Monthly Archives: March 2014

Songsters

Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor
Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring continues to haunt us with remembrance of all the Earth is losing. It calls us repeatedly to realise how beautiful are the lives of others, and how precious. With remembrance comes sadness: how lonely and grief-stricken are the silences. And as Paul Shepard reminds us, Silent Spring is also a warning against ‘the deafened self, against emptiness’. Two kinds of violence, then: the silencing of others, and the shutting down of one’s own capacity to hear.

Recently I listened to a radio documentary made with and about my friend Hollis Taylor. Hollis is a musician and composer, as well as a deeply serious student of birdsong. For nine years now, she has been recording and analysing the music of the pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) in various regions of Australia. Central Australia is one of her research areas, and from time to time her friend Jane Ulman, sound artist and radio director, accompanies her. The radio show ‘Bird Interrupted’ takes listeners on a trip through the MacDonnell Ranges with two remarkable artists, listening not only to birdsong but also to a delightful array of human characters (listen here).

Hollis Taylor, Photo: Jane Ulman
Hollis Taylor,
Photo: Jon Rose

Hollis explains that the key features that mark birdsong as music are: the fact that it is learned (not innate), and that it is improvisational. Not only do birds learn to sing by being taught by other birds, but individuals develop their own musical repertoires. Some of them are wonderfully creative – a joy not only to other birds, but to humans as well.

Her research asks the probing question: ‘Is birdsong music?’ Most of us probably think we know the answer to this question, and we may well wonder why it even needs to be asked. The question is provocative because music is one of the markers selected to show that humans are different and special creatures. According to those who seek to sustain an impassable boundary between us (humans) and all the others (our Earth kin), our capacity for music (along with language and other capabilities) makes humans exceptional.

Pied butcherbird research tells a different story. At certain times of year, these birds perform solos for up to six hours a night. It is helpful to have a good ear in order to appreciate the musical complexities of pied butcherbird song. Hollis’s description (with sound bites) of the main motif in the Alice Springs region is further brought to life by her presentation of some of the regional and individual variations on the main theme. I was enthralled to be introduced to music that, left to my own devices, I would have heard as beautiful but been unable to understand in its complexity.

Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor
Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor

‘Bird Interrupted’ is a great reminder that one of the outstanding characteristics of planet Earth is that living beings communicate. One of the great desires of many life forms is the desire to put sound out into the world – to announce, to call, to communicate, to seduce, and much more.

Our planet is not only blue, watery, and filled with cycles of nutrients, it is symphonic.

At the recent conference ‘Encountering the Anthropocene’, Richard Nelson spoke about our musical Earth. Richard is an Alaskan anthropologist whose life is dedicated to participatory learning with Indigenous people and to documenting the sounds of life and shaping them into radio programs. Richard takes an expansive view of ‘the singing planet’, including wind, water, ice and animals, amongst others, as ‘voices’. They and we are all part of the ‘single language of living things’, he tells us. The video of his engaging speech is now posted online (view here).

Richard also brought up another form of violence: human din. Our species is getting noisier, as well as more numerous, and noise is a hallmark of the Anthropocene. We are acoustically crowding out others and even worse, we are assaulting them. Whales and other marine mammals, for example, are among many Earth creatures whose lives are threatened by lethal sound. Navy sonar and other underwater high-decibel noise has such terrible impacts on whales and others that one orca researcher calls it an ‘accoustic holocaust’.

Many of the animals who are under acoustical assault are themselves songsters. According to Hollis, ‘about half of the world’s approximately 10,000 bird species are songbirds, so distinguished because they learn their song. Intriguingly, vocal learning is rare; our closest primate relatives, for example, are not vocal learners. Even the elaborate song bouts of gibbons are innate. Aside from songbirds, to date this capacity appears limited to hummingbirds and parrots (and possibly a few other avian groups), as well as marine mammals, elephants, and bats.’

Humpback Whale  by Andrew Schaefer
Humpback Whale by Andrew Schaefer (CC)

While pied butcherbirds are singing their themes and variations in Central Australia, humpback whales are singing their way through the oceans. A recent study of whale song, undertaken by Ellen Garland, a University of Queensland PhD student, identified eleven different humpback whale song types. They ‘typically started in the eastern Australian population and spread in a step-wise fashion across the region to French Polynesia’. In a fascinating interview (view here), Ellen explains that the cultural innovation taking place here is extremely unusual in non-human culture. Only males sing, and it seems they want to stand out from the crowd. A new song is a stand-out performance. It is adopted as a novelty, but soon becomes what everyone is doing, and so males develop new songs. Every two years or so, a new song comes into being.

The desire to express one’s presence vocally is, for many creatures, integral to their living self.

I learned this the sad way when I picked up a severely injured sulphur-crested cockatoo and put it in the car to take to the vet. On the way, the bird died. Before he died, however, he let loose his last raucous call, as if unwilling to leave silently. I knew it was the end when I heard him, and I felt kinship as well as sorrow in the presence of his desire to make a final acoustical mark showing that he had lived and been part of the world.

In life as well as in death, we are songsters, many of us. A couple of years ago I travelled with my friend Jim Hatley, philosopher, artist and poet, to Central Australia. We visited gorges along the MacDonnell Ranges, including one of my favourites – Trephina Gorge. After hiking along the top country, we went down into the dry river bed. We walked on pale sand amidst tall river gums whose single great tap root shoots down into the underground water; and like a quiet miracle in this dry country, we saw small birds whose presence signals water. Around a bend we came upon a permanent waterhole no more than a few meters across in any direction.

'Zebra finch 4', by Jim Bendon
‘Zebra finch 4’, by Jim Bendon (CC)

The country was pulsing with life, both visible and hidden. Jim paused under the shade of a river gum to sing. His voice moved up and down the gorge, honouring this place and giving something in return. As he poured forth his praise, the finches gathered. Small, elegant songbirds of desert and waterhole, they settled in the tree above him as he sang.

We are songsters to the core of our being, but we are not therefore alone or exceptional.

Amongst the great and varied kindred of Earth life, blessed are the singers of new songs ~ they bring creativity, along with all this great wild beauty, to the symphony of life.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

Resources

Silent Spring was first published in 1962, and is still in print. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27333.Silent_Spring

The quote from Paul Shepard comes from his book The Others: How Animals Made Us Human. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1640911.The_Others

Hollis is the co-author of a fascinating article about lyre birds that is available online: http://environmentalhumanities.org/arch/vol3/3.3.pdf

Richard Nelson’s most beloved book is Make Prayers to the Raven. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/134644.Make_Prayers_to_the_Raven

Some of Jim Hatley’s inspired work can be encountered at his website: http://geoaesthetics.blogspot.com.au/

Partnership Rewilding with Predators

Elk near Jackson Hole, Photo: Dave Rose
Elk near Jackson Hole,
Photo: Dave Rose

My father, Dave Rose, was fascinated with the elk that came down out of Yellowstone National Park during the winter months. He took us kids to Jackson Hole to see them, and he persuaded the guy with the hay to let us ride on the trailer while he went through the herd dumping fodder. Dad took slides (and more slides). Sometimes it seemed as if every slide show was all about elk!

Only much later did I learn that the National Elk Refuge was founded in 1912 by local ranchers who were concerned that this great herd might go extinct. Its migration routes were disrupted by ranches and the town.  Conflict between ranchers and elk over hay led to killing, and there was mass starvation.

The establishment of a winter refuge adjacent to Yellowstone, with funds for fodder, was an early action in America’s long and often odd conservation movement. For almost one hundred years wolves were persecuted. Herbivores were hunted. Still today at the National Elk Refuge, ‘both bison and elk populations are managed through refuge hunt programs. Permits specific to each hunt are required and are obtained online or through the Wyoming Game & Fish Department.’

When we went there all those years ago, it was pretty easy to see that this great migratory herd had nowhere to go. Problem and solution seemed pretty clear. But if Dad had read Aldo Leopold’s essay ‘Thinking Like a Mountain’ he might have suspected that there was more to the story. Leopold’s brief, influential essay starts with him killing a wolf, as people did in those days, and then working through the implications of predator loss, overabundance of deer, stripped vegetation, and barren ground.

American wolves in captivity
American wolves in captivity

For centuries mainstream European-origin culture has feared, despised, and sought to annihilate wolves and other predators. The outcome, if one can use such neutral term to describe the result of all this suffering, has been extinctions and extirpations. If Dad had asked about wolves, he would have come upon a story of vicious, cruel persecution that would have deeply saddened his kind and generous heart.

As if in counterpoint to all the death work that has gone into efforts to eradicate wolves, conservation biologists are discovering that the top carnivores have ecological roles that benefit numerous species of flora and fauna. This is counter-intuitive thinking for western peoples, but it is actually integral to indigenous peoples in many parts of the world. The novel Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong tells the story in the context of Mongolia: kill the wolves and you kill the grazing lands, and so you kill the herding way of life.

‘Trophic cascade’ is the scientific term for ecological processes that ripple from one species through others, and through whole ecosystems.

This process has been documented with the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park after a seventy year absence. The consequences are completely stunning. A recent video narrated by George Monbiot tells the story in words and images (view here). It is helpful to know that Monbiot uses the word ‘deer’ where Americans would use the word ‘elk’ for the species Cervus elaphus. I don’t want to spoil the drama of the video, so I’ll just make the point that a trophic cascade starting with a top predator ripples through other animal species, plant species, and ultimately even through the physical geography of their ecosystem.

Furlined/Creative Commons
Furlined/Creative Commons

The re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone is an example of the new thinking that is often called ‘rewilding’. It addresses ecosystem restoration on a large scale; there is no attempt at retrieving primeval ‘wilderness’ – that would be impossible, and if it were possible it would be counterproductive. Rather, rewilding aims to let ecological processes start up again.

The development of rewilding programs in the USA depends on three key strategies: cores, corridors and carnivores. The carnivores are the first key, as Monbiot narrates in the Yellowstone video. If they are healthy, the benefits flow on through the system.

The second key, then, recognises that the top predators require adequate range to sustain themselves across generations. The third key is corridors; it recognises the fact cores can become death traps unless the animals can move. This is so genetically, and equally because ecosystems and climate always offer the unexpected. With climate change, even more unexpected changes are (paradoxically) expected to occur. Animals need the versatility and flexibility in order to be able to respond to change.

Carnivores with ample area and ample connectivity will regulate ecosystems in ways that achieve complexity, diversity, and resilience.

So far, so good, but now the news turns alarming. An extremely important recent publication addresses these issues in the context of climate change and the accelerating extinction event now underway. A great number of the large carnivores that ecosystems need are themselves vulnerable to extinction or local extirpation. The authors state that in light of all the recent evidence ‘alongside climate change, eliminating large carnivores is one of the most significant anthropogenic impacts on nature.’

Photo: John Murray
Photo: John Murray

A good section of the study is dedicated to dingoes, and it summarises the work of Arian Wallach and the other dingo scientists whose work last year was awarded the Eureka Prize. Their conclusion: ‘Overall, the suppression of dingo has probably contributed to the endangerment and extinction of small marsupials and rodents over much of the continent.’ It has also enabled the expansion of a range of invasive species over much of the continent.

The biggest threat to large carnivores is the human species. Finding ways of co-existence is therefore absolutely crucial. Not only is the work that carnivores do ‘underappreciated’ (the authors’ words); in many areas, as is well known, predators are actively persecuted. Many pastoralists have formed the view that livestock and predators are incompatible. Having set up an ‘us or them’ opposition, they destroy the predators.

Dingo Barrier Fence
Dingo Barrier Fence

Here in Australia the conflict is between cattle and sheep farmers on the one hand, and dingoes on the other. I wish they would all read Wolf Totem, but that seems unlikely. Perhaps they will listen to the recent  Bush Telegraph radio report ‘Could dingoes actually help farmers?’ (listen here) The program starts with a fascinating interview with Lyn Watson of the Dingo Discovery Centre speaking about dingo physiology and behaviour. It concludes with Arian Wallach, the dingo research scientist and one of the authors of the influential study of carnivores and climate change. She carries out research on Evelyn Downs Station, a working cattle station (ranch) that is one of the few predator-friendly ranches in Australia.

In the radio interview Arian reminds listeners that dingoes are top predators here in Australia: ‘ …  the health of the ecosystemits biodiversity, its productivity, the condition of it’s soil, the rivers, the endangered speciesare all tightly linked up with the dingo.’ She then very precisely changes the story from ‘us vs them’ (pastoralists vs. dingoes) to interconnection. Rather than barriers, there are connections. Cattle and sheep need biodiversity, dingos sustain biodiversity, therefore pastoralists, livestock and dingoes are all interconnected and are, in effect, on the same side.

Cattle and Dingoes at Evelyn Downs (A. Wallach)
Cattle and Dingoes at Evelyn Downs (A. Wallach)

Arian and Lyn also discuss the problems that arise when dingo ‘control’ (poison, trapping, shooting) creates homeless, unsocialised creatures who are effectively out-of-control. It is a truly vicious circle, and one of our great challenges is how to break the cycle of violence without destroying either pastoralists, or livestock, or dingoes.

To return to partnership rewilding, therefore, I see hope in the idea that the best thing we humans can do for the earth at this time is to work in alliance with other creatures whose lives regulate, pollinate, and otherwise sustain flourishing ecosystems. In relation to flying-foxes I proposed the establishment of vast corridors or networks of flowering trees. ‘Rewilding’ the open savannah woodlands would enable flying-foxes to sustain themselves and continue their work of pollination. Those same corridors could also be habitat for dingoes and many other creatures, and as core areas are maintained, and more corridors are established, the country can become criss-crossed with edges and zones of co-existence.

Life on earth is not ours to destroy, and nor is it ours to engineer solely for ourselves.

Partnership Rewilding acknowledges and works with interconnections. At this time, most ecosystems are massively perturbed and there is a huge role for humans in working to re-establish favourable conditions. The ethics of multi-species alliances thus have several sides. Humans may at times be active partners, and at times may simply need to get out of the way so that others can do the work they are so beautifully evolved to do.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Postscript: Arian Wallach has just published and excellent article in ‘The Conservation’ (read here)

Her recent interview on Freedom of Species is also relevant and insightful. (listen here)

Resources:

Aldo Leopold’s essay is available online: http://nctc.fws.gov/resources/knowledge-resources/wildread/thinking-like-a-mountain.pdf

The horror of the violence against wolves is conveyed, along with much else, by Barry Lopez in his great book Of Wolves and Men.

Mongolian herders’ relationships with wolves are analysed in Natasha Fijn’s ethnography Living with Herds: Human-Animal Coexistence in Mongolia. She is a terrific film-maker as well, and films from her Mongolian experience are also available (view here).

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Ray Pierotti, author of Indigenous Knowledge, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology, for the wolf photos and for clarification of the elk/deer nomenclature.

‘Blood and Chlorophyll’ ~ Janet Laurence

My friend Janet Laurence currently has a show at the Hugo Michell Gallery in Adelaide with the title ‘Residue’. When I saw the announcement, with its bold photo of the main piece, I knew I had to go and visit in person.

Janet-Laurence's-Residue-at-Hugo-Michell-Gallery-3

Laid out on the floor of the gallery, like a god on a bier, is the huge, broken, leafless branch of a white-barked gum tree. Here lies this recently living thing: perfectly tree, perfectly beautiful, perfectly dead. This installation is called ‘Blood and Chlorophyll’.

Adelaide is at the forefront of the heatwave weather that is becoming a key index of climate change in Australia. On January 16, 2014, this small city had the distinction of being the hottest city in the world. Other records were broken in Adelaide this summer, just as they had been during the previous summer, including eleven days of temperatures of 42°C or more (107.6F). The hottest days were 45°C+ (113F).

The weather became a participant in Janet’s work. While she was searching for a broken branch to bring into the gallery, Adelaide experienced a huge windstorm. Gusts of 100 kms (60 miles) or more knocked down heat-stressed trees all over the city.

The branch is about 9 metres (30 feet) in length and 6 metres (20 feet) at its widest. It is horribly disconcerting to see it as it is now – so large and strong, so vulnerable and lost. Janet bandaged some branches in white gauze, and she has installed tubes running from empty phials to a dead tree in gestures of forlorn life-support. Such green as can be seen is darkly dying.

JGP_7789

The great branch was placed on top of numerous sheets of mirror that were both reflective and stained. There were smears and drips, as if arteries had been cut into, and great gouts of blood had spurted through the area. And yet, almost everything here was white. This was a bleeding out that was desiccated, salty, bleached, and drained. It was beautiful, and it was scary.

Blood and Chlorophyll, detail
Blood and Chlorophyll, detail

All these white smears and gouts spoke of death that depletes and does not renew. The branch, whose limbs still seemed to reach out to life, was fallen in the midst of desertification, salinity, acid sulphate soils, endless heat, endless sun.

I kept walking around the piece, seeing on every turn another element of this great white terrain of loss. There was bleached coral. There were animal bones, including vertebrae, jawbones with teeth, and the long thin leg bones of, perhaps, water birds. There were dried leaves and twigs, and there were powders, salts and stones.

Blood and Chlorophyll, detail
Blood and Chlorophyll, detail

‘Blood and chlorophyll’ – trees and other plants, and the bones and exoskeletons of animals – is a desiccated deathscape assembled with the most loving care. Nothing here is ugly, nothing is out of place, nothing seems to be in pain. The vials and tubes testify to care, and the whole piece bears witness both to death and to those who live on after the deaths of others. It testifies to we who care, who mourn, who keep faith with life, and who honour death, even as we are becoming bleached out in the great desert of future-earth here in our part of this struggling planet.

There is a lot of synergy between Janet’s work and mine. In my book Wild Dog Dreaming I wrote:

For some four billion years life and death have been working together, each finding its own level in relation to the other, and together sustaining a family of life on Earth, a family that is always changing, always finding connections, generating fit, seeking an always shifting balance in an Earth system that is itself far from equilibrium. We humans emerged in dynamic relationships with animals and plants; with them we share our dependence on water and air, and we share basic energy and basic substance: blood, and its plant counterpart chlorophyll.’

‘If we could hear the call of those who are slipping out of life forever …. We might encounter a narrative emerging from extinctions, a level of blood that connects us all.’

Blood and Chlorophyll, detail
Blood and Chlorophyll, detail

I have travelled through many of the bleached out deserts of Australia, and I have been made breathless with their beauty. In the early years of my travels, it did not occur to me that these white expanses of deeply arid desert might be the landscapes of the future. Janet’s work brings us this shock of recognition.

And yet – not only the weather, but tiny creatures also are participants in Janet’s work. Hugo Michell (gallery owner) and Ceridwen Ahem (gallery manager) told me that there were active ants in the tree. I thought immediately of borers or termites, but whatever they are, they are alive, and they are thriving. A couple of days ago Ceridwen wrote: ‘ANT UPDATE:   When I came in this morning there were lots of little piles of sawdust – the ants are working so hard that you can hear them at it.  The whole tree makes these little clicking noises – it kind of sounds like popping candy.  I am loving it!’

‘Blood and Chlorophyll’ is just one of several pieces in ‘Residue’. The show also includes a lovely selection of Janet’s larger oeuvre. Those that worked most profoundly on my sensibilities as I sat in the gallery and contemplated the ensemble, are those that carried the theme of a salty heat-struck zone of violence and death. ‘Traded I’ from an earlier installation ‘After Eden’ has cast resin antlers, mirror, calcite, quartz, and the white pigment that I see as stains and smears – the aftermath of some unimaginable violence.

Traded I, from 'After Eden'
Traded I, from ‘After Eden’

Along the back wall there was a set of x-ray images (duraclear and inkjet on acrylic and mirror) of endangered species.

From 'Fugitive'
From ‘Fugitive’

Janet is famous for her work with lighting, veils, and mirrors along with scientific equipment and biological remains. The effect of mirrors is to require us to see ourselves in all these places of loss. Gauze, veils, and shadows cast by mysteriously ambiguous  lighting are intended to slow people down, to disrupt the everyday and the expected, and to help us to experience anew the precious qualities of life in the midst of the haunting miasma of all this loss.

‘Hauntology’ is Jacques Derrida’s term for the spectre of the past which confronts us as the future. Like many of his excellent ideas, it is more readily grasped through the work of scholars who have sought to put it to work in analysing the contemporary world. Nick Mansfield writes beautifully about haunting and the Anthropocene. He presses us toward the understanding that what we are facing arises out of our past and comes at us from the future. He writes that ‘the material violence of the past emerges, reincarnate, re-fleshed, in our future, and in a politics for which our last centuries of politics cannot prepare or even forewarn us’.

Blood and Chlorophyll, Traded I, and Traded II
Blood and Chlorophyll, Traded I, and Traded II

What politics cannot do, Janet and other artists are actually doing. They bring us into encounters and recognition, they hold us in that place where mystery and understanding mingle and overtake us. They bring us to our knees, astonishing us with awareness of our own mortality, complicity, grief, remorse, and unbounded love.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Postscript ~ News from the Gallery: Ceridwen Ahern  writes that borers are now visibly active, as well as audibly active!

Insects at work in the gallery
Insects at work in the gallery

More news from the Gallery: The installation has been removed. The tree has been taken to a nearby park. The ants went with the tree. Life goes on.

Acknowledgement: All the photos in this essay were provided by the Hugo Michell Gallery.

Resources: Jim Hatley has written a beautiful essay on Janet’s installation ‘Memories of Nature’. Janet’s website contains a link to a video interview (view here) in her studio.

 

Partnership Rewilding With Flying-Foxes

Thanks to a conversation with my friend the environmental humanities film-maker/director Rob Nugent, I have become entranced with ideas of how we humans can work with flying-foxes rather than against them. Human-animal alliances that work toward greater integrity of ecosystems are, I propose, forms of ‘partnership rewilding’.

Sociable little reds,  photo:  Ashleigh Johnson
Sociable little reds,
photo: Ashleigh Johnson

‘Little reds’ (Pteropus scapulatus) are one of the four flying-fox (mega-bat) species in Australia, and they’ve been the focus of a lot of public talk and action recently. On the positive side was the enticing announcement of the arrival of little reds in Brisbane for the flowering of the bloodwood trees. I couldn’t get away from home in January, and so had to settle for a very short video clip and delightful write-up of the ‘wildlife spectacular on a world scale’ posted by the Bat Rescue and Conservation group in Brisbane (view here).

Further north in the Atherton Tableland town of Herberton, residents were complaining about little reds and calling for them to be removed. Apparently the mob arrived in late November and camped along the Wild River. One person in the know wrote recently: ‘The trees are literally flattened and the bats are still camping in them. About half have left in the last week’.

The Herberton story re-entered my imagination last week at the environmental humanities conference here in Sydney. The snappy title was ‘Encountering the Anthropocene’, and in the midst of an extremely lively program, it was great to catch up with Rob Nugent. His first film in the area of human-animal interactions focussed on locusts – their strange, beautiful, ‘Biblical’ and in many ways disastrous lives. ‘Memoirs of a plague’ is filmed across Africa and Australia and tells beautiful and disturbing stories about human-animal relationships.

Rob had recently been in Herberton and had filmed the little reds. I am so grateful to be able to get a glimpse of a big mob of ‘little reds’ in situ (view here). In Rob’s words:

“I particularly like the idea that they had decided to camp on a river called ‘Wild’… I suppose the river was named after someone called Wild, but perhaps it was named for its “wildness” too. The vegetation on the river was probably stripped for tin mining and is now regrowth…. In any case the bats are doing their best to “rewild” it by gradually breaking it up and pulling it to bits. I don’t think they are killing the trees though they will take a bit to recover. As it’s such a high rainfall area it’s unlikely that the bats’ superficially dramatic impact on the trees, sculpting roost sites to hang out together, branches being bent and broken under their collective weight etc., will last very long at all.”

Rob’s wry comment about rewilding the Wild River is partly tongue-in-cheek, but also wonderfully provocative.

Little reds characteristically love to hang together in tightly packed groups. According to the bat experts Les Hall and Greg Richards, ‘their habit of forming dense clusters, with up to 30 bats hanging together from one small branch, often results in the branch breaking. The combined weight of many such clusters will cause even large branches to break…. The resulting effect of a camp of little reds on a patch of vegetation is somewhat akin to the damage done by a severe hail or wind storm.’ It would seem that the trees where flying-foxes camp get a large influx of organic nutrients along with all the ‘pruning’, but it is still difficult to imagine the scene when a million or more little reds gather together in one place. As Hall and Richards point out, ‘fortunately these large camps of little reds are mobile, and move on when the local flowering ceases.’ Increasingly, as land clearing reduces their options, they may return before a camp has had time fully to recover.

Little reds in Boonah, Qld Photo: Paisley Hadley
Little reds in Boonah, Qld
Photo: Paislie Hadley

In 2000 Hall and Richards wrote that little reds had not normally lived in the Atherton Tableland, but were coming more frequently. Their arrival has truly upset people in this area as well as in inland towns such as Charters Towers where the recent disastrous cruelty is well documented. I will never condone that cruelty, but what strikes me in this context is the fact that here humans and trees share a perspective when it comes to little reds. For both species (humans and trees) the big question is: when will they leave?!!!

The answer, of course, is ‘when they have somewhere to go’. Little reds are the most nomadic of all the flying-foxes of Australia. Their range overlaps with the others, but goes further inland, bringing flying-foxes deep into the arid zone of Central Australia.

They are the odd group out amongst the Pteropids of Australia. Little reds are smaller, with a different colour and smell; they breed at the opposite time of year to the rest of the three main species; they are more reliant than the others on blossoms and nectar, and thus are almost exclusively nectivorous. Their large groups and greater mobility are responses to the focus on nectar.

The lure of the Atherton Tableland is likely to be related to the failure of the blossoming trees further inland, a factor that is influenced by climate and weather. However, Hall and Richards also note that ‘continued wide-spread clearing in central Queensland has removed trees which were major winter and spring food sources for little reds.’ As a result, large numbers of creatures were starving, and were looking for alternative places and alternative foods. Since 2000, land clearing has continued, and (surprise) the Newman government has recently altered legislation to make it easier for land owners to clear fell. One figure of the many that could be offered demonstrates the impacts of land clearing: for every 100 hectares of bush destroyed, between 1,000 and 2,000 birds die from exposure, starvation and stress.

Queensland cattle country
Queensland cattle country

As habitat destruction and persecution go hand in hand with starvation and heat stress, it sometimes seems the odds are stacked against flying-foxes. Every time I hear calls for expulsion, dispersal, eradication, war on bats, and other violence, I have to do a double-take and remind myself that in spite of all the propaganda, there are actually many creatures for whom the future of flying-foxes really matters. That’s in addition to the creatures themselves who, in their determination to find their food, survive heatwaves, and raise their young, clearly care deeply about their future.

We need to step away from the hype of hate to get a wider perspective on how flying-foxes are appreciated by many creatures. It is probably fair to say that the predators who get an occasional mouthful of little reds and other flying-foxes appreciate these creatures. Crocodiles, powerful owls, pythons and perhaps an occasional lucky large raptor that finds a flying-fox getting about by day, all get a benefit from flying-foxes. This tooth and talon (or crush ‘n’ gulp) kind of benefit ensures that for hungry predators flying-foxes are indeed a pleasure.

Little red with blossoms Photo: Helen Gormley
Little red with blossoms
Photo: Helen Gormley

Undoubtedly trees are the greatest ‘fans’ of flying-foxes. Many of the trees they visit, lap upon, and pollinate require out-crossing for best pollination. This means they need to be pollinated with more distant trees, not just with themselves and their immediate neighbours. Little reds are the pollinators par excellence of the inland arid-zone trees. A study of little reds showed that 95% of the time they range beyond ten metres from where they start their evening meal. In contrast, 80% of birds remain within a ten metre range of where they start their meal. In the arid regions of scattered eucalypts, corymbias and other native flowering trees, little reds ensure that the future of these trees will be adaptive and flexible. In this time of rapid ecological change, that capacity for adaptive and flexible response, especially for long-lived creatures such as trees, is especially important.

Among the many beautiful Myrtaceous trees, the inland bloodwood (Corymbia terminalis) and desert bloodwood (Corymbia opaca) have a range pretty much identical to the inland range of little reds. Both thrive best with outcrossed pollination. From the perspective of bloodwoods, flying-foxes are the generous nomads who take their pollen from tree to tree across these inland regions.  Their work holds whole life-worlds together, for trees do not live in isolation. As I learned through my ethnobiological work in the Northern Territory, the future of the trees is entwined with the lives and future generations of many other creatures, creating a shimmering tapestry of life sustained by flying foxes.

Birds and butterflies live amongst the bloodwood, and so in some sense are entwined with them, and thus with flying-foxes. Native bees positively adore making their homes in bloodwood hollows, as well as feeding on the pollen, and so they too are entwined. Bloodwood ‘apples’ are the growths that result when an insect lays eggs in the bloodwood bark. The gall of the desert bloodwood is said by those who know to taste rather like coconut.

‘Sugarleaf’ is a sweet crust called ‘lerp’ that forms on bloodwood trees and a few others. Shaken off, formed into cakes, and stored for ceremony, ‘sugarleaf’ was once an extremely important food for Aboriginal people. Lerp is part of the life cycle of a set of insects, and sugarleaf is eaten by a range of other creatures: birds such as honeyeaters, parrots, and willy-wagtails along with lizards and others.

Corymbia terminalis
Corymbia terminalis

For humans, bloodwoods also offer a good wood for firewood and for tools; the ashes are good for use with chewing tobacco; in the arid regions, some bloodwoods hold water in their hollows and have saved peoples’ lives. Many of the first cattle yards were made with bloodwood posts.

Orchids love to grow in protected corners of bloodwood trees, and centipedes lurk (if that is a fair term) in orchids. Mistletoe, too, thrives happily in bloodwood trees. Where mistletoe lives, the mutualist mistletoe birds also live. Along with mistletoe birds, others such as painted honeyeaters, a species threatened by land clearing, are reliant on mistletoe. Children too chew on mistletoe berries. And where mistletoe thrives, small mammals such as possums also tend to thrive.

Who cares about flying-foxes? The chorus of bloodwoods and those who live in, on, and with them, has many voices. Taken together with the many other trees such as river red gums, coolabahs and paperbarks, it becomes a symphony of praise for the pollinators, and for all the blessings that flow from them. Its two-part chorus comprises joy in the present with a call for health, vitality, and connectivities in the future.

This call inspires me to imagine a program of partnership rewilding. The term ‘rewilding’ has come into use in recent years. It carries with it all the problems of what we may mean by wild, but it is useful in our struggle to find language equal to the issues we face. It isn’t fully appropriate to talk about ecological restoration anymore – there are too many questions about what makes an appropriate baseline, and who is included or excluded. Equally, in Australia a lot of restoration work is all about killing, as Thom van Dooren discusses in his great article on this subject. And, too, there is much uncertainty about the future in this time of climate change. Restoring ecosystems to a past state may not be what is needed for the future. Increasingly, scientists talk about resilience, and increasingly everyone realises that for the foreseeable future humans and animals are going to be living in ever more cheek-by-jowl proximity.

Flying-fox flyout, Sydney
Flying-fox flyout, Sydney

The two big ideas of rewilding are to protect and connect natural processes (core areas and connecting corridors), and to protect or re-introduce keystone species and apex predators. Little reds and other flying-foxes are keystone species because of their pollination work, and the benefits they bring to eco-systems cascade across a huge range of other species.

My not-so-modest proposal is that we humans start to understand ourselves as mutualists. In partnership with flying-foxes, we could work to facilitate the great nomadic blossom-chasing way of life, and all the gifts it brings to creatures great and small.

This program would reverse the long history of land clearance, and would be designed to enable flying-foxes to continue their beneficial work. There would be extensive corridors with a well-planned succession of flowers, catering particularly for the most difficult times of year. Rewilding corridors would draw flying-foxes away from urban centres, helping them live the life they are evolved to live, and sustaining the integrity of Australian ecosystems. Rather than we humans trying to drive flying-foxes away by injuring them, partnership rewilding would entice them back into the bush where everyone benefits.

There are many other gains. Trees reduce local temperatures, and would make a real difference in this heatwave era; trees sequester carbon, and the renewal of the bush reduces our carbon footprint, just as land clearing exacerbates that footprint.

The ethical beauty of partnership rewilding is that it inspires us humans work with others.

It allows us to acknowledge the great work others do to keep life flourishing, and to assist in that work. It puts humans in their place as part of the community of life rather than as dominators, as Aldo Leopold was proposing so many years ago. Partnership rewilding fulfils in every way Leopold’s great dictum: ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’

 

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

This is the first of a series of essays on Partnership Rewilding.

Resources

Leslie Hall & Greg Richards, 2000, Flying Foxes: Fruit and Blossom Bats of Australia, UNSW Press.

Aldo Leopold, 1949, ‘Land ethic’ in Sand Country Almanac, Oxford University Press.

Figures on bird deaths in land clearing come from an article by Bush Heritage Australia.

I got some home video footage of a massive fly-out in the Northern Territory last year (view here).