Mea Culpa

by Jane Routh

Today I killed a pheasant. No bumps under the wheels; in the mirror it lay on the road plump and shiny, one small black feather floating away. It was still there, still in perfect condition, when I drove back up the hill twenty minutes later. I saw a car coming downhill straddle the corpse so as not to squash it.

Most days there are bloody feathers somewhere along this road, attended by a couple of crows cleaning up. A dead pheasant is such a common sight round here, we call them suicidal, stupid. (All the same, I felt better when my corpse had disappeared a couple of hours later without trace. No mark on the road, no stray feathers: it hadn’t been run over. It must have simply been uplifted whole by some four- or two-legged creature with an eye to supper.)

I’ve been reading a lot about butchering and living on wild creatures. Concern over Arctic ice re-ignited my longstanding interest in the ‘quest’ for the North West Passage and Sir John Franklin’s failed attempt to find a way through the sea ice from east to west. That led me to accounts of those who went looking for Franklin’s lost ships, including Elisha Kent Kane’s journal from winters trapped in the ice – as must have happened to Franklin a few years before. Kane survived where Franklin did not, at least in part because he learned from the indigenous people of the north west Greenland coast how to live off the limited resources of that dark and frozen landscape.

As time goes on, Kane’s account shifts from rationing the ship’s supplies of flour and dried apples and salt pork and trapping the ship’s rats for food, to tales of capturing and butchering seal, walrus and polar bear. (Not that these new foods provided nutrition without mishap: “All our party sickened after feeding on the liver of a bear that we had killed; and a few weeks afterward, when we were tempted into a similar indulgence, we were forced to undergo the same penance.”) Kane’s increased contact with indigenous people and gradual respect for their survival skills (if not their traditions and culture) enabled his crew to secure enough food for many of them to survive the ills of scurvy and damage of frostbite and escape from their ice-stricken brigantine with sledges and small boats.

But after 443 pages of small type in the mind-set of the 1850s, it was time for Barry Lopez again. Arctic Dreams is a book which speaks afresh every time you re-read it. This time round, I discovered that polar bear liver contains toxic (to human beings) amounts of vitamin A, so no wonder it had Kane and his crew vomiting. In fact I was altogether more interested in Lopez’s chapter on polar bears, particularly his account of nineteenth century attitudes and actions towards them, which are horrific – two cubs shot, for the purpose of seeing whether it would distress their mother (It did. She “stood for some time moaning”.) “Killing polar bears”, writes Lopez, “became the sort of amusement people expected on an Arctic journey.”

That was the nineteenth century. For all that, Lopez continues “the craven taunting, the witless insensitivity, and the phoney sense of adventure… are not from another age.” Which brings me back to my dead pheasant – for, while our attitudes to polar bears may have swung right round into sentimentality now that we have taken away the ice on which they travel to hunt and into which they build dens to raise their cubs, our attitudes to pheasants are little different from “the witless insensitivity, and the phoney sense of adventure” which Lopez nails.

Mea culpa: fellow creatures are neither “stupid” nor “suicidal”. So what is going on with all those dead pheasants along our road? The meadows on the north side of the road slope down to a beck; beyond that, the land rises to rough moorland and scrub that’s used for a pheasant shoot. The birds are bred to be killed. Trays of the small, smooth, almost shiny, olive-coloured eggs are set and incubated. Hundreds of small yellow-grey balls of fluff hatch out, immediately able to run around, peck and eat. They feed from trays, drink from drinkers and fledge within a few weeks. Able to fly up into trees to roost, they’re released on the moor; grain at feeding stations helps keep up the population density.

Why don’t they just fly away? Because where they are born is the centre of their world. If the pressure on territory is great, they won’t fly for miles looking for somewhere new, but will just move to the edge of that territory. (I remember advice given with my first few geese: pen them up for ten days and after that they’ll be “hearthed”. They can wander freely after that, but will come back in the evening to the place at the centre of their map.)

So. There are many pheasants around, their population artificially stocked. But why always on the road, and always being run over? The fan of wing feathers lifted from the tarmac by the breeze is strongly coloured: the corpses are usually cock birds. What can the road signify from their point of view?

I’ve watched cock birds, one either side of a wire fence, posturing (heads down, tails up) threatening to lunge at each other, the fence appropriated as a territorial marker – a very useful one, since they can’t actually do each other damage through the wire. They’ll keep this up so long, I don’t think I’ve ever watched one of these performances through to a conclusion. Is the road a territorial edge? Is that why there are so many cock birds on it – live ones, as well as the road kill?

Thinking back, my pheasant was a black one – one of the recently introduced Italian ones which are said to be more “flighty” and so offer better sport than the lumbering purple-brown ones which will whirr low over a hedgerow and down again as soon as possible. When you walk across pasture or through woods, pheasants will protest and clatter up into a tree long before you’re anywhere near them, yet even a flighty one didn’t fly away from my car. But he wasn’t on his own: a second cock made it into the verge. The late lamented bird could well have been in a stand-off with the second cock, and maybe so strongly determined that the road marked his territory that he went into a stand-off with the wheeled creature coming his way downhill. Maybe less suicidal than determinedly defensive?

If the moor were not stocked with birds to shoot, there’d be no more pheasant corpses on the road than there are – let’s say – red-legged partridges. Their population would fall (they are after all ground nesters, and many creatures – stoats, badgers, foxes all enjoy an egg for breakfast). The canniest would survive. The road would cease to be a significant boundary. We’d see them rarely, and when we did, we’d say how beautiful their band of dark green iridescent neck feathers…

Who knows. But we do know that a pheasant will have its own creaturely view of the world. Our view of its world is absurd: we arrange at great expense for it to come to life, in order to have the “amusement” of killing it, and that’s been going on so long we don’t even register the distant pop pop pop of a Saturday morning shoot. “A phoney sense of adventure”… that phrase of Lopez’s is what started this rain of thought: not from another age indeed.

Jane Routh has published 3 collections of poetry with smith|doorstop, and most recently Falling into Place, a prose book celebrating wildlife, work and weather in the uplands of N W England. http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/jane-routh

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ATM Street Art

“I want to inspire real change in the way we treat our environment. Making people aware that these birds exist is the first step. I like to paint birds that have a connection to the place where I paint them.”

ATM is a London-based street artist whose work has been spreading across the UK and Europe for several years, appearing initially on the walls of buildings on run-down housing estates. His first piece, a snipe painted in South Acton, highlighted the decline of this bird in southern England where it was once common in areas of marshland that would have existed in Acton before the spread of urban housing engulfed the landscape. Many of his pieces show birds that have vanished from the areas in which they are painted. Other projects include a painting of a male hen harrier at Shellness on the Isle of Sheppey to bring attention to the illegal killing of these birds on the many grouse moors across the country by moor owners. ATM is part of the Human Nature Art Show collective which, in 2015, created “Darwin’s Wonderland” at Leonard Lane in Bristol, a run down alleyway which had been popular with taggers. ATM was recently named one of the UK’s most influential conservationists by BBC Wildlife Magazine.

“Evolution tells us that birds aren’t designed but the process of creation came up with all this incredible beauty as well as functionality. I wonder why they appear to be so beautiful to our eyes. One of the reasons they develop that plumage is sexual selection but the question is, why do those subtle colours and contrast and touches of another colour look so beautiful and harmonious to us? They are invariably beautiful to human eyes as well as the eyes of other birds because we’re part of the same process. If they were as separate as we like to think then we wouldn’t recognize them as being so beautiful.”

facebook.com/atm.streetart

The header image of a griffon vulture was painted in an Occupy movement community garden: Jardin Miravillas, Malasana, Madrid.

henharrierios
Male Hen Harrier – Shellness, Isle of Sheppey
snipesa
Snipe in South Acton
Great Spotted Woodpecker in Southwell Road community garden, London SE5, made from a completely unused area of tarmac on a housing estate, by the the London Wildlife Trust's Lost Effra project.
Great Spotted Woodpecker in Southwell Road community garden, London SE5, part of the London Wildlife Trust’s Lost Effra project.
Wood Warbler, part of UpFest street art festival, Bristol.
Wood Warbler, part of UpFest street art festival, Bristol.
Work in Progress, Leonard Lane, Bristol
Work in Progress, Leonard Lane, Bristol
Hawk Moth in Leonard Lane, Bristol.
Hawk Moth in Leonard Lane, Bristol.

Poetry – Issue 6.1

Buffalo Nickels

By Donald Illich

Buffalos lived on nickels because kangaroos
kept jumping off, sloths slid from their faces,
bald eagles tore the metal with claws.
They were content to graze in our pockets
among the valleys’ lint bushes, tissue trees,

mercifully taken out and spent quickly
when we needed more meat for the newspaper.
Once they purchased a whole sandwich
or a bottle of soda pop. Herds stampeded
across cash registers. Pennies trembled,

dollars acknowledged their silver majesty.
In the Depression people asked each other
if they could spare a dime, two beasts
on the loose, clanking against tin cans,
horns helping solve their dilemmas.

President Jefferson shot all of them,
dragged the animals to Monticello on the back,
served them on his dining room table,
declaring their independence gone.
They’re making comebacks in coffee cups.

We gather their bodies in white bowls.
We pour their lives into clicking machines,
determine how much time we’ve wasted
to see them feed George Washington,
lower gigantic heads for Abe Lincoln’s hand.

Small Bird Poem

by Gillian Prew

Bird/
blossom-breast and a song.

Her fatigue.
A lost note.

She is. She is.

Love and berry-fruits on her tongue.
She rises her wept eye/
__________the sun. The sun.

The Bittern’s Chant

by Helen Kidd

Dip, dip and nib the inky black of shallows’ silt,
stalk and pause, stalk and turn my tall eye
to your silver ripple threads that eel their eddies
through the reeds.
__________________My needle bill takes aim…snap, clack,
grapples you into the thin wind, out from
your spilling world into mine, all air and space
ruffling my russet fishing cloak.
__________________Minnow crowds,
souped and sucked at, glide into my gullet, down
into my downy, damp belly bag.

Oh, all you little fishes, praise ye the Bird;
that you be uplifted, translated, spirited air-
upwards into the great bullrush sky, the sedge-
sibilant heavens.
__________________And step wade, lift, step
wade, plaff the pulpy and palpable glugs and
puddles. Here dusk glimmer’s best, under dark eves
of mist-rising screens.
__________________Full fed then, I steeple
through stems and raise my plainchant, my fine
baritone, my boom, my song bell, my boom, my
throat drum, my boom that paints this night’s
echo chambers. Bellying, my voice bowl darkens.
Bitterly bitterning with lonely woe, my gullet psalms
roll through waterlands, and genuflecting rushes.

Coyote’s Bone

by James Brush

There’s a cracked old deer bone
in a small field by the stream.
It’s been there for years
and every few months or so,
it moves a few feet. Maybe
a season goes by and it’s buried
in the grass and wildflowers, but
when autumn comes again,
the bone resurfaces like driftwood
from an ocean turning brown.
I wonder what coyote picks it up
only to spit it out a few steps later.
After the bleached taste
of years and sun-dried blood
on brittle bone, does he go
to the stream to drink away
the taste or let it linger, a reminder
of all the songs he still can sing?

Invisibility is as natural as it is to be above or below sound*

by Jean Atkin

The morning moon is halved
& silent.
The Dwyfor runs
& will be tides.

An oak leaf,
then a beech leaf
falls, without a sound
that I can catch.

The woods have many paths
that peter out.
What don’t
I see?

As if invisible, a deer
has stepped exactly
through the yew tree roots
before me.

* From R. S. Thomas ‘That, there…’

At ‘Floral World’

by Jenny Donnison

a lone flamingo beside a tainted pool
still but for faint tremors
of her slender leg

head beneath wing
pale coral feathers unreal
sculpted from soft stone

close to
diminished
naked to our gaze

she stretches her neck
pinprick eyes unsee us as she preens
at pains to oil each pink quill

blank to where
______________she is
____________________elsewhere

Poet Biographies:

Donald Illich has published in Iowa Review, Passages North, Nimrod, and other journals.  He lives in Maryland.

Born Stirling, Scotland in 1966, Gillian Prew studied Philosophy at the University of Glasgow from 1984 to 1988. Her fifth publication, Three Colours Grief, has just been released by erbacce-press. She has been twice short-listed for the erbacce-prize and twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. You can find her online at http://gprew.wordpress.com/

Helen Kidd: poet, editor, critic, academic, has taught Creative Writing and English for many years, and run projects in hospices and prisons, amongst others. She is co-editor of the Virago Book of Love Poetry, and. her second collection, Blue Weather, won the Cork Manuscript Prize. She still teaches in Finland every spring.

James Brush lives in Austin, TX where he teaches high school English. He’s the author of Birds Nobody Loves, A Place Without a Postcard, and numerous scraps of paper around his house. You can find him at coyotemercury.com. He also edits the online literary journal Gnarled Oak.

Jean Atkin lives in Shropshire. Her first collection Not Lost Since Last Time is published by Oversteps Books. Her recent work has been published in magazines including Under the Radar, Envoi, Ink, Sweat & Tears, The North, Earthlines, The Moth, Dark Mountain, and also commissioned by and performed on Radio 4. She has held residencies and worked on education and community projects in both Scotland and England.  Her poems have won various prizes.  www.jeanatkin.com

Jenny Donnison completed an MA in English Literature and Creative Writing at Sheffield University (2012). Her poems have appeared in Now Then, Route 57, The Sheffield Anthology and elsewhere. She is currently studying for a PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing at Sheffield University.

Poetry – Issue 6.2

TAMING THE ZOO

by Julia Older

If there is a wild, let it be a little wild.
_______________________Park Manager

The leopard lies on the operating table,
her four legs spread-eagle, belly shaved.
A plastic tube snakes past the pearly gates
down her snoring larynx.
A video guides the laparoscope
to her smooth white ovary
with the precision of Jacques Cousteau
focused on a whale’s eye.

Routine GYN and insemin-
ation. They roll the sedate cat
to recovery. She staggers and lunges
against the bars like an incar-
cerated drunk.

Down. Dreaming of Bangladesh where,
sated on freshly killed bait,
she posed for Gray Panthers on elephants.
Dilated now, her pupils glaze over
the sal and bamboo, over her mate
wearing a transistor and ear tattoo.

Her newborn American cubs,
like their turncoat Pa in the Bronx,
will soon be eating hamburger.

The Dragons of Eden

by Sue Howell

Alien Iguanas Overrun Florida Island
_______________National Geographic News

They crawled ashore and multiplied, eating
the hibiscus and frightening the children.
Not little green aquarium pets like Max,
who was bathed in a porcelain tub by my neighbor,
but needle-backed beasts the color of mud.
They spit and whipped their spiky tails, clamping
dragon teeth on hands that fed them, leaving
noxious trails of feces on the borders
of hot tubs and blue swimming pools.
_______________________The citizens shot
the lizards with pellet guns,
or stuffed them in freezers until their sluggish
hearts stopped. Now hired trappers set out
poisoned maraschino cherries for the foreign
invaders, who ate the lovely fruit and died.
But as the ancient creatures disappeared,
_______________________we felt a lack,
saw the sun-baked emptiness of barren stone.
For a time they shook the world we thought
we owned, took us back to the earth’s half-seen
past, where the blood of dragons swam in their veins,
as it does, perhaps, in ours. Will their leaving
streak with red that last sunset, which waits
for the breaking of all blood ties? We watch
the signs from the restless ocean, the infinite sky.

Smerinthus

by Mark Totterdell

You’ll need to learn to read their signature
to follow their slow progress through the sallow;
leaves with their tiny veins remaining, then
leaves with just midribs left, and then the shoots

with leaves completely stripped. You’ll need to gauge
how old the damage is; how well the scars
have healed, whether there’s new growth from the base.
You’ll need to search the ground beneath for frass.

You’ll need to be wise to their long-evolved trick
of clinging to the undersides of sprigs,
making the daylight cancel out their shades,
flatten them to leaves. You’ll need to turn them

to see each one leap into three dimensions,
unmissable now, its warts and stripes and all,
its unreflecting eyes a brittle shield,
the startle of its little sky-blue tail.

winged words

by Morgan Downie

ἔπεα πτερόεντα*

full forty miles
the fulmar flies
without wingbeat

precipice’s acrobat
profligate of air
greedy for flight

at rest, sat in pairs
squawk and skraak
on the narrowest edge

there is no romance
like the romance
of fulmar

wind’s intimates
each moment
a life examined

each moment
a telling
and retelling

*from homer

Scientists discover a new species of frog

by Suzanne Garnish Segady

She poses cleanly on a plucked leaf
__________soft brown on brown
balled toes caressing the drying veins —
she is arrow-slender
eyes wide, sidelong to the camera
__________coquettish smile
and because they so wanted her to belong
they searched the lexicon
and named her for something thought lost
and something familiar
__________Hypsiboas cocoa

How long has she been
__________living resin
in the kinship of trees, smooth
in the scuff of the bark, a skitter
of limbs, a peeking
__________tourmaline wink
from behind the outstretched leaf
a tiny truth, uncounted
and unnamed —
the unmarked spark
___________of family?

Poet Biographies:

 

Julia Older was the nineteenth woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Recent books include an update of her NOBA “Classic” APPALACHIAN ODYSSEY, A BORIS VIAN BILINGUAL READER, and eleventh poetry title TALES OF THE FRANÇOIS VASE. Poets also infiltrate her researched Isles of Shoals Fiction Trilogy. One of Older’s poems was embroidered in Afghanistan, another displayed by the Smithsonian. She has work in SISTERS OF THE EARTH, NRDC, and New Hampshire POET SHOWCASE anthologies; The New Yorker, Poets & Writers, Stanford’s Uprooted and numerous other publications. Townies call her Puma Lady—from a cougar sighting-hearing! while in her studio overlooking Mount Monadnock (NH).

Sue Howell is a retired teacher of literature and writing who has lived up and down the Mississippi River and recently moved to North Carolina. She has a long-time interest in wildlife and the need for humans to understand our deep connection to the animal world. She has written about vultures (a poem published on the World Wildlife Federation website), sea turtles, snowy owls, and other forms of wildlife threatened by a warming planet. Many of her poems are set in the New Orleans area and in Florida, two especially fragile sites for wildlife. Her work has appeared in Passager, Southern Indiana Review, Minerva Rising, and various other journals. She was a finalist in the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival contest.

Mark Totterdell lives in Devon. His poems have appeared widely in magazines and have won competitions. His collection ‘This Patter of Traces’ was published by Oversteps Books in 2014. marktotterdell.moonfruit.com

Morgan Downie is a poet, short story writer and visual artist. His published work includes stone and sea, a collection of poems about island life mainly centred on the Western Isles, and distances, a Romanian- English photopoetry collection.

Suzanne Garnish Segady writes of the intersections of the wild and suburban. She has been published in A Poetic Inventory of Rocky Mountain National Park, Pilgrimage Magazine, and Poetry While You Wait. She lives in Colorado Springs, where the foothills bend to plains, watching, and trying to tune out the growing hum of traffic.

No one mourns an unnamed animal: Why naming animals might help save them

by Midge Raymond

When I volunteered to help with a penguin census at the Punta Tombo colony in Patagonia, among the thousands of birds I counted, one of them stood out—and I still think of him ten years later. His name is Turbo—so named because he’d inexplicably built a nest under a turbo truck instead of within a burrow, like the other penguins of his species—and instead of looking for a mate, he preferred to hang out with the researchers.

Turbo has been tagged with a metal band by scientists, along with thousands of other birds in the colony. Yet Turbo also has a name, making him a local personality, while the other tagged birds in the colony have only five-digit numbers to identify them, making them nothing more than data. “Anthropomorphism,” the practice of projecting human qualities onto non-human animals, is often viewed pejoratively by the scientific community. But as a writer, not a scientist, I’m far more interested in character than in numbers. And since my time at Punta Tombo, whenever I receive updates on the colony, I look first for Turbo’s name, for confirmation of his return from his months at sea.

Like humans, animals don’t come into this world with names, at least not in any human language. It took a non-scientist, Jane Goodall, to challenge conventions when it came to studying animal behavior; by naming chimpanzees instead of numbering them, she was able to live among them and observe them like no researcher before her ever had. She observed the chimp she named David Greybeard making and using tools. She witnessed an adolescent chimpanzee, Spindle, adopting an orphan named Mel. And when the mother chimp she named Flo died in 1972, The London Times printed an obituary.

When we give an animal a name, we give it an identity, an individuality that sets it apart from the rest of its nameless species. And, in doing so, we often can’t help but develop an emotional attachment to these named creatures. This is why zoos and sanctuaries name their animals, and why, increasingly, wild animals whose species need attention are finding followers and sympathizers. When Cecil the Lion, a well-known and beloved resident of Hwange National Park, was killed by an American dentist last July, the world was outraged, and Cecil’s death highlighted the endangered status of certain species of lions, the cruelty of trophy hunting, and the practice of raising lions for hunting.

Yet Cecil was just one of many. It took his death—and the fact that he had a name—to raise the world’s consciousness, to give a face to the lions of Africa. In a similar fashion, Lonesome George, the last of his species of Galápagos tortoise, who died in 2012, reminds us all of the fragility of these islands and of their endangered animals. Migaloo, the Australian humpback whale, is known not only for being a rare albino whale but also draws attention to issues facing whales and oceans worldwide.

That writers name animals to give them equal weight as characters is nothing new, and is especially common in children’s literature—we all remember Charlotte and Wilbur, Stuart Little, the rats of NIMH. In adult literature, however, animals are more rarely seen as main characters. In Animal Farm, for example, the animal characters are allegorical rather than truly animal—and yet in more recent fiction, such as Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain and Gwyn Hyman Rubio’s Love and Ordinary Creatures, the dog and cockatoo characters, respectively, are meant to be just what they are: animals.

In my novel, My Last Continent, I gave a name to a penguin who plays an important role in the story. He’s called Admiral Byrd, after an explorer admired by the human character who names him. That this penguin needed a name other than “the gentoo” or “the penguin” or “the bird” was based not only on his importance to the characters in the novel but his importance to me, as the author. I wanted Admiral Byrd to represent all the penguins in my fictional world, who in turn represent all the penguins in the real one.

Humans have a complicated relationship with animals, though, and naming them—in literature or in life—doesn’t always mean saving them. In 4-H clubs around the country, animals raised by children and called by name are sold for slaughter by the pound. Oregon’s first confirmed wolf since 1947 is called Journey but is more commonly known as OR-7. Even animals at the shelter where I volunteer, though they have names, are identified primarily by number.

New York Times editor Philip B. Corbett wrote in a February 2, 2016, article that the Times uses “person” pronouns “only for animals who have been given a name, or in cases where the sex of the animal is specified. Otherwise, we stick with ‘it’ and ‘that’ or ‘which.’” In other words, the Times is about grammar, not about a point of view. But for those of us who do write with a point of view, names and pronouns are important.

We live in an era in which so many species are in decline that it’s impossible to keep count. From the Malayan tiger to the New Zealand sea lion to the Galápagos penguin, the numbers of endangered animals are staggering. Yet if every species has a named representative or two, we civilians might get to know who will be lost—and we might be more inspired to help them.

The scientists can continue to resist anthropomorphism—but this won’t save the animals, or make the rest of the world pay attention. Yet if we give these animals names, if we look at them as more than data, we might care more deeply. The more we humanize animals, the more human we become.

Turbo the penguin is now eleven years old. He’s still single, preferring the company of humans to his own species. This fall, I’ll eagerly await news of his return to the colony—where he will choose build his nest, whether he’ll still be a bachelor or will finally settle down. The data may tell us one story—but as long as Turbo shows up, I feel as though there is hope for all of these birds.

Midge Raymond is the author of the novel My Last Continent and the award-winning short-story collection Forgetting English. Her writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, American Literary Review, Bellevue Literary Review, the Los Angeles Times magazine, Poets & Writers, and many other publications. She lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she is co-founder of the boutique publisher Ashland Creek Press.

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.