Tracing the Silent Spring in The Peregrine

by Elizabeth Lee Reynolds

House sparrows chirp viciously from opposing rooftops. As I make my way along the road it begins to feel like a scene from The Birds. The tiny creatures appear sinister and plotting against the humans below, and in truth they have every right. For decades we have pushed them to the peripheries in their own homes as use of pesticides across the countryside litters their contorted bodies over the landscape. But these little brown birds are now coming back in force.

Their resurgence carries a small personal victory for me. When I was about 8 I wrote a letter to Tony Blair about the dangers of pesticide use to sparrows which frequented farms. Somewhere, tucked away, I still have his reply; a short, polite but uncommitted letter from an assistant, assuring the Prime Minister’s concern for the matter.

When I wrote it, it seemed like I had done a terribly important thing, but the cynicism doesn’t take long to kick in. Despite that I still cherish my first act of environmental activism, as tame as it may be.

With the state of near environmental catastrophe the world is currently in, pesticide use and its effects have started to be a less prominent concern in activists’ agendas. Perhaps this is partly because the majority of the casualties are less obvious.

These scenes, however, were not uncommon when pesticide use first became a concern in the 1960’s. Marine biologist, Rachel Carson, played a key role in bringing the dangers to the public and government’s attention. In her powerful book Silent Spring she stated: that central problem of our age has… become the contamination of man’s total environment with such substances of incredible potential for harm- substances that accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals and even penetrate the germ cells to shatter or alter the very material of heredity upon which the shape of the future depends. 1

Through an account that appealed to scientific reasoning and emotional narrative, Carson managed to completely change the public opinion of the use of these dangerous chemicals and urged forward changes to national policy on pesticide use.

On the other side of the Atlantic the elusive John Alec Baker was taking regular walks through the Essex countryside and documenting the rare peregrines he saw there. Diaries, from over ten years, would become compressed into a single winter in The Peregrine. This text was foremost a celebration of a remarkable bird which Baker dedicated intense study to and whose heavy decline he mourned. Wildlife poisoning and loss of countryside provide a dark undercurrent to this text, which many have called “an elegy” to a disappearing landscape and threatened bird; a final celebration of things that Baker thought would soon be completely lost. 2

Whether it was Baker’s early description of peregrines who “die on their backs, clutching insanely at the sky in their last convulsions, withered and burnt away by the filthy insidious pollen of farm chemicals” or Carson’s lengthy explanations of “the numbers of doomed birds… in the agonized tremors that precede death” (103), many readers in the early 60’s would be able to recognise their own experiences of the death bought by chemicals. 3 In 1961 much of the English countryside was littered with dead birds as waves of new experimental pesticides were used, with similar scenes to be found in America. 4 For Baker “Peregrines were totems of a wilderness under siege” 5 and they could, if no action had been taken, have become extinct in the same year Baker’s book was published in a trend clearly linked to the introduction of ‘organochlorine’ pesticides in Britain. 6

Chemicals were rampant in this period, in the human population in the 1960’s it was impossible to find people not consuming DDT with their daily meals apart from in remote and isolated communities (Carson, 163). Although Carson primarily focuses on the situation in America there is a part of her text that ventures into England to describe the widespread destruction there due to seeds being treated with insecticides. From Baker’s own Essex one report told of 100 pheasants dying on a farm.

The use of pesticides, certainly heavily applied in the densely agricultural East Anglia, lies partly unseen in The Peregrine, perhaps sometimes even by Baker himself. As Jameson insists: “Read about the dead birds, and think toxins” (15). They slink in the background during many occasions. The 5th of January concludes with: “A fungus of whiteness grows upon the eye, and spreads along the nerves like pain” (106), implying a poison which spreads along the nerves echoing the fact that the chemicals of pesticides primarily attack the nervous system (Carson, 39).

There are very few instances where Baker refers directly to pesticides; a “poisoned crow” (100) is mentioned but otherwise it is often up to interpretation. It may even hide in the seeming tameness of the peregrines Baker observes. He can closely approach a bird, even when he hasn’t seen them in months. Perhaps rather than an endearing love story between man and bird there is a morbid twist. In Lord Shackleton’s introduction to Silent Spring he notes how foxes lose “their fear of mankind” through a sickness of unknown origin at the time, but now put down to the poisons of pesticides. 7 Pesticides burning in the peregrine’s insides may be an explanation for their unresponsiveness to Baker’s approach.

Some have also noted a certain sense of exaggeration in the report of “619 peregrine kills” over the course of ten winters (21). It would not be unfounded to imagine the peregrines might share these kills with the chemicals, especially when considering how Carson notes the poisons are known to “lie dormant like a slumbering volcano, only to flare up in periods of physiological stress” (40), such as the harsh winter of 1962-1963 that is believed to be that depicted in The Peregrine. Poison lingers unseen in the bodies of the birds; emulating those already dead, hidden under the snow, which are revealed in the thaw to expose “thirty kills” in a small area (115). From December through to February death haunts the entire landscape, where even the sun is “shrivelling, dying” (109) as two killers circling it; one causing “feeble and dying” birds (108) and the other profiting from them.

In their books Baker and Carson were writing about killers. One who is precise and patient and another whose scatter-gun approach is symbolic of the lack of consideration people often give to future consequences. But they are both perfectly constructed for murder and can both be traced by the remains of their victims. Baker details, down to almost every feature, how the peregrine is a perfect predator: “Everything he is has been evolved to link the targeting eye to the striking talon” (28).

While the peregrine has evolved over centuries to this specialised form the creation of chemicals took place over only a few years, and via human manipulation of the complex world of hydrocarbons. The chemical design of modern insecticides is built around carbon, turning the basic matter for life into a creator of death. They use their ability to penetrate “all available portals to enter the body” (38) and, depending on quantities, may remain stored in the body destroying “the very enzymes whose function is to protect the body from harm” (32). They weren’t initially intended for the genocide of insects; they were the products of “chemical warfare”, tested on insects to judge their effects on humans (31).

Both the peregrines and pesticides often remain invisible to the naked eye apart from the dead or dying birds they leave behind. But while the birds that the peregrines killed always return, the same cannot be said for the indiscriminate attacks of pesticides. In The Peregrine the only time we directly see the pesticides work their invisible potency on Baker’s prize birds is in the Cotswolds, away from Baker’s Essex home. On the chalk cliffs he finds nests but with no eggs or young, whose inhabitants are “sterile” and have “no meaning” (97). He notes a poison that burns within them, making their life a “lonely death” (97). The pre-natal murderous tendencies of the poisons arise in Silent Spring as well. Carson discusses Charles Broley, who studied the nests of bald eagles which, despite their place as the symbol of America, were in dangerous decline. Scouring a stretch of the American west coast he found shocking declines, with 80 percent of nests failing to produce young. In this case the effects were due to poison entering the embryo of the egg thus producing stillborn hatchlings or ones with a “death warrant” (116). For Baker’s peregrines a serious problem was eggshell thinning causing breakage; through extensive study Derek Ratcliffe deduced new organochlorine insecticides, specifically DDT, to be the cause. 8 By 1969 this was “conclusively” revealed to be through disruption of “hormones involved in the production of calcium for eggshells” (Jameson, 54). This curse of sterility is what causes Baker to lament: “They were the last of their race” (97).

Baker was immensely pessimistic about the future of the peregrine, there is even a sense that he did not believe it had a place in the present of 1967; once even saying “Now it [the peregrine] has gone” (11). While the peregrines often seem to be the only healthy birds in the text, especially in a bitterly cold winter of “feeble and dying” birds (108), its numbers were actually tumbling and crashing along with the other birds inhabiting the Essex countryside. Just like the tremendously powerful stoops used to catch their prey, the fall in numbers seemed out of control. In Baker’s text the birds, both predator and prey, merge in the act of the stoop, as two birds fall together and silhouettes merge into “one dark bird”. The merger foreshadows how this meal could lead to the peregrine’s death as Carson describes: “One of the most sinister features of [pesticides]… is the way they are passed on from one organism to another through all the links of the food chain” (37).

The merger also shows how the creatures and landscape are fading together. The Peregrine is an elegy to all the aspects of his home county he thought to be becoming lost, not only the birds. The transitory nature of everything is encapsulated by gulls with sun shining on them appearing “almost transparent, ethereal with the glowing and holy illumination that hallowed out their slender bones” (109).

While this description implies a delicate passing it is the passion of fiery imagery that primarily permeates these creatures with the stain of inevitable destruction. The predators are “Evanescent as flame” with an elemental power, stressed through the use of fire to relate to their stoops: “a heart in flame”, “the fiery maelstrom” (112). These are images of passion and violence, as well as bringing an element of chaos. However, the inevitable conclusion of a flame is it being extinguished and this too is emphasised in the language of the text, when the hawk “flared out” (119).

Not just the birds burn; in a surreal scene Baker depicts the land on fire and the elements clashing, like a turbulence of the land where “water and fire were rejoicing together” (41). The spraying of chemicals was like a flame over the landscapes across the Atlantic. In Baker’s diaries it is quiet but threatening, “what looked like a wisp of smoke… thin and misty – moving very fast – not fire”, but Carson describes the resulting destruction vividly, causing places which once lifted the spirit to appear “scorched as by fire, the shrubs brown and brittle” (76). 9

The Peregrine is an elegy to both a disappearing bird and a disappearing world with the loss of one interwoven with that of the other, as shown when Baker watches his peregrine finally depart from the Essex landscape. It leaves behind a place that is now dead, “beyond desolation” (159). Through his writing Baker is preserving his memory of the bird and the landscape, and, perhaps, making a step towards saving it. The act of writing as activism is, however, far more evident in Silent Spring. Although she uses tropes of fairy tale and a certain sense of mythologizing the landscape, as Baker does as well, Carson is forceful and fierce in establishing her standpoint on the environmental destruction of pesticides. She sets up a dichotomy of ‘us and them’, with herself alongside the general public against the chemical industry and those that support them. Her prose is based in facts but she uses them to create a narrative which is engaging and gripping rather than dull and distancing the reader from the issues.

Jonathan Bate has said that scientific language “is itself part of the problem” but poetic language can hold the key to saving ecosystems. 10 Through poetic language readers become better connected to the subjects of the prose; both Carson and Baker achieve this, mingling scientific study and observation with comprehensible and beautiful language. Both use this technique to transmit their passion for an on-going environmental crisis and create texts that continue to be influential over fifty years later.

It is the powerful prose describing the prowess of the peregrines’ attacks that dominants Baker’s text, but it is the lurking threat of pesticides that spurs on his writing. As he concludes at the end of the ‘Beginnings’: “Before it is too late, I have tried to recapture the extraordinary beauty of this bird and to convey the wonder of the land he lived in” (12). His elegy is present in Carson’s Silent Spring, a text that achieved its purpose in changing public conceptions and legislation on pesticides. Thanks to these advancements in understanding, peregrines are now thriving across the British Isles. This victory owes some thanks to these writers’ magnificent prose, which demonstrates that it is often necessary to strip away scientific jargon in these kinds of work to make them reach their full public impact, thus influencing not only future nature writers but the environment itself.

1 Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 25 Subsequent page references in text
2 Robert Macfarlane, “Introduction” In The Peregrine, J.A. Baker (New York: New York Review of Books, 2005), vii
3 J.A. Baker, The Peregrine (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), 12 Subsequent page references in text
4 Lord Shackleton, “Introduction” In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 12
5 John Fanshawe, “Notes on J.A. Baker” In The Peregrine, J.A. Baker (London: Collins, 2011), 18
6 Derek Ratcliffe, The Peregrine Falcon (London: T. & A. D. Poyser, 1993), 68 and 335
7 Lord Shackleton, “Introduction” In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 12
8 Derek Ratcliffe, The Peregrine Falcon (London: T. & A. D. Poyser, 1993), 330-33
9 J.A. Baker, “The Diaries” In The Peregrine, J.A. Baker (London: Collins, 2011), 422-423
10 Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth (London: Picador, 2001), 230-231

Elizabeth Lee Reynolds is an environmental writer and editor. She recently received a Master’s degree from Essex University in the unique course Wild Writing: Literature and the Environment. She edits for The Missing Slate and has been published in various places, primarily on topics concerning literature and the natural world, including a piece in The Migrant Waders, a book on wading birds published by Dunlin Press. She blogs sporadically at eeleereynolds.wordpress.com.

In Taman Negara, Malaysia’s Rain Forest

by Gill McEvoy

 

The forest smells sappy and moist and fungal. And it is dark, so dark. I am dazzled by the darkness. The jungle looms up abruptly, a great dense black-green wall of leaf, branch, trunk and choking creepers. It offers no easy way in. The way I am following is the path of a watercourse. Above the water the tree canopy thins a little, letting in a mottled green light that slides over these deep pools and thundering jets that hurtle down the slippery rocks.

If I hug the waterfall there is less risk of leeches. I have seen these horrible creatures on the dead leaves of the forest floor, small sinuous tubes weaving and swaying like sea anemones on a rock; once they sense body heat they converge unerringly on the victim, looping over and over in a series of rapid cartwheels. You do not hear them, you do not feel them, but later you find them, swollen, white and puffy, dug deep into your skin.

I have slipped, clung and scrabbled my way up this water shoot, forcing my body through muscular spouts of water plummeting downwards, squeezing between narrow clefts in the great rocks. I’m wet, my boots are swimming with water, my shirt is torn, and my elbow is grazed. But I am where I want to be, high up in Malaysian jungle, sitting very still and waiting, eager for a sighting of wild pig, macaque monkeys, tapir, mouse deer, snake: something to take my breath away. I have seen pretty brown and white bracket fungus, thorny shrubs densely berried with deep blue fruit, pale damselflies ashen in the thin jungle light, shadowy spiders, small butterflies one in colour with the earth. And an endless, dizzyingly tall density of pale trunks vanishing upward, their bases flared out wide like propellor blades.

Long minutes pass. I’m actually cold now and moulded to the rock by the cramp in my legs. Beyond the clamorous roar of the waterfall I can hear the introspective silence of the daytime jungle. Nothing moves, nothing is going about its business. I am an intruder, watched, smelled and avoided. Prickles creep down my spine. What is out there watching me? I am quite alone up here. I hear my heart like drum beats above the water’s rush, loud in the hushed quiet. What is listening to it?

I stare round, searching the dark canopy for movement. Anything will satisfy me now for I have an increasing, panicky feeling of wanting to be gone, safely out of here. My mind goes over a news story I came across: a huge python, said to be almost twelve feet in length, crushed and killed a man. Every newspaper, magazine, radio and T.V station in Malaysia was obsessed with the story. There were gruesome pictures of the man’s body being crushed, half swallowed by the massive creature. They said it took three days for him to die. Such a thing is rare, very rare. The man lived on the edge of the jungle and he had stepped behind his house, as he did every day, to start up his generator and Crack!: his ribs were encircled and fractured by this monster. The phrase “Nature red in tooth and claw” has a terrifying reality up here. The Malays believe the jungle to be full of “hantu” – ghosts. Is there some coiled, malevolent reptilian power out there in the jungle blackness biding its time, studying me…? The silence is so solid now, it’s choking me, pressing on me. I am losing my nerve, think about bolting blindly back to safety down the waterfall.

So at first it doesn’t register, then slowly I notice it: high up on a grey-flecked trunk there is a little tremor. But I ignore it, still straining my eyes for bigger creatures. The tremor shifts, there is a sudden scurry.. I focus hard on the spot now and discern a long stick-like thing, wedded hard to the trunk, almost indistinguishable from it. It darts upwards briefly, a lizard of some sort. Then all at once the stick explodes, there is a stunning flash of orange and green and in a swift second my lizard metamorphoses from stick to fabulous prehistoric butterfly, and is gorgeous as it spreads its membranous wings of bright green and orange and lifts and sails down the air from one tree to another. It lands and folds away into a stick again, melting into the trunk it has settled on. I follow its fretting runs upwards and see where it stops and is absorbed again into the tree with absolute concealment. I am enthralled.

When I sit later picking the leeches off my ankles, for they did find me, I think only of that glorious flying lizard, its wings vibrant and  glowing in that brown, silent jungle air as it sailed brilliant into the filtering patches of light.

 

Gill McEvoy: has two poetry collections The Plucking Shed (2010), and Rise (2013) from Cinnamon Press. She runs regular poetry events in Chester and was formerly Artistic Director for the spoken word section of Chester Literature Festival. She is a Hawthornden Fellow, and the winner of the 2015 Michael Marks Awards for her poetry pamphlet The First Telling (Happenstance Press 2014). She was Highly Commended several times in the BBC Wildlife Magazine’s essay writing competition.

 

Eye of Osprey

by Danny Adcock

The onshore wind is insistent like toothache. Waves break on the beach in long curls of white foam, and dissipate on the sand and are sucked back into the blue-green water. Sanderling and turnstone pick over weed the tide has strewn behind it, running before me in panic like peasants fleeing a raiding party, but resolutely refusing to fly. It’s a familiar scene, one I see almost daily on the beaches of North Norfolk. This, however, is not North Norfolk. As if to clarify this a pelican chooses this moment to fly into view. Unlike many of those beautifully streamlined diving birds – think tern or gannet – pelicans are big, bulky birds. With a laconic flight and a short, punchy dive, they turn slightly on their side before hitting the water with all the panache of a belly-flopping sumo wrestler.

To be honest I didn’t expect to see species common to my local beach here on a Cuban one. There was a definite double-take on my part when I saw the first sanderling running along in front of me. But, as I discovered later, there are also dunlin, sandpiper, turnstone and whimbrel here. There are different subspecies, such as the ruddy turnstone, to some of those we have at home, but it is still remarkable to me that here, in thirty-degree heat, with a mangrove swamp a few hundred metres away, there are the same birds doing the same things as there are four and a half thousand miles away on a Norfolk beach.

The beach that is before me now plays out a gentle curve which is whittled down to a point like a sharpened, smoothed piece of wood and at its tip is the mangrove swamp. I leave the beach here and wade out through a belt of thickly stinking mud and sargassum weed. It seems collected here purposely by a malevolent tide to keep me from reaching my goal. The water is mostly waist deep, but rises to my chest once or twice. I fight with the mud, sinking to my ankles. A bird as big as any I have ever seen launches itself from the mangrove edge and takes to the wing with deep, floundering effort. Whether it is its closeness, its unnatural-seeming whiteness, or the fact that I am used to seeing its smaller cousin the little egret that make it seem so, the great egret seems like a pterosaur.

Turnstones - Image by Danny Adcock
Turnstones – Image by Danny Adcock

After twenty yards or so the mud gives way to a mixture of bone-white sand and darker patches of turtle grass whose fronds beckon the tide on. The sea shallows to between thigh and ankle depth. Crabs gesticulate wildly with their claws like Latin housewives berating their husbands, and scoot away leaving a puff of sand like an exaggerated cartoon effect. I’m here on these sand flats for the first time ever to fish for bonefish and permit, but for now I’m bewitched. Luminescent wavelets harvest the sun’s rays like sheaves of golden corn, then sow them on the sand below in shimmering fields. Their never-ending kinetics scribe themselves onto my retinas, so that when I look away I still see the motion of them superimposed over my vision. Glossy ibis and little blue heron stalk the shallowest water. Royal terns with dark frowns pass me on the wind, and above them frigate birds cruise. A stingray melts across a bare patch of sand with a heat I am wary of, but passes me by gently, benignly even. I wander the flats in a carefree dream, wading amid the green sea, with the blue sky hinged above.

These sand flats and mangroves are extensive. If I followed them along the coast of Cayo Coco, the island on which I am staying, and then Cayo Romano and Cayo Paredon, there would be thousands of acres of them. Before the roads, before the hotels, before the seventeen-mile causeway from the mainland, before the international airport, this archipelago that stretches along the bent back of Cuba’s main island was uninhabited. Huge flocks of flamingos blushed the lagoons and mangrove edges, but the airport and the increased activity of tourism displaced them to more remote areas. Worryingly I am told there are already foundations in place for hotels on the currently still uninhabited Cayos Romano and Paredon, as well as those already half built here on Cayo Coco, and further North at Pilar beach. How much further can the pelicans be displaced?

Beyond a small mangrove-encrusted island that is like a dark green jewel set in a shimmering surround, the colour and mood of the sea changes from the benevolent blue-green of the flats to something deeper, darker, denser. I sometimes dream of being lost in a blank ocean, treading water over the black unending depths with the unknown and the unnameable somewhere below, and I think of this now as I look out across the ocean; out to where the Gulf Stream wells North as if pulsed by the ventricles of the earth itself.

The locals wade the kilometre or so out to this island to fish and gather conch shells. Some of them wave cheerily to me, and shout in Spanish, pointing to the island and indicating with outstretched arms what I presume to be the size of the fish that are to be found there. Life is a day to day struggle for the Cuban people. It is not a nice feeling to know the rod and reel I am fishing with are worth many months wages to the average Cuban. On a tour of the mainland later in the week our guide Laurie tells us he is a professor, and spent five years at university. He earns more in tips now than he did in wages as a teacher, but he still asks if we have any extra toiletries we can leave him when we go home because the shelves are often empty of everyday items. Because of this jobs in the tourist industry are highly sought after. My conscience struggles with the fact that though my being here is helping to provide well-paid employment, is that sufficient reparation for the crippling, spiteful economic embargo the US, and us as her ally, have enforced for decades? As an Englishman who is not altogether proud of his country’s history, or its exploitative colonial past, I believe it is important for us to engage with cultures and populations that have suffered at our hands historically. There is undeniably an element of exploitation where tourism in poorer communities is concerned, but without it there would be almost no interaction between the people of Cuba, and the people of countries such as our own. And according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism accounted for almost ten per cent of GDP in Cuba in 2013. Where people’s livelihoods are concerned, my Western sentiments seem slightly hypocritical: if your children are hungry it must be difficult to care about whether some birds have to move. As a tourist myself who am I to pass judgement on whether or not tourism is ethical? Cubans are still of the land in a way we can only remember through pastoral-tinted glasses, and costume dramas. The industrial revolution was kicked into touch with the successive boots of the revolution, the economic embargo, and the collapse of the old Soviet Union, from whom Cuba used to receive much aid. Facts like this, and the enthusiasm of guides such as Laurie will, I hope, keep at least some of the island pristine.

On the walk back in to the beach I stay even closer to the mangrove trees because the mud is not as deep. Their exposed roots are countless thousands of intertwined fingers reaching down to the underworld and passing three environments – air, water and mud – on their way. Juvenile fish scatter like handfuls of leaves flung by a child onto an Autumn wind; the mangrove is the perfect nursery. Unseen birds with exotic, unfamiliar song call from deep within the maelstrom of roots, branches and leaves like sirens tempting me in. There is the overwhelming feeling of a blizzard of life contained within.

Because I am partially hidden amongst some of the outermost mangrove foliage the osprey doesn’t see me. It arcs overhead like lightning, and plunges in an unsuccessful strike mere feet from me. I am so close that as it lifts itself from the sea and pauses mid-air to shake like a wet dog, I see each individual drop of sea water flung from its feathers. There is somehow a split-second reciprocal meeting of eyes: the one a flaming fierceness of orange, the other an acquiescent yielding to a beauty complete in its wildness. It is something I replay over and over in the slow-mo, high definition of my memory; something that will always connect me to this place and this landscape and its cauldron of life.

Also ingrained in my memory is the graphic vividness of the landscape. Its energy is contained in its colours as much as its wildlife: the lucid sea, blue-green and restless, the white sand under foot, the sapphire sky above and the yellow-gold sun held within it. The individual colours are as separate from each other as utterly and naively as they are in a child’s painting.

By the time I have walked the mile or so back along the beach to the hotel, with a brief pause at the beach shack selling cold beer and grilled lobster, day is ending. There are no long evenings evocative of an English Summer here. By five ‘o’ clock the shadows of the palm trees are draped across the sand like the limbs of languid sunbathers lingering in the last of the sunlight, and by six the dark queen that is night in the tropics reigns. Frogs bat their croaks repetitively back and forth between palm trees and across the darkened pool. Later, in the hotel bar, a black-haired Cuban girl sings in French and Spanish with the heavy-lidded sensuality of a faded black-and-white era; an era before the revolution, when Ernest Hemingway drank daiquiris in La Floridita, and cruised these very islands in the stream on his boat the Pilar.

Significantly, the same treaty which protects the Wash – the shallow, square mouthed estuarine embayment I live less than a mile from – protects some of the Jardines Del Ray national park which encompasses these islands. The Ramsar Convention is specifically designed to protect the ecological importance and diversity of wetlands, whether they be the mangrove swamps and shallow sand flats of Cuba, or the saltmarsh and shallow seas of the Wash in East Anglia. It was negotiated through the sixties and ratified in 1971. Its mission is ‘The conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international co-operation.’ Currently in Cuba there are six Ramsar sites including the Gran Humedal del Norte de Ciego De Avila, which my rudimentary Spanish translates as the Great North Wetlands of Ciego de Avila, though I stand ready to be corrected. Here in the UK there are one-hundred and fifty-four including the Wash, out of a global total of more than 2000 covering an area of more than 200 million hectares. According to the Ramsar Convention wetlands are ‘Vital for human survival… among the world’s most productive environments; cradles of biological diversity… upon which countless species of plants and animals depend for survival.’

The Wash and the Jardines Del Rey may be more than 4000 miles from each other, but their fates are entwined on many levels. We do not live in isolation here on our own archipelago – much as some believe we should – and our wildlife and countryside does not either. Its biodiversity is linked to that of Europe, the Caribbean, Africa and the rest of the world, whether that be by migration routes, or the ability some species have to live in divergent landscapes. Just off Cuba’s shores lies the Sargasso Sea. The only sea without any coastlines, it is bordered by four currents: the Gulf Stream to its West, the North Atlantic Current to its North, the Canary Current to its East, and the North Atlantic Equatorial Current to its South. The Sargasso is the breeding ground of Anguilla anguilla, the eel we are used to seeing here in the UK. As leaf-shaped larvae called leptocephali they drift across the Atlantic on the Gulf Stream, metamorphosing into the more recognisable elver or glass eel, before migrating up our streams and rivers. Once they reach maturity they retrace their journey back to the Sargasso. The eel and its remarkable journey are just one example of nature’s ability to cross the borders that we have imposed upon ourselves. Our climate is driven by these same currents. The ocean conveyor belt is a global system of currents linking ocean to sea, and sea to ocean. Dependent on water temperature and salinity, it is the never-ending flow of countless gallons of sea-water that interconnects our seas with those of the tropics and the poles. But there is also an interconnectedness amongst those of us who believe, as per the Ramsar Convention statement on wetlands, that we are dependant upon our natural environments, and the millions of species found within them, just as they are dependant upon us. When an extinction occurs in Africa or the Arctic, we feel it here in England; it is a wave formed by the calving of an iceberg that reaches every shore on the planet.

Seeing a small, unobtrusive and quite ordinary bird going about its business on a beach in Cuba, at the same time as an exact copy is doing the exact same thing on a Norfolk beach, symbolizes the importance of nature to me as one living, breathing entity. Whether the Ramsar Convention will prove strong enough in the face of corporate growth to protect either the Jardines Del Rey, or the Wash, is something that concerns us all, even though most of us still have our heads either in the sand, or on our own personal crusade. The current détente between the US and her near-neighbour Cuba means, according to one estimate, that 10 million American tourists are on their way to Cuba’s shores quite soon, more than tripling current numbers. This, and the dismantling of the embargo, will be like a shock from a defibrillator to the ailing heart of the Cuban economy. In the face of that overwhelming economic energy I fear treaties such as Ramsar are going to need an awful lot of shoring up. Whether home or abroad these environments and habitats are essential for our survival as a species. While that may be the ultimate incentive for ensuring their continued protection and betterment, our responsibility lies equally to other species as to our own. Unfortunately, much of the world is neither watching, nor listening.

 

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

 

A Tapir’s Tale

by Isaac Yuen

 

I turn to the page on you, eventually. I am sorry that it’s been so long, that I am so late. This edition of All the World’s Animals in my hands is not the one I had growing up, but a used copy I scoured from the Internet. I had to scour because I had forgotten names, left only with scraps of moods and textures. A coarse canvas cover, navy-blue. A dazzle of zebras under letters of embossed gold. Thoughts of you pushed me to make the effort though, and the thin tome on hoofed mammals arrives, upper corner bent, creasing the sections on pygmy hogs and hippopotami, but sparing the brindled gnu, the Himalayan tahrs.

The scent of paper, bleached yet vegetal, pulls me through the years. As I leaf through the pages, the boy within stirs to life, shyly at first, then with unabashed glee. We pause at the section on camels and llama-kin, page 74, to linger on photographs of dainty vicunas and long-lashed guanacos. Next stop, page 92, where optimal foraging theory is explained through a moose’s salt tooth for pondweed and bladderworts. Pulses quicken in concert on page 102, still a favorite, as we dream of pronghorns with matchstick legs blazing across golden fields beneath azure skies.

Enough about me. Back to you. Back to tapirs. Out of all the world’s odd and even-toed ungulates, it is your family, the Tapiridae that I wish most to revisit. Your clan occupies a scant two-page spread, compared to eight reserved for mixed goats and twelve on assorted antelope. Even hyraxes, those obscure fur clumps that live up trees, on rocks, in bushes, command four. A pity. Your section contains no live photographs, only muted watercolors for each species: Mountain, Brazilian, Malayan, and you – at the bottom of the page – Baird’s, with young. Unlike your bristle-maned South American sibling or your panda-esque Asian relation, the illustration does you no favours. You are portrayed in an awkward pose, neither sitting nor standing. The nose is too big, even for you. You resemble more a misshapen pig than one of a lineage that stretches back twenty million years unchanged. Apologies for comparing you to another instead of allowing you to be what you are. I’m forgetting myself.

***

It’s been a decade since I saw you last, when I traveled to Belize to attend a field school to cap off my biology undergrad. It was in Belize where I first learned the importance of hydration, unofficial derivations of campfire songs, the shoe-piercing capabilities of fer-de-lance fangs, and most importantly, the words and deeds that forge lifelong bonds and shapes one’s course. Those times spent hiking through premontane forests, camping in lowland jungles, and snorkeling near mangrove roots remain dear to me. As do my encounters with you.

I met you first at the Belize zoo. Up close, I understood why people dubbed you part pig, part hippo and cow, you being stout and slick and barrel-esque. Watching you pace behind gridded squares, I recalled other meetings, with other creatures. A bull elephant when I was four, caked in yellow dust behind a moat at a Hong Kong zoo long defunct. A rescued rhinoceros calf in Nepal three years ago, orphaned by hunters and blinded by villagers. The same mix of love and pity.

From behind the fence you flirted with my colleague Max, the same Max who broke up with his girlfriend back home to pursue new conquests. You posed for him, letting him snap shots of you, the same ones I’m scrolling through on my computer. Who could resist those dark doe eyes, that moist flared trunk? You lured him in, then turned and doused his shoes and pants with a jet of urine.

Oh, how we laughed and laughed.

***

Our next encounter came eleven days later during a canoe trip down one of Belize’s major waterways. After days of camping in Honduran pine forests and a tense morning threading the rapids of the Cave Branches tributary, I breathed a sigh of relief as we eased into the lazy meanders of the Sibun.

It was late morning. My canoe partner Sammy and I were alone, ahead of some and behind others of the group. The wind was down. A patch of clouds shrouded the sun, but the afterglow suffused the air and laid bare the river’s supple curls and secret riffles. Two weeks of full-on sun had turned me mahogany-brown, and I was glad for the brief reprieve. Still I fared better than my pink and peeling friend. Poor Sammy from Saskatchewan.

I cannot recall the exact order of events that follow. When I concentrate memories begin to surface as flickers, like glints of minnows scattered by diving kingfishers, like flash sightings of otters slipping into dark waters. The dull knife edge of a nearby karst shore against palm. The airy wake trailing a pair of fishing bats on hair and scalp. Their wheeling forms crossing filigree shadows cast by overhanging trees. A ripe fig falls in the water and ripples out. Interplay between sound and silence. Layers and moments circling a creation unfinished.

You shattered that tranquility for me. I do not begrudge you, but you were undoubtedly the cause. We jammed our paddles down into gravel to slow to where the others stopped, forming a half-ring around a raised section of the riverbed. Tracing the gazes of the others, I spotted you, this time inert, in parts: Hoofed feet, butchered neat, exposing the white of joints, light enough to be stirred by the current but too heavy to be carried away. One set of hind legs, thick and three-toed. A pair of forelimbs, an extra digit on each arm, smaller and askew, higher up on the foot.

Functional only on soft ground, my blue book states.

Butchered. I choose this term now not as an attempt to evoke high dramatics, but rather the opposite, as resistance against the impulse, even after all these years. For butchery is a cold and clinical act, the ultimate reduction. It still fits.

Around the bend and before a waterfall laid the rest of you, an open chest of organs and viscera that glistened like a cache of pale and dark jewels. In the nearby shallows we recovered your hide and head. It took two to lift up your sodden coat out of the water, one corner of it thick with maggots. How strange, the transition between life and object, from you to it. I examined your head up close, in profile. The head looked ready to be mounted, with the only blemish being a hole just below the white-tipped ears. One bullet sent carefully into the skull. Dark doe eyes.

No smell. No blood spooled thin from the remains, having already been cleansed by the water. The ruined body bulked like one of the many grey boulders that had always been part of the channel. The noon heat buzzed. Birds sang. The river flowed on. So we went on.

Sammy took pictures, but later lost them when he dropped his camera into saltwater.

***

To this day, I do not know why you were killed that May morning. My professor speculated that poachers may have been supplying meat for cruise ships seeking to entice tourists with “a taste of Belize.” My book states that your hide provides good-quality leather, much prized for whips and bridles. But nothing was taken. No sense was to be had. Parts of you laid strewn about the river like toy blocks awaiting assembly.

***

Should I apologize? If it helps, then I offer it. You were not yet fully grown, having shed your baby coat of spots and stripes only months prior, and my book remarks that your lifespan is measured in decades. Would you be alive today if not for that fateful encounter? Perhaps you would have perished in a clash with the resident jaguar that exists in my mind as your eternal foe. Or maybe both of you would have succumbed to the strains threatening so many species around the world, like the fading saiga and screwhorn antelopes of my book, like the Spanish ibex and scimitar oryx that have vanished since its publication. But most likely, I suspect you would still be roaming those lowland jungles, siring and bearing, growing wise to the mysteries of tapir life. For this theft of years, as part of the tribe that is the coming of the cruise ship, I am sorry.

Yet I do not believe an apology is what you seek. We both know that I played no role in your death, was not the one who robbed you of life. Perhaps you would even regard such a gesture as an insult, a platitude to excuse those responsible.

What I can offer instead, should you choose to accept it, is to serve as witness. To be the one who tells your tale and ensures that it echoes beyond death. Perhaps that is why I sought out this old book on the tenth anniversary of our last meeting, so that I could converse with you once more. Tapir, you who now exist only within these pages, in these lines of words I write, can I tell you of your legacy?

After our meeting, I found myself sensitized to those who fight to protect the natural world.  A parasitologist instilling in students a reverence for the lowliest of creatures. A Hawaiian working to save his native koa and ‘Ōhi’a Lehua forests from invasive ginger and guava. A Nepali boy soaking up the Latin names of ibises and flycatchers spotted by his park ranger brother. A friend single-handedly building my province’s largest volunteer conservation network from her basement. An author extending her consideration to the realities of ants, lichen, and rock. A man, moved by grief and joy, embarking on a journey towards connecting the human and non-human.

But you do not ask questions. Nor do you accept answers. For all our encounters and all my musings, I realize now that I have never heard your voice. Perhaps it is time I cast off my words in exchange for silence. Maybe then I will hear what no art or weave of phrase can teach me. Perhaps then I will at last understand your slow and secret tongue. I close the book and trace my finger along the spine, lingering on the gilded letters that form the title: All the World’s Animals. Not forgotten.

 

Isaac Yuen pens critical and creative work exploring the intersection of nature, culture, and identity. An attendee of the 2015 Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writers’ Conference, he is the creator of Ekostories, an essay blog that explores the power of narratives to affect personal and societal change.

 

Last Known

by Carrie Naughton

 

In April 1962, at Moore’s Landing in what is now the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina, a group of observers made one of the last undisputed sightings of a Bachman’s Warbler.  Like most of the more recent but unconfirmed sightings, this was an unmated male, trilling his buzzy notes into the heavy air.

The Reverend John Bachman, a close friend and colleague of John James Audubon, documented the first of his namesake warblers on the Edisto River in 1832.  A naturalist and educator, Reverend Bachman served as the pastor of St. John’s Church in Charleston for 56 years. He also belonged to Charleston’s Circle of Naturalists, a group of academics and physicians devoted to the scientific collection and classification of biological specimens.

Bachman worked closely with John Audubon on the text for The Birds of America and Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.  The two naturalists became lifelong friends, indeed family – Audubon’s sons married Bachman’s daughters.  John Bachman’s wife Maria Martin – herself a talented, and unfairly overlooked, illustrator – painted many of the contextual foliage backgrounds for Audubon’s bird illustrations, including the Franklinia branch that serves as the perch for Audubon’s painting of Bachman’s Warbler.

Bachman gave the specimens that he’d collected in 1832 to Audubon, who named the little songbird Vermivora bachmanii after his friend.  First called Bachman’s Swamp-Warbler, the birds measured only four inches or so from tip to tail.  They would not be seen again in the States for fifty years, when Americans began actively taking feathered specimens for museums and milliners.  Between 1886 and 1892, collectors shot 192 of the diminutive warblers.  Ornithologists must now rely more on paintings and blurred photographs than actual field encounters when describing plumage, and the closest they may ever come to the actual warblers are the preserved specimens, some of which could have been taken from the last remaining populations.

The collective nouns for a group of warblers are unsettling in their poetry: A confusion of warblers.  A fall.  A wrench.

Olive green with a yellow breast, the Bachman’s male distinguishes himself from similar warblers, like the Nashville and the Orange-Crowned, with a black, bib-like throat patch.  A Bachman’s female is olive-backed as well but shows a paler lemon underbelly, lacking the black bib until it appears – faintly – as she ages.  After reviewing 300 museum samples in the mid-1980’s, ornithologists Paul Hamel and Sidney Gauthreaux (neither of whom have seen or heard the bird in real life), emphasized slight variations in field marks – yellow in the male’s wing bend; a pale, not necessarily golden, eye ring on the female – with the aim of aiding birders in identification of this elusive warbler.  To a non-scientist, perhaps this cataloguing of miniscule particularities seems desperate, a pointless last-ditch effort to assert the uniqueness of a species that is surely vanished from the earth.  And yet, this work could be more than science: a requiem for the dead, or a leap of faith.

It’s not simply visual identification of plumage that makes sightings extremely rare and difficult to certify, though.   Bachman’s Warbler lives – or lived – in the dense, lush swamps deep in the southeastern United States, a denizen of the southern Atlantic Coastal Plain.  Bottomland forests of sweetgum, red oaks, dogwoods, hickories, and cypress once stretched for miles, a landscape that was home to tribes like the Seminole, Choctaw and Cherokee for centuries before European settlers arrived.   The birds tucked their nests into the low, snarly tangles of blackberry, palmetto, and other brambly, vining foliage amidst mirroring pools of tannin-dark water and vast stands of Arundinaria gigantea – native bamboo groves called canebrakes.   Bachman’s bill may be slightly curved to allow it better gleaning of cane leaves for seeds, caterpillars and ants, and our erratic encounters with the bird may be linked to the episodic cycles of productivity within the bamboo stands.  If Bachman’s was indeed a bamboo specialist, that would place it – at least as far as museum collections of neotropical songbirds go – in rare company.

In the past century, the forests of the southeast have been industrially logged and the wetlands systematically drained, dammed and plugged up for agriculture and cattle grazing.  The canebrakes of the coastal plain, like the grasslands of the North American prairie, were cleared out, paved over, and all but lost to ecological history.  Arundinaria gigantea does not grow back quickly once it has been cut down.  However, fire is crucial for cane productivity, and natural fires in the canebrakes were beneficial.  The Cherokee knew this, and practiced their own methods of controlled burns.  Within the last ten years, in the Qualla Boundary of western North Carolina, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee have undertaken a comprehensive land survey to map potential river cane habitats and plant seedlings of river cane’s endangered sister plant, the butternut tree.  Sustainably harvested, these plants are the raw materials for prized basketry, flutes, medicine, tools and woven mats.  Could this restoration provide reliable economic benefits to the Cherokee as well as management implications for Bachman’s historical range?

Migrating Bachman’s Warblers kept to the very tops of cypress and sweetgum trees, singing as they passed over South Georgia and the Florida Keys from Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Alabama, the Carolinas, and Louisiana on their way to wintering grounds in Cuba.  In the late 1800’s, Bachman’s was the seventh most common migratory bird on the lower Suwannee, Florida.  By the early 1900’s, field biologists like Arthur Wayne (who had found the majority of known Bachman’s nests) began to notice a marked decline in all swamp-dwelling birds.  This coincided with a reduction in nesting grounds for Bachman’s Warbler.  Despite forest recovery in the latter half of the 20th century, Bachman’s is still the rarest of our American passerines, officially listed as Critically Endangered in 2012, and possibly extinct.  Birders often report hearing male Bachman’s Warblers, but so far most claims have turned out to be mistakes; one variation of the Northern Parula’s song sounds incredibly like that of Bachman’s – the same buzzy, cicada-like trill.  When sound recordings of Bachman’s Warbler are played during research outings, the other birds in the forest occasionally fall silent, perhaps as if wondering what strange, unknown visitor has suddenly arrived.  Other times during playback of a Bachman’s call, a Northern Parula might appear.

No formal management plan exists for conservation action regarding Bachman’s Warbler.  Two potential breeding sites were thought to exist prior to 2001: the bird’s former stronghold around I’On Swamp in the Francis Marion National Forest, and the Congaree Swamp National Monument in South Carolina.   A habitat enhancement program in the Francis Marion found no Bachman’s Warblers utilizing those sites.  Based on previous, plausible visual sightings as well as audial, in 2002 a team of ornithologists led by Craig Watson of the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture extensively surveyed likely habitats in the Congaree.  Although field researchers logged ninety species of birds, Bachman’s Warbler was not among them.   These scattered, miniscule remains of the canebrakes provide only a small glimpse of a once remarkably huge and complex ecosystem, and reflect our knowledge of its inhabitants.

Of Bachman’s winter habitat in Cuba, we know even less.  The extensive clearing of lowlands for commercial sugarcane agriculture must have had its effects, as well as the severe hurricanes and storms which often sweep along the warbler’s narrow migration corridor.  In 2002, a man in Guardalavaca, Cuba filmed a bird he identified as a Bachman’s Warbler and sent video clips to the Cornell Ornithology Lab.  Cornell posted the clips on a website and invited feedback from the scientific community and the public.  The video, grainy and inconclusive, is most likely that of a Cuban Golden Warbler.  Even a 1988 sighting in Louisiana has never been confirmed, but is oft repeated on blog posts as the last known glimpse of a Bachman’s Warbler.  Bachman’s, like the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, is a ghost bird of a prior era.

At the turn of the last century, Missouri businessman and amateur ornithologist Otto Widmann spent countless hours studying birds in the wild.  He was the first to collect a Bachman’s nest and eggs, in 1897.  In 1902, his house burned down, along with all his field notes and a draft manuscript of his Catalog of the Birds of Missouri, a culmination of 25 years of observation and writing.   One story survives:  In 1897, a female Bachman’s built a nest within reaching distance of Widmann’s observing point for a week without him noticing.   Alas, no Bachman’s nest, a carefully shaped cup of cane leaves and pine needles holding 3 or 4 white eggs, delicately lined with lichen and Spanish moss, has been found since 1937, in Alabama.

So many questions remain unanswered.  Why are the Bachman’s eggs white, a rare color with wood warblers?  Was Bachman’s specific niche a microhabitat where the canebrakes merged into the forest?  In analysis of the bird’s nest site selection, have we undervalued the importance of nearby water like the biodiversity-rich Carolina bays and pocosins?  Were the hibiscus groves of lowland Cuba its ideal winter territory?  Do we need to keep searching, more of us, the scattered gaps and edges that remain?  To all but a few dedicated birders and scientists, Vermivora bachmanii may seem like just another drab warbler, indistinguishable from all the other yellow warblers, unremarkable in any aspect – one of many songbirds, heard no longer.  Most people don’t even know how to pronounce the name – Backman’s – and its disappearance conjures no fantastic stories.  Bachman’s Warblers did not once darken the skies like massive flocks of passenger pigeons.  No one shot the last breeding pair of Bachman’s Warblers in a dramatic, tragic hunt.

There is no closure to Bachman’s greater story.  It is the story of a population dying largely unnoticed.  We neither knew, nor cared, what we would be losing when we destroyed the canebrakes, clearcut the trees, and converted the swamps to rice-growing estates.  Nowadays, it’s not only outright habitat destruction that threatens species, but cumulative and insidious encroachment in the form of agricultural and highway runoff, power plant and pulp mill drainage, and invasive species.  The Franklin tree that Maria Martin Bachman painted is now extinct in the wild.

There were two confirmed sightings of Bachman’s in Cuba in 1981 and 1984.  Even more poignant, old film footage belonging to famed South Carolina ornithologist E. Burnham Chamberlain shows a male Bachman’s Warbler perched on a pine branch, open-beaked and warbling enthusiastically.  The film has no sound.  Perhaps these images truly are the last certain glimpses of Bachman’s Warblers, and forevermore we can only imagine them: flying singly above lowcountry plantations, flickering through understory thickets, seeking places to nest.  Perhaps one or two of the eldest passed away silently amidst clusters of red hibiscus on Isla de la Juventud.  Or maybe a lone family of Bachman’s remains in the undergrowth safety of a small unreachable Louisiana marsh, deliberately gleaning spiders from leaves or acrobatically clinging to cane stalks.   Maybe the Qualla Boundary canebrakes are a harbinger of future restoration projects in Bachman’s original territories.

Mystery begets both hope and despair.  We are left to wonder.  We are given a chance to ensure that threatened songbirds like Kirtland’s Warbler avoid a similar fate.  We are left thinking of the colors of Bachman’s Warbler.   Ornithologist William Brewster, on a birding expedition to the Suwannee River in 1890, saw at least a thousand migrating warblers in a fifteen-acre area, and estimated that five percent of them were Bachman’s.  Brewster admired one male’s characteristic song for a time – before shooting it for his collection.  He described Bachman’s Warbler with the words dusky olive…deep lemon…light gamboge…ashy white…smoke-grey…purity of black.

Another term of venery: Behold, a bouquet of warblers.  Will we ever see feathers so alive like this again?

 

Carrie Naughton is a freelance bookkeeper who writes speculative fiction, environmental essays, book reviews, and poetry. Her work can be read at WordsDance, Star*Line, Up The Staircase Quarterly, and NonBinary Review. Find her at carrienaughton.com – where she blogs frequently about whatever captures her interest.

 

Poetry – Issue 5.1

Hare

by Jane Lovell

Early morning air
slice-cold below total blue,
and he’s sitting, bold as a stray, on the lawn
tasting the breeze, absorbing every ripple
with those planetary ears.

Time passes only in the shiver of leaves,
a solitary beetle ticking in the sage.

In a heartbeat, he’s away to the skyline
unzipping the grass and wind-chased verge
giving us the whole month of May
stretched languorously through centuries,
myrtle, mint and purple betony,
twirling her skirts
shaking her hair in the wind,

gathering speed as if in huntdown,
as if pinning the lawn with his longbone feet,
bursting through streamers of birdsong,
scattering like confetti the trimmings
of finch and sparrow,
carrying his ears so beautifully,
so beautifully,
all the way to the furthest corner

where he pauses,
resting on his haunches
in the lee of a budding lilac
and breathes,
breathes the whole sky:
invisible worlds,
distant constellations,
pared-down moon.

Unburied

by Julianne Lutz Warren

I am amazed
by what is unburied
as the snow melts
after all those months,
though I knew it was there
all along.
A white house,
a silver trash can,
footprints from December.
Remember when
you plunged
into the woods
to feel the
hard curve
of a warm body
who had slept
there that night,
a mold of ice
shaped like
a young moose?

Miss Rossetti’s Highgate Lodger

by Beth McDonough

Meta bourneti

In goblin gloom, she scuttles, spins
lines to weave through
this bleak midwinter,
somewhere between heart’s
chill and death.

Under the Egyptian Avenue,
she crafts roundels, laced
with pheromone. Daily, she’s
driven to fabricate, fix – catch
the unwary. At night
she swallows it all.

Yet, deep in her dark
she throws another line.
Spiderlings, desperate for light
open undreamed of eyes.

Nest

by Char March

to snuggle to coorie doon to nestle.
a half-world of care.

a gowpen of shoogling eggs
roofed by warm breast.

a weaving of twigs.
eaves studded with river-mud huts.

a precariousness in wind.
a responsibility of worms, sand eels, gnats.

a rock ledge of ten thousand screams.
the heart of a hedge.

full stops in winter branches
each a basket of hope.

In Gaza Zoo

by Dave Hubble

In Gaza Zoo,
there are no zebras;
the occupiers’ edicts
forbid the import of exotic species
and slowly, the exhibits
dwindle to taxidermy.
But even in Palestine,
kids know what should be on display;
to comply, keepers paint stripes on white donkeys
and children ride upon their backs,
a wire-fenced pleasure-beach,
parading until,
as the gates clang shut,
feral cats emerge
to yawn and stretch
next to the worn-out animals.

elephant song

by Gerry Boland

there she is again
hanging about our grand piano
it’s the ivory that draws her

the sadness of it
compelling her to tinkle trinkle
on those bleak teeth

she’s playing a lament
for her brothers and sisters
her great grey ancestors

what’s surprising is
the delicacy of touch
the trunk softly landing

on our grand colonial piano

Poet Biographies

Jane Lovell is the Poetry Society Stanza Rep for Warwickshire. She has had work published in a variety of journals including Mslexia, Poetry Wales, Envoi, the North, Dark Mountain and New Welsh Review and is a regular contributor to Ink, Sweat and Tears and Agenda. Her work is steeped in natural history, science, folklore, the ‘black’ and the bizarre but is, essentially, poetry that reflects man’s relationship with nature. Jane has recently won the Flambard Prize.

Julianne Lutz Warren is author of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey. 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.

Beth McDonough first trained in Silversmithing, and finds poems swimming in the Tay and walking and foraging nearby. Often writing of a maternal experience of disability, she is currently Writer in Residence at Dundee Contemporary Arts. A poetry duet collection (with Ruth Aylett) will be published in May.

Char March is an award-winning poet and playwright.  She wrote ‘Nest’ as a result of being Writer-in-Residence for the Pennine Watershed.  She currently has a wren building a nest from dead oak leaves and moss in her allotment shed.

When not writing, Dave Hubble is an ecologist and he aims to bring his scientific and environmental background into his poems. He has been published in places such as Ink, Sweat & Tears and Fair Acre Press’ ‘Maligned Species’ project. His first collection is Subduction Zone (2014).” He can be found at davehubble.wordpress.com/

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.

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The Huia

by Daniel Hudon

Heteralocha acutirostris

In the early dawn of the land of the land of the long white cloud, the clear, flute-like song of the huia rang out, penetrating the dense forest and heard a great distance away: uia, uia, uia, as if to ask where are you? though the mates were never far apart. Such graceful birds, with their black plumage and luster of blue-green iridescence, a white band on the tip of their much-desired tail feathers, their ivory bills a striking contrast: his a straight, stout chisel, hers a long delicate curve, like a honeycreeper’s.

Together they hopped from branch to branch, slightly opening their wings, flying only short intervals and resting a moment to spread the tail into a broad fan, sometimes consorting with another pair that made up a small party of delight. They stayed in the shade, in the thick of the moist forest laden with mosses and ferns and often would find a rotted log or branch and he would attack it with gusto, sending a spray of bark everywhere and she with her slender bill would follow to delicately pluck out the huhu larvae but not share it.

Later, one could see them coming back together to caress each other with their ivory bills, uttering at the same time a low affectionate twitter before bounding off, flying and leaping in succession to some favorite feeding place far away to the silent depths of the forest.

 

Daniel Hudon, originally from Canada, is an adjunct lecturer in astronomy and math. His book, Brief Eulogies for Lost Species, will be published this spring from Pen and Anvil Press (Boston). Other excerpts from the book have been published in The Chattahoochee Review, Canary, Clarion, Paragraphiti, Riprap, Toad, Flyway, and Extinguished and Extinct: An Anthology of Things that No Longer Exist (Twelve Winters Press). He lives in Boston, MA

 

Brittle Fish

by Susie Greenhill

 

So cold the day the first eggs hatch. A wind the colour of salt and smoke whips across the ledge where you have built your nest. You are uncomfortable, the long weeks of incubation weighing on your body, and you pass the morning transferring the grasses you have gathered on the tide- line from the exposed outer rim into the interior of the nest. Resting on your feet, your warmed egg waits.

The crack appears across the shell the way lightning breaks over the ocean. It’s thin and dark, and with it comes the smell of grey-fleshed fish and drying blood. It is some time before the creamy shell around it begins to cave. The incisions your chick has made with its beak are small compared to its body. The egg rocks a-rhythmically. Gradually, a clear, sometimes ochre fluid leaks onto your feet and the nest below. You watch, and resist the urge to push into the crack with the point of your beak.

Trembling, the egg rolls onto its side and its upper wall shatters against the nest. Your chick, with eyes closed, tries to free his wing from the clinging inner sack. With your beak, you carefully tug it aside with pieces of the remaining shell, and although the chick is not fully hatched, instinctively, you begin to preen his sticky down. There is commotion on the rock as another bird’s mate returns from a catch to a nest at your back. The wind rises, and beyond the shore below the sound of the swell grows louder.

Once your chick has freed himself completely from the shell, you gently nudge his frail, flailing body back under the shelter of your wing, but he is hungry, and before long he taps his small beak quickly against your own. It is some time since you have been to sea, but with the little food that is left in your stomach you’re able to give your chick a feed, and he sleeps. For a long time you watch the sky over the horizon for signs of your returning mate.

You fly out to the ocean in search of fish. The day you begin you let the East wind carry you high above the black of the sea. The wind is warm, and the heat of the sun beats down upon your back. Far below you, the surface ripples with movement, and something on a swell’s back catches your eye. You start to circle, and descent reveals a flock of pale birds feeding from a surfacing shoal.

On the water, the first of the fish you catch is tough and dry. It’s almost tasteless, but you are hungry and once it is swallowed you lunge towards another at your side. The fish are angular – some hollow, some flat. They are brilliantly coloured, like the rainbow, and some are too long or too large for you to swallow in one. But you chip at their flesh with the edge of your beak. You stretch back your neck and force them down. Barely moving, and seemingly unafraid, they make easy prey and you spend a long time grazing with the other birds in the heart of the shoal.

The sun lowers, and rises, and lowers again. In the distance an arc of hunting dolphins pierce the waves, and with your belly full, you lift from the water and travel back to your nest and your chick. You are full of trepidation as you land, after leaving him alone, but he is there, and awake, and tapping at your beak. You feed him the strange and brittle fish.

The days grow hot and humid. Your small chick’s down is greasy and warm. His hunger is easily satisfied by the coloured fish you bring him, but he is not growing as fast as he should, and he’s lethargic, sleeping often in the crook of your wing. His eyes are dull. The salt winds snatch at his feathers. They unravel the grasses you have woven through your nest. You had hoped to rest for several days, but although you are weary, and as your mate has not returned, you fly out again to the ocean.

Through these weeks the winds begin to fail. After feeding you spend long, exhausted hours becalmed on the silent water. There are other birds and among you float the queer and motionless shoal. The sky fills with cloud and darkens the sea. You think of your chick, alone on the rock, and watch as one of the birds at your wing chokes on a large, transparent fish. As the struggling bird tries to lift from the water, half swallowed, the fish expands and contracts and rustles with every panicked breath. Unable to fly, the grey bird flaps across the surface to where others drift, and then grows still.

When the winds rise again you fly south towards your nest on the basalt island. Your chick, like so many others on the rock, is still small and thin. Although you feed him again and again he stays silent, and his strength continues to wane. In his stomach the fish you have gathered for him don’t swell and don’t dissolve. They provide him no nourishment, but lodge themselves heavy, like stones, in the pit of his tiny gut.

Rain falls. His tapping is slower now. Through half closed eyes he watches the crabs that scuttle across the spray-wet ledge, and the swaying fins of the seals that sleep in the gravel dunes beyond the beach. For a time you let him nuzzle at your side, his little body warm below the feathers of your wing. You close your eyes and yearn for sleep, but return to the ocean in search of fish.

 

Susie Greenhill is a Tasmanian writer whose stories have been published in Australian anthologies and journals. She has a Phd in creative writing and environmental literature from Edith Cowan University. She is writing a novel about motherhood, extinction and bio-luminescent life – a love story between humans and nature – set in Tasmania’s remote south- west.

 

Poetry – Issue 5.2

The Skeffling Whale

by Pippa Little

Embedded in salt marsh
she was a crashed balloon
musty as church myrrh
the man who found her, who walked widdershins
round her body, stood mute witness
to its moon-surface map
of inexplicable death-throes,
toed by experts and councilmen
with talk of hoists and salvage,
like a keel dragged, dredged, upended here,
wonky camber exposed to air
half a mile or more from the sea,
his lorn Eve –

by coming on her first,
of all humans he believed himself
answerable –
yet larks purled overhead,
clouds roiling up as if full of silver fishes, he felt
how good to be alive!
and could not be led away.

In September 2011 a female from the rare Sei species of whale was found over 800 metres from shore in Skeffling, on the Humber Estuary in England.

As the Crow…

by Rachael Clyne

i catchthee
wi’ mi corbie eye
speedy tho’ you look me
i spythee
wings spread me
coiled quiver
uplift me
pushhhdown
on branch 
so it
spring________me________up
______________up
_____air spin
_____me

swim me
_____i ffflap soarrr

_____Ccrraaaaaah!________Crraaah!

Afeared o’ nowt
lone
and tribe
we stab peck
_____________dead
live
_____any bits

allus fly straight: the crow way
allus sit
_____atop o’ tree
______________see faarrr!

Previously published in Singing at the Bone Tree (Indigo Dreams Publishing 2014)

Black Bear

by Julie-ann Rowell

O envy of the black bear by the side of the road
hunting for berries in the lowdown bush,

up from the sidewalk, left at Burton,
and the traffic cones someone’s stolen.

He picks with hands ending in claw,
delicate enough for these red dots,

lifts his huge bear head when a boy
trundles by on a skateboard, sports cap

pulled down, unknowing, except of the road,
and bear scatters to the trees, his rump

is all I can see. The skateboarder scoots
out of sight, and the bear returns

in lumbering stroll to his scavenging,
black and bold in the scree

of human living. I gun the car and move
out of range, enclosed in my metal cage.

The street is his tonight as the moon
creeps up against the sun and wins.

Returning

by Kathy Miles

This guest of summer, the temple-haunting martlet (Macbeth 1:V1)

They have returned this year
speaking new tongues, their song quivering
plainchant from the branches.

Carried like erratics on the wind, over
lake and mountain and dry savannah
they map the earth’s magnetic field,

the compass of shifting sun. In their eyes
oceans and far stars, bleak Saharan wastes.
Sky tossed from glossy wings, blue-washed

with scattered light. They come back
to remembered nests under beam and eave,
huddled cups of mud and gathered grasses.

Now they bank on the current,
skimming a cream of aphids from the air,
swerve and loop over reed-beds, where

snow-bones speckle cold in meadow ridges
and early midges swell across the marsh.
I see cheetahs in their dreams, leopard

and wildebeest: lost coast and forest,
rising seas, the bleach of coral reef.
A disappearing world in their requiem.

Sex-slave

by Lee Nash

She’s different, not like the other girls:
she’s carrying a lot of extra weight;
her skin’s a little rough. Her wide lips curl
in a curious way; her hips gyrate
but unnaturally. In the dim light,
she does what is required, and doesn’t speak
to the men. They take her night after night
in the dingy living room, week after week
on the soiled vinyl sofa. When they’ve paid,
as Madam spruces up her cash machine,
she slips into another simpler world,
her huge brown eyes like two ripe mangosteens.
A forest person has a sound for man,
but savages don’t speak orangutan.

Tanka poem by Tim Gardiner

mining bees
riddle clay cliffs
with tiny holes
sharks’ teeth
betray short lives

Poet Biographies:

Pippa Little is Scots and lives in Northumberland. Overwintering , from OxfordPoets/Carcanet, came out in 2012. She has a chapbook, Our Lady of Iguanas, and a second full collection, Twist, forthcoming. She is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newcastle University.

Rachael Clyne lives in Glastonbury. Her writing the wild collection, Singing at the Bone Tree, won Indigo Dreams’, George Stevens Memorial Prize. Anthologies: The Very Best of 52, Book of Love and Loss, Poems for a Liminal Age. Magazines: Poetry Space, Reach, Tears in the Fence, Fat Damsel, Interpreters House. You can watch Rachael performing As the Crow here.

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 eight years.

Kathy Miles is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing. Her third collection of poetry, Gardening With Deer, will be published by Cinnamon Press in June 2016. Her work has appeared in many anthologies and magazines, and she is the winner of the 2015 Bridport Poetry Prize.

Lee Nash lives in France and freelances as an editorial designer for a UK publisher. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in print and online journals in the UK, the US and France. You can find a selection of Lee’s poems on her website: leenashpoetry.com

Dr Tim Gardiner is an ecologist and poet. His haiku have been published in literary magazines including Blithe Spirit, Frogpond and The Heron’s Nest. His first collection of poetry Wilderness was published by Brambleby Books in 2015. He has published many papers on natural history and several books including one about glow-worms.

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The Cool Red Eye of Chicago

by Gavin Van Horn

Ever since I moved to Chicago, I’ve been pondering the question of whether there is a single animal that best captures the essence of this city. Can an animal incarnate a place? On the one hand, I realize my quest is quixotic. I’m tilting at windmills of my own imagination. Which animal best symbolizes a place is one of the more subjective questions a person could ask, and if one were to take it seriously, the answer is open to a thousand viable candidates.

Setting aside the obvious athletic associations of animals with Chicago—da Bears, da Bulls—which are prioritized, as most team logos are, on the fierceness not the residency of the animal, what might be some qualifications for an urban icon? What suite of qualities lends an animal this status? A certain presence in the way that she carries herself, an unquantifiable mystery that induces awe in the beholder that such a creature should share the same space with us? A rarity that makes sighting him a special event, a reason to run home and write down the date and place of discovery or breathlessly recount the story to others? A charismatic physiology or coloration or set of behaviors that we find particularly beautiful, that pours fresh fuel on the fires of our imaginations?

These questions push beyond “favorites” toward something more ethereal, to the animals we feel especially drawn to without knowing precisely why. Wildlife ecologist Aldo Leopold circled such questions and landed on a term for what he was after, numenon.

It is unimportant, unless you derive enjoyment from digging into historical cabinets of curiosities, to know that Leopold borrowed the concept, and the ideas it represented from the Russian philosopher-mystic Pyotor Ouspensky, who, for his part, took it from the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant.* The important thing is that Leopold needed a word to describe a feeling that went beyond physical appearances. Sometimes we feel things so deeply we grope to see if there is a color for the crayon. Germans seem to have a special talent for word combinations that distill what would otherwise demand whole sentences of explanation—Schadenfreude, pleasure derived from the misfortune of others, or Kummerspeck, which literally means “grief bacon” and refers to the excess weight gained from emotional over-eating.

Had Leopold lived to see the creation of the field of conservation biology, he might have opted for flagship, or umbrella, or focal species as his metaphor of choice for what he was after. But maybe not. Those terms somehow seem too ordinary to be useful. He was chasing something closer to the marrow, something that joined marrow, passed clean through it and bound it together.

He was after something, dare I say, spiritual—the numinous spirit of place. Yet he grounded this mysterious spirit of place in a nonhuman animal. Each landscape has a numenon, he writes in the essay “Chihuahua and Sonora,” from his environmental classic A Sand County Almanac. He proposes that the blue jay is the numenon of the hickory groves; the whisky-jack serves this role in the muskegs; the piñonero (piñon jay) for the juniper foothills. “Ornithological texts do not record these facts,” he adds with a wink.

For the north woods, it is the ruffed grouse. About this numinous being, Leopold comments:

In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead. An enormous amount of some kind of motive power has been lost. A philosopher has called this imponderable essence the numenon of material things. It stands in contradiction to phenomenon, which is ponderable and predictable, even to the tossings and turnings of the remotest star.

It is as though a landscape gathers all its energy and concentrates its “imponderable essence” into a species that represents its will and desire to be.

The bulk of Leopold’s short essay is about the numenon of the Sierra Madre in northern Mexico, the thick-billed parrot—a flashy, chatty, communal bird that boldly makes its presence known on the landscape by raising the dawn and scolding unfamiliar visitors. The thick-billed parrot, for Leopold, best incarnated the other-than-human forces that constituted the landscape’s unique presence. The parrot—or the grouse, or the jay—is the visible manifestation of what defines a place qua place, something that, if we are receptive to it, draws us into a greater mystery and fastens us together.

Can a city, a landscape defined by human presence, have numenon? Can one even ask that question of a largely artifactual habitat? I don’t know how Leopold would answer. But I can imagine that if he were here, expansive thinker that he was, he would indulge me. He was, after all, a person who consistently advocated—in the classroom, in the field, and in his writings—for the development of ecological perception. He cautioned that a PhD wasn’t necessary for this mental faculty; in fact, an advanced degree might prove a liability, because “the Ph.D. may become as callous as an undertaker to the mysteries at which he officiates.” For the person skilled with ecological perception, however, “The weeds in a city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods; the farmer may see in his cow-pasture what may not be vouchsafed to the scientist adventuring in the South Seas.” The intricate connections between plants and animals, through time and across landscapes, are available to us all, no matter where we are. Even weeds in a city lot can open a portal to interconnected fantasias.

The city is characterized by the deep imprint of human activity, but it is not dead matter. It is not an iron lung, breathing by mechanical pumps and pistons. Woven into its living fabric are the lives of legions. I think Leopold would argue a little ecological perception can go a long way, even in the city.

So what animal might best embody the numenon of Chicago?

Coyotes? Make no mistake, I identify with coyotes on a personal level. They are the quintessential urban adapters. Any-habitat-adapters might be putting it more accurately. They continue to surprise and trickify as the comeback kids. But there’s a catch. They’ve been able to do so successfully because we’re missing wolves in Illinois, have been for 150 years, the species that would have hampered the coyote’s dramatic success or suppressed their outmigration from the West altogether. The numenon of Chicago must be, how to say it, more autochthonous, a long-term resident.

Peregrine falcons? Another comeback kid, a triumphant story of reestablishing their presence after a precipitous decline due to human poisons. Also a feel-good symbol of humans awakening to destructive actions and lending a hand in the recovery process. Other attributes—built for speed, terrifying in their power, graceful in their precision, stoic in their demeanor. Peregrines have made the city theirs, as though they orchestrated the construction of skyscrapers, using us as pawns to raise the flattened Midwest to suit their elevated purpose. Chicago is one city among many that peregrines have reclaimed, though their geographical promiscuity doesn’t make them approachable. They live out of reach and often out of sight. Unless you have climbing gear and a hard hat, they are a difficult bird to observe. They embody the ethereal qualities of the numenon, but though they are in they city they are not quite of the city.

If not coyotes, “the ghosts of Chicago,” or peregrines, the winged dynamo, then whom? I’d like to make an argument on behalf of what might seem, at first blush, an unlikely candidate. A creature with a name that sounds like the sobriquet of a comic book anti-hero: the Black-crowned Night Heron.

heronsmallThis is a bird of contrasts and juxtapositions. The species takes its name from the cap, or crown, of black that divides the heron’s head into a sideways yin-yang, but the first feature you may notice is the pair of ivory colored feathers projecting like white contrails from the base of that head. Or the midnight blue contrast of his back, offset by the downy white of his underbelly. Maybe the pair of corncob yellow legs that prop up his football-shaped body and hold it still, as though it’s on a tee.

But eventually the heron’s red eye, a ruby supernova that deepens to a blackhole center, will pull you in. This red eye fixes you in its gaze, letting you know that you are part of his passing world, not he of yours. Black-crowned will do, its evocative as species names go, but better would be the Red-eyed Night Heron.

By land, they don’t usually allow me close. But if I’m in their watery domains, I can, with appropriate gentleness, paddle near enough that the cool red marble locks onto me.
We don’t have much by way of rivers in the section of the city in which I live. We have to make due with a manmade canal, the North Shore Channel, which was cut in the early twentieth century to facilitate the removal of human waste. Down the canal; out of sight, out of mind. With modern treatment systems, conditions have improved for the channel waters, enough that travelling on top of the water is deemed safe. Squint your eyes and it feels like an honest to goodness creek. At least the herons think so.

In recent years, I’ve seen them on the Channel with increasing frequency. They aren’t nesting there, but the waterway makes a decent hunting ground. They seem to like the portion closest to the lake best. One day, I saw no less than eleven of them perched above the waters, some in trees, some on a cement wall, eyeballing the waters below, meditating on fish.

I felt privileged to bear witness. Night herons are a state endangered bird. They once lived on the far Southeast Side of Chicago in some scrappy pocket wetlands, surviving between steel factories and car assembly plants. Then, around 2009, they moved. They moved toward downtown Chicago. They moved to the zoo.

Location, location, location. Walking distance from Lake Michigan and two-and-a-half miles north of the Loop, Lincoln Park Zoo has nine hundred resident species and serves as “Chicago’s Living Classroom.” It’s also a free-to-the-public zoo, which may account for the more than 3.5 million visitors who come each year. In 2008, the zoo constructed a “Nature Boardwalk,” deepening an already existing pond that lies just outside the entrance, planting native vegetation, and introducing aquatic organisms. There’s a walking path that loops around and away from the fourteen-acre area, a popular spot for strolling and snapping pictures, and now, getting splattered with night heron poo.

You see, the night herons—there were 300 nesting pairs in 2015—have selected two locations for their nesting colonies that overhang pedestrian walkways. One is located by the Lincoln Memorial statue just south of the Nature Boardwalk; the other is located over the red wolfheronssmall2 exhibit in the zoo itself. No one said that nests or nest location were night heron specialities. Unlike the beautiful tight weave of a warbler’s home or the mud-dappled engineering of a cliff swallow’s abode, night heron nests look like afterthought. Their nests prioritize function over form, little more than a jumble of medium-size sticks jammed into the crook of a tree.

Whatever works. And, apparently, they will build these brushpiles wherever they damn well please. Even over heavily trafficked footpaths in the heart of Chicago. Which returns me to subject of heron poo. In my estimation, any bird that intentionally or unintentionally puts us in our place, causes us to take note of its presence, reminds us that we are subject to more-than-human forces by tarnishing our self-importance as well as our button-down shirts, has my respect. Let us call this the virtue of night heron shit.

But the Black-crown Night Heron’s construction abilities belie the bird’s physical elegance and energetic concision. They are meditators, as I said. The body does not often stir, and when it does, it is for the purpose of mindful stalking. One yellow leg, slowly raised, purposefully placed, the heron makes his food expend energy finding him. Then, like a lightning flash, he strikes.

Their nests, their bodies, and their behaviors evoke a certain prehistoric deep time that contrasts with their modern choices of city habitat. They represent the wild forces, bent but unbroken, that pulse through the city. All these are good reasons for numenal consideration. But, for me, it is the eye that distinguishes the Black-crowned Night Heron’s claim as numenon of Chicago. We need to be eyed with a bit of suspicion. Our approach should be cause for other animals’ concern. We have not gently claimed the city; we steamrolled our way into the landscape, cut channels to flush our unwanted pollutions away from us (and toward someone else), tore through prairie to build shopping malls, and threw concrete wherever we pleased.

And yet.

The herons are part of our story, and we theirs, entangled in a city of juxtapositions that rub against one another, like the black and white of a heron’s head. A man-made canal that can’t be safely swum, but has been repurposed by avian and aquatic beings for food, shelter, and safe passage. A zoo in one of the more densely populated portions of the city that hosts their nesting colonies. An endangered bird who finds the city homey. The Black-crowned Night Heron carries the juxtapositions of the landscape in his body, reclaiming the fruits of modern engineering with a pre-modern disposition. He is the numenon, the will and self-expression of the land, the mysterious essence of this place. The bird bears these entangled histories, and we with him, into an unknown future.

All the while, the cool red marble warily watches. There are cool red eyes watching us all, wondering if these humans will find a way to adapt to this place, to inhabit a city in a way that is enduring. Red eyes waiting. Red eyes watching.

* If you are an appreciator of Western philosophy and its modern-day interpretations, or a glutton for academic excavation, Ashley Pryor offers an astute and engaging tour of the relationship between Leopold’s and Ouspensky’s writing, especially their shared interest in a impersonal nature mysticism in her article “Thinking like a Mystic: The Legacy of P.D. Ouspenksy’s Tertium Organum on the Development of Aldo Leopold’s ‘Thinking Like a Mountain,’” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 5, no. 4 (2011): 465-490.

 

Gavin Van Horn is the Director of Cultures of Conservation for the Center for Humans and Nature. He is the co-editor of City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and Relative Wild: Common Grounds for Conservation (University of Chicago Press, in progress). He writes for, edits, and curates the City Creatures blog.

All images by Gavin Van Horn