Monthly Archives: May 2014

‘Dog Bless’

I’m packing my bags again, this time for the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan where I will participate in the International Society of Ethnobiology Conference. Ever since I’ve known that Bhutan existed, I’ve longed to go there, and at last there is this wonderful conference, plus field trips. In using the word ‘wonderful’, I want to note that this is the first conference I have ever attended that has had a special section titled ‘sung sessions’, dedicated to ‘myth and ritual’. I can’t wait to be part of it, and of course I’ll provide a report.

Before I leave the country, though, I need to say a proper and loving farewell to Dinky the Singing Dingo. Dinky died a couple of weeks ago at age fourteen. He was described by many who loved him as a great ambassador for dingoes, as well as for tourism.

Dinky and Jim, Adrian Tritschler (CC)
Dinky and Jim, Adrian Tritschler (CC)

For much of his life, Dinky held forth at Stuarts Well Roadhouse south of Alice Springs.  The owner of the roadhouse, Jim Cotterill, told me that Dinky’s family was living in an area where 1080 was laid, and the nursing mother died. Some stockmen found the litter of six pups in a hollow under a sandhill. They put a trap outside, and it took about three days for the little pups to give up waiting for their mother and to come out. I do not understand why the stockmen took the pups back to the head station, since the purpose of 1080 was to kill them, but in any case, the owner knew that the Cotterills had a few animals at the pub. He rang and asked if they’d like a dingo. Jim said the pup was about six or eight weeks old when he got him. His pup-mates were all killed.

Jim’s daughters played the piano, and when they practiced, Dinky started singing along with them. Later in the pub Dinky hopped up on the piano and walked back and forth singing. According to Cotterill:

“Every time someone starts playing the piano, Dinky creates a din. He starts howling, or singing as we call it. With a chair alongside the piano, he will walk up onto the keys – we call that his playing. He stands there and sings.”

Dinky’s singing was absolutely awesome, especially as he was willing to allow people to get very close. I taped him so that I could hear him whenever I wanted to. Later, though, I couldn’t bear to listen. Not after I came to realise that I knew the song; I had listened to it and sung it many times. From the Babylonian victory right up until today, the song cries out the anguish of exile and diaspora, of those who can never go home again. Part of the beauty of such songs is their improbability: that beauty should burst forth in the midst of disaster and despair seems miraculous. And the beauty also expresses the challenge and heartbreak that emerge in consequence of the cruelty of those who seek the annihilation of others.

Dinky, Xavier Warluzel (CC)
Dinky, Xavier Warluzel (CC)

What does one do? I taped Dinky, looking into his deep mouth and listening to his sonorous voice as he called out for harmony. Later, I felt ashamed, and later still I felt desolate. I was awed to be in his presence, and I wanted to take a fragment home with me. I thought of him and wrote about him, and I thought and wrote about all the silencing that goes on as more and more animals are killed. I searched for a story that would do justice to Dinky and to all of his kin and kind.

Dinky had many comrades, both permanent and transient. Others who visited actually engaged in making song with him. That was what he was calling for, and the encounters that met him on his own musical ground are precious. My friend Hollis Taylor visited Dinky, and she sat at the piano and played with him. She understands music far better than I do, and she found that Dinky sang in perfect pitch. She understood, I think, that what he longed for was the family that makes song together. Hollis recorded the music she and Dinky made, reproducing this stunningly beautiful moment of encounter and recognition across species (listen here).

These moments of beauty, when members of two species join their songs together, are terribly rare. At this time many more dingoes and other animals are victims of 1080 poison. They are dying terrible deaths in outback Queensland, and all across Australia. The poison itself is the product of an industrial killing complex that brings great shame upon our society and our species, while bringing disaster upon our fellow singers.

As I wrote in an earlier essay, my email buddy Ray Pierotti is investigating the love-hate relationships humans have with the genus Canis. He writes that while humans and canids are capable together of becoming allies, some human groups turn against them. He concludes: ‘My feeling is that, in general, the Canids are shocked by this reversal….’

Probably Dinky was in shock in his early months. Music gave him a place in the world.

After the death, Jim and his family took Dinky back to Stuarts Well and buried him in the country he came from, where he had grown up and lived most of his life. Something of Dinky lingers in that desert country, and my fervent hope is that there are still functioning dingo families out there. May their harmonies sing him home so that he may rejoin the family he lost so long ago.

Dog bless this troubled land.

Dog bless the dingoes who are grieving, and all those who are lost and disoriented. Dog bless the young ones who hardly know how to find their way in a world made perilous through human persecution. Dog bless the possibility of a future in which humans set aside their fear and anger, and find companionship with the creatures of earth.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Dingo in Queensland,by John Murray
Dingo in Queensland, by John Murray

Resources:

Hollis Taylor’s session with Dinky is the last track on her CD ‘Infidel’.

My concerns about cruelty to dingoes are explored in my book Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction. as well as in other essays on this site.

For more about Dinky, see http://www.ntnews.com.au/news/only-in-the-territory/rip-dinky-singing-dingo-and-great-ambassador-for-tourism-dies/story-fnk2tg5d-1226915630149

For more about 1080,  the radio program made by Emma Townshend is wonderful (listen here).

 

 

“Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet”

It is a pleasure to report on the conference last week at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Along with the delights of sunshine, beaches, long daylight hours, a big moon, sea lions and redwoods, there was also the specific event that brought me there: “Anthropocene: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet”.

Dragon, Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero (CC)
Dragon, Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero (CC)

Best-ever start to a conference! ~ Ursula Le Guin in conversation with James Clifford and Donna Haraway in a downtown theatre . It was definitely an enchanted evening! Le Guin is deeply impressive: in her eighties, serene, committed, engaged, and, in a non-aggressive way, very hard-hitting. James Clifford has been writing about culture and its predicaments for many years, and has recently published a book on Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-first Century. Donna Haraway is one of the leading thinkers in the area of science and technology studies, along with many other fields, and is a champion of multispecies becomings. Her most recent book is When Species Meet.

The Le Guin ‘conversation’ was sold out almost as soon as the tickets went on sale, and these lively conversationalists, along with an enthusiastic audience, made for a warm, indeed thrilling, evening. Le Guin read a few short prose pieces and poems, and spoke briefly. Clifford and Haraway each spoke in appreciation of Le Guin’s work, and also asked a few questions. Too rich to be summarised, the conversation ranged across matters of prose and poetry, the carrier bag theory of fiction, dragons, the need to develop stories that are commensurate with the damaged worlds we are now inhabiting, wizards, stories that might enable us to see and imagine the looping destinies of earth life, rocks, ‘decentring the west’, coyotes, and fellowship with nonhumans.

After the conversation, members of the public got to ask questions. I was particularly taken with the person who asked about Le Guin’s use of the word ‘soul’ and what she means by that. She said, with characteristic aversion to abstractions, that there isn’t any other word, and somehow people know what you mean. Maybe it just means ‘the togetherness of things’.

Redwoods, Dan Walker (CC)
Redwoods, Dan Walker (CC)

Some time, either then or later, someone remarked that UC Santa Cruz, the campus in the midst of ancient redwoods, is something of a school for wizards. I had to agree:

the whole conference was immersed in the magic of good thinking, good speaking, good listening, and respectful engagement.

Over the course of the next two days, we participants shared our thoughts and concerns in relation to the challenge set by the organiser, Anna Tsing: ‘A multi-day conference seeks to understand if humans and other species can continue to inhabit the earth together? Through noticing, describing, and imagining, we aim to renew conversation about life on earth.’

So what are some of the arts of living on a damaged planet? Donna Haraway framed the question vividly: what are the on-going possibilities for possibilities to be on-going? Speakers from the sciences, humanities, and social sciences addressed the topic from within their area of expertise. I was particularly fascinated by the biologists because I was least familiar with their material. At the same time, they focussed their speeches to address questions that scholars in the humanities are also concerned with: what is the nature of the ‘individual’; how are social groups organised; are there forms of immortality?

One term we all kept coming around to was ‘story’, along with it’s relatives such as ‘storying’ and ‘storied’. Donna Haraway referred to the previous evening’s conversation by raising again the carrier bag theory of fiction. Her point was that the stories we need now are not the big heroic  ones, but rather smaller stories that help us rethink our big questions in richer veins. William Cronon, the historian and great proponent of stories, defined history as a process of making connections across individuals, events and landscapes, telling stories in our own time. Story, he said, is the great narrative of transformation. Other scholars, who may not have been equally familiar with storying as a scholarly practice, took up the term with surprising verve. Deborah Gordon, a biologist specialising in ants’ social life, briefly discussed the algorithm she developed to analyse ant interactions across time and space, and daringly referred to it as a kind of story.

Ants, by Ceoln (CC)
Ants, by Ceoln (CC)

Another term we all kept coming back to was symbiosis. Donna brought the term into the conference by pointing out that the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis (selfish genes, organisms, populations, species, competition) was quite incapable of engaging with the new evidence arising from microbiology that shows symbiosis to be at the heart of life.

Margaret McFall-Ngai gave a fantastically engaging presentation on microbiology. In the past six years or so, she said, microbiology has been undergoing a revolution. To take an example that is up-close and personal, it is now possible to say that a human being is 90% microbes. This is such a strange thought: that the being one thinks of as one’s self is only 10% one’s self. The rest are other creatures who live with us, and who in some sense are us. It is difficult to know in what sense an individual is an individual: we are all chimeras, we are plural and symbiotic, we are animals in a bacterial world. It follows that all the damage and all the impacts that are altering the microbial world have the capacity to include us (humans) in the on-going devastation. It may be that we are changing the microbiotic world in such a dramatic way that it will collapse. If so, we’ll all go together because we all are together far more intimately than could possibly have been suspected until recently.

Microbe, PNNL (CC)
Microbe, PNNL (CC)

I won’t go into lots more detail, as the online videos will be available soon. There you will encounter speeches addressing symbiosis and flying-foxes, salmon farming, black water in the Murray River, megafaunal extinctions, the perilous future of horseshoe crabs, the emergent non-centralised social organisation of life in an ant colony, the wildly symbiotic lichen way of life, canyons as sites of trash and treasure, and much more.

A third term that ran through the conference was, of course, ‘Anthropocene’. Donna Haraway proposed the term Capitalocene more specifically to target responsibility in this era of damage. Terms are still debated and debatable, and probably will be for a while yet. For example, Eileen Crist recently wrote a wonderful argument against the term Anthropocene, citing it as evidence of the poverty of our capacity to think beyond ourselves (read here). In her words, ‘our predicament primarily calls for a drastic pulling back and scaling down of the human presence—welcoming limitations of our numbers, economies, forms of habitation, and uses of land and sea, so that humanity may flourish together with the entire breadth of Life.’

Crist’s words remind us of another of the big questions we face when examining and imagining ‘arts of living’ – can we imagine alternatives? Nora Bateson, award-winning film-maker and daughter of Gregory Bateson, posed the question in very succinct terms: ‘what is the vision?’ Her words brought us back (again) to science fiction and fantasy, poetry and poetic prose, visual arts and algorithms, chimeras and symbionts ~ who are we and what are we aiming for?

At the same time, no one seemed to doubt that we are now living in a new era.

The question necessarily arises: how would we know that we are living in a new era? Anna Tsing,  the organiser and keystone thinker in pulling together this particular nexus of interdisciplinary thought and practice, spoke of history as ‘overlapping tracks and traces of world-making’, situated in irreversible time, fraught with uncertainty and with emergent complexity. This humanities-science perspective links up interestingly with the evidence now being compiled by geologists.

One of the most informative and disturbing speeches I have heard recently was offered by Jan Zalasiewicz at the Anthropocene conference held in Sydney earlier this year. He is a professor of geology, and he started by making  the point that geologists define eras on the basis of visible evidence in the earth’s strata. From that point of view, the question of whether or not we are in a new era is answerable by considering the extent to which human activities are now making a mark on earth’s strata. This speech is available online, and is well worth watching (view here). Let me just name a few pieces of evidence: new metals unknown in nature; synthetic compounds such a plastic, the amount of which no one is measuring; new rocks such as concrete; boring and drilling to an extent of something on the order of 50 million kilometres of holes in the ground for oil; granite formed through atomic testing, and so on. His answer unequivocally was ‘yes’, we are in a new geological era.

It can be hard to pinpoint a ‘take-home message’ from such a rich and complex conference, and perhaps it is unfair even to try, but there was for me one truly novel expression that summed up many of the big ideas. The most powerful themes included symbiosis, interactions between the biotic and the abiotic, mutual interdependence, and the understanding finally emerging in western thought that life arrives on waves of multispecies connectivities, and is imperilled by threats all across the webs of life.

Lichen, James Gaither (CC)
Lichen, James Gaither (CC)

The humble lichen is a great exemplar of many of these themes. Anne Pringle’s talk on lichens, asking the question ‘why do organisms age’, was a delightful discussion of her research. This composite organism lives interactively at the interface of biotic and abiotic domains,  and is symbiotic in its  very (composite) make-up.  Understanding the patterns that connect us with lichens enables us to understand ourselves as chimerical multispecies organisms, symbiotically interdependent both within and without. That understanding leads to this great message:

“We are all lichens now!”

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 Resources:

More about the conference, including abstracts of papers and bios of presenters is available at http://anthropo.ihr.ucsc.edu/. The conference was sponsored by the UCSC Institute for Humanities Research, AARHUS University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) (Denmark), and UCSC Bateson Experiments.

Albatross Chick ~ The Gift of Proximity

Travel to Kaua’i and you never know just what will happen next! I have been staying at the home of friends who have developed a sweet and dedicated relationship with albatrosses.

Albatross chick, May 5, 2014
Albatross chick, May 5, 2014

The situation here in the east and north-east sector of Kaua’i is astonishing by any standard, and can be credited to a great number of human beings who are willing, even delighted, to live convivially with these magnificent birds. My own standards when I got here were pretty low as I was traumatised by the violence against fellow creatures that I had been witnessing and writing about in Australia. Being here conjures that lovely old term ‘balm’. A sense of healing arises in the presence of people who generously share their land and their lives with other creatures, and who, in fact, feel blessed by the opportunity to live in close proximity with others.

Laysan albatrosses (Phoebastria immutabilis) are wonderful birds to share a place with because their evolved way of life has not required them to be fearful of predators. Humans can walk amongst them without disturbing them, and this fact has brought out the best and the worst in humans. Albatrosses were nearly driven to extinction through mass murder in pursuit of feathers for ladies hats, and other commercial products. That no longer happens, and in fact something else is also taking place: gratitude for the fact that we can be amongst wild animals in the most intimate proximity.

The gift of proximity is a blessing received, a path toward humility.

Albatrosses spend about seven years dancing and courting before settling on their mate. They have a very low ‘divorce’ rate, and they share the labour first of sitting on the nest, and then of feeding the growing chick. It takes two parents to raise one chick, and every chick is testimony to the parents’ deep devotion. These fantastic birds fly eighty thousand or more kilometres annually to gather food from the North Pacific and raise their chicks on Hawaiian islands such as this.

Parent and egg, December, 2011
Parent and egg, December, 2011

The chick I am hanging out with now is the child of Makana and Kūpa’a. I wrote about these particular albatrosses in a book chapter published last year (I include the section on Albatrosses and Crazy Love). Two years ago something went wrong, and the chick did not hatch. Rick and Louise, the generous people who introduced me to Makana and Kūpa’a, told me that the following year the same couple returned to make a nest nearby, and raised a chick successfully. This year they made their nest under the deck. It is a great location – protected from full sun and full rain, and rather inconspicuous.

I have spent a lot of time on the deck hoping that a parent will come to feed the chick, but so far it hasn’t happened in my presence. The parents are ranging far and wide to get the food they need for themselves and little one – right now they could be in Alaska! How they come back to exactly this headland, to exactly this deck and this chick is actually unknown (to humans). And yet they do, and all the while the defenceless chick waits, developing the arts of patience along with growing feathers to replace its fluffy down.

Over the coming decades, if the couple survives the hazards of long-line fishing and ingestion of plastics, along with the land-based perils of dogs, cats and humans, they will almost certainly keep coming back and raising chicks. In due course, some of those chicks will also come here to nest and raise chicks.

Albatross chick goes for a walk, May 3, 2014
Albatross chick goes for a walk, May 3, 2014

Returning to the here and now, the chick sits in his nest. Sometimes he stretches, or grooms himself, sometimes he appears to sleep. Often he looks up expectantly, and from time to time he clacks his bill, making the distinctive albatross sound that, in the chick-parent context, is asking for food. Occasionally he gets up and walks out onto the lawn, and after a gentle stroll returns to his nest and settles down to wait. My little home video (view here) shows him out on the lawn, and walking back to the nest, settling in, and doing a bit of grooming and clacking.

The arts of albatross life are indeed beautiful – to dance, to make commitments that can last ‘forever’, to navigate, to fly while sleeping, to return to the right place at the right time, and through it all, to live the varied cadences with appropriate attention. The perfectly matched dances, the dive for food, the feeding of the chick, the chatter, the grooming, and the lift upward on the winds; the travel, the brooding, the patience, the serenity.

Laysan Albatross, Caleb Slemmor (CC)
Laysan Albatross, Caleb Slemmor (CC)

I try to imagine such flight, and find myself thinking of wind harps. The breath of life flows through us all, and each creature sounds forth the harmony that is their way of life. The big question for humans never goes away: will my life be tuned to blessings or to destruction?

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources:

The best entry into the wonders of albatross life is through the website developed by Hob Osterlund – Kaua’i Albatross Network. There you will also find a critter cam and can watch an albatross chick developing in real time.

Much of the information in this essay comes from Carl Safina’s award-winning book Eye of the Albatross.

My article that includes ‘albatrosses and crazy love’ started life as a keynote speech, and can be viewed here.