Last Known

by Carrie Naughton

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Poetry – Issue 5.1

Hare

by Jane Lovell

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

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

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

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

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

Unburied

by Julianne Lutz Warren

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

Miss Rossetti’s Highgate Lodger

by Beth McDonough

Meta bourneti

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

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

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

Nest

by Char March

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

a gowpen of shoogling eggs
roofed by warm breast.

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

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

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

full stops in winter branches
each a basket of hope.

In Gaza Zoo

by Dave Hubble

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

elephant song

by Gerry Boland

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

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

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

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

on our grand colonial piano

Poet Biographies

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

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

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

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

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

Gerry Boland is a poet and author. He was born and lived for much of his life in Dublin and moved to north Roscommon in 1999. His first collection of poems, Watching Clouds, was published by Doghouse Books in 2011, and his second, In the Space Between (Arlen House) appeared in January 2016.

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The Huia

by Daniel Hudon

Heteralocha acutirostris

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

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

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

 

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

 

Brittle Fish

by Susie Greenhill

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Poetry – Issue 5.2

The Skeffling Whale

by Pippa Little

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

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

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

As the Crow…

by Rachael Clyne

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

swim me
_____i ffflap soarrr

_____Ccrraaaaaah!________Crraaah!

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

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

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

Black Bear

by Julie-ann Rowell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Returning

by Kathy Miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex-slave

by Lee Nash

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

Tanka poem by Tim Gardiner

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

Poet Biographies:

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

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

Julie-ann Rowell’s first pamphlet collection, Convergence, published by Brodie Press, won a Poetry Book Society Award. Her first full collection, Letters North, was nominated for the Michael Murphy Poetry Prize for Best First Collection in Britain and Ireland in 2011. She has been teaching poetry in Bristol for eight years.

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

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

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

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The Cool Red Eye of Chicago

by Gavin Van Horn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what animal might best embody the numenon of Chicago?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet.

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

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

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

 

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

All images by Gavin Van Horn

Rewilding Weeloo, the Enigmatic Bush Stone-curlew

by Paula Peeters

Cold wind buffets my breath as the small boat bounces along the waves. We are heading towards a tiny, sun-bleached rocky nub of an island, one of the many that cluster about the sprawling, inverted triangle of Eyre Peninsula, like small fish shadowing a large, cruising shark. And sharks aren’t far from my mind. As I clamber from the boat to the sloping brown rocks, slick with algae, I’m concentrating hard on not falling in. Great white sharks are regulars in these waters – they take fish, seals, sea lions and the occasional unfortunate surfer or abalone diver. Right now the Australian sea lions are pupping, which is why I am here on this island. I’m helping researchers Peter Shaughnessy and Terry Dennis count this season’s pups to help track the status of this threatened species.

The Australian sea lion is golden-coated, dewy-eyed and the only pinniped that’s endemic to Australia. The lithe, sleek females are reclining here and there, dozing in the bright sunlight. Their chocolate-brown pups are less obvious and more difficult to find. We scramble transects across the low rocky brow of the island, keeping each other in sight to make sure no pups are missed.

Bush-stone-curlew_smallPP
Illustration by Paula Peeters

Eyre Peninsula is about halfway along the southern shoreline of Australia, and a special cast of creatures inhabit its coasts and islands. Dapper black-and-white pacific gulls stand sentinel on rocks and beaches, often in pairs. Green rock parrots tinkle as they alight daintily on the coastal bushes, gleaning puckered yellow berries from the ruby saltbush. They chatter to each other, inspecting cracks and crevices in the cliff lines for possible nest sites. Oystercatchers pipe sadly as they fly parallel to the beach, in pairs, and white-bellied sea eagles and ospreys can often be seen drifting high overhead. Some islands have bilbies, others have bettongs, rock wallabies, or stick-nest rats. There are also ark populations of pythons, and odd varieties of tiger snake.

Today, the matronly bulk of gentle grey Cape Barren geese are surveying us warily, red eyes alert behind zinc-yellow beaks. As I carefully examine the bony carapace of the island in my search for sea lion pups, my eyes occasionally sink into the unfocused depths of a downy goose nest. Its softness contrasts strangely with the harshness of the low spiky, salt-pruned bushes and the sparse threads of dry grass. And suddenly, glaring at me with its enormous yellow eyes, is a bush stone-curlew. Upright and obvious on its long, thin legs; slight and seemingly vulnerable against the wide sky.

Sea-lion, goose and stone-curlew, assembled on this low treeless island surrounded by sea – a striking image, and one that challenges my idea of the ‘normal’ habitat of a bush stone-curlew. I had associated this enigmatic, ground-dwelling bird with grassy woodlands, not rocky, sea-swept islands. But I am so happy to see it here, slowly sidling away, neck extended, its buff-and-brown markings already dissolving back into the landscape. The bush stone-curlew Burhinus grallarius – also known as the bush thick-knee – has declined over large parts of it range, including throughout Eyre Peninsula. It’s one of the threatened species we are trying to restore to Coffin Bay National Park, a mainland park that is not far away. Stone-curlews are described as ‘terrestrial waders’, and there are 10 species worldwide. But the bush stone-curlew is more closely associated with dry land than wetlands. Before European settlement it was found over much of the Australian mainland, but it is now listed as threatened in the south-eastern states of Victoria and New South Wales.

* * *

The barren calcrete landscape is illuminated in the headlights as K.D. Lang’s rich, languid voice fills the cab of the 4WD. Perhaps incongrously, but then perhaps there is a likeness between this landscape and the mid-winter bleakness of the lands of the 49th parallel. Nothing stirs as our 4WD lurches after ranger Tom’s ute, which is showing us the way over this seemingly blasted landscape of bare white rocks, twists of grazed-down grasses, and the bleached gnarled bodies of sheoaks, laying sideways where they once stood tall. Stubborn clumps of half green, half twiggy-dead coast beard-heath and other unpalatable shrubs loom in and out of view. And every now and then there is a movement – the rhythmic bounce of a western grey kangaroo – and then it stops and stands, turns to look towards us, into the headlights. Quizzical, and not very smart. An easy target if we had a gun, but we don’t. Tom Gerschwitz isn’t hunting roos tonight – the cull will be later in the year. Tonight we’re hunting bush stone-curlews, but not to kill. They’re a cherished native species, and part of the ecological restoration of this park. Tonight we’re trying call-playback to find out if they have returned.
The call of a bush stone-curlew is an unearthly, haunting thing. It begins as a weird wail that swells in volume and rises in tone, and then multiplies into a shuddering cacophony of hysterical cries. It sounds like many birds are calling, but I’m told it only emanates from one. But bush stone-curlews often call together – in gatherings that have been described as whistling concerts, corroborees or glee parties. In many Aboriginal cultures the stone-curlew’s call is associated with death. The Warlpiri people of the Tanami Desert believe that when a stone curlew calls in a certain way then there are many dingoes around; if it calls differently a small child might throw a trembling fit. Aboriginal names for these birds include Weeloo and Willaroo – which echo the sound of its call – and also Wayayi, Wirntiki and Ngamirlirli. No doubt there are many more Aboriginal names, since the bush stone-curlew’s natural range is most of mainland Australia.

We cut the gurgling diesel engines and are swallowed by the dark stillness of the night. Except for the distant sigh of the sea, in place of the sighing that the wind would have made in the sheoaks, were they still alive. Tom knows from old folk’s tales and surveyors’ maps that this place was a sheoak grassy woodland when white people settled here. The drooping sheoak Allocasuarina verticillata is a graceful greyish tree with fine long hanging branchlets that look soft and hairlike from a distance, like the tails of the feral horses only recently removed from the Park. The Ngarrindjeri aboriginal people believe that the sound of wind in the sheoaks are the voices of their spirit ancestors. These trees are drought-tolerant and nitrogen-fixing; nutritious and highly palatable to horse, sheep, cow and rabbit. The early settlers introduced all four, which competed with the kangaroos that also like eating sheoaks. Any sheoaks that were within browsing height were devoured, and old trees were felled to provide extra feed. Fire and rain loosened the thin precious topsoil – already bared of grass from overgrazing, and the long, dry Mediterranean-climate summers. The soil washed away, exposing the calcrete bones of the Coffin Bay Peninsula. They made it a National Park when it wasn’t good for much else: Coffin Bay National Park, on the south-western tip of Eyre Peninsula.

In the darkness Tom plays the recorded wailing call of the bush stone-curlew. And we wait quietly, our breath steaming in the cold starlight. There is no answer from bird or beast, so we move on to the next monitoring site. And the next. No calls respond to the recorded cries. There are no stone-curlews here.

* * *

Several years have passed, and I now live in Brisbane, subtropical Queensland, many miles northeast of the Eyre Peninsula. I often cycle to the Queensland Herbarium, nestled in the foothills of Mt Coot-tha Forest, on the grounds of the Brisbane Botanic Gardens. The last steep slope up to the back entrance of the Herbarium takes some effort, especially at the end of a long ride. One day, when I was slowly pedalling up this bitumen driveway, I felt those yellow eyes upon me once more. This time there were two pairs of eyes: two bush stone-curlews were sitting blithely on the verge of the road. One standing, one sitting; both eyeing me calmly from their chosen resting place that was in the open, amongst the bark-chip-mulch.

This is a resident pair that is often seen around the back of the Herbarium, seemingly oblivious to the comings and goings of botanists and ecologists, and the loading and unloading of vehicles. Bush stone-curlews may be threatened in most of south-eastern Australia, but they are still secure in northern Australia, including Queensland. Even in the suburbs of Brisbane – which is a major city – there are many places where the wailing cry of the bush stone-curlew is often heard. This made me curious, as foxes were often cited in southern Australia as a major cause of the bush stone-curlew’s decline. But foxes are present in Brisbane, along with dogs and cats.

As an ecologist, I’m always wary of the simple answer. Most ecosystems are composed of numerous species, interacting in a multitude of complex ways, in space and time. I am also suspicious of certain people that seem to gain satisfaction from killing feral animals, and are eager to vilify these creatures, and blame them for the decline of native species. I suspect it’s some sort of displaced guilt. Over the last 200 years or so, humans (and the domestic animals we nurture) have been by far the most destructive feral animals that have impacted on the Australian environment. But instead of facing this reality, there is much hatred directed towards feral cats, foxes and rabbits.

Sheoak-restorationPP
Sheoak restoration within grazing enclosure.

Feral animals are a significant threat to many native Australian species. But sometimes feral species are not the main threat to a native species, or even a threat at all. The main factors that seem to have caused the decline of the bush stone-curlew in south-eastern Australia are the destruction of its habitat by overgrazing, burning and intensive clearing of vegetation. Tom understood this for Coffin Bay National Park – that the stone-curlews were unlikely to return without the restoration of the sheoak grassy woodlands, despite an ongoing fox control program. I suspect that the long dry summers and generally lower productivity of southern Australia also make it much harder to restore some habitats and maintain healthy populations of certain native species. In the parts of northern Australia where the bush stone-curlew is secure, even common, the summers are hot and wet, and the winters are mild. Plant growth is rampant, which results in a large and continuous supply of leaf-litter and woody debris, which are used by stone-curlews as breeding, resting and feeding sites. Heat, moisture and abundant plantlife also results in high numbers of insects, other invertebrates, frogs and lizards which make up the bulk of the stone-curlew diet. As long as some native vegetation is retained, fires are infrequent and grazing pressure is low (as is the case in the more leafy suburbs of Brisbane) it seems that bush stone-curlew habitat is in reasonably good supply, and these birds continue to survive, and even thrive. Even in the presence of the foxes, dogs, cats – and people – who also live in the greater Brisbane area.

* * *

In Coffin Bay National Park, and elsewhere on Eyre Peninsula, people are trying to coax sheoaks and native grasses back into the landscape, and in this way conserve the native species that rely on sheoak grassy woodlands. (In Australia, the term ‘woodland’ is used for a treed ecosystem where the trees are relatively widely spaced, and the foliage cover of the tallest tree layer is less than 30%. The term ‘forest’ is reserved for denser stands of trees where foliage cover of the tallest tree
layer is greater than 30%.) Woodlands with an open, grassy understorey have been heavily exploited for grazing and cropping. It’s no coincidence that many native plant and animal species that once lived in these grassy woodlands – especially those in southern Australia – are now in decline or are gone forever. As I learnt from my island adventure, the bush stone-curlew doesn’t always live in woodlands – it has a preference for open area generally, and has been observed nesting where there is good visibility at ground level for at least 250 m all round. But in many mainland habitats the bush stone-curlew is strongly associated with leaf litter and woody debris. These provide good camouflage for the stone-curlew and also homes for the small creatures that it hunts. Fires, grazing, tree loss, firewood collection and just general ‘tidying up’ all result in less leaf litter and woody debris. Fortunately, people are learning that an ‘untidy’ woodland – where wood and litter are left where they fall – provides a much healthier habitat for wildlife than one that is regularly groomed, and devoid of organic clutter.

Bush-stone-curlewPP
Bush Stone Curlew – image by Raymond Carpenter

In southern New South Wales the Nature Conservation Working Group has been releasing captive-bred bush stone-curlews to supplement the dwindling local populations of this species. There have been six releases since 2008. Most of the birds have survived and some have also bred, with the most recent chicks sighted in January 2015. Predator control is an important part of the rewilding of the bush stone-curlew, but it isn’t the only factor involved. A release of bush stone-curlews into a predator-free enclosure in New South Wales was less successful (in terms of bird survival) compared to a concurrent release of birds into a predator-controlled, unfenced area nearby. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy, which manages these sites, suggested that starvation was the cause of bird mortality in the predator-free area. Research by Elisa Tack in southern New South Wales and north east Victoria has also revealed the important, but often overlooked role of food availability for the conservation and rewilding of the bush stone-curlew.

Bush stone-curlew romance, or at least sex, has also made it to the internet, thanks to an innovative rewilding project in the Australian Capital Territory. The Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary has reintroduced a number of locally extinct woodland animals – including the bush stone-curlew – into a predator-free enclosure which adjoins a new suburb. By law, neighbouring residents are required to keep their cats on their premises at all times. A bird called Rowena was part of the first group of bush stone-curlews released in October 2014. Like many young adolescents she was keen to explore the world on her own terms, and promptly flew out of the predator-free enclosure to try a bit of urban living. Fortunately she survived some brief forays across roads, and some cat-naps on road verges and roundabouts, and was returned by concerned residents when they noticed her leg tag. Since then she has stayed within the predator-free Sanctuary, and has developed an attachment to fellow-release bird Herbie. Both were captured on film while trying to procreate and you can watch their tentative dance on YouTube (https://youtu.be/YxXbqYZ5v-c ). Kate Grarock, the ecologist at Mulligans Flat, thinks it’s unlikely that they will breed successfully for several months, but there is great excitement for the future. A second release of bush stone-curlews is planned for September/October 2015, and the local community appears to be enthusiastically behind the project.

The bush stone-curlew is a curious, charismatic, and some might say spooky part of Australia’s heritage. Many people across the country are concerned for its welfare, and are working hard to ensure the continued existence of this species. Our understanding of wildlife ecology is also maturing, as more and more people comprehend the complexity of ecological interactions, and the importance of good quality habitat as well as predator control when it comes to saving threatened species. Whether these efforts can keep up with the rapacious rate of ongoing environmental degradation, especially the impacts of a continuously growing human population, and the ongoing effects of climate change, is not known. But at least the bush stone-curlew has many friends, and the rewilding movement just keeps on growing.

* Update on the Mulligan’s Flat stone-curlews, December 2015: Rowena and Herbie are still living within the Sanctuary, and have raised their first chick. The chick is doing well, and is seen on camera each week. Ten more captive-bred bush stone-curlews were released into the Sanctuary in October 2015, and all have survived so far. Just before Christmas two of the newly-released birds (Lewis and Kay) were found to be protecting a nest with eggs, much to the delight of everyone involved in Mulligan’s Flat.

References and thanks

Anderson, G.J. (1991) The breeding biology and the bush thick-knee Burhinus magnirostris and notes on its distribution in the Brisbane area. The Sunbird 21:32-61

Gosford, B. 2010 Bird of the Week: the Bush Stone Curlew as a harbinger of death…and more. http://blogs.crikey.com.au/northern/2010/09/27/bird-of-the-week-the-bush-stone-curlew-as-a-harbinger-of-death-and-more/  Accessed 13/08/2015

Hume, R. & Bonan, A. (2013). Thick-knees (Burhinidae). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.) (2013). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/52241 on 13 August 2015).

Kate Grarock, ecologist at Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary, and www.bettongs.org Accessed 13/08/2015

Kemp, L., D Roshier, L Steindler, N Riessen (2014) Trialling Release Protocols and Thresholds of Predator Presence for the Reintroduction of the Bush Stone-curlew to southern Australia. Abstract for the 3rd Curlew Summit, August 2014, Albury.

Marchant,S. and P.J. Higgins (1993) Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Volume 2. Raptors to Lapwings. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Nature Conservation Action Group http://www.bushstonecurlew.com.au/about Accessed 14/08/2015

Peeters, P. J., Gerschwitz, T., & Carpenter, R. J. (2006). Restoring sheoak grassy woodlands on lower Eyre Peninsula. Unpublished report, Department of Environment and Heritage, South Australia.

Tack, E. (2014) Lessons from 10 years of Studying Bush Stone-curlews. Abstract for the 3rd Curlew Summit, August 2014, Albury.

 

Paula Peeters is a writer, artist and ecologist. Her written work ranges from playful observations of nature, to science communication, and many things in between. Her art practice focusses on wildlife and ecosystems, and strives to capture the beauty, habit and characteristic light of these subjects. Paula blogs at www.paperbarkwriter.com

 

Header image courtesy of Raymond Carpenter.

Poetry – Issue 4.1

The Meter Magpie

by Anna Cathenka

scoobidy boo bop the magpie
talks in meter feet are bib bob scatting
stealing shiny snippets the rib rib
magpie mimics artists’ practice
unnoticed the bee bob meter magpie
skibbidy pop pops in black and white
feet hop the free hop
jazzed up corvid
pippity pop pops the free verse
flippity hop hops in improv
yippity do wop it won’t stop
bee bop flip flop
flying and ribbing
and ribbidy wee wah weaving
a work of waste word nest

 

ALPHA DREAMS

by Bill Cushing

The wolf bares fangs
even when sleeping.

Legs move
in rapid dream-twitches;
cheeks quiver from tickling
branches that swipe his head.

Leading the hunt,
he chases with others of the pack–
11111111111sweaty fear
11111111111fills his nostrils
11111111111and sanguine expectation
11111111111tingles through his flanks.

Nipping,
then ripping
at the flanks of a deer,
they jump
with him, as one.
Then, the imagined pack
straddles its fallen meal,
dining
without grace.

A lullaby of teeth,
as enamel scrapes against bone,
and the song of sinew,
stretching before tearing free from
the cooling carcass,
fill his night.

Stac an Armin

by David J. Costello

Oddly drenched,
the granite shark’s fin
sheds its gannets
in a perforating
avalanche of white.
From a distance
it deforms into
its own reflection,
dips its dirty icing
in the cold Atlantic swell.
Poses for my camera
like a newly laundered sheet.
Keened to spikes
the gannets pitch a plunge
and stitch my picture
back into its frame.

Note: Stac an Armin is a sea stack in St Kilda’s archipelago. It’s the site of the largest breeding colony of Gannets in the world.

Feedback

by Jan Moran Neil

Mother Hyena:
clearing agent of the Weld,
stripper of white bones;
powdered faeces, false penis,
howling, hunchbacked editor.

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Illume

by Jenifer DeBellis

111111111111111illume / i lo͞om / verb
111111111111111illuminate; light up.

The first one was lucky to die
within a week. The second one shrunk

daily, its dorsal fin and caudal lobes
notched like a skeleton key, its eyes

bulged in a state of eternal fright.
The third week claimed the second

goldfish, and the fighter fish lasted
another day—its bloated body

floating alongside its broken heart.

Haar

by Joan Lennon

In the night the sea’s slow breath
rolled up from the shore,
filmed over colour with damp,
smudged the trees beyond the wall.

Each note of the blackbird’s challenge
swims past the window now
like a line of fish
patrolling the misted perimeter.

Even the crows stay low,
oar cautiously,
reluctant to bump against
the lid of the sky.

Poet Biographies:

Anna Cathenka is a non-fiction writer and poet studying Creative Writing at Falmouth University. She explores language at the meeting point between the human and the ‘natural’. Her poetry has been published in WiTH and The Wardrobe and she can be found online @annacathenka

Bill Cushing earned an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College and currently teaches English classes at both Mount San Antonio and East Los Angeles colleges. He has previously had poems published in Avocet, Brownstone Review, Penumbra, genius & madness, the Onion River Review, the Synergist, Spectrum, the Sabal Palm Review,andMetaphor. He has had work published in two anthologies, Getting Old and Stories of Music, as well as having a short story due out in Newtown Literary Journal.

David J. Costello lives in Wallasey, Merseyside, England. He is a member of Chester Poets. David has been widely published on-line and in print including Prole, The Lake, Provo Canyon Review, Magma and Envoi. David is a previous winner of the Welsh International Poetry Competition. His debut pamphlet, “Human Engineering”, was published by Thynks Publishing in October 2013. A second pamphlet will appear in September 2016 from Red Squirrel Press.

Jan Moran Neil has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Winner of BBC Writers’ short story competition. She has been running Creative Ink for Writers for 15 years. Her fifth play: A President in Waiting … was performed at the Desmond Tutu HIV Youth Foundation Centre , Cape Town last November. Her novel Blackberry Promises is available on Amazon as is her first collection of poetry and short stories: Serving Bluebird Pie. She is a regular contributor to Writing Magazine. www.janmoranneil.co.uk/blog

Jenifer DeBellis is Pink Panther Magazine’s editor. She’s a Solstice MFA grad and former Meadow Brook Writing Project Fellow. DeBellis teaches creative writing for Baker College and Oakland University’s Writing Camps. She’s published in the Aurorean, AWP’s Festival Writer, BAC Street Journal, the Good Men Project, and Solstice Lit Mag.

Joan Lennon is a Scottish-Canadian/Canadian-Scottish writer, living in Fife, in a flat overlooking the River Tay. She has had novels, stories and poems published for readers of all ages. Her latest YA novel, Silver Skin, is set in Skara Brae, Orkney. www.silver-skin.co.uk

Poetry – Issue 4.2

Genesis

by Susan DeFreitas

This morning’s creation wavers
below me, as special as any,
close enough to touch:
a fish with arms and
two tiny ruffs
sprouting from its head like
God’s own ferns
circulating in the current
of its ephemeral world.

All day, those diminutive hands haunt me,
the way they cling to nothing.
The way the words for what is rare are disappearing

the world of the future

the way it will be

more imaginary

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Hummingbird in the Garage

by Karen Terrey

I opened my hand. The hummingbird tumbled
weightless in the grass, curled toenails shrouded
with cobweb. A false escape, to lunge
at the dirty light of the windowpanes again.
Again. Green chest heaving, my fingers
clumsy unthreading the spider’s threads.
That a trap for insects could catch this bundled
iridescence. Some desire of hers –
Food, shelter, love. Does it matter?
So quickly the scales can tip. Both of us
unfit for our tasks. Both trembling.
I left her in the sun and soon,
she was not there. And how should I love?
When I opened my hand I didn’t feel anything.

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Snacking on the Plankton of St Kilda

by Seth Crook

Tides and light and you have life,
the multi-colours of anemones.
Dive with a breather,
and you can sit within a shoal of fish.
Without the bubbles
they don’t notice, or don’t care,
pass an arm’s-length from your face.
Sometimes the basking shark glides in,
so visible in un-silted water.
But it is sweet, with tiny teeth.
No more dangerous
than the one cloud weather system
that hangs over Boreray.

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Old Elephants

by Linnea Wortham Harper

Time must have hooked itself to a chain
of old elephants to be going this slow.
These circus ghosts, retired with health care,
have nothing to do but drag it around their
sanctuary all day like a bale of rotting hay,
leaving bits and stalks in their lurch.

Shall we hitch a ride on the back
of this beast? Take the time and slow it down
to a dull glide? Scrape it against the walls
and drag it through the water trough?
Unhook it where it washes up,
watch it dry in the slow air?

Or we could keep our distance,
maybe pellet the tough hides
with pebbles from our peashooters,
try to get a rise.

When they were young, and shapely women
in scanty clothing rode their proud shoulders,
did they quicken their pace then?

And did time stop altogether in the spotlight,
in the warm glow of public applause,
and are they all recalling now
their last bow, one knee on the floor,
hoping against hope
it will never start again?

poemspacer

Snails

by Michael Murray

Snails glide across pre-dawn pavement stones,
mucal galleons;
striated, colour-schemed, banded shells
their thin veneer peeling in places.
At twilight always they trek back to grass —
following their path, returning;
their wet passage dotted, morse-coded,
by shells dipping, rocking,
as they glide and draw, glide and draw
their muscular foot.
I doubt tonight they will come, the rods of rain
would knock clear any track,
and puddle mud on their route back.
Even the ants have gone deep, off centre
in their safer chambers.

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Poet Biographies

Susan DeFreitas is a writer, editor, and spoken word artist. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has appeared in The Utne Reader, The Nervous Breakdown, Southwestern American Literature, Fourth River, Weber—The Contemporary West, and Bayou Magazine, among other publications, and in 2014 her work was a finalist for a Best of the Net award. She is the author of the fiction chapbook Pyrophitic (ELJ Publications) and holds an MFA from Pacific University. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she serves as an editor with Indigo Editing & Publications.

Karen Terrey’s poems have appeared in Rhino, Puerto del Sol, Canary, Cider Press Review, Grey Sparrow, Kokanee and Sierra Nevada Review.  Her chapbook Bite and Blood (2015) is available from Finishing Line Press. She teaches writing at Lake Tahoe Community College and Sierra College. A graduate of the Goddard College MFA in creative writing, she lives in Truckee, California with her Cattledog Stoli.

Seth Crook taught philosophy at various universities for a number of years before deciding to move to the Hebrides. His poems have recently appeared in such places as Gutter, New Writing Scotland, Poetry Scotland, Northwords Now, the Open Mouse, Far Off Places, the Rialto, Magma, Envoi, Antiphon.

Linnea Wortham Harper lives on a tidal slough on the central Oregon coast. Before she was a poet, she was a social worker, and before she was a social worker, she was a poet. At the age of 5, she introduced WH Auden to the poetry of AA Milne. This has been her greatest poetic achievement to date.

Michael Murray lives on the edge of the English Peak District. He has been involved in animal keeping and welfare for many years. He sees as proof against the alienation effect of modern life, and Rilke’s First Elegy where we are not at home in the world.

New Development

by Dawn Paul

Shorter and shorter days. The sun pours its heat on my back but no longer drives me to find a part of the rock ledge still in shadow. In the long bright days, the sun was something to hide from, the whole length of my body crying out with too much heat. Especially after shedding, my skin new and tender. Now that remembered warmth feels good.

These are the two places I know, that I carry inside as home: the ledges and the den. One where I am alone, the other with so many of us. Two places with the long travel line stretched between. I follow the travel line when it’s time, trust that urge to keep going, let it draw me to the den. Always, I am reluctant to start. But now the stones of the ledges lose their heat before sunrise and my body wants to seek out the old trail. It senses the den out there, the heat of our bodies entwined, the darkness. The rasp of our skin, the smell of all of us there, together. No more hunting now. Wood rats, small quail: I am satisfied.

The day begins cold. The travel line enters me like the feeling of hot meat in the mouth. Like sunlight, like sex. When I am on the travel line, I cannot turn back. It draws me. I slip off the end of the ledge, slide down to the dust below, its open danger. Down, down, my tail gathering weight, my head thrusting forward, faster, my belly muscles trying to grip, to keep ahead of the flow of my own body.

Onward then through level ground: leaves, gravel, rocks. The land rises. Sand, small pools of water. I stop and drink. Thirst quenched, I need nothing now but movement. The travel line is not a place. It is not the ledges, not the den. It is only motion, a certainty that pulls me, spools me out, as though the earth is disappearing behind me, sliding off into its own nothingness.

The land levels out again, through tall dry grasses. I see the heat-flicker of mice, but do not pursue. Soon there will be the long dark path through rocks that leads up to the den. Coolness, then slipping down into gathering warmth. So many of us. I feel us all on our journeys, drawn along the travel lines that always lead to the den.

But now something new: short green grass, sunlight. In the middle of this grass, something looms. Like a strange square hill, but bright yellow, with no trees on it and many rectangles that glint in the sun. This place was not here before. This short grass is too open. It is not safe from things that attack from above, those winged shadows I know of but have never seen. Grasping claws, pain, such speed. Their danger inheres in me, in all of us. I hold still, confused.

The sun fades to night. The air cools. In darkness I go, stretch my body to reach the other side of the open place, to the safety of the woods beyond. I come out of the woods onto a hard flat place. It is smooth and holds the sun’s heat. Another new strangeness. But its warmth feels good and I curl up on its edge to wait for morning. The flat hardness starts to vibrate under me. Eyes glare like two suns in darkness and a scorched smell fills the air. The eyes come toward me, fast. I know two ways to meet a threat: leap toward or slide away. But I have no knowledge of this, not my own, not the danger-knowledge that exists inside to warn me. So I do neither, and the eyes flash by in a rush of poisonous wind. When the land and air is still, I slide off the flat place, sorry to leave its good warmth.

When the sun rises, I go across the smooth place. Into the woods, following the travel line through scrubby bushes, past crickets and their small bits of heat. I come out into another dread place of short grass that exposes my back. I go, this time quickly and in a straight line, toward the woods beyond. A large animal, reddish like a huge fox, appears and puts its black nose to my body. But it’s not a fox: a fox would know better. I leap at the foxlike animal. It jumps back, tongue lolling out of its mouth, eyes bright with surprise. It wags its tail, leans in again. I rear up, open my mouth, feel my fangs snap down, ready. My tail whirrs.

Then another animal, tall, moving on two legs, rushes to the foxlike one. They both flare with heat. The tall one grabs the neck of the foxlike one. I rear back to strike but this one pulls the other away. I turn, flee. In my terror, I lose the travel line.

What is this place and these creatures? Where is the danger-knowledge of them?
I wait until slowly, like damp, darkness, warmth, light, or hunger, the travel line enters me. I go again with dread across the open-back place, across another narrow smooth flatness. Into the woods and the large animals do not pursue me.

The travel line grows more certain. I feel us. I feel the torching heat of sun on a rock but the heat is in my body. Then I see the long warmth of one of us: yes, that one, large and old. I feel all of us on our travel lines. The old trail is now a strong vibration around me. I stretch my body, push each muscle against the earth, let the vibration enter. It surrounds me like water in a stream and I feel its current deep inside. The current grows stronger. I know this path through the rocks. All of us are around me now, part of the current, the vibrations. There is more short grass, but I see the backs of all of us rising from it. I see the long heat of our bodies glowing. We are all gathering. The den is near. I go.

But then—another square hill with gleaming rectangles. This one has a wood ledge attached to it. An animal stands on that ledge, a tall animal like the one that pulled the foxlike one away. It stands on its two legs, flaring heat. So much heat, like a wood rat just before we strike. But we are not hunting. We only want our den. Where is the pile of rocks that shelters our den?

The surface of the earth is changed and there are new animals. But the den must be here. The den is all we know, all we have. It has been here for all time. Perhaps this new animal now marks the endpoint of the travel line, a pillar of heat showing us the way.

We go.

Dawn Paul’s stories have been published most recently in The Sun Magazine, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Apple Valley Review and she is the author of the novel, The Country of Loneliness (Marick Press). Her work has also been published in anthologies and performed with the Kelley Donovan Dance Company. She teaches writing and interdisciplinary studies at Montserrat College of Art.