Tag Archives: Tim Low

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.

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)

Under The Mistletoe

Keystone species ‘punch above their weight’, to use a popular metaphor. They contribute more to their ecosystems than their numbers would indicate. Charismatic top predators such as wolves and dingoes are great examples of keystone species. They generate the trophic cascades that enhance whole systems of life including the geophysical foundations (discussed here). But as the fascinating ecologist Stephan Harding tells us:

‘You never know who the big players are in the wild world.’

Native mistletoe at Edeowie Station, by Michelle Bartsch (CC)
Native mistletoe at Edeowie Station, by Michelle Bartsch (CC)

To my mind one of the least likely ‘big players’ is mistletoe. Can a parasite actually be a keystone? Surprisingly, the answer is ‘yes’. Not only is mistletoe good for kissing, this great cohort is a ‘keystone resource’.

Let us enter the entrancing world of mistletoe through symbiotic mutualism. A relatively non-technical definition is ‘two or more species that live together to their mutual benefit’. Although the idea of symbiosis was not the dominant paradigm for much of the 20th century, a growing body of research is showing that it complements competition and is utterly fundamental to life on earth and is part of how every creature lives. The great biologist Lynn Margulis declares:

‘We are symbionts on a symbiotic planet.’

Mistletoe, it turns out, is a highly eclectic and inclusive symbiotic mutualist. One of the main families all around the world, and a prominent player in Australia, is Loranthaceae – a family of mistletoe with about 1,000 member species. Most of them are ‘obligate, stem hemiparasites’. This means that they can only live by being attached to another plant (obligate), that they attach to stems (not roots), and that while they get water and some nutrients from their host, they are also able to photosynthesise.

The story of mistletoe mutualisms is all about entanglements of interdependencies, nutrient cycles, and seductions. Loranthaceae are themselves deeply dependent. First there is dependence on the tree or shrub on which they grow. No host, no parasite. Next, there is dependence on birds and bees to pollinate. No pollination, no seeds, no future generations. Then there is dependence on birds, in particular, to eat the fruits and disperse the seeds. No dispersal, very little chance of germination and growth. And there is dependence on the leaf-eaters: no browsing means too much mistletoe growth leading to multiple deaths and disasters.

Brushtail possums, by David Cook (CC)
Brushtail possums, by David Cook (CC)

If mistletoes are to survive they have to entice and nourish their mutualists. The brightly coloured flowers are powerful attractors of pollinators, and the nectar is not only high in sugars, but also fats. Some of the Australian Loranthaceae produce nectar containing droplets of pure fat. The berries are highly visible, abundant and full of nutrition. Worldwide, many ‘folivores’ eat the nutritious leaves: deer, camels, rhinoceroses, gorillas and possums, amongst many others.

Their adaptive edge goes beyond mere provisioning and involves dazzling abundance.

The most awesome interdependence is between mistletoes and their mutualist mistletoe birds. ABC Science journalist Abbie Thomas wrote a delightful account:

Many mistletoes continue to flower in drought or during winter, when few other blossoms are available. Indeed, they are often the only local source of nectar and pollen during hard times. Packed with sugar and carbs, mistletoe fruits are good tucker, not just for the ubiquitous mistletoe bird, but also for cuckoo-shrikes, ravens, cockatoos, shrike-thrushes, woodswallows, bowerbirds, and even emus and cassowaries.

The mistletoe bird plays an important role in the mistletoe plant’s life cycle. The life of most mistletoes begins when a viscous, gluey seed drops onto a branch from the rear end of the brilliantly coloured black, red and white Mistletoe bird. Found throughout Australia, these birds are highly mobile and go wherever mistletoe is in fruit. Once eaten, the seed of the fruit quickly passes through the bird, emerging just 10-15 minutes later. The sticky seed fastens onto the branch, although many seeds fail to adhere, and are lost.

Within days, a tiny tendril emerges from the seed, growing quickly and secreting a cocktail of enzymes directly onto the corky outer protection of the branch. Unable to resist the onslaught, the bark yields a small ulcer-like hole into which the tendril probes, seeking its way down into the sappy tree tissue until it hits paydirt: the water and mineral-rich plumbing of the tree.’

Male mistletoe bird, by Leo (CC)
Male mistletoe bird, by Leo (CC)

Mutualisms are entanglements of interdependencies. The host tree supports its mistletoes physically and nutritionally, and it also buffers them against the vicissitudes of climate uncertainty. So, too, mistletoes support other species and provide a buffer against fluctuations and uncertainties. A study from Australia shows that mistletoes have extended nectar and seed producing periods, and that within a given region nectar and fruit are available from one or another mistletoe species all year round. In addition, as mistletoes are host to so many insect species, the insect-eating birds also get the benefit. Mammals join the feast, eating leaves, seeds and flowers. Possums are amongst the main leaf eaters, and are seasonally dependent on mistletoe.

Along with all the creatures who consume mistletoes, there is yet another entourage that benefits. Some animals build their nests in the mistletoe where they get some protection from the elements and predators. The action of the mistletoe itself increases hollows in trees, and so all the creatures that nest in hollows get the benefit. A further benefit is that their presence in trees alters the forest canopy and reduces the severity of bushfires.

In life systems, what goes around comes around. The host tree or shrub gets a steady rain of litter, droppings, and other organic matter that become part of the nutrient cycle, benefiting both the host and other plants in the area. In short, the benefits of mistletoes pass through the lives and bodies of many species before turning into nutrients to be drawn up by hosts and tapped into by mistletoes.

The relationships work because of the extravagant generosity of interdependence: highly nutritious nectar produced by bright showy flowers; shiny seeds loaded with carbs and sugars; mistletoe birds with their gorgeous red feathers, lovely song, and fertile poop; gliders and possums; butterflies who visit, eat, and reproduce.

Mistletoe (Amyema) flowers, by Bill and Mark Bell (CC)
Mistletoe (Amyema) flowers, by Bill and Mark Bell (CC)

There is an association between songbirds and mistletoe, and as new evidence is showing that both groups have their origins in ancient Gondwanaland, perhaps there is more to this old and beautiful alliance than is yet properly understood. I found myself totally captivated by a story shared by Andrew Skeoch, a sound recordist specialising in the sounds of nature. He recorded a mistletoe bird in full song, and inadvertently also recorded the fact that this talented little creature was singing and pooping at the same time. Something about this bright little bird creating and performing musically, while depositing mistletoe seeds securely wrapped in glue and fertiliser seems almost magical in its joyfulness (listen to the birdsong here).

It is good to recall that there is an old European history of respect. Mistletoe is sacred to Druids (contemporary and ancient), and it is still a customary Christmas decoration. Hung over the threshold, it invites people to kiss. In earlier days it was said to be able to find buried treasure, keep witches away and prevent trolls from souring milk! It would be good also to recall that Aboriginal Australians respect mistletoe as a food for humans and for many other creatures. In North Australia, where so much of my learning has taken place, people give berries to children, but adults avoid them. Perhaps they are aware that growing children have a particular need for the high nutritional value of mistletoe.

At this time, many people think mistletoe is a pest. The term ‘parasite’ conjures negative imagery, but the larger issue, at least in Australia, is that in some areas mistletoes are over-abundant. Trees are dying, and something has gone askew because mistletoe cannot thrive if the host dies. The renowned science writer Tim Low tells us that the loss of possums, those folivores who love their mistletoe, is a key. “Foxes, by preying on mistletoe-munching possums,” set up conditions where mistletoes can grow out of control. Possums are only prey to foxes when they come down out of the trees. Along roadsides and on farms, they are at risk. Within forests where they can remain up in the trees possums thrive and mistletoe is contained.

Ringtail possum, by Visible Procrastination (CC)
Ringtail possum, by Visible Procrastination (CC)

So, what would partnership rewilding be like if the focus were on mistletoes and their ‘ground up’ trophic dynamics?

First, it would involve fewer foxes and more possums. Here the answer is readily to hand in the form of the dingo. As I have been reporting in other essays, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that dingoes reduce the numbers of invasive species such as foxes and cats, and promote the viability of smaller native marsupials such as possums.

Second, it would involve on-going health and reproductive capacity of more extensive stands of trees. Here the answer is readily to hand in the form of flying-foxes. Their pollination is utterly crucial to the future of forests and woodlands in Australia, and their lives and livelihoods are central to partnership rewilding.

Third, it would involve changes in human thought and action. Not everyone thinks mistletoes are innate pests, but, as the great mistletoe scientist David Watson indicates, “pretty much all of the public’s perceptions about Mistletoe are fundamentally incorrect.” I want to be clear that Aboriginal people are not likely to hold these misperceptions. Here, as with other matters, the limitations of the mainstream public cannot readily be attributed to everyone. Having said that ~~

I want to set up camp, metaphorically at least, under the mistletoe. Here the kiss of life is sensuous, continuous, and diverse.

I hope others will join me, and I rather hope we won’t get pooped on! Let us open our lives to the great, complex, on-going, joyful, benefit-rich, exuberant and dazzling generosity that holds entangled interdependencies together. A camp in the midst of all these mutualisms is place of coming-forth for those whose flows of life and death are achieved together. These entangled partnerships have co-evolved over millions of years, and if the human newcomer can partner in with them, we may yet become part of ecosystems that will hold together in this time of flux and uncertainty.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

This is the third in a series of essays on partnership rewilding. The others include: Partnership Rewilding with Flying-Foxes, and Partnership Rewilding with Predators. 

Resources

Most of the scientific information in this essay is drawn from David Watson’s outstanding work. One of his main articles is free online: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2012/07/03/rspb.2012.0856.full

Another is not open access except for the abstract: http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.32.081501.114024

Abbie Thomas’s article is available online: http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2004/03/05/2044992.htm

Lynn Margulis’s book is Symbionic Planet (a New Look at Evolution).

The book by Tim Low mentioned in this essay is New Nature.

Information on dingoes as top predators is available in previous essays, and is the subject of a recent article by Arian Wallach, published in The Conversation. (read here)

My essay on flying-foxes and the kiss of life is not freely available online but I am happy to share copies if asked.