Tag Archives: Threatened Species

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.

The Rich Are Revolting

Stung! It’s a fascinating book about jellyfish by Lisa-ann Gershwin. Having read Seasick a few years ago, I was well aware that life in Earth’s oceans and seas is suffering deeply. Stung! is nevertheless a shocker – the human feeding frenzy, along with our wilful disregard of marine well-being, is turning this great source of life into a deathzone. With one big exception.

Jellyfish, Yu-Chan Chen (CC)
Jellyfish, Yu-Chan Chen (CC)

Beautiful, dangerous, prolific, and astonishingly ‘agile’ in the opportunistic sense beloved of politicians, jellyfish are thriving. Many are lethal, and they are everywhere. Here in Australia we are familiar with some of the deadliest. We share the water with wildly toxic box jellyfish, including the ghastly Irukandji whose sting leaves its victims begging to be put out of their pain and terror. And of course there are Portuguese men o’ war, including the small bluebottles that wash up on beaches in our area here in NSW. When I lived in Darwin I regretted the twist of fate that brought stingers to the coastal waters just in those months when the weather was hottest and we most wanted to swim.

At least we humans have a choice about whether to go for a dip or stay ashore. Fish aren’t so lucky. Consider the case of a fish farm in New Zealand. Gershwin describes an event that took place in 1998 and is paradigmatic of similar events all over the world. The fish cages are circular, the fish swim around and around, and they create a vortex. Jellyfish drift, and are sucked in. In this case, a swarm of Aurelia jellies drifted into a bay and got sucked up against the cage and trapped in the mesh. They struggled; what entered the cage was mucus laced with stinging cells. Salmon inhaled the mucus and it stung them as well as blocking their gills. They were frightened and in pain. They suffocated. The more they struggled the quicker they died, which may have been a mercy. About 56,000 salmon, weighing about 3 kilos each, died in about half an hour.

Aurelia, Brian Honohan (CC)
Aurelia, Brian Honohan (CC)

Jellyfish go with the flow. Give them a nice current like the intake pipes for a nuclear power plant and they float in by the millions. The Madras Atomic Power Station in India is not unusual: there have been numerous shut-downs owing to jellyfish clogging the cooling system. Staff learned that there were 4 million jellies over a 15-month period. In 1995-6 the plant was coping with 18 tons of jellies per month. Similar events are taking place all over the world.

There is something awesome about such ancient creatures disrupting technology that is so recent, as my friend the philosopher Michelle Bastian has pointed out. Research is beginning to tell us how they manage to be doing so well even as so many ocean creatures are on the edge of extinction. Not all jelly species are increasers, and not all the increasers are thriving everywhere, but the overall picture is one of massive expansion. The damage humans are inflicting on the oceans and seas turns out to be a fine thing for jellyfish.

Irukandji, Rob Williams (CC)
Irukandji, Rob Williams (CC)

Gershwin tells us that jellyfish, in all their beauty and lethality, are weeds. She defines this unexpected term in a technical way. Weeds are not just living things that thrive in places where humans don’t want them, like the prickly asparagus fern I’m always uprooting in my garden. Characteristically, weeds are versatile opportunists. They are generalists in their consumption and tolerant of a broad range of ecological conditions. They are prolific, they disperse readily, and they resist eradication. Perhaps most importantly, they thrive in disturbed habitats. In Gershwin’s words, ‘when ecosystems wobble, weeds flourish’.

As I read this description I started to shiver. There could hardly be a more perfect description of the human species.

This is us: we are generalists and opportunists. We have dispersed rapidly, we live almost everywhere and we thrive in disruption. There are two big differences between the human and jellyfish weedy ways of life. The first concerns reproductive strategies. Very briefly, there are two main types: 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). We humans are a K-selected species; jellyfish are r-selected. Human women bear one, sometimes two, children at a time. It takes years to bring an individual to maturity, nurturing, socialising and educating them. In crazy contrast, jellyfish have several modes of reproduction; they are able to hold their future offspring until conditions are right, and then release thousands or millions in a new start-up ‘bloom’.

It might be thought that K-selected species would be at a disadvantage given that their reproductive rate is relatively slow; in general they require relatively stable ecosystems. We humans are among the equilibrium-adapted species, but many of us also go for disturbance. We make up for loss of stability by our intelligence. More specifically, we have become very good at both creating disturbances which favour our opportunistic lifeway, and evading the consequences by shifting them elsewhere.

Others suffer, while we flourish, and we have systems that work to keep it that way.

Consider two recent events here in New South Wales. According to The Guardian, ‘nearly 50 new species of flora and fauna have been added without fanfare to the federal government’s list of threatened species, including nine that are critically endangered.’ Among them are mammals, lizards, birds and plants. No new funding is available to help them survive. The main cause is habitat destruction. We humans are increasing both our numbers and our patterns of consumption. Animals, plants and ecosystems suffer. At the same time, NSW is planning to abandon its legislation against land clearing. We keep ignoring connectivities, and favouring ourselves at the expense of others.

Threatened: Greater glider, David Cook (CC)
Threatened: Greater glider, David Cook (CC)

One of my favourite thinkers is the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. He is an old man now, and while his writing sometimes seems a bit rambly, he hits the nail on the head with every book. Recently, in Moral Blindness, he turns his attention to the latest up-grade in the power of greed. He writes of the contemporary loss of moral sensibilities, and of ‘the revolt of the rich against the poor’. This revolt is generally thought to have been given a strong boost in the Regan and Thatcher eras when politicians vigorously thrashed the social contract. Their justification had a moral tenor, so let’s be clear: the hard-won laws and policies that provide safety nets for humans and protections for nonhumans are not acts of charity; they do not steal from the rich. Rather, they involve a vision of shared and mutual well-being. An ecological understanding of this vision reveals connectivities, mutualism, and the fundamental ecological fact that ‘what goes around comes around’. Laws and policies of protection promote the circulation of goods and services with the aim of shared social and environmental good. The underlying premise – that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – accords value to all.

The revolt of the rich has been accomplished by disrupting this social ecology. They claim that a social unit is a mere sum of individuals, and that social relations involve parasites and hosts. There is no circulation: it is all take, take, take. There is no social good; there is just the self-interest of hosts who want to scrape off pesky encumbrances.

This revolt is part of Bauman’s broader analysis of western modernity in which he makes it clear that our species is very diverse; not all people in all times have lived out the practices of destruction that are so powerful today. In his book Wasted Lives Bauman writes about the will to wealth of modern capitalism, with all its excess, redundancy and waste. He notes the practice of declaring everything that can’t be used for wealth to be disposable (‘collateral casualties’). From mining to high finance and beyond, anything that gets in the way (read humans; read plants, animals, ecosystems) is best discarded. The revolt denies any moral connection between consumption and waste, and self-righteously rejects constraints on making waste.

'Plastic ocean', Kevin Krejci (CC)
‘Plastic ocean’, Kevin Krejci (CC)

It helps to pause, to take note of the fact that we are trying to imagine the unimaginable. Waste: the oceans and seas, their capacity to sequester carbon and to produce oxygen, their capacity to support webs of life that are diverse, and their regulation of Earth’s chemistry; the atmosphere, the climate, the capacity of Earth to sustain a steady state conducive to life. All this – the very foundations of both marine and terrestrial life – all this is treated as stuff to be wasted. Wreckage creates ‘disturbances’, to use the ecological term, and almost all of us humans are being dragged along in the wake even though most of know that wreckage is neither right nor good, neither smart nor sustainable.

Entangled sperm whale, Lauren Packard (CC)
Entangled sperm whale, Lauren Packard (CC)

This brings me back to jellyfish. They thrive with disturbance, and they consume voraciously. Most creatures consume ‘down the food chain’. In general, big things eat smaller things, fast things eat slower things, and smart things eat dumber things, according to Gershwin’s non-technical explanation. But consider this strange fact: jellyfish actually eat ‘up the food chain’. In Gershwin’s words, ‘small jellyfish eat big species of clams and crabs…. Slow jellyfish eat fast species of fish and squids. Jellyfish with no brains eat species of snails and crustaceans and fish with brains.’ They eat, and they out-compete. They do this primarily because they eat the larval stages of other creatures. In fact, they take over whole ecosystems, eliminating the competition and becoming top predators. They eat each other, too, so they can keep on eating long after having eliminated almost everything else. Jellyfish are also capable of de-growth. When the going gets tough they shrink and cut back on consumption.

If jellyfish could have designed a disturbance agent to make life better for themselves and worse for others, they might well have come up with humans. We’re doing a great job of making life good for them, and together, as if in collusion, we’re accelerating irreversible changes. When jellyfish take over a destabilised ecosystem, a formerly diverse body of water ‘flips’ to jellyfish domination. As other species become extinct, it becomes less likely that flips can be reversed.

Jellyfish, Doug Letterman (CC)
Jellyfish, Doug Letterman (CC)

We are a young species, only about 100,000 years old. We’ve been hugely destructive, and we’ve shifted massive amounts of suffering elsewhere. We’ve thus far managed to evade the consequences of the fact that we really aren’t very flexible. We don’t do de-growth. We need exact levels of oxygen; we need fresh, clean water and fresh, clean food and fresh, clean air. We need care and compassion.

But jellyfish – they can handle almost anything. Salty water and fresh water –  most of them are pretty adaptable. In the ocean’s dead zones where the water lacks oxygen, jellyfish manage. They handle radioactive waste, heavy metals and all the other terrible pollutants dumped or leaked into the oceans. Climate change, another great disruptor, seems to be enhancing their life prospects.

Jellyfish have been on Earth for at least 565 million years. They’ve survived all five of the great extinctions that Earth has thus far experienced. They’ve outlived the dinosaurs and many others. It looks like they’ll survive the coming extinction as well. This time round they have a bit of help from their friends; the revolting disruptors are definitely good news for jellies.

© Deborah Bird Rose, 2016

Resources:

Lisa-ann Gershwin: Stung!  Alanna Mitchell: Seasick.  Zugmunt Bauman: Moral Blindness and Wasted Lives.

I first learned about some of the amazing facts of jellyfish life from Michelle Bastian. Her article is in press. In the meantime, her website is an interesting place to visit.

For another look at reproductive strategies see my essay ‘Thinking Like a Mantis’.

The article about threatened species that I consulted is in The Guardian (here).

There is a rich literature on the social contract. I am using the term in a non-specialised way, following Bauman, to indicate the general idea that humans give up some freedom as members of society, and that in return they gain some protections. When the rich revolt against the poor they are basically saying that protection will no longer be part of the deal. (‘The age of entitlement is over’ is a classic, recent expression of this descent into willful moral blindness.)

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

Resources:

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).

Flying-foxes and the G20

While we were listening to news of the G20 gathering in Brisbane and wondering how our government would respond to the major climate change initiative that the US and China have agreed to, the weather was doing its own thing.

Just a three hour drive south from downtown Brisbane, the town of Casino in northern New South Wales was experiencing a massive heatwave with temperatures up to and above 44C (111F). At those temperatures, flying-foxes start to die of heat stress. Grey-headed flying-foxes, already declared a threatened species and struggling against a barrage of perils, were dying again.

Flying-fox, courtesy of Nick Edard
Flying-fox, courtesy of Nick Edards

From the climate point of view, the timing was odd: mid-November (late spring), and already a heat wave of this magnitude. What does the summer have in store for us all? From the flying-fox point of view, the timing was disastrous. Their birthing time is October-November. The babies were still wholly dependent on their mothers’ milk, and indeed many were still dependent on their mother all the time, even when she flew out at night for food.

Mothers and babies were most vulnerable to heat stress.

Flying-fox Mum and Bub. Courtesy of Nick Edards.
Flying-fox Mum and Bub. Courtesy of Nick Edards.

The connection between heat and death is this:  when temperatures reach 43°C (109°F) these lovely flying mammals ‘start to melt from the inside out’, as one scientist vividly described it. In the words of another scientist: in extreme heat ‘flying-foxes first start fanning their wings, then they seek shade. Next they pant heavily and spread saliva on their bodies. Finally they fall out of trees, or climb down, and crawl on the ground looking for a cooler spot. At that stage they are close to death.’

The ground beneath a flying-fox camp becomes covered with flying-foxes most of whom, but not all, are dead. Mothers who die may yet have a living baby still clinging to the breast.

In the midst of all this heat and death, carers offer their dedicated labour. Systematically they sort through piles of dead flying-foxes to find any still alive. They euthanize those who can’t be saved, and they work round the clock to save those who can be rehydrated, allowed to recuperate, and released back into the bush. It is estimated that some 3000 individuals will die.

Given the time of year, there were many young orphans. Now they are now being fostered by flying-fox carers as far afield as Sydney.

 

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

All of this heat and mass death was taking place around the time that climate change was being discussed at the G20 gathering in Brisbane. US President Obama spoke movingly of Australia’s vulnerability to climate change. According to one report: “The science is in, he said, and Australia and the Pacific especially need to pay attention….”

“Extreme weather events, heatwaves, fires and the need to protect our beautiful Barrier Reef for generations to come make action imperative.”

By way of response, Australia’s Prime Minister Abbot rejected everything that was put to him both by President Obama and by the international community more widely. According to the Courier Mail: “Tony Abbott has rebuffed Barack Obama’s demand for increased action on climate change and openly clashed with the US President in a fiery end to Brisbane’s G20 leaders’ summit.”

“The Prime Minister muscled up to Mr Obama behind closed doors yesterday, declaring there could be no effective action on climate change without a strong economy and strongly endorsing fossil fuels.”

“He did not address calls to pay into a global Green Climate Fund backed by the US. He also refused to commit to new emissions reduction targets in the first quarter of next year, despite being urged to do so in the final G20 communique agreed by all leaders.”

Mr Abbot was in full frontal display as a master of zombie politics. The basic elements of zombie politics are fear, cruelty toward those who are vulnerable, and the vigorous defence of an ‘us-them’ boundary dedicated to the interests of the most powerful. Both at home and in the international sphere, zombie politics assert that dialogue is not really possible; all that matters is protecting one’s ’own’ against the others. The government’s ‘us-them’ commitments were clearly shown to be sick to the core: ‘us’ was implicitly defined as extractive industries, with fossil fuels at the centre. ‘Them’ included anyone who sought dialogue toward significantly reduced carbon emissions.

Back in northern New South Wales, rescue and clean-up continue. I am thinking about the two events – mass death and zombie politics – in the same frame. Along with being sickened by a federal government that revels in not caring for anyone but the powerful, I am also struck by the quality of local leadership. While Mr Abbot was refusing to lead the country on matters that affect the lives and well-being of humans and nonhumans alike, people who were experiencing the flying-fox heat death event were showing genuine and committed concern in matters of life and death.

Little red flying-foxes at Casino, Paislie Hadley (CC)
Little red flying-foxes at Casino, Paislie Hadley (CC)

Let us acknowledge these humans who show compassion, fair-mindedness and concern:

All praise to the carers. Their names have not appeared in the articles I have read, but we knew they are there, that their work is exhausting and traumatising, and that they hold fast to their commitments in the midst of it all.

All praise to public officers who have to manage the dead bodies, and who have remained grave and thoughtful. Mr John Walker of the Richmond Valley Council described the heat death event as a tragedy: “Whatever anyone’s opinion is either side of the bat debate, no one wishes this sort of tragedy on the bats.”

All praise to local residents who are experiencing the difficulties of sharing their parks and backyards with flying-foxes and never the less are able to balance inconvenience with awe and appreciation. Mr Paul Mackay of Casino spoke in an interview about the flying-foxes in his backyard. He showed himself to be an exemplary leader in multispecies co-existence and conviviality in this time when we need ever more respect across species and amongst humans.

My daughter Chantal Jackson is a mandala artist. She made this flying-fox mandala that praises the blessings of life on earth as they come forth in the mutualism of flying-foxes and  flowering trees.

Flying-fox mandala (Chantal Jackson)
Flying-fox mandala ( Chantal Jackson)

And so, with love and respect, let us yet again mourn the suffering and deaths of our fellow creatures in this time of escalating catastrophe. And let us honour the flying-fox survivors by doing all we can to assist them in their perilous lives.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources:

For information on Mr Walker’s statements, see: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-11-17/dead-bats/5896002

For the video of interview with Mr Mackay see: http://www.northernstar.com.au/news/heatwave-kills-bat-colony/2456008/

I have written about flying-foxes, mutualism, heat stress deaths, and the glories of fly-outs in several previous essays, see for example: Lethal Heat and Flying-foxes in Outback Australia.

 

 

Site Fidelity

A couple of weeks ago I was swimming in Lake Washington. I had paddled about in this large snow-fed Seattle lake when I was a child, and in recent years it has been wonderful to return. This October I was using a lazy breaststroke so that I could hold Mt Rainier in my sight. The lake shimmered with ripples, waves and sun. The mountain gleamed with snow and ice, light and shadow.

Lake and Mountain, Selbe B (CC)
Lake and Mountain, Selbe B (CC)

It was a perfect swim, and I reflected with gratitude that the outcome of the geographical tug of war between my father (east coast) and mother (west coast) had never really been in doubt. Yes, we bounced back and forth, also sometimes landing in regions between the two coasts, but for the past several decades it has been Seattle, the lake, the mountains and the Pacific Ocean that have anchored my natal family and given a great deal of meaning to our lives. Many of our stories and many of the events of our lives have been connected to the beauty and generosity of lake and mountain.

How one comes to be attached to specific places is a process that is both deeply known and yet also forever mysterious. Many attachments are formed early, some stick and some do not. Some people experience them more deeply and non-negotiably than others, but in all cases attachments to place also involve time. Memories form around places, and as they are acted upon they accumulate, and so they are enhanced.

Attachments to place are deeply embedded in memory, action, and anticipation.

Place-action becomes part of the process of meaning-making, so that place, like the living creatures who grow into it, exists in the lives and minds of creatures who themselves come and go, and are sustained by place. It may not be so well known that humans are by no means the only creatures to form attachments to place. Amongst nonhuman animals one process of attachment is known as site fidelity (the tendency or desire to return).

Thom van Dooren and I recently wrote an article about place and meaning-making in the lives of two animal species who have strong place-attachments here in Sydney – flying-foxes and little penguins. We wanted to make the point that whatever functionalities are involved in creatures’ determination to return to the same places to breed (philopatry), there is also the wider domain of meaning which exceeds functionality.

These animals, we were saying, inhabit places made meaningful through their own practices of memory, action and anticipation. As with humans, attachment is both enriching and exposing. The great philosopher of place, Edward Casey, reminds us that to be emplaced is also to face the ‘unhappy prospect’ of becoming unplaced. He was pointing toward the anguish of those whose homes are no longer inhabitable.

Little penguins at Manly, cocoa3c (CC)
Little penguins at Manly, cocoa3c (CC)

As Thom explains in the context of nonhumans, meaningful places are not just ‘habitats’. They are not interchangeable, but rather are experiential worlds that can be understood as ‘home’. It follows that site fidelity, although it sounds quite formal, is really about intimacy: the familiarity, security, knowledge, confidence, and intergenerational gifting that goes into making homes.

While I was in Seattle I was forcibly reminded that there is a strong human dimension to home and homelessness that may often be overlooked: ‘home’ is not just a roof over one’s head, but is a complicated and irreplaceable world of meaning. People want to go home, or to find home, and so do those other animals whose lives are shaped by site fidelity. Penguins return to their burrows in Manly every year in spite of the fact that every year the place becomes more built-up, noisy and dangerous. Flying-foxes attempt to return to their camps every year, and it takes sonic torture and other horrific modes of ‘dispersal’ to force them away from their home places.

Grey-headed flying-fox, Nick Edards
Grey-headed flying-fox, Nick Edards

I couldn’t help but think about the lives of creatures I love as I enacted my own site fidelity by swimming in the lake. We try to make things better for ourselves as humans, at least some of the time. Lake Washington became so polluted once that it was dangerous to swim in, but it has been cleaned up. What, though, do we do to ease the anguish of nonhumans whose attachments to place and to their future generations is every bit as committed as ours?

My family’s site fidelity, like that of flying-foxes and penguins, has been an intergenerational project. Flying-foxes return to maternity camps to give birth, penguins return to their familiar burrows to hatch and fledge their young. In my family, Lake Washington was where my mother and her parents had swum, and our family kept returning.

Recently we added another chapter to our attachments to place, time and generations when our mother died in her bed at home facing the lake. We kept her body with us until the afternoon, and when the professionals came to take her away we sang ‘Will the circle be unbroken’. The clouds parted and the sun shone with astonishing heat and brilliance.

There was only one thing to do:   we ran to the jetty and jumped into the lake.

DSC03200

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources: The article Thom and I wrote is called ‘Storied-places in a multispecies city’ (read here).

Edward Casey’s work on becoming ‘unplaced’. as I mention here, can be found in one of his major books Getting Back Into Place.

Little penguins are also the subject of a chapter in Thom’s book Flight Ways, a terrific new book about which I will have more to say soon.

So Many Faces

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

Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor
Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor

The birdsong of the world originated here in Australia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

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

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

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

‘Trimming vegetation understory’ (view here)

Bat Battle television story (view here)

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

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

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

Dingo Prayers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dingo Photo: Arian Wallach
Dingo, Arian Wallach

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

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

Across Australia there is a concerted war against dingoes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

‘Dog Bless’

I’m packing my bags again, this time for the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan where I will participate in the International Society of Ethnobiology Conference. Ever since I’ve known that Bhutan existed, I’ve longed to go there, and at last there is this wonderful conference, plus field trips. In using the word ‘wonderful’, I want to note that this is the first conference I have ever attended that has had a special section titled ‘sung sessions’, dedicated to ‘myth and ritual’. I can’t wait to be part of it, and of course I’ll provide a report.

Before I leave the country, though, I need to say a proper and loving farewell to Dinky the Singing Dingo. Dinky died a couple of weeks ago at age fourteen. He was described by many who loved him as a great ambassador for dingoes, as well as for tourism.

Dinky and Jim, Adrian Tritschler (CC)
Dinky and Jim, Adrian Tritschler (CC)

For much of his life, Dinky held forth at Stuarts Well Roadhouse south of Alice Springs.  The owner of the roadhouse, Jim Cotterill, told me that Dinky’s family was living in an area where 1080 was laid, and the nursing mother died. Some stockmen found the litter of six pups in a hollow under a sandhill. They put a trap outside, and it took about three days for the little pups to give up waiting for their mother and to come out. I do not understand why the stockmen took the pups back to the head station, since the purpose of 1080 was to kill them, but in any case, the owner knew that the Cotterills had a few animals at the pub. He rang and asked if they’d like a dingo. Jim said the pup was about six or eight weeks old when he got him. His pup-mates were all killed.

Jim’s daughters played the piano, and when they practiced, Dinky started singing along with them. Later in the pub Dinky hopped up on the piano and walked back and forth singing. According to Cotterill:

“Every time someone starts playing the piano, Dinky creates a din. He starts howling, or singing as we call it. With a chair alongside the piano, he will walk up onto the keys – we call that his playing. He stands there and sings.”

Dinky’s singing was absolutely awesome, especially as he was willing to allow people to get very close. I taped him so that I could hear him whenever I wanted to. Later, though, I couldn’t bear to listen. Not after I came to realise that I knew the song; I had listened to it and sung it many times. From the Babylonian victory right up until today, the song cries out the anguish of exile and diaspora, of those who can never go home again. Part of the beauty of such songs is their improbability: that beauty should burst forth in the midst of disaster and despair seems miraculous. And the beauty also expresses the challenge and heartbreak that emerge in consequence of the cruelty of those who seek the annihilation of others.

Dinky, Xavier Warluzel (CC)
Dinky, Xavier Warluzel (CC)

What does one do? I taped Dinky, looking into his deep mouth and listening to his sonorous voice as he called out for harmony. Later, I felt ashamed, and later still I felt desolate. I was awed to be in his presence, and I wanted to take a fragment home with me. I thought of him and wrote about him, and I thought and wrote about all the silencing that goes on as more and more animals are killed. I searched for a story that would do justice to Dinky and to all of his kin and kind.

Dinky had many comrades, both permanent and transient. Others who visited actually engaged in making song with him. That was what he was calling for, and the encounters that met him on his own musical ground are precious. My friend Hollis Taylor visited Dinky, and she sat at the piano and played with him. She understands music far better than I do, and she found that Dinky sang in perfect pitch. She understood, I think, that what he longed for was the family that makes song together. Hollis recorded the music she and Dinky made, reproducing this stunningly beautiful moment of encounter and recognition across species (listen here).

These moments of beauty, when members of two species join their songs together, are terribly rare. At this time many more dingoes and other animals are victims of 1080 poison. They are dying terrible deaths in outback Queensland, and all across Australia. The poison itself is the product of an industrial killing complex that brings great shame upon our society and our species, while bringing disaster upon our fellow singers.

As I wrote in an earlier essay, my email buddy Ray Pierotti is investigating the love-hate relationships humans have with the genus Canis. He writes that while humans and canids are capable together of becoming allies, some human groups turn against them. He concludes: ‘My feeling is that, in general, the Canids are shocked by this reversal….’

Probably Dinky was in shock in his early months. Music gave him a place in the world.

After the death, Jim and his family took Dinky back to Stuarts Well and buried him in the country he came from, where he had grown up and lived most of his life. Something of Dinky lingers in that desert country, and my fervent hope is that there are still functioning dingo families out there. May their harmonies sing him home so that he may rejoin the family he lost so long ago.

Dog bless this troubled land.

Dog bless the dingoes who are grieving, and all those who are lost and disoriented. Dog bless the young ones who hardly know how to find their way in a world made perilous through human persecution. Dog bless the possibility of a future in which humans set aside their fear and anger, and find companionship with the creatures of earth.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

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

Resources:

Hollis Taylor’s session with Dinky is the last track on her CD ‘Infidel’.

My concerns about cruelty to dingoes are explored in my book Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction. as well as in other essays on this site.

For more about Dinky, see http://www.ntnews.com.au/news/only-in-the-territory/rip-dinky-singing-dingo-and-great-ambassador-for-tourism-dies/story-fnk2tg5d-1226915630149

For more about 1080,  the radio program made by Emma Townshend is wonderful (listen 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)

 Resources:

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.

Albatross Chick ~ The Gift of Proximity

Travel to Kaua’i and you never know just what will happen next! I have been staying at the home of friends who have developed a sweet and dedicated relationship with albatrosses.

Albatross chick, May 5, 2014
Albatross chick, May 5, 2014

The situation here in the east and north-east sector of Kaua’i is astonishing by any standard, and can be credited to a great number of human beings who are willing, even delighted, to live convivially with these magnificent birds. My own standards when I got here were pretty low as I was traumatised by the violence against fellow creatures that I had been witnessing and writing about in Australia. Being here conjures that lovely old term ‘balm’. A sense of healing arises in the presence of people who generously share their land and their lives with other creatures, and who, in fact, feel blessed by the opportunity to live in close proximity with others.

Laysan albatrosses (Phoebastria immutabilis) are wonderful birds to share a place with because their evolved way of life has not required them to be fearful of predators. Humans can walk amongst them without disturbing them, and this fact has brought out the best and the worst in humans. Albatrosses were nearly driven to extinction through mass murder in pursuit of feathers for ladies hats, and other commercial products. That no longer happens, and in fact something else is also taking place: gratitude for the fact that we can be amongst wild animals in the most intimate proximity.

The gift of proximity is a blessing received, a path toward humility.

Albatrosses spend about seven years dancing and courting before settling on their mate. They have a very low ‘divorce’ rate, and they share the labour first of sitting on the nest, and then of feeding the growing chick. It takes two parents to raise one chick, and every chick is testimony to the parents’ deep devotion. These fantastic birds fly eighty thousand or more kilometres annually to gather food from the North Pacific and raise their chicks on Hawaiian islands such as this.

Parent and egg, December, 2011
Parent and egg, December, 2011

The chick I am hanging out with now is the child of Makana and Kūpa’a. I wrote about these particular albatrosses in a book chapter published last year (I include the section on Albatrosses and Crazy Love). Two years ago something went wrong, and the chick did not hatch. Rick and Louise, the generous people who introduced me to Makana and Kūpa’a, told me that the following year the same couple returned to make a nest nearby, and raised a chick successfully. This year they made their nest under the deck. It is a great location – protected from full sun and full rain, and rather inconspicuous.

I have spent a lot of time on the deck hoping that a parent will come to feed the chick, but so far it hasn’t happened in my presence. The parents are ranging far and wide to get the food they need for themselves and little one – right now they could be in Alaska! How they come back to exactly this headland, to exactly this deck and this chick is actually unknown (to humans). And yet they do, and all the while the defenceless chick waits, developing the arts of patience along with growing feathers to replace its fluffy down.

Over the coming decades, if the couple survives the hazards of long-line fishing and ingestion of plastics, along with the land-based perils of dogs, cats and humans, they will almost certainly keep coming back and raising chicks. In due course, some of those chicks will also come here to nest and raise chicks.

Albatross chick goes for a walk, May 3, 2014
Albatross chick goes for a walk, May 3, 2014

Returning to the here and now, the chick sits in his nest. Sometimes he stretches, or grooms himself, sometimes he appears to sleep. Often he looks up expectantly, and from time to time he clacks his bill, making the distinctive albatross sound that, in the chick-parent context, is asking for food. Occasionally he gets up and walks out onto the lawn, and after a gentle stroll returns to his nest and settles down to wait. My little home video (view here) shows him out on the lawn, and walking back to the nest, settling in, and doing a bit of grooming and clacking.

The arts of albatross life are indeed beautiful – to dance, to make commitments that can last ‘forever’, to navigate, to fly while sleeping, to return to the right place at the right time, and through it all, to live the varied cadences with appropriate attention. The perfectly matched dances, the dive for food, the feeding of the chick, the chatter, the grooming, and the lift upward on the winds; the travel, the brooding, the patience, the serenity.

Laysan Albatross, Caleb Slemmor (CC)
Laysan Albatross, Caleb Slemmor (CC)

I try to imagine such flight, and find myself thinking of wind harps. The breath of life flows through us all, and each creature sounds forth the harmony that is their way of life. The big question for humans never goes away: will my life be tuned to blessings or to destruction?

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources:

The best entry into the wonders of albatross life is through the website developed by Hob Osterlund – Kaua’i Albatross Network. There you will also find a critter cam and can watch an albatross chick developing in real time.

Much of the information in this essay comes from Carl Safina’s award-winning book Eye of the Albatross.

My article that includes ‘albatrosses and crazy love’ started life as a keynote speech, and can be viewed here.