A Flash of Orange

by Dawn Wyndham

Her gentle elongated face was etched with tiredness. Delayed by giving birth two days ago, she was the last to flee. Amid the flames and smoke billowing around her, she held tight to the branch she hung from, high above a forest floor fanged with charred, fallen trees.

Subdued dawn sunlight shone through her long auburn hair, silhouetting her body in a foggy halo. Her instincts were sharpened by the coming of morning and she sensed the presence of danger as vividly as carnal pain. She felt a disturbing change in the rhythm of things as she lifted her head to sniff the acrid air and panic began to claim her. The sound of her baby brought her back to herself. Hearing him keening, she looked down at his tiny new-born face and made soft hooting noises to calm him. He groped the air, feeling her fear and coughing a terror all his own. A slow wind snarled at the hot daybreak like a sinister red beast, goading the fire on. Something evil was happening.

She searched the blackened tree canopy for a flash of orange, a glimpse of ginger fur, for another of her kind, but the smoke was so thick it was all she could do to keep her streaming eyes open. Although she was accustomed to prowling the forest alone, she sometimes made contact with the congress of orang-utan who lived here, especially the other females with their young. Now with an infant of her own she searched for them. Where were they? Feeling the perpetual bond of his hold on her, she cradled her son, lifting him to her breast to encourage him to latch on and cling more tightly; hoping the act of suckling would soothe him. Skin touching skin, she tenderly stroked his head, still shiny from the pickling of her womb, brushing his singed fluff of hair free of ash. Breathing in as he was breathing out, her keen sense of smell told her of the smoke filling his young lungs. He looked up at her with an ancient trust, instinctive and mysterious. His small hand sought the fur around her neck and he covered her nipple with his mouth and closed his eyes.

She had travelled a long way across the jungle canopy, her seven-foot arm span swinging her effortlessly from treetop to treetop, rasping for a full breath of air. The new day revealed the fire was at its worst here. At one point yesterday she’d had to descend from the trees to avoid the flames, but the earth had been on fire. As she relived the trial of it, she made small noises and rocked to comfort herself, as she had last night when darkness fell; murmuring ancient sounds only her kin could make in the hollows of their throats and which, somewhere in her head, fathoms deep, she kept close. Her feet and hands had got burned from just the short burst of speed to reach across the clearing and into the forest again with the baby clinging to her belly, climbing up and up as if the altitude would cool her blistered limbs. Listening out for the deep call of a flanged male, she felt the branches for food, but all she found were shriveled leaves. She was hungry. She must eat to have milk for the baby, to have strength to travel.

Which way? This was an alien place, no longer the lush green habitat that she lived in. Disoriented, her infallible mental map of the forest disturbed, she climbed as high as the charcoaled branches would bear her and gazed across the grey clouds of smoke to the distance. In the faded blue of the far-away, beyond the burned out trees, beyond the ranks of palm oil plantations, she sensed water. It was their only chance. She shouted a loud hoot, listening for the response of an answering call, desperation driving her, instinct and tenacity telling her she would be going in the right direction – towards the river; to the tea-coloured waters that flow in tributaries across Central Kalimantan; to the orang-utan sanctuary where she was raised; to safety.

Retired from a career in the technology industry, Dawn Wyndham is a new author focussed on exploring the use of the animal voice in fiction. This is an excerpt from her first novel. She holds a M.A. in creative writing and is a candidate for a PhD.

Highland Bestiary

by Joan Lennon

In the fog, sheep strike
_____poses, misty round the edges,
__________strangely heroic.

Sleeping otter dreams
_____of water. If streams could dream,
__________they’d dream of otter.

Tartan crow, squats on
_____the fencepost, swears at the tourists –
__________caw caw mccaw

Joan Lennon is a Scottish-Canadian/Canadian-Scottish writer, living in Fife, in a flat overlooking the River Tay. She has had novels, stories and poems published for readers of all ages. Her latest YA novel, Silver Skin, is set in Skara Brae, Orkney.

A Sweet Wild Note: What We Hear When Birds Sing – an extract

by Richard Smyth

To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never heard a buck fart. But I have heard a cuckoo sing, if you can call it a song, so I have a rough idea of what the author of ‘Sumer is Icumen in’ had in mind. The song, also known as the Reading Rota,* is about the arrival of summer – so it’s about a singing cuckoo, a farting buck, a starting bullock, calves and lambs, ‘springing’ woodlands and sprouting seeds. It was written in the middle of the thirteenth century, and is the oldest known song of its kind (that is, the oldest known polyphonic round) in English. In translation from the Wessex dialect, it begins:

Summer is a-coming in
Loudly sing cuckoo
Groweth seed and bloweth mead and springs the wood anew
Sing cuckoo!

Even back then – when Dafydd ap Llywelyn was rising up against the English in Wales, Roger Bacon was compiling his scientific masterpiece Opus Majus in Oxford and Paris, construction was beginning on the ‘new’ abbey at Westminster – the English were writing songs about the birds singing.

But it wasn’t just us. At around the same time, for instance, the Persian-language poet Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī was also celebrating birdsong: ‘Birdsong brings relief / to my longing / I’m just as ecstatic as they are, / but with nothing to say!’ And it all goes back a lot further than the 1200s: we find birdsong in the Bible – ‘flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle** is heard in our land’, says the Song of Solomon – and in the millennia-old poetry of the ancient world. This thing has deep roots.

Why? Why is poetry so noisy with birdsong?

Birdsong is a wonderfully malleable material. We can make of it what we like; it’s putty for the poet. And like putty or paint or music or ink, it can be put to work as an artist’s medium, as a means of expressing ourselves. What we hear in birdsong, in other words, is more often than not the resonant echo of our own feelings.

The end of the poem isn’t the end of this process. Birdsong has shaped our poetry, yes – but poetry, in its turn, has shaped the way we listen to birdsong, and what we think it’s saying to us.

_

I heard my first cuckoo in the early summer of 2016, at the RSPB Otmoor reserve, a little way north of Oxford (I heard my first turtle dove – like a sort of soft, woolly power-drill – there too, that same sunny day, almost as soon as I’d climbed out of the car; it was my first time birding south of the Peaks, and it felt as though Otmoor had parcelled up the lowland English pastoral tradition, just for me).

On hearing the cuckoo’s call, I didn’t exactly back my head and cry Lhude sing cuccu!, but I’m sure I cracked a smile. It was a bright, warm day; I had a summer’s morning to myself, and I’d just heard my first cuckoo; what was more, I would be attending the wedding of our dear friends Sam and Jeremy later on (that was why I found myself at such a dangerously southern latitude). I was, in short, happy – as was that thirteenth-century songwriter, as he anticipated the shortening of the shadows, the warming of the days, the greening of the land and the flatulence of the male deer.

But these things are subjective; how I felt on hearing that June cuckoo depended on me being me. Someone else might have felt something different. And had I been a dunnock – or a reed warbler, or a pied wagtail, or a meadow pipit – I wouldn’t have heard anything in that lowing cu-coo but threat and menace.

Cuckoos are, of course, brood parasites. Cuckoo nestlings, born in the nests of other birds, destroy the eggs and young of those birds, and grow fat – we’ve all seen the picture, at once ludicrous and heartbreaking, of a tiny parent bird perched on the shoulder of a fledgling cuckoo five times its size, feeding it caterpillars – on their scarce and hard-won resources. Cuckoos visit horror on their hosts. That’s what a dunnock or a warbler hears in the cuckoo’s call.

It’s a curious noise, the call of the cuckoo. It has a slightly hollow, woodwindish quality, suggestive of someone blowing across the top of a bottle; it’s unhurried, almost complacent – pretty rare in birdsong – and low in pitch. I can, without too much effort, detect a note of languorous menace in it; if I were a breeding dunnock, I’m sure I would hear it loud and clear. And yet at the same time it does, as in the Reading Rota, have a meadowy, sun-steeped joyousness about it, too – it is the sound of sumer icumen in. The fact is, it’s a cipher. What we find in it depends on us: on who we are, where we are, what day it is, perhaps even the books we read or the music we enjoy. It’s as variable as the weather; it can shift with the orbit of the earth, and the changing of the seasons.

* ‘Reading’ because the oldest manuscript copy was found at Reading Abbey in Wiltshire; ‘Rota’ because the song is a kind of part-song known as a rota or round (like ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ or ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’).

** That’s the turtle dove, by the way – not an unexpectedly musical terrapin.

Interview with Richard Smyth

I believe this is your first published book of nature writing. You have an eclectic publishing history – novels of the jazz age and the history of toilet paper spring to mind – what made you want to write this book?

I’ve always been a bit of a jack-of-all-trades in terms of what I like to read and learn about (I tend to be whatever the opposite of an obsessive is). Being a freelance writer, being always on the lookout for a new opportunity, a new niche to work in, entrenches that – so yeah, I’ve written on a pretty diverse range of subjects (you could also throw in hockey goalkeeping, car insurance and illustrating Rabelais). But two things have always gripped me: fiction writing, and natural history. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve felt able to focus more particularly on these areas. Writing about nature for BBC Wildlife, The Guardian and the TLS put me in a position to finally think about writing a nature book – and birdsong, something I’ve always had a bit of a conflicted relationship with, seemed like a good fit for me.

What did you learn in the process of writing and researching the book?

Oh, god, loads. In practical, in-the-field terms, the process coincided with me getting more acquainted than I had been with a local patch of woodland, so as well as the hours spent thumbing through musty bird books (don’t get me wrong: musty bird books are among my favourite things to thumb through) I was passing the early hours in the company of singing wrens and thrushes and blackcaps and all the rest. So that was one kind of learning curve.

Another was the sheer amount of material I had to get to grips with. Some people have asked me how on earth I managed to write a whole book on the cultural history of birdsong. Well, I could have written ten books and had material left over. Wrangling centuries’ worth of information – from science, from literature, from music, from social history – into a neat package of thirty-odd thousand words was a challenge (it’s not a problem you have when you’re writing a history of toilet paper, believe me). But I enjoyed every minute of it.

One of the things I really noticed about your book was your openness about things you don’t know. And the realisation that not knowing doesn’t mean you don’t care, just that you hadn’t noticed. You’re known for having some pretty trenchant opinions on popular nature writing – is this related?

Yes! I have, it’s true, written some intemperate things about certain styles of nature writing. I may be more fixated on prose style and tone than many other critics of non-fiction – I think it’s so important. Obviously, I’ve set myself up for a righteous beating if I don’t practise what I’ve been so noisily preaching, so it was on my mind while I was writing the book. These were my rules: be honest; be yourself; don’t pose, don’t pretend. That was about it. So when I didn’t know something – which was quite a lot of the time – I felt it was important to say so. It’s just not a big deal.

Your tone is irreverent but never over-bearing or facetious, which is unusual. Was it a conscious decision to write like this? If so, why?

That’s good to hear (though I think it’s a bit facetious at times, isn’t it?). The style came very naturally – as I said, I was dead-set on not writing in character, on being myself. It’s not as though I frown on fancy language – quite the opposite, really. I love swanky and ambitious prose. The thing is, I think you can write that sort of stuff without striking a pose, without hamming it up. Your writing can be fantastically elaborate and still feel natural. Human is a word I overuse in my criticism; I mean it as a real compliment, and it’s what I was aiming for in this book.

You also talk about the habit people have of assuming every bird singing at night is a nightingale — even in the middle of the London winter. Do you think the misidentification matters or is the magic of the moment more important?

That’s a really good and complicated question. Of course, it’s normal, natural, to not know things. I’d never have a problem with someone saying I don’t know much about nature, but I know what I like. No-one can know everything, in any case, and besides there are a lot of different ways of looking at the world. But I do think that’s it’s good to know things; I’d be happier if more people knew more things. Emotional responses are fine, great, and I’m all for them (I’ve even been known to have them myself from time to time) – but it seems to me that knowledge, information, is needed to give structure and texture to them and to everything else. It’s the motes of dust and grit a raincloud needs in order to make rain. Otherwise all you’ve got is a lot of damp, drifting air doing nothing in particular.

Do you think birdsong has a role in connecting people to nature? Or is it, like in the novels you analyse, likely to always be just background noise?

I think it has an immersive effect. Once you start noticing it you realise just how often you’re in amongst it. It’s everywhere. Perhaps that can make us more conscious of how embedded we all are in the natural world (despite our best efforts). And it can help us develop something like a personal relationship with birds, too. That sounds a bit daft – but I think that learning a bit of birdsong, or just making a point of listening to birdsong, is a step towards getting to know the birds better, to seeing them properly, in three dimensions. If not quite as individuals, then as more than set dressing. It’s an easy(ish) way in to everyday ecology.

Interview conducted by Stephen Rutt

Richard Smyth writes about wildlife for The Guardian and BBC Wildlife and about nature, books and culture for the Times Literary SupplementNew StatesmanNew Humanist and others. He’s the author of five non-fiction books and a novel, Wild Ink (2014). His prize-winning short fiction has been widely published and his crosswords appear in journals including New Scientist, History Today and History Revealed. 

Anthropocene Incantation: Mingled Singing Bird-Man-Machine Echoes

by Julianne Lutz Warren

First Listen to the “Human Imitation of Huia1

Listen!
Huia! Huia! Huia! Huia!
cry the birds in their tongue
in Māori a call to assemble!
while, in English, who are you?
Hear what echoes. Hatch
what sings in yourself
and each other.

Sailing west and south, Europeans—Dutch, then British—arrived in the seventeenth century; more of the latter kept coming, and stayed. The islands first people, the Māori, called them Pākehā (I myself come from this pale-skinned stock, so take this story with proper salt). It took these late-comers only a couple of centuries to re-form the land. Some kinds of island beings, or parts of them, they subsumed—like tall kauri trees for masts, Toi mokoii2 for curiosities, with the language of place names, songs, and stories that had filled them. The Pākehā sometimes wore birds, mostly as feathers in their caps.3 They did not so much eat as evict and try to replace them. In their ships the Pākehā brought their own food stuffs from home—chickens, sheep, potatoes and wheat, and house sparrows to devour crop pest insects. They set loose rabbits, and then ferrets, stoats and weasels to eat the rabbits who bred like rabbits beyond what the humans consumed. The Pākehā also brought novel kinds of life from all over the world, such as hill cherries from China and, from India, minas with their ticks. These people possessed the islands with treaties, book ideas—some holy or scientific with magic at their core4—plows, drainage ditches, guns, mills, and fire. As Pākehā numbers went up Māori went down.5And next the guards of the forest, huia died with the forest, and gardens rose with hymnody—the gardeners singing to their god, “Holy holy holy.” And there were refrigerated trains and roads with cars, then airports came. To run things, the leading Pākehā mined under Earth’s skin—gold to exchange for things, and, exhaled in a quick breath, ancient buried fossils burned as fuels. This breath changed even the sky and the sea, and also these immigrants brought something they called “conservation.” They had a saying: “Their extinction cannot be very far distant.”6 And as they chanted this, they rushed to gather onto small satellite islands, ocean-moated from predators, what was left living, and to collect remains of the almost dead by killing them. And they put the lifeless remains in museums for scientists to study. And those the Pākehā loved the most, they study most, to this day.7

Kei muri I te awe kapara he tangata ke, man ate ao, he mana spoke the remnant of Māori. And, in English, “Behind the tattooed face, a stranger stands, he who owns the earth, and he is white.”8 And the owners named their season of ownership the Anthropocene, and the Earth they renamed Eaarth,9 and all were subject to the ways the planet had been remade, Pākehā, too.

It is said that a long time ago, some four and a half billion years ago, dust from exploding stars gravitated into a planet that became filled with life. This had been Earth. Earth began with a separation of the parents—sky and ground—by Tāne, their son, who emerged from darkness bringing light to father life.10 Survival has always been a balancing act of darkness and light, life and death. Looking far back, five times before humans and once after them, because of them, there have been episodes of more death than life. Gracefully, with a long view, there has been the reverse. The future, though, has always been as looking into a dark mirror.

The father of birds is the father of men. A god took some of Earth’s clay and carried it to a higher god who chanted a charm, me whakaira tangata—that is, “give it life.”11 And charms of ngaaitanga kapakapa a Tāne or “wing-flapping children” filled the eastern dawn with singing. In other words, a long time ago, a white man built a machine that could incubate eggs, thousands at a time, he called it eccaleobion from Greek meaning “I bring forth life.” 12 He did not bestow, but developed life—not quite a god, but god-like. What deity, anyhow, would give her child a scorpion when an egg was wanted?13And she said let there be light, and there was light, firmament, stars, forests, birds and humans.

Three hundred and ten million years ago, as the lands of the globe were amassing into great Pangea surrounded by even vaster sea, birds and humans were folded within the fertile egg of a common ancestor. One hundred and thirty million years later, the supercontinent was fragmenting again. The land called Gondwana pulled south, a nursery of branching trees of birds and mammals.14 From Gondwana, Africa separated from India and South America, one hundred million years ago, then drifted northeast toward Eurasia, colliding in the Paleocene. Eighty million years ago, another mass of land rifted from Antarctica and Australia and became a pair of large islands—changeable as long white clouds spouting volcanoes, growing mountains, high-flooding ravines—these drifted north-west, sternly self-pruning life, carrying now fossil-phantom lineages of furry beasts,15 but not of humans, and a rich fecundity unfurling birds, though huia ancestors were not here either, not yet.

Some say that more than thirty million years ago huias’ ancestors flew on wind east across the ocean from land somewhere else.16 They arrived as immigrants to the pair of big islands staying on so long as to interweave with the place, becoming a voice native to the cacophony of diversifying avian hosts, many of whom, in turn, pioneered off themselves, heading north, and encircled Earth’s round belly with bright colors, sharp talons, and song.xvii In other words, long ago huia arrived directly from the shimmering heavens, sent by gods-breathing words forming them as gods’ guardians of the lush and stormy mountain forests they haunted, and as leaders of the varied bird chorus. Huia were so lovely, so sacred with the same number of tail feathers as there were twelve moons of the year, twelve periods shaping the seasons.18

Meanwhile, on the northward drifted continent of Africa, humans branching line of ancestors went on evolving, too, for all those same millions of years, until just two-hundred thousand years ago becoming Homo sapiens. These people went walking north and east on two feet crossing frozen water between Holarctic continents. They carried high on upright necks big brains, watching stars, hearing birds sing, filling with knowledge and wonder, also learning and passing on how to sing, and speak words, then carve them in stones, multiplying as they spread, back south and west, until they folded into themselves, the New World meeting Old, being everywhere on Earth—on the two long floating cloud islands last.19

It took a long time, but the birds and humans finally were reunited in all the world’s places, if no longer sharing the same egg. Barely one thousand years ago, the first humans, with origins nearly as indistinct as huia, finally arrived to the former Gondwana now-islands.

Traveling east from Polynesia in canoes—carrying with them rats and dogs, kūmara and uwhi as starter foods along with sacred stones, songs and stories—they landed. That is, from Hawaiki, the source of all life, the Māori ancestors followed the stars to the same shores as had the huia legacy of birds, into a land already filled with birds, but not living mammals. The Māori speared many of the islands’ singing hosts, or snared them. Calling in the voice of huia the humans attracted them to the slip-knotted loops of grub-baited sticks. Māoris took huia for tail feathers, which they wore in their hair for beauty and protection, and to foretell in dreams the birth of daughters.20 Some birds they kept as pets; other kinds they, or maybe their rats, ate to death. The Māori have a saying Kua ngaro I te ngaro o te moa, which is to say, “lost as the moa is lost.”21 And, when they lost the birds they loved, they cried: “Keen is the sorrow, O my bird, for thee!/…Thou wert/ The guardian of our treasures….Now what remains?”22 The Māori saved remains, including their own Toi moko, tattooed chiefly and cherished highborn childrens’ heads, and feathers of birds and birds buried that turned to stone, and they whispered to and never stopped weeping over the remnants, though they also went on singing, fiercely warring, eating both flowers and meat, even eating each other, and loving.

And from Earth, a god took a handful of clay, shaped it into an egg and took it to a higher god, who by chanting me whakaira tangata created it a charm, but nothing happened yet. In other words, an empress tenderly hid one fertile egg in her bosom to warm it. A young cock hatched out auguring the birth of a royal son.23 When the first cock, a gift from Pākehā to Māori, crowed in the still-dark of New Zealand, it foretold the singing dawn. And the Pākehā’s fast-fuel trains were so wonderful the Māori called the white men “bird-brains.”24 That is to say, a pale-skinned man invented a machine that was like an egg that could be filled with song and carried around to announce the dawn, also, crying sundown from the west, echoing as many times as replayed, then remembered and hummed, echoing on.

A young woman asked for a clay egg to warm in her bosom. She was marching in a parade in Manhattan to which people from all parts of Eaarth had flown when the egg started singing: “Huia Huia Huia Huia.” Some people heard in the song a call to assemble. Others heard it asking, “who are you?”25 Others heard other things, each according to their memories, dreams, and the comfort of their shoes. Whatever a person heard, they could not help but respond, as if being called from a great distance by an intimate companion.26

And so, listening, some were affirmed in having already gathered. Others were added to their number. Many turned to each other and tried to explain who they were until it seemed that fierce fighting would break out. And the human voices began drowning out the egg’s song. And it was then that the first clay egg erupted as if into a host of whirring wings—flying sounds that were either words or birds of every color and design, some recognizable, others so old or so new as to be unimaginable.

The crowd grew silent—including the Peregrine falcon perched overhead27 —listening, as the multitudes dispersed into cathedrals and museums, attics and basements, some soared along the Alyeska pipeline, crossed Atigun Pass, then beyond the shores of the Arctic Ocean, and some went south to the other antipode. They spread longitudinally to Europe, Asia, Africa, to all the broken off pieces of Gondwana. They radiated into every land that had once been united in Pangea and beyond, even the tiniest islands floating on the rising seas and some hovered over the water occasionally plunging for plankton, fish and octupuses.

Each whirring songster carried in its talons a piece of Eaarth’s remains. At the first dawn after arrival to their destinations, they all let go of what was in their possession. A twist of faded-pink plastic that splashed into the ocean would turn into something resembling living coral, but only in the presence of someone knowing all the stars without naming them. Into the delta of the former Nile fell a moon-slice of fingernail that would become the embryo of a seed as tasty as wheat, and perennial, once each grain of desert sand was enfolded by a cooling shadow. While a gold coin clinked onto a sunlit mountain top where eyes seeing but not wanting it would transform its gleam into a mirror—a mirror through which unique forms may pass into different worlds without one having to imitate the other. A lock of gray hair tumbled softly into the nest of a falcon whose young, without further ado, would grow into animals larger than elephants, but lighter than air. A dropped wire would turn into silent spiny things with glossy blooms, no two the same fragrance. And, a shard of moaning voice was released into the ether and dispersed along with slivers of laughter. From this mixture, indescribably appealing sounds would emerge depending upon the appearance of a being having ears to hear it.

 

1: For further background on the recording, please see Julianne Lutz Warren, “Learning Extinct Birdsong in the Anthropocene: Huia Echoes” in Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero and Rob Emmett (eds.) Anthropocene Remains (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Forthcoming); Julianne Lutz Warren, Hopes Echo.” The Poetry Lab of The Merwin Conservancy, November 2, 2015, http://www.merwinconservancy.ort/2015/11/the-poetry-lab-hopes-echo-by-author-julianne-warren-center-for-humans-and-nature/; Evans, Kate. “Echoes of the Past.” New Zealand Geographic 139(2016) at https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/huia;and Johnston, Sarah. Te Karangaa Te Huia/The Call of the Huia. Nga Taonga Sound & Vision (2016) at http://www.ngataonga.org.nz/blog/nz-history/the-call-of-the-huia/

2: Tattooed Māori heads. See, for example, T. Dunbabin, “Moko or Maori tattooing: A Strange Trade—Deals in Maori Heads—Pioneer Artists,” Sydney Sun (1923) 21-1 at http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-RobMoko-t1-front-d2.html

3: Traditionally, the sacred feathers of huia were worn by chiefs. In 1901 the Duke of York visited on royal tour. While there, a high-ranking Māori woman presented him with a single huia feather, which the duke wore in his hat. Consequently, these sacred feathers became fashionable in Europe. Desire for the feathers also spread among increasing numbers of Māori. See Phillipps, The Book of the Huia and Phillipps, “Huia Research”: Letter, Tom Asher to Phillipps, 20 October 1954; and “Huia notes, etc.” p. 2.

4: Patricia Fara, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 101.

5: Maori numbers decreased by about 2/3 to 1/2 in first half of the nineteenth century. Thompson, Come on Shore, 150 and “Story: Taupori Maori: Maori Population Change” accessed http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/taupori-maori-maori-population-change

6: Walter Buller, “Further Notes on the Birds of New Zealand,” Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand 25 (1892), 65.

7: Facts in this paragraph come mostly from Pawson and Brooking, Environmental Histories; Thompson, Come on Shore; and Tennyson and Martinson, Extinct Birds of New Zealand.

8: Quoted in Thompson, Come on Shore, 151.

9: See Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Times Books, 2010).

10: Margaret Orbell, The Natural World of the Māori (Aukland: Collins, 1985); Elsdon Best, Māori Religion and Mythology: Part 2: Origin of Birds (Wellington: PD Hasselberg, 1982), accessed spring 2014, http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Bes02Reli-t1-body-d4-d3-d10.html http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Bes02Reli-t1-body-d4-d3-d10.html http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Bes02Reli-t1-body-d4-d3-d10.html; H.T. Whatahoro (S. Percy Smith, transl.), The Lore of the Whare-Wānaga: Or Teachings of the Māori College on Religion, Cosmogony, and History Vol. 1: Te Kauwae-Runga, or ‘Things Celestial,’”(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

11: Murdoch Riley, Māori Bird Lore (Paraparaumu, NZ: Viking Sevenseas, NZ Ltd, 2001),

12: William Bucknell, The Eccaleobion: A Treatise on Artificial Incubation (London, 1939), 3.

13: From the Hebrew Bible, Luke 11: 12.

14: There is much debate about to what degree animal radiations occurred before or after the Cretaceous-Paleogene (or Tertiary) boundary, when the extinction of dinosaurs and other forms went extinct presumably encouraging diversification of surviving lineages. For example, Goswani, “A dating success story,” suggest that most mammal diversification occurred after the K-Pg boundary while Krause et al., “First cranial remains” suggest an earlier date. For birds, there seems to be rising evidence for significant radiation before the boundary. See, for example, Joel Cracraft, “Avian evolution, Gondwana biogeography and the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction event,” Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B (2001) 268, 459-469. See also S. Blair Hedges, et al. “Continental break up and the ordinal diversification of birds and mammals,” Nature 381 (16 May 1996), 226-229. But, the time for the basal split of Passeriformes, representing more than half of all living birds species is estimated to be after the boundary. See Jarvis et al., “Whole genome analyses resolve early branches in the tree of life of modern birds,” Science 346 (12 Dec. 2014), 1320-1331.

15: Recent evidence pushes back the likely origins of mammals to the late Triassic, over 200 mya. Brian Switck, “Chisel-toothed beasts push back origins of mammals,” National Geographic Sept. 10, 2014 accessed at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/09/140910-fossil-mammal-china-triassic-origin/rptregcta=reg_free_np&rptregcampaign=2015012_invitation_ro_all# See also Anjali Goswami, “A dating success story: Genomes and fossils converge on placental mammal origins,” EvoDevo 2012 3, 18. The recent discovery of Ventana sertichi, an herbivorous 9-kg gondwanatherien, in Madagascar from the late Cretaceuos suggests ancestral presence before Gondwana’s break-up, and the isolation of Madagascar. David W. Krause, et al. “First cranial remains of a gondwanatherien mammal reveal remarkable mosaicism,” Nature 515 (27 Nov. 2014): 512-516. And, the discovery of an ancient mouse-sized mammal in New Zealand is evidence that mammals once roamed there, too. Trevor Worthy et al., “Miocene mammal reveals a Mesozoic ghost lineage on insular New Zealand, southwest Pacific,” PNAS 103(51) (19 Dec. 2006), 19419-23 and “Nowak, “Fossils reveal New Zealand’s indigenous ‘mouse’” New Scientist (11 Dec. 2006), accessed at http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn10773-fossils-reveal-new-zealands-indigenous-mouse.html#.VVvFGUbFs4U

16: Probably from what became Australia after its break from Antarctica. See Lara Shepherd and David Lambert, “The relationships and origins of the New Zealand wattlebirds (Passeriformes, Callaeatidea) from DNA sequence analysis,” Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 43 (2007), 480-492; Isabel Sanmartín and Fredrick Ronquist, “Southern Hemisphere Biogeography Inferred by Event-based Models: Plant versus Animal Patterns,” Systematic Biology 53(2) (2004): 216-243.

17: Recent evidence reverses previous understandings about avian biogeography suggesting that basal passerines dispersed from Australasia into Eurasia, Africa, and the New World, beginning as early as the Eocene. Barker et al., “Phylogeny and diversification of the largest avian radiation,” PNAS 101(30) (27 July 2004), 11040-11045.

18: Riley, Māori Bird Lore, 104.

19: John Gurche, Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand our Origins (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

20: Riley, Māori Bird Lore.

21: Quoted in Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction, 232.

22: Quoted in Major Wilson, “On the Korotangi, or Stone Bird,” Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand 20 (1887), 501, accessed May 2015 http://rsnz.natlib.govt.nz/volume/rsnz_20/rsnz_20_00_007160.html There are several versions of the poem from which this line comes. This translation from Māori into English is by C.O. Davis.

23: From Pliny the Elder, Natural History 10.76.154 and Thomas More, Utopia (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011), 40.

24: Margaret Orbell, Birds of Aotearoa: A Natural and Cultural History (Auckland: Reed Publishing, 2003), 178-179.

25: Riley, Māori Bird-Lore, 106; Phillipps, The Book of Huia, 28.

26: Elsdon Best, “White Magic of the Māori,” Journal of the Polynesian Society 35 (140), 315-328, accessed http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/document/Volume_35_1926/Volume_35%2C_No._140/White_magic_of_the_Maori._Some_explanation_of_the_Atahu_or_Iri_Rite%2C_and_the_use_of_love_charms%2C_p_315-328/p1?action=null

27: Julianne Lutz Warren, “Picturing: Ghosts,” Minding Nature Spring 2015.

 

Julianne Lutz Warren is author of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey, Tenth Anniversary Edition. This book unfolds the journey of this twentieth-century American ecological thinker and author of best-selling A Sand County Almanac towards his ethical vision of land health, coextensive with Earth’s ecosphere. Julianne has also published a variety of creative writings expanding on that vision that entertain possibilities for authentic hope and generativity in what might be called the “Anthropocene.” Julianne formerly taught in environmental studies at New York University where she was a recipient of a 2013 Martin Luther King, Jr. Faculty Research Award for her work in the climate justice movement. She has since been named a Senior Scholar and Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature.

Raven

by Rachael Clyne

Sithee wingless, I am cum ter tek thee
fer tha’ll’t ne’er mek it alone.
I shall carry thee thru yon veil an’ on
where tiz same-colour as me coat.
Not one jot shall’t tha see in’t darkiverse folk call hell.

Peril is me name, fer perilous it be
till this fine beak, this wingspread
shall sail thee thru t’void to star-kissed heaven.
Hop on wingless, hold fast –
relish yon ride.

Rachael Clyne lives in Glastonbury. Her prizewinning collection Singing at the Bone Tree, is published by Indigo Dreams. Anthologies: The Very Best of 52, Book of Love and Loss, Poems for a Liminal Age. Magazines: Tears in the Fence, Prole, The Rialto, Under the Radar, The Interpreters House.

Beautiful Giant

by Margi Prideaux

From behind came a sound, swish, phwom, swish, phnom. My heart fluttered inside my chest. Could it be what I had been hoping for since the first giant gardener’s space?

Years ago, I travelled to Thailand for a semester of study and the opportunity to explore the country. I am drawn to what is tangible and real in the world – wildlife that is wild and communities living as they have for eons. For me, chance encounters with wildlife carry more colour and texture than the canned experiences people buy. On this occasion, I had found a trek to visit a Karen-Thai hill tribe community in the Chiang Mai province. Our guides were members of the community we were to visit. They vibrated with political activism and a deep pride in their people. Their energy was magnetic.

We set off from Chiang Mai in a van at dawn, winding for hours through deep valleys between steep, densely vegetated hills. Lush plants sprang from every surface. The sight of such prolific vegetation can be difficult to absorb, at times so profuse it looks artificial. It’s as if you are travelling through a dense green cloud.

After an hour or so of winding roads, we stopped at an unmarked roadside point, in the shadow of a tall hill. I am sure the spot was easy to identify for locals, but to my eyes nothing distinguished this hill from the hundreds we had just passed. Still, with trust and a prayer, we collected our packs and dissolved ourselves into the trees to begin the upwards march towards the Karen village.

Pushing through thick vegetation, we wove around tree trunks standing in tight formation. At our feet was thick undergrowth. Over our heads was a dense canopy of low-hanging branches. Without the occasional bright flowers springing forward with ridiculous iridescence, it could have been a scene from a commando movie. Birds, which I could never identify, chattered and clanged in the sun shining on the other side of the ceiling of leaves. Insects took up arms as we moved forward. Some limited their interest to noting our passing, while others investigated if our flesh offered something more. Ahead, our guides moved steadily and ever upwards, swinging their machetes from side to side, clearing a path for our climb. They never faltered, swatted, or stopped, so neither did we.

Occasionally, the forest density would suddenly evaporate and we would stumble into small clearings ringed by trees with bare trunks. Through the high manicured dome of leaves, the mid-morning light glinted in the few spaces not woven shut. It was as if a giant gardener had crafted a private cocoon to sit and enjoy. Here, our band of trekkers could sit, gulp water and devour sticky Thai sweets. There was a clear track in and a clear track out, wider than the paths we were making, and distinctly worn into the ground. A guide explained the elephants and their mahouts, known as kwarn chang in northern Thailand, had created these spaces, for moments of rest from their work in the surrounding area. At that time, the teak harvest ban in Thailand was still young and illegal activity continued.

The thrill of knowing elephants were nearby was intoxicating. I strained my hearing to catch a sound of their presence, but the cacophony of birds masked my effort.

Our trek went on for hours, up and around hills and down through deep valleys. As the day matured it became hotter and the air cloyingly still. My clothes hung wet on my frame and a steady stream of sweat blurred my vision. The water we carried was lighter by the step.

Eventually, we crested the edge of a long, meandering valley. The wild forest gave way to signs of human toil. Our path was now bordered by crops fed by lengths of bamboo irrigation pipes. In the distance were a collection of bamboo and rattan huts. Colourful fabrics billowed in the breeze. This was our destination.

After hours of shade, the sun felt ferocious, blazing in its mid-afternoon posture. Tiny midges buzzed close by; a gentle hum tuned to the beauty of the day.

Of our small band, I was slowest. This is nothing new. I have never been a natural trekker; I love the destination, but often tire at the pace of the journey. I like to stop and explore new and wonderful discoveries along the way, to have moments where there is no human sound so I can soak in the aliveness of what surrounds me.

I was alone on the path when I heard a gentle swish then phwom, swish, phnom approaching behind me.

A thrill billowed inside me and I turned to face the titan. She was magnificent.

The relationship between humans and elephants in this region goes back a long way. It is too easy to assume the practices of the past, when elephants were pressed into the service of logging, land clearing or used as transport haulers, were the terrible times – to presume the new enlightenment of tourism oversees a better world for these gentle animals. However, this judgement is tinged with western bias and blinkered vision.

I don’t mean to suggest that teak harvesting should resume – far from it. The scale of harvest caused terrible damage across Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, but unintended consequences flowed from the ban. Communities that had built generations of identity and skill around raising and training mahouts and elephants crumbled. An elephant, which may have spent its life as a member of a mahout’s family, became a burden to feed if the family’s income disappeared. Many mahouts were similarly cast adrift. Starvation for both was a very real threat. Elephant tourism – elephant rides and elephant performances – filled a gap for some. But this can be a pitiful existence for the elephants and the men, made worse by the knowledge that elephant infants, wrenched from their mothers in Myanmar, are regularly smuggled across the border into Thailand to be presented as orphans in need of care. These youngsters are the innocent victims of the tourism machine. In some ways, the situation for elephants is worse now than it was at the peak of teak harvesting.

The ears of the elephant walking towards me waved softly, eyes creased in a gentle smile, her trunk swayed with the rhythm of her long, slow stride. Swish, phwom. Swish, phwom. Swish, phnom. Each step began as a gentle touch that flowed into heavy softness.

She was more than magnificent. She was heart wrenchingly beautiful.

I knelt on the path when she was still a few lengths away and took a photograph. I knew it would fall short of her presence, but it would remind me of this moment in years to come. Even today, as I hold it in my hand, I remember each swaying stride. Swish, phnom.

Behind her head sat her kwarn chang, tenderly patting her neck and whispering soothing sounds behind her ears. I stepped from the path as her trunk tenderly reached out, then yanked a clump of grass and flowers from near my feet. I was enveloped by the rich, deep smell of her skin and wet vegetation. Her eye tracked me for a moment, pleating at the edges with delight as she placed her spoils in her mouth to chew.

My heart slowed to the beat of her footsteps. An ear and then a shoulder glided by. Swish, phnom. I glanced at her kwarn chang, now above my head, and he returned a shy nod. The round swell of her abdomen pressed the space between us, drawing my attention back to her magnificent presence. A rumble inside her body made me smile, then the switch of her tail drew my attention to her hip moving past.

I drank in another dozen swaying steps before she rounded a corner and melted into the treelike.

She was gone, but her presence could still be felt, like an echo in the space on the path.

One of the guides called my name from the edge of the village. I drew in a breath at the wonder of the world and took off at a trot to catch up with the group. The next adventure of meeting the Karen people was ahead.

Margi Prideaux is a writer, negotiator and independent academic, with a PhD in wildlife policy & law. In her 27 years in the conservation movement, she has worked on conservation projects in the Pacific Islands, South East Asia, Africa and Latin America, and always with the goal of protecting wildlife through communities. She has published three books: Birdsong After the StormGlobal Environmental Governance, Civil Society and Wildlife, and All Things Breathe Alike: A Wildlife Anthology that is co-authored with Donna Mulvenna and Jessica Groenendijk. Her fourth book, Wild Tapestry: Weaving Wildlife Survival, will be released in late 2017. She is on Facebook and Twitter @WildPolitics. www.wildpolitics.co

Kate Walters

“Kate Walters’ paintings are concerned with the interaction of the animal and human worlds; depicting in raw and graphic immediacy a relationship that is both intimate and nurturing. Deer, horses and female figures are shown co-existing in an almost primeval state of mutual, interconnected harmony. In their iconography of nurture and loving grace human and animal bodies merge and combine, as the female subjects of these works take on and adopt the character of their animal guides: the watchfulness and truth of the deer, the protection and nurture of the horse. In this new world, there is no separation between human and animal, only a porous tissue of skin that both delineates and dissolves individual boundaries.” Revd Dr Richard Davey

Kate Walters studied Fine Art in London, Brighton and Falmouth; she has worked as an independent artist for 20 years in Cornwall, showing work in Jerwood Drawing (twice), RA, RCA, RWA. A recent solo show of 2000 digital photographs, 3 films, and 30 paintings detailing & exploring a conversation with nature was hosted at Newlyn Art Gallery. She is also a speaker and has presented at many universities. Recent/current projects she has curated and organised include a fund-raising drawing show for Freedom from Torture; her next project is called “Drawing down the Feminine”. Residencies include Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens (2017-19), the Isle of Iona (2015-16), the RCA (National Open Art Resident artist) and working with students and staff at Glasgow School of Art. Kate teaches on various courses including a mentoring course at Newlyn School of Art. She also mentors emerging artists privately in her studio, and runs drumming and drawing workshops there. A book, The Iona Notebooks, will be published in May 2017 by Guillemot Press and launched at Terre Verte Gallery near Launceston on May 5th.

“Thinking of how the breath of the horse creates a kind of womb for me; holds me aloft, intact, supported, whole. A womb of air, a light-filled womb, perfumed, smelling of a horse’s grassy green breath.”

The Secret Worth a Thousand – Watercolour, 2012. This work with a title borrowed from Goethe (the phrase refers to what he believed we could gain from entering into a conversation with Nature) was central in my solo exhibition at Newlyn Art Gallery https://vimeo.com/73134126 which explored our relationship with the natural, and wild world. The female deer provides an arc over the woman, who is close to flowing water, and whose abdomen has been imprinted by a wild horse. The deer has become a sky-god, such as you can find in ancient Egyptian images.
Leaving Event – Watercolour, 2016. This work was developed after visiting The Ness Of Brodgar, where I learned about the ceremonial leaving events which are believed to have taken place there.
The Bird my Brother – This picture from around 2014 is composed of many layers of watercolour on gesso-prepared paper. It reflects on body as tree, as hands as branches, as feet as root linking one to Bird, wild bird, crow bird about to take flight; or raven dipping wings and croaking a greeting; Raven as messenger and teacher; innocence; sky-made eyes. This is the gift of wildness.
Spirit Horse – Completed in 2016, in watercolour and charcoal. The woman who blends with the heart space of the horse has become leopard-like; she sees with her navel, she is in touch with the gifts of wildness.
Trance – This work from 2014 is made of layers of watercolour and gum Arabic on gesso-prepared paper. There are traces of many journeys beneath the crystallized surface. I’m interested in how we might pray with animals, how they pray for us; how their wildness and their acute senses can enrich our lives, teach us how to track, be still, hear and be with ourselves and our instincts. It is also about mirroring, affection, and humility.

pig farm

by Gerry Boland

a sow stands short-shackled
to a concrete floor decked with
shit-smelling piss-soaked wooden slats

she shifts and struggles
wrenches with sumo neck
an unbreakable chain
lurches in slow motion
against immovable bars

her agitation over
she settles back to standing still
slurps at an iron bar for absent minerals
waits for her session on the rape rack
a term the men use with an ugly smile

ten thousand live here, from
day-old piglets to sows worn out
by never-ending pregnancy

they lie wedged between bars
slumped on their colossal sides
while regiments of newborn piglets
suckle with clipped teeth

Gerry Boland is a poet and author. He was born and lived for much of his life in Dublin and moved to north Roscommon in 1999. His first collection of poems, Watching Clouds, was published by Doghouse Books in 2011, and his second, In the Space Between (Arlen House) appeared in January 2016.

Recovery

by Michael Engelhard

The scene on the highway’s exit ramp caught me off guard. A stout woman, in her sixties perhaps, with glasses and frizzy brown hair, dressed in sneakers, jeans, and a sweat-shirt, stood near her parked truck, transfixed by something in the grass. Bicycling closer, I noticed she was Native American and the object of her attention was a bird plump as a chicken and glossy as obsidian. Fascinated by all wildlife and fond of aerobatic corvids clowns in particular, I stopped on the gravel shoulder. The raven’s left wing dragged; feather tips skimmed the grass. The chisel bill hung ajar, as if its owner were panting, displaying the mouth’s soft lining. With each blink, white nictitating membranes closed on the bird’s eyeballs like camera apertures freeze-framing the world.

“It’s injured,” the woman offered, stating the obvious. “I’m trying to take it to a vet.”

I asked if she needed a hand, and she went to the truck, returning with a sweatshirt. Noon sun ironed my back, undeterred by clouds like gray paunches that sagged toward the horizon. As cars sped by, curiosity flickered across the drivers’ faces. Oblivious to the streaking of traffic and pain, the bird focused on the more imminent threat we represented. Each time the woman approached, it hopped beyond reach, tucking the hurt wing close to its body, as a person would a dislocated arm. Circling around, I distracted it long enough for the woman to throw the shirt over it. She stooped, nimbly for somebody so compact, and scooped up the raven before it could wiggle free.

We walked to her truck and I opened the door.

“Would you like to come to the vet?” she asked. “You could hold it while I drive.”

I wedged my bike and backpack full of groceries into the truck and got in. En route to the opposite end of town, she rang a friend who had worked in bird rehabilitation. She already had called that friend for advice as soon as she spotted the bird.

“I got it and am driving to the vet now. A guy is helping me.”

Through fabric my fingertips sensed the bird’s heart. Unable to tell terror from resignation, I listened to its labored breathing, worried that it might suffocate or overheat. A scaly leather foot, tipped with lacquered claws, had escaped from the wrap, and pressed against my belly. Occasionally, as frost heaves or cracks in the pavement shook the truck, wings brushed against my breastbone like spruce boughs or a book page. I had never been that close to a raven before.

My grandmotherly accomplice, Margaret, recalled how she had trapped a raven by accident when she still lived in her village up north. She had been setting snares to catch rabbits; to her surprise a raven stepped into one of her loops. She released it and, getting stabbed in the process, came to respect the bird’s moxie and imposing bill.

Research for a school paper she had to write turned up little scientific information about corvid-human interaction, but Margaret unearthed a wealth of raven lore, knowledge rooted deeply in time, accounts and beliefs that branched far beyond North America into Siberia and Europe.

She could have learned about charcoal sketches in the caves near Lascaux that depict corvids and imply their importance to early humans as messengers or even as human souls. Or that, in Norse mythology, two ravens named Thought and Memory perched on Odin’s shoulders, gleaning news of the world on daily excursions. And that without stars to guide them through summer’s nacreous midnights, Norse settlers released hrafnar and trailed the black scouts landward in their single-mast ships.

Illustration from an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript depicting Huginn and Muninn sitting on the shoulders of Odin. Courtesy of Árni Magnússon Institute, Iceland / Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout the northern hemisphere this bird attended shamanistic flights of trance. It was teacher and totemic ancestor. It stared bug-eyed from the limbs of family trees along the Pacific Northwest coast, populating genealogies hewn into cedar trunks. Kwakiutl dancers acknowledged the bond by wearing masks with four-foot-long bills that closed with whip crack sounds. Crow-walking under the spell of gourd rattles, they became birds. Other raven masks split like seedpods, revealing a second mask and thus the deception of first impressions, the hidden nature of things. In the mythology of Margaret’s own people, the Gwich’in of the Yukon and northeast Alaska, Raven acted as trickster and transformer. In the course of his exploits, he often suffered violence or deformity, comparable to the bird I was cradling. Vulgar and petty, scheming and greedy and often not very smart, he embodied the sacred and the profane, the light and the shadow inside each one of us. At the beginning of “Distant Time,” he created not only humans, but also animals, some of which looked after people as guardian spirits. As part of a bargain between species, people honored obligations, obeyed unwritten rules, and offered gestures of attentiveness, feeding dried fish to a wolf they had killed, or not disturbing a raven on its nest, lest the weather would turn cold. In a mythical age that for believers is present to the same degree that it is past, Raven stole daylight for his creations, which until then scrambled around in the dark. Inspired perhaps by the bird’s love for shiny objects or by a solar eclipse, one tale told around midwinter fires recounts Raven’s theft of the sun. A chief in the sky had given the orb to his child as a toy. When the toddler dropped it and it rolled into the room’s corner, Raven covered its glow with his wing. Then he flew back to earth with it, illuminating the world of people. His benevolence is believed to assume the form of actual ravens that guide hunters to fresh wolf kills, moose or caribou, the bounty of which feeds entire families. Villagers in Alaska pay close attention to the living environment, and a raven rolling onto its back in midair is “dropping a package of meat,” announcing good fortune for the observant.

I told a few anecdotes of my own. On a snowy Fairbanks sidewalk I once found evidence of a raven meal: a scuffle of rune prints, banded feathers, and at the display’s center a grouse foot. During a Grand Canyon trip, fat twin marauders in search of food hacked into my backpack and pulled out smelly socks. (I had been mad enough to fling rocks at them.) Similarly, a mile above timberline on Denali’s buttressed heights, ravens had made the connection between bamboo wand markers and the food caches climbers left in a snowdrift, excavating peanuts, cheese, and beef jerky with great gusto. While many climbers consider them flying rats, many other Alaskans, like myself, have a soft spot for them. In downtown Sitka, I saw car drivers wait patiently for ravens to grab a meal on rain-slicked Harbor Drive instead of honking their horns or trying to squeeze by or to run over them.

As our conversation progressed, Margaret and I realized we had common acquaintances in a city of seventy thousand that can be as tight as a village, among them my former Native-language teacher. Our conversation, which had begun as a trickle, meandered from the invalid bird to its kin until the current widened, roiling raw stuff to the surface.

Between raven stories nestled Margaret’s confession that she was a recovering alcoholic. She hinted at divorce, at a step- or adoptive parent. Her children and grandchildren lived as far away as Tucson, and she rarely saw them. Beadworking had given her strength to pull through. “It keeps my hands and mind busy all the time,” she told me. She talked about her style, how she kept seeing images and patterns in nature, which she then translated into art. Craft and expertise ran strong in Margaret’s family. Her mother had passed on the gift; at age fourteen, she had fashioned a fringed, shell-and-bead-encrusted hide shirt for Margaret’s great-grandfather, a chief. It now hung in a display case at the university museum on the hill above town—a snippet of culture enshrined.

When we finally reached the clinic, the raven felt heavy and warm, like a swaddled, if damaged, foundling. The bird’s weight on my belly released feelings that, for a non-pet person sworn to childlessness, welled up unexpectedly. I imagined how easily an observer could have mistaken our trio for a family rushing its infant to an emergency room.

There was an entrance for dogs and another for cats, but none for birds. We stood in the air-conditioned office’s neon glare, with sterile surfaces and posters that advertised pet health care. I sweated where the cotton bundle touched my body. Margaret tugged on her T-shirt, admitting coolness to her skin. While a receptionist had her fill out some paperwork, my arms tired and I braced them on the Formica counter. The bird squirmed again and let out a rusty squawk; I tried to keep a good grip, mindful not to break feathers or injure it even more. Before long, a veterinarian’s assistant took it into another room. She returned to hand Margaret her soiled sweatshirt.

“I’ll have to wash this,” Margaret said calmly.

“What will become of the bird?” I asked the receptionist before we left.

“The vet will see what she can do,” she said. “We’ll check with a rehabilitation place here in town, and when the bird is ready it will be released where you found it.”

Back at the truck, Margaret volunteered to drive me home. On the way there, we talked some more. I wondered aloud if it was even legal to pick up or keep wildlife. “Let ’em come find me, if they want,” was all she said. Before I stepped from the truck, Margaret showed me photos of her traditional yet innovative beadwork, paraphernalia of many-hued glass that she sold at church bazaars: garlands offsetting inspirational poems, necklaces culminating in bear pendants, tanned-hide discs blushing with floral designs, and wall hangings embroidered with the sign of her people’s adopted faith. I asked for her phone number in case I ever needed a customized gift.

I intended to let Margaret know the outcome of our rescue mission, but, for personal reasons, I also needed to follow this story to its end. At the time, my writing, if not my curiosity, had almost ground to a halt. The world did not seem to provide any new plots. Words did not come easily anymore and, when they did, mimicked flowers pressed in a book more than the green fertile mess that threatened to swallow my yard. But the minute I closed the cabin door, I grabbed pen and paper, and sentences began to form.

The next day, I rang the clinic to inquire about the patient’s condition. The diagnosis was bleak and the outlook even more so. As the result of heavy trauma, typically caused by collisions with cars or windowpanes, the raven had broken a wing bone and dislocated a shoulder and would never fly again. It shared the fate of many residents-turned-trespassers, an opportunistic lot that includes ants, magpies, rats, coyotes, deer, and here in Alaska, gray jays, bald eagles, and bears. Often lacking familiarity with technology’s traps, as well as the luck to dodge development, these camp followers glean from our tables, our henhouses, our backyards, our interstates. We’ve created predator-free havens filled with tidbits and trash, and they flock to them. An attentive observer can witness a trick bag of raven slyness outside of supermarkets, or marvel at how they dive into greasy Dumpsters, haggle over scraps, or, heads cocked sideways, gauge the speed of traffic before dashing onto asphalt to peel off mangled rabbit flesh. Such scavenging devalues them in the eyes of some people who regard them as vermin. But is the ravens’ defiance of human plans and conventions not a kind of wildness?

Some creatures become so familiar that our perception of them dulls. They blend into the landscape as if plumage or fur were a camouflage coat. When we do take notice, we sometimes label them “common” or consider them vulgar, but there is nothing common about this rogue bird, except for its manners. Of all my wild neighbors, it is the one that seems the most human.

Raven at the Headwaters of Nass hat, Seattle Art Museum attributed to Kadyisdu.axch’, Tlingit Kiks.ádi clan, active late 18th – early 19th century. There are human figures crouching within Raven’s ears. Photo by Joe Mabel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At Prudhoe Bay’s oil fields, ravens begin to nest in late March, at minus thirty degrees. With no twigs free of snow, they requisition unusual nest-building material: welding rods, plastic cable ties, copper wires, survey stakes. Some assemble to meet incoming cargo, waiting at the airstrip for the plane’s arrival. During the unloading, they raid food crates, rip open the packaging, and sometimes hide loot in industrial structures, away from patrolling foxes. As soon as the snow melts, they waddle after lemmings; they pilfer eggs and chicks from migratory birds. They mostly ignore oil field workers but will avoid a researcher who previously trapped them, recognizing the enemy even when she wears borrowed coveralls and a hard hat in disguise.

Ravens handle cold snaps of minus fifty degrees or below far better than they do cars. Their physiology enables them to prosper anywhere between the Sonoran Desert and the Arctic Ocean. Reminiscent of Raven’s mythic coup, they capture minute amounts of sunlight with their dark, absorbent plumage and fluffed up retain precious body heat. Sheer size, combined with stockiness, helps these largest of passerines to preserve life under winter’s harsh cloak. On clear winter days, you can surprise ravens with spread wings that are sunbathing on the ground or rolling exuberantly in heavenly down. If you sit still enough, long enough, in a Fairbanks parking lot, vignettes of urban raven life will accumulate: Seven birds aligned on the back of a truck, eyeing its garbage-strewn bed and clucking at the sudden bonanza. A pair locked together in midair, tumbling tails-over-heads, scattering feathers as if in a pillow fight. A scruffy loner extracting ketchup packets from a plastic bag, stashing them in snow piled around the foot of a parking meter for future consumption. They live like street bums or heroes fallen from grace; some people take this as a sign that the ancient spirits no longer care for their animal manifestations. But not me. Fledged under Alaska’s raw skies, the birds still belong more in this place than I, a transplant from afar.

In Distant Time stories, Raven as the trickster and culture hero often tripped over his own appetites. Left alone, its descendant, the specimen Margaret and I had brought into the clinic, also was likely to meet a bad end. Without the use of a wing, it would starve or fall to the next predator crossing its path. The vet was still trying to contact the only qualified bird rehabilitator in town. If that person could not give it refuge, the raven would be euthanized. Appalled by the news, I wanted to take it home but discovered I needed a permit and an appropriate setup for keeping a wild animal. The vet refused to free the bird and, detecting my frustration with clinic protocol, reminded me that I had interfered with nature’s workings when I helped retrieve it. But, I wanted to shout into the phone, I’d stepped in only because our kind caused the accident in the first place.

I called again the following day, a Sunday. The receptionist kept me in a limbo of Muzak laced with commercials. When she came back on the line, she informed me that the bird had been put down. I pictured the vet thrusting a syringe through the iridescent mantle into warm flesh I had held. As jet black button eyes lost their luster, I wished for one less story to tell.

When I phoned Margaret at work the next morning, she had already heard about the mercy killing. “Too bad,” she said while I gripped the receiver. Regret and compassion colored her voice, and an entire people’s weight rested upon those two words.

Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon and of the essay collection American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, from which this essay has been excerpted. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic. michaelengelhard.com

 

Header image – Raven at Dawn. Photo by Bryant Olsen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On Sighting a Bald-headed Eagle

by Julie-ann Rowell

Steep above me, on the handle
of a red cedar, sits white-haired
fish eater, steering for a chance.

I wait for his drop
to the rocks, flash of brown feather,
giant yellow feet, comic

in a jagged sense. This art
of danger I’ve never
learned, this turn, this complete

dependency on prey. A flurry
of effort and his wings are flapping
flat on the surface of the creek,

as if broken, but he lifts his body
off and up, his talons empty,
to wing to the stem he chose.

Julie-ann Rowell’s first pamphlet collection, Convergence, published by Brodie Press, won a Poetry Book Society Award. Her first full collection, Letters North, was nominated for the Michael Murphy Poetry Prize for Best First Collection in Britain and Ireland in 2011. She has been teaching poetry in Bristol for ten years.