I am reading Tim Low’s terrific new book Where Song Began. Tim Low is a renowned science writer, and in this new study he tells fascinating stories about Australia’s birds.
The birdsong of the world originated here in Australia.
It is wonderful to see the evidence piling up. For decades, though, this conclusion was resisted by many biologists who simply could not open their minds to the idea that something as significant on earth as birdsong could have evolved in a place so far from what many them liked to think of as the centre of earth-life, i.e., the northern hemisphere. And yet, DNA evidence is now showing beyond any doubt that Australia was the original home of songbirds. In Tim’s words, birdsong brought ‘a new dawn for planetary acoustics’.
Tim Low is a biologist with a strong interest in connectivity. The story of Australian birds is told in the context of soils, sunshine, trees, seeds, sugars and nesting areas. In the case of parrots, for example, primary breeding sites are tree hollows. Eucalyptus hollows can take hundreds of years to form. In one of the great understatements of the year, Low notes that ‘the demise of large trees in farmland raises concerns about future parrot success’.
I visited Tim last week, and as I was driving through his neck of the woods there was a lot going on both in the country around me and in news from elsewhere. It was adding up to a pretty awful moment in the ecological life of this amazing continent that had the exuberance to bring forth birdsong.
I saw a lot of evidence for the ‘demise of large trees’, and I am moved to express myself in more vigorous language: I saw trees being killed and paddocks massacred. I know from my study of land clearing issues that a lot of dying was happening here in addition to the highly visible trees.
According to a Bush Heritage publication on Land Clearing and its Impacts, Australia is still clearing way too many trees, and the effects are not only on the trees themselves but on all the other creatures who live in and amongst trees, including those who inhabit the understory. This report does not pull its punches:
“Over 5 million parrots, honeyeaters, robins and other land birds are killed each year by land clearing. For every 100 hectares of bush destroyed, between 1,000 and 2,000 birds die from exposure, starvation and stress. Half of Australia’s terrestrial bird species may become extinct this century unless habitat destruction is rapidly controlled.
Nearly half our mammal species, including some wombats, wallabies and bandicoots, are either extinct or threatened with extinction as a result of land clearing, habitat destruction and other threats.”
Another point made in this report concerns that great ecological dictum: ‘what goes around comes around.’ Bush Heritage warns that land clearing increases the potential for salinity, adversely affecting both soils and water, and thus generating negative impacts for farms, towns and cities.
One side of the story is the lack of political will, another side is human intransigence. As it happened, I was driving past recently cleared paddocks whilst listening to reports on the radio about the funeral of Glen Turner. Mr Turner was an environment inspector in the state of New South Wales, a government employee whose responsibilities included monitoring land clearing. He was shot and killed, and a local farmer Ian Robert Turnbull has been arrested. The news reports state that Mr Turnbull had a history of conflict over land clearing. Previously he had been in court over the matter of ‘clearing’ some 3000 trees. We will learn more about it in due course. In the meantime, Mr Glen Turner, a local man who was said to have loved farming life and the rural community, is gone forever.
One of the many reasons we take death seriously is that individual death, like species extinction, doesn’t offer return tickets.
There is so much evidence about the value of trees on properties that one is left wondering why people become so intransigent. It strikes me that some people get smart when they have to figure out how to make a living that will be legal, sustainable, and ecologically inclusive. Others, it seems, just get mean.
The human capacity for meanness was on display in Brisbane during this same week in another case that also involved clearing. According to a report ‘Bat Battle on the Bayside’, some people whose homes are adjacent to a park where the land is zoned ‘environmental reserve’ are annoyed. Apparently the fact that the environmental reserve was actually fulfilling its function as a haven for both humans and nonhumans was not appreciated. It is not clear that all residents felt equally angry about having to live in proximity to flying-foxes from time to time; what was clear was that the on-going actions of the strident residents led to a response that was euphemistically called ‘trimming vegetation under storey’.
The ‘trimming’ took place at night because it was anticipated that the flying-foxes would be out foraging, and thus would not be directly disturbed by the machinery and activity. The method involved a machine that bites into the understory, chomps it up, and mulches it on the spot. Plants, animals and fungi go in one end, mulch comes out the other, and everything that was alive – birds, eggs, skinks, snakes … whatever was sessile or not quick enough, was ground up and spat out.
The point in relation to flying-foxes was that they do not like camping in areas where there is no undergrowth. All the deaths in the understory would, it seems, be validated because the changes would encourage the flying-foxes to move a few meters further away from human homes.
Many grey-headed flying-foxes were camping in this area (Pteropus poliocephalus). This species is listed as vulnerable to extinction and protected under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999). This is one of the mammal species the Bush Heritage Report was discussing in relation to vulnerability and land clearing. In addition to species vulnerability, many individuals are pregnant females, and are now or will soon enter the critical third trimester. Both they and the next generation are at risk in actions that cause shock and stress.
The most strident resident (at least in the news) was Annette Brown. She called the flying-foxes ‘noisy and smelly’, and said she ‘wants them gone’. Ms Brown’s televised statements encapsulate to perfection the lack of thought around these issues.
1) living in a home near land zoned for environmental reserve and deciding that nature will have to go
2) remaining indifferent to the direct and indirect suffering that has been and will continue to be caused by the ‘trimming of understory’
3) failing to connect the dots: flying-foxes lose their bush habitats through land clearing, then they are shoved from one spot to another in urban areas.
The pressure comes from everywhere, and if there is a grievance it would more fairly be directed against other humans.
I went to visit the site on the morning after the first night of ‘trimming’. When I got there the sky was thick with flying-foxes flapping about in agitated consternation. This was in broad daylight, a most unusual event for these nocturnal creatures. I hear that some of the residents may be out there during the day harassing the flying-foxes in order further to force them away.
Mr Bill Lyon, Redlands City Council CEO, spoke of the action as a limited effort to make more space between human homes and flying-foxes. He was well aware that dispersal would just shift ‘the problem’ somewhere else, and he seemed to be hoping not to do that. Ms Brown had no such concerns. In her words: ‘I don’t care where they go. I just want them gone.’
In the same news report, Denise Wade (Bat Conservation and Rescue, Queensland), made the point that loss of habitat is pushing flying-foxes closer to humans. In her words: ‘It’s about planting alternative habitat and preserving the habitat that we have left. I see a very bleak future for bats.’
I have been interviewing many talented and committed rescue and care volunteers, and this perception of a bleak future is widespread. Every little bit hurts, and of course much of what hurts is by no means small, as we know from the actions in numerous Queensland towns and cities in recent years (discussed here).
Over the course of those few days in Queensland I was gaining the sense of a desperately disturbing deep-time trajectory. The steps go like this: this is the continent that brought forth birdsong and enriched the whole earth; this is the continent that was inhabited by Aboriginal people for millennia under a cultural regime we now know as ‘caring for country’; this is the country that now has the highest rate of mammalian extinction in the contemporary world.
When Tim told me that another animal appears to have gone extinct I can’t say I was shocked. The only surprise was that it was a lizard. The Christmas Island Forest Skink suffered a quick and severe decline. At one point they were prevalent, then suddenly their numbers were down, and earlier this year the last known individual died. The authors of the report find that ‘In most cases, extinction can be seen as a tangible demonstration of failure in policy and management, of inattention or missed opportunities.’
If I were writing up a report card, the result would be terrible. But the failure goes way beyond reporting and assessing. There is widespread, systemic failure to consider and protect individuals, species, ecosystems, habitats, and ecological connectivities, along with the failure to cherish beauty, to prevent harm, and to show consideration for the lives of others.
This deep and exhaustive failure offers on-going evidence of a terrible wound in the biocultural fabric of Australia.
I suspect that none of us knows how, or whether, it can be healed. Our capacity for ethical action is bleeding out all over the place. The great continental philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote of the ‘face’ as that which interrupts my self-absorption and calls me into ethical responsibility. There has been a lot of discussion in recent years as to whether the face means ‘a human face’. What about other animals? What about trees? What about understory? The definition of face that I find most inspiring treats it as a form of action. Here face is something one does rather than something one has: ‘facing is being confronted with, turned toward, facing up to, being judged and being called’.
The living world is filled with facings – to be alive is to live among faces, many of which are noisy and interruptive. This is good. This is life in the mode of ethics. At this time, this is also tough. There are so many facings, and often one feels so helpless.
And yet, the exuberance of living creatures continues to be inspiring. It is still possible to step outside and listen to birds. For the moment, now, I am taking myself off to the garden. It is true that these songbirds are not all equally musical to my ear, but they sure are smart and lively, and many of them sing beautifully. They have been here for a very long time, and I hope they and many of the others will continue long beyond this current regime of terror.
© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)
Resources: Where Song Began: Australia’s birds and how they changed the world, by Tim Low published by Viking/Penguin, 2014.
Bush Heritage Report on Land Clearing and its Impacts (view here).
‘Trimming vegetation understory’ (view here)
Bat Battle television story (view here)
‘Vale ‘Gump’, the last known Christmas Island Forest Skink’ (view here)
A number of terrific essays on Levinas and nature can be found in the book Facing Nature, edited by William Edelglass, James Hatley, and Christian Diehm.The quote is from Susan Handelman’s book Fragments of Redemption. (Indiana Uni Press, 1991)