Tag Archives: Eileen Crist

Lively Water

Jila is a place of ‘living water’. It identifies fresh water that never dries up. Often unprepossessing, perhaps the water is secreted deep in a well that has been dug and maintained for generations, perhaps it is a spring that bubbles up quietly, or maybe the water forms a pool that remains after the flow of a river or creek has disappeared. Jila, the place of living water, commands respect and care; it gives life and thus is a source of life. Here on the driest inhabited continent on earth, knowledge of living water can truly make the difference between life and death. Living water is cherished; it is a blessing.

Native well, South Australia
“Native well”, South Australia

If water is living, can it also die? Is water caught up in precarity, is it vulnerable? Is water, like life, variable and diverse; in this time of ecological loss, is it threatened? The great Sydney artist Janet Laurence says ‘yes’ to these questions. Water, she wants us to understand, is fragile and complex, precious and threatened. This message was offered in her recent installation ‘H2O: Water Bar’, set up in the Paddington Reservoir. Janet’s stated aim was to bring people into appreciation of water’s variability, and to raise questions in their minds about its fragility.

Paddington Reservoir, zenra (CC)
Paddington Reservoir, zenra (CC)

In the 1860s the city of Sydney built an underground reservoir to augment its water supplies. Constructed of brick, timber, stonework and iron, the reservoir was superseded around the turn of the century. For decades it was used for storage, then part of it collapsed. Finally in 2006 part of it was redesigned as a sunken garden and part of it was preserved as an historic site; it is only open to the public on special occasions. We were there on a very hot evening. The reservoir was cool and elegant, and beautifully peaceful; the city seemed to evaporate. The arches woke up memories of Roman water construction. We breathed the moist, earthy garden air, and in spite of the solidity of the construction materials, we felt surprisingly buoyant.

Janet Laurence's H2O Water Bar
Janet Laurence’s H2O Water Bar

The water bar, gleaming with glass and mirrors, was set up at one end of the enclosed area. There were shelves of vials, each containing a different water, and each carefully labelled both for origin and for trace elements and pH factor. Janet’s assistants, wearing lab coats and managing all the vials, beakers and shot glasses, offered us water and engaged us in conversation. We were invited to taste and compare, to bring our own bodily sensorium into encounter with water’s diversity and charms. I was particularly taken with spring water from Mt Warning (in NSW). This volcanic water contains fluoride, manganese, magnesium, calcium, zinc, cyanide, silica, sodium and copper and is pH 7.3. Its taste on my palate was lively, with a bit of zip (cyanide, perhaps?).

The best art works a kind of magic, bringing us to experience the world unexpectedly. Janet’s water bar, with its hints of alchemy and its commingling of quantification and qualitative experience, transformed a glass of water from everyday necessity to precious experience. Without having to say it, the water bar reminded us that all too often we take for granted this glorious, life-giving flow; we forget its individuality, its relationships with place, its flowing nature.

Janet Laurence's H2O Water Bar
Janet Laurence’s H2O Water Bar

My friend Luke Fischer organised an evening of readings on ‘The Language of Water’ to coincide with one of the water tasting events at the H2O bar. The aim was to honour Janet’s work, and to bring words into the celebration of water’s liveliness. I was invited to speak, and I drew on my experiences over many years with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory in order to address this question: if water is living, does it have a voice and does it have a face?

The area where I lived in the Territory was in the catchment of the Wickham River, a tributary of the great Victoria River. This is monsoon country, where rivers flow episodically and the extreme aridity of the dry season is counter-balanced by the massive downpours of the wet season. Across the course of a single year the extremes are enormous. And of course there are larger fluctuations linked to the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the Indian Ocean Dipole. Sun and Rain, dry season and wet season, each have their moment. Sometimes they balance each other well, but in many years the usual extremes became even more wild. This past wet season the monsoon failed and life became very tough. Heat and humidity were intense, and the blessed relief of rain was largely absent. When it came, though, it was caused by a cyclone, making sudden, localised floods that killed people. In other years, though, the rains go on and on, floodwaters rise everywhere, communities are evacuated, and it takes most of the dry season for the country to dry out enough to be able to travel off road even in four wheel drive.

Storm building up, Paul Williams (CC)
Storm building up, Paul Williams (CC)

The great seasonal forces are for Aboriginal people expressions of the power of on-going creation; they are part of the eco-cosmology. Wet season and Dry season: Rain and Sun. The great life-shaping powers wrestle back and forth, Rain and Sun, Sun and Rain: living beings have learned to live with extremes, from the desiccated aridity of the late dry to the swampy ground and rushing rivers of the wet. You could die of thirst, or you could drown, each possibility is totally real and almost every year a few people do actually die.

The North Australian monsoon region is its own thing, but it also needs to be said that Australia is its own thing! Water in Australia is governed ecologically by the reality that this continent is the ‘driest, flattest, most poorly drained, and in fact largely inward draining land on Earth’, according to Mary White. Most of it is arid; rain is wildly variable, as I’ve said, and global warming is almost certain to exacerbate the unpredictability of water. Here in Australia ‘normal’ is already a set of extremes, and it is hard to imagine what may be coming.

And still, water flows through everything.

It flows through you and me, through soils and trees and rocks, through all creaturely bodies and through its own ever-shifting pathways. And everywhere it goes it is connected with life. When the rain falls, living beings respond: plants and other creatures liven up and new generation are begun.

Aboriginal eco-cosmology is expressed in the medium of kinship, and conveys the underlying knowledge of connectivities. Across all the big players like Sun and Rain, across species and landforms, across seasons and generations, patterns of connectedness reproduce bonds of enduring solidarity. One big social division in the Victoria River area is based on the Sun/Rain dynamic. People are born into one or the other: either Sun, along with earth, ground, the dry season and associated animals; or Rain, along with light or dark rain and associated animals.

I was privileged to be incorporated into the kinship system, and the perspectives I know best involve my close kin: dark rain, along with the flying-foxes (Pteropus alecto) who hang upside down over the water.

Dark rains are fierce and erratic. They can come as thunderstorms, sometimes they come as cyclones. They descend on the land, they fill up the billabongs and move into the underground waterways and aquifers. They get the rivers flowing, often get them running bankers and flooding far out across the land. And then they go away, and sometimes they don’t come back for a very long time.

Rainbow over Sun Dreaming site, Wickham River area
Rainbow over Sun Dreaming site, Wickham River area

Sun and Rain wrestle it out, and where they meet and join, there you see a rainbow. Pattern and connection: out of difference comes something new and powerful. The Rainbow Snake is the great being associated with all water: all rains, all rivers, but most of all with every permanent spring and waterhole. The fact of permanence is living proof that something powerful is there. That ‘something’ is the Rainbow Snake. Furthermore, the Rainbow snake embodies the idea that water is both a powerful presence and an ethical subject. What I mean by saying that water is an ethical subject is that it is enmeshed in, and responsive to, calls for care and responsibility.

Aboriginal stories really draw this out. Let’s go back to those flying-foxes hanging down over the water. Late in the dry season, when country is becoming almost unbearably hot, they come to camp above permanent water. Why do they do this? It is pretty dangerous – one false move and you become dinner for the hungry crocs that patrol up and down beneath the pandanus trees. One reason is that they need the humidity to counter the heat stress they experience as the Wet season (summer) approaches.

Eucalyptus flowers
Eucalyptus flowers

Another reason is told through Aboriginal story: they are calling out to the Rainbow Snake, telling it to bring rain. The people who taught me said that they are ‘mates’ with the Rainbow, and their calling out is a central part of the relationship. There is a pattern that works like this: flying-foxes live by following the successive flowering of Eucalypts and Corymbias. The flowering starts in the higher country away from the river and works its way across the land until it reaches the river banks. Flying-foxes follow the flowers, and when they get to the river they have reached the last of the blossoms. It is late in the dry season and there will be no more flowers until the rains come and renew the country. So they call to their mate, the Rainbow, urging it to get up and get going, and bring the rain. Others join in: the frogs shout their crazy chorus, waterbirds come flocking in, cicadas are shrieking. It becomes very noisy, there is heteroglossia to the max, and most of the time the Rainbow Snake responds. Across this continent of heat, dust and fires, the rains do come.

Flying-foxes over permanent water
Flying-foxes over permanent water

Water, I am saying, has a face, using the term as developed by the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. In his studies of ethics, to have a face is to be an ethical subject. Ethics arrive as a passionate call for connection. The flying-foxes call to their mate the Rainbow, and the Rainbow responds. Those responses bring life. We ourselves are expressions of water. All the creatures who live because of water, from frogs to birds to turtles and flying foxes, to you and me, all of us bear witness to water’s gifts of life.

Earth has been a watery planet for 3.5 billion years, and in all this time the relationship between water and life has been symbiotic water sustains life, and life sustains water. And yet, the liveliness of water is not faring well. Eileen Crist writes vividly that ‘human beings have taken aim at the very qualities that define the living planet, dismantling, with an intent that seems paradoxically both blind and demonic, the diversity, complexity, and abundance of life on Earth.’

We are water creatures, all of us. Life evolved in salt water and stayed there until about 400 million years ago when plants and animals ventured on to land. Terrestrial mammals such as ourselves recapitulate this history, floating in our own little sea of amniotic fluid until being thrust out and required to breathe. We are 78% water as babies, and drop to 65% (give or take) as adults. Many plants are 90% water; other animals vary around 60%. Even in the driest places, where living things have become incredibly adept at living with minuscule amounts of water, the story is still the same: no water no life.

Flying-fox 'belly dipping'. Courtesy of Nick Edards.
Flying-fox ‘belly dipping’. Courtesy of Nick Edards.

The voices of water are around and within us, and they are passionate. The appropriate response is to join in. To celebrate and protect water, to taste and treasure its diversity, to delight in and defend the creatures who call on water, to be awed by water’s power, and to cherish the connections: this is the work of life; this is the work that really matters.

© Deborah Bird Rose, 2016


A beautiful account of jila places can be found in the book by Pat Lowe and Jimmy Pike: Jilji: Life in the Great Sandy Desert, published by Magabala Books. I learned about the sacred qualities of living water in my work on Aboriginal claims to land throughout the Northern Territory; a great many of the sacred sites we visited were water sites.

A description of ‘H2O: Water Bar’, and a video of Janet talking about the work, is available online (visit here). I have written about her work in other essays, for example ‘Blood and Chlorophyll’. Jim Hatley has an absolute ripper of an essay online (visit here).

A brief description of ‘The Language of Water’ can be found here. To learn more about Luke Fischer – poet, scholar, writer and organiser – visit his website (here).

To learn more about the Indigenous knowledge of weather and seasons mentioned in this essay, see my article ‘Rhythms, Patterns, Connectivities’.

The quote from Mary White is taken from her book Running Down: Water in a Changing Land, published in 2000.

The relationship between flying-foxes and heat stress has been the focus of several essays, for example ‘Climate Change and the Question of Community‘, and ‘Lethal Heat‘.

The quote from Eileen Crist is from her essay ’Intimations of Gaia’ in a book she has edited: Gaia in Turmoil, published by MIT Press in 2010. This book contains an excellent essay on water. Numerous websites offer facts and figures relating to water problems; a good start is with the WWF (visit here).

“Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We are all lichens now!”

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)


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

Thinking Extinction in Sudbury Ontario

Thinking Extinction Logo
Thinking Extinction Logo

Laurentian University in Sudbury Ontario recently started a new research initiative: the Centre for Evolutionary Ecology and Ethical Conservation. The first major event to be hosted by the Centre was a three day international symposium on species extinction. Brett Buchanan, author of an impressive book on philosophy and ethology, called Onto-Ethologies, was the leading figure behind the symposium. I was one of the lucky invited participants. From Sydney to Sudbury is a bit of a hike. It was well worth it.

Interestingly, the symposium was timed to coincide with author Margaret Attwood’s annual visit to Sudbury where she celebrates her birthday. Her recent world’s end trilogy, Oryx and CrakeThe Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam, uses the speculative form to work explicitly with themes of extinction. She and her husband Graeme Gibson, author of the beautifully presented Bedside Book of Birds, dedicate much energy and effort to thinking about environmental issues and working on behalf of endangered birds; their contributions to the symposium added an extra measure of wisdom.

The symposium speakers came from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S., and included philosophers, biologists, and humanities scholars from a range of disciplines and interdisciplinary fields. The conversation ranged across a huge terrain of practice, theory, ethics, dilemmas, technology, biology, and social analysis. One way or another, almost every presentation was disturbing, and questions multiplied rather than diminished. One point that came up again and again is not new but is gaining urgency: mass extinctions are inseparable from the great, accelerating environmental crisis often signalled by the term ‘climate change’.

Overall, the focus was not exactly on extinction, per se, but more on prevention – what would it take to stop the scale of the mass extinction event now in process? What it would take socially, culturally, biologically, ecologically, technologically, ethically, and financially to turn back all this death? Each domain is huge, each poses many questions that are unanswerable at this time. Problems are quite well understood. Answers are not. The symposium organisers will be putting the videos up on the web, so people all over the world will have a chance to carry the conversations into in their own places, problems, programs and debates.

It now seems clear that by any rigorous definition of extinction, many animals will not go extinct in the foreseeable future because some individuals will be kept alive. One of the issues that claimed a fair bit of attention, therefore, was the different life experiences of animals subjected to in-situ vs. ex-situ conservation. In-situ can be glossed as ‘in the wild’. It involves sustaining habitats, corridors, waterways and other ecological contexts that are essential to the members of any given species as they live their lives on their own terms (to greater or lesser extents).  Ex-situ can be glossed as ‘in human care’. (Thanks to Gabriela Mastromonaco of the Toronto Zoo for pointing out the linguistic oddity of this term: with appalling ease it transmutes into ‘inhuman care’.)

At this time, the ultimate ex-situ conservation measure involves fragments. The warehousing of tissue samples and other genetic material, as undertaken in ‘Frozen Ark’ programs, involves numerous zoos that keep samples on ice. The mission: ‘to save samples of frozen cells containing DNA from endangered animals before they go extinct’. There are now 48,000 samples on ice, representing genetic material from 5,500 endangered and non-endangered animal species. One of the many disturbing and fascinating questions that arises is: with this mode of storage, is it even necessary to keep individuals alive? Proponents of the Frozen Ark call it ‘insurance’. These and other records of the biology of endangered species can be worked with by scientists now and in the future, perhaps, as some would-be techno-wizards would have it, to re-populate a species that had been left to die out in the non-frozen world.

The more common ex-situ conservation takes place with live animals in zoos and other care facilities. This is more than just warehousing, though. Care may also involve breeding programs, some more invasive than others. Thanks to Gabriela, we saw unforgettable images of artificial insemination procedures being carried out on elephants. Captive breeding can produce individuals who can help sustain in-situ populations as individuals are released from zoos and sent into the ‘wild’, thus enabling on-going generations of wild populations who would not be able to sustain themselves without zoo in-put.

And what of the individuals who are released? Matt Chrulew’s insightful presentation on the golden lion tamarin monkeys documented a tough story of the release of creatures who simply did not know how to live in the forest. Many of them lost their lives in dreadful ways, starving to death, for existence. This experience has led to much better efforts to prepare animals in human care for life in the ‘real world’.

Golden lion tamarin Wikimedia commons Adrian Pingstone
Golden lion tamarin
Wikimedia commons
Adrian Pingstone

Once again we were facing stories involving human manipulation of the lives of other creatures, and once again our thoughts took a u-turn.  Many of us wondered about this strange creature known as the human. We destroy so wantonly, and we take such extraordinary, indeed at times ruthless, measures to conserve.

Both in-situ and ex-situ contexts raise on-going questions about animal life when creatures are removed from their unique way of inhabiting their own worlds of meaning, or when the world within which they have evolved no longer exists. This question is vividly present in zoos, and is increasingly present in ‘the wild’ as well. Think for example of the great migratory animals who can no longer travel as they used to do because most of their range has been taken over by humans.

Joshua Schuster gave an excellent and disturbing presentation on the imagery surrounding the near-eradication of the American bison. Working with utterly harrowing paintings, etchings and photos, he documented the carnage that resulted from efforts to eradicate the buffalo and thereby also to destroy the way of life of Native Americans whose lives were entangled with the buffalo. The assault on the buffalo was an assault on the spiritual, cultural and survival relationships between the peoples and the bison. Within the period 1860-1900, roughly, the massive bison population was reduced to a few hundred individuals. I had to lower my eyes from many of the images, and I thought of the opening pages of Jonathan Lear’s book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Lear begins with the chilling words of Plenty Coup: ‘when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.’ Buffy Sainte-Marie’s haunting song ‘Now that the buffalo’s gone’ enveloped my mind, and seemed to seep into the room, pulling our gaze outward to the landscape around us, once a toxic ‘moonscape’ thanks to mining,  and  now slowly recuperating from the depredations of commodity plunder.

I thought too of the buffalo now confined to Yellowstone National Park. Some of them leave the borders of the park to forage at lower altitudes during the winter months when snow covers the ground. Once outside the boundaries of the park, local ranchers shoot them. It has come to this, then, that the great migrations of millions of creatures, across hundreds or thousands of miles, are reduced to small populations living in reserved areas where they can be visited by tourists and on ranches where they can be turned into meat. Their lives are suspended in something of a holding pattern between in-situ and ex-situ: a limbo of existence that strikes a compromise between the humans who want to extirpate them, the humans who try to help them remain alive and free in the world, and the humans who want to ‘farm’ them.

Bison Wikimedia commons Marcin Klapczynski
Wikimedia commons Marcin Klapczynski

One question that kept coming around involved the fact that because this mass extinction event is being caused by humans, we have responsibilities to seek to avert all this death. At any rate, this was certainly a consensus view at this symposium. But what does it mean to avert all this death? Is it good enough just to store tissue samples? Is there a responsibility to sustain habitats so that animals and plants can go on living their lives apart from humans? Is it enough that they are alive in the wild, or should conservation accomplish more?  What about climate change? Should humans be helping animals and plants to adapt to climate change, and what would that mean?

The fact that ‘humans’ (which actually means ‘some humans and their institutions of wealth and power’) are responsible means that many of the issues are actually mostly about humans. What about humans who hate certain animals and want to eradicate them? My own presentation dealt with the recent legislation in the Australian state of Queensland that allows farmers legally to shoot flying-foxes, two species of which are threatened with extinction. The Queensland government had to exempt flying-foxes from the anti-cruelty legislation in order to do this (see my earlier post ‘Zombie Politics’). Along with the violence against flying-foxes, itself part of a much wider field of violence against nature, there is also political struggle. Some people actually do not want to participate in an ethics of care and protection, or at least not if it might cause them any inconvenience.

Eileen Crist’s presentation pulled together a lot of these ideas. She began by discussing everyday concepts of freedom – the right to expand human horizons, to increase mobility and opportunity, and to have choices. Her point was that in the world today the activities that are taken to be indicative of human freedom are achieved at the expense of the lives and well-being of other species. One of her most confronting  examples was roads – something we all take for granted, and use all the time. We have perhaps become somewhat inured to the shocking deaths we see all the time on roads, but of course we only ever see a minute fraction of the death. According to Crist, there are one million animal road deaths in the USA every day, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Roads fragment habitats, they cut across animal travel routes, and they open ever more areas for development. Given our current social and economic way of life they are necessary and inevitable, but for animals they are ‘catastrophic’. It is not that everyone who travels (or consumes goods that have travelled) sets out to ruin the lives of others; it is actually much worse. Everyone who travels (or consumes goods that have travelled), is inevitably bound up with and complicit in the ruination of the lives of others.

Habitat fragmentation is part of vast processes of break-up across many, many domains. At the symposium we heard about it in terms of landscapes and populations, and also in terms of legislation that is piecemeal, and in terms of political objectives that are short term and that marginalise the interests of the animals whose lives are being manipulated. I recently published an article on slow writing discussing fragmentation with  the term ‘unmaking’.  I said that unmaking is going on all around us these days; it is not only over there in other places, other lives, other creatures and communities; it is here amongst us, fragmenting our jobs, our lives, our communities. We are participants both in unmaking and in being unmade.

Mick Smith’s presentation explicitly and elegantly analysed the unmaking of communities through neo-liberal ideology and action, most famously signalled by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her 1987 statement that ‘there is no such thing as society’. To counter this reductionist politics, Smith drew on the philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy in relation to community. Sustaining his analysis across Darwin, Haeckel, and more recent continental philosophy, Mick extended Nancy’s work on community to offer an account of ecological community that can include humans and nonhumans. He worked with Derrida’s analysis of touch to ground our being together-in-proximity and to show that community entails our capacity to be touched both by our being with others, and by our awareness of their passing.

The day I got back to Australia I read: ‘Climate policy is the central battleground of 21st century politics’. In this time of trouble, as Margaret Attwood reminded us, we who are so concerned about these issues need to be able to tell convincing stories to more and more people. A story does not have to be long to have impact, she pointed out, and she told one of the shortest, scariest stories I have ever heard: kill the ocean, and there will be no oxygen.

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)