Monthly Archives: September 2014

Dingo Nation

September 21, 2014 is the first-ever National Day of Action for Dingoes. The date is well-chosen: it is the International Day of Peace. The General Assembly of the United Nations has dedicated this day to strengthening the values of peace ‘both within and among all nations and peoples’.

Dingo, Alexandre Roux (CC)
Dingo, Alexandre Roux (CC)

Of course one assumes that ‘nations and peoples’ means human beings. But as the war against nature acquires ever more violence, and as those who practice violence become ever more intransigent, it is clear that we need to include animals, plants, ecosystems, oceans, atmosphere, soils and much more within our concept of the nations with which we (humans) need to be making peace. As Henry Beston wrote in relation to animals (and I think his point is widely relevant to all creature-worlds): ’they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.’

NDAD has taken up the challenge in relation to Australian Dingoes (Canis dingo). According to the message on the NDAD Facebook page, the National Day of Action for Dingos was born from the advice of Dr Jane Goodall DBE at a recent meeting in Melbourne with a small group of dingo protection advocates. The objective of the event is twofold:
– to unite groups and individuals with a common goal to help dingoes
– to send a clear, united message to the Australian government about dingo protection.

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

My role in the emerging action has been to organise and film a conversation between myself and my friend Arian Wallach, facilitated by my friend Jane Ulman. We met the studio of our mutual friend Janet Laurence to discuss the question: ‘Can the War Against Dingoes be Stopped?’ (view here) I won’t summarise the conversation; it is fascinating and deep, and well worth the investment of 27 minutes of time.

The background to any question about peace must ask: what manner of creature is trying to make peace? We know a lot about human creatures in all our diversity, complexity, and apparent lack of capacity for holding onto peace. We know less about dingo creatures and their capacities. Thankfully, scientists like Arian Wallach and others are teaching us a lot. The research consistently reveals a complex family structure (known as a pack), collaborative care of the young, cooperative hunting, territorial defence, limits on family size and structure, individual personalities, and other features that indicate highly social animals with strong loyalties and a deep sense of duties and responsibilities. Their ability to harmonise together is a lovely indicator of their sociality, as I discussed in an earlier essay (view here).

Dingoes and other canines live within kin-based family groups. A standard anthropological definition of kinship is that kin relations are bonds of enduring solidarity based on descent from shared ancestor or formed in order to produce a new generation. These bonds of enduring solidarity are emotionally complex in animals, as indeed they are in humans; amongst all kin groups there is the work of raising the young, and work of dealing with loss. Social animals in kin groups are deeply invested in each other, and so it follows that the loss of a member entails grief – that is, the experience of irreversible loss of those with whom one’s own life is entangled is both felt and shared.

Evelyn Downs Dingoes (Arian Wallach)
Evelyn Downs Dingoes (Arian Wallach)

Recently, an instance of dingoes grieving was documented in the ‘wild’. It is unlikely that anyone who knows dingoes or who understands kinship will be surprised by this fact, but apparently there has been a dearth of scientific documentation. Rob Appleby, an ecologist at Griffith University in Brisbane documented a dingo family responding to the death of one of the pups. Their behaviour was similar to that of primates and other animals that grieve, such as dolphins, according to the report  by Joseph Bennington-Castro. In his words:

“The dingo family consisted of a mother and five pups about 3 months old. When Appleby stumbled upon the family, one of the pups was dying — it was lying on the ground, where it occasionally lifted its head, whimpered and sometimes convulsed. The pup’s mother and littermates roamed around nearby, returning to the pup to sniff him and whimper every once in a while. The pup died within half an hour, but Appleby continued to periodically observe the family over the next two days.’

This report includes a brief bit of video footage of the mother moving her dead pup when Appleby got too close (view here). In Appleby’s words: ‘there was a lot of distress on the part of the mother’. She moved her pup three times, staying near it, not wanting to leave it. The surviving pups also changed their behaviour, becoming more subdued when they got close to the dead one.

Other fascinating reports about the emotional lives of dingoes show beyond doubt that it is possible to make peace with dingoes.

More than that, they show that peace actually has the potential to become precious friendship. The long history of alliance between humans and canines means that some canines may on occasion include humans in their family groups. Indeed, the Dingo Nation can be understood as a great multispecies group with many clans and families, some of whom include humans and some of whom do not.

Dingo, Bulbexpos (CC)
Dingo, Bulbexpos (CC)

A short but compelling report about John Cooper’s ‘love story’ offers a beautiful account of family interactions. John Cooper is a landowner with the duty of controlling dingoes on his property. He took the novel approach of making friends with the pack on his place, and leaving it to them to control the dingo population. The video of this extraordinary man shows him interacting with and the dingo family that allowed him to become part of the pack (view here). It includes a glimpse into the den where the mother dingo is nursing her pups, giving us a rare view of what Appleby has called ‘an enduring mother-infant bond’. Few things on the web are as totally delightful as John Cooper playing harmonica accompanied by a dingo.

Tehree Gordon also had an awesome experience of being incorporated into the family. She and her husband Hamish own the Jirrahlinga Koala and Wildlife Sanctuary – Dingo Conservation Centre, and she told her precious story on radio national’s ‘bush telegraph’ program. Shortly after the Gordons bought the Sanctuary the senior dingo died. There were about a hundred dingoes on the property at that time, and the loss of the matriarch was felt by all of them. As Tehree described the day, the dead dingo was down in the valley and the living dingoes sat quietly on a nearby ridge. Slowly, in groups of three, they went down to their dead mate and sat with her. One sat at her head, and one on each side. They stayed for about ten minutes and then, giving her a final sniff, they moved away and another group of three took their place. Tehree was not sure if she fit into the ritual at all, but she took a place further down the line, and when the time came she moved down the hill accompanied by two dingoes. She sat at the head, the other two took the sides, and they all remained there for ten minutes. Then she touched the dead dingo’s head, the others sniffed the body, and they all moved back up the hill.

It is one thing to witness rituals of grief, quite another to be included in them. And yet, as Tehree points out, there is nothing truly remarkable about all of this: ‘We all need to understand that anyone or anything who is close to something else has to grieve for the loss.’

Making peace would mean bringing an end to all the needless loss.

There can be no doubt that this is a time of immense suffering. Dingoes experience the physical pain of poisons, traps and bullets, and the survivors experience the grief and disorientation that comes with losing family and all one’s familiar ways of social and cultural life. The people who are working toward greater understanding of dingoes and a better future for them and for humans often suffer as well. I have visited some of these courageous people, and I will continue to visit and to write.

Dingo, Leo (CC)
Dingo, Leo (CC)

For now, in honour of the Dingo Nation’s canine and human members:

To all who suffer, and all who struggle to hold families together in face of on-going assault ~ Dog Bless!

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

ndad

Resources:

The NDAD Facebook page is a rich site of information and lively action on behalf of the Dingo Nation.

In 2012 I made a short home video of a dingo family at the Dingo Discovery and Research Centre in Victoria (view here). The Centre is one of numerous dingo rescue and conservation centres in Australia. Run by incredibly dedicated people who work non-stop to put an end to the war against dingoes, this and other centres are places where peace is lived out day by day in the most inspiring ways.

The ABC radio program featuring Tehree Gordon, Brad Purcell and myself can be downloaded (view here).

The Henry Beston quote is from his book The Outermost House.

 

Ecology and Writing ~ Martin Harrison

My friend Martin Harrison was a poet, essayist, professor, mentor and colleague. He died unexpectedly on Saturday, September 6, 2014 at just 65 years of age.

Martin Harrison, by Adrian Wiggins (CC)
Martin Harrison, by Adrian Wiggins (CC)

Martin was one of the foundation members of Kangaloon, ‘a fellowship of poets, scholars, artists and activists in dialogue with the current cascade of ecological degradation and diminishment of life’. Kangaloon takes its name from the area in NSW that is home to the endangered giant dragonfly, Petalura gigantea.

Throughout many deep and exploratory conversations, Martin was a key figure in developing our statement of who we are and what we aim for: ‘Through our creative endeavours we ask: how are we to respond with vision, love and hope? How are we and other species to live and live well? How may we promote health, life and beauty in an era of unfathomable loss?’

Our commitments, too, were deeply affected by Martin’s vision:
– to the beauty and practicality of ecological systems to a philosophy at one with the environment
– to create art, writing and scholarship from the depth of nature
– to promote balance and sustainability in design
– to rethink economy as ecology
– to live simply and poetically in the presence of earth’s creatures

Petalura gigantea, Merryjack (CC)
Petalura gigantea, Merryjack (CC)

The Kangaloon group reached out to others in numerous ways that included open seminars, readings, panels, and writing. One of our achievements was a special issue of the journal TEXT, an open-access online journal dedicated to writing and the teaching of writing. Four of us co-edited a special edition with the title ‘Writing Creates Ecology / Ecology Creates Writing’.

Martin wrote a brilliant essay, and indeed the whole special issue consists of fascinating  contributions to the questions that Martin formulated so succinctly: ‘How does creative writing engage with the theme of ecological catastrophe and ecological possibility?  How does the ecological challenge of the contemporary period impact on the teaching of writing?  What are the thematic horizons of new and emerging writers who engage with issues to do with the environment and ecology?  What kinds of experiment does the ecological context encourage and indeed require of the contemporary writer?’

Just last Thursday (September 4) Martin and I presented together in a small seminar at the University of Technology, Sydney where Martin taught creative writing. The seminar series was titled ‘Poetics, Writing, Thought’, and was organised by the students. It was a special evening, charged with ideas, conversation, and the kind of dialogue that pushes everyone’s thinking along. Martin suggested that he and I read the ‘Postscript’ we wrote for TEXT, and so we revisited an enjoyable writing project. The lucky people who attended this seminar got to hear Martin read one of his great poems, ‘White-Tailed Deer’ (see below), perhaps the last poem he ever read.

Martin was in great form. Rarely did he approach an issue in full frontal mode. Like every fine poet, his approach was to move quietly and circuitously toward a moment of revelation. And so he said, with that wonderfully characteristic shrug, ‘I’m sorry to keep bringing Heidegger into the conversation, but … he was absolutely right.’ He smiled, then, and went on: ‘I’m sure you know what I’m getting at, Heidegger was telling us even then that humans are so remaking and re-defining the world that all they ever can see is the human’.

Martin (Harrison, not Heidegger) loved earth life – the lives of other-than-humans. His deepest concerns were called forth by the perils, indeed disasters, of human self-enclosure. At the same time, he had the greatest respect for ‘the others’, and that respect included the fact that they live their own lives.

We brush against each other, some of us, from time to time, and Martin the poet was grabbed by the mystery of it all, the indecipherable connections, the unpredictable moments when something happens and we humans are drawn from our encaged preoccupations.

When I learned that Martin had died I was already on the other side of the world, and my thoughts flew back to the evening in Sydney when we spoke and conversed. Kisses are strange and beautiful events, I realised, remembering that we had kissed ‘hello’ and, later, ‘goodbye’. There are kisses that are formalities, and others that are sweet friendship, and in the end, without our even knowing it, there are the kisses that will come to have said, and will forever say, fare thee well, dear friend, fare thee well.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources:

For more on Martin Harrison’s life and writings, see Wikipedia.

The issue of TEXT that Martin, Lorraine Shannon, Kim Satchell and I edited can be accessed online (view here). It includes articles and poetry by Kangaloon members Martin, Lorrain, Kim, Peter Boyle, James Hatley, and me.

The ‘Postscript’ that Martin and I wrote, including his poem, can be accessed online (view here), and I include a small portion of it here as well:

[this is part of what was read by Martin and me the Thursday evening before he died]

…. MARTIN: In other conversations, you have wanted to talk about my poem White-Tailed Deer.  It’s true that in that poem (hopefully) a rich diverse system has come together.   This is not because I wanted it to, but because in order to be a poem it had to come together.  There is even the risk that it will all fall apart and that it won’t make sense that the local sunset had to meet the up-state New York night and that the deer have something to do with it.  I had been entranced by them, by their watchful presence, in that deep, often re-growth forest.  It was on the border between New York State and Vermont.  It took me a couple of years to get the original drafts unfocussed and then re-focussed.   You see, I’m not just a slow writer but a really lazy one!

DEBORAH: You know yourself best (maybe!), but I’d dispute the term ‘lazy’. The multiple time dimensions through which living beings speak, and the terrible slowness with which many of us humans manage to respond, is not so much laziness, I think, but more like struggling through some awful nightmare. The terrible realisation today is that to wake from a nightmare is to emerge into another one. I keep thinking (always) of the flying foxes who are at this moment being tortured in the effort to force them to leave and never to return to their home camp in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens. For them, as for the flying foxes in Queensland who are being shot, each day is a fresh nightmare, each generation is subjected to a new biocide, and in spite of the dedicated, sometimes heart-broken people who protect, defend, rescue, care, and seek to assist them back into the symbiotic life of blossoms, nectar, nourishment and pollination, nothing is ever enough. And so the loss of generations, and the loss of ecosystems, and the loss of the human capacity to stretch outside the boundaries of this self-made  prison of righteousness and knowing goes on rendering more suffering, more death, more distance, more loss of all those within whose company we could have thrived, and who could have thrived with us.

The time scales are outside our ordinary frames. The poem that speaks beyond the frame, that takes minutes to read but years to write, takes even more years on the part of plants, animals, and human culture to have arrived at that particular nexus. If like yours it succeeds, it becomes an achievement in binding time, species, place, and culture; it lets us glimpse through the membrane of closure into other worlds, times, creatures, and forms of love, and to grasp, again, that moment in which the future was (is?) still open.

MARTIN:

White-Tailed Deer

The small thump from nowhere, someone turning
a piece of tin, a door’s buffeting noise closing across the gulley,
a neighbour – what are they doing out there? – dropping a trailer or a drum
in a paddock where damp grass’s been drying out these last twenty minutes
in a final sun cube whose shattered gleam just now has
flooded through sprays of half-grown bluegums
traced on the shed-wall —
it happens – where? –
closing in mid-air between two never identified twigs
six metres up, or caught behind a bird song (was it that?
or just some other sound) caught the thousandth time
from outside the kitchen door, magnified for a second or two
then forgotten just as many thousand times.  Like the thump,
it’s forgotten so intensely that we all hear it as an event
not really known as an event, one which shifts
the breath, the blood-surge, and how we see,
back into shape.  For a moment you understand
dazed ecstasy –  it’s a squawky wattlebird landing
(no, that’s a dream half-merged with a memory)
or it’s the elbow’s jerk with which the car boot slams,
happenings which aren’t noticed or which can’t be,
how the shopping brought home brushes the passage wall,
how events change time’s flow beneath perception.
Really, you’ve no idea what’s going on.  You hardly grab a thing.

Networked. Transformative.  Yes, the world glimmers.
The flash lies in the grass, is something and is nothing.?
The yellow-throated bird scrabbles in the rangy grevillea.
A great ocean withdraws into perspective over my shoulder,
in the shadows of untended trees.  A hum overtakes the orchestra
and a striated sense of inevitable time surpasses each local thought.

It’s as if you can be fearless — a second or two — about
what’s inextricable in feeling and movement and mood.
A dance becomes a fight, bodies tangled, then a dance again.
The light goes down like a glittering dark boulder buried in the soil.
An aurora flares in the half-heard resonance around the thing –
the thump, the door closing, the click that passes you by –
while intangibility takes a serpent’s shape of wind-brushed molecules.
And how will it end? this half-traced ecstasy at merely being here.
Could anything be heard other than the after mode
of how we got there, made it out?  Suddenly you realise
you’re hearing a night-time forest floor, a twig snapped –
not this last light with its thin, gold trees and ragged openness –
but a moment’s hesitation one night in a foreign country:
I was in up-state New York, there was a house in the woods,
there was indoor light of a dinner party, good people, drinks.
I’d stepped outside to get a sense of things, their loitering depth.
Earlier I’d seen startled deer leap a stone wall tumbled into bracken.

                                                        (Acknowledgements to Vagabond Press)

To listen to Martin reading this poem, here is an audio file, with thanks to Peter Boyle and Nick Keys!

 

Rock Orchids ~ Tricksters Deluxe

I’m packing my bags (yet again), this time for another trip to North America. The thought of late summer in the Pacific North West is enticing, but at the same time I hate the thought of missing out on the rock orchids here in Sydney.

D. speciosum, about to flower
D. speciosum, about to flower

This is one of those annoying times of year. From inside the house the garden looks inviting – blue sky, sun, birds, wattles and other flowers, and lots of enjoyable work to do. However, step outside and the cold wind bites, the skies cloud over, rain suddenly arrives, everything loses its charm, and one’s big desire is to get back indoors.

Just at this time of increasing annoyance, the rock orchids burst forth. These glorious, mass-flowering beauties are native to this area. They love living in sandstone. They don’t ask for a lot of sun, they’re happy enough in shade. They don’t ask for a lot of nutrients, they grow on rocks. They don’t demand much at all, and yet they manage this annual abundance of glorious flowers. When I get annoyed, I think of these orchids: how they thrive amongst the stones, and bring blessings of beauty to everyone who has ever wondered if winter would ever end!

Yesterday I was hit by a terrible thought: what if there were no more rock orchids on earth? In truth, these beautiful plants are not threatened, although their numbers in the wild are down because habitat is depleted. I wasn’t hit by fear for orchids, exactly. Rather I was jolted by that crushing realisation that we are living amongst terrible losses. The losses are cascading and we don’t know where, or if, they will stop. Almost anything could be at risk; most probably almost everything is at risk. I went rushing off to the native garden to see if the orchids were blooming yet, as they always come out first over there.

Sunpho, (CC)
D. speciosum

One of my former research colleagues, the late Frank Fenner, predicted that in a hundred years or so the human species will have driven itself to extinction. His views are extreme, but they touch on this crucial point: we are driving the earth into greater and greater loss of ecosystems; we are stimulating extinction cascades that are expanding rapidly and in many cases unstoppably and unpredictably; we are producing the most extravagant amounts of toxins, garbage and waste; and we are consuming and wasting all that lives in the most careless fashion. Whether the world goes on with us or without us, it will be a world radically disfigured by us. The kind of time that it will take for the earth to recover diversity and stability is beyond our comprehension.

Often when trying to think about what seems unthinkable I have to remind myself that answers to big questions about life do not arise from one species alone. Our lives are held within sustaining webs of life, and all our philosophy, and all our action, and all our desires unfold most effectively when we pay attention to the others.

We humans are not alone here on earth. Other creatures are in these same webs: there are no other webs.

For today I am turning to rock orchids and wondering about their lives. I don’t want to extract a moral lesson, or turn them into an allegory. I just want to cherish them more deeply by understanding them better. And what a story their lives tell!

In my area the main rock orchids are Dendrobium species: the yellow D. speciosum and the ‘pink rock orchid’ D. kingianum. They are lithophytes meaning that they live on rocks: their long aerial roots find crevices both to hold on to and from which to access nutrients.

D. kingianum
D. kingianum

These are very low nutrient creatures; they get their main sustenance from air, rain, debris and their own dead tissue. Some of what they glean they store in ‘pseudobulbs’ as a hedge against hard times, particularly dry spells. The rock orchids themselves provide habitat for others – fungi of course, and also animals and bacteria. They are home to a beetle known as the Dendrobium beetle. The stems are edible; they were eaten by Aboriginal people and are opportunistically browsed by other plant eaters.

Another side of this low nutrient story is the strong symbiotic mutualism they share with a microscopic fungus. This mutually beneficial relationship is known as a mycorrhiza. Orchid and fungus are not parasitic on each other, since both seem to flourish, but the best known fact seems to be that orchids simply could not live and reproduce without their fungi. In fact, orchid seeds are so low in nutrients that they cannot germinate without the help of these symbionts who supply the developing plant with nutrients until it is able to photosynthesize. Given the cycles of drought that characterise Australia’s ENSO-driven climate, new generations of rock orchids may have long periods of dependency.

Sunpho (CC)
Sunpho (CC)

Yet another side of this story is orchids’ relationship with pollinators. This is not symbiotic, at least as far as is now known. Botanists talk about lures and rewards: angiosperms invite or lure others through their dazzling brilliance of colour, scent and shape, and they ‘reward’ their visitors with nutrients. Rock orchids are among the tricksters in the world of lures and rewards. They produce great, showy, masses of flowers, and when the sun shines their fragrance comes forth.

DSC01895

Orchids offer up all the signs that send forth the great angiosperm message: ‘nectar’. This is explained in delightfully technical language by two orchid scientists:

‘Potential pollinators of Dendrobium speciosum are attracted to the plant by large, cream to yellow, finely segmented, aromatic inflorescences. Plants in natural populations flower synchronously, producing a massive display. Osmophores scattered over the perianth produce a strong, sweet scent in sunny weather. Nectar-seeking insects are guided to the central, reproductive area of the flower by the colour gradation of the perianth, including an area of high U.V. reflection near the centre, and a bright yellow ridge along the labellum. A tube formed by the labellum and column directs the potential pollinators.’

In the words of these scientists, this glorious invitation is akin to ‘false advertising’.

The pollinators (mainly bees) come and do the work of pollination, but they get no reward because in spite of all the showy appearance there is no nectar. Unlike the mistletoes I discussed in an earlier essay that get on in the world though abundant and promiscuous generosity, rock orchids get on through targeted deception.

These brilliant tricksters have developed fabulously enticing beauty. The human fascination with orchids is just as keen (I imagine) as that of bees. And yet the delicacy of the flowers is part of an extremely successful adaptation to harsh conditions. Their way of life is anchored at the edge of the nutrient world and is adapted to many extremes. From 45° heat in summer (115F) to winter frosts, through winds, droughts, bushfires and deluges, rock orchids hold on in their stony bastions and put forth great masses of flowers year after year except when recovering from bushfires. The great confederacy of Orchidaceae has been around for perhaps 130 million years, and the orchids here in Sydney are probably much the same as their direct ancestors who were here with the dinosaurs.

The diversity of their interactions is captivating: they are food for some creatures, including humans; they are symbionts with others. And then they are tricksters with yet others! Symbiotic, delicate, tough, fragrant and with great survival strategies, their multispecies complexities testify to the diversity of interactions that are woven into the webs of life.

All praise to orchids ~ Every leaf, every stem, every tough little kiss of life.

D. kingianum
D. kingianum

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources:

Frank Fenner’s article (view here)

On symbiotic mutualism between orchids and fungi, see ‘hunter valley backyard nature

On ‘false advertising’, see ‘The Pollination Biology of Dendrobium speciosum Smith: a Case of False Advertising?’ by AT Slater and DM Calder, published in the Australian Journal of Botany 36(2) 145 – 158, 1988.