Outsider

by Amlanjyoti Goswami

fishes squibble, wiggle
at droppings nibble
at goings on, squabble

big fish, small fish
still fish
in the closed pond

one fish dreams
of oceans
and flies out of dank pond

turns into whale, crocodile
sting ray

that one fish,

is still changing brown stripes to blue

Amlanjyoti Goswami’s poems have appeared in publications in India, Nepal, Hong Kong, the UK, South Africa, Kenya and the USA, including the recent Forty under Forty: An Anthology of Post-Globalisation Poetry  (Poetrywala, 2016). He grew up in Guwahati, Assam and lives in Delhi. 

After the Bear

by Matt Stansberry

We are always hunting something of our father’s, and he’s hunting too, and we’re sure we’ll know more of ourselves if we can get to him. – Michael J. Meade

We crept down the gray shore at dusk, glancing over our shoulders into the dense gloom of the forest, stepping gently on an inch of lapping ocean to muffle the sound of our approach.

The guide stopped, tucked us behind a pile of ancient logs for cover, where we could view the seal carcass two-hundred yards up the beach.

I’d followed my father to Alaska to watch him kill a bear, ursos arctic.

Prehistoric-sized animals waited in the near, dark woods. I’d dreamt about attacks. A brown sow with dead eyes and a mud caked belly standing over me, the stench of my bowels on its maw, claws pressing down on my throat.

I waited and watched with my father, for North America’s largest predator to stagger out of the Tongass Rainforest.

He struggled to carry his bear gun.

In the weeks before the trip, he still hadn’t recovered his upper body strength. He could barely shoulder the giant rifle he’d bought, couldn’t even get a shot on the paper at 100 yards at the shooting range. But he didn’t cancel the trip. He kept going to the range, the rifle’s recoil jarring the staples holding his ribcage together.
Six months before the hunt, my father complained about indigestion on the treadmill. Two weeks later, a surgeon with a bone saw split open his sternum and bypassed his left anterior descending and right coronary arteries. He spent a week in intensive care, with my mother snapping photos of him lying on his back, looking like a cadaver. He kept the photos tacked to the wall of his office to motivate him through physical therapy.

On the beach in the sliding twilight, I thought of my father’s shaky aim, and the guide’s advice.

“Your shot will be at night, and you will only see two black humps through the scope. Line up on the rear part of the shoulder, below the armpit. Don’t shoot high — don’t shoot the head.”

The second shot, hopefully, would be at the bear running away. “Aim for the tail. Break the pelvis and they go down,” the guide said. “You only have one second between your first and second shot. Force yourself to jack another shell into the chamber. If you wait, listen for a roar, I will take your second shot. Force yourself to shoot again.”

It rained till dark, and no bear showed. The tide came in, and we walked back to the small Boston Whaler skiff. We unloaded the guns and climbed aboard, hungry for dinner on the 50-foot boat, warm and well-lit a few miles away.

***

After the first night, the hunt settled into a rhythm of slow sunny days on the water, watching whales breach, pulling crab pots, glassing small bears with binoculars.

This ten day hunt was the longest stretch of time I’d spent with my father as an adult. I studied him closely: sitting at the dining table, chewing oatmeal, poring over an illustrated field guide from the boat’s shelf, flipping pages and not reading, not looking up. Still fiery red hair peaked out the bottom of a goofy black wool cap, but the skin hung wrinkled and loose under his eyes and chin.

The man I grew up with told hero stories. My father broke a guy’s jaw with a heavy glass beer mug for slapping a woman in a bar. He worked as a factory strike-breaker, and beat up three union picketers who tried to jump him in an alley, put one guy in traction and dragged the other guy’s face down a brick wall. One crazy night, he chased a UFO down a dark country road in his car and reported the encounter to the FAA.

I hadn’t heard any of those stories in twenty years. Part of the motivation for the bear hunt was to write new stories. The stories he told now, when we got together twice a year, were about his job, or the practical details of living with Type II Diabetes.

The poet Li-Young Lee wrote, “Sad is the man who is asked for a story and can’t come up with one… and soon, he thinks, the boy will give up on his father.”

When I was a boy, the phone often rang in the middle of the night. An 80-year old widow called my dad for rescue as high school kids smashed beer bottles into the side of her old farmhouse where she had raised her children and her husband had died. My dad would roar out of the kitchen with his twelve gage shotgun, running out into the dark to save her. The kids scattered at the sight of him.

I’d forgotten him. Now, what I remember more than his heroics, is that my father commuted over 100 miles roundtrip to work every day.

Decades later, he’s still selling computer network technology to the last dozen or so large companies doing business in Cleveland and carries enough insurance for our family to survive anything short of apocalypse. He spent the last twenty years turning into a piece of my mom’s furniture, into Willy Loman. Boringly fair, infallible.

I hated his job. I didn’t know what my father thought about anything that mattered to me. I didn’t know a single thought in his head.

And yet, here he was with an aching chest, withered muscles, doped down on beta blockers, pitting himself against one-ton of godlike mammalian rage.

***

I know exactly when the disillusion about the hunt set in. About halfway through the trip, my father and I sat unarmed on a pile of marshy reeds, feeling small and grateful for this unnamed creek, this place.

We were watching a mother bear and cubs playing together on a beach at sunset through binoculars.

In Robert Ruark’s Horn of the Hunter, he wrote “Every man has to brace a lion at least once in his life, and whether the lion is a woman or a boss or the prospect of death by disease makes no difference.”

But I couldn’t see how this bear would be my father’s proverbial lion. He’d picked the wrong fight.

The snowmelt poured off the mountain into the ocean, one of around 10,000 tiny estuaries in the Tongass National Forest, an impenetrable green tangle blanketing coast to mountain on the Southeast Alaskan panhandle, comprising one third of the World’s remaining temperate rainforest.

We were spending ten days in a plush boat with a private chef, in one of the last best places in the world. If we spotted a big male bear, my father could take a short boat ride, stalk a couple hundred yards, and shoot the damn thing. And if the kill shot went awry and the situation turned against my father, a young and capable guide would step between him and certain death.

For all of human history, men have been loved and admired for entering the realm of dangerous animals. My father, aging and broken, had battled back from the edge of death to face nature’s fury with decisive action and a well-made rifle.

He’d poured the last thirty years of his life into work, making a comfortable existence for my family. He’d spent his earnings, fifteen thousand dollars, on this moment. And I could not speak out against that.

But my father and I should have been defending those bears, not shooting them. We should have been facing down the congressional representatives signing off on subsidized clear cutting of 1,000-year old cedars to make pulp for disposable diapers.

Instead, we were tourists, extracting precious life from the wilderness. And unlike the loggers and the guides, I didn’t think we had loved or battled against this landscape enough to deserve or even appreciate the life we planned to take.

We huddled our wide shoulders together and watched the bear family walk away, and I said nothing.

***

The last day near dusk, we spotted a wide trail scrawled down a snowy hillside where a large bear emerged from its den. We scrambled, my father and I pulling our short fat legs into our waders and jumped into the little Boston Whaler to get a better look.

Our guide Chet Benson ran the tiller. He netted salmon in the summer, hunted big game all winter. A previous client had once bribed Chet’s way out of Mexican prison while hunting desert bighorn. Another had to call a rescue chopper on satellite phone after he broke an ankle hunting mountain goats in the Chugach Range. The rescuers threw a rope and hook down to the bottom of the canyon, and the client wrapped Chet in a body bag to keep him from freezing.

Chet could skin a bear, repair an outboard engine, and tell a story. We liked him and, naturally, wanted to impress him.

He steered the fourteen-foot piece of fiberglass over the rolling ocean that looked like heavy motor oil glinting in the setting sun. These deceptively calm waters had killed more people than the bears.

We sat shoulder-to-shoulder-to-shoulder glassing a stretch of beach the guides called “The Boardwalk”, a long, wide gravel bar spread below a river valley that funneled all of the animals to the shore.

The guide spotted the mature boar first. It walked pigeon-toed, swaying down the beach and plopped belly down on a pile of kelp. It looked so much like a dog, holding down a favorite bone.

My old man nodded to Chet, and he pulled the skiff in shore a half-mile downwind of the bear.

I jumped out in waist deep water and held the boat steady and silently, keeping the noisy fiberglass from banging along the shoreline. My dad and Chet jumped out, and stalked down the beach toward the bear.

I held my breath, held the skiff in the clear sea-water, as they moved within a hundred yards, and they closed in for the shot. Spidery breezes crawled over my face, and I wished I was standing next to them.

I watched through binoculars. The bear pushed its snout down into the pile of seaweed, didn’t look up. It was a chocolate brown bear with dark, nearly black fur around its ears. It had a blonde diamond patch of lighter fur on its forehead, dipping down its nose.

Chet and my dad crouched and stopped, moved forward again, ten more yards. They crawled toward the bear, impossibly close, within fifty yards. My dad knelt, steadied his rifle and fired.

He missed, shot over the bear’s back.

I sprang into action at the gunfire. I had to witness whatever happened next. I pulled the boat ashore, heaved the anchor into the rocks and ran down the beach towards my father and Chet.

The bear looked up, groggy and confused. It started toward the forest. Chet yelled “shoot that bear!” and my dad took another shot.

That bullet broke the bear’s neck, dropped it in a somersault as it tried to escape into the trees.

I ran up out of breath. The bear lolled on its back, forepaw waving limply in the air, still trying to run.

Chet fired into its hump with his .416 and it shuddered once, stopped moving. He bounced a rock off the bear and it didn’t move. Dead.

Everything my dad had worked for had collapsed in a furry heap.

Chet left us to grab the skiff. My dad and I piled our bodies on top of the dead bear. We wanted to be close to it, to hold it. The idea of a grizzly bear is a very abstract concept, and we felt compelled to press ourselves against flesh and blood – the actual.

We didn’t say anything for what felt like several minutes. The bear felt like a giant dog, wet nose and paws still warm. I set a camera on timer, and we posed on top its body. We grinned, and I think we both hoped we’d done the right thing.

Now, in the photos I took of my father, he seems to me almost ready to cry, a sad smile on his face. The big beast’s nose is down in the rocks, and my dad is hugging its huge ribs. He looks like a man who got what he asked for, and isn’t sure whether or not he’s happy with himself. The bear lies sprawled, like its spilling across the beach. It looks like an accident.

Then the guide and captain came and posed the shots. The four of us grabbed a corner of the carcass and wrestled that goddamn bear into a more flattering position. It was the heaviest lifting I’d ever tried to move. The bear was placed so that it seemed to be smiling, propped upright over a piece of driftwood. My father, posed behind it, looked younger and more confident.

The bear taped out just under nine feet, what guides and guided would call a “representative animal” which is code for adequate, but no trophy.

If the bear would have been closer to ten feet, I would have written a different story. If it would have turned and charged into hail of bullets and dropped at my father’s feet, I would have written a different story. I would have written a sentimental hunting magazine article about a father surmounting great odds to do battle with nature, wrestling with death itself.

Instead, I’ve relived this hunt for a decade, struggling to make meaning of this dead bear.

I love my father, for his wildness, and for being the rational, sturdy man holding the cables of our family together. I love him for taking me along on his maybe misguided quest to find some kind of validation or approval by hunting a huge, dangerous animal. And I love him for those short minutes in the dark when we were saddened and humbled by that bear’s death.

My dad fully recovered, said he’s done hunting bears. He had a rug made, and kept the skull on his desk. We haven’t hunted much since that day, and I’ve had three of my own sons in the interim. I named my first born after my dad.

I don’t know what my boys will think about the time on the beach in Alaska when his grandpa shot a grizzly bear.

I think about this quote from Ruark:

You are not shooting to kill. You are shooting to make immortal the thing you shoot. To kill just anything is a sin. To kill something that will be dead soon, but is so fine as to give you pleasure for years, is wonderful. Everything dies. You just hasten the process… I can understand killing something that you want so badly that you are willing to go to weeks of trouble and great expense to collect it, so that you will have it and enjoy it and remember it all your life.

I don’t know what I’ll do, when my sons are bored of my old exploits, and I am the one who will have to go find a new story.

Matt Stansberry is an Ohio-based author focusing on natural history and biodiversity. He lives on the edge of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, south of Cleveland with his wife and three young sons and writes essays about the wildlife of the industrial Midwest. Belt Magazine published a collection of the first volume of essays titled Redhorse Volume 1. Follow him on Twitter @LakeErieFlyFish and find his other work at matthewstansberry.com.

Artwork by David Wilson www.downpourcreative.com

The Snakecatcher 

by Karen Jane Cannon

In Sussex fields we saw the wooden sign —
red letters warning us of adders hid
under tall nettles, long cow parsley, but
we never saw a tell-tale V slide by.

I’d heard of adders caught by magic, drawn
to circles marked out in dirt, the skin
then sold for medicine and oil so rare
to find. It took me twenty years to see

my first wild snake. We lived high up, lost
in leaded Lowther hills. Our cat came back
with sticky marks across his neck and shook
and spat until the venom passed — so strange

to find the wild so near to home. The snake
lay dead outside, her eyes fused shut, under
those see-through lids, with diamond patterned skin
still warm and soft to touch. I’ve heard it said

an adder will not die until sunset
and viper means in Latin birth and life.
Females will swallow young to protect them
from harm and symbolize wisdom and luck.

Maybe that Sussex CAUTION ADDERS! sign
in fact was meant for them, not us — for while
we’ve robbed their habitats and might yet wipe
them out, our own numbers remain intact.

Karen Jane Cannon’s poems have appeared in a variety of print and online journals, including Acumen, Orbis, Obsessed with Pipework, The Interpreter’s House and Ink, Sweat & Tears, as well as anthologies such as Rewiring History and The Sea. She was commended for The Flambard Poetry Prize 2014

A Flash of Orange

by Dawn Wyndham

Her gentle elongated face was etched with tiredness. Delayed by giving birth two days ago, she was the last to flee. Amid the flames and smoke billowing around her, she held tight to the branch she hung from, high above a forest floor fanged with charred, fallen trees.

Subdued dawn sunlight shone through her long auburn hair, silhouetting her body in a foggy halo. Her instincts were sharpened by the coming of morning and she sensed the presence of danger as vividly as carnal pain. She felt a disturbing change in the rhythm of things as she lifted her head to sniff the acrid air and panic began to claim her. The sound of her baby brought her back to herself. Hearing him keening, she looked down at his tiny new-born face and made soft hooting noises to calm him. He groped the air, feeling her fear and coughing a terror all his own. A slow wind snarled at the hot daybreak like a sinister red beast, goading the fire on. Something evil was happening.

She searched the blackened tree canopy for a flash of orange, a glimpse of ginger fur, for another of her kind, but the smoke was so thick it was all she could do to keep her streaming eyes open. Although she was accustomed to prowling the forest alone, she sometimes made contact with the congress of orang-utan who lived here, especially the other females with their young. Now with an infant of her own she searched for them. Where were they? Feeling the perpetual bond of his hold on her, she cradled her son, lifting him to her breast to encourage him to latch on and cling more tightly; hoping the act of suckling would soothe him. Skin touching skin, she tenderly stroked his head, still shiny from the pickling of her womb, brushing his singed fluff of hair free of ash. Breathing in as he was breathing out, her keen sense of smell told her of the smoke filling his young lungs. He looked up at her with an ancient trust, instinctive and mysterious. His small hand sought the fur around her neck and he covered her nipple with his mouth and closed his eyes.

She had travelled a long way across the jungle canopy, her seven-foot arm span swinging her effortlessly from treetop to treetop, rasping for a full breath of air. The new day revealed the fire was at its worst here. At one point yesterday she’d had to descend from the trees to avoid the flames, but the earth had been on fire. As she relived the trial of it, she made small noises and rocked to comfort herself, as she had last night when darkness fell; murmuring ancient sounds only her kin could make in the hollows of their throats and which, somewhere in her head, fathoms deep, she kept close. Her feet and hands had got burned from just the short burst of speed to reach across the clearing and into the forest again with the baby clinging to her belly, climbing up and up as if the altitude would cool her blistered limbs. Listening out for the deep call of a flanged male, she felt the branches for food, but all she found were shriveled leaves. She was hungry. She must eat to have milk for the baby, to have strength to travel.

Which way? This was an alien place, no longer the lush green habitat that she lived in. Disoriented, her infallible mental map of the forest disturbed, she climbed as high as the charcoaled branches would bear her and gazed across the grey clouds of smoke to the distance. In the faded blue of the far-away, beyond the burned out trees, beyond the ranks of palm oil plantations, she sensed water. It was their only chance. She shouted a loud hoot, listening for the response of an answering call, desperation driving her, instinct and tenacity telling her she would be going in the right direction – towards the river; to the tea-coloured waters that flow in tributaries across Central Kalimantan; to the orang-utan sanctuary where she was raised; to safety.

Retired from a career in the technology industry, Dawn Wyndham is a new author focussed on exploring the use of the animal voice in fiction. This is an excerpt from her first novel. She holds a M.A. in creative writing and is a candidate for a PhD.

Highland Bestiary

by Joan Lennon

In the fog, sheep strike
_____poses, misty round the edges,
__________strangely heroic.

Sleeping otter dreams
_____of water. If streams could dream,
__________they’d dream of otter.

Tartan crow, squats on
_____the fencepost, swears at the tourists –
__________caw caw mccaw

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.

A Sweet Wild Note: What We Hear When Birds Sing – an extract

by Richard Smyth

To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never heard a buck fart. But I have heard a cuckoo sing, if you can call it a song, so I have a rough idea of what the author of ‘Sumer is Icumen in’ had in mind. The song, also known as the Reading Rota,* is about the arrival of summer – so it’s about a singing cuckoo, a farting buck, a starting bullock, calves and lambs, ‘springing’ woodlands and sprouting seeds. It was written in the middle of the thirteenth century, and is the oldest known song of its kind (that is, the oldest known polyphonic round) in English. In translation from the Wessex dialect, it begins:

Summer is a-coming in
Loudly sing cuckoo
Groweth seed and bloweth mead and springs the wood anew
Sing cuckoo!

Even back then – when Dafydd ap Llywelyn was rising up against the English in Wales, Roger Bacon was compiling his scientific masterpiece Opus Majus in Oxford and Paris, construction was beginning on the ‘new’ abbey at Westminster – the English were writing songs about the birds singing.

But it wasn’t just us. At around the same time, for instance, the Persian-language poet Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī was also celebrating birdsong: ‘Birdsong brings relief / to my longing / I’m just as ecstatic as they are, / but with nothing to say!’ And it all goes back a lot further than the 1200s: we find birdsong in the Bible – ‘flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle** is heard in our land’, says the Song of Solomon – and in the millennia-old poetry of the ancient world. This thing has deep roots.

Why? Why is poetry so noisy with birdsong?

Birdsong is a wonderfully malleable material. We can make of it what we like; it’s putty for the poet. And like putty or paint or music or ink, it can be put to work as an artist’s medium, as a means of expressing ourselves. What we hear in birdsong, in other words, is more often than not the resonant echo of our own feelings.

The end of the poem isn’t the end of this process. Birdsong has shaped our poetry, yes – but poetry, in its turn, has shaped the way we listen to birdsong, and what we think it’s saying to us.

_

I heard my first cuckoo in the early summer of 2016, at the RSPB Otmoor reserve, a little way north of Oxford (I heard my first turtle dove – like a sort of soft, woolly power-drill – there too, that same sunny day, almost as soon as I’d climbed out of the car; it was my first time birding south of the Peaks, and it felt as though Otmoor had parcelled up the lowland English pastoral tradition, just for me).

On hearing the cuckoo’s call, I didn’t exactly back my head and cry Lhude sing cuccu!, but I’m sure I cracked a smile. It was a bright, warm day; I had a summer’s morning to myself, and I’d just heard my first cuckoo; what was more, I would be attending the wedding of our dear friends Sam and Jeremy later on (that was why I found myself at such a dangerously southern latitude). I was, in short, happy – as was that thirteenth-century songwriter, as he anticipated the shortening of the shadows, the warming of the days, the greening of the land and the flatulence of the male deer.

But these things are subjective; how I felt on hearing that June cuckoo depended on me being me. Someone else might have felt something different. And had I been a dunnock – or a reed warbler, or a pied wagtail, or a meadow pipit – I wouldn’t have heard anything in that lowing cu-coo but threat and menace.

Cuckoos are, of course, brood parasites. Cuckoo nestlings, born in the nests of other birds, destroy the eggs and young of those birds, and grow fat – we’ve all seen the picture, at once ludicrous and heartbreaking, of a tiny parent bird perched on the shoulder of a fledgling cuckoo five times its size, feeding it caterpillars – on their scarce and hard-won resources. Cuckoos visit horror on their hosts. That’s what a dunnock or a warbler hears in the cuckoo’s call.

It’s a curious noise, the call of the cuckoo. It has a slightly hollow, woodwindish quality, suggestive of someone blowing across the top of a bottle; it’s unhurried, almost complacent – pretty rare in birdsong – and low in pitch. I can, without too much effort, detect a note of languorous menace in it; if I were a breeding dunnock, I’m sure I would hear it loud and clear. And yet at the same time it does, as in the Reading Rota, have a meadowy, sun-steeped joyousness about it, too – it is the sound of sumer icumen in. The fact is, it’s a cipher. What we find in it depends on us: on who we are, where we are, what day it is, perhaps even the books we read or the music we enjoy. It’s as variable as the weather; it can shift with the orbit of the earth, and the changing of the seasons.

* ‘Reading’ because the oldest manuscript copy was found at Reading Abbey in Wiltshire; ‘Rota’ because the song is a kind of part-song known as a rota or round (like ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ or ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’).

** That’s the turtle dove, by the way – not an unexpectedly musical terrapin.

Interview with Richard Smyth

I believe this is your first published book of nature writing. You have an eclectic publishing history – novels of the jazz age and the history of toilet paper spring to mind – what made you want to write this book?

I’ve always been a bit of a jack-of-all-trades in terms of what I like to read and learn about (I tend to be whatever the opposite of an obsessive is). Being a freelance writer, being always on the lookout for a new opportunity, a new niche to work in, entrenches that – so yeah, I’ve written on a pretty diverse range of subjects (you could also throw in hockey goalkeeping, car insurance and illustrating Rabelais). But two things have always gripped me: fiction writing, and natural history. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve felt able to focus more particularly on these areas. Writing about nature for BBC Wildlife, The Guardian and the TLS put me in a position to finally think about writing a nature book – and birdsong, something I’ve always had a bit of a conflicted relationship with, seemed like a good fit for me.

What did you learn in the process of writing and researching the book?

Oh, god, loads. In practical, in-the-field terms, the process coincided with me getting more acquainted than I had been with a local patch of woodland, so as well as the hours spent thumbing through musty bird books (don’t get me wrong: musty bird books are among my favourite things to thumb through) I was passing the early hours in the company of singing wrens and thrushes and blackcaps and all the rest. So that was one kind of learning curve.

Another was the sheer amount of material I had to get to grips with. Some people have asked me how on earth I managed to write a whole book on the cultural history of birdsong. Well, I could have written ten books and had material left over. Wrangling centuries’ worth of information – from science, from literature, from music, from social history – into a neat package of thirty-odd thousand words was a challenge (it’s not a problem you have when you’re writing a history of toilet paper, believe me). But I enjoyed every minute of it.

One of the things I really noticed about your book was your openness about things you don’t know. And the realisation that not knowing doesn’t mean you don’t care, just that you hadn’t noticed. You’re known for having some pretty trenchant opinions on popular nature writing – is this related?

Yes! I have, it’s true, written some intemperate things about certain styles of nature writing. I may be more fixated on prose style and tone than many other critics of non-fiction – I think it’s so important. Obviously, I’ve set myself up for a righteous beating if I don’t practise what I’ve been so noisily preaching, so it was on my mind while I was writing the book. These were my rules: be honest; be yourself; don’t pose, don’t pretend. That was about it. So when I didn’t know something – which was quite a lot of the time – I felt it was important to say so. It’s just not a big deal.

Your tone is irreverent but never over-bearing or facetious, which is unusual. Was it a conscious decision to write like this? If so, why?

That’s good to hear (though I think it’s a bit facetious at times, isn’t it?). The style came very naturally – as I said, I was dead-set on not writing in character, on being myself. It’s not as though I frown on fancy language – quite the opposite, really. I love swanky and ambitious prose. The thing is, I think you can write that sort of stuff without striking a pose, without hamming it up. Your writing can be fantastically elaborate and still feel natural. Human is a word I overuse in my criticism; I mean it as a real compliment, and it’s what I was aiming for in this book.

You also talk about the habit people have of assuming every bird singing at night is a nightingale — even in the middle of the London winter. Do you think the misidentification matters or is the magic of the moment more important?

That’s a really good and complicated question. Of course, it’s normal, natural, to not know things. I’d never have a problem with someone saying I don’t know much about nature, but I know what I like. No-one can know everything, in any case, and besides there are a lot of different ways of looking at the world. But I do think that’s it’s good to know things; I’d be happier if more people knew more things. Emotional responses are fine, great, and I’m all for them (I’ve even been known to have them myself from time to time) – but it seems to me that knowledge, information, is needed to give structure and texture to them and to everything else. It’s the motes of dust and grit a raincloud needs in order to make rain. Otherwise all you’ve got is a lot of damp, drifting air doing nothing in particular.

Do you think birdsong has a role in connecting people to nature? Or is it, like in the novels you analyse, likely to always be just background noise?

I think it has an immersive effect. Once you start noticing it you realise just how often you’re in amongst it. It’s everywhere. Perhaps that can make us more conscious of how embedded we all are in the natural world (despite our best efforts). And it can help us develop something like a personal relationship with birds, too. That sounds a bit daft – but I think that learning a bit of birdsong, or just making a point of listening to birdsong, is a step towards getting to know the birds better, to seeing them properly, in three dimensions. If not quite as individuals, then as more than set dressing. It’s an easy(ish) way in to everyday ecology.

Interview conducted by Stephen Rutt

Richard Smyth writes about wildlife for The Guardian and BBC Wildlife and about nature, books and culture for the Times Literary SupplementNew StatesmanNew Humanist and others. He’s the author of five non-fiction books and a novel, Wild Ink (2014). His prize-winning short fiction has been widely published and his crosswords appear in journals including New Scientist, History Today and History Revealed. 

Anthropocene Incantation: Mingled Singing Bird-Man-Machine Echoes

by Julianne Lutz Warren

First Listen to the “Human Imitation of Huia1

Listen!
Huia! Huia! Huia! Huia!
cry the birds in their tongue
in Māori a call to assemble!
while, in English, who are you?
Hear what echoes. Hatch
what sings in yourself
and each other.

Sailing west and south, Europeans—Dutch, then British—arrived in the seventeenth century; more of the latter kept coming, and stayed. The islands first people, the Māori, called them Pākehā (I myself come from this pale-skinned stock, so take this story with proper salt). It took these late-comers only a couple of centuries to re-form the land. Some kinds of island beings, or parts of them, they subsumed—like tall kauri trees for masts, Toi mokoii2 for curiosities, with the language of place names, songs, and stories that had filled them. The Pākehā sometimes wore birds, mostly as feathers in their caps.3 They did not so much eat as evict and try to replace them. In their ships the Pākehā brought their own food stuffs from home—chickens, sheep, potatoes and wheat, and house sparrows to devour crop pest insects. They set loose rabbits, and then ferrets, stoats and weasels to eat the rabbits who bred like rabbits beyond what the humans consumed. The Pākehā also brought novel kinds of life from all over the world, such as hill cherries from China and, from India, minas with their ticks. These people possessed the islands with treaties, book ideas—some holy or scientific with magic at their core4—plows, drainage ditches, guns, mills, and fire. As Pākehā numbers went up Māori went down.5And next the guards of the forest, huia died with the forest, and gardens rose with hymnody—the gardeners singing to their god, “Holy holy holy.” And there were refrigerated trains and roads with cars, then airports came. To run things, the leading Pākehā mined under Earth’s skin—gold to exchange for things, and, exhaled in a quick breath, ancient buried fossils burned as fuels. This breath changed even the sky and the sea, and also these immigrants brought something they called “conservation.” They had a saying: “Their extinction cannot be very far distant.”6 And as they chanted this, they rushed to gather onto small satellite islands, ocean-moated from predators, what was left living, and to collect remains of the almost dead by killing them. And they put the lifeless remains in museums for scientists to study. And those the Pākehā loved the most, they study most, to this day.7

Kei muri I te awe kapara he tangata ke, man ate ao, he mana spoke the remnant of Māori. And, in English, “Behind the tattooed face, a stranger stands, he who owns the earth, and he is white.”8 And the owners named their season of ownership the Anthropocene, and the Earth they renamed Eaarth,9 and all were subject to the ways the planet had been remade, Pākehā, too.

It is said that a long time ago, some four and a half billion years ago, dust from exploding stars gravitated into a planet that became filled with life. This had been Earth. Earth began with a separation of the parents—sky and ground—by Tāne, their son, who emerged from darkness bringing light to father life.10 Survival has always been a balancing act of darkness and light, life and death. Looking far back, five times before humans and once after them, because of them, there have been episodes of more death than life. Gracefully, with a long view, there has been the reverse. The future, though, has always been as looking into a dark mirror.

The father of birds is the father of men. A god took some of Earth’s clay and carried it to a higher god who chanted a charm, me whakaira tangata—that is, “give it life.”11 And charms of ngaaitanga kapakapa a Tāne or “wing-flapping children” filled the eastern dawn with singing. In other words, a long time ago, a white man built a machine that could incubate eggs, thousands at a time, he called it eccaleobion from Greek meaning “I bring forth life.” 12 He did not bestow, but developed life—not quite a god, but god-like. What deity, anyhow, would give her child a scorpion when an egg was wanted?13And she said let there be light, and there was light, firmament, stars, forests, birds and humans.

Three hundred and ten million years ago, as the lands of the globe were amassing into great Pangea surrounded by even vaster sea, birds and humans were folded within the fertile egg of a common ancestor. One hundred and thirty million years later, the supercontinent was fragmenting again. The land called Gondwana pulled south, a nursery of branching trees of birds and mammals.14 From Gondwana, Africa separated from India and South America, one hundred million years ago, then drifted northeast toward Eurasia, colliding in the Paleocene. Eighty million years ago, another mass of land rifted from Antarctica and Australia and became a pair of large islands—changeable as long white clouds spouting volcanoes, growing mountains, high-flooding ravines—these drifted north-west, sternly self-pruning life, carrying now fossil-phantom lineages of furry beasts,15 but not of humans, and a rich fecundity unfurling birds, though huia ancestors were not here either, not yet.

Some say that more than thirty million years ago huias’ ancestors flew on wind east across the ocean from land somewhere else.16 They arrived as immigrants to the pair of big islands staying on so long as to interweave with the place, becoming a voice native to the cacophony of diversifying avian hosts, many of whom, in turn, pioneered off themselves, heading north, and encircled Earth’s round belly with bright colors, sharp talons, and song.xvii In other words, long ago huia arrived directly from the shimmering heavens, sent by gods-breathing words forming them as gods’ guardians of the lush and stormy mountain forests they haunted, and as leaders of the varied bird chorus. Huia were so lovely, so sacred with the same number of tail feathers as there were twelve moons of the year, twelve periods shaping the seasons.18

Meanwhile, on the northward drifted continent of Africa, humans branching line of ancestors went on evolving, too, for all those same millions of years, until just two-hundred thousand years ago becoming Homo sapiens. These people went walking north and east on two feet crossing frozen water between Holarctic continents. They carried high on upright necks big brains, watching stars, hearing birds sing, filling with knowledge and wonder, also learning and passing on how to sing, and speak words, then carve them in stones, multiplying as they spread, back south and west, until they folded into themselves, the New World meeting Old, being everywhere on Earth—on the two long floating cloud islands last.19

It took a long time, but the birds and humans finally were reunited in all the world’s places, if no longer sharing the same egg. Barely one thousand years ago, the first humans, with origins nearly as indistinct as huia, finally arrived to the former Gondwana now-islands.

Traveling east from Polynesia in canoes—carrying with them rats and dogs, kūmara and uwhi as starter foods along with sacred stones, songs and stories—they landed. That is, from Hawaiki, the source of all life, the Māori ancestors followed the stars to the same shores as had the huia legacy of birds, into a land already filled with birds, but not living mammals. The Māori speared many of the islands’ singing hosts, or snared them. Calling in the voice of huia the humans attracted them to the slip-knotted loops of grub-baited sticks. Māoris took huia for tail feathers, which they wore in their hair for beauty and protection, and to foretell in dreams the birth of daughters.20 Some birds they kept as pets; other kinds they, or maybe their rats, ate to death. The Māori have a saying Kua ngaro I te ngaro o te moa, which is to say, “lost as the moa is lost.”21 And, when they lost the birds they loved, they cried: “Keen is the sorrow, O my bird, for thee!/…Thou wert/ The guardian of our treasures….Now what remains?”22 The Māori saved remains, including their own Toi moko, tattooed chiefly and cherished highborn childrens’ heads, and feathers of birds and birds buried that turned to stone, and they whispered to and never stopped weeping over the remnants, though they also went on singing, fiercely warring, eating both flowers and meat, even eating each other, and loving.

And from Earth, a god took a handful of clay, shaped it into an egg and took it to a higher god, who by chanting me whakaira tangata created it a charm, but nothing happened yet. In other words, an empress tenderly hid one fertile egg in her bosom to warm it. A young cock hatched out auguring the birth of a royal son.23 When the first cock, a gift from Pākehā to Māori, crowed in the still-dark of New Zealand, it foretold the singing dawn. And the Pākehā’s fast-fuel trains were so wonderful the Māori called the white men “bird-brains.”24 That is to say, a pale-skinned man invented a machine that was like an egg that could be filled with song and carried around to announce the dawn, also, crying sundown from the west, echoing as many times as replayed, then remembered and hummed, echoing on.

A young woman asked for a clay egg to warm in her bosom. She was marching in a parade in Manhattan to which people from all parts of Eaarth had flown when the egg started singing: “Huia Huia Huia Huia.” Some people heard in the song a call to assemble. Others heard it asking, “who are you?”25 Others heard other things, each according to their memories, dreams, and the comfort of their shoes. Whatever a person heard, they could not help but respond, as if being called from a great distance by an intimate companion.26

And so, listening, some were affirmed in having already gathered. Others were added to their number. Many turned to each other and tried to explain who they were until it seemed that fierce fighting would break out. And the human voices began drowning out the egg’s song. And it was then that the first clay egg erupted as if into a host of whirring wings—flying sounds that were either words or birds of every color and design, some recognizable, others so old or so new as to be unimaginable.

The crowd grew silent—including the Peregrine falcon perched overhead27 —listening, as the multitudes dispersed into cathedrals and museums, attics and basements, some soared along the Alyeska pipeline, crossed Atigun Pass, then beyond the shores of the Arctic Ocean, and some went south to the other antipode. They spread longitudinally to Europe, Asia, Africa, to all the broken off pieces of Gondwana. They radiated into every land that had once been united in Pangea and beyond, even the tiniest islands floating on the rising seas and some hovered over the water occasionally plunging for plankton, fish and octupuses.

Each whirring songster carried in its talons a piece of Eaarth’s remains. At the first dawn after arrival to their destinations, they all let go of what was in their possession. A twist of faded-pink plastic that splashed into the ocean would turn into something resembling living coral, but only in the presence of someone knowing all the stars without naming them. Into the delta of the former Nile fell a moon-slice of fingernail that would become the embryo of a seed as tasty as wheat, and perennial, once each grain of desert sand was enfolded by a cooling shadow. While a gold coin clinked onto a sunlit mountain top where eyes seeing but not wanting it would transform its gleam into a mirror—a mirror through which unique forms may pass into different worlds without one having to imitate the other. A lock of gray hair tumbled softly into the nest of a falcon whose young, without further ado, would grow into animals larger than elephants, but lighter than air. A dropped wire would turn into silent spiny things with glossy blooms, no two the same fragrance. And, a shard of moaning voice was released into the ether and dispersed along with slivers of laughter. From this mixture, indescribably appealing sounds would emerge depending upon the appearance of a being having ears to hear it.

 

1: For further background on the recording, please see Julianne Lutz Warren, “Learning Extinct Birdsong in the Anthropocene: Huia Echoes” in Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero and Rob Emmett (eds.) Anthropocene Remains (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Forthcoming); Julianne Lutz Warren, Hopes Echo.” The Poetry Lab of The Merwin Conservancy, November 2, 2015, http://www.merwinconservancy.ort/2015/11/the-poetry-lab-hopes-echo-by-author-julianne-warren-center-for-humans-and-nature/; Evans, Kate. “Echoes of the Past.” New Zealand Geographic 139(2016) at https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/huia;and Johnston, Sarah. Te Karangaa Te Huia/The Call of the Huia. Nga Taonga Sound & Vision (2016) at http://www.ngataonga.org.nz/blog/nz-history/the-call-of-the-huia/

2: Tattooed Māori heads. See, for example, T. Dunbabin, “Moko or Maori tattooing: A Strange Trade—Deals in Maori Heads—Pioneer Artists,” Sydney Sun (1923) 21-1 at http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-RobMoko-t1-front-d2.html

3: Traditionally, the sacred feathers of huia were worn by chiefs. In 1901 the Duke of York visited on royal tour. While there, a high-ranking Māori woman presented him with a single huia feather, which the duke wore in his hat. Consequently, these sacred feathers became fashionable in Europe. Desire for the feathers also spread among increasing numbers of Māori. See Phillipps, The Book of the Huia and Phillipps, “Huia Research”: Letter, Tom Asher to Phillipps, 20 October 1954; and “Huia notes, etc.” p. 2.

4: Patricia Fara, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 101.

5: Maori numbers decreased by about 2/3 to 1/2 in first half of the nineteenth century. Thompson, Come on Shore, 150 and “Story: Taupori Maori: Maori Population Change” accessed http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/taupori-maori-maori-population-change

6: Walter Buller, “Further Notes on the Birds of New Zealand,” Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand 25 (1892), 65.

7: Facts in this paragraph come mostly from Pawson and Brooking, Environmental Histories; Thompson, Come on Shore; and Tennyson and Martinson, Extinct Birds of New Zealand.

8: Quoted in Thompson, Come on Shore, 151.

9: See Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Times Books, 2010).

10: Margaret Orbell, The Natural World of the Māori (Aukland: Collins, 1985); Elsdon Best, Māori Religion and Mythology: Part 2: Origin of Birds (Wellington: PD Hasselberg, 1982), accessed spring 2014, http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Bes02Reli-t1-body-d4-d3-d10.html http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Bes02Reli-t1-body-d4-d3-d10.html http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Bes02Reli-t1-body-d4-d3-d10.html; H.T. Whatahoro (S. Percy Smith, transl.), The Lore of the Whare-Wānaga: Or Teachings of the Māori College on Religion, Cosmogony, and History Vol. 1: Te Kauwae-Runga, or ‘Things Celestial,’”(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

11: Murdoch Riley, Māori Bird Lore (Paraparaumu, NZ: Viking Sevenseas, NZ Ltd, 2001),

12: William Bucknell, The Eccaleobion: A Treatise on Artificial Incubation (London, 1939), 3.

13: From the Hebrew Bible, Luke 11: 12.

14: There is much debate about to what degree animal radiations occurred before or after the Cretaceous-Paleogene (or Tertiary) boundary, when the extinction of dinosaurs and other forms went extinct presumably encouraging diversification of surviving lineages. For example, Goswani, “A dating success story,” suggest that most mammal diversification occurred after the K-Pg boundary while Krause et al., “First cranial remains” suggest an earlier date. For birds, there seems to be rising evidence for significant radiation before the boundary. See, for example, Joel Cracraft, “Avian evolution, Gondwana biogeography and the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction event,” Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B (2001) 268, 459-469. See also S. Blair Hedges, et al. “Continental break up and the ordinal diversification of birds and mammals,” Nature 381 (16 May 1996), 226-229. But, the time for the basal split of Passeriformes, representing more than half of all living birds species is estimated to be after the boundary. See Jarvis et al., “Whole genome analyses resolve early branches in the tree of life of modern birds,” Science 346 (12 Dec. 2014), 1320-1331.

15: Recent evidence pushes back the likely origins of mammals to the late Triassic, over 200 mya. Brian Switck, “Chisel-toothed beasts push back origins of mammals,” National Geographic Sept. 10, 2014 accessed at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/09/140910-fossil-mammal-china-triassic-origin/rptregcta=reg_free_np&rptregcampaign=2015012_invitation_ro_all# See also Anjali Goswami, “A dating success story: Genomes and fossils converge on placental mammal origins,” EvoDevo 2012 3, 18. The recent discovery of Ventana sertichi, an herbivorous 9-kg gondwanatherien, in Madagascar from the late Cretaceuos suggests ancestral presence before Gondwana’s break-up, and the isolation of Madagascar. David W. Krause, et al. “First cranial remains of a gondwanatherien mammal reveal remarkable mosaicism,” Nature 515 (27 Nov. 2014): 512-516. And, the discovery of an ancient mouse-sized mammal in New Zealand is evidence that mammals once roamed there, too. Trevor Worthy et al., “Miocene mammal reveals a Mesozoic ghost lineage on insular New Zealand, southwest Pacific,” PNAS 103(51) (19 Dec. 2006), 19419-23 and “Nowak, “Fossils reveal New Zealand’s indigenous ‘mouse’” New Scientist (11 Dec. 2006), accessed at http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn10773-fossils-reveal-new-zealands-indigenous-mouse.html#.VVvFGUbFs4U

16: Probably from what became Australia after its break from Antarctica. See Lara Shepherd and David Lambert, “The relationships and origins of the New Zealand wattlebirds (Passeriformes, Callaeatidea) from DNA sequence analysis,” Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 43 (2007), 480-492; Isabel Sanmartín and Fredrick Ronquist, “Southern Hemisphere Biogeography Inferred by Event-based Models: Plant versus Animal Patterns,” Systematic Biology 53(2) (2004): 216-243.

17: Recent evidence reverses previous understandings about avian biogeography suggesting that basal passerines dispersed from Australasia into Eurasia, Africa, and the New World, beginning as early as the Eocene. Barker et al., “Phylogeny and diversification of the largest avian radiation,” PNAS 101(30) (27 July 2004), 11040-11045.

18: Riley, Māori Bird Lore, 104.

19: John Gurche, Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand our Origins (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

20: Riley, Māori Bird Lore.

21: Quoted in Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction, 232.

22: Quoted in Major Wilson, “On the Korotangi, or Stone Bird,” Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand 20 (1887), 501, accessed May 2015 http://rsnz.natlib.govt.nz/volume/rsnz_20/rsnz_20_00_007160.html There are several versions of the poem from which this line comes. This translation from Māori into English is by C.O. Davis.

23: From Pliny the Elder, Natural History 10.76.154 and Thomas More, Utopia (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011), 40.

24: Margaret Orbell, Birds of Aotearoa: A Natural and Cultural History (Auckland: Reed Publishing, 2003), 178-179.

25: Riley, Māori Bird-Lore, 106; Phillipps, The Book of Huia, 28.

26: Elsdon Best, “White Magic of the Māori,” Journal of the Polynesian Society 35 (140), 315-328, accessed http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/document/Volume_35_1926/Volume_35%2C_No._140/White_magic_of_the_Maori._Some_explanation_of_the_Atahu_or_Iri_Rite%2C_and_the_use_of_love_charms%2C_p_315-328/p1?action=null

27: Julianne Lutz Warren, “Picturing: Ghosts,” Minding Nature Spring 2015.

 

Julianne Lutz Warren is author of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey, Tenth Anniversary Edition. This book unfolds the journey of this twentieth-century American ecological thinker and author of best-selling A Sand County Almanac towards his ethical vision of land health, coextensive with Earth’s ecosphere. Julianne has also published a variety of creative writings expanding on that vision that entertain possibilities for authentic hope and generativity in what might be called the “Anthropocene.” Julianne formerly taught in environmental studies at New York University where she was a recipient of a 2013 Martin Luther King, Jr. Faculty Research Award for her work in the climate justice movement. She has since been named a Senior Scholar and Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature.

Raven

by Rachael Clyne

Sithee wingless, I am cum ter tek thee
fer tha’ll’t ne’er mek it alone.
I shall carry thee thru yon veil an’ on
where tiz same-colour as me coat.
Not one jot shall’t tha see in’t darkiverse folk call hell.

Peril is me name, fer perilous it be
till this fine beak, this wingspread
shall sail thee thru t’void to star-kissed heaven.
Hop on wingless, hold fast –
relish yon ride.

Rachael Clyne lives in Glastonbury. Her prizewinning collection Singing at the Bone Tree, is published by Indigo Dreams. Anthologies: The Very Best of 52, Book of Love and Loss, Poems for a Liminal Age. Magazines: Tears in the Fence, Prole, The Rialto, Under the Radar, The Interpreters House.

Beautiful Giant

by Margi Prideaux

From behind came a sound, swish, phwom, swish, phnom. My heart fluttered inside my chest. Could it be what I had been hoping for since the first giant gardener’s space?

Years ago, I travelled to Thailand for a semester of study and the opportunity to explore the country. I am drawn to what is tangible and real in the world – wildlife that is wild and communities living as they have for eons. For me, chance encounters with wildlife carry more colour and texture than the canned experiences people buy. On this occasion, I had found a trek to visit a Karen-Thai hill tribe community in the Chiang Mai province. Our guides were members of the community we were to visit. They vibrated with political activism and a deep pride in their people. Their energy was magnetic.

We set off from Chiang Mai in a van at dawn, winding for hours through deep valleys between steep, densely vegetated hills. Lush plants sprang from every surface. The sight of such prolific vegetation can be difficult to absorb, at times so profuse it looks artificial. It’s as if you are travelling through a dense green cloud.

After an hour or so of winding roads, we stopped at an unmarked roadside point, in the shadow of a tall hill. I am sure the spot was easy to identify for locals, but to my eyes nothing distinguished this hill from the hundreds we had just passed. Still, with trust and a prayer, we collected our packs and dissolved ourselves into the trees to begin the upwards march towards the Karen village.

Pushing through thick vegetation, we wove around tree trunks standing in tight formation. At our feet was thick undergrowth. Over our heads was a dense canopy of low-hanging branches. Without the occasional bright flowers springing forward with ridiculous iridescence, it could have been a scene from a commando movie. Birds, which I could never identify, chattered and clanged in the sun shining on the other side of the ceiling of leaves. Insects took up arms as we moved forward. Some limited their interest to noting our passing, while others investigated if our flesh offered something more. Ahead, our guides moved steadily and ever upwards, swinging their machetes from side to side, clearing a path for our climb. They never faltered, swatted, or stopped, so neither did we.

Occasionally, the forest density would suddenly evaporate and we would stumble into small clearings ringed by trees with bare trunks. Through the high manicured dome of leaves, the mid-morning light glinted in the few spaces not woven shut. It was as if a giant gardener had crafted a private cocoon to sit and enjoy. Here, our band of trekkers could sit, gulp water and devour sticky Thai sweets. There was a clear track in and a clear track out, wider than the paths we were making, and distinctly worn into the ground. A guide explained the elephants and their mahouts, known as kwarn chang in northern Thailand, had created these spaces, for moments of rest from their work in the surrounding area. At that time, the teak harvest ban in Thailand was still young and illegal activity continued.

The thrill of knowing elephants were nearby was intoxicating. I strained my hearing to catch a sound of their presence, but the cacophony of birds masked my effort.

Our trek went on for hours, up and around hills and down through deep valleys. As the day matured it became hotter and the air cloyingly still. My clothes hung wet on my frame and a steady stream of sweat blurred my vision. The water we carried was lighter by the step.

Eventually, we crested the edge of a long, meandering valley. The wild forest gave way to signs of human toil. Our path was now bordered by crops fed by lengths of bamboo irrigation pipes. In the distance were a collection of bamboo and rattan huts. Colourful fabrics billowed in the breeze. This was our destination.

After hours of shade, the sun felt ferocious, blazing in its mid-afternoon posture. Tiny midges buzzed close by; a gentle hum tuned to the beauty of the day.

Of our small band, I was slowest. This is nothing new. I have never been a natural trekker; I love the destination, but often tire at the pace of the journey. I like to stop and explore new and wonderful discoveries along the way, to have moments where there is no human sound so I can soak in the aliveness of what surrounds me.

I was alone on the path when I heard a gentle swish then phwom, swish, phnom approaching behind me.

A thrill billowed inside me and I turned to face the titan. She was magnificent.

The relationship between humans and elephants in this region goes back a long way. It is too easy to assume the practices of the past, when elephants were pressed into the service of logging, land clearing or used as transport haulers, were the terrible times – to presume the new enlightenment of tourism oversees a better world for these gentle animals. However, this judgement is tinged with western bias and blinkered vision.

I don’t mean to suggest that teak harvesting should resume – far from it. The scale of harvest caused terrible damage across Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, but unintended consequences flowed from the ban. Communities that had built generations of identity and skill around raising and training mahouts and elephants crumbled. An elephant, which may have spent its life as a member of a mahout’s family, became a burden to feed if the family’s income disappeared. Many mahouts were similarly cast adrift. Starvation for both was a very real threat. Elephant tourism – elephant rides and elephant performances – filled a gap for some. But this can be a pitiful existence for the elephants and the men, made worse by the knowledge that elephant infants, wrenched from their mothers in Myanmar, are regularly smuggled across the border into Thailand to be presented as orphans in need of care. These youngsters are the innocent victims of the tourism machine. In some ways, the situation for elephants is worse now than it was at the peak of teak harvesting.

The ears of the elephant walking towards me waved softly, eyes creased in a gentle smile, her trunk swayed with the rhythm of her long, slow stride. Swish, phwom. Swish, phwom. Swish, phnom. Each step began as a gentle touch that flowed into heavy softness.

She was more than magnificent. She was heart wrenchingly beautiful.

I knelt on the path when she was still a few lengths away and took a photograph. I knew it would fall short of her presence, but it would remind me of this moment in years to come. Even today, as I hold it in my hand, I remember each swaying stride. Swish, phnom.

Behind her head sat her kwarn chang, tenderly patting her neck and whispering soothing sounds behind her ears. I stepped from the path as her trunk tenderly reached out, then yanked a clump of grass and flowers from near my feet. I was enveloped by the rich, deep smell of her skin and wet vegetation. Her eye tracked me for a moment, pleating at the edges with delight as she placed her spoils in her mouth to chew.

My heart slowed to the beat of her footsteps. An ear and then a shoulder glided by. Swish, phnom. I glanced at her kwarn chang, now above my head, and he returned a shy nod. The round swell of her abdomen pressed the space between us, drawing my attention back to her magnificent presence. A rumble inside her body made me smile, then the switch of her tail drew my attention to her hip moving past.

I drank in another dozen swaying steps before she rounded a corner and melted into the treelike.

She was gone, but her presence could still be felt, like an echo in the space on the path.

One of the guides called my name from the edge of the village. I drew in a breath at the wonder of the world and took off at a trot to catch up with the group. The next adventure of meeting the Karen people was ahead.

Margi Prideaux is a writer, negotiator and independent academic, with a PhD in wildlife policy & law. In her 27 years in the conservation movement, she has worked on conservation projects in the Pacific Islands, South East Asia, Africa and Latin America, and always with the goal of protecting wildlife through communities. She has published three books: Birdsong After the StormGlobal Environmental Governance, Civil Society and Wildlife, and All Things Breathe Alike: A Wildlife Anthology that is co-authored with Donna Mulvenna and Jessica Groenendijk. Her fourth book, Wild Tapestry: Weaving Wildlife Survival, will be released in late 2017. She is on Facebook and Twitter @WildPolitics. www.wildpolitics.co

Kate Walters

“Kate Walters’ paintings are concerned with the interaction of the animal and human worlds; depicting in raw and graphic immediacy a relationship that is both intimate and nurturing. Deer, horses and female figures are shown co-existing in an almost primeval state of mutual, interconnected harmony. In their iconography of nurture and loving grace human and animal bodies merge and combine, as the female subjects of these works take on and adopt the character of their animal guides: the watchfulness and truth of the deer, the protection and nurture of the horse. In this new world, there is no separation between human and animal, only a porous tissue of skin that both delineates and dissolves individual boundaries.” Revd Dr Richard Davey

Kate Walters studied Fine Art in London, Brighton and Falmouth; she has worked as an independent artist for 20 years in Cornwall, showing work in Jerwood Drawing (twice), RA, RCA, RWA. A recent solo show of 2000 digital photographs, 3 films, and 30 paintings detailing & exploring a conversation with nature was hosted at Newlyn Art Gallery. She is also a speaker and has presented at many universities. Recent/current projects she has curated and organised include a fund-raising drawing show for Freedom from Torture; her next project is called “Drawing down the Feminine”. Residencies include Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens (2017-19), the Isle of Iona (2015-16), the RCA (National Open Art Resident artist) and working with students and staff at Glasgow School of Art. Kate teaches on various courses including a mentoring course at Newlyn School of Art. She also mentors emerging artists privately in her studio, and runs drumming and drawing workshops there. A book, The Iona Notebooks, will be published in May 2017 by Guillemot Press and launched at Terre Verte Gallery near Launceston on May 5th.

“Thinking of how the breath of the horse creates a kind of womb for me; holds me aloft, intact, supported, whole. A womb of air, a light-filled womb, perfumed, smelling of a horse’s grassy green breath.”

The Secret Worth a Thousand – Watercolour, 2012. This work with a title borrowed from Goethe (the phrase refers to what he believed we could gain from entering into a conversation with Nature) was central in my solo exhibition at Newlyn Art Gallery https://vimeo.com/73134126 which explored our relationship with the natural, and wild world. The female deer provides an arc over the woman, who is close to flowing water, and whose abdomen has been imprinted by a wild horse. The deer has become a sky-god, such as you can find in ancient Egyptian images.
Leaving Event – Watercolour, 2016. This work was developed after visiting The Ness Of Brodgar, where I learned about the ceremonial leaving events which are believed to have taken place there.
The Bird my Brother – This picture from around 2014 is composed of many layers of watercolour on gesso-prepared paper. It reflects on body as tree, as hands as branches, as feet as root linking one to Bird, wild bird, crow bird about to take flight; or raven dipping wings and croaking a greeting; Raven as messenger and teacher; innocence; sky-made eyes. This is the gift of wildness.
Spirit Horse – Completed in 2016, in watercolour and charcoal. The woman who blends with the heart space of the horse has become leopard-like; she sees with her navel, she is in touch with the gifts of wildness.
Trance – This work from 2014 is made of layers of watercolour and gum Arabic on gesso-prepared paper. There are traces of many journeys beneath the crystallized surface. I’m interested in how we might pray with animals, how they pray for us; how their wildness and their acute senses can enrich our lives, teach us how to track, be still, hear and be with ourselves and our instincts. It is also about mirroring, affection, and humility.