Monthly Archives: August 2014

Thinking About Nature With Bonhoeffer

I read something today that reminded me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s great words of wisdom. Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who refused to support the Nazi regime. As a Christian he could not, and as a theologian he could not. The depth and sincerity of his commitment to ‘love thy neighbour’ made it impossible for him to join the persecutors. His refusal put him at odds with the majority of German Christians who implicitly or explicitly acquiesced with the regime. His refusal went further, to acts of resistance including attempts to assassinate Hitler.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, St Johannes Basilikum, Sludge G (CC)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, St Johannes Basilikum, Sludge G (CC)

At a time when his colleague Niemöller had been imprisoned for eight years in concentration camps as the personal prisoner of Adolf Hitler, Bonhoeffer wrote these wonderful words:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionist, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Jew.
And then they came for me –
and there was no one left to speak for me.”

In the end, Bonhoeffer too was arrested and imprisoned. Even as the Nazi regime crumbled, one of Hitler’s last acts was to require some of his loyal henchmen to ensure that Bonhoeffer be executed. And so he was hanged, just two weeks before the liberating army arrived, and three weeks before Hitler committed suicide.

Although I am not a Christian, I am inspired by the perennial question ‘who is my neighbour’. Bonhoeffer is telling us that the neighbour is not only the one who is in some way like me. The neighbour is the stranger, the ‘other’, the ones whose lives disrupt my comfortable self-enclosure. The connection I was seeing today concerns the natural world, and so I am bringing social justice and ecological justice together in thinking with Bonhoeffer.

The division between social and natural is completely arbitrary and has its roots in the idea that humans are separate from and in some ways at odds with nature. This separation is false in the way it separates humans from all the others, and it is equally false in the way it lumps all humans together.

These days many of our biggest struggles are between two main human types: those who understand themselves as part of nature and want to see both humans and nature flourish vs. those who either despise nature or see themselves as its masters and conquerors. For this latter group nature seems to be only a collection of ‘things’ that matter to the extent that they can be made profitable.

For those of us who understand ourselves to be part of nature, our neighbours are not only human, but are all those fellow participants in living systems: forests, reefs, dingoes, Tassie devils, flying-foxes and the myriad other earth creatures.

Tasmanian Devil, Jamie Muchall (CC)
Tasmanian Devil, Jamie Muchall (CC)

Bonhoeffer was not saying that we should defend others because it is in our self-interest. Rather, he is saying that we are all part of this world of life. Turn our back on any of the others and we turn our back on anyone’s claim to be part of the world of life. As a theologian he was almost certainly saying that to turn away from others is to turn away from God.

We who love the nonhuman world and want to see earth life thrive are often, I know, beset with the question: how does one keep going when the odds seem so stacked against us and all that we love? Where is hope to be found, and when it seems hopeless, what sources of inspiration keep us going?

I was inspired by an article from the  Wilderness Society concerning the Tasmanian Forests. The Tasmanian Legislature has been debating whether or not to throw out the Tasmanian Forest Agreement. This agreement brought forest activists, the timber industry, the unions, and other key groups together to work out a path that would be good for the forests and good for people. This long work of reconciliation took decades, and it set in place a legal agreement that was recognised by all the parties.

Tasmanian forest, Tatters (CC)
Tasmanian forest, Tatters (CC)

Now it is on the line. The report from  the Wilderness Society expresses the matter perfectly:

“With questions and opposition from the independent upper house and key stakeholders – including environment groups – flying thick and fast, and the novice Government amending its own legislation on the fly, the bill may yet fail or be heavily changed in the coming days.

What is clear, however, is that if the bill passes, the Tasmanian Government is lining itself up for years of pain. The Tasmanian community will hold the Government responsible for damaging the environment, hurting Tasmania’s reputation, and taking an axe to a forestry industry slowly recovering as a result of unprecedented collaboration between former adversaries….

The Tasmanian Forest Agreement has already delivered a securely-protected World Heritage area, kept the chainsaws away from half a million hectares of forest, and shown that a strong commitment to working with past adversaries can deliver for nature.

Regardless of the outcomes of the impending vote, the Wilderness Society is committed to working with the community to see Tasmania’s old growth forests and wild places protected – forever.”

Commitment as Bonhoeffer advocated recognises that ultimately we are all connected, and ultimately we must defend the world around us, even when it may seem hopeless. Over the last few years I have met many people who rescue and care for wildlife and who are activists on behalf of nonhumans. I am constantly awed by the way they keep on working with love and dedication even when the opposition is brutal and relentless.

I keep asking myself questions that resonate with Bonhoeffer and that I know trouble concerned people everywhere. This is the ‘where was I?’ question.

They came for the reef, and where was I?
They came for the flying-foxes, and where was I?
They came for the dingoes, and where was I?
They came for the forests, and where was I?

We can’t all be everywhere at once, and as we see so much that we love being trashed, it seems particularly vital to remember that we are part of a multispecies community of care. Within this widely inclusive community, it is good to remember that we humans too are creatures to be treasured. The nonhuman world needs defenders. The defenders need support from others. Who will be there?

Today it was great to read that the Tasmanian government has postponed debate on the bill to destroy the forest agreement. I love their slogan:

‘Governments come and go but my love for nature only grows’.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

Resources: There is a wonderful biography of Bonhoeffer, written by Eric Metaxas, titled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (2010)

The full text of the Wilderness Society article is available online (view here).

The more recent announcement with the great slogan is also available (view here)

In an earlier essay and accompanying video I address the Prime Minister’s efforts to remove some of the Tasmanian forests from their World Heritage Listing (view here).

 

So Many Faces

I am reading Tim Low’s terrific new book Where Song Began. Tim Low is a renowned science writer, and in this new study he tells fascinating stories about Australia’s birds.

Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor
Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor

The birdsong of the world originated here in Australia.

It is wonderful to see the evidence piling up. For decades, though, this conclusion was resisted by many biologists who simply could not open their minds to the idea that something as significant on earth as birdsong could have evolved in a place so far from what many them liked to think of as the centre of earth-life, i.e., the northern hemisphere. And yet, DNA evidence is now showing beyond any doubt that Australia was the original home of songbirds. In Tim’s words, birdsong brought ‘a new dawn for planetary acoustics’.

Tim Low is a biologist with a strong interest in connectivity. The story of Australian birds is told in the context of soils, sunshine, trees, seeds, sugars and nesting areas. In the case of parrots, for example, primary breeding sites are tree hollows. Eucalyptus hollows can take hundreds of years to form. In one of the great understatements of the year, Low notes that ‘the demise of large trees in farmland raises concerns about future parrot success’.

Young grey-headed flying-fox in care
Land Clearing, Queensland

I visited Tim last week, and as I was driving through his neck of the woods there was a lot going on both in the country around me and in news from elsewhere. It was adding up to a pretty awful moment in the ecological life of this amazing continent that had the exuberance to bring forth birdsong.

I saw a lot of evidence for the ‘demise of large trees’, and I am moved to express myself in more vigorous language: I saw trees being killed and paddocks massacred. I know from my study of land clearing issues that a lot of dying was happening here in addition to the highly visible trees.

According to a Bush Heritage publication on Land Clearing and its Impacts, Australia is still clearing way too many trees, and the effects are not only on the trees themselves but on all the other creatures who live in and amongst trees, including those who inhabit the understory. This report does not pull its punches:

“Over 5 million parrots, honeyeaters, robins and other land birds are killed each year by land clearing. For every 100 hectares of bush destroyed, between 1,000 and 2,000 birds die from exposure, starvation and stress. Half of Australia’s terrestrial bird species may become extinct this century unless habitat destruction is rapidly controlled.

Nearly half our mammal species, including some wombats, wallabies and bandicoots, are either extinct or threatened with extinction as a result of land clearing, habitat destruction and other threats.”

Another point made in this report concerns that great ecological dictum: ‘what goes around comes around.’ Bush Heritage warns that land clearing increases the potential for salinity, adversely affecting both soils and water, and thus generating negative impacts for farms, towns and cities.

One side of the story is the lack of political will, another side is human intransigence. As it happened, I was driving past recently cleared paddocks whilst listening to reports on the radio about the funeral of Glen Turner. Mr Turner was an environment inspector in the state of New South Wales, a government employee whose responsibilities included monitoring land clearing. He was shot and killed, and a local farmer Ian Robert Turnbull has been arrested. The news reports state that Mr Turnbull had a history of conflict over land clearing. Previously he had been in court over the matter of ‘clearing’ some 3000 trees. We will learn more about it in due course. In the meantime, Mr Glen Turner, a local man who was said to have loved farming life and the rural community, is gone forever.

One of the many reasons we take death seriously is that individual death, like species extinction, doesn’t offer return tickets.

There is so much evidence about the value of trees on properties that one is left wondering why people become so intransigent. It strikes me that some people get smart when they have to figure out how to make a living that will be legal, sustainable, and ecologically inclusive.  Others, it seems, just get mean.

The human capacity for meanness was on display in Brisbane during this same week in another case that also involved clearing. According to a report ‘Bat Battle on the Bayside’, some people whose homes are adjacent to a park where the land is zoned ‘environmental reserve’ are annoyed. Apparently the fact that the environmental reserve was actually fulfilling its function as a haven for both humans and nonhumans was not appreciated. It is not clear that all residents felt equally angry about having to live in proximity to flying-foxes from time to time; what was clear was that the on-going actions of the strident residents led to a response that was euphemistically called ‘trimming vegetation under storey’.

Trees, understory, and flying-foxes, Redlands City
Trees, understory, and flying-foxes, Redlands City

The ‘trimming’ took place at night because it was anticipated that the flying-foxes would be out foraging, and thus would not be directly disturbed by the machinery and activity. The method involved a machine that bites into the understory, chomps it up, and mulches it on the spot. Plants, animals and fungi go in one end, mulch comes out the other, and everything that was alive – birds, eggs, skinks, snakes … whatever was sessile or not quick enough, was ground up and spat out.

The point in relation to flying-foxes was that they do not like camping in areas where there is no undergrowth. All the deaths in the understory would, it seems, be validated because the changes would encourage the flying-foxes to move a few meters further away from human homes.

Many grey-headed flying-foxes were camping in this area (Pteropus poliocephalus). This species is listed as vulnerable to extinction and protected under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999). This is one of the mammal species the Bush Heritage Report was discussing in relation to vulnerability and land clearing. In addition to species vulnerability, many individuals are pregnant females, and are now or will soon enter the critical third trimester. Both they and the next generation are at risk in actions that cause shock and stress.

Young grey-headed flying-fox in care
Young grey-headed flying-fox in care

The most strident resident (at least in the news) was Annette Brown. She called the flying-foxes ‘noisy and smelly’, and said she ‘wants them gone’. Ms Brown’s televised statements encapsulate to perfection the lack of thought around these issues.

1) living in a home near land zoned for environmental reserve and deciding that nature will have to go

2) remaining indifferent to the direct and indirect suffering that has been and will continue to be caused by the ‘trimming of understory’

3) failing to connect the dots: flying-foxes lose their bush habitats through land clearing, then they are shoved from one spot to another in urban areas.

The pressure comes from everywhere, and if there is a grievance it would  more fairly be directed against other humans.

I went to visit the site on the morning after the first night of ‘trimming’. When I got there the sky was thick with flying-foxes flapping about in agitated consternation. This was in broad daylight, a most unusual event for these nocturnal creatures. I hear that some of the residents may be out there during the day harassing the flying-foxes in order further to force them away.

Mr Bill Lyon, Redlands City Council CEO, spoke of the action as a limited effort to make more space between human homes and flying-foxes. He was well aware that dispersal would just shift ‘the problem’ somewhere else, and he seemed to be hoping not to do that. Ms Brown had no such concerns. In her words: ‘I don’t care where they go. I just want them gone.’

In the same news report, Denise Wade (Bat Conservation and Rescue, Queensland), made the point that loss of habitat is pushing flying-foxes closer to humans. In her words: ‘It’s about planting alternative habitat and preserving the habitat that we have left. I see a very bleak future for bats.’

Helicoppter in Charters Towers, Photo: Adele Foster
Helicopter in Charters Towers, Photo: Adele Foster

I have been interviewing many talented and committed rescue and care volunteers, and this perception of a bleak future is widespread. Every little bit hurts, and of course much of what hurts is by no means small, as we know from the actions in numerous Queensland towns and cities in recent years (discussed here).

Over the course of those few days in Queensland I was gaining the sense of a desperately disturbing deep-time trajectory. The steps go like this: this is the continent that brought forth birdsong and enriched the whole earth; this is the continent that was inhabited by Aboriginal people for millennia under a cultural regime we now know as ‘caring for country’; this is the country that now has the highest rate of mammalian extinction in the contemporary world.

When Tim told me that another animal appears to have gone extinct I can’t say I was shocked. The only surprise was that it was a lizard. The Christmas Island Forest Skink suffered a quick and severe decline. At one point they were prevalent, then suddenly their numbers were down, and earlier this year the last known individual died. The authors of the report find that ‘In most cases, extinction can be seen as a tangible demonstration of failure in policy and management, of inattention or missed opportunities.’

If I were writing up a report card, the result would be terrible. But the failure goes way beyond reporting and assessing. There is widespread, systemic failure to consider and protect individuals, species, ecosystems, habitats, and ecological connectivities, along with the failure to cherish beauty, to prevent harm, and to show consideration for the lives of others.

This deep and exhaustive failure offers on-going evidence of a terrible wound in the biocultural fabric of Australia.

I suspect that none of us knows how, or whether, it can be healed. Our capacity for ethical action is bleeding out all over the place. The great continental philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote of the ‘face’ as that which interrupts my self-absorption and calls me into ethical responsibility. There has been a lot of discussion in recent years as to whether the face means ‘a human face’. What about other animals? What about trees? What about understory? The definition of face that I find most inspiring treats it as a form of action. Here face is something one does rather than something one has:  ‘facing is being confronted with, turned toward, facing up to, being judged and being called’.

The living world is filled with facings – to be alive is to live among faces, many of which are noisy and interruptive. This is good. This is life in the mode of ethics. At this time, this is also tough. There are so many facings, and often one feels so helpless.

Australian magpie, David Jenkins (CC)
Australian magpie, David Jenkins (CC)

And yet, the exuberance of living creatures continues to be inspiring. It is still possible to step outside and listen to birds. For the moment, now, I am taking myself off to the garden. It is true that these songbirds are not all equally musical to my ear, but they sure are smart and lively, and many of them sing beautifully. They have been here for a very long time, and I hope they and many of the others will continue long beyond this current regime of terror.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources: Where Song Began: Australia’s birds and how they changed the world, by Tim Low published by Viking/Penguin, 2014.

In a couple of my previous essays I have had a few words to say about ‘creature languages’ and ‘songsters’.

Bush Heritage Report on Land Clearing and its Impacts (view here).

‘Trimming vegetation understory’ (view here)

Bat Battle television story (view here)

‘Vale ‘Gump’, the last known Christmas Island Forest Skink’ (view here)

A number of terrific essays on Levinas and nature can be found in the book Facing  Nature, edited by William Edelglass, James Hatley, and Christian Diehm.

The quote is from Susan Handelman’s book Fragments of Redemption. (Indiana Uni Press, 1991)

Dingo Prayers

I have been packing my bags again, this time for a trip to the Northern Territory. Travelling with the ‘legendary bushman’ Darrell Lewis, the plan is to visit family, friends and flying-foxes in the Victoria River District. With the first National Day of Action for Dingoes (NDAD) on September 21 very much on my mind, I was also longing to see and hear a few dingos.

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

My hopes were not too high. Last year in the Victoria River District many of the stations had been putting out the 1080, and in 2012 the NT Parks and Wildlife Commission had spread the poison around in the Judbarra-Gregory National Park.

As it turned out, I did not hear a single dingo. The only live one I saw was a forlorn and confused young creature who seemed, to my eyes, to personify the life of the lost in the aftermath of grievous trauma. Thoughts of the young fellow continue to trouble me, and there was more to come.

Out on the Victoria Highway, the main road between the Territory and the Kimberley, we encountered the dead and desecrated body of a handsome golden dingo.

Perhaps he had been deliberately run down on the road. It happens. But there was no ‘perhaps’ about the deliberation with which he had been taped up with packing tape on the roadside sign advising travellers to stop and refresh. He had become another trophy death in the war against dingoes.

There was also no doubt about the deliberation with which the sign had been shot at repeatedly, just as there was no way of knowing whether the shots had been put there before or after the dingo. The dents were very fresh.

We stopped the truck. I had picked some flowers earlier in the day, and I laid them on the ground beneath the dead body. There was a lot of blood, and the internal organs were bulging out from a belly wound. A long string of bloody saliva hung from his mouth. The flies were there, but the scent of decay was still faint. We were witness to a very recent event.

It is true that death often brings a sense of peace, and there was in this desecrated body the aura of a finality that goes beyond trauma. The golden fur still glowed as if life could return, but of course the rest of the body told otherwise. Confronted with the actual dignity of death, the vile evidence of desecration, and one’s attempt to imagine the deranged and brutalised humans who had done this, my offering of flowers seemed utterly inadequate and yet still necessary.

I do not know how to stay in the presence of dingoes that are being killed for no good reason. Their lives are being wasted, there is endless heartbreak for dingoes and for humans, and it is all pointless and relentless. I do not know how to stay with it, and nor can I turn away.

To honour the memory of this dingo and all his kin, and as a reminder of why we need NDAD, I am reprinting part of an essay I wrote in 2005 called ‘Dingo Prayers’.

Dingo Photo: Arian Wallach
Dingo, Arian Wallach

“Often when I am in Dingo country, my thoughts stray to Old Tim Yilngayarri. His country was out in the savannah region of the Victoria River region, and he was the greatest Dingo boss I have known. He was the only person I’ve spoken with who not only told long complicated stories about Dingo Dreamings, but also spoke with dogs in daily life. As Old Tim told the stories, Dingoes made humans as humans; before that we were all one species.

They are today our closest relations on Earth, our ancestors, our contemporary kin, and the creatures who show us what it takes to be human. Tim was acutely aware of the injustices dogs and dingoes suffer at the hands of humans. In his stories the ancestral Dingoes give voice to their sense of lost reciprocity, and to current grievance: ‘”I been make them man and woman. Now you been drop me, put me in the rubbish dump'”. Old Tim called them by their kinship names: Mother and Father Dingo, and there have been times when I have too….

Across Australia there is a concerted war against dingoes.

In the Northern Territory they talk about dingo control, but in Queensland they aim for destruction. In spite of all the evidence to show that dingo baiting itself is creating the problems that it is supposed to be controlling, and in spite of evidence for the significant role dingoes play in sustaining biodiversity, the killing goes on. Discursively the war against dingoes has shifted to a war against ‘wild dogs’, as if it were more legitimate to kill dogs than to kill dingoes.

Queensland has taken the most vigorous approach to eradication. With its carefully maintained 2,500 kilometres of Dingo Barrier fence (now Wild Dog barrier fence), and its restrictions against travel along the fence, the commitment is clear. In the western regions of the state the fence runs along state borders and there are large gates that allow motorists through. You stop and get out of the truck to open the gate, and then you carefully close it behind you, and when you do that you can’t help but think of death. At each gate there are signs that read:

THIS GATE SHOULD BE CLOSED
AT ALL TIMES
IF FOUND OPEN PLEASE CLOSE
Wild Dog Destruction Board

For years I have been photographing Dingo fences, Dingo gates and 1080 signs in order to document for my own conscience the war against dingoes. Some of the Dingo fences had dead dingoes strung up near the gates or ramps, and I have photos of them too. For years, too, I have been removing the poor shattered bodies of dead dingoes from the road, tucking flowers under their bruised corpses, and saying a small farewell to them in apology for the disasters that run them down.

On a recent trip through Queensland I stopped to photograph a hand-lettered sign, white on green background, announcing that this is a Dingo Barrier Fence. Bureaucracy hadn’t gotten here yet, either to erect a formally printed sign or to change the words from Dingo to Wild Dog. On the ground in front of this homely little sign two flat rocks were set up, one on top of the other. Their placement was so casual and so unexpected that it could have meant anything.

The stones may be something or nothing, purposefully placed or just a whim. I took hold of that ambiguity and interpreted them as a prayer, and when I left, I put a round stone on top of the two flat ones. Since that day I’ve made other trips and started other prayers around sites that proclaim the war against dingoes. At Hawker Gate, Fortville Gate, Warri Gate and others, I have gathered stones and made unobtrusive little cairns. Wherever possible I add stone flakes, reminding whoever may take notice that the war against indigenous folk has been widely as well as brutally focussed.

For me, the stones are an intention, an apology, a counter-action, a visible prayer for a world in which all this killing can be stopped. I think of Old Tim and his dogs, his stories and his love: that Dingoes are our relations, our kin and co-creatures. The stones mark gratitude for him and his teaching.

Mother and Father Dingo, I say as I place yet another stone, precise words don’t exist for the heartbreak that this death work is piling up between us. Let me offer stones along with words, and pray for our fellow creatures in their torment. I mean to inscribe a human conscience that is shaped into action by Dingoes and by the people who hold and tell the stories. A human conscience that stands within, and affirms its opposition to, a world of wilful and deathful bloodshed.

But perhaps I am trying to put too many words on it.

The poet Rumi tells us ‘There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground’.

Think of it! A thousand ways –
One way, surely, is to make dingo prayers.”

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

Resources: The original version of ‘Dingo Prayers’ was published in 2005 in Island, 103, pp. 6-10.

Information on the role of dingoes in biodiversity, and the havoc wreaked by 1080 is available in several of my earlier essays (view here), and on the excellent webpage developed by award-wining scientist Arian Wallach. A recent radio program in the Freedom of Species series (listen here) addresses matters concerning 1080.

I discuss the desecration of dingo bodies in my book Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction.

 

 

 

Arts of Motion

I was delighted to discover that there are mermaids in Bhutan. I know them well from North Australia but hadn’t expected to meet them in the mountains.

Mermaid, Paro Dzong
Mermaid, Paro Dzong

In the Bhutanese national language, sacred sites that are visible primarily by geological or geographical features are called ney. The English translation is ‘sacred natural site’. According to experts at the ISE conference, these are ‘living and breathing natural places of retreat and worship, where enlightened masters throughout the ages have brought blessing power, and where pilgrims and spiritual practitioners perpetuate and fortify the energy until today. As a result, these revered and cherished sites have been protected from external forces that might disturb their sanctity…’

Many of the sites hold stories of how Buddhist teachers encountered and subdued local spirits, turning them toward Buddhism. To anyone sensitised to conquest in settler societies, the story of take-over looms large, and the history of Buddhism in the Himalayas and Central Asia is indeed a story of competing religions. The stories are everywhere. When Deki, Dechen and I walked in the hills to visit the rock painting of Guru Rimpoche (a notable demon-subduer), we crossed a suspension bridge, as discussed in a previous essay. We were just up-stream from a rock formation that testifies to the efforts of a goddess to cross the river to meet the Guru. Her bridge was destroyed by a demon.

Do Zam, where the Goddess tried to cross the river.
Do Zam, where the Goddess tried to cross the river.

And yet, now that a millennium or more has passed, the outstanding aspect of these stories is how inclusive and protective they are.

And indeed, the need and desire for protection are never done with. A ney is a place where nature, culture and spirit all come together. The wider story concerns a sacred geography that continues to offer respect to local deities (nep). These figures, resident in mountains, rivers, stones, and other ‘natural’ features, remain on earth and guard their local areas. One type belongs in and protects water. All lakes in Bhutan are sacred, and mermaid-goddesses inhabit and guard them. We visited one such lake, Baritsho (bari = bamboo; tsho = lake) within the Royal Botanic Gardens. Here people of the region gather to make offerings of respect and to enjoy blessings.

Baritsho, Royal Botanic Gardens

Mermaids’ benign protection is not only for lakes. A number of the temples we visited had a little pond with mermaids outside the entrance. Perched in tiny  artificial lakes, they bring their protective presence to temples too. The temples themselves, with their geographical positioning adjacent to flowing water and with their mermaid and other presences, testify both to Buddhist teaching and learning as well as to the local area with its unique guardians.

Mermaids in pond, Paro Dzong
Mermaids in pond, Paro Dzong

Over the past few years Bhutan has conducted a formal survey of ney. According to Sangay Dhendup of the ‘Division of Cultural Properties, Bhutan’, 197 sites have thus far been recorded. The objectives of this admirable project were spelled out in his fascinating conference presentation: to better understand history and heritage; to assert the value of cultural practices; to preserve little known traditions that are important to local communities; and to provide a reference point for the future. He linked with these sites with biocultural conservation. As explained in the conference booklet: ‘… these revered and cherished sites … [create] important buffers and corridors for biodiversity’.

The awkward term ‘sacred natural site’ testifies to the on-going difficulties posed by the west’s nature-culture binary and the warping effects it has in the context of heritage. Cultural heritage is man-made; natural heritage is not. Where these two types converge the term ‘mixed heritage’ is used. ‘Mixed’ does not, indeed cannot, do justice to the sites it purports to categorise. At most it shows just how arbitrary and ultimately unhelpful the nature/culture categories really are. But there is another problem that twists up out of the binaries. Where is the sacred? If heritage is either natural or human, the great multitude of local guardians, demons, goddesses and protectors, along with all the Buddhist manifestations and metamorphic presences slip out of the story.

A great gem of Tibetan wisdom is expressed as a puzzle: A prayer flag flutters in the wind. Which is it that moves, the flag or the wind? Answer: Neither. The spirit moves them both.

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This way of understanding and experiencing spirit carries us far from binaries and exclusive categories.

Spirit is that which moves through everything, and that by which everything moves.

I thought of this great gem frequently while I was in Bhutan where so many sites, including temples, weave geography and spirit. The action of stones, water, plants, lichens, animals and other forces combine with the actions of human history and culture, and with the activities of greater-than-everyday beings to produce sites of co-mingled power. Prayer flags and wind, prayer wheels and flowing water, mermaids and lakes and temples: such co-constitutive prayers and protection offer multiple blessings.

There was one sacred natural site that spoke very strongly to me. At this place in Bumthang the story moves across two stones and involves the subjugation of a demon. The first stone is where the demon was hiding in the form of a snake. The second stone is where the large bird took the snake and bashed it. The second stone bears the imprint of the large bird’s footprints.

DSC02640

Mr Balaram Gurung took a small group of us to this place, and in response to subsequent emails through which I sought to ensure that I understood the story correctly, he wrote:

“Regarding the story about the two stones, I also tried to collect as much as evidence as I could from some reliable religious people. They all say that the same story has been conveyed from generation to generation and has been taught to children by their parents who all know the story about the stones. So to add up to your story, let me elaborate a little about the names of the places where these stones lies. They say: ‘the place where the big stone lies is named as duefog (due – demon  and fog – hillock, small mountain) and the single stone with garuda’s foot print is named as Jachhung thang (Jachhung – Garuda and thang – plain).”

Garuda in Thimpu, Ping (CC)
Garuda in Thimpu, Ping (CC)

I brought a Jachhung (Garuda) mask home with me. The more I look at it, the more I see. There is the bird who killed a snake, and the powerful Jachhung who subdued a demon, and there are stones, the hillock and plain, Mr Gurung and all the religious people he consulted, dancers and masks, and all the people across generations who told the story and kept it alive.

The story travels, too. Knowledge of Garuda moves all across South and South-East Asia. This marvellous bird — his name and iconography change, but his protective action is everywhere loved and revered. Like prayer flags in the wind, spirit moves through all.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Acknowledgements: On-going thanks to Mr Balaram Gurung and to Deki and Dechi.  Thanks as well to Mr Sangay Dhendup who gave such a terrific speech at the ISE Congress in Bumthang.

Resources: Except for information that is specifically acknowledged, most of the information in this essay came from signage at sites and from Wikipedia.