Category Archives: The Goodness of Life

Hope is the Way of the World

‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast’. I had thought it was another great Shakespeare quote, but it turns out to come from Alexander Pope. I have experienced this, almost everyone has. Often there seems to be no particular reason for it. Nor is there any privileged species. Unexpectedly, pervasively, hope bubbles up all over the place. Hope is life’s desire for more life. It is the loom on which fabric of life is woven.

baby birds

Hope is connected to the fact that the arrow of time only moves in one direction, at least for us. This may not be the case for certain sub-atomic entities (if that’s the right word), but for all of us macro-creatures, time is a one-way process. No one knows what the future holds, exactly. Everyone has to act on their best judgement. We humans have ethics and principles to guide us, and we can make thoughtful projections, but there’s always uncertainty. Such is life – risky. Every new life is an embodiment of hope.

I was twice drawn to think about hope recently. In both cases the context was extinction. First came the report that the Federal Government has placed forty-nine more species on the threatened species list. Included in this reassessment is the up-grading of a number of species to ‘critically endangered’. The primary cause of all this peril is land clearing. As is well known, land clearing has been part of Australian settler culture right from the beginning. For some people, clearing has become densely entangled with their sense of personal freedom to the point where it seems that the greater good has no claim upon them. The ‘right’ to eradicate biotic communities is spurious of course; there is no such inalienable right. Indeed, there are many excellent reasons why flourishing ecosystems should not be transformed into narcissistic mirrors of human supremacy.

Swift parrot in Canberra, Leo (CC)
Swift parrot in Canberra, Leo (CC)

The larger issue is that the language of individual rights provides a mask for industrial plunder. And in a powerful twist of narcissistic thinking, industries like forestry and coal represent themselves as if the greater good has no claim on them because they already encompass it.

Just at the moment  the case of the swift parrot looms large. Habitat for this critically endangered bird has been and continues to be under threat from clearing on the mainland and from forestry in critical breeding areas in Tasmania. These parrots nest in tree hollows, and it takes a hundred years at the least for deep hollows to form. The recovery plan for this marvellous bird does not actually specify the extent to which its habitat must be protected.

Forestry Tasmania, Cowirrie (CC)
Forestry Tasmania, Cowirrie (CC)

This is just one example among very many, and it shows a wilful, heart-breaking, infuriating lack of action by government. A recent report co-authored by the Australian Conservation Foundation, Birdlife Australia, and Environmental Justice Australia found that ‘successive governments have avoided their responsibility to protect threatened species habitat and have instead entrenched the process of extinction.

The authors make the important point that while governments are shirking their responsibilities, the situation by no means impossible. Actually, ‘… extinction is far from inevitable for the vast majority of threatened species in Australia. Extinction is the result of the decisions made by successive governments to ignore their own scientific advisers, and to neglect their obligation under our environmental laws to protect the ongoing evolution of life on the Australian continent.’

Swift parrot, Tasmania, Lizardstomp (CC)
Swift parrot, Tasmania, Lizardstomp (CC)

It is tempting to launch into a rave about the pathetic state of politics in most of the world today, but I think we all know this. Frustration is widespread, and its causes are well understood. The current state of political inaction induces a sense of hopelessness in the face of both the terrible injustices inflicted in social and ecological spheres and the politicians’ refusal to fulfil the democratic contract.

Let’s go back to swift parrots (Lathamus discolor). Parrots are an ancient family. They originated in here in Australia. Tim Low invites us to think of Cretaceous forests with ‘birds flitting past dinosaurs to lap at scarlet and orange sprays’ of flowers. Swift parrots are ‘rich patch nomads’; they roam widely in search of sugar ‘hot spots’, and they are great pollinators. They live mutualistically with the ‘bird-adapted’ trees of Australia which they pollinate. They are intelligent creatures with extensive repertoires of communication and play; for millennia they were the most intelligent species on Earth. In case you were wondering, birds experience pain and misery.

The long history of parrots and trees in Australia is not just a matter of chance. Parrots nurture and teach their young. Their continuity is an intergenerational achievement. Thom van Dooren writes: ‘Approached with attentiveness to evolutionary history and a focus on the complex and difficult emergence of each new generation, it is clear that this thing we call a “species” is an incredible achievement.’ He is inviting us to recognise and appreciate ‘the immensity of … intergenerational work: the skill, commitment, cooperation, and hard work, alongside serendipity,’ that go into the succession of generations.

Thinking up-close with swift parrots, and trees, and indeed with many living creatures, calls us to remember that every loss of a new generation, every future that is extinguished, is an act of brutality that destroys hope. Not mine, or yours, necessarily, but the hopes of others.

Corellas in tree hollow, Francisco Martins (CC)
Corellas in tree hollow, Francisco Martins (CC)

This brings me to my second stimulus in thinking about hope. Last week I was asked to participate in a forum in New York on the question of ‘Hope in a Time of Extinction’. I decided not to Skype in; I am definitely not at my best at two in the morning. Instead, I wrote a short piece to share with the group. With a few amendments, here is my offering:

~~~

I couldn’t have it imagined it – couldn’t have imagined when I was a child that there would come a day when I would think and write about extinction because I was living in a time when much of what I loved in the world was being trashed. We live with the unimaginable, and for writers there are many pitfalls. Some people have from time to time dealt with trying to write about the unimaginable by stretching language to try to force it beyond itself. Often the result is fairly incomprehensible. In our time we need a wide net of fully comprehensible words, but then we hit temptations in the form of trying to make big issues smaller. I am thinking, for example, of the temptation to make it easy (how to save the planet in ten easy steps); to naturalise issues (there have been other extinctions, nature survives); to count and quibble (we have lots of DNA kept safe for the future); to produce justifications (there are cures for cancer out there that we haven’t discovered yet); to engage in triage (we can’t save everything, bad luck for the ones that aren’t cute); the list goes on.

Worst of all, though, is the temptation to give up and say nothing. When I think of silence I think (inevitably) of Emmanuel Levinas and his great words about how we are called into ethics by others. He said: ‘the face is the other before death, looking through and exposing death. … [T]he face is the other who asks me not to let him die alone, as if to do so were to become an accomplice in his death. Thus the face says to me: “you shall not kill”’.

These words strike right to the heart of hope and love in this time of extinction.  The call ’do not abandon’ is precisely where we are today in relation to all the species at the edge of the abyss. And Levinas adds the terrible reminder that to abandon others is as if to become an accomplice in death.

Flying-fox orphan, Paislie Hadley (CC)
Flying-fox orphan, Paislie Hadley (CC)

We are asked to consider the possibility that a great deal of death is going to happen without our being able to do enough. And probably all that we do can never be enough within the parameters of this massive deathscape. And still we are called. This ethical call is in the present, and it is not necessarily about changing the future. ’Do not abandon’: do not kill the hope in the eyes of those who suffer and those who are dying, and those who are at the edge.

To such encounters we humans bring a hope that is refined by focussing on the present. I learned a lot about this kind of intersubjective, ethical practice in the research I have been carrying out with wildlife volunteers. Consider the people who work with critically endangered monk seals in Hawai’i.  Most of them were deeply dedicated; they loved the work they did, loved the monk seals they protected, and loved the beaches where their lives and monk seals’ lives intersected. They were well aware that monk seals are the most critically endangered marine mammal and that the prognosis for survival is not good.

Monk seal, protected at Waikiki Beach
Monk seal, protected at Waikiki Beach

And yet for the most part they refused to explain their commitment in terms of probabilities. They did not do calculations; there was no cost-benefit analysis; there was no pivot by which species survival became the measure of the meaningfulness of action today. In fact, they rarely talked about the future. No, they were out there every day patrolling the beaches and, as necessary, protecting monk seals because they understood how risky life has become for them, and they would not stand by and do nothing.

This is not a warm or cozy image of hope; I am drawn to the indomitable strength of it. I admired the volunteers for their refusal to treat monk seals as if they were objects of management. Or as if they were in any way pathetic. In my words (not theirs), they refused to abandon monk seals as subjects in their own right by objectifying or babying them. Most of all, the volunteers showed a way into multispecies hope.

Humans set aside their own hopes, and worked to honour the hopefulness of others.

One final thing: along with hope, perhaps it is good in this time of extinction to think of something along the lines of moral support. It will almost certainly be the case that much of what we do as activists will not succeed in turning around the extinction cascades now in process. Too much has happened, and the human situation is not good either. The greedy, powerful, destructive, devourers of Earth are very much on the rampage.

Monk seal mum and pup, Kaua'i
Monk seal mum and pup, Kaua’i

Moral support: perhaps this is what hope is when it is shared in multispecies contexts. It supports the very possibility of hopefulness. And hope is here, all around us. Creatures want to live. The Earth itself wants life, wants diversity, wants synergies, symbioses, mutualisms, energy flows. It is all risky. Hope is the way of Earth.

Every moment in which we refuse to abandon others, and refuse to bow down to power, and refuse to speak the language of cost-benefit in the context of mass-death, every such moment is an alignment with the force and power of Earth’s desire for diversity, its hopefulness. We are not alone.

© Deborah Bird Rose, 2016

 

Resources:

I drew on research in the U.S. because I was addressing an audience in New York. Similar things could be said about volunteers here in Australia, and I will soon be taking up analysis of some of their excellent work.

The report discussed in this essay is: ‘Recovery Planning: Restoring Life to our threatened species’, Authored by the Australian Conservation Foundation, Birdlife Australia, and Environmental Justice Australia (read here). Information on the government’s recent listing of endangered species comes from The Guardian (read here).

The quotes and other information from Tim Low are taken from his excellent book Where Song Began. Quotes from my friend and colleague Thom van Dooren come from Flight Ways, a wonderful recent book on extinctions and ethics. To learn more about Thom’s fascinating work, visit his website.

Land clearing comes up regularly in these essays, see for example ‘So Many Faces’.

The Levinas quote is from the book Face to Face with Levinas, edited by Richard Cohen.

Thanks to the Left Forum for inviting me to participate on the subject of Hope in a Time of Extinction.

For Val, With Love

I wanted to do a bit of sorry business to commemorate the day. Val Plumwood died on February 29, 2008, and although we only get to mark the anniversary every four years, she is certainly not forgotten. The impact of her feminist, ecological philosophy continues to grow, year in, year out.

Val Plumwood, photo by Kumi Kato
Val Plumwood, photo by Kumi Kato

In Aboriginal English, sorry business refers to the social process of grieving. It includes not only the actual funeral, but also the on-going work of remembrance and of cleansing and renewal. The term sorry business can also be used in re-establishing peace after violence, and can thus refer to rituals of remorse and restoration.* As a writer, I often turn to the written word to express my feelings, and this year I revisited Val’s essay ‘Journey to the Heart of Stone’. The essay is pro-stone, so to speak, and rests on the point that stones and other ‘inorganic’ matter have not been well-served in western dualistic culture. In her words: ‘The culture that refuses honour to stones refuses honour also to the great earth forces that have shaped and placed them. The eviction of spirit and honour from stones and from the earth is one of the greatest crimes of modernity.’

Toward the end of her life Val was increasingly interested in forms of writing that would help readers think beyond and outside the ‘sado-dispassionate rationality of scientific reductionism’. Her question as a writer was: ‘How can we re-present experience in ways that honour the agency and creativity of the more-than-human world?’ Her stone essay offered two fascinating stories of her relationships with stones.

Val's home at Plumwood Mt.
Val’s home at Plumwood Mt.

The first story tells of how she got to know stones in the course of building her home with foundstones. As she walked the country around the mountain looking for stones, she also contemplated another dualism: between respect and use. The logic of this hyperseparation is that things which are used (by humans) are positioned as mere matter or, in the case of stones ‘dead matter’, and thus are placed outside the realm of respect. Val learned both to respect and to use the stones. She writes: ‘The foundstone worker must be sensitive both to the individuality of stones, in shape, for example, and to their membership of a kind, to differences in parent material indicating strength and malleability.’

Arnhem Land stone country, Darrell Lewis
Arnhem Land stone country, Darrell Lewis

In the second story Val writes about bushwalking in the ‘stone country’ of North Australia. She had great respect for Aboriginal culture and country, and while she detested appropriation, she was keen to move her thought closer to Indigenous ways. Through her own philosophical lens and lived experience, she was seeking a practice that would free us western folk ‘to re-write the earth as sacred, earth exploration as pilgrimage, earth knowledge as revelation.’

The ’stone country’ story woke up vivid memories for me. My most profound engagements with stone have taken place during decades of living with and learning from Aboriginal people. In the course of travelling in country, and in the course of working on land claims and documenting sacred sites for registration, I have witnessed the respect with which Aboriginal people engage with country and with sacred sites. I have been privileged to visit many sites, many stones.

Jasper Gorge
Jasper Gorge

Sacred sites are non-ordinary places, and most are places where the evidence of creation endures. I’ll share a brief example from one of my most beloved places. In Jasper Gorge (NT) the brilliant sandstone cliffs were formed by the Dreaming (creation ancestor) Black-headed Python as she came travelling through the country. The shape of the gorge is identical to the tracks snakes leave in the ground, but of course much larger. Throughout the gorge there are individual stones that show evidence of her actions. A split stone, for example, was formed when she cut it with her string belt.

Split rock in Jasper Gorge
Split rock in Jasper Gorge

Here and at many other sacred sites throughout Australia stone does what it is so well known for – it endures. In a world where living beings have short life-spans, coming into life and leaving again like ripples on water, stone holds the stories and the evidence from generation to generation. My Aboriginal teachers were very explicit about this. Someday we’ll be dead and gone, they’d say, but look! That stone [or that hill, or that cliff face] will still be there. People said that Dreamings came out of the ground, and that the Law is in the ground. Creation’s bedrock stands as foundational and enduring testimony.

Cliff face, Jasper Gorge
Cliff face, Jasper Gorge

The most iconic stone in Australia is, of course, Uluru. Formerly it was known as Ayer’s Rock and now is known colloquially as simply ‘the rock’. It is near the centre of Australia in the midst of arid, red-soil country with dusky green and yellow spinifex. Uluru’s dignity and presence, the profound wonder of its size, and the striking country that surrounds it, combine with the fact that it is a major sacred site. The legal status of the rock is testimony to an era in which Aboriginal people’s aspirations for self-determination were taken seriously. It was claimed under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT) 1976; Uluru and surrounding area was returned to Aboriginal Traditional Owners, Anangu people. They agreed to lease the area back to the government as a National Park, and to retain joint management of the Park. This happened in 1985, and the area now also has World Heritage listing.

Uluru, melalouise (CC)
Uluru, melalouise (CC)

Uluru is awesome in every way.

People come from all over the world to visit. Uluru inspires reverence, and while reverence is experienced in much the same way by all humans, it can be acted upon in different ways. Anangu have asked people not to climb the rock. They regard the practice as disrespectful and irreverent, as well as dangerous. And yet, many visitors actually want to express their reverence through climbing. There has been no resolution to these conflicting views about climbing, but Anangu people have invited visitors to walk around Uluru rather than climb.

Walking trail, Dot W (CC)
Walking trail, Dot W (CC)

Many visitors souvenir a small piece of the great rock. No one knows how many pieces of rock and baggies of soil are taken away each year; people don’t announce that they are doing this. It is illegal, and large fines apply. But it is known that this happens, because every year stones and soil are returned. Often the person includes a letter expressing their regret at having taken a piece of the rock. Some people state that they had bad luck after having taken a piece, but many others simply say they felt sorry about what they had done and wanted to return the piece of rock.

The returned fragments are called ‘sorry rocks’. The term is a local invention. Sorry rocks arrive from all over the world. And then there are the offerings. No one knows how many pieces of crystal or other offerings are buried around Uluru. Whether people take fragments of the rock away or bring offerings to the rock, they radically testify to the power and presence of the great rock, and undermine the idea that this stone is ‘dead matter’.

A French visitor took away two stones. They returned 220 grams of material, along with a letter addressed to the rock itself:

“I wanted to take away some of your magic with me for the rest of my travels, for the rest of my life even. I realise it was wrong to do so, therefore I am sending both pieces back to you. Forgive me for being foolish and thank you for letting me spend time with you and absorb your beauty.”

The term sorry rock taps into remorse and a desire to put things right. Sadly, sorry rocks can’t be returned to their precise place of origin. No one knows exactly where they should go, and in fact some of the material people return hadn’t come from Uluru in the first place, according to geological analysis. Anangu people don’t want unsourced fragments dumped at the rock, and there may be quarantine considerations, so sorry rocks are used in road building. They end up as rubble. It seems that aabout 350 parcels are returned each year, an unknown fraction of the amount that is taken away. The largest stone to be returned was 32 kilos (70 pounds). But numbers are not really the story.

Uluru, sue10749 (CC)
Uluru, sue10749 (CC)

The gleaming presence of Uluru draws visitors to itself and sends them away feeling profoundly moved. You don’t have to be Aboriginal to know that here you are at a source, a foundation. Uluru, and all such sacred sites, are bedrock from a western philosophical perspective as well as from Indigenous perspectives. I am drawing on recent work with the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, and his insight that ethics is at the foundation of everything. When people are moved by the presence of the rock, they are summoned into relationship and thus into the realm of ethics. Creation – the coming forth – is already an ethical call. It is a summons to consciously recognise the power of creation, and it offers no justification. There is nothing subtending it,  as Ed Mooney and Lyman Mower write: ‘Nothing is beneath – not objects, Gods, force fields, or language – not knowers, actors, beliefs, or doctrines.’ One cannot go deeper than this.

People come face-to-face with Uluru, and something happens. Here one is acted upon. The face of the stone summons  people, and they are  touched. How beautiful it is to sit quietly at the base of the rock; to know that here is the deep of the deep, the foundation of the foundation. From creation until now and for generations to come, here is life’s meaning, its power and beauty.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

*In Australian national life, the ‘Apology’ for the suffering of the stolen generations has merged Indigenous uses of the term ‘sorry’ with public issues of apology for past wrongs. Feeling sorrow and saying sorry seem to have been conflated, and I agree with the view that the practice of saying sorry is not large or generous enough to re-establish peace.

Resources:

To gain a better understanding of Val’s work, a good source is Eye of the Crocodile, a collection of her essays that was assembled and edited after her death by Lorraine Shannon. It is available online (read here) and includes an introductory essay telling more about Val’s life and thought. Her heart of stone essay is published in 2007 in the book Culture, Creativity and Environment, edited by Fiona Becket and Terry Gilford.

A recent book of short essays, also available online, owes a lot to Val’s philosophical work (read here).

Two essays of mine give in-depth accounts of Jasper Gorge and of the interplay between the ephemeral and the enduring (read here and here).

To hear one of the Anangu Elders tell some of the Dreaming story for Uluru, watch here. A ‘fact sheet’ about ‘sorry rocks’ is available online (read here).

My words about creation and ethics are inspired by Jim Hatley’s work, for example , his essay ‘The Original Goodness of Creation: Monotheism in Another’s Voice’, published in 2012 in the book Facing Nature, edited by William Edelglass, James Hatley & Christian Diehm. The quote from Ed Mooney and Lyman Mower comes from their essay ‘Witness to the Face of a River: Thinking with Levinas and Thoreau’, published in the same book.

Val’s analysis of the respect-use dualism is discussed in recent comments by Russell Edwards and Jim Hatley, and will be the subject of a future essay.

Russell Edwards’ comment (below) contains a link to a remembrance article that Jackie French wrote in which she describes Val’s house building skills (read here).

 

Thinking Like a Mantis?

Is it appropriate to be finding goodness in ecological systems? Many people say ‘no, absolutely not’. ‘We can’t look to nature for guidance in human values’, they say. ‘We are humans, nature is different.’

Mantis, Jaybird (CC)
Mantis, Jaybird (CC)

I had a colleague once who was very keen on this point. He was utterly convinced of his basic view that we cannot and must not try to derive values from nature. His clinching argument was the praying mantis. The reason: because after sex the female kills and eats the male. His shudder was thoroughly genuine!

Well, I have to agree that this is not a good model for human life. From a biological point of view, though, it tells us something interesting about mantises. There are over 2,000 mantis species (Mantodea) on Earth, and in all of them the female lays her eggs and then walks away and leaves them. There is no nurturing of the young. She puts all her effort into building up her strength so that she can lay lots of healthy eggs. And given that a female can lay up to 200 eggs, a lot of food has to pass through that little body.

Gustavo Fernando Durán (CC)
Gustavo Fernando Durán (CC)

Females can eat, for example, sixteen crickets per day, and in addition to their preferred insect food, they are known to eat mice, frogs, birds and newts. In the time of egg-formation, the female has two main needs: to develop her own strength and to attract a partner to fertilise the eggs. Once that is all in place, death is the next step: lay the eggs, walk away, die and be done with it! After eggs and sex both partners are expendable.

There is no way humans could live like this even if we wanted to. Our young require years of care. It is true that a child can be raised without a father, but it is equally true that it takes a community to raise a child. We are not alone in requiring social co-operation to raise the young. Many mammals do likewise, and so too do many birds. None of us creatures who care for and socialise our young for long periods of time would be wise to take lessons from mantises.

The meaningful division in this context is not between humans and ‘nature’ but between high levels of care and low levels of care of offspring. Both strategies are viable, but they are in no way interchangeable. Scientists refer to them as the r and K selection strategies. One involves large parental investment and few offspring (K), the other involves large numbers of offspring and little parental investment (r).

The r/K difference positions humans as a ‘K’ type of creature; we are like some creature and unlike others.

To return to the joy of sex mantis-style, recent evidence offers a more complex and therefore more interesting story. For a start, it turns out that female mantises only eat their sexual partners if they are hungry. The experiments that showed cannibalistic females ripping into their mates used mantises that were starving. Research outside the lab in fields and gardens did not discover strong evidence for cannibalism.

Males want to copulate every bit as fiercely as females want to lay strong eggs. If there is to be a new generation, the female needs both nourishment and sex. It is rather a happy adaptation that males can, if necessary, provide both. They actually can continue their sexual activity, and may even copulate more rapidly, when their head has been bitten off!

Mantis sex, Larry Miller (CC)
Mantis sex, Larry Miller (CC)

Most creatures are choosy about who they mate with, and mantises are no exception. Females put out a pheromone to announce that they are ready for males, and then it is up to the guys. Male mantises do approach females cautiously. Scientists describe courtship rituals for some species in which the male comes toward the female waving his antennae and wiggling his abdomen. The two of them stroke each other and then mate, perhaps for up to six hours. However, other species take a fly-in-fly-out approach, with the male arriving, having sex, and departing as rapidly as possible.

Mantis in action, Mike (CC)
Mantis in action, Mike (CC)

Out in the garden mantises are doing what mantises do, but inside a high-powered research institute a scientist shudders at the thought of ruthless and predatory females. The insect femme fatale is a prevalent gender stereotype, and apparently a fearsome one. In her human form, she is a beautiful ball-breaker, intent on destroying men while taking all she can from them. Thanks to feminist analysis we now understand that such gender stereotypes are part of patriarchal power. They rationalise control over women, excluding us from full humanity, and they embed the imagery in the realm of nature where it can seem to be incontrovertible.

There is always a fine balance between prejudice and humour. Character types and popular imagery are a significant part of our cultural lives, and a lot of them can be quite funny. I’m rather taken with the kinds of lessons we could share based on male mantis behaviour. Most of us will be aware of the fly-in-fly-out type, of course, and who could fail to recognise the brainless guy who would go on fucking even if his head did fall off!

We learn a lot about humans by examining the stories we tell about nonhumans.

Surprisingly, though, there is actually a lot of positive mantis lore in the human world. In a completely different frame of reference, a northern Chinese style of martial arts known as Tang Lang models itself on mantises. It recognises that mantises are fierce little predators. They are swift and precise, shift from immobility to action instantaneously and take their prey completely by surprise. According to Wikipedia, ‘One of the most distinctive features’ of Tang Lang ‘is the “praying mantis hook”: a hook made of one to three fingers directing force in a whip-like manner. The hook may be used to divert force (blocking), adhere to an opponent’s limb, or attack critical spots (eyes or acupuncture points).’ The basic idea is to work with the principle of overcoming weakness with strength.

Praying mantis training, © Kungfu-Republic
Praying mantis training,  Kung Fu Republic (CC)

So, is there a problem with finding goodness and other blessings in nature? The question goes beyond stereotypes and joking. There is a lot to be learned from the natural world, but learning should not be confused with mindless mimicry. The fact that some females kill their sexual partners is no more a guide to human behaviour than is the fact that some males take an f-i-f-o approach to sex.

The most interesting examples, like Tang Lang, show humans carefully observing and translating other creatures’ knowledge and behaviour into forms that are suited for human life.

Along with martial arts, let us think about translation arts.

When poets translate poems from another language, they have to think about the meaning of the words in the poem and about how to bring that meaning across. At the same time, a poem has sound, rhythm, tone and other characteristics that are part of its power as a spoken form of art. The ‘soundscape’ or ‘music’ is integral to its overall poetic effect. Can a soundscape be brought across from one language to another? Is it better to have a literal translation that closely follows the words but loses the music of the poem? Or should the act of translation try to recreate the music, perhaps changing the poem radically in order to do so?

There are no absolutely right or wrong answers to these questions. Each poem in translation is a unique event. The main point is that translation is itself an art, and thus requires thought, creativity, passion, and strong understanding.

Thinking like a mantis requires far more creativity than simple copying. Interspecies translation is like poetry translation.  When humans seek to learn from nature, we need to work like poet-translators and think in terms of art, not imitation.

Think of Earth creatures and systems as poems in languages that are foreign but not entirely incomprehensible. Our task as humans is to translate: to find the meaning and the music, the ways of life and life’s poetry. For we are part of the music of Earth and our capacity to join in harmoniously depends on both the accuracy of our knowledge and the skill of our translations.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Keith Kissel (CC)
Keith Kissel (CC)

Resources:

There is a highly informative documentary about mantises, and although the narration is astonishingly anthropomorphic it is nevertheless fascinating (view here). It describes itself this way: Published on Aug 26, 2015. Taking a close look at almost hundred days of a Praying Mantis’s life, the movie tries to bring about some incredible images of the creature’s lifestyle, as well as eating and reproducing habits. It covers the whole cycle of laying the eggs, hatching and growth of the insect. This feature changes a lot of theories that have been set about the Mantis.

To learn a bit more about the feminist analysis of mantis-stereotyping and to see some hilarious cartoons, visit this site.

To see ferocious predators in action, watch Nature’s perfect predators.

Wikipedia has two articles on praying mantis martial arts, northern and southern. The quote is from the article on the northern style. For more detail see the Kung Fu Republic.

The field of translation is huge. I have learned something of the arts of translation from my partner Peter Boyle, a poet who also translates. For analysis of translation issues, a classic text is the 1921 essay by Walter Benjamin in which he worked with the idea that translation is itself an art (read here). Willis Barnstone provides an interesting and accessible overview of poetry translation issues (read here).

There is a fascinating field of biomimicry which finds technological inspiration in the natural world; it is not the focus of this essay.

r/K selection theory has undergone numerous critiques and refinements since it was first posited. It remains a useful tool for drawing broad comparisons.

The Goodness of Salmon

Our festive season here in Sydney was mostly damp: sultry and tropical at times, at other times chilly, but persistently wet, wet, wet. Whenever the rain carries on like this I think of Seattle in all its watery glory, from salt water to fresh, and from drizzle and showers through to sudden squalls and wild horizontal lashings of the most torrential rain. Love them or not, these rains are essential to the bountiful, moody, temperate rainforests that make the Pacific North West so special. The greatest concentration of biomass on earth is found in these forests, more even than in the Amazon, and one of the great scientific questions has been: how do the trees do it?

Hoh Rainforest, Elizabeth Gomm (CC)
Hoh Rainforest, Elizabeth Gomm (CC)

David Suzuki offered a surprisingly elegant and complex answer. He pointed out that while rain is essential, it is also the case that it washes nutrients out of the soil. Those months-long downpours take away nutrients at a rate that would seem to make huge forests impossible. So: where on earth does the actual fertility come from?

The Answer: Salmon!  And therein lies a true story of life’s goodness.

Sockeye salmon run, Todd Radenbaugh (CC)
Sockeye salmon, Todd Radenbaugh (CC)

The scientific analysis of the relationship between forests and salmon is fairly recent. The evidence comes from nitrogen. It is possible to distinguish two types of nitrogen, one that is land based (14N) and one that is ocean based (15N). Analysis of the forest, from trees to soils, shows that the main nutrient is ocean-based nitrogen.

Salmon hatchlings make their way to the ocean and live there for several years, consuming foods such as plankton that are rich in ocean based nitrogen. When it is time for them to spawn, they return to the river in which they hatched, swimming upstream in order to reproduce and die. Along the way they are prey to a great diversity of animals, especially bears.

Doug Brown (CC)
Doug Brown (CC)

Salmon and bears – how iconic! Bears grab fish out of the water and take them back into the forest for a private feast. They gobble up the choice bits and then return to the river for more. They transfer from river to forest upwards of 60 million kilos of salmon every year in British Columbia alone! The forests become rich in salmon carcases, and all manner of birds and other scavengers eat the remains.

The bears go on their way in the forests, pooping nitrogen rich fertilizer. The last remains of the salmon become food for flies; the flies lay eggs (on both salmon remains and poop) that hatch out as maggots and transform into pupae. Then, in a moment of perfect synchrony, zillions of nutritious flies emerge just in time for the annual northern migration of many insect-eating birds. Among them are the beautiful little olive-sided flycatchers who fly from Central and South America to the northern forests and back every year.

Olive-sided Flycatcher, Mike's Birds (CC)
Olive-sided Flycatcher, Mike’s Birds (CC)

And so vast amounts of ocean based nitrogen are transferred to the forests, their inhabitants and their visitors. Indeed, the scientists have learned that they can correlate tree rings with salmon runs: the wider and healthier the tree ring (indicating greater annual growth), the bigger the salmon run that year.

Salmon not only benefit a great diversity of other creatures, including the mighty rainforest trees, they also benefit their own offspring. After spawning, the adults die. Their bodies are consumed by fungi which are themselves consumed by bacteria and other micro-organisms. Later the young salmon feed on these same micro-organisms, building strength for their journey back to the ocean. Indeed, salmon are food for almost everyone – in the course of their travels not only are they prey to bears and birds and humans, but also to whales, seals, dolphins and sea lions, and to larger fish including sharks; their decomposing bodies are consumed by micro-organisms; as youngsters they are scooped up by snakes and water birds ~ everybody eats them! And still they thrive, and still they carry the ocean’s bounty into the freshwater rivers, and into the forests, and into other land, sea and sky creatures.

'Seal snack', Larissa Saye (CC)
‘Seal snack’, Larissa Saye (CC)

The scientific analysis is fascinating, but it barely begins to capture the wild exuberance of this story. The transformation of fish into food sustains bears, humans, eagles, crows, otters, trees, microscopic river organisms and much more. In these transformations life itself is shifted across plant, animal, fungi and other kingdoms. The great nutritional loops conjoin land, sea and air, seasonal and migratory cycles, birth and death.

Eagle with fish, Jerry McFarland (CC)
Eagle with fish, Jerry McFarland (CC)

David Suzuki wanted to make a point about management. With all the connectivities and transformations that loop through species and individuals to form ecologies, it is clear that a forest is not just a collection of trees. And yet, from a management point of view, trees are to be managed by one bureaucracy, rivers by another, oceans by another, wildlife by another, fish by another; forestry, fishermen, hunters, and a myriad other human-centric interests argue passionately about their particular part of the great system. The real issue, however, is that the health of any part of this vibrant system is integral to and dependent on other parts of the same vibrant system. In Suzuki’s words, ‘… if we keep looking at our own self-interest without seeing the big picture … we are going to screw it up for sure.’

More than forests are at stake here – more than trees and salmon, more than bears and micro-organisms. The wildly entwined loops of transformation are the very practice of goodness in Earth life. The goodness of salmon, as with all goodness, lies both in their lives as lived for themselves and their offspring, and in the benefits others gain from them.

In a human-centric world of narrow ‘self-interest’ and stubborn resistance to recognition of entangled connectivities, it is good, I find, to think of the philosopher Lev Shestov. He argued for a kind of craziness that is exactly what is needed here. Craziness for Shestov meant that a person would immerse themselves in life that is specific in its time and place, situated in awareness of its entanglements with others, and fully committed to the complexities of birth and death. His craziness is a commitment to transience, flux and uncertainty, and perhaps part of the craziness is that none of these qualities offers a promise that leads to human complacency. Rather, uncertainty means that nothing can be taken for granted. And so craziness goes hand in hand with Earth’s exuberance. It offers joy in the form of commitment to transformation, metamorphosis, synchronicity, and shared, looping connectivities.

Mills (CC)
‘Tree of LIfe’, Mills (CC)

For us humans, to become crazy-in-love with the living world would mean becoming crazy for salmon and crazy for bears, crazy for forests, fungi, clear running rivers, healthy oceans, migrating birds, nitrogen and much more. We would become absolutely crazy for goodness.

At the end of the day, goodness is the way and the truth of living creatures, and craziness is a human being’s way of remaining part of it.

I find it hard to imagine becoming crazy for rain. Even while I treasure its gifts of life, the truth is that day after day of the stuff makes me fretful. It was a great delight, therefore, when the sun returned for a day or two. And so it is in this world of flux: nothing lasts forever, except perhaps the great earth herself, and change is yet another aspect of goodness.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Resources:

David Suzuki spoke on the Science Show (ABC Radio National – listen here).

Scientific research on salmon, bears and forests has been carried by Tom Reimchen, and James Helfield and Robert Naiman (among others).

Lazarus

It feels splendid to leap into the writing life after a year of absence. Thank you, dear readers, for your interest across this span of silence.

Photo: Chantal Jackson
Photo: Chantal Jackson

The diagnosis was cancer and the treatment that knocked it off was brutal. Together they left me stunned, wandering in the valley of the shadow of death, at times truly fearful.

Coming now into the light of life, feeling the beginnings of vibrance as I emerge from the shadows, I keep thinking of Lazarus. Not the guy who was raised from the dead, but the other one. Jesus told the parable of a sick and destitute beggar named Lazarus who lay before the rich man’s gate asking only for the crumbs from the table. The rich man turned his back, slamming the gate shut so that no food, care, comfort or goodness could cross over. Behind the closed gate the rich man and his brothers continued their self-satisfied, hard-hearted, opulent and comfortable lives. Lazarus, abandoned and alone, died at the gate. Abraham himself came and took Lazarus away to a better place.

Not long after, the rich man died. From his place of torment in Hades he called to Abraham, asking that Lazarus come to give him relief. Abraham said no: the barrier between the two places was impassable, he said. So the rich man asked if Lazarus could go back to earth to tell the brothers what had happened to him. He thought that if they heard about it from Lazarus they would change their behaviour and avoid the brother’s fate. Again, Abraham refused. He said that the living brothers already had Moses and the prophets. If they would not listen to all the wisdom that was already given, they would not listen to anyone.

This is the true wisdom of the face-to-face: goodness toward others gives life its value, and all anyone needs to know is right before them.

The first part of this powerful story concerns hard-heartedness in the face of desperate need. We are today deeply familiar with the social and spiritual demands of strangers at the gate. Indeed, there are hundreds of thousands of them. Michael Ignatieff recently wrote about the disasters pushing people to flee Syria: ‘Assad’s barrel bombs, Russian and American air strikes, ISIS beheadings, militia murders and persecution’. Ignatieff argues that generosity toward refugees is both ethically good and politically prudent. Far better that people be given the opportunity to make good lives for themselves than that they be pushed into utter, nihilistic desperation. And multicultural experience shows that in general nations are enriched as newcomers settle and flourish. None of this happens without effort, but this is the real work of life’s goodness: to reach out in care and responsibility.

The second part of the Lazarus story also speaks powerfully to life on earth today. Abraham said that all we need to know is actually before us.  For him, Moses and prophets held the keys to knowledge. Other times and places hold other keys.

These days I find myself thinking of the animist vivacity that permeates the goodness of earth life. Part of the horror of the shadow of death is that one feels that life’s goodness is being obliterated. In contrast, to see clearly is to see that goodness arises all around us – in the rain, air, ground, light, warmth, the light winds of morning and the golden glow of dusk. Alfonso Lingis explains:

‘We do not relate to the light, the earth, the air, and the warmth only with our individual sensibility and sensuality. We communicate to one another the light our eyes know, the ground that sustains our postures, and the air and the warmth with which we speak. We face one another as condensations of earth, light, air, and warmth ….’

Photo: Chantal Jackson
Photo: Chantal Jackson

All creatures are the beneficiaries of elemental goodness, and all creatures participate in the webs that nurture and support on-going life. We are face-to-face with goodness all the time, and that goodness gives rise to creatures’ capacity to flourish. It speaks in all the vast exuberant generosity of earth life that flows through birds and bees, predators and prey, flowers and nectar drinkers, creaturely generations, air, sun and water. All around us is this great flourishing. All one needs to know as a grounding for wisdom is the coming forth of diversity, beauty and integrity. The goodness of a human being is here: in becoming a conscious contributor to the generosity of life.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Readings:

Ignatieff, Michael 2015 ‘The Refugees & the New War’, New York Review of Books, LXII (20), pp. 8-12.

Lingis, Alfonso 1994. The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.p.122