Anthropocene Incantation: Mingled Singing Bird-Man-Machine Echoes

by Julianne Lutz Warren

First Listen to the “Human Imitation of Huia1

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;and Johnston, Sarah. Te Karangaa Te Huia/The Call of the Huia. Nga Taonga Sound & Vision (2016) at

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

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

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,; 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 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

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 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

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.