Athletes or Anarchists: how the misunderstanding between humans and horses makes their domestication possible

by Susanna Forrest

“People say to me about their horses, ‘he doesn’t want to work.’ Bloody hell, horses aren’t born with a Protestant work ethic. People come up with this idea that the horse has got to work, so I ask them, how do rabbits work? How do frogs work? I don’t think ‘work’ is a word that applies to animals. What those riders call ‘work’ is just movement for a horse, so you have to make it interesting for them,” the British ethologist and horse trainer Lucy Rees told me over a cup of tea as we sat in her kitchen, surrounded by her pack of rescued hunting dogs.

I visited her in July 2015 because I was writing a history of horses and wanted to understand how humans had ever persuaded skittish equines to go to war (spurs, habituation and herd instinct, it turns out). She has lived in the rocky, harsh corner of Spain known as Extremadura for decades, after a wandering life that took in a graduate degree in zoology and neuroanatomy, running an off-the-wall riding school filled with feral ponies in the Welsh mountains, ranching with cowboys in Arizona and years watching wild horse herds on the wetlands by the Orinoco. She has a knack of turning your assumptions upside down with a simple but irrevocable flip. By the time I left three days later, I was lighter by 38 years of comfortable assumptions about horses and riding, and felt like I’d finally passed through the looking glass to the place where horses lived. Jonathan Swift was wrong about the land of the Houhnhnyms – horses are not sticklers for hierarchy and order. They are anarchists.

Rees has three main rules for equine psychology. The first is that horses consider personal space important – each horse has its own “force field” into which favored individuals (foals, friends, relatives) are allowed, and into which any rider intrudes. The second is cohesion, a coming together of individuals as a herd or band for greater safety like any good anarchist collective. The third is what makes our relationship with these anarchists possible: synchrony. Horses watch one another constantly. If one horse spots a threat and turns to run, the others will wheel and gallop a beat behind it. If one horse needs water, it will lead the rest to a stream. If the outlook is safe, all will graze apart from a handful of guards.

As we are also mammals and often in a horse’s immediate surroundings, they look to us for signals too – and respond. The famous early twentieth century “thinking horse,” Clever Hans, was a master of this. Bid to count to eleven by striking with his hoof, he would paw away till he saw his handler relax when the right number was reached. He fooled a vet, a philosopher and his owner before being debunked.

Rees had explained that much conventional horse training also worked this way: horses “just want things to be smooth between them and what’s going on around them. They don’t want even the most minimal sign of conflict; they don’t want pressure.” Horses had no conception of leaders or domination otherwise, as she pointed out, “you’d put a wild horse in a stable, beat the hell out of it and it would do whatever you wanted for the rest of its life.” Instead, horses put under intolerable stress have two options: explosion into bucking, rearing or bolting, or shutting down mentally before going through the motions required of them. A horse that’s been strapped down by a brutal trainer learns that release comes only from what looks, to his tormenter, like submission. A more gently trained horse seeks only “flow – that lovely feeling of being in harmony, in synchrony,” Rees went on. “That’s when it gets good for them and they start getting really pleased about things and feeling safe in your hands.”

Rees bases her own equitation on play – she waits for the young Portuguese horses she trains to freely offer dressage movements that have their origins in natural behavior, like the prancing passage (horses will use it to show off to others), or the pirouette (she introduces this by herding cows). Before I visited Rees I had been trying to learn how to ride all over again, hoping to remake myself as a classical rider with light hands and minimal movement. But I limped around the hills of Extremadura behind her with a chronic hip injury that I was only just admitting would put an end to my own passages and pirouettes. I could still trail ride on a narrow-enough horse, but the broad-sprung schoolmaster horses and deep seat required for classical dressage left me in pain.

Besides, Rees’ words opened up the greater ethical dilemma that all horsepeople know runs under our day-to-day hacking and dressage and showjumping and polo games. Perhaps my hip injury got me off a moral hook – wouldn’t horses rather not be ridden after all? The previous year I’d visited the Académie du Spéctacle Equestre in the former royal stables at Versailles, where sensitive dressage riders put horses through choreographed performances of haute école under chandeliers in Louis XIV’s old manège. Then the lights dimmed and Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring played over the sound system, and five cream-coloured Lusitanos were released with nothing but a halter on them. They didn’t dance; they sank like satisfied old camels and rolled till they were filthy. Then they galloped about and farted.

Equestrianism is based on crossed purposes: horses endeavour to exist harmoniously with these bipedal mammals who persistently wander into their space and push them around, while humans congratulate horses on being, as the Federation Equestre Internationale put it, “happy athletes” whom their human co-workers believe “work hard,” “want to please” and “try to win.” Horse whisperers talk about turning themselves into leaders of the herd and getting respect from stallions. Riding instructors suggest “showing him who’s boss.” Fans of draft horses insist their Percherons and Clydesdales are unhappy if they don’t get into harness. Theorists talk about equine pecking orders that they do not realize are manmade, begun when we heaped forage in piles rather than letting horses find nourishment on open grasslands. Surrender is even written into the rubric of competitive dressage: the FEI Dressage Handbook specifies that the horse should accept the bit in “soft, submissive contact.” Who are we kidding, as we preach work to an animal who cannot conceive of it and make ourselves the kings of anarchists?

The answer lies in our twinned histories. The horse became extinct in the wild in the late 1960s, when the last Przewalski horse with no owner disappeared in mountains near the Mongolian–Chinese border. Every horse on this earth – the mustangs, the brumbies, the thoroughbreds, the shetlands, the Clydesdales and even the Przewalskis themselves, now restored to the steppe – exists because since the Bronze Age humans have given horses a value above simple game meat, whether for their speed, power or symbolism. We might not be kings as far as the Houhnhnyms themselves are concerned, but we have intertwined their fate with ours, and that creates a responsibility to understand how they see the world, and to examine our own motives. We can go on calling equestrianism work – horses are not ones for semantics, after all – but we need to ensure there’s something in that dressage, jumping and driving for our “happy athletes” too, and if it can’t be interesting, give them time to gallop, roll and fart at their own will.

Early each day in Extremadura, Lucy’s distinguished, graying stallion Iberico appeared at the open door of her home and waited for company, watching Lucy as she slept. She told me he pulled a lot of faces when she got out the saddle and bridle but once they’d set off he stepped out happily, eager to patrol the hills. She did not ask him to count to eleven nor expect him to “work harder,” simply suggested something he might like to do, which happened to be something she rather liked to do too. The stallion dozed on the threshold of her little house in the morning sun and I scratched him under the chin. “Someone once said to me, ‘he only lacks words,'” she frowned as she watched the old bay. “But he doesn’t need words. Why would he?”

 

Susanna Forrest is the author of The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey Through Human History (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017) and If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of Equine Obsession (Atlantic, 2012). She has contributed to the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Telegraph and Guardian. www.susannaforrest.com

What the Owls Say

by Helen Moore

On ‘The Colours of Cluny, A Northern Light Extravaganza’

Hill-top woods in Autumn, when welcome darkness
comes long & early – owl-light drawing Ivy curtains
across afternoon; night black as nest-holes. Our season,
when Rooks hunch like sacks in bare Limes, & small day-birds
fatten on berries; when leaves shrivel, & succulent
Squirrels shiver in dreys, as polar breath of northern winds
stirs our fluffed-out camo, this plumage patched like bark.
November, when our calls eerie up the night –
bone-flutes quivering viscera, commanding one another
Not-here! Not-there! Sonic border-warnings, falsetto
as your steam-trains shrieking out of nowhere:
Don’t cross this line! Each resounding tract is one bird’s
living larder – what dwells below intended to become
one with stealth; one with super-power hearing; one with crack
claw-catch, as warm, writhing bodies thrill the feet;
& beaks tear through furry skin into shuddering meat.

Does our ghost-voice haunt your dreams?
We, shadow-dwellers who occupy dark margins
that you diurnal creatures usually resist;
you, whose day-time woodland visits
we put up with – though frequently your chatter, &
the barks of canine pals, disrupt our sleep.
Yet now it seems, ill-content with spending night
locked inside your heated boxes, you invade our space
with blinding beams & deafening noise, confuse
our territorial calls, & scare away our prey.
With blasting energy-machines you paint the trees
unnatural colours, while throngs troop & tramp
the paths, & Ooo & Ah your ruse, your hoot at our expense –
this unwelcome spectacle of human disconnection.

 

Helen Moore is an award-winning ecopoet and socially engaged artist based in NE Scotland. Her debut collection, Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins
( Shearsman Books, 2012), was described as being “in the great tradition of visionary politics in British poetry.” Her second, ECOZOA (Permanent Publications, 2015) – acclaimed by John Kinsella as “a milestone in the journey of ecopoetics” – responds to the current geological era, now termed ‘The Anthropocene’, by proposing an alternative ‘Ecozoic Era’ of restoration and adaptation.  FFI: www.natures-words.co.uk

Beavers are Fluminists

by Ginny Battson.

Spring 2005, and I peer through my living room window to check the weather. It’s looking good, the sun is out. My husband has left for a day’s work at UMaine Orono, so I lower my baby girl into her papoose and strap her in. We are through the fly screen door and out onto the road.

The residential lots of leafy Gilbert Street are studded with blue and red flags, remnants from last winter’s political war that saw Republican oilmen G.W. Bush and Dick Cheney take charge of the Whitehouse for a second term. With Ben-dog on a long leash, we follow the battle flags west, casting purple shadows ahead of us. We walk past classic-style weatherboard homes and gas guzzling SUVs slewn across hardstandings until we find the end of the road. Tarmac gives way to paper birch and alder and we greet the softer edge of the great American Eastern Deciduous Forest. It feels like a rite of passage.

In the human realm, I am entering The Orono Land Trust, a public/private non-profit organisation, legally banding sections of post-logging and regenerating northern hardwood forest together for the purpose of wildlife protection and local enjoyment. This forest seems fairly tame compared to the great national parks of Maine like the Katahdin Woods or the rugged Mahoosuc Notch of the Appalachian Trail. But even here, surrounded by roads including the Interstate 95, I have seen fresh black bear scratches oozing sap from bark. It’s not like entering the woods back home in Wales.

Elbows in, we slip-slide down a wet path to the Johnny Mack Brook where olive reflections of a newly unfurled canopy merge with black and silver melt water. Better still, this is the realm of Castor canadensis, the North American beaver, larger than their Eurasian counterpart, maybe up to 60lbs of large, brown rodent. And they dwell intensely here on the easy inclines of the Johnny Mack; signature gnawings, dams, lodges, mud ramps and woody debris in droves. I long for my baby to see a wet nose or a rippling flank in the stream. But they are largely nocturnal, and we’re a little late in the morning.

As First Nationers shaped the North American landscape by brush fire, up to some four hundred million beavers shaped it by water. But these eager river-keepers were almost obliterated in the 19th Century, not least by the huge British Hudson Bay Company. Armies of trappers were sent into the woods and onto plains, with a blood-lust for warm pelts to make felt hats and hard cash. And in killing the beaver, the outlanders changed the very nature of the land, and wounded the culture of the indigenous peoples, in gun trade and disease. When only one hundred thousand beavers or so remained in Canadian territory, a new European fashion for silk hats ended the profit in beavers. Perhaps, if it were not for Grey Owl (Archie Belaney), and others who followed, ‘Ahmik’ would never have returned to its North American range and beyond. Yet, even today, beaver numbers are a fraction of what they used to be, with so much more habitat swallowed up by human development and agriculture. And still they are hunted and persecuted in some quarters.

I learn from rivers, as do the beavers. I spend time in and around them, observing and sensing. Two and a half thousand years ago, the ancient philosopher Heraclitus also wrote on the profound things he learned from rivers. In an age before science, he looked for guiding principles in nature. What he found in rivers was a permanence in a reality of apparent change. All is flux, a matrix of matter and movement. The river is an analogy for an elemental cosmos, yet materially effervescent. Rivers are also life systems ~ complex and dynamic.

Beavers, the river keepers, have evolved to be more than the sum of themselves. Beavers live in the life-flow, interrupt and send it in multiple directions. Known to ecologists as ‘keystone,’ First Nationers instead call them ‘sacred centres’ of the land. For they are whirling hubs of life-diffluence and life-confluence, integral to the flow just as mind cannot be separated from body. They are dam and bridge builders, storing water at times of plenty for times of drought. They sequester carbon by trapping it in fluvial muds that eventually become rich soils. They are coppicers; the trees they fell to feed upon and rear their young will regenerate, beaver-cuts catalysing a diversity of plant and animal life. They are also wildlife protectors ~ during winter, woody debris left trapped behind dams are buried beneath deep snow, and provide shelter for a host of smaller mammals and reptiles during the bitter cold. And then, when the northern hemisphere tips nearer to the Sun, melt water forms reservoirs and a rising water table, creating habitat for amphibians and a plethora of bird species, including waterfowl ~ wood duck and heron, migratory waders and passerines. New lentic deeps amongst woody debris provide fish fry safe passage to grow to adulthood. Majestic osprey take the adults. In lotic flows downstream, clouds of black fly larvae lay submerged, attached to substrate with silk, to emerge in spring and breed, then feed the bats that hunt on the wing above the beaver-cuts. The dams may eventually blow-out by flood, and the beavers will find new territory. Upstream, moose rear young on regenerating meadow grasses years after dams are abandoned. This really is rich habitat; the smell of river, wood and beaver is intoxicating.

If beavers could speak human, they may also say;

Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and are not. (Heraclitus Homericus B49a)

Heraclitus appeals to both human courage and sensibility ~ step into the rivers, into the cool and wet of rushing water, the flow of being. Just do it, and you shall be rewarded. We are agents of action. On the Johnny Mack, my little family and I look for beavers, as we smell the air and touch the cold waters of the stream. It’s life affirming.

I believe as we too are nature, we must recognise in ourselves a similar power for good, in that we may step into the flow, generating abundance and diversity within our one biosphere. But as with beavers, our impacts must be transient not permanent, of locale and the seasons. If we decide not to step into the flow, to remain without experience, then we deny ourselves the fullness of being. Our senses wake us to the world. Watch the beavers in their pure devotion to task, and you’ll understand.

More, step into the flow with that same devotion, and strengthen all life around us. We have exerted huge and irreversible pressures on this magnificent Earth, scavenging and parasitising by feeding from the produce of such sublime natural processes. We’ve broken ecological webs and warped the very climatic and nutrient cycles that sustain all. Nature responds to disturbance as evolutionary opportunity, but too much of a ‘hit’ and process may take hundreds of thousands of years to counter. The beaver and river exist now, intrinsically valuable, but, in union, a lesson for the human race.

Required is a critical mass of devotion, previously unknown in human history, as there are now more humans than ever before. Leaders still fixated with a ravenous desire for money and status need to be left behind. And part of this newly found devotion will also be to reduce our number, decolonising just a little, for our animal-kin to flourish a little more.

Beavers are sometimes food for other species. Black bears and coyotes prey on adults. The spectacular Great Horned Owl will rear her young in an old great blue heron nest, and a beaver kit may well end up in their devoted beaks. The beavers’ sacrifice, unlike our own Western death, is more obviously complete. This devotion, the love for life and living, is a force without which there’d be no life. It is ancient ~ a form of love so powerful as to energise evolution. I imagine the story lies deep in the earliest records of life, somewhere, tucked away perhaps, in stromatolites, which supplied Earth with no less than oxygen itself. Colossal devotion must have existed in the face of all hostility and, as a metabolising strength, within and between us now, and of all living beings into the future. As we move into increasingly turbulent times, the union of the beaver and the river is a devotion of incalculable value, a love, I suggest, worthy of the deepest respect.

Perhaps what also set Heraclitus apart from early Western predecessors was his view that the Logos, the principle of order and knowledge, is within us all. We are part of nature and subject to its fluidity. We are a unity of forces in flux. If we recognise our potential, we all morph into type. We can become beaver people, positively distributing and strengthening the flow of life beyond the sum of ourselves. I expect the Panawahpskek peoples of Maine and to the North always knew it. The patterns of life and cosmic order are dynamic, not uniform, the perfection of imperfection generating even more diversity.

So to my own eco-philosophy, that has riparian roots drawing sustenance from a small Maine river. It is one acknowledging both the intrinsic value of all living beings, including humans, and their contribution to infinite and dynamic process. Existence and flow cannot be separated. I perceive flow, to and from all dimensions, including ones we are yet to fully comprehend. The complexity is endless, the minutiae beautiful. There are diatoms and microbes by the million in the Johnny Mack. They are a basic foundation of life, part of the long chains of living process across space and time, but we cannot see them with our eyes. Can we ever know everything? It need not matter. So, I introduce the word Fluminism: an interconnected narrative of a dynamic universe; there is flow to and from all dimensions, including ones we are yet to understand. The complexity is endless, the minutiae beautiful.

The next step, being a Fluminist, means ethical consequences of my actions are good, in that they are of parity with a biosphere conducive to the flourishing of intrinsically valuable, existential life. Beavers may disrupt hydrological flow for their basic needs, stalling it as it travels from mountains to ocean. But in doing so, they accelerate the distribution of flow in multiple and complex directions. A closed system opens. Entropy shifts to enthalpy and the consequences can be sensed, measured and celebrated across space-time. We, as agents, are able to protect and perpetuate the flow, coming from that same deep devotion, as in the beavers ~ beavers are Fluminists.

From the niche desires of flourishing individuals, beavers, engaging in what they do best, I see their agency as a distinct form of love ~ innate of themselves, through and to other living beings. From within to without, there is no separation. Love has had a tough time. It’s hounded as weak, ephemeral and sentimental. But truest love is also a doing word, a vital emotional signal to act on what matters most to us all. One describes Fluminism as an energetic force, not only towards the biosphere and non-human life, but towards each other. In consequence, we may see the kind of society forming envisioned by the political theorist, communalist and libertarian anarchist, Murray Bookchin. I will leave the political ecology largely aside for now, but Fluminism, I see as key relevance to shape a society un-reliant on the disconnection of state and citizen we see today. It grants empowerment of everyone via personal, local and communal responsibility for all life. Environmental ethics must now be fluministic (love/flows) to help unblock those barriers that are so un-beaverlike that they persist in depauperating, not enriching, the biosphere.

Fast forward to January 2017, and the Northeast Climate Science Center (NECSC) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst publish research predicting temperatures across the northeastern United States will increase much faster than the global average. The average annual temperature in both Maine and Vermont rose by 2.5 degrees, roughly double the average warming of the rest of the nation. The Paris Agreement on climate change aims to curb emissions in order to limit global average temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius by the year 2100, but in Maine they will be reached about 20 years earlier. The current elected President refuses to partake in the accord, so poor is his understanding of our biosphere. And so much for America First. The anti-fluminists have left a legacy of world chaos and a strange, paradoxical darkness looms where gas flares still burn.

The further north, the bigger the climatic disparity. As Arctic sea-ice melts, the darker ocean warms by absorbing more sunlight, further melting ice and emitting heat to disrupt and stall the jet stream. This creates longer, more extreme weather events and shifts the geographical pattern of cold and warm air fronts. 2016 – 2017 has seen the highest winter temperatures on record in the Arctic Basin, with the least number of accumulated freezing days. No-one is entirely certain what comes next, especially as the global control of total emissions is still in some doubt. But more extreme weather events are predicted and the oceans are rising and thermally expanding much faster than expected. We are now witnessing rapid change. What was once Arctic tundra is now hosting early woodland succession, and increased humidity and precipitation in the form of snow means soils are warmer than they would otherwise be, activating the microbes that break down carbon as it unlocks itself from melting permafrost. Whole biomes are on the move. Where willow saplings take root, the beavers will naturally follow. They are creating biodiverse wetlands in new terrain, whilst tundra species are increasingly marginalised. Observations are now recorded of beavers reaching as far north as the Babbage River on the coastal plains of the Beaufort Sea, Yukon Territory, never seen before in human memory.

Aquatic wetland is a major natural source of methane and nitrous oxide emissions into the atmosphere, and in beaver habitats, microbes will break down the organic matter trapped above their constructions. But in creating wetland and higher water tables, beavers are also preventing soil erosion, storing water during times of drought, and sequestering carbon-rich woody debris buried in boggy meadows by as much as 23% of total soils. Beavers have been busy at work for millennia under a relatively stable climate. It is human industrialisation, development and emissions that have caused the tipping points we see today. Biospheric flows have dampened to an alarming extent. Life on Earth is trying to adapt, of course, though it is so often blocked by more soil sealing, more fragmentation of habitats and increased fires and floods.

Maine is deeply cold in winter, steel-frost and snow-bound, some nights temperatures dropping to way below -35 Celsius. But spring is short, maybe two or three weeks before breaking through to the sultry summers of the continental east, and ecological emanation happens in such a short period. Rising temperatures bring spring earlier ~ the further north one travels, the more extreme. And there are now serious phenological mismatches in delicately balanced food chains. So much so, the US National Park Service is now having to redefine management programmes such as citizen science counts of migratory raptors, and funding longer seasons in tackling invasive species. Back in 2004, the Republican Bush/Cheney partnership with Oil and Gas strengthened at the White House. Nearly $400 million was spent on lobbying federal government, and millions more were passed in donations to federal candidates and political action committees. The support received, by return, came in droves ~ tax breaks, environmental exemptions and deregulation, international facilitation and direct subsidies. We’ve seen a greater proportion of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere as a consequence. Those oil men are culpable for disrupting the very essence of life on this Earth, dynamic process, the flow. But no-one claims responsibility.

A relatively large proportion of Maine’s species, 37%, are highly vulnerable to climate change, particularly plants, fungi, lichens and mammals. Alpine, high elevation forest, and peatland habitats are most at risk. Thankfully, the vertebrate species pool is dominated by adaptable generalists, and a high percentage of forest cover also offers resilience. But even in Maine, suitable areas for species and habitats moving from the southern New England and Mid-Atlantic states must now be accommodated, whilst planning partnerships formed with the neighbouring Canadian provinces for a similar northward movement.

Despite a laceration of roads and other human pressures, nearly a thousand acres of conservation easement have been connected by the OLT. Such conservation easements, “running with the land” in perpetuity, are a significant form of nature-protection in the US and are mapped at the National Conservation Easement Database. Certain property rights are voluntarily restricted for the purpose of nature conservation and sometimes in exchange for tax breaks. Specific objectives can be agreed by stakeholders and subdivision for human development is prevented. All the while, sustainable agriculture and forestry may continue, but emphasis veers towards shared benefits, for humans and non-humans alike. I was enlightened by the passion and generosity of those involved, the action of those who love life. The connectivity and place for species movement is vital to address the shortcomings of those who would ignore their own life support system and will not take responsibility for their actions. Scientists are mapping migration routes plus working to predict and map climate refugia zones (local anomalies in climate), providing hope for ailing ecosystems and some resilience for species. And universities, institutes and The National Parks Service are offering  land owners access to free advice, despite failed political leadership. There is hope. And there is love. To a great extent, this is evidence of Fluminism in action.

Later on that same spring day, in 2005, my daughter and I are again criss-crossing the OLT footpaths.We’ve seen porcupines very busy at dusk, with attack-tails ready to swipe and launch a fateful of quills should a fisher attack. Ben has suffered himself, more than once, each time ending in a trip to the vet in Veazie. So we’ve left him at home this time. From another little foot-bridge over the brook, serenaded by an ecophony of river, we gaze across the water and there are still no beavers willing to reveal themselves. I look deep into slit-vistas between lichen encrusted white pine and red spruce, glimpsing a luminous white tail of a white-tailed deer under hemlock. Before now, we’ve seen eastern coyotes, apparitional in dapple light. I know there are bobcats, but I never see them, but the chipmunks are a treat and my baby daughter smiles when they chatter angrily as we pass. We navigate north by fallen white pines, and other natural landmarks on the trail now stored in my memory. We’re on our way to Rampe’s Lot, a key part of the OLT.

The Rampe’s live a generous life working in public and private health care, and they are good to us. They love wild things and so contributed to the OLT with a good tract of regenerating forest. It was Nancy who first showed me the special vernal pools, liquid light mirroring the skies amidst the bryophytes, and the flutterings of re-introduced wild turkeys as they disappeared from view. Considering their small size, these wet depressions in the forest floor, left by blocks of melting ice abandoned during the grand retreat of ice-age glaciation, also host a huge array of species. Snow melts and lingers in these depressions for a while, often stained red with springtails. And because they don’t host fish, they are hotbeds for invertebrate life, particularly as breeding sites for amphibians like the blue-spotted salamander and wood frog. Soon the reptiles are drawn in. Then the wild turkeys and racoons will come. And so, up through the trophic cascade until those glorious great horned owls and bobcats come to prowl.

The state of Maine registers the vernal pools as Significant Wildlife Habitat zones, legally protecting them from destruction and development. Yet some landowners may not even realise the conservation significance of them on their land. Thanks to the dedication of academics like A.J. Calhoun and citizens like Nancy Rampe, knowledge sharing via community outreach informs better decision making at local government level. UMaine’s Department of Wildlife Ecology is contributing to the Vernal Pool Mapping and Assessment Program, locating sites and researching the importance of juvenile dispersal and habitat connectivity for successful amphibian adulthood. But with climate changing so rapidly, the vernal pools may well disappear. Increased winds, tree blowdown and the risk of forest fire all stage a real threat. Research by the State University of New York, Syracuse shows beavers may well be providing key wetland refugia for, at least, some of these species. As most wood frogs breed only once in their lifetimes, a prolonged drought resulting in no production from vernal pools may well necessitate recolonization by dispersers from beaver ponds. Spotted salamanders are longer-lived, breeding several times, lowering risk of local extinctions during drought. Further studies may well reveal closer ties but I expect the elders of the Penobscot Nation have an understanding of these patterns.

As we are seeing, it is no longer a question of conserving one species over another, the usual triage of charity towards wild non-human life. We need to protect the interconnectedness of all, and each one of us, with all our varied interests and lines of work, can participate. We need Fluminists, like Nancy and the researchers at Umaine, who love these species and habitats, and understand the dynamism of all the interconnections which constitute life. And we need them to mentor others. The flow is sent in multiple directions, with abundance and biodiversity in tow.

By example, allowing primary and secondary succession, along with the planting of indigenous vegetation, we can encourage life to flourish in individual yet interconnected self-willed patterns. To actively prevent by soil-sealing (e.g., concreting), is the opposite. We can assess empirically the abundance and biodiversity of our own practices, celebrate successes and learn from our mistakes. So many have forgotten the beauty of observing and participating in such local, natural processes. Human contentment and happiness may spring from living an interconnected and more coexistent life. Vitally, the cultivation of land for food will no longer be a threat, but an opportunity to nurture the dynamic flows of non-human life alongside what we do, like the sacred centres ~ the beavers. From shop keeping to health care provision, from clothes production to local planning, everyone can take part, or stand in for those who simply cannot through no fault of their own. Fluminism is egalitarian.

Long-term or permanent breaks in the flow are anti-Fluministic, and the accumulation of many breaks, or stops, becomes detrimental to the existence of life in the form of tipping points. Examples are tragically many, generated largely within the sphere of unsustainable human development, anthropogenic climate change, pesticide use, socio-political and economic doctrines promoting unlimited growth and inequality. However, there may be pauses in flow that remain Fluministic, in that they may appear to prevent flow, such as ‘natural disasters,’ but are only temporary or cyclical (e.g., volcanism), in time and space.

Fluministic love drives action from within to without and, no doubt, there are positive effects and affects that will return to the self. But it is the local communality where real strength is to be found, strengths expended in a multiplicity of ways across cultures, regions, terrestrial and oceanic biomes, in science and the humanities. Some may commune with a collective consciousness in all, a spiritual interconnection ~ Indira’s web in constant flux. And indigenous peoples with local, endemic knowledge and philosophy will bring much to collective understanding. Opportunities exist all over the world, in the critical formation of corridors and pathways that allow for continuous flow of species to survive, adapt and move, and in traditional and transformed practices such as permaculture, satoyama and satoumi. By placing Fluminism at the centre of decision-making, many new ways of sharing our biosphere viably with humans and non-humans may arise.

In the reductionist scientific world, and in an over-emphatic obsession with limiting cognitive bias, love has been rejected all too often as excessively romantic and sentimental. But science itself has evidentially recognised that moral judgments and ethical actions cannot be devoid of emotion. Rationality and emotion are evolutionarily conjoined, and with good purpose. Emotions need to be recognised in order to take action. To deny that the primary emotion of love exists is to deny its huge potential, a love for life, for our young, and their young, for a sense of place and life all around us. Eros lives, and thank goodness for that. Of course, there’s competition. And conflict. There is even death. But such antagonisms are no less parts of the interconnectedness of all, in the flows of the elements, of water, geology, relationships, companionship, lust, reproduction, time, tides, place, trophic cascades, air, dynamism, weather, music, biodiversity, universes, entropy and enthalpy.

There are many more fluministic species, mutualisms and cause-effect processes that offer us knowledge and hope as we aim to exit the Anthropocene epoch into the Symbiocene. The Pacific Salmon Forest is a beautiful example (true beauty shines in those dynamic interconnections). There are human Fluminists, like the Rampe’s, the people behind the Orono Land Trust, The Penobscot Nation, and those at the Department of Wildlife Ecology at UMaine. And community programmes like the Great Eastern Ranges Initiative of New South Wales and the work of the Kenya Land Conservation Trust ~ the contribution and responsibilities volunteered are Fluminism in action, the legalities being just one means to that end.

Back to the Maine woods, and it’s getting late. I’m a little bit edgy because the light is falling. As I hurry back with my baby over the bridge towards Gilbert, we hear the slap of a scaly, flat tail hitting the water ~ splash. I stop and turn us around to follow the sound. My eyes adjust to the watery scene. And there is the beaver, Fluminist, swimming, with a wet, brown head visible for a moment and shiny eyes, before diving beneath the inky reflections of a darkening sky. She’s warning others we are here. Though we’d never harm her, others might. I feel at peace knowing she is here, knowing she has a rich intrinsically valuable life, full of love for this world in the river she understands so intimately. I point her out to my baby who instinctively feels both the joy and excitement. Formative moments, for sure. There is so much yet to learn from Ahmik, Fluminist, and I walk us home full of awe and gratitude.

 

Ginny Battson is a writer, environmental ethicist and professional photographer, with a lifelong love of wildlife, woods and watery habitats. An eco-linguist, she also creates and explores neologisms and concepts needed to understand and improve human-nature relationships. She enjoys wading, observing and walking with her canine companion, Ben. She contributed to the Seasons Anthologies (2016) published by Elliott & Thompson, and has written for Earthlines, Resurgence and Ecologist, NearbyWild and the Wildlife Trusts. She’s currently writing a book entitled The Love Biome: ecology and affection. She has lived in the United States and New Zealand before returning to Wales. You may also find her @ginbat & @seasonalight on Twitter and her blog is at www.seasonalight.wordpress.com.

Monarch

by Caitlin Stobie

Black-veined orange,
the Latin proves it:
yours is a regal species.

But now you’re dead
centre in an unmoving wiper
(I, driver, was too late to swerve).

At speed, your wings still
serve their purpose –
fluttering hurricanes somewhere.

Caitlin Stobie’s poetry has appeared in online and print journals including Plumwood Mountain, Poetry & Audience, The Kalahari Review, New Coin, and New Contrast. She is a director of the Leeds Animal Studies Network and editor of EPIZOOTICS!, an online journal for the contemporary animal.

Pugnacious Beasts

by Andrea Lani

One morning I held a snapping turtle in my hands. Her shell was the size of a dinner plate, oblong and slick with a coating of greenish-black algae. Although she wasn’t the biggest turtle I had seen over the previous few days, her smooth carapace indicated she was an old one, lacking the ridges and keels that corrugate younger turtles’ upper shells.

I gripped the edge of her shell, at eight and four if she were a clock, with the tips of my fingers. She was not heavy, no more so than a couple of dictionaries, but she was angry. She snaked her furrowed neck out and arched it back, glaring at me from small dark eyes. Her hind legs paddled beneath my forearms, each one fringed with four sickle-shaped claws. I began to lose my nerve.

I’d only ever picked up one snapping turtle before, a tiny one, smaller than my hand. Before that, I once stopped for an old grandmother snapper who glared at me with her beady eyes, opened her beak, and hissed. I wished her the best of luck in crossing the road and scurried back to my car.

The snapping turtle is built for defense; everything about its physique says “armor”—from thick skin pebbled with tubercles, to a ridged and serrated shell and saw-toothed tail. But unlike its more advanced cousins, which can withdraw their appendages fully into their shells, the snapping turtle, a creature that has changed little over the last 100 million years, does not have a full plastron, or lower shell, but merely a cross-shaped bony structure. This arrangement allows for greater mobility, but also makes the beast more vulnerable. To compensate for an inadequate hidey-hole, the snapper has developed an attitude. When cornered on land, a snapping turtle will open its menacing, beaked jaws, hiss, and lunge its thick neck, which stretches to almost the length of its body. My field guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Maine describes the snapping turtle’s personality on land as “pugnacious.”

T.H. White, in The Goshawk, writes of the bird he is attempting to train: “Gos had on the whole a pessimistic and apprehensive expression, a characteristic of most predatory creatures. We are pugnacious through our inferiority complexes. Even the pike’s ironic mouth has a hint of depression in it.” I doubt my turtle that morning had an inferiority complex. Inasmuch as they consider other creatures at all, I imagine the snapping turtle sorts them into three categories: food, threat, and, occasionally, mate. And yet that turtle, and all the others I’d seen on recent mornings, had much to be pessimistic and apprehensive about.

It was early June, the time of year that female common snapping turtles here in Maine emerge from their watery resting spots in marshes, ponds, and streams and seek out soft sand or soil for laying their eggs. Snapping turtles often return to the same area to nest each year, traveling from several hundred yards to up to two or more miles to reach a suitable site. With her hind legs, the turtle digs a depression about seven inches deep into which she deposits twenty to forty eggs, each slightly smaller than a pingpong ball. She scrapes a thin layer of soil over each egg and, after she finishes laying, smooths more dirt over the hole in an effort to erase any sign of her presence. She then returns to water, maternal duties complete.

The eggs incubate in the soil over the next three to four months, if they escape raids by raccoons, mink, foxes, skunks, and other predators, a fate that can befall up to ninety-four percent of nests. In late summer or early fall, those that survive emerge from the nest make their way to the nearest body of water, where they will continue to face danger in the form of predators and freezing weather until they are three inches long, at around three or four years of age. So precarious is the existence of a snapping turtle egg and hatchling that the chance of a female surviving to breeding age is less than one percent.

However, once a snapping turtle reaches maturity, it faces few natural predators—otters may eviscerate turtles hibernating underwater, but few animals will face off these feisty testudines when they have all their faculties—and thus can live a long time. The female reaches sexual maturity when her carapace grows to nearly eight inches in length. This takes about seven years in the south and up to twenty years here on the northern fringe of their range. Common snapping turtles are thought to live around 50 years, and possibly up to 100 or 200. A platter-sized turtle could be as old as I am, if not older, and still well in her breeding years. The snapping turtles’ long lifespans and low adult mortality ensures their ability to maintain stable populations, despite high egg and juvenile mortality.

Yet there is one factor that today affects snapping turtle survival that they did not have to face for the first 100 million years of their existence: the car. Snapping turtles historically laid their eggs in old muskrat and beaver lodges, but human activities have created more attractive nesting sites in gravel pits, dams, and roadsides. Every spring, I see at least one snapping turtle dead on the side of the road, its shell crushed by tires. I can’t help but assume that the driver ran it over deliberately; a lugubrious turtle is unlikely to dart in front of the car, like a squirrel, and the shattered corpses almost always lie on the shoulder, as if drivers swerve off the pavement to hit them.

Before I picked up the turtle that morning, I’d seen three snapping turtles attempting road crossings over the previous two days. The day before, on my way to work, I came across two different turtles partway across the road. Both times I stopped my car, got out, and stood behind the turtle, trying to shoo it to the edge of the road. At first, each turtle crouched down and withdrew her leathery neck, but when I clapped my hands and stomped my feet, she picked up her turtle’s pace and skittered—inasmuch as such a ponderous creature can skitter—the rest of the way across the road.

Rescuing a saucer-sized painted turtle exhilarates me, but my encounters with snappers that morning left me anxious. Was it the prehistoric appearance of these beasts that unsettled me? While a painted turtle is beautiful, with a salmon-colored plastron and delicate red and yellow designs on its limbs and shell, snapping turtles look like the dinosaurs its ancestors shared the earth with, and trigger an instinctual—or Jurassic Park-fueled—dread. Or perhaps it was my fear that the animal would not make it across the road on the return trip that raised my heart rate.

At work, I posted to Facebook a plea to my friends to drive slowly and stop to escort turtles across the road. I acknowledged that I was not brave enough to pick a snapper up myself. One friend remarked, “The only dangerous part of them is their front end, so lifting them up by their sides or by the back of their shell should be fine.” I found videos online that demonstrated how to move a snapping turtle across the road by lifting the beast by the back end of its shell. But I get jumpy picking up any kind of animal, even those that don’t have the potential to inflict serious injury with a vice-grips beak. While several friends agreed that herding was the prudent course of action and that snapping turtles became “very very angry” when picked up, another reiterated what the first had said, “You can hold them by the other end. Even if angry, it beats them getting squished.” This was a sweet, gentle woman, slim as a sapling with arms slender enough to be snapped in half by the turtle’s jaws. Next to her, I’m a strapping farm gal. If she picks up snapping turtles, I thought, I should be ashamed not to.

When I told my family about my turtle rescues and subsequent Facebook exchange over dinner that night, my husband agreed that he wouldn’t care to pick up a snapping turtle, either. “It’s the claws at the back that I’d worry about,” he said. I hadn’t thought of the claws, but I had considered the danger of holding the hind end of a turtle in front of me when it decided to let loose its stream of pee, which smaller turtles I’d picked up had done.

The next morning, driving my oldest son to his school bus, I came to the place where our road crosses a small river and saw a snapper nosing into the road. I slowed to a crawl, but a car pulled up behind me and I couldn’t stop. With my car looming nearby, the turtle turned and made her way back down the bank and I drove on. “Why,” I wondered out loud, “doesn’t she just swim under the bridge?”

I didn’t see that turtle on the road on my return trip, nor a half-hour later when, after putting my other two kids on their bus, I drove by again on my way to work. Either she made it across safely or took my advice and swam under the bridge. I wondered how long it would take, given their long life spans and slow rate of reproduction, for natural selection to favor snapping turtles who avoided roads during their egg-laying pilgrimages. Probably too long.

A couple miles later, I came across another turtle lumbering into my lane. I stopped my car and jumped out, planning to herd her across like I had the two on the previous day, but she would have none of it. Instead of skittering across, she turned toward me, opened her mouth and hissed.

She was smaller than the turtles I’d seen in the day before, and while the others appeared dry, with rough, warty olive-green skin and keeled, taupe-colored shells, this one looked as if she’d just emerged from the primordial ooze, her smooth carapace covered in dark, shiny algae.

While the road wasn’t busy, we were in a blind spot, with a rise in both directions, and I was running late. I couldn’t face off this turtle forever. I thought of my friend, her willowy arms wrestling a giant turtle and I reached out and grasped the hind end of the shell. It was wet and and slippery. The turtle snaked her long neck up and back over her shell, toward me, and opened her mouth wide.

I snatched my hands back and reassessed the situation. My car idling in the middle of the road. This prehistoric beast directly in front of it. Blind spots in both directions. I grasped the turtle’s shell again, lifted her up and hurried across the road. She kept her neck arched back, beaked mouth wide open. The flesh inside was a pale greenish-white, like the underside of a fish. She exuded a terrible, deep, anaerobic odor, like the inside of a septic tank or the bottom of a swamp. I held my breath.

Halfway across the road I remembered what my husband said about the hind claws. I looked down at the pebbled flesh of her legs, the four white sickles that adorned each foot paddling below my hands. Fortunately her legs could not reach my arms. As I neared the shoulder, the inevitable stream of pee began to flow from her back end. I crouched down and flung the turtle the last two feet, into the grass at the edge of the road. She rolled as she landed, settling with her yellowish, cross-shaped plastron up. Before I could think how to flip her right side up, she stretched out her fleshy legs and righted herself. I turned and scurried back to my car, without waiting to see her lumber off into the woods, casting a last pugnacious glance over her shoulder at me.

***

Months later, long after the snapping turtles had finished breeding and laying eggs, I was once again taking my son to the bus when I came across another snapping turtle at the four-way intersection at the end of our road. It appeared silhouetted against the horizon as it lumbered across a high point, where a crosswalk would be if we lived in the city. I skirted my car around behind the turtle and pulled in to my usual bus-waiting spot alongside a row of cedar trees. There is a murky pond downhill from these trees that looks like snapping turtle heaven. But this turtle was ambling away from the pool. Because it was not egg-laying time, I had no way of knowing whether the turtle was a male or female. The only visible difference between the sexes is the distance from the cloaca—the single opening used for both excretion and reproduction—to the tip of the plastron, but I was not about to get close enough to take that measurement. In fact, still shaken from my close encounter with the turtle the previous spring, I declined to pick up the turtle, even though it was smaller than the others had been, and instead herded it the rest of the way across the road.

That evening I came home from work on the cross road and saw, a few dozen yards from the intersection, the crushed body of a snapping turtle the same size as the one I had helped across the road in the morning. It lay diagonally across the center line, ridged tail splayed out, pointed toward the spot where I had left it, head stretched in the opposite direction. I had not thought that morning to consider where the turtle was headed. If I had, I might have assumed it was going to Joy’s Pond, half a mile down the road, on the same side that I had left the turtle on. It’s a pleasant pond, with cattail shallows along the road and a twenty-two acre expanse of clear blue water stretching toward the undeveloped opposite shore. But the turtle appeared to have other ideas, aiming instead for a red maple swamp closer by but across the road.

Every day over the next week or so, until the last scraps of turtle were taken away by scavengers, whenever I passed that spot, I saw in the turtle’s carcass a rebuke. I had failed it, when I thought I’d saved it. Or I had saved its life, only to gain it a few minutes or hours before it succumbed to fate. I had a vague recollection of a rule of the universe—something, perhaps, from Eastern religion—that if you saved a life you became responsible for it. I searched for this proverb online, hoping for guidance or solace, and found instead that it has no spiritual roots and is actually a trope used in action-adventure movies, often as a way to introduce a native side-kick to the white hero. Not only had I failed to save the turtle, but at least part of my emotional response to the turtle’s death was based on a racially problematic pseudo-philosophy spoon-fed to me by Hollywood.

Another part of my emotional response came from my feeling tender at the time, having just found out my son’s best friend had been diagnosed with cancer. All week, I had alternated between weepy and angry that a sweet fourteen-year-old kid had been afflicted with cancer when truly terrible people walk around the world in perfect health. The crushed turtle was one more reminder of the impermanence and unfairness of life, how there are no guarantees and nothing can be taken for granted, and that the universe can be a cruel place.

***

My son’s best friend completed his cancer treatments over the winter, coming out the other end thin as a waif but in good health. He and my son, meanwhile grew apart, attending different high schools, finding new friends and interests. Or perhaps it’s just the way of teenagers; now they spend their time texting each other where once they played army guys, mailed coded messages, jammed together on their guitars.

June is coming and I face turtle season with dread. I saw the first crushed shell in mid-May—a small painted turtle at a low spot on our road, a place where I see dead turtles every spring. How, I wonder, can there be hope for an ancient creature whose top speed is four miles per hour when our own species is hell-bent on pavement and power and speed? What good does it do for me to pick a turtle up or escort it across the road when it will likely get crushed on its return trip or next spring or the next, while meanwhile each of the eggs it laid before dying has less than a one percent chance of surviving to reproduce?

As a mother, the hardest thing in the world is for me to acknowledge that there is no guarantee that turtles, or any wild thing, will outlive humans’ depredations, that there will be a wild world for my children to grow up in, that any of us will survive until old age or to next year or tomorrow. But I know it is true. I also know that it does very little good for me to save a handful of turtles each spring. But still, come June, when I see a prehistoric creature crossing the road, I will stop my car, place my hands at eight and four, and carry the pugnacious beast across, to whatever fate awaits it on the other side.

 

Andrea Lani’s writing about family and the natural world has appeared in The Maine Review, Snowy Egret, and Saltfront, among other publications. She lives in Maine and can be found online at http://www.remainsofday.blogspot.com

Two Poems by Angela France

Brock says

delve deep
_______under stone
claw sharpstrike into roots
___________________and earth
find allworld below
________for shelterness

my jaws make a hallowing
of sinless worm and slug

I am needful of night-swart
uncleft in my woodside ledemark

leave sun-tide
________to aquern and wort-cropper
_____________beingless to me

 

Fox

___is my namen
_______man slurs me elles
__clithe not to my ruddy hide
my ledemark tithing is all
___the dun I tread
________coneys and wort-croppers
are underyoke to me
__bow to my holyroom
_____under delvern and root

niht-time is mine_ evenleether
with brock and nadder
____leafworm and wanderlight
my wif is a bale-fire at swart-time
_calling wellstemned

I wend where I will
_____seave and rede
_______fox is my namen

 

First published in the collection The Hill (Nine Arches Press 2017)

 

Angela France’s publications include Occupation (Ragged Raven Press, 2009), Lessons in Mallemaroking (Nine Arches Press, 2011) and Hide (Nine Arches Press 2013). Her latest collection, The Hill, was published in July 2017 by Nine Arches Press. Angela teaches creative writing at the University of Gloucestershire and in various community settings as well as working for a local charity. She runs a reading series in Cheltenham, Buzzwords.

Autopsy of a Whale

by Danny Adcock

Grey skies scurry South as if they have somewhere to be, and are in a hurry to get there. The sea is still some way off even though I am several hundred yards down the beach. There is a confused chop on its drab, brownish waters, and it does not look very inviting. The shifting sands that slope gently down to meet it are covered in the scrunch of emptied razor shells, and old tide lines like contours on a map segue into one another, and delineate the beach into different shades. This is the precise curve of Norfolk coast where the Wash becomes the North Sea, between Holme and Hunstanton; where North West Norfolk becomes North Norfolk, and where arcades, caravans and chalets give way to gourmet pubs, swanky holiday homes, boutiques and delis.

A few hundred yards away what I am here to see lies forlornly on the sand, its head facing the sea that it must have struggled so desperately with the evening before. This is the last of a group of six sperm whales that were seen together in the North Sea, to become stranded and die on the beaches of Norfolk and Lincolnshire in recent weeks. I have seen sperm whales off the New Zealand coast, but there is little to equate that experience with this. I guess it is between forty and fifty feet long, but it is not the whale’s size that enthrals me, everyone knows whales are big; it is the creature’s head and jaw that are extraordinary. If people wear the scars of their lives upon their faces, then so do sperm whales, and if a face can ever be said to tell a story, then the life and character of these whales is writ large in theirs. Its head and jaw are a blotchy grey-blue, stained in places with white patches in a pattern like blooms in a petri dish; it is scored, striated and scarred from its deep-sea battles with its favourite prey, giant and colossal squid (that is not a superfluous use of epithet on my behalf for both species exist). There are perfectly circular pock-marks, as if someone has placed a cup on the whale’s skin and drawn round it, which can surely only have come from the suckers on a squid’s tentacle. Imagining life in those harrowingly inky depths conjures up images of Jules Verne’s 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, and of course, nobody can ever see a sperm whale without thinking of Herman Melville’s sprawling, mythic epic of life, death and obsession.

Though the whales that died here didn’t belong here in life, in death it seems they do. The tide has already left a slight hollow around this one’s body, and its great tail is partly covered with sand. It is already sinking into, and becoming a part of this landscape and, though it is alien to it, it does not seem nearly as out of place as the two four-wheel drives parked incongruously next to it. Left to nature, gradually this whale would melt into the landscape, like the ice sheets that created it hundreds of thousands of years ago. The gulls, fish, foxes and other creatures of land and sea would be provided with a bounty to last months. But, eventually, time and tide would have scoured all away; skin, blubber, bones and memories, all ground down a little more with each wave, each tide. But that is not this whale’s fate. This whale’s fate is to be ignominiously shovelled onto the back of a low-loader, driven away, and buried in a landfill site or incinerated somewhere far from where it lived and died. Anthropomorphism aside, there is an undeniable sadness in that.

About twenty people are standing around the dark bulk of the whale which lies on its right side, its long, slim, lower jaw agape, and punctuated at regular intervals by large pairs of white teeth. Most are photographers or journalists. There are a few dog-walkers, and others here specifically to see the whale, as well as four camera crews, and an ex-Springwatch presenter. Another car is approaching across the sand from Hunstanton. Most people are taking photographs, whether professionally or on their mobile phones, and I take a couple myself.

The coastguard begins to cordon the body of the whale off. Eventually everyone is behind the tape which flutters wildly in the wind. Whereas before, everybody was milling about, walking round and round the body of the whale, now we are static, and side by side. Conversations begin. One man, who is so inadequately dressed against the cold wind in a thin blue hoody that he is visibly shivering, is so committed to staying he has found some sort of plastic sheeting which he stuffs up the back of his top to try and stop the wind scything through it. He groans every now and then, I presume at the cold, and attempts to re-position his makeshift clothing. As another four-wheel drive pulls up next to the whale’s body, this one belonging to the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Program, he groans again.

‘Once they arrive, the experience seems to belong to them somehow,’ he says, as if he has some previous knowledge of ‘them’ and of what they are about to do.

I understand what he means. Now we are beyond the cordon, it seems almost as if we’ve lost contact with the whale, lost the intimacy that there was in proximity. It feels almost as if when we were able to get close to it, to touch its cold rubbery skin, we were afforded, or were affording, comfort somehow. To their credit, those within the cordon seem to understand this; there is a palpable sense of embarrassment in their avoidance of eye contact with those of us who were here first, but are now forbidden from approaching the whale.

The autopsy begins with a small square of blubber being cut from the whale’s flank with scalpel-like precision. Then its eye is removed. Though I can tell what is happening, the scientist performing the autopsy is obviously sensitive to those watching, for he keeps the eye slightly hidden by his body, and then slides it gelatinously into a specimen bag which he hands to one of his colleagues, who removes it quickly to the car. Whales engender strong feelings in people, whether dead or alive, and when a hacksaw is produced and, with some difficulty, the lower third of the whale’s jaw is sawn through, blue-hoody mutters under his breath.

‘I wish they wouldn’t do that,’ he groans.

‘What’s the point of it, that’s what I want to know?’ someone else demands. ‘Why can’t they leave the damned thing in peace?’

I don’t reply, but I do know that this whale is dead. If in death it can give up some clue from its enigmatic life as to what caused it, and its pod-mates, to leave their normal deep-water habitat somewhere North of Scotland, and strand themselves in these shallow seas then, though what is taking place here may not be pleasant, its death may prove to have some meaning.

The autopsy continues with a ten-inch blade on the end of a four-foot handle. It must be just the sort of implement the whalers used. Its salient sharpness slices through the ten-inch-thick blubber with ease, but at the same time it causes disturbing waves to ripple through time like the angry flapping of an unfurling sail: this is what we used to do to whales. The well-known history of human-whale interaction is a predictably and notoriously bloody one, as is the history of our interaction with many species, not least ourselves. But the figure clambering over the dead whale, eviscerating it, dismembering it, is not just an anachronism, a brutal ghost from the past, he is also a symbol of hope, of beneficence, even though the physicality of what he is doing makes that hard to perceive.

There is a sense of loss and sadness here, tragedy even, when you take in to account the fact this whale is one of six to have died. Though they swam together in life, they died separately, in ones and twos. Sperm whales communicate using a series of clicks and whistles like dolphins, and there is some research to suggest different groups use different dialects. This whale would certainly have known that it was alone when it died. To imagine its unanswered calls reverberating through the cold, grey slabs of waves sliding across the North Sea is to invoke a quite heart breaking poignancy. Whether it was capable of understanding why those calls went unanswered, of understanding and feeling the sense of its own impending death, and the death of those it swam with, is a question it does not feel good to dwell on.

As I stand amongst the small crowd still here, I wonder why it is that people seem to love and value whales over many other creatures. I passed the half-rotten carcass of a seal at the top of the beach, but I barely glanced at it, and it certainly wouldn’t have produced the reaction here today. People attribute value to many things, often subconsciously. Pounds and pence are the most obvious, but not only currency, and whether our car is newer than our neighbour’s, our house bigger, our holiday more exotic, are the yardsticks that society sets us. Society even rates and assigns value to individuals. Usually we perceive family, friends and those we trust to be more valuable to us than others. And in some way we also assign value to the natural world. Dead deer on the roadside here in Norfolk rarely attract more than a passing comment; rabbits, hares and pheasants none. The familiar is also the insignificant. I am guilty of this myself even as I write these words, and the inconsistencies of my flawed, human nature are clear. I can find words to write on the regal magnificence of deer; the beauty of a cock pheasant’s plumage under a Winter sun; the mad-eyed speed of a hare over a field in the Spring, but I struggle with the rabbit. We assign value by quantity and size too, and both of these attributes contribute at least partly to why we often give whales more value than we do other creatures. Rabbits are inconsequential in size, but seemingly superfluous in number, whereas whales are spectacular in size, but depleted in number. Other factors, besides those we consider to hold an intrinsic value, affect our perception of worth, with some of the photographers and camera crew here today being responsible. The media tell us some people are worth more respect, and are more valuable to society than others, and they do the same with animals. There are creatures far closer to extinction than whales, but they are smaller, less intelligent, are not washing up dead on our beaches, and have little mainstream news value.

If somehow the death of these whales brings the wider problems the seas have to the attention of an audience who might not otherwise have thought about their existence, perhaps there is a semblance of positivity to be gleaned from the scudding granite skies of today. The loss of this wonderful animal, beautiful and awe-inspiring even in death, is undoubtedly a tragedy that has affected more than those of us usually interested in the wild. As well as sadness there is anger and concern here today. We do not, and may never, know the real reason these whales came into the North Sea, somewhere they could never survive. Perhaps the value of this whale is that even in death it has the ability to move, to enthral, to excite, to foster curiosity in an ever-shrinking natural world. And it is important to give the whale’s death value, because by doing so we can give value, in turn, to its life. Without the death of this whale and the others, none of them would have existed in our lives, in much the same way we speculate whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound when there is nobody there to hear it.

This whale has made a sound, and its death and life have value and meaning to us, both as individuals, and as a society. In our increasingly dystopic, modern world beset with the constant threat of financial catastrophe, of ecological meltdown, of deepening ethnic and religious divides driven by hidden agendas, it is the value of wildness, of freedom, of beauty, of awe; the value of nature.

Danny Adcock is a contributor to Caught By The River, and The Island Review, and also writes for angling magazine Fallon’s Angler. As well as writing about nature and landscape, he is a keen fly fisherman, cyclist, and amateur photographer. He lives in North Norfolk. His blog can be found at: https://naturelines.wordpress.com

Blackbird

by Kathy Miles

In his stern black feathers
he swifts from elm or oak
to claim his patch of seed.

His song drips into sluggish veins,
the fluency of music, as blackberries ripen,
dark and sleek as his body,

and rooks canvas the sky in late sun.
He chides the chough and jay who stray
into his territory. Feels the tightening

of light like a catch in the syrinx,
as evening unravels and dusk settles
down on fuschia and opening primrose.

This song is shared through generations,
a gift of merle, and he, proud of his heritage,
shouts it loudly from the branches,

from roof and chimney, heralds it
from blackthorne and rowan.
He offers this soliloquy to me,

the one who has stolen his land,
who does not sing the litany of dawn
or the last high notes of summer

but whose bread, hesitantly offered,
he takes as a mutual bond.

Kathy Miles is a poet and short story writer living in West Wales. She has published three collections of poetry: The Rocking Stone (Poetry Wales Press), The Shadow House, and Gardening With Deer (Cinnamon Press). She has been placed in several major competitions, winning the Welsh Poetry Competition in 2014, the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2015, and the PENfro Poetry Competition in 2016. She has just completed an MA in Creative Writing, and is a co-editor of The Lampeter Review.

Kirsten Furlong – Artist

“My current artistic practice engages with a series of questions about our culture’s multifaceted relationship to nature and the geography of human/animal interactions in urban and wilderness settings. These inquiries are utilized to contemplate various issues about the natural world and the concept of representation of animals and the environment. I create artworks based on first-hand observations and internal responses to objects, illustrations, and texts about various species. In the work, animals serve as emblems of nature and as metaphors for human desires.”

Kirsten Furlong was born in Milwaukee, WI and currently lives and works in Boise, ID (US). She received a BFA from the University of Nebraska (Omaha, NE) and a MFA from Boise State University (Boise, ID). She is the gallery director of the Visual Arts Center at Boise State University where she is also a lecturer in the Art Department.

Her work explores ideas related to humans’ multifaceted relationship to the natural world and includes drawing, painting, printmaking, and installations using paper and wood. She utilizes detail, repetition and patterns inspired by those she encounters in the natural world and found in the objects, images, and texts created to describe various environments, animals, and plants.

Header image: You Don’t Know Me (Wolf), acrylic, ink drawing, and chine colle’ on paper, 10″x 8″, 2016

 

Where did all the blue skies go?, ink, acrylic, colored pencil, and cyanotype collage on Tyvek, 48″x 45″, 2016 Title comes from the 1971 Marvin Gaye anthem Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology) about the loss of clean air and water
Promise and Purpose, the Ancestors’ Dream, Collage, ink, graphite, and colored pencil on paper, 60″ x 60″, 2015, collection of the Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR

 

We Can’t Love You Enough (Ivory-Billed Woodpecker), ink on paper, 30″x 22″, 2016 From a series of drawings about the longing to restore extinct bird species lost to habitat destruction and loss.

 

Repeat and Shift: Badger, charcoal, ink, graphite, and collage on paper, 60″x 60″, 2015
View from the Anthropocene: Grassland (Prairie Chicken), ink and collage on paper, 11″ x 9″, 2016 From a series of drawings about birds and mammals of the US living in habitats that are under threat.

By The Time The Trucks Arrived

by Pippa Little

Baltard, County Clare, 2014

Finisterre by cliff. Nothing to see
but wheeled gouges, hooves’ half moons in a mud nowhere
the northerly never lets alone.

When a man, lost,
discovered what was done, it was News
with flash and strobe that brought

officials in topcoats, too, conferring
before the trucks arrived.
But by the time the trucks arrived

everyone was gone. The sea frayed
beyond mending,
down the steep track

they juddered to the bottom of the cliff, men in aprons
loaded ten mares, four cows and three calves
into the cold interiors. Where they were taken

would never be photographed. The papers turn
mousy and soft, up-curl on a window ledge,
absorb leakings-in of rain.

Ears cut off,
forced alive over the edge,
necks, legs broken,

left to die slow. Who will mourn
this pearl-eyed cargo,
paperless and stateless?

Eire has a problem with unwanted livestock, mainly horses, too expensive to keep or to slaughter humanely. There is widespread press outrage.

Pippa Little is a poet, editor, reviewer and creative writing workshop leader. Twist, her second full collection, is published by Arc. She lives in Northumberland with her husband, sons and dog and is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newcastle University.