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
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.
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
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
wi’ mi corbie eye
speedy tho’ you look me
wings spread me
on branch so it
spring________me________up ______________up _____air spin _____me
swim me _____i ffflap soarrr
Afeared o’ nowt
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)
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.
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.
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
riddle clay cliffs
with tiny holes
betray short lives
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.
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.
This 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 wolf 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.
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.
Cold wind buffets my breath as the small boat bounces along the waves. We are heading towards a tiny, sun-bleached rocky nub of an island, one of the many that cluster about the sprawling, inverted triangle of Eyre Peninsula, like small fish shadowing a large, cruising shark. And sharks aren’t far from my mind. As I clamber from the boat to the sloping brown rocks, slick with algae, I’m concentrating hard on not falling in. Great white sharks are regulars in these waters – they take fish, seals, sea lions and the occasional unfortunate surfer or abalone diver. Right now the Australian sea lions are pupping, which is why I am here on this island. I’m helping researchers Peter Shaughnessy and Terry Dennis count this season’s pups to help track the status of this threatened species.
The Australian sea lion is golden-coated, dewy-eyed and the only pinniped that’s endemic to Australia. The lithe, sleek females are reclining here and there, dozing in the bright sunlight. Their chocolate-brown pups are less obvious and more difficult to find. We scramble transects across the low rocky brow of the island, keeping each other in sight to make sure no pups are missed.
Eyre Peninsula is about halfway along the southern shoreline of Australia, and a special cast of creatures inhabit its coasts and islands. Dapper black-and-white pacific gulls stand sentinel on rocks and beaches, often in pairs. Green rock parrots tinkle as they alight daintily on the coastal bushes, gleaning puckered yellow berries from the ruby saltbush. They chatter to each other, inspecting cracks and crevices in the cliff lines for possible nest sites. Oystercatchers pipe sadly as they fly parallel to the beach, in pairs, and white-bellied sea eagles and ospreys can often be seen drifting high overhead. Some islands have bilbies, others have bettongs, rock wallabies, or stick-nest rats. There are also ark populations of pythons, and odd varieties of tiger snake.
Today, the matronly bulk of gentle grey Cape Barren geese are surveying us warily, red eyes alert behind zinc-yellow beaks. As I carefully examine the bony carapace of the island in my search for sea lion pups, my eyes occasionally sink into the unfocused depths of a downy goose nest. Its softness contrasts strangely with the harshness of the low spiky, salt-pruned bushes and the sparse threads of dry grass. And suddenly, glaring at me with its enormous yellow eyes, is a bush stone-curlew. Upright and obvious on its long, thin legs; slight and seemingly vulnerable against the wide sky.
Sea-lion, goose and stone-curlew, assembled on this low treeless island surrounded by sea – a striking image, and one that challenges my idea of the ‘normal’ habitat of a bush stone-curlew. I had associated this enigmatic, ground-dwelling bird with grassy woodlands, not rocky, sea-swept islands. But I am so happy to see it here, slowly sidling away, neck extended, its buff-and-brown markings already dissolving back into the landscape. The bush stone-curlew Burhinus grallarius – also known as the bush thick-knee – has declined over large parts of it range, including throughout Eyre Peninsula. It’s one of the threatened species we are trying to restore to Coffin Bay National Park, a mainland park that is not far away. Stone-curlews are described as ‘terrestrial waders’, and there are 10 species worldwide. But the bush stone-curlew is more closely associated with dry land than wetlands. Before European settlement it was found over much of the Australian mainland, but it is now listed as threatened in the south-eastern states of Victoria and New South Wales.
* * *
The barren calcrete landscape is illuminated in the headlights as K.D. Lang’s rich, languid voice fills the cab of the 4WD. Perhaps incongrously, but then perhaps there is a likeness between this landscape and the mid-winter bleakness of the lands of the 49th parallel. Nothing stirs as our 4WD lurches after ranger Tom’s ute, which is showing us the way over this seemingly blasted landscape of bare white rocks, twists of grazed-down grasses, and the bleached gnarled bodies of sheoaks, laying sideways where they once stood tall. Stubborn clumps of half green, half twiggy-dead coast beard-heath and other unpalatable shrubs loom in and out of view. And every now and then there is a movement – the rhythmic bounce of a western grey kangaroo – and then it stops and stands, turns to look towards us, into the headlights. Quizzical, and not very smart. An easy target if we had a gun, but we don’t. Tom Gerschwitz isn’t hunting roos tonight – the cull will be later in the year. Tonight we’re hunting bush stone-curlews, but not to kill. They’re a cherished native species, and part of the ecological restoration of this park. Tonight we’re trying call-playback to find out if they have returned.
The call of a bush stone-curlew is an unearthly, haunting thing. It begins as a weird wail that swells in volume and rises in tone, and then multiplies into a shuddering cacophony of hysterical cries. It sounds like many birds are calling, but I’m told it only emanates from one. But bush stone-curlews often call together – in gatherings that have been described as whistling concerts, corroborees or glee parties. In many Aboriginal cultures the stone-curlew’s call is associated with death. The Warlpiri people of the Tanami Desert believe that when a stone curlew calls in a certain way then there are many dingoes around; if it calls differently a small child might throw a trembling fit. Aboriginal names for these birds include Weeloo and Willaroo – which echo the sound of its call – and also Wayayi, Wirntiki and Ngamirlirli. No doubt there are many more Aboriginal names, since the bush stone-curlew’s natural range is most of mainland Australia.
We cut the gurgling diesel engines and are swallowed by the dark stillness of the night. Except for the distant sigh of the sea, in place of the sighing that the wind would have made in the sheoaks, were they still alive. Tom knows from old folk’s tales and surveyors’ maps that this place was a sheoak grassy woodland when white people settled here. The drooping sheoak Allocasuarina verticillata is a graceful greyish tree with fine long hanging branchlets that look soft and hairlike from a distance, like the tails of the feral horses only recently removed from the Park. The Ngarrindjeri aboriginal people believe that the sound of wind in the sheoaks are the voices of their spirit ancestors. These trees are drought-tolerant and nitrogen-fixing; nutritious and highly palatable to horse, sheep, cow and rabbit. The early settlers introduced all four, which competed with the kangaroos that also like eating sheoaks. Any sheoaks that were within browsing height were devoured, and old trees were felled to provide extra feed. Fire and rain loosened the thin precious topsoil – already bared of grass from overgrazing, and the long, dry Mediterranean-climate summers. The soil washed away, exposing the calcrete bones of the Coffin Bay Peninsula. They made it a National Park when it wasn’t good for much else: Coffin Bay National Park, on the south-western tip of Eyre Peninsula.
In the darkness Tom plays the recorded wailing call of the bush stone-curlew. And we wait quietly, our breath steaming in the cold starlight. There is no answer from bird or beast, so we move on to the next monitoring site. And the next. No calls respond to the recorded cries. There are no stone-curlews here.
* * *
Several years have passed, and I now live in Brisbane, subtropical Queensland, many miles northeast of the Eyre Peninsula. I often cycle to the Queensland Herbarium, nestled in the foothills of Mt Coot-tha Forest, on the grounds of the Brisbane Botanic Gardens. The last steep slope up to the back entrance of the Herbarium takes some effort, especially at the end of a long ride. One day, when I was slowly pedalling up this bitumen driveway, I felt those yellow eyes upon me once more. This time there were two pairs of eyes: two bush stone-curlews were sitting blithely on the verge of the road. One standing, one sitting; both eyeing me calmly from their chosen resting place that was in the open, amongst the bark-chip-mulch.
This is a resident pair that is often seen around the back of the Herbarium, seemingly oblivious to the comings and goings of botanists and ecologists, and the loading and unloading of vehicles. Bush stone-curlews may be threatened in most of south-eastern Australia, but they are still secure in northern Australia, including Queensland. Even in the suburbs of Brisbane – which is a major city – there are many places where the wailing cry of the bush stone-curlew is often heard. This made me curious, as foxes were often cited in southern Australia as a major cause of the bush stone-curlew’s decline. But foxes are present in Brisbane, along with dogs and cats.
As an ecologist, I’m always wary of the simple answer. Most ecosystems are composed of numerous species, interacting in a multitude of complex ways, in space and time. I am also suspicious of certain people that seem to gain satisfaction from killing feral animals, and are eager to vilify these creatures, and blame them for the decline of native species. I suspect it’s some sort of displaced guilt. Over the last 200 years or so, humans (and the domestic animals we nurture) have been by far the most destructive feral animals that have impacted on the Australian environment. But instead of facing this reality, there is much hatred directed towards feral cats, foxes and rabbits.
Feral animals are a significant threat to many native Australian species. But sometimes feral species are not the main threat to a native species, or even a threat at all. The main factors that seem to have caused the decline of the bush stone-curlew in south-eastern Australia are the destruction of its habitat by overgrazing, burning and intensive clearing of vegetation. Tom understood this for Coffin Bay National Park – that the stone-curlews were unlikely to return without the restoration of the sheoak grassy woodlands, despite an ongoing fox control program. I suspect that the long dry summers and generally lower productivity of southern Australia also make it much harder to restore some habitats and maintain healthy populations of certain native species. In the parts of northern Australia where the bush stone-curlew is secure, even common, the summers are hot and wet, and the winters are mild. Plant growth is rampant, which results in a large and continuous supply of leaf-litter and woody debris, which are used by stone-curlews as breeding, resting and feeding sites. Heat, moisture and abundant plantlife also results in high numbers of insects, other invertebrates, frogs and lizards which make up the bulk of the stone-curlew diet. As long as some native vegetation is retained, fires are infrequent and grazing pressure is low (as is the case in the more leafy suburbs of Brisbane) it seems that bush stone-curlew habitat is in reasonably good supply, and these birds continue to survive, and even thrive. Even in the presence of the foxes, dogs, cats – and people – who also live in the greater Brisbane area.
* * *
In Coffin Bay National Park, and elsewhere on Eyre Peninsula, people are trying to coax sheoaks and native grasses back into the landscape, and in this way conserve the native species that rely on sheoak grassy woodlands. (In Australia, the term ‘woodland’ is used for a treed ecosystem where the trees are relatively widely spaced, and the foliage cover of the tallest tree layer is less than 30%. The term ‘forest’ is reserved for denser stands of trees where foliage cover of the tallest tree
layer is greater than 30%.) Woodlands with an open, grassy understorey have been heavily exploited for grazing and cropping. It’s no coincidence that many native plant and animal species that once lived in these grassy woodlands – especially those in southern Australia – are now in decline or are gone forever. As I learnt from my island adventure, the bush stone-curlew doesn’t always live in woodlands – it has a preference for open area generally, and has been observed nesting where there is good visibility at ground level for at least 250 m all round. But in many mainland habitats the bush stone-curlew is strongly associated with leaf litter and woody debris. These provide good camouflage for the stone-curlew and also homes for the small creatures that it hunts. Fires, grazing, tree loss, firewood collection and just general ‘tidying up’ all result in less leaf litter and woody debris. Fortunately, people are learning that an ‘untidy’ woodland – where wood and litter are left where they fall – provides a much healthier habitat for wildlife than one that is regularly groomed, and devoid of organic clutter.
In southern New South Wales the Nature Conservation Working Group has been releasing captive-bred bush stone-curlews to supplement the dwindling local populations of this species. There have been six releases since 2008. Most of the birds have survived and some have also bred, with the most recent chicks sighted in January 2015. Predator control is an important part of the rewilding of the bush stone-curlew, but it isn’t the only factor involved. A release of bush stone-curlews into a predator-free enclosure in New South Wales was less successful (in terms of bird survival) compared to a concurrent release of birds into a predator-controlled, unfenced area nearby. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy, which manages these sites, suggested that starvation was the cause of bird mortality in the predator-free area. Research by Elisa Tack in southern New South Wales and north east Victoria has also revealed the important, but often overlooked role of food availability for the conservation and rewilding of the bush stone-curlew.
Bush stone-curlew romance, or at least sex, has also made it to the internet, thanks to an innovative rewilding project in the Australian Capital Territory. The Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary has reintroduced a number of locally extinct woodland animals – including the bush stone-curlew – into a predator-free enclosure which adjoins a new suburb. By law, neighbouring residents are required to keep their cats on their premises at all times. A bird called Rowena was part of the first group of bush stone-curlews released in October 2014. Like many young adolescents she was keen to explore the world on her own terms, and promptly flew out of the predator-free enclosure to try a bit of urban living. Fortunately she survived some brief forays across roads, and some cat-naps on road verges and roundabouts, and was returned by concerned residents when they noticed her leg tag. Since then she has stayed within the predator-free Sanctuary, and has developed an attachment to fellow-release bird Herbie. Both were captured on film while trying to procreate and you can watch their tentative dance on YouTube (https://youtu.be/YxXbqYZ5v-c ). Kate Grarock, the ecologist at Mulligans Flat, thinks it’s unlikely that they will breed successfully for several months, but there is great excitement for the future. A second release of bush stone-curlews is planned for September/October 2015, and the local community appears to be enthusiastically behind the project.
The bush stone-curlew is a curious, charismatic, and some might say spooky part of Australia’s heritage. Many people across the country are concerned for its welfare, and are working hard to ensure the continued existence of this species. Our understanding of wildlife ecology is also maturing, as more and more people comprehend the complexity of ecological interactions, and the importance of good quality habitat as well as predator control when it comes to saving threatened species. Whether these efforts can keep up with the rapacious rate of ongoing environmental degradation, especially the impacts of a continuously growing human population, and the ongoing effects of climate change, is not known. But at least the bush stone-curlew has many friends, and the rewilding movement just keeps on growing.
* Update on the Mulligan’s Flat stone-curlews, December 2015: Rowena and Herbie are still living within the Sanctuary, and have raised their first chick. The chick is doing well, and is seen on camera each week. Ten more captive-bred bush stone-curlews were released into the Sanctuary in October 2015, and all have survived so far. Just before Christmas two of the newly-released birds (Lewis and Kay) were found to be protecting a nest with eggs, much to the delight of everyone involved in Mulligan’s Flat.
References and thanks
Anderson, G.J. (1991) The breeding biology and the bush thick-knee Burhinus magnirostris and notes on its distribution in the Brisbane area. The Sunbird 21:32-61
Hume, R. & Bonan, A. (2013). Thick-knees (Burhinidae). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.) (2013). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/52241 on 13 August 2015).
Kate Grarock, ecologist at Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary, and www.bettongs.org Accessed 13/08/2015
Kemp, L., D Roshier, L Steindler, N Riessen (2014) Trialling Release Protocols and Thresholds of Predator Presence for the Reintroduction of the Bush Stone-curlew to southern Australia. Abstract for the 3rd Curlew Summit, August 2014, Albury.
Marchant,S. and P.J. Higgins (1993) Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Volume 2. Raptors to Lapwings. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
Peeters, P. J., Gerschwitz, T., & Carpenter, R. J. (2006). Restoring sheoak grassy woodlands on lower Eyre Peninsula. Unpublished report, Department of Environment and Heritage, South Australia.
Tack, E. (2014) Lessons from 10 years of Studying Bush Stone-curlews. Abstract for the 3rd Curlew Summit, August 2014, Albury.
Paula Peeters is a writer, artist and ecologist. Her written work ranges from playful observations of nature, to science communication, and many things in between. Her art practice focusses on wildlife and ecosystems, and strives to capture the beauty, habit and characteristic light of these subjects. Paula blogs at www.paperbarkwriter.com
scoobidy boo bop the magpie
talks in meter feet are bib bob scatting
stealing shiny snippets the rib rib
magpie mimics artists’ practice
unnoticed the bee bob meter magpie
skibbidy pop pops in black and white
feet hop the free hop
jazzed up corvid
pippity pop pops the free verse
flippity hop hops in improv
yippity do wop it won’t stop
bee bop flip flop
flying and ribbing
and ribbidy wee wah weaving
a work of waste word nest
by Bill Cushing
The wolf bares fangs
even when sleeping.
in rapid dream-twitches;
cheeks quiver from tickling
branches that swipe his head.
Leading the hunt,
he chases with others of the pack– 11111111111sweaty fear 11111111111fills his nostrils 11111111111and sanguine expectation 11111111111tingles through his flanks.
at the flanks of a deer,
with him, as one.
Then, the imagined pack
straddles its fallen meal,
A lullaby of teeth,
as enamel scrapes against bone,
and the song of sinew,
stretching before tearing free from
the cooling carcass,
fill his night.
Stac an Armin
by David J. Costello
the granite shark’s fin
sheds its gannets
in a perforating
avalanche of white.
From a distance
it deforms into
its own reflection,
dips its dirty icing
in the cold Atlantic swell.
Poses for my camera
like a newly laundered sheet.
Keened to spikes
the gannets pitch a plunge
and stitch my picture
back into its frame.
Note: Stac an Armin is a sea stack in St Kilda’s archipelago. It’s the site of the largest breeding colony of Gannets in the world.
by Jan Moran Neil
clearing agent of the Weld,
stripper of white bones;
powdered faeces, false penis,
howling, hunchbacked editor.
by Jenifer DeBellis
111111111111111illume / i lo͞om / verb 111111111111111illuminate; light up.
The first one was lucky to die
within a week. The second one shrunk
daily, its dorsal fin and caudal lobes
notched like a skeleton key, its eyes
bulged in a state of eternal fright.
The third week claimed the second
goldfish, and the fighter fish lasted
another day—its bloated body
floating alongside its broken heart.
by Joan Lennon
In the night the sea’s slow breath
rolled up from the shore,
filmed over colour with damp,
smudged the trees beyond the wall.
Each note of the blackbird’s challenge
swims past the window now
like a line of fish
patrolling the misted perimeter.
Even the crows stay low,
reluctant to bump against
the lid of the sky.
Anna Cathenka is a non-fiction writer and poet studying Creative Writing at Falmouth University. She explores language at the meeting point between the human and the ‘natural’. Her poetry has been published in WiTH and The Wardrobe and she can be found online @annacathenka
Bill Cushing earned an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College and currently teaches English classes at both Mount San Antonio and East Los Angeles colleges. He has previously had poems published in Avocet, Brownstone Review, Penumbra, genius & madness, the Onion River Review, the Synergist, Spectrum, the Sabal Palm Review,andMetaphor. He has had work published in two anthologies, Getting Old and Stories of Music, as well as having a short story due out in Newtown Literary Journal.
David J. Costello lives in Wallasey, Merseyside, England. He is a member of Chester Poets. David has been widely published on-line and in print including Prole, The Lake, Provo Canyon Review, Magma and Envoi. David is a previous winner of the Welsh International Poetry Competition. His debut pamphlet, “Human Engineering”, was published by Thynks Publishing in October 2013. A second pamphlet will appear in September 2016 from Red Squirrel Press.
Jan Moran Neil has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Winner of BBC Writers’ short story competition. She has been running Creative Ink for Writers for 15 years. Her fifth play: A President in Waiting … was performed at the Desmond Tutu HIV Youth Foundation Centre , Cape Town last November. Her novel Blackberry Promises is available on Amazon as is her first collection of poetry and short stories: Serving Bluebird Pie. She is a regular contributor to Writing Magazine. www.janmoranneil.co.uk/blog
Jenifer DeBellis is Pink Panther Magazine’s editor. She’s a Solstice MFA grad and former Meadow Brook Writing Project Fellow. DeBellis teaches creative writing for Baker College and Oakland University’s Writing Camps. She’s published in the Aurorean, AWP’s Festival Writer, BAC Street Journal, the Good Men Project, and Solstice Lit Mag.
Joan Lennon is a Scottish-Canadian/Canadian-Scottish writer, living in Fife, in a flat overlooking the River Tay. She has had novels, stories and poems published for readers of all ages. Her latest YA novel, Silver Skin, is set in Skara Brae, Orkney. www.silver-skin.co.uk
This morning’s creation wavers
below me, as special as any,
close enough to touch:
a fish with arms and
two tiny ruffs
sprouting from its head like
God’s own ferns
circulating in the current
of its ephemeral world.
All day, those diminutive hands haunt me,
the way they cling to nothing.
The way the words for what is rare are disappearing
the world of the future
the way it will be
Hummingbird in the Garage
by Karen Terrey
I opened my hand. The hummingbird tumbled
weightless in the grass, curled toenails shrouded
with cobweb. A false escape, to lunge
at the dirty light of the windowpanes again.
Again. Green chest heaving, my fingers
clumsy unthreading the spider’s threads.
That a trap for insects could catch this bundled
iridescence. Some desire of hers –
Food, shelter, love. Does it matter?
So quickly the scales can tip. Both of us
unfit for our tasks. Both trembling.
I left her in the sun and soon,
she was not there. And how should I love?
When I opened my hand I didn’t feel anything.
Snacking on the Plankton of St Kilda
by Seth Crook
Tides and light and you have life,
the multi-colours of anemones.
Dive with a breather,
and you can sit within a shoal of fish.
Without the bubbles
they don’t notice, or don’t care,
pass an arm’s-length from your face.
Sometimes the basking shark glides in,
so visible in un-silted water.
But it is sweet, with tiny teeth.
No more dangerous
than the one cloud weather system
that hangs over Boreray.
by Linnea Wortham Harper
Time must have hooked itself to a chain
of old elephants to be going this slow.
These circus ghosts, retired with health care,
have nothing to do but drag it around their
sanctuary all day like a bale of rotting hay,
leaving bits and stalks in their lurch.
Shall we hitch a ride on the back
of this beast? Take the time and slow it down
to a dull glide? Scrape it against the walls
and drag it through the water trough?
Unhook it where it washes up,
watch it dry in the slow air?
Or we could keep our distance,
maybe pellet the tough hides
with pebbles from our peashooters,
try to get a rise.
When they were young, and shapely women
in scanty clothing rode their proud shoulders,
did they quicken their pace then?
And did time stop altogether in the spotlight,
in the warm glow of public applause,
and are they all recalling now
their last bow, one knee on the floor,
hoping against hope
it will never start again?
by Michael Murray
Snails glide across pre-dawn pavement stones,
striated, colour-schemed, banded shells
their thin veneer peeling in places.
At twilight always they trek back to grass —
following their path, returning;
their wet passage dotted, morse-coded,
by shells dipping, rocking,
as they glide and draw, glide and draw
their muscular foot.
I doubt tonight they will come, the rods of rain
would knock clear any track,
and puddle mud on their route back.
Even the ants have gone deep, off centre
in their safer chambers.
Susan DeFreitas is a writer, editor, and spoken word artist. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has appeared in The Utne Reader, The Nervous Breakdown, Southwestern American Literature, Fourth River, Weber—The Contemporary West, and Bayou Magazine, among other publications, and in 2014 her work was a finalist for a Best of the Net award. She is the author of the fiction chapbook Pyrophitic (ELJ Publications) and holds an MFA from Pacific University. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she serves as an editor with Indigo Editing & Publications.
Karen Terrey’s poems have appeared in Rhino, Puerto del Sol, Canary, Cider Press Review, Grey Sparrow, Kokanee and Sierra Nevada Review. Her chapbook Bite and Blood (2015) is available from Finishing Line Press. She teaches writing at Lake Tahoe Community College and Sierra College. A graduate of the Goddard College MFA in creative writing, she lives in Truckee, California with her Cattledog Stoli.
Seth Crook taught philosophy at various universities for a number of years before deciding to move to the Hebrides. His poems have recently appeared in such places as Gutter, New Writing Scotland, Poetry Scotland, Northwords Now, the Open Mouse, Far Off Places, the Rialto, Magma, Envoi, Antiphon.
Linnea Wortham Harper lives on a tidal slough on the central Oregon coast. Before she was a poet, she was a social worker, and before she was a social worker, she was a poet. At the age of 5, she introduced WH Auden to the poetry of AA Milne. This has been her greatest poetic achievement to date.
Michael Murray lives on the edge of the English Peak District. He has been involved in animal keeping and welfare for many years. He sees as proof against the alienation effect of modern life, and Rilke’s First Elegy where we are not at home in the world.
Shorter and shorter days. The sun pours its heat on my back but no longer drives me to find a part of the rock ledge still in shadow. In the long bright days, the sun was something to hide from, the whole length of my body crying out with too much heat. Especially after shedding, my skin new and tender. Now that remembered warmth feels good.
These are the two places I know, that I carry inside as home: the ledges and the den. One where I am alone, the other with so many of us. Two places with the long travel line stretched between. I follow the travel line when it’s time, trust that urge to keep going, let it draw me to the den. Always, I am reluctant to start. But now the stones of the ledges lose their heat before sunrise and my body wants to seek out the old trail. It senses the den out there, the heat of our bodies entwined, the darkness. The rasp of our skin, the smell of all of us there, together. No more hunting now. Wood rats, small quail: I am satisfied.
The day begins cold. The travel line enters me like the feeling of hot meat in the mouth. Like sunlight, like sex. When I am on the travel line, I cannot turn back. It draws me. I slip off the end of the ledge, slide down to the dust below, its open danger. Down, down, my tail gathering weight, my head thrusting forward, faster, my belly muscles trying to grip, to keep ahead of the flow of my own body.
Onward then through level ground: leaves, gravel, rocks. The land rises. Sand, small pools of water. I stop and drink. Thirst quenched, I need nothing now but movement. The travel line is not a place. It is not the ledges, not the den. It is only motion, a certainty that pulls me, spools me out, as though the earth is disappearing behind me, sliding off into its own nothingness.
The land levels out again, through tall dry grasses. I see the heat-flicker of mice, but do not pursue. Soon there will be the long dark path through rocks that leads up to the den. Coolness, then slipping down into gathering warmth. So many of us. I feel us all on our journeys, drawn along the travel lines that always lead to the den.
But now something new: short green grass, sunlight. In the middle of this grass, something looms. Like a strange square hill, but bright yellow, with no trees on it and many rectangles that glint in the sun. This place was not here before. This short grass is too open. It is not safe from things that attack from above, those winged shadows I know of but have never seen. Grasping claws, pain, such speed. Their danger inheres in me, in all of us. I hold still, confused.
The sun fades to night. The air cools. In darkness I go, stretch my body to reach the other side of the open place, to the safety of the woods beyond. I come out of the woods onto a hard flat place. It is smooth and holds the sun’s heat. Another new strangeness. But its warmth feels good and I curl up on its edge to wait for morning. The flat hardness starts to vibrate under me. Eyes glare like two suns in darkness and a scorched smell fills the air. The eyes come toward me, fast. I know two ways to meet a threat: leap toward or slide away. But I have no knowledge of this, not my own, not the danger-knowledge that exists inside to warn me. So I do neither, and the eyes flash by in a rush of poisonous wind. When the land and air is still, I slide off the flat place, sorry to leave its good warmth.
When the sun rises, I go across the smooth place. Into the woods, following the travel line through scrubby bushes, past crickets and their small bits of heat. I come out into another dread place of short grass that exposes my back. I go, this time quickly and in a straight line, toward the woods beyond. A large animal, reddish like a huge fox, appears and puts its black nose to my body. But it’s not a fox: a fox would know better. I leap at the foxlike animal. It jumps back, tongue lolling out of its mouth, eyes bright with surprise. It wags its tail, leans in again. I rear up, open my mouth, feel my fangs snap down, ready. My tail whirrs.
Then another animal, tall, moving on two legs, rushes to the foxlike one. They both flare with heat. The tall one grabs the neck of the foxlike one. I rear back to strike but this one pulls the other away. I turn, flee. In my terror, I lose the travel line.
What is this place and these creatures? Where is the danger-knowledge of them?
I wait until slowly, like damp, darkness, warmth, light, or hunger, the travel line enters me. I go again with dread across the open-back place, across another narrow smooth flatness. Into the woods and the large animals do not pursue me.
The travel line grows more certain. I feel us. I feel the torching heat of sun on a rock but the heat is in my body. Then I see the long warmth of one of us: yes, that one, large and old. I feel all of us on our travel lines. The old trail is now a strong vibration around me. I stretch my body, push each muscle against the earth, let the vibration enter. It surrounds me like water in a stream and I feel its current deep inside. The current grows stronger. I know this path through the rocks. All of us are around me now, part of the current, the vibrations. There is more short grass, but I see the backs of all of us rising from it. I see the long heat of our bodies glowing. We are all gathering. The den is near. I go.
But then—another square hill with gleaming rectangles. This one has a wood ledge attached to it. An animal stands on that ledge, a tall animal like the one that pulled the foxlike one away. It stands on its two legs, flaring heat. So much heat, like a wood rat just before we strike. But we are not hunting. We only want our den. Where is the pile of rocks that shelters our den?
The surface of the earth is changed and there are new animals. But the den must be here. The den is all we know, all we have. It has been here for all time. Perhaps this new animal now marks the endpoint of the travel line, a pillar of heat showing us the way.
Dawn Paul’s stories have been published most recently in The Sun Magazine, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Apple Valley Review and she is the author of the novel, The Country of Loneliness (Marick Press). Her work has also been published in anthologies and performed with the Kelley Donovan Dance Company. She teaches writing and interdisciplinary studies at Montserrat College of Art.
You can see the source of the Monk’s Pool from a distance, a stain of deep green bleeding out from the brown, a horse shoe indentation in the slope. Water bubbles out of the ground from a little cup sized puddle which overflows into a stream so narrow the grass obscures it for most of its short journey down this Welsh hillside. The stream reveals the poverty of the soil here, its centuries of journeying having eroded only a few inches of the turf to a bed of mudstone. Bracken and gorse carpet the hill with, here and there, the odd thorn tree, split, wind-twisted and brittle. The pool was once edged with a line of Scots Pine but the level of the water was raised in recent times, flooding the roots of most of the trees which are now bare, bleached crucifixes.
Mid winter. The pool is usually empty at this time of cold sleep. But this has been a year of anomalies and it is inhabited now by a single juvenile mute swan. A mile south the potato crop has been harvested and the sheltered fields next to the river are starting to fill up with swans, hundreds of birds, many having migrated here from as far as Scandinavia. It is an old gathering place that all the swans in the region come to. Except for the single loner fifteen hundred feet up, facing a much harsher winter.
The cob and pen arrived in early March, circling the pool over the spring passage flocks of teal and mallard, resident coots and moorhens. Small groups of Canada geese started landing soon afterwards. Almost as soon as the birds had settled the cob attacked, neck extended, head low, skidding towards them, air screaming over its wings. The geese took off, territory conceded. Later that week the swans began to build their nest inside an oval of bullrushes. Soon the pen was sitting on seven eggs while the cob defended the territory against every potential predator including the otter that started to leave its spraints on the boulders while it waited for the annual arrival of toads to their breeding ground at the pool’s shallow edges.
Six of the seven eggs hatched in early May with the first swallows arcing over the water and the sound of a pair of curlews off to the west where they were nesting near the stream. For the coming weeks the tiny cygnets would be guided around the lake by their parents, travelling single file with pen leading and cob guarding the rear unless a walker happened to stop, when the cob would paddle towards them hissing. At this time an ancient, battered old tractor started to appear by the lake, parked alongside the reed bed where the nest still held one beige egg that had not hatched. I walked up to it and an old farmer flung open the cab door. He was dressed in a wax jacket and hat that were almost rags. Inside was a sheepdog chained to the door, its teeth bared, doing its best to savage me until the farmer shouted it down. He told me that he has farmed on the hill for seventy years and this was the first time he’d ever seen swans breed on the pool.
Because they are a regular sight on urban waterways mute swans are regarded as a common bird in the UK. But the population is actually quite sparse, with only around 7000 breeding pairs. Compare this to the 100,000 pairs of mallards or the 60,000 pairs of Canada geese. An average year produces only about 3500 successfully reared cygnets. It is possible that this was the first time swans had ever bred here.
My first experience of a wild pool was near the North Midlands housing estate where I grew up. It was located behind an old priory and had once been a mill pond, the mill itself long demolished. The pool was almost identical to the Monk’s Pool in size, though instead of being surrounded by a thousand acres of heath, it was hemmed in by a similar acreage of council houses and overlooked by a twenty storey block of flats. The pond was fed by an underground spring which trickled out from a steep embankment at its north end. It was a ghost of rural life lingering in the industrial suburban spread, managing to maintain a wild community. The water was always swarming with sticklebacks in summer and we all knew that a monster pike lurked in its trenches, some of us having had the good fortune to hook it while never managing to land it. A large, bordering willow had fallen into the pond and regrown. Within a fork in its horizontal trunk was the swans’ nest.
Every summer there were cygnets on the pond, such a regular feature that I hardly noticed them. As I reached my teens deindustrialisation began and the pond mirrored the decline of its surroundings. The spring seemed to dry up for long periods and the water became stagnant, carpeted with slime that I could smell all the way from my garden. Litter started to appear, at first the odd glass bottle thrown into the water, then, as packaging plastics began to be used more frequently the surrounding trees filled up with coloured bags that draped from the branches like dead sea creatures. The swans bred less and less succesfully and eventually stopped breeding altogether, only using the pond as an occasional stop-off point. The decades old nest filled up with litter. The water is almost lifeless now, the surrounding paths strewn with smashed glass, dangerous for wildife and people. The last time I visited the area was being menaced by a lone cob which had lost its mate. It threatened anyone who passed, wings thrashing, hissing, grief transformed into aggression.
Swans are one of the heaviest of flying birds. The serene white creature that, on water, moves without moving, its neck sinuous as a river, has to batter itself aloft. It needs an enormous amount of space to do this. The Monk’s Pool is barely large enough to allow a successful take off, requiring the bird to begin its ascent at the edge of the water and to aim itself at the gaps between the fringe of trees and bushes. It takes a full ten seconds of thrashing across the water, feet scrabbling for propulsion, wingtips slapping the surface, before a few feet of altitude is attained. Once in the air it is a noisy machine, the rapid thrum of its wingbeats drowning out the surrounding birdsong. They are not skilful flyers. In the early autumn winds I watched a pair make a wide and slow circle of the hill before navigating a route to the pool. They then became stuck as they attempted to land into the wind, suspended twenty feet above the water, moving slowly backwards. In the end they gave up and turned towards the river below and shelter from the westerly. They were replaced by a lone red kite tilting, tail fanned, wings motionless as it slid through the cracks in the gale.
Throughout the summer the swans continued to patrol the pool in military formation. The pen pulled up weeds from the pool bed and dropped them onto the surface of the water for the cygnets to pick at daintily. They made continual, barely audible, whistling calls. They doubled in size every few weeks. By early July the cob had let down his guard a little and had begun to wander around the pool away from the family while the cygnets travelled in a cluster, following the pen but not closely. Then, one morning, the cob was gone. I searched for hours in the reeds and surrounding bracken for signs of predation. There were none. The pen didn’t seem too concerned, she attended to her young as normal. Swans are one of many species of bird that pair for life but, as with humans, separations occur. Guillemots have been studied closely in this regard and it has been found that most separations are due to bad parenting. In these cases the deviant bird is aggressively seen off. I’m sure this was not the case with the swans. There were no signs of aggression by the cob to its young and I never saw the pen attempt to drive off its mate. The cob just left.
Mute swans can hold their territories with incredible tenacity even when those territories are unsuitable. On the river Wye, below the road bridge leading into town a low island of reeds and hazel separates the stream into a fork. A pair of swans have nested in this place every year I have lived here. In April heavy rains begin and the Wye, being a shallow, mountain river, rises rapidly until only the tops of the hazels show, the nest drowned and destroyed, the unhatched eggs washed away. It doesn’t deter them, the next year they begin again. Only this year, in a spring of little rainfall, have they succeeded in raising young. The pair were still on their patch of river in early winter with their three juveniles in tow.
Anomalous behaviour in wild animals is not rare. Anyone who spends a lot of time observing the natural world will come across unusual behaviour. As the writer Neil Ansell states in his book “Deep Country”, watching wildlife over long periods of time is like peeling an onion, you penetrate through to layer after layer of ever more complex behaviour. Mute Swans are huge birds and voracious eaters. They can consume up to 8 pounds of vegetation each day. Monk’s Pool is less than an acre in area. It is my guess that the cob left its territory so the young had an ample supply of food for the rest of their dependent stage.
“The Six Swans” is a well known oral story with variants across Germany and Scandinavia. In the tale a king gets lost hunting in the forest and meets a witch who will only agree to show him the way back to his castle if he takes her daughter as wife. The king reluctantly agrees and marries the daughter on his return. But, though his bride is beautiful, he does not trust her. He removes his children from the castle and takes them to a place where they will be hidden from their stepmother. The new queen grows suspicious and eventually finds the hidden place. When she visits it the six boys, believing her to be their father arriving, run out to greet her. The witch stepmother then turns each of them into swans. But she does not discover the seventh child, the boys’ sister. The abandoned sister searches the wild forest until she finds her swan brothers who are cursed to only be able to throw off their feathers and become human for a few minutes each day. The only way she can give them back their forms permanently is to make no sound for six years and to weave each brother a shirt of starwort. This she promises to do. The girl is then discovered in the forest by another king who falls in love with her and they marry. But the girl has inherited another wicked guardian and each time she bears a child the old woman steals it and marks the young mother’s lips with blood, accusing her of devouring her own child. The girl is mute and cannot defend herself but the king does not believe his mother. Eventually after their third child receives the same fate the king can defend his wife no more and she is condemned to burn at the stake. But by now six years has passed and she has woven the shirts of starwort except for a single sleeve. As the pyre is about to be set alight six swans swoop down to her and she throws a shirt over each one. The swans are transformed back to her brothers, one with a white wing in place of an arm. The sister can finally tell the truth and the king’s mother is forced to reveal where the children are hidden, after which she is burned to ashes.
The story was first written down by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. It was one of their favourite tales because of its theme of family fidelity. The detail that seems most strange about the story is the single white wing left in place of the brother’s arm. I think that it is a reminder of the faithfulness of creatures, that the surrounding presence of wild beings teaches and inspires us and should not be forgotten or dismissed.
The moult began in late summer, feathers rimming the pool forming a random, pale tideline. The cygnets were by now almost the size of the pen, though they still followed their mother everywhere. Their infant calls remained, the continual shy “seep” that now seemed incongrous with their size. Weeks later, with the first heavy dew settling and the ends of the bracken fronds curling and brown, the pen began flying lessons, spreading and beating its wings in front of them and then launching itself across the pool. The cygnets began to rear out of the water and test the strength of their own wings.
On a late September morning I arrived just after dawn to see the pen and only four cygnets. A few days later, there were two. Then, on a day when the first mist blurred the whole valley, I looked over a silver oval of water now empty of swans. I walked down to the nest, still perfectly intact inside its moat, with the single unhatched egg still undisturbed. I collected a few white feathers from among the reeds, while a pair of ravens flipped and circled over the row of drowned pines. And then I heard, close by, the call of a cygnet and looked up to see it bending and poking among the bullrushes. One had stayed. Over the following weeks the pen returned many times to try to guide its youngster away from the pool. Sometimes it stayed for a day, other times three or four but each time the pen left and the gaps between visits became longer. The juvenile refused to leave.
For a whole month storms have been raging, gale force winds ravaging the peaks, ripping weak branches from the thorn trees and scouring the dead bracken. The upland is scattered with sulphur tufts and scarlet caps like tiny fires amongst the star moss and sedge. A flock of fieldfares cleared the last berries from the neglected hedges but now they have moved on, leaving the hill to a pair of red kites who will hunt here all winter. A few crows and ravens hang out in the tree skeletons, slinging insults. Occasionally I spot a kestrel hovering above the scrub where the curlews nested. The hill is almost deserted. The Monk’s Pool is a cold eye peering out of the barren landscape, the young swan its only inhabitant, now struggling with the conditions.
A week ago the temperature dropped and the ground froze hard. The pool became a giant cobweb of ice. The sun rises almost from the south now, beginning its shallow arc clearing the long line of whaleback mountains for the few hours before dark. In the red, dawn light I could see the long necked silhouette of the swan out in the middle of the pool. It struggled to get though the ice, trying to climb out, falling through, trying to peck its way forwards. Then it opened its wings and I saw how stunted they were, unable to lift it even a few inches from the surface. Its voice had finally changed. While it stuggled it made the low, plaintive, and rarely heard call of the mature swan.
After the short cold snap another series of more violent storms blew in. Howling wind and torrential rain lasted all week and I did not make it onto the hill until this morning. Under the shut sky the pool was edged with grey foam, the water still cresting, the reeds slapped flat. The swan was not there. Heading back to the road I saw two ravens flip-diving in the last of the wind eddies and went to stand under them. As I turned for home I noticed something pale amongst the sedge. It was a patch of skin the size of my palm, coated with white feathers.
As well as swan stories, there are many Welsh oral tales involving upland pools. They are the places where magical creatures are conjured from the water to spend a time living with mortals. But the beautiful beings are always in some way, injured by life. They return to their pools, dive down, and are never seen again.
It has been raining hard for several hours – not your typical summer drizzle, but a 40-day, 40-night special. Tonight there will be no reading of newspapers, no fidgeting with the bills, no dining in a cozy Cape Cod restaurant. Instead, I will drive the amphibious assault craft, for this is the night that has called forth the toad and the toader.
I was conscripted for the work by a good friend who is studying the eastern spadefoot toad, a creature about whom very little is known. Our ignorance of the spadefoot is not due to a lack of interest, but to the peculiar life style of this biological relic. It is more closely related to ancient lost tribes of amphibians than it is to any living family of frogs and toads. The spadefoot apparently spends the great majority of its life below ground, emerging only on wet nights, probably to feed, and on the wettest to breed.
The spadefoot is equipped with a hard and pointed tubercle on each of its hind feet, which is its “spade” for burrowing into dry soil. A descending spadefoot takes with it a lungful of air, burrowing to a depth as great as three feet, and remains there until called out by a summer downpour. It is thought this self-entombment can last as long as several years. On one breath.
The toader and I have been out before. There has been a full cup of rainy days this summer. We saw spadefoots up and down the Outer Cape, scattered and solitary, but out and about. The problem with these earlier forays was the lack of a breeding rain.
The spadefoot only breeds in temporary pools and puddles, because they are fish-free. The pool or puddle has to be deep enough to allow time for the transformation from egg to tadpole to toad before the nursery evaporates. Although many breeding attempts end in dehydrated failure, the spadefoot has the miraculous ability to make the transit from egg to toad in two weeks, clambering out onto land with its tail still evident, ready for a life of mostly sleep.
Driving the amphibious assault craft is not an easy task, because it is on the road itself where the toads are first found. The driver is always in danger of squashing the project, and of presenting a hazard to other drivers on dark and rainy nights. The toader and I agreed from the start that the main highway, Route 6, was off-limits to the study. Only on the side roads can this modern assay of ancient urge be effectively and safely employed.
The Outer Cape is so small and the road system so extensive that crossing asphalt barrens has become part of the journey for the toad venturing from upland woods to bottomland puddle. For some reason, both the common Fowler’s toad and the rare spadefoot halt on the asphalt. Maybe they sit soaking up the surface rainwater, or are disoriented by the flatness and hardness of the roadbed in what is otherwise a journey of humic descent. Maybe they sense something alien, or are stymied by a silence in the genetic code. Whatever, there they sit on the road, looking like small stones, or too often, like medium-size pancakes.
“Toad!” shouts the toader, and I bring the craft to a stop. It is a spadefoot. Down go the windows, in spite of the rain, and we listen. But the road toad is not the quarry. It is the indicator. We are listening for the breeding pool.
The spadefoot has the strangest mating call of all our toads and frogs, but we rarely get to hear it. This call has been described variously as “the coarse low-pitched complaint of a young crow” and “a deafening, agonizing roar, hoarse and woeful.” The toader and I had listened to recordings of this call, and were prepared.
We had been prepared all spring and summer. After hundreds of miles of stopping for toads and toad-like rocks, sticks, and oak leaves, we wondered whether we would ever hear the call in the wild. So far, all we had gotten for rolling down the windows at each spadefoot sighting were rain-splattered laps. But this night of heavy rain – possibly the best spadefoot breeding rain since the launching of Noah’s Ark – had potential, and did not let us down.
The voices of what turned out to be three lovesick spadefoot males made their way up an embankment through the sheeting sound of the rain. (For what it’s worth, I’ll add my own description of the spadefoot mating call: it sounds like a sick duck.) We worked our way down the embankment and found the toads clinging to rushes in a pool maybe six inches deep. With a flashlight we were able to watch this lonesome trio, the vocal sac expanding to three times the size of the head before each croak. The sudden release of air caused their little bodies to bob up and down on the submerged rushes.
We returned three days later to see if the male spadefoots had found romance. But instead of finding eggs or tadpoles, we found a waterless mudhole. Somewhere up the hill, the toads had snuggled themselves once again into the Cape’s soft earth, to endure what likely may be another fruitless summer. There they will wait out the seasons and the years as they have done since parting with the ancients. They spend so little time on the earth and so much time in it, the greatest threat to spadefoots is not a dried-up pool or the asphalt barrens, but the unearthing of their foundations for our own.
Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. He has been writing about life experiences, travel to Europe and North Africa in the 1970s, and more recent adventures in eastern Canada and the U.S. West. His essays and photographs have appeared in several U.S. and international journals.