The Faroe Islanders could drive a pod into harbour and hold them there for a brief ceremony of honour and blessing. The concluding ritual of farewell would see the whales swimming back out to their oceanic homeland, their bodies intact and their minds at peace in their own lifeworld.

We will never know the inner lives of whales, and that is as it should be. As the great writer Henry Beston wrote: ‘They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.’

Unlike Terrie Williams who got inside a whale’s body, we can’t get inside a whale’s mind. But while the mind of a whale is forever mysterious, we know that whales do inhabit worlds of meaning articulated through the mind. Within those minds are histories, geographies, families, generations, languages, stories and (for some) songs. There is determination and desire, nurturance and protection. There is a history of oceans writ out in the lives of its creatures, and the future of oceans is there too.

The time for killing traditions is over. The time for cherishing earth creatures is upon us in full measure.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Maldivian Pilot Whales, Sindhi, Creative Commons
Maldivian Pilot Whales, Sindhi, Creative Commons

Resources:

The information on pilot whales is summarised from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilot_whale)

Poetry, Violence and Hope

Report from the Republic of Poetry, Part 2

Festival Logo
Festival Logo

Life here in Australia has been pretty intense, and I needed a break from heatwaves and mass death of endangered species. My thoughts went to Trois Rivières in Canada, and to the International Festival of Poetry. As I wrote in an earlier post, poets came from all over the world to meet, read, and gain inspiration. Many of them had complicated lives of resistance and exile, and many of those complications were signalled by dual origins: Iraq/Spain, Egypt/Québec, Cuba/ Québec, Syria/France. Across languages, histories, lives, continents, revolutions, wars, injury and love – across all these distances and experiences, the Festival held poetry at the heart of human experience, and enabled us to share gifts of friendship, understanding and passionate expression.

Several poets wrote from the conjunction of poetry, violence, and hope. My interest was captured by poetry that was not polemical, but that offered a different voice, a poetic voice, in the midst of persecution, revolution, extremism and other forms of violence. I was able to interview two of these fascinating poets. This post is dedicated to Mona Latif-Ghattas and Taja Kramberger.

Mona Latif-Ghattas, Trois Rivières, October 2013.
Mona Latif-Ghattas, Trois Rivières, October 2013.

Mona’s national identification is Egypt/Québec. The poetry she read, and her introductions to each poem, were invariably close to the tumultuous events of Egypt in the period from the revolution in 2011 up until our conversation in October 2013. In the interview, Mona talks about her involvement in the 2011 revolution and the commitment she made to write a poem every day in solidarity. She discusses her work in literacy programs for women, and her anger with political ideologies that harm religion by using it for politics and violence. She has been involved with people who were writing the constitution that Egyptians have just voted on, and she explains her views on the constitution, poetry, activism, and the work of building a more just society. She speaks of poetry’s capacity to go deeply into people’s hearts and souls. Her incomparable energy is itself a demonstration of hope – for an Egypt that is just and that lives up to its deep history and world-wide influence. The conversation concludes with Mona reading a poem written for an activist friend in distress; the reading is in English, and the poem is translate by Peter Boyle. Mona offers a beautiful demonstration of the power of poetry to bring solace and healing.

Mona, Peter Boyle and I had this conversation on 11 October, 2013 in Trois Rivières, Québec, Canada.

 

Taja Kramberger, Trois Rivières, October 2013
Taja Kramberger, Trois Rivières, October 2013

Taja Kramberger is a Slovenian poet and historian now living in Paris. Just recently, she tells me, she has become involved with a group called ‘Art in Exile’. Our conversation was wide-ranging, starting with her account of an event in Amiens organised by Jean Foucault in which poets went into the zoo to read to the nocturnal animals. She tells of a dialogical moment of recognition that still captivates and interrogates her. We moved from animals to questions of theory and poetry, and the need for both analytic and poetic discourse. From there it was a short conversational step to violence. Taja speaks of her academic and poetic interest in the Dreyfus affair, and offers her view that in the late 20th century violence became elaborated and sophisticated, often concealing itself beneath a veneer of a different character. The conversation concludes with Taja reading an English translation of a segment of her Dreyfus work – a stunning poem called ‘Degradation’.

Taja, Peter Boyle and I had this conversation on 11 October, 2013 in Trois Rivières, Québec, Canada.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

Lethal Heat: Lament for the Dead

They were young and beautiful, and they were dying. Some fell out of the trees, some crawled down and died on the ground. Some left this life still gripping the branch. Babies clung to dead mothers, and struggling mothers held dead babies.

The heat was relentless and the suffering went on and on as death worked its way through 100,000 or more flying-foxes in SE Queensland and Northern New South Wales. It may be the greatest mammalian mass death event to be caused by the new regime of extreme heat. It is probably also the first of many. Who will live and who will die becomes a question of temperature, refuge, and assistance. Much cannot be prevented.

Carers are working their hearts out. Support is needed in every area. Anguish is everywhere, and so too is commitment.

Behind this mass death is a history of persecution and on-going conquest. It is a history of loss of forests, refuge areas, blossoms and nectar, and of ever more urbanisation and conflict. Flying-foxes are these great pollinators, the night-workers of the Australian bush. Ranged against them is a desire amongst many humans to take over the world by relentlessly grasping or destroying the lives of others.

Courtesy of Nick Edards
Courtesy of Nick Edards

There was a time when flying-foxes regularly flew their great long trips across forests and escarpments, and returned home again because the way was known, and home was there. In some places life is like this still.

I remember stories the Aboriginal people told me about how flying-foxes are mates with the Rainbow Serpent. How they come and go in a pulse that is equally the pulse of the rainy time. They come bringing blessings because they call up rain, and when they depart they take their blessings elsewhere. They are kin – ‘one red blood’ in the words of David Gulpilil.

Now there is the haunting of mass death – it is possible that their blessings may indeed leave this earth forever. It is not only lives that are extinguished, but also the blessings of those lives. It may be that the earth is bleeding out now, and we are witnessing yet another aorta falling open.

We don’t have respectful methods for dealing with all these dead bodies. The image of wheelie-bins filled with dead flying-foxes shows a necessary pragmatism in the face of a huge problem, but is also deeply disturbing. Where will the bodies be taken? Will they be buried? Who will mark the grave-sites? Who will sing them home?

We lack appropriate mourning rituals for all this death. In truth, I wonder if we are capable of taking in the magnitude of the suffering. And yet in the weeks to come we will need to develop ways to honour the dead, to mourn their passing, to cherish the survivors, and to praise the carers.

For tonight, a candle is burning here in Sydney and I am dreaming of a flying-fox paradise. There the forests are unfelled, blossoming is sequential, flying-foxes travel and stop, eat and move on to their hearts’ content. They depart, and when they return, home is still there. Every branch and blossom welcomes them, and paradise is not a dream, but the real world of co-evolved life.

DSC02290

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 Postscript:

A report from a mass death event in NSW last year enables us to gain a visual sense of encounter:

Resources:

http://www.smh.com.au/environment/weather/highly-significant-heatwave-smashes-australian-records-20140106-30dx5.html

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-08/hundred-thousand-dead-bats-after-qld-heatwave-rspca-says/5190644

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLDXF5lSd5Dz6ZBxDOWNASc8bjI_8DLgLt

http://www.bats.org.au/

https://www.academia.edu/4539615/Multi-species_Knots_of_Ethical_Time  (an article on flying-foxes and rain)

 

 

Climate Change and the Question of Community

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle Wikimedia Commons
Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle
Wikimedia Commons

January 1, 2014

It is now official: Australia has just experienced its hottest year on record. According to the Sydney Morning Herald’s report, ‘2013 will go down as the year that registered Australia’s hottest day, month, season, 12-month period – and, by December 31, the hottest calendar year’. This was the year, it will be recalled, that the Bureau of Meteorology added two new colours to the temperature maps. Deep purple and pink joined the colour coding to indicate maximum temperatures of 50-54°C (122-129°F).

In case that was not enough, another report tells us that climate scientists at the University of New South Wales have published the results of a study showing that global warming is almost certain to be more extreme than previous models indicated. They have developed a method for analysing the effects of clouds on global temperatures, and their results show that on current trends we’re looking at global warming of at least four degrees by 2100. If you are in any doubt about whether four degrees really matters, Mark Lynas’s book Six Degrees is well worth reading. In 2100 the earth is unlikely to bear much resemblance to the world we now know.

The year 2013 also saw the publication of Bill McKibben’s latest book. In Oil and Honey McKibben takes on the fossil fuel plutocracy. His data are as bleak as ever, and lead directly to the point he has been making for some time: that we are in the midst of irreversible, unfathomable changes. Recently Verlyn Klinkenborg discussed this sense of impending doom in his review of the book. Klinkenborg contends that we are living in the midst of a rolling apocalypse that is changing pretty much everything. Our language, and our sense of time and destiny, aren’t up to the task of communicating this new, accelerating, event. For example, the great floods in the US in 2013 were described as ‘Biblical’. Klinkenborg offers the awful reminder that these floods are NOT Biblical. There is ‘no wrath, no retribution, no forgiveness, no ark, no dove.’

It is too late to avert global warming completely, as McKibben (along with others) has been telling us for a while now. Our political systems are not responsive to the need for quick and strong action, and the fossil fuel industries are at this time well-nigh unstoppable. In fact, the influence of oil, gas and coal industries on government is a sign of the subversion and retreat of democracy. On the one hand, scientists have determined that if we are to keep global warming to a manageable degree, we cannot put more than another 565 gigatons of carbon into the air by mid-century. On the other hand, the fossil fuel magnates plan to extract, sell, and burn every skerrick of oil, gas and coal. In McKibben’s words, the crucial number is 2,795 gigatons. That is ‘the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies…. In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.’ In sum, ‘we already have five times as much oil and coal on the books as any scientist thinks it is safe to burn.’

McKibben continues to urge humanity to try to contain and reduce carbon emissions, and to ‘re-democratise’ our societies so as to require governments to act in the interests of the people rather than the mega-rich fossil fuel magnates. Most importantly, though, he urges us to acknowledge that tough times are all around us and are going to get worse, and to respond to that knowledge by fortifying ourselves and our communities to face these tough times. The safer places, he says, will be in ‘strong communities’, so a wise response to global warming will involve building and sustaining such communities.

This advice leads directly to the question of community. Is a strong community a fortress, or is it a web? Is it strong in the sense of unyielding, or in the sense of resilient? Who is in, and who is out? Aside from politicians and a certain type of populist, it seems clear to all that in times of change individuals and communities need to be flexible, adaptive, resilient, and capable of quick, intelligent, organised responses.

In the context of community, as in the context of climate change, it is necessary to ask if our languages, values, and sense of solidarity are up to the task of imagining and building the necessary strength. Nestled within these questions is the deeper question of ethics. This question involves the assumption of response, responsibility, care, concern, and the refusal to abandon others.

Dog in Dragon Boat, Lake LiYu, Taiwan
Dog in Dragon Boat, Lake Li Yu, Taiwan

Traditional ways of thinking about community are based on what we have in common. A community is made up of people who share language, values, and understandings of the world that enable them to sustain their commitment to working together for their common (shared) goals. This type of community is called the ‘rational community’. If those shared elements are lacking, then community building involves finding ways to develop shared values, and to accelerate the power and resilience of groups of people who work, communicate, and celebrate together. Many people are addressing these questions, and there are excellent programs in existing towns, neighbourhoods and social groups that work to develop resilience and the capacity for transformation.

In the years since World War II a number of philosophers have been addressing the question of ethics and community. Do communities demarcate a domain within which shared values, norms and belief systems prescribe ethics for action? If so, how can we imagine or understand an imperative toward ethics that arises and commands us from outside the domain of shared values and goals? What of the strangers, the excluded, the refugees, the helpless?

Alphonso Lingis has written an excellent book on this subject: The Community of Those Who Have Nothing In Common. This ‘other’ community does not come into being through what we have in common. Rather, it is made of people whose lives brush against each other without necessarily having anything in common. In these encounters, meaning arrives mysteriously. We often do not, and may never, understand others with whom we do not share the qualities of the rational community, and yet we recognise their personhood. We recognise our shared vulnerability, and it follows that although our ethical responsibilities have no clear rational command, they nonetheless make claims upon us. Lingis’s phrase ‘nothing in common’ is used in opposition to the rational community where what holds people together and gives them cause for care and concern is based on what they have in common. Breaking free from that which is shared, the analysis asks how ethics command us in the absence of shared religious and economic interests, and the solidarity of shared values.

This brings me to the conjunction of ethics, climate change, and multi-species communities. Concepts of community for this time of massive change must challenge our traditional concepts, as the philosophers are doing. At the same time, they must be far more inclusive. Climate change impacts on the lives of many, many species. In this rolling apocalypse of climate change, earthlings are enormously vulnerable. We are mortal, we experience meaning in life, we suffer, we struggle to remain alive. These are creaturely conditions that are inherent in the lives of all multi-cellular organisms, and perhaps of many single-celled creatures as well.

Multi-species communities arise in recognition of creaturely vulnerability. It needs to be said again and again that many of our fellow earthlings are at or near the edge of extinction. An incredibly large number of them are affected by climate change. Although the factors that push a species toward extinction are complex, climate change is not only a factor in itself, but also further impacts on creatures’ capacity to adapt to the changes that are now happening.

Probably everyone is familiar with the image of a polar bear on an ice floe, and has heard about coral bleaching. Other creatures are affected by other aspects of climate change – rising sea levels, heat stress, extreme weather, and much more. In addition to specific climate change impacts, almost all creatures now also experience a great number of other, more direct, human impacts. Violence is a large and visible factor, as I have been writing about recently. So too are numerous others: loss of habitat and related issues of over-crowding and urbanisation, plastics, toxins, ocean acidification, and many more. Of course these and other impacts affect humans as well. This is the point. Earthlings today have one great thing in common (with a few exceptions): extreme vulnerability to the unstoppable damage now in process. Our species is not exempt, but at the same time, our species has huge responsibilities.

My current research is dedicated to exploring questions of multi-species communities that form around animals that are vulnerable to extinction. I am interested in communities of care, by which I mean communities in which humans acknowledge and act upon their ethical responsibilities toward other (non-human) creatures. There is no single model for how such communities come into being, and how they work. The research is on-going, and involves a number of people including many of those in the Extinction Studies Working Group.

Here are just two examples of the kinds of multi-species, ethical, responsive and responsible communities I am talking about.

Sea Turtle, Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons
Sea Turtle, Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons

Scientists tell us that there are seven species of sea turtles on earth, and six of them are endangered. These ancient and beautiful creatures are experiencing a huge number of threats some of which are directly attributable to humans. Hunting, pollution, plastics, entanglement in fishing gear, habitat loss and other hazards have driven many species of sea turtles into the zone of the endangered – they may not survive the rolling apocalypse. The problems are all interconnected, but at the same time, climate change poses a number of quite specific threats. It is difficult to imagine in the abstract, but the specifics are arresting:  sea level rise that wipes out beaches and nesting habitats; weather extremes involving storms that damage beaches and seagrass beds; hotter sand from increasing temperatures leading to death before the eggs even have a chance to hatch. Bear in mind that the sex of sea turtles is determined by the temperature at which the eggs develop. With increasing nest temperatures, there are likely to be more females than males, thus threatening genetic diversity.

It is impossible to think of turtles without also thinking of plastics in the ocean. The long slow death of a turtle that has eaten plastic is almost too terrible to contemplate. In the midst of all this suffering, people are rescuing sea turtles, creating protected areas for them, healing their wounds, protecting their nests, and developing hatcheries where nest temperature can be controlled.

Sea turtle beach, Hawaii.
Sea turtle beach, Hawaii.

WWF initiative that brings scientists together with Indigenous Rangers in North Australia is a great example of human action in the face of the many disasters afflicting sea turtles. Long live the turtles and the people who work so hard to help them survive!

A second case study brings us from sea and beach to land and air, in order to consider the vulnerability of flying-foxes to climate change.

Flying-fox 'belly dipping'. Courtesy of Nick Edards.
Flying-fox ‘belly dipping’. Courtesy of Nick Edards.

Of the four species in Australia, two are endangered, while world-wide a large number of species is threatened. We know from experience here in Australia that when the temperatures hit 40°C, approximately, flying-foxes start to suffer severe heat stress. Wherever possible they camp in rainforest gullies, mangroves and other heat-protected areas, but the combination of habitat loss and rising temperatures is lethal. According to Justin Welbergen, a flying-fox scientist, in extreme heat ‘flying-foxes first start fanning their wings, then they seek shade. Next they pant heavily and spread saliva on their bodies. Finally they fall out of tees, or climb down, and crawl on the ground looking for a cooler spot. At that stage they are close to death.’

Most vulnerable to heat are the females and juveniles — bad news indeed for endangered species. In urban areas, volunteers turn out during heat waves to spray a cool mist into flying-fox camps in an effort to keep the temperature down and the humidity up. They rescue as many downed flying-foxes as they can.

In spite of all the help, it seems that some 50,000 flying foxes have died of heat in the last fifteen years, and the number will grow as temperatures rise. Welbergen concludes that flying-foxes are showing us a glimpse of the future, when not only more flying-foxes but also many more species of animals will be affected by heat stress.

Sydney flying-fox rescue volunteer Storm Sandford was interviewed last year (the hottest on record, it will be recalled). Her inspiring story is a perfect example of a multi-species community that arises in response to vulnerability. Her actions emerge in recognition of the needs of others. Her human response to that need is an exemplary demonstration of the generous spirit of all the people who rescue and care for flying-foxes, She gives us a glimmer of how life can be ethical, committed, and engaged in the midst of terrible and unstoppable events.

Juvenile in care, Sydney.
Juvenile in care, Sydney.

Multi-species communities in the time of climate change are made of this: the recognition of vulnerability, the responsiveness of love, the capacity to act, and the refusal to stand by and do nothing.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Postscript

Since posting this little essay a few days ago, a media release came out concerning heat stress in Queensland. I reproduce it here:

6 January 2014
Media release

Extreme heat event devastates Qld native Flying-fox colonies.

Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of native flying-foxes have died as a direct result of the weekend heat event with temperatures of over 43°C. The deaths will continue over the next few days as surviving orphans from dead mothers will slowly die of dehydration.
Many colonies across South-East Qld have been severely affected including those at Camira, Mt. Ommaney, Pan Pacific Gardens, Regents Park, Boonah, Bellmere, Pine Rivers and Palmwoods. Reports indicate all Western Suburbs colonies and inland, and colonies from Gympie down to Yamanto have been devastated.
Deaths include Grey Headed Flying-foxes which are on the vulnerable to extinction species list and Black Flying-foxes. Flying-foxes are Australia’s only nocturnal, long-distance pollinator and seed disperser.
Volunteer rescuers have been overwhelmed with the mammoth task of collecting dead bodies and tending to survivors as part of their service to the community. Currently there are over 200 baby flying-foxes in care “We have never seen this type of heat event devastation before and the massive amount of casualties as a result. From the initial call onwards, the camps fell like dominos.” says Louise Saunders, President, BCRQ.
“A huge thank-you to all the dedicated volunteers who rallied to the call and worked so hard in the diabolical heat to save the bats that were still clinging to life”. Bat Conservation & Rescue Qld wish to thank the many residents adjacent to colonies who came to the carers and offered their assistance and support.
“Never try to perform your own rescue. For your safety and for the sake of flying-foxes, always call a wildlife rescue service,” BCRQ president Louise Saunders said.
“A frightened flying-fox is likely to bite or scratch, potentially exposing a well-meaning rescuer to Australian Bat Lyssavirus. Less than 0.5% of bats may have the virus, there is a safe vaccine to protect anyone who may be exposed. Anyone exposed to a scratch or bite must seek prompt medical attention. “That inevitably means vaccinations for anyone bitten or scratched, and death for the flying-fox because Queensland Health requires them to be euthanased for testing.
for the full text, see: http://bats.org.au/uploads/news-events/media/press-releases/Heatdisastermr6012014.pdf