Return to Watership Down

By Elaine Ewart

This Christmas season has seen the broadcast of a new screen adaptation of Richard Adams’ bestselling lapine children’s novel, Watership Down, originally published in 1972. The recent miniseries, a collaboration between Netflix and the BBC, was billed as a gentler, more family-friendly offering than the 1978 film, written and directed by Martin Rosen, which was notorious for its scenes of graphic animated violence. The new version also boasted a diverse, high quality cast and more significant roles for female characters.

I must confess that I have very few memories of the 1978 film, but my first encounter with the novel was a formative experience. I first read Watership Down as a bookish ten-year-old, and I was completely blown away by the detail and thoroughness of the world-building, and the epic scale of the struggles endured by the hardy band of migrant rabbits, which I saw, smelt and suffered from the rabbit point of view.

It would not be accurate to say that reading Watership Down raised my environmental consciousness in any immediate, direct way. I knew the rabbits I met in the book were not the real rabbits I could see from the school playground. I was reading about an alternative society which retained recognisably human features, such as storytelling, humour, religion and ideals of morality. In the same way, I appreciated the beauty of Adams’ evocative description of the Hampshire countryside without associating it with anything I might find in local fields around my Lincolnshire village. I could read about “half-grown clumps of purple loosestrife and fleabane,” without the slightest idea of what they looked like in reality, or where I might find them. I could have just as easily been reading about Tolkien’s Middle Earth, as about a material landscape with real wildlife.  

Of course, there is a strong ecological message in the way the novel portrays the harm that humankind cause to the rabbit communities at the centre of the book: the violent destruction of Sandleford warren for a housing development; the sinister warping of “natural” rabbit life and flourishing in the warren of the snares; the shooting of Hazel. Repeatedly, the ethical code of animals (not just rabbits) is contrasted favourably with the depravity of human beings. When the embassy from Watership Down confronts the tyrannous General Woundwort, Strawberry tries to persuade the General to act more compassionately by appealing to a common animal morality:

“Animals don’t behave like men,” he said. “If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill, they kill. But they don’t sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures’ lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.” (245)[1]

The miniseries remains faithful to this aspect of the novel, and even goes further than the book in the emphasis placed on it; a deliberate decision, according to scriptwriter Tom Bidwell.[2] Towards the end of the final episode, for example, Fiver explicitly praises the girl from Nuthanger farm who rescues him from the cat, noting that there are at least some human beings who treat other living creatures with respect; a clear and direct encouragement to the young viewer to do the same.

Less overtly, the visual aesthetic of the CGI animation includes strong gothic elements which associate human societies with death. The corvid attack on the migrant rabbits, which in the book takes place in the open fields, occurs in the miniseries at night, in the graveyard of a ruined church. In a later episode, the association of human-built ruins with mortal threat is repeated effectively on a larger scale in the architecture of the totalitarian warren of Efrafa, which is constructed under the ruins of what appears to be an abandoned incinerator. We are introduced to Efrafa by a low eye level shot in which we follow prisoners along a disused railway line leading up to a ruined tower, evoking the horrific iconography of Second World War concentration camps. As @WatershipDownResearch notes on Twitter, the decision to situate Efrafa amongst the human-built environment (an element not present in the novel) is a visual indicator of its evil as an organisation.

Adams’ acknowledged source for the behaviour of rabbits was the naturalist Ronald Lockley’s monograph, The Private Life of the Rabbit (1965), the account of a detailed field study of a rabbit population. Significantly, this research was carried out as part of the UK Government’s investigation into the effect of myxomatosis, in the context of pest control. Coming across Lockley’s book last year, I was struck by how much of the text is concerned with the history of human attempts to control rabbit populations: an ominous history, given the current decline in the country’s rabbit populations. Watership Down does not mention human involvement in the spread of this disease, and no rabbit in the main story suffers from it. However, myxomatosis, or the “white blindness,” as it is called in the novel, haunts the text, with numerous allusions to its menace. It appears to especially sinister effect in the legendary story of The Black Rabbit of Inlé, in which El-ahrairah makes a desperate, self-sacrificial attempt to infect himself with the disease in order to kill the invaders of his warren.

Initially, rather than its ecological message, the most powerful legacy from my first reading of Adams’ Watership Down was the opening up of an incredible vista of literary sophistication. I was struck by the inventiveness and immersiveness of his creation of a whole rabbit culture. Although the novel has a reputation for darkness and violence, a thread of gentle humour runs throughout. The erudite, donnish tone of the footnotes translating the rabbit language of Lapine was to me a new level of wit. Ingeniously, rabbits are presented as a storytelling community. At intervals in the main narrative, a rabbit is called upon to tell a story from rabbit mythology, centring on the legendary ancestor hero, the trickster El-ahrairah. Often this happens at a moment of dramatic suspense: for example, when Dandelion tells the story of The King’s Lettuce on arrival at a strange warren, in a failed attempt to impress their hosts; or when Bigwig asks for the dark tale of the Black Rabbit of Inlé, in order to access fresh reserves of courage for his dangerous espionage mission to Efrafa. I found this rich metatextual depth deeply thrilling if, at times, baffling. At almost five hundred pages in length, reading the book felt like an epic achievement – it took me so long that once I had finished, I had to go straight back and start again, having almost forgotten what had happened in the beginning.

One of the most impressive achievements of the book is its presentation of an oral culture: the way in which storytelling embeds rabbit mythology in every area of their lives, providing the community with security and a sense of identity as well as a moral code. Their creation story, The Blessing of El-ahrairah, reflects rabbits’ position in the ecosystem: a vulnerable position, harried constantly by predators and disease, but resilient because of their intelligence and a physique adapted to escape pursuit. It was my first realisation that a myth was a created thing with a role to play in how a society sees itself.

Disappointingly little is made, in the miniseries, of the relationship between storytelling and rabbit society. Although, as in the book, Buckthorn tells his strange hosts in the warren of the snares that “rabbits will always need tricks,” we don’t really see the screen rabbits performing any. Ideas and strategy are lost in the somewhat confusing action sequences and chase scenes. By contrast, in the book, Holly’s plan of escape from Efrafa is inspired by hearing the story of The King’s Lettuce. When Hazel devises an idea to save the warren by letting the farmyard dog loose amongst the Efrafan invaders, he is inspired not only by prophetic visions but also by adapting a trick used previously in the plot of the main story.

Rereading Watership Down today, I find its strongest and most subtle ecological ethic in the attempt to present of the Watership Down community as an ideal society. It’s not an unproblematic ideal, but it has many positive features. In contrast to the book of Genesis, the creation story of rabbit society does not put the storyteller’s species in charge. Rabbit society is provisional, vulnerable, precarious. For much of the book the Watership Down rabbits are a migrant community, living by their wits, negotiating amongst strangers for their safety and survival. Although they do find a permanent place to live, Watership Down is not a novel of conquest but of co-operation both within and between species. While they view themselves as a fixed part of the ecological web of being, whose lives “haven’t changed for generations,” the rabbits are not part of a nostalgic pastoral idyll. Hazel and his friends innovate and adapt. Repeatedly we see them reusing knowledge gained at an earlier point in the story, and adopting new ideas they come across on their journeys. Such borrowing reflects the rabbit code of cunning and trickery, which covers behaviour as various as raiding a garden for lettuce and Hazel’s crafty but (usually) benign manipulation of his rabbit team. 

Returning to Watership Down today, I am reading with the terrible knowledge of the accelerating speed and scale of human-caused environmental destruction. In this respect, I can identify as much with the precarity of rabbit society, forced to find new reserves of strength and ingenuity in response to an uncertain, ever-threatening world, as with their enemies, the callous, domineering humans who tear up the Sandleford Warren.

I am also reading as a creative writer, searching for ways to respond appropriately to the unprecedented position of danger we find ourselves in. In this respect, the darkest episode in the novel, even more than the open cruelty and violence of Efrafa, is that of the warren of the snares. Having escaped the destruction of their home at Sandleford, Hazel’s band are invited to join a strange warren of well-fed but curiously melancholy rabbits. It turns out that the warren is hiding a terrible secret: it is being maintained by men as a source of food. The rabbits are fed by the humans, who also shoot any prey; the price of the rabbits’ easy life is that, every so often, one will be trapped and killed by a snare. The rabbits know they are living in a place of death, and the effort of repressing this knowledge warps and distorts their culture, resulting in a pseudo-sophistication. They evolve strange dancing rituals, songs and poems, and lose their visceral connection with the traditional stories of the trickster El-ahrairah. In an attempt to avoid rather than expose the truth, their culture has become etiolated and sick. The moment in which the truth is exposed, in Fiver’s prophetic speech, after Bigwig has survived a bloody rescue from one of the snares, is scalp-tingling to read.  

“They forgot the ways of wild rabbits. They forgot the ways of El-ahrairah, for what use had they for tricks and cunning, living in the enemy’s warren and paying his price? They found out other marvellous arts to take the place of tricks and old stories (…) Frith sent them strange singers, beautiful and sick like oak apples, like robins’ pin-cushions on the wild rose. And since they could not bear the truth, these singers (…) were squeezed under the terrible weight of the warren’s secret until they gulped out fine folly – about dignity and acquiescence, and anything else that could make believe that the rabbit loved the shining wire.” (125)

Whatever Adams’ intention was in his portrayal of this sinister, sick community, I can’t help reading into the episode of the warren of the snares a reflection of contemporary Western culture’s position within a materialist, ecocidal way of life. It is a world in which writers and artists can feel overwhelmed with the responsibility of responding adequately to the threat of climate breakdown, habitat destruction and violence.

In Watership Down, the poets and storytellers have as valuable a role as the fighters, runners and tricksters in keeping society on course. They give a culture its identity and describe its place in the vast ecological web. They entertain, reinforce and instruct. They generate new ideas, possibilities and connections. Above all, they keep society in contact with reality, with imagination and courage. In this way, Watership Down provides a model for all creative practitioners living on the edge of extinction, at the beginning of 2019.

Elaine Ewart is a poet and environmental writer, currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Essex. Her MA dissertation won second prize in the New Welsh Writing Awards (2015), and she has also been shortlisted for the Resurgence Ecopoetry Awards (2015). She can be found on Twitter at @EwartElaine.

The Bird

by Holly Day

The tiny bird flaps in the grass near me
watches my approach with eyes like glass beads
opens its mouth as if expecting
random acts of maternal kindness from everything
around it, even me. Overhead

the mother robin peeps in distress, also
watching me with shiny eyes
a look of resolution on its face as if
it’s already decided I am incapable of love.

 

Holly Day has taught writing classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, since 2000. Her poetry has recently appeared in Big Muddy, The Cape Rock, New Ohio Review, and Gargoyle, and her published books include Walking Twin Cities, Music Theory for Dummies, Ugly Girl, and The Yellow Dot of a Daisy. She has been a featured presenter at Write On, Door County (WI), North Coast Redwoods Writers’ Conference (CA), and the Spirit Lake Poetry Series (MN). Her newest poetry collections, A Perfect Day for Semaphore (Finishing Line Press) and I’m in a Place Where Reason Went Missing (Main Street Rag Publishing Co.) is out late 2018.

Orphaned Foxes: the look of a fox – an extract

by Alex Klaushofer

This story starts in suburban London. One dark night, I was walking home when I heard a rustling coming from a large pampas grass in a garden in the neighbouring street. It was such a pleasantly busy noise, so redolent of enthusiastic, purposeful activity, that my curiosity was piqued: who or what could it be? On impulse, I stopped and addressed the plant in the sweet tone usually reserved for children and pets. Out popped a fox cub, his face and ears cocked as he looked at me enquiringly. It seemed that he too was curious: he sat down on his haunches, his front paws drawn neatly together, and we both took a good long look at each other. Then he went back into the pampas grass and I went on home. But from that moment on, as far as foxes were concerned, I was a changed woman.

Up until then I had regarded foxes as a nuisance, a pest that threatened the hard work of reclaiming my newly-acquired garden from the bramble-ridden state into which it had fallen. I would plant some bulbs in the bare border to find that, overnight, the soil had been churned up and a little holloway tunnelled under the fence. Holes appeared in the delicate new grass, piles of poo in the middle of the lawn I was struggling to cultivate. I boarded up the tunnels, but more gaps appeared. The foxes’ main entry point was the corner farthest from the house which adjoined allotments and another semi-wild garden; the ground was littered with an ever-changing selection of scrabbled stones. So, having read that human smells were a good fox deterrent, I left an old T-shirt sprinkled with my pee wrapped around the tree in Fox Corner.

It made no difference: surrounded on three sides by green spaces connected to a patch of local woodland, my garden was an established thoroughfare for the local wildlife. One winter’s morning, I woke to find the ground covered in a blanket of snow. Its crystalline surface was broken only by an animal track that criss-crossed the garden in an organised fashion, covering the ground but never repeating the route. Something about the narrowness of the paw prints and the manner of their imprinting suggested both dexterity and speed, while the coverage indicated a thorough approach. I felt a thrill of urbanite fear: the prints came right up the dozen steps that ranup to the kitchen door. Something wild had tried to get into the flat while I slept.

I don’t remember the point at which I gave up trying to keep foxes out of the garden and adopted a policy of relaxed co-existence, cultivating the garden to accommodate both humans and animals. But I do remember the exact moment I first set eyes on Little Fox. It was an evening in late spring and I was cooking, back door open, with one eye on the stove and the other on the garden. There, sitting at the bottom of the steps, was a fox cub, blinking up at me. I told him gently that I wasn’t sharing my supper and after a while he went away.

After that, he was often in the garden, prospecting along the fence that ran from Fox Corner to the bottom of the kitchen steps, the slightness of his form thrown into relief by his disproportionately big ears. He was obviously looking for insects – the internet told me that foxes were omnivorous – and although the pickings in my bare border must have been thin, he was clearly making a good start at fending for himself. But the tiny cub who one day appeared in his wake was another matter. He tottered as he tried to imitate the snuffling search of his elder and, as he listed sideways into the grass, I saw his ribs.

Within hours I was at the nearest butcher’s, asking about cheap cuts of chicken suitable forfoxes. ‘Arf! Arf!’ laughed the butcher, waving a pack of assorted bits of bone and flesh prepared specially for customers like me. ‘They’ve got you now! Shall I put a packet aside for you next week?’ Apparently I was joining a network of soft-hearted south Londoners who fed foxes on a regular basis. It was a surprising outcome for someone who didn’t want a pet or believe in taming wild animals and would, I decided, be a temporary arrangement. Since the fox had asked for help, I would give it. But I would put out food irregularly to make sure that, while he didn’t starve, he had to learn to scavenge.

I never saw Toddling Cub again, but from then on I was a committed fox-feeder. Every couple of days, I left something in Fox Corner: chicken when I’d been to the butcher and left-overs when I hadn’t. Eating in a local cafe which served super-sized roasts, I asked for a doggie bag and took the surplus meat home for the fox; instead of throwing away the remains of a tub of taramasalata, I’d put it out. The food always disappeared quickly: the tub would be licked clean, and once I watched as the fox carefully collected the pile of bread I’d left, piece by piece, and took it back under the fence to keep for later. The sight reassured me that he was on the way to self-sufficiency.

But Little Fox was after more than just food: he wanted a safe place to be, and company. He made the garden the focal point of his daytime routine, appearing in the middle of the morning and spending the rest of the day coming and going, curling up on the grass for a nap and then disappearing back under the fence. He would re-appear in the early evening and do a thorough check of the border before taking off for what, I assumed, was his night-patrol of the surrounding area. Sometimes, if I was hanging out washing or doing some gardening, I would turn to find him behind me, his fascinated gaze fixed on the drops of water coming from a sweater or the light reflected by the gloss of falling ivy. Then he would retreat to Fox Corner, where he would sit and look at me. Sometimes I would talk to him quietly, some nonsense about it being all right, and he would blink in acknowledgement. As the warmer weather drew me outside at lunchtimes, he would sometimes join me while I ate. I was pleased when one day he slipped under the fence carrying a small, knotted plastic bag in his jaw. He deposited it onto the ground and, while I worked my way through my plateful, he delved into his bag and consumed some of its contents.

Generally I made it a rule not to share food from my plate. But one lunchtime when Little Fox had come to join me, I made an exception and threw him a few chips. After he’d eaten them, he performed a little dance. He leapt into the air, simultaneously spinning and throwing his body so that he landed in a different place. Another jump, and he executed a reverse pirouette. Then he crouched on the ground a few yards from where I was sitting stretched out on the sun lounger. His eyes locked on mine, holding a mix of fear and desire, and he started to creep towards me. I held my breath: I had another rule, kept half-secret from myself: I couldn’t attempt to touch the fox but he could, if he chose, get close to me. He continued to creep closer until, ever so gently, he enclosed the toe of my outstretched boot in his mouth. A second or so later he was off again, hurling himself backwards towards the border where he bit off the head of a giant daisy.

By this stage, toys had been appearing in the garden for some time. I had been puzzled when a sponge disappeared from the top of the garden shed and re-appeared on the ground, but the mystery was solved one afternoon. Little Fox was lying on the grass, lovingly chewing something he was holding between his paws. An hour later he was still there. When he’d eventually gone back under the fence I went down into the garden to see what had kept him so engrossed. On the grass lay a woollen mouse without its tail, presumably stolen from a domestic pet. A week or so later, an orange appeared and moved around the garden. As our relationship evolved, I was able to join in with the fox’s play, throwing the sponge for him to fetch. Instead of bringing it to me like a dog, he would retrieve it from where it had fallen and take it a safe distance away.

But there were limits to how close I wanted the relationship to get. With the summer in full swing, Little Fox was showing a definite interest in my living quarters. One afternoon while I was sitting on the sun lounger, he started up the back steps, making decisively for the open door. I was not keen on him going into the flat, fearing that my shoes would go for toys. ‘Come down,’ I said firmly. ‘Now’. He stopped and looked at me. Then, looking back at the kitchen door, he mounted another step. ‘No,’ I said, even more firmly. ‘Come back down.’ I pointed to the garden behind him. ‘There.’ Reluctantly, he turned round and obeyed.

If all this sounds like the kind of domestic relationship you would have with a pet, it did indeed have that quality of ease and normality. But it’s important to add that Little Fox could also be timid, even skittish, and would at times run and dive back under the fence when he saw me. He was still a wild animal and, as I had grown up with pets, neither aspect of his behaviour surprised me.

But there was one thing that did: the expression in his eyes. Science tends to fight shy of any suggestion that animals have expressions readable by humans because, it argues, they do not share our emotions. It’s a viewpoint that leaves only the observation of behaviour as a way of interpreting what is going on inside animal minds. But over the course of that spring and summer, I repeatedly saw feelings I recognised in Little Fox’s eyes. They ranged from anxiety and wariness to contentment and friendliness, with the most pronounced expression being a kind of intelligent interest.

Most people, not being subject to the constraints of scientific research, read emotions on the faces of animals all the time. Cats and dogs, the last of the animals to live with and alongside us, are a constant reminder that other living beings have feelings and needs. For us, a visual species, the look of an animal is key to assessing the mood of those we meet in public spaces: the contented blink of a cat as it sits on a window sill, the craving for acknowledgement of a friendly dog. And so the question arises: if the characteristic look of a cat is satisfaction, and that of a dog hopefulness, what is the look of a fox? I would say it is curiosity.

Alex Klaushofer is a journalist who has written extensively on social affairs and politics in Britain for publications including the Guardian, New Statesman and Earthlines, and the author of two full-length books. She has a PhD in philosophy and taught the subject for several years. Details of her book ‘Orphaned Foxes’ can be found on her website.

Dry Deer Is Longing To Cross The Stone River

by Agnes Marton

We wander like this: the Hart,
the Hind (myself), the Kid,
ruminant. Hardly a herd.

We browse through leaves of surrender,
skip for squirrels’ flesh, our buckskin
parches away its mouldish film.

The forest is sharp, rain’s blades
root in handles made of antlers.
I cut a yawn, don’t pull up,

trip but go ahead. At the edge
of the stone river I’m alone,
the boat of Sumerian god Enki’s

on my mind, the Stag
of Azbu. It would take me
from end to end, without ripples,

my hoof wouldn’t be chafed
to disquiet. No boat here though,
just a chafer-grub, I cannot call

my musk people yet.

 

Agnes Marton is a Hungarian-born poet, writer, librettist, Reviews Editor of The Ofi Press, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, founding member of Phoneme Media. Recent publications include award-winning ‘Estuary: A Confluence of Art and Poetry’, her poetry collection ‘Captain Fly’s Bucket List’ and four chapbooks with Moria Books (USA). She won the National Poetry Day competition in the UK.

Ladders to Heaven – an extract

© Bernard Dupont CC BY-SA 2.0

By Mike Shanahan

On a moonlit night in southern Africa, a reproductive race is about to begin. The stakes are high but so are the risks. Most of the competitors will be dead or doomed by dawn. The starting line is a solitary fig tree whose gnarled form towers over a small stream. Figs hang in clumps from its branches like a plague of green boils. Tonight they erupt with life.

An insect emerges from a hole in one of the figs. She’s so small you could swallow her and not notice. She’s a fig-wasp with an urgent mission and her time is running out. All around her, thousands of her kind are crawling out of figs. Each one is a female with the same quest, and each faces immediate danger. Ants patrol the figs, and they show no mercy. Their huge jaws will crush and dismember any fig-wasp that delays her maiden flight.

Our fig-wasp avoids this fate with a flap of her wings that lifts her clear of the carnage. She carries inside her body a precious cargo, hundreds of fertilised eggs that she can only lay in a fig on another tree. But she is fussy. The fig she seeks must be from the right species of Ficus , and it must be at the right stage of development. If it is ripe, she will be too late. If it is too small, the fig will not let her enter. The nearest fig that fits the bill could be tens of kilometres away.

The wasp does not have time on her side. With every minute that passes her energy stores deplete and can never rise again, for in her short adult life she never once eats. She has less than 48 hours to complete her mission and although she has left the ants behind, the air brings fresh danger.

Out of the dark night swoop bats, their mouths agape, their stomachs empty and expectant. The bats fly looping sorties through the clouds of dispersing wasps, condemning those they swallow to an early death. Our wasp escapes only when a gust of wind blows her high into the sky. She has eluded the predators. Now she must face the elements.

The fig-wasp is less than two millimetres long and her wings are thinner than a human hair. But relative to her body, they act as huge sails. With them, she rides the wild winds in search of a fig. She relinquishes control. Her fate is random now. Some of her cohort will be lucky and find their target within the hour. Many more will drop out of the sky, dead from exhaustion. The wind buffets her this way and that. All the while she awaits a signal from below, for the fig-wasp has allies in the trees she seeks.

The trees need the wasps just as much as the wasps need their figs. Fortunately for both, fig trees are great chemists, and this makes them great communicators. At just the right time, they pump into the air a cocktail of chemicals that is unique to each species of Ficus. These compounds act in concert, like a choir of distinct voices that calls out ‘welcome’ in a language only certain kinds of wasps can understand.

There it is – a whiff of the perfume she seeks. As soon as she recognises it, she seizes control of her destiny and drops down out of the sky. She has found a patch of forest. Somewhere within it is a fig tree whose figs emit the signal scent. Away from the wind, she must now rely on her weak wings to carry her to the odour’s source. The tree’s figs are just right – smaller and harder than the one she departed. The fig-wasp has found her target but she has no time to rest. The final centimetre of her immense journey is among the hardest.

At the tip of the fig is a tiny hole. The fig-wasp squeezes her head into the hole and, with a resolute push from her slender legs, she forces herself forward into darkness. The narrow tunnel in which she finds herself is tight. As she struggles forwards, its walls snap her antennae and wrench the wings from her back. It does not matter. This is a one-way journey and she will not need them again. She has come to give life but also to die, deep in the hollow heart of this special kind of fig.

The fig-wasp has other anatomical adaptations to help her reach her goal. Her head is shaped like a flattened wedge, ideal for forcing her way into the fig. Her jaws bear tooth-like ridges that dig into the tunnel walls. By opening and closing her mouth, the wasp ratchets herself forwards.

At last she reaches the fig’s hollow centre. She can complete her mission. And though the darkness blinds her, she knows exactly what she must do, in these, the last hours of her life. If her genes are to have a chance to survive, she must start to lay eggs, for the cavity at the centre of the fig will be both her tomb and her offspring’s nursery.

Our wasp belongs to a species scientists call Ceratosolen arabicus and her partner is the sycamore fig (Ficus sycomorus). This tree reaches up to 25 metres in height, with a dense crown of leaves that can spread twice as wide to form a canopy the sun’s rays struggle to breach. The sycamore fig grows wild across a great swathe of Africa. Wherever it grows it has become embedded in local cultures, often as a symbol of peace and unity – a place elders go to settle disputes.

It is an ironic choice of icon, for figs are violent places. Within these ‘fruit’ you can find parasites that feed on living flesh and assassins that can only survive by killing babies. Figs are arenas of deadly gladiatorial battles and hasty incestuous sex. As biologist Bill Hamilton noted, in just one day as many as a million insects can die violent deaths inside the figs of a single tree.

Our fig-wasp’s quest to reproduce does not end when she finds a fig where she can lay eggs. She has enemies ahead. She is deep inside the fig now. Flowers line its entire inner surface. They are packed together, their heads forming a carpet on which the wasp walks. As she does, she deposits pollen she has brought with her from the fig of her birth.

Each flower she pollinates can develop into a miniscule fruit with a single seed, an embryonic Ficus sycomorus that has the potential to grow into a giant tree. But not every flower shares this fate. Some of the fig’s flowers will produce a new wasp instead of a seed. This is the price the fig tree pays for such a reliable pollination service.

To take her payment, the mother wasp gets down to the urgent business of laying eggs. One by one she penetrates the fig’s female flowers with a flexible, needle-like structure at the end of her body. Through this hollow tube, she injects an egg into the part of the flower that would normally produce a seed. Each time she lays an egg, she also injects a drop of fluid. This induces the flower to develop a growth called a gall that will enclose and sustain her offspring. The larvae that hatch from her eggs will feed on the plant tissue in their galls until they are ready to metamorphose into adults.

The mother wasp must work fast. Her energy reserves are running low and she has competition. Others of her kind have arrived and they too covet the limited supply of flowers. If she is fast our wasp can lay more than 200 eggs. Finally, exhausted, she dies. Her final act will help ensure the fig species survives. And, because of this, the tiny wasp will affect the fates of thousands of other species, all bound up in an intricate web of interactions that connects plants and fungi, microscopic mites and parasitic worms, birds and bats, monkeys and apes – and even you and me.

Figs feed wildlife than any other plants — including at least 1,270 species of birds and mammals. Without figs and their fig-wasps many of these animals would starve. That’s because most plant species produce their fruit at a specific time of year – often when many other species fruit too. This means fruit-eating animals experience periods of feast and famine as the amount of fruit in an area peaks in just a short period. But if all members of a Ficus species produced their figs at the same time, the short-lived female wasps that emerge from the figs would have no new immature figs in which to lay their eggs. It would mean no more pollination. This would doom both wasp and tree species to extinction.

Instead many Ficus species produce figs all year round, never all at the same time, and individual trees can produce two or more crops each year. Each day, the figs and their wasps introduce new beats to a rolling rhythm of fig production. It is one of nature’s coolest tunes. It offers a lifeline to wild animals and so places Ficus species at the centre of vast ecological webs. The birds and mammals that eat figs will also disperse the seeds of many other plants whose fruit they eat. It is because of this that ecologists have described figs as keystone resources in tropical forests.

A keystone on a bridge or an archway locks all of the other stones into position. Remove it and the structure will come tumbling down. Remove keystone figs from a tropical rainforest, the analogy suggests, and this could trigger a cascade of local extinctions as birds, monkeys and fruit bats starve and are no longer around to disperse the seeds of thousands of other plant species. In 1986, John Terborgh, then a biology professor at Princeton University, suggested that if figs disappeared from Peru’s Amazon basin, the entire ecosystem could collapse.
Later studies have identified a keystone role for figs in other forests, from Panama to South Africa to Malaysia and Indonesia. Biologist Daniel Kissling showed that across all of sub-Saharan Africa, the number of Ficus species in an area was the main factor affecting how many fruit-eating bird species lived there. Kissling concludes that figs are keystone resources on a continent-wide scale.

Right now, as you read these words, fresh dramas are playing out at fig trees across the tropics and subtropics, just as they have done every day for tens of millions of years. At some trees, fig-wasps are emerging from their figs and setting out on their bizarre and fatal journeys. At other trees, fig-wasps are arriving, bearing pollen and eggs. Without these ancient odysseys, the world would be utterly different.

Mike Shanahan is a freelance writer with a doctorate in rainforest ecology. He has written for The Economist, New Scientist, Nature, BBC Earth and Newsweek, and is the author of Ladders To Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future (US title: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers).

Water Mammals

by Emily Hasler

I enter the water on the wide stage of Carbis Bay. I swim out slowly beyond my depth, stop and float on my back as is my habit. It is then I realise I am being watched. The seal comes closer, dips, hunching its shoulders like a cat about to pounce, before diving gently again. Closer. Those unblinking eyes and sharp whiskers becoming more and more distinct. It made contact—eye contact. And in that moment I was suddenly aware of my feet—everything fell inside me and beneath me and I began to pedal, suddenly feeling utterly terrestrial.

***

The Latin name for the Grey or Atlantic seal is Halichoerus grypus, meaning ‘hook-nosed sea-pig’. Those mannerisms and whiskers—which are super sensitive and allow seals to hunt successfully even if blind—are feline, but the profile of a grey seal is most often called canine. Then again, another name is the horsehead seal. The young are pups, or calves. They breed in rookeries. Their nearest land relatives are bears or mustelids (weasels, otters, badgers, etc.). The old Orkney word for the grey seal is ‘haaf fish’, literally meaning ‘fishing fish’, highlighting the tense relationship between the two parties. But it also sounds like ‘half fish’ and recalls Trinculo’s discovery of Caliban in Scene II of the Tempest:

[…] What have we
here? a man or a fish? dead or alive? A fish:
he smells like a fish; a very ancient and fish-
like smell; a kind of not the newest Poor-
John. A strange fish! […]

More often still than any of the other beastly comparisons, seals are likened to ourselves. Their eyes especially, which are actually completely unlike ours, but that look in a way that is familiar, knowing—even accusing. Where other animals might see us, they look. And not, like a horse, with a seemingly submissive nod, but eye to eye. This is what happened. I was swimming and the seal knew it. It came towards me and then it came closer.

***

The tail of a seal is not a tail, but feet. It is as if their legs had been bagged and tied together. We can see this in photos of them reclining on their backs, nonchalantly crossing their flipper-feet. Seals belong to the family of pinnipeds; pinna for fin and pedis for foot. Finned and footed, they are different animals on and off land. The sea-slick grey seal is pebbled, glossy. On land she is dulled and mottled. From this shape-shifting has grown stories of selkies; tales of love, vengeance and transgression, of crossing between worlds. For, like cetaceans, seals have returned to the sea, performing an elegant loop in evolution. Here’s R.M. Lockley in his tender and still useful 1966 book Grey Seal, Common Seal:

The structure of the skeleton and limbs of the seal show that they once lived terrestrially with four articulate limbs able, like the polar bear and otter today, to walk about on dry land. Having become land mammals with man, they are returning, have almost completely returned, to the sea – which may yet be man’s not too distant future when the land fails to satisfy his requirements and if he continues to destroy his environment through lack of foresight.

This is one of the UK’s largest wild mammals; adult males are about 7ft long and 500lb but can be bigger in their prime. I suspect the individual I met with was female, slightly smaller but, toe-to-toe, surely taller than me. But we were not standing, and the sense I had is not of being outsized but of being out of my element. My eyesight underwater, even with prescription goggles, is pretty useless. My sense of smell is blunt, everything is overpowered by salt. I have no whiskers—though I do think I sensed being watched before I spotted my watcher. The seal knew about me being in the water long before I knew about it and came to investigate the trespasser.

***

Back in Essex, I recount my adventures with the seals again and again: how I took the train and saw the bay studded with seal-like shapes I took for buoys. How I swam the first day and thought I saw a log being washed ashore. How all these returned to me as seals when on my second day I ran into the water under a rainbow and one of the buoys sprouted whiskers, grew eyes and began to move towards me.

It could not be told enough. It could not be told. So I read.

“Did you know there are less grey seals in the wild than African elephants?”

“Fewer,” my friend replied.

“Yes, fewer. But I saw loads of seals, and no elephants at all!”

The UK has about 40% world’s population of grey seals. Although persecution has lessened, it does still go on. Microplastics work their way through the food chain to the bellies of apex predators while ghost nets attack them from without. When we encounter animals it is difficult to remember their endangeredness. Their scarcity makes them more vivid, causes them to occupy more space. How can we see what is no longer there to be seen? How do we spot what is missing? I keep butting up against this thought, just as I keep coming close to but not reaching my encounters with the seals—not touching.

***

On my last morning in Cornwall I decided not to swim. Instead I sat with my tea on a low but sheer cliff. In the pre-dawn light everything is temporarily vibrant, more distinct. A group of grey seals complicate the blue-black water, appearing as slightly darker blue-black flecks. There are at least a dozen, maybe twenty. It is hard to keep count as they appear and disappear across my field of vision. They seem to be acting as a group, coming together in pairs or threes and forming a loose assembly, sometimes ‘logging’ (lying lengthways), sometimes bobbing vertically (‘bottling’). Research on fur and elephant seals show they sleep with half a brain at a time in the water, while on land they sleep full-brained as humans. They dive and surface in their slumber, dropping to the bottom and then swimming up unconsciously to breath every seven minutes or so.

This Cornish colony of seals is easier to observe in the winter because their numbers in the bays increase. This morning it is as though they huddled together in the lee of the cliffs. The ‘as thoughs’ and ‘apparentlys’ proliferate, but something tells me to trust my animal sense; warmth, security, shelter. We can’t avoid the fact that when we encounter animals a human is always involved. We can’t take ourselves out of the situation. But we also can’t remove the other, the animal. In the exchange we ourselves become animalled. At several points I think one of the seals has spotted me, seeming to stop and stare back. I raise my flask in acknowledgement.

***

We need encounters with wildness to know that we cannot reach it. We need to butt up against that gap (which we feel in the belly, not the head) every once in a while. Documentaries are wonderful, but incredible underwater images won’t do it—they bring us too close. We talk of feeling so close we ‘could touch it’; what we need to remember is not touching, not reaching. There are so many necessary impossibilities to be tackled. We need myths and folklore, stories of meetings and crossings. We need to complicate our understanding, to be aware of our closeness and profound distance.

Of course there are some simple mammalian similarities. The same ventral fat which causes the sleeping seal to roll onto its back gives me my natural buoyancy. It is what lets me bob about in the waves as I love to do, allowing my body pivot slowly according to the tides and currents. I bask and swim lazy strokes, delighting in the water. But there is also, always, fear, even here in my own lonely North Sea. For each time I enter the water I am not quite alone. I catch grey shapes from the corner of my eye and my body plummets through itself before I realise it is just a gull, or a buoy.

Emily Hasler’s debut poetry collection, The Built Environment, was published by Pavilion Poetry in 2018. She was born in Suffolk but has washed up on the Essex-side of the river Stour. She works as a freelance proofreader and writer, and in a pub.

References
R.M. Lockley, Grey Seal, Common Seal (London: Andre Deutsch, 1966).

A Failure of the Imagination

by Sherry Rind

When our wish calls him forth,
a mass breaks the bush and into
the weight of being,

part dancer trotting en pointe,
part tank, lumps and horns everywhere
until we sort the symmetry

of snout broadened into scimitar tusks
and heavy bone sculpted into ridges
protecting the high-set eyes.

The closer we move, the farther the warthog drifts
across the veldt, leaving familiar smells
of dried mud and pig.

The herd plays Our Town,
piglets ramming foreheads and the smooth sows, tails swinging,
strut and mutter, as various as ourselves.

There is no one warthog. We pull them into our world
named as barbeque joints, armored bombers, biker clubs,
cartoons video games, children’s toys,

scars and knobs edited away
the originals lost
in the dry grass closing behind them.

 

 

Sherry Rind’s poetry books are The Hawk in the Back Yard (Anhinga Award) and A Fall Out the Door (King County Arts Award, Confluence Press). Chapbooks are The Whooping Crane Dance and A Natural History of Grief. She has received grants and awards from the Seattle and King County Arts Commissions, Pacific Northwest Writers, National Endowment for the Arts, and Artist Trust.

Requiem for an American Mink

by Bethan Wood

As I stepped out of my car onto my drive, I stood on something that softly cracked and squelched. Looking down I saw the bottom half of a frog – its head and front legs were missing. A whole frog I could understand; our small loch produces thousands of them and sometimes they are accidentally run over by vehicles. Half a frog was something new.

I looked around and noticed many similarly discarded frogs in various stages of dismemberment. Heron? Fox? It was then that I sensed I was being watched. No more than 8 feet away, an American mink sat (yes, sat) watching me. It showed no fear, no alarm, but waited for me to move so it could continue with its meal. I was both horrified by the carnage around me but intrigued to see a mink in the flesh. A colleague who studies small mammals in southern Scotland had told me and my students in a presentation that if you ever accidentally catch a mink in your Longworth trap you MUST apologise profusely and release it on the other side of a wall if possible, as mink are known to attack if cornered. So I went into the house and ran upstairs to watch from a window.

A little bit daunted and excited I spent the next hour watching as the mink entered the water of the loch, caught its prey, brought it to the driveway, dismembered it and ate the parts it wanted. My excitement I confess did turn to anger. Despite its fluffy tail and pointed snout, this was undoubtedly an indiscriminate predator which certainly was born to kill. Our resident moorhen family was nowhere to be seen; blackbirds, chaffinches, and our tenant robin were all sounding continuous alarm calls. This one small mammal which is only a fifth the size of an otter had unbalanced the peace of this small ecosystem.

The American mink (Neovison vison) is not native to the UK and as such has no natural predators here. It was imported in the 1920s to satisfy the demand for fur – coats, muffs, collars, etc. In the 1950s there were estimated to be around 400 mink farms in the UK with thousands of animals at each. With that number of individuals, it was no surprise that many escaped (or were deliberately released) and went on to flourish in the wild. For me, the most incomprehensible wildlife crime involving these animals was executed in the name of ‘animal protection’ when animal activists deliberately released these animals from fur farms into the countryside. It is estimated that in the 1980s and 90s thousands of mink were released by these campaigners which added to the already significant population in the wild.

The carnivorous American mink feeds on small mammals (including rabbits), fish, birds (especially moorhens – hence my concern), crustaceans, as well as my frogs and other amphibians. However the most noteworthy UK species it has influenced over the last few decades is the Water Vole (aka ‘Ratty’, in the Wind in the Willows). In the 1900s it was estimated that there were around 8 million water voles in the UK; Scotland has a darker population which came from southern Europe around 10 000 years ago when there was a land bridge to Europe, while England and Wales have the lighter water vole which originated from the Balkans. Despite the longevity of these populations since the last Ice Age, ninety percent of water voles disappeared within a few decades of the release of mink from fur farms in the 20th Century. By 2002 it was declared extinct in South West England. In 2011, one of the biggest conservation schemes commenced in North East Scotland, to remove mink from the rivers in a bid to protect and increase the numbers of the native water vole.

I am fairly convinced that we have water voles on our land in southern Scotland. I have found a few latrines over the years and found evidence of the cropped grass around a burrow. The presence of this mink was therefore of concern. Mink cannot be released back into the wild if caught because they are a non-native, invasive species; our animal was humanely killed by a single shot as it sat feeding on yet another frog. As the body slowly cooled I took the opportunity to examine this compact, evolutionary-superb animal. I first ran my hand down its dark-chocolate back and the silky, velvety-smooth fur made me see why women in the early 20th Century had valued its pelt. Its sparkly black eyes were slowly dimming but still kept a remnant of its intelligence. The bright white markings on its chin and throat reminded me of the brilliance of newly fallen snow. The long slender body was muscular and solid, and the feet webbed. It was the size of a small domestic cat. I confess, I admired this little animal and its tenacity to seize a niche in a new country and thrive. Research has shown that the presence of otters can limit mink numbers as the otter outcompetes the mink. As our rivers become cleaner our native otters are slowly returning to their former habitats and this creates hope that the mink population will decline as a result. However, we must remember that humans caused this ecological conundrum – and sometimes to save many species we may have to control a single species which in this case is an alien in this ecosystem.

One day later, as I was leaving for work, I heard the familiar call of one of our moorhens and saw that all of them were present and correct – clever birds!

Bethan Wood is an ecologist who lives in Southern Scotland. She teaches ecology at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

Paralarva

by Rebecca Gethin

a pulsating jig
of injelligence,
all on my own
in the waterdance

Disguised as water
I see through myself
a series of dots
connecting
suckers to brain

My arms think
for themselves,
each one choosing
a plankton
so I eat 8 times more

Three hearts
whisperbeat
my life after-egg,
so long as I don’t become
another being

Up there,
in the overwater
light heats me
dark cools me
In between

there’s a reddening
Uncertain if this is
the swallowing
till I sink
into myself

 

 

Rebecca Gethin lives on Dartmoor. In 2017 two pamphlets were published: A Sprig of Rowan by Three Drops Press and All the Time in the World by Cinnamon Press who previously published a collection and two novels. New poems appear in UK magazines and anthologies. She runs a Poetry School seminar in Plymouth. In 2018 she has a writing residency at Brisons Veor. www.rebeccagethin.wordpress.com

The Sea Wasps: Chironex fleckeri

by Marija Smits

Saltwater rich in iodine calls to us; it sings to our aeons-old nervous system. It speaks to our cells: it is time. It is time.

We see all and sense all.

Now, it is dark.

We move rapidly through the ocean, unlike the others of our kind, our translucent bells pulsating: contract, relax, contract, relax. A hypnotic kind of locomotion this, and one which belies our dangerous nature. Our prey has little chance of surviving our tentacles; we are not passive in our feeding, like the others, our cousins. We are canny, we do not trust to the vagaries of the tide, that mistress of the others, the passive ones. We seek out our food: worms, shrimps and prawns, and paralyse them with our venom. Our oral arms draw the creatures into our mouth-anus, the entrance — and exit — to our gut. They are then digested, their flesh broken down into smaller and smaller fragments until they are but molecules. Necessary fuel for our cells.

What is it that we fear in the ocean? There is almost nothing that we fear. Green turtles, crabs and the silver and coloured fish — butterfish, rabbitfish, batfish — are our only predators, seemingly immune to our poison which we use to defend ourselves, lashing out to disable, striking to kill. Although there is also the invisible threat: the malevolent force — wrath of Poseidon? Cyclone? Storm? — that comes from nowhere and leaves us stranded in our thousands on the shore.

It was then, when we were beached, prone, and barely alive, that the inquisitive apes poked us with their sticks, although those that were more knowledgeable (and less curious) ran from us, aware that our tentacles were still deadly, despite our deaths. We were left to drown in the thin air beneath a cerulean sky and reeling gulls.

Still. The light levels begin to increase. We migrate.

Contract, relax, contract, relax.

It is time. It is time.

It is time to mate, to reproduce; the iodine promises success to our offspring, our polyps. In these waters they will change and grow into adults, like us.

These waters are perfect, there is enough light, enough food, enough oxygen, enough iodine. The temperature is just right too, and the thinking apes have left enough debris in the waters for our polyps to cling to; so it is here that we will congregate and bloom. A stalk of us enters the waters and then another and another. The stalks become a swarm, and then a bloom, for we are here to mate. This is no chance meeting of medusae, the currents flinging us into each other. No, there is purpose here.

The increasing light levels are a signal to spawn; the males release their sperm, the females release their eggs, and the waters become thick with gametes that float into each other, touch, fuse, join, fertilise. The eggs, when fertilized, become larvae and sink to the seabed, which is littered with debris. We do not know why, but the shore-dwelling apes, the ones with language and tools, aid our proliferation; for when they are not poking us with sticks, or watching us from above the water in their vessels, they are building us great reefs for our polyps. Made of strange materials, these reefs sometimes house fish for us to feed on. They have made the waters warmer too, the water more nutrient-rich, oxygen-thin. They kill off our predators. We do not know why they do this, but it matters not. These apes they come, they go. Yet we go on.

Contract, relax, contract, relax.

Our larvae, attached to a firm structure, will become polyps; these will then grow and strobilate, and produce more free-swimming cube-shaped medusae, like us. We will be dead by then, for we do not have long to live, but it matters not. Today, while it is light, we bloom and spawn; today we witness the spectacle of reproduction.

Some of our kind have mastered immortality; some, like the tiny Turriptosis, when hurt, or ill, or simply close to death, are able to revert into polyps. From adult to offspring, then offspring to adult, the process can go on forever. We practise a different kind of immortality.

We see all, we sense all. The light levels are dropping. It is time to stop spawning. The bloom begins to break up into stalks of sea wasps.

Contract, relax, contract, relax; we move apart, into the darkening waters.

The last of the fertilised eggs float downwards. They are changing already; cells are multiplying, proliferating, DNA is being replicated. We move through the water, not much more than water ourselves, and senesce. By the time the light levels increase again, some of us will have died. Yet it matters not, for our offspring will survive. We will endure.

Contract, relax, contract, relax.

Marija Smits is the pen-name of Dr Teika Bellamy, a mother-of-two, ex-scientist and editor whose art and writing has appeared in a variety of publications. When she’s not busy with her children she’s running the indie press, Mother’s Milk Books. ‘Teika’ means ‘fairy tale’ in Latvian.