Fluke

by Rebecca Gethin

People wander the shore looking to sea as though waiting
for a god to manifest, or a sign of an epiphany, an oracle

from the expanse. We stare at the jostle of isosceles triangles
playing leapfrog over one another before they collapse

on the shingle, sibilant and fricative. Plenty of fish out there –
a gulp of cormorants sit poised on what can’t keep shape,

their outstretched wings a black witchery of fin. Gannets quarter it,
strike it like lightning. After a pause they materialise, almost

gagging on their swallow, then plunge upwards to free themselves
like a shooting star. All water is of a mind to rise, the force

of waves pushing up from behind. A boom of a wave detonates,
spraying rainbows. Ground shudders. A snort like a horse.

Spouts of white spray as a shining hump back with a dorsal fin
arcs through the water, arc after arc, leaving roundels

of flat calm in its wake, printing stillness on the higgledy water.
Its winged tail lifts before diving beyond our ken.

And that’s when it seems the air is a hymn, the sea
a psalm in counterpoint.

 

 

Rebecca has been reading from her new pamphlets, A Sprig of Rowan (Three Drops Press) and All the Time in the World (Cinnamon Press) in a number of places this year.  Cinnamon Press published her second full collection, A Handful of Water, in 2013 as well as her two novels, What the horses said and Liar Dice.   She currently runs the Poetry School’s monthly seminars in Plymouth and was a Hawthornden Fellow in 2016. Her website is www.rebeccagethin.wordpress.com

Warts and All

by Jessica Groenendijk

I am passionate about cats. I admire their fluid grace and their shape pleases me. Not for me the slavish neediness of dogs, I prefer the take-me-as-I-am independence of a cat. And in my eyes the leopard, queen of cats, is the pinnacle of animal splendour. Those gorgeous rosettes, that unfathomable, yellow stare…

In short, there is almost nothing I would not forgive a cat. But some years ago, my profound admiration for all creatures feline suffered a punishing blow.

Living in North Luangwa National Park, Zambia, a young warthog family visited us daily. We often had lunch outdoors, enjoying the view of the Lubonga River, and the mother and her four pert piglets would trot jauntily into camp, in single file, tails like antennae. They enjoyed the succulent grass growing at the edge of the pond and seemed secure in our presence, tolerating my children’s excited voices with equanimity.

I grew fond of those warthogs. They had an air of brisk optimism that never failed to make me smile. The antics of the irrepressible piglets were a constant delight. They chased and tumbled over each other, in staccato bursts of breakneck speed. Sometimes they fell asleep next to their rootling mother, their compact bodies fleetingly stilled.

One day, a piglet scampered onto the kids’ trampoline – which we had sunk into the ground – and shot off it in a soaring bound. As soon as its little hooves touched earth, it hurtled out of sight. The other warthogs stood frozen in mid chew, not understanding what had happened. My kids fell about in giggles at the spectacle of the flying piglet and its bewildered family. Then the mother galloped purposefully after her panicked baby, its siblings in pursuit. We didn’t see them for a while after that.

As it turned out, the trampoline incident signaled the end of carefree times. When the family next appeared, it was minus a piglet. Three days later, another had gone missing. We watched with dismay as the mother walked quietly into camp, tail limp, her two remaining offspring glued to her side. Gone was their perky confidence. They were subdued, uneasy, shying violently when a kingfisher darted into the pond nearby. My children looked at me with troubled, questioning faces.

I knew who the culprit was. I had seen the spoor of a leopard, a female, in the dust of the path behind our house. For the first time in my life, I resented a cat and wished it elsewhere.

Late one morning, the final tragedy struck. Shrill screams came from the opposite bank of the river, shrieks so loud and piercing, their source could only be an adult warthog battling for its life. I grabbed my binoculars and glimpsed a blur of piglet streaking over the sun-scorched grass. Had the mother confronted the leopard when it targeted her remaining babies? Filled with frustrated pity, I tried to think. Was there something I should do? Was it right to interfere? The agonised shrieks continued unabated.

I couldn’t bear to listen any longer. Yelling to my kids to stay inside, I ran to the Landcruiser and drove across the dry riverbed. A vague plan of saving the mother by somehow intimidating her attacker took shape and I stopped briefly to listen for the struggle. A choked squeal nearby, from the tall grass just off the road. Willing the warthog not to give up, I plunged towards her.  The car rocked and lurched over the rough terrain. I knew I was just a few metres away, though nothing was visible. I considered climbing on top of the car for a clearer view but reason took over. A leopard, so close and in the throes of bloodlust, is not to be trifled with. And by now, the warthog’s cries had diminished to tired, hopeless grunts.

Finally, there was silence.

Determined to confirm my suspicions, I drove back to the track and followed it a few metres to where it bisected a shallow ditch. Picking up my binoculars, I scanned along it. Sure enough, through a haze of curving grass stems, I spotted the haunch of a warthog. Then I saw the leopard. She paced up and down, panting, too hot and flustered to eat.

She was breathtaking. Perfect. My anger melted. I could not resist her, could not begrudge her that hard-earned meal. After a few minutes I left, trying not to disturb her.

Over the following weeks, I hoped, despite myself, that I was wrong, that our warthog friend hadn’t been the victim. The children and I watched out for her every day. But we never saw her, or her last two piglets, again.

 

Jessica is a Dutch biologist, conservationist, and nature writer. She fuses her work in conservation and her personal experiences of wildlife and wild places with her passion for words and photography to help connect people with nature. Follow her @WildWordsAuthor on Twitter and Facebook and find her Words from the Wild at: http://www.jessicagroenendijk.com.

Footnotes

by Brian Johnstone

It’s the pattern
of a dance,
not slow, slow,

quick, quick, slow;
but slow, slow, slow:
the macro prints

that show the steps
– not feet, but foot
in singular;

not tripping
the light fantastic
but out there

in the dark,
a ritual dance
as if in Balkan style,

a circle of steps
accomplished
while we humans

slept and slugs
in stately,
mute procession,

turned slime-borne
about each other
in pursuit

of what? – not
the leaving
of this trail for sure

their signature
in residue
on slabs of stone,

a ring of silver
chanced upon by light
fantastic in its way

of finding out
the veiled and covert
footwork of the night.

 

 

Brian Johnstone is a poet, writer and performer whose work has appeared throughout Scotland, elsewhere in the UK, in North America and across Europe. He has published six collections, most recently Dry Stone Work (Arc, 2014). His poems have been translated into over a dozen languages. In 2015 his work was selected to appear on the Poetry Archive website. His memoir Double Exposure was published by Saraband in February 2017. A founder and former Director of StAnza: Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, he has appeared at various poetry festivals, from Macedonia to Nicaragua, and at numerous venues across the UK. http://brianjohnstonepoet.co.uk/

Bees, our Much-needed Friends

by Gill McEvoy

It is quite common to see bumble bees out foraging quite late in the evening, even in cooler weather, long after the honey bee has retired to the hive. The bumble, or humble, bee’s great advantage over the honey bee is its thick coating of hairs on the body, yet while this protects it to a great extent from the cold, it also creates the problem of overheating in hot weather. To counteract the effects of overheating the bumble bee has a remarkable system for cooling its body down: it has an area of smooth skin on the underside of its abdomen known as the ventilation window; in hot weather the bee can seek out a resting place and by directing the flow of blood rapidly through its veins over this window it thereby cools down quite efficiently.

Often we see a bumble bee resting on the ground and we may think it’s dying but it may be there for one of three reasons: to cool itself down; to absorb energy from the heat retained by stones or tarmac; or thirdly it may quite simply be drunk on nectar. With regard to this latter point years ago I met an Irish woman who had a lime tree in her front lawn. All bees love to feed in the nectar-rich flowers of the lime tree: you can hear the lime really humming on a fine summer’s day. When she came home from work one evening she found her lawn covered in ‘sozzled’ bees! This can also happen to wasps from gorging on rotting fallen fruit in the autumn.

Conversely, if a bee needs to warm up and there is no reflected heat from the ground it can actually disconnect its wings and warm itself up by rapid shivering in order to create enough energy to fly. So if you see a bee resting on the ground the best policy is to leave it well alone.

The queen bee warms her eggs in this manner too.

Many bumble bees economise on energy by crawling over the florets of blossom: particularly easy to reach nectar sources like buddleia and flowers of the compositae family – the daisies of all kinds and the dandelions which gardeners so disparage. However bees with long tongues (and some butterflies, including the brimstone) have to hover constantly to probe the deep throats of flowers such as the pea family and the labiates. This requires much more energy of course so some have learned to speed up the process by drilling a hole into the flower tube thus getting at the nectar more quickly. This benefits the bee and saves energy but of course it is of no benefit to farmers or gardeners who depend on bees for pollinating their crops.

In fact bees are so important for this task that we should all take care to plant flowers that feed these vital pollinators and also encourage a few valuable weeds, the dandelion being an excellent one to foster! Our thinking needs to change and sadly with so many people now paving over front gardens and then cheering it up with a pot of petunias by the front door we are not doing nearly enough to support bees.

Sometimes bees will delight you with their private behaviour; I once observed a small bumble bee crawling into the tube of an iris bloom, followed shortly afterwards by a larger bee choosing the same tube; a bulge appeared in the tube and then the second bee backed out very quickly. I have no idea whether there was an argument inside or not but it was quite something to see!

And once I had the extreme pleasure of watching a leaf-cutter bee fly in at my feet one day when I was sitting in the garden having tea. It had just visited a rose bush and snipped out a chunk of leaf bigger than itself; it flew in, the piece of leaf clutched in its feet rather like someone cruising in spread-eagled on a flying carpet. It rested on the ground for a while, then began to roll the leaf up, working with its legs and proboscis to fashion the tube. When it had finished it seized the rolled leaf in its feet and flew off. Although I knew that the leaf cutter makes many such tubes, lays an egg in each and stops it up with pollen mix to feed the larva when it hatches I had never before seen any part of the process, and to have observed this much was a real joy and privilege. Such a small creature and such an exquisite, elaborate act of creation!

I cannot pretend to know a huge amount about bees and can only share the little I do know plus the anecdotes I’ve mentioned, but I find bees are endlessly fascinating to watch. One last thing I would like to share is that when I was a child my family had friends who kept bees. The couple in question lived in the middle of a five-hundred-acre wood in a large clearing with a big pond in it. Once it happened that a particular plant burgeoned around the pond and the bees trawled it avidly; I cannot remember now whether it was loosestrife or meadowsweet – probably not meadowsweet as mostly flies visit its flowers, not bees – but when I was taken to see inside the hive one evening at dusk I was astonished to see a phosphorescent glow beam out from its interior, an intense greenish glow that made me think of the comics my brother and I read -The Eagle with its Mekon and Dan Dare –  and truly I thought the aliens had arrived.  I stood there open-mouthed, my first experience of the utterly mesmerising magic of wild things. An unforgettable experience that has tinged all my subsequent witnessed revelations from nature with glamour and delight.

 

 

Gill McEvoy: 2 collections of poetry from Cinnamon Press, 3 pamphlets from Happenstance Press of which The First Telling won the Michael Marks Award in 2015. Gill is a very keen observer of wildlife.

Prairie Dog

by Tricia Orr

In your red clay chamber,
you lift your velvet pincushion
of an ear – what do you hear?

Biologists have recorded you.
If I wear blue
your alarm call will be different
than the day I wore yellow.

Dolphin and chimpanzee
have nothing on you.

The sentinel of your colony
in yips of varying length and pitch
dutifully reports coyote or dog,
vulture or crow.

I hope you know the difference
in tone and intent behind
black oil sunflower seeds
and lead bullets.

But perhaps it’s best you don’t
understand us or our words.

Suspect us all. Even those
of us who bring you Timothy hay
and parsley to the intersection
of Cerrillos and St. Francis.

 

Tricia Orr is a practitioner of community herbalism living in Northeast Ohio. She has taught ESL at the community college level and more recently in a refugee resettlement program.Her poetry and stories have been published in Belt Magazine, The Vignette Review, Pedestal Magazine, Rust+Moth, among others. After 13 years in New Hampshire, she recently returned to her Rust Belt roots, Cleveland, Ohio.

Eavesdropping on Nature

by Amy Fletcher

Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf. – Aldo Leopold, 1949

The twentieth century could be exuberantly noisy. Right from the start, Nicola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi wondered if radio might provide a way for Earth to communicate with populations on Mars.  In October 1927, the movie The Jazz Singer brought sound to the movies.  The Beatles pushed the outer limits of the recording studio in the 1960s, incorporating innovations such as back masking, artificial double tracking, spliced audio loops, and compression into popular music, which then became the glue that bound the Age of Aquarius.  On the political front, the “beep, beep, beep” of the Sputnik satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, heralded an era of national-security driven exploration on both sides of the Cold War that, aided by rapid advances in computer/digital technologies, soon encompassed the oceans, the Antarctic, and inner and outer space.  Guiseppi Cocconi and Philip Morrison even urged astrophysicists, in 1959, to listen for the interstellar signals that they believed were indeed out there. Only a few months later, in April 1960, Frank Drake sent the first radio transmission from Earth to outer space, aptly naming his work Project Ozma for a character in The Wizard of Oz who lives in a place “very far away, difficult to reach and populated by strange and exotic beings.”

Yet the modern mind also had a strange fascination for silence, including the question of whether or not such a thing could be said to exist at all.  In 1964, Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias, scientists at Bell Laboratories, tried to record silence and found that it was technically impossible to do.  Even with the best equipment of the time, cosmic noise, a sort of constant background hum (actually microwave background radiation) could be detected; indeed, cosmic noise may be sounds waves still echoing from the original Big Bang.  This experiment provided scientific legitimacy to what the modern composer and musician John Cage had already figured out on his own; namely, that “there is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time.  There is always something to see, something to hear.  In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”

One can concede the point: if you pay close attention, true silence doesn’t exist.  Whether one is in space or in nature or in a concert hall, there are intricate sounds that can strike the ear if one stops to listen.  Yet for environmentalists, who have often lived in an uneasy truce with modernity, things are not quite that straightforward.  The extermination of a species does create a void that can be understood as silence: that particular voice is lost forever.  Think of the quagga or the Tasmanian tiger, as examples:  we can today theorize about how they might have sounded.  We can reconstruct skeletons, in some cases, and make educated guesses about the species’ behavior.  Still, for those species that were lost before audio recording technology became mundane, we cannot truly know what those voices contributed to the environmental chorus.  Perfect silence may never exist, but there are significant gaps in the global soundscape, places where the record skips or goes fuzzy and unintelligible.

By the early 1960s, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) galvanized a new generation of American environmentalists with its stark depiction of chemically-degraded gardens and forests that no longer rang with bird songs and animal chatter, due to the ravages of industrial chemicals such as DDT.  Carson asks us to imagine a future nature characterized by only “a strange stillness . . . a spring without voices . . . [where] only silence lay over the fields and wood and marsh.”  The 1960s, preoccupied with the fragile logic of mutual assured destruction (MAD), was a decade obsessed with the specter of a final, irrevocable silence brought on by the very technological innovations that the modern industrial age made possible: does cosmic noise signify if there is no one left to hear it?  Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall’s The Quiet Crisis (1963) brought the weight of the United States federal government and the urgency of Kennedy’s New Frontier to the environmental crisis, while The Silent Sky (1965), a book by Allan W. Eckert on the extinction of the passenger pigeon, asked us to imagine that final micro-second before death, in which the last passenger pigeon “heard the gust of wind which swept through the tops of the trees with a sound not unlike the murmur of a million different wings.”  After that, dead silence.

Today, a new generation of artists, scientists and activists are at the forefront of the discipline of soundscape ecology. R. Murray Schafer, who pioneered the Acoustic Ecology program at Simon Fraser University in the 1970s, launched the concept of soundscapes (which can include industrial as well as natural sounds) in The Tuning of the World (1977).  Recent work on soundscape ecology explicitly seeks to incorporate sound into an environmentalism dominated by the visual and to use sound to make and reinforce tangible connections to specific places and landscapes. The crucial point of soundscape ecology and its strongest link to environmental policy and wildlife preservation is that the systematic analysis of sounds over time allows us to anticipate encroaching gaps that we do not want, to ensure that as many voices as possible are represented in nature’s chorus.

The first environmental sound recordings to break through from science into the mainstream, and to connect with a burgeoning environmental consciousness, were the humpback whale songs released to the public in the 1970s.  The United States Navy had data on whale songs as early as the 1950s, collected as a byproduct of an underwater acoustic surveillance system installed to monitor Soviet submarines and sonar codes.  These recordings were de-classified in the late 1960s, while the scientist Scott McVay published a ground-breaking article on the data in 1971. Since we live in an era in which the slogan “save the whales” has become a green cliché to many (a flashback reference to “whale song” even made it into a The Simpsons episode), it is important for us to try and backtrack to a time when these sounds were new to almost everyone.  Scientists knew that by referring to the whale vocalizations as “songs” they were anthropomorphizing the species; yet it is difficult to know what else one might call them, given that serious listening provides evidence of patterns and intent.  Whale songs also crossed from science into popular culture with relative ease.  The symphonic composer Alan Havhaness, for example, integrated whale melodies into an orchestral work for the New York Philharmonic in 1970.  For music critic Donal Henahan, writing in the New York Times in December 1970, listening to the whale songs was such a primal experience that he wrote, “if, after hearing this (preferably in a dark room) you don’t feel you have been put in touch with your mammalian past, you had best give up listening to vocal music.” The visceral experience these recordings provided became, in essence, the soundtrack of the environmental movement.  As the 1970s came to a close, National Geographic magazine, in 1979, inserted a flexible audio disc of whale song recordings into each of 10 million printed copies that went around the world, putting whale songs on a par with some of the most successful album releases of the era.

Yet, the essential problem persists, indeed has arguably only worsened as we stand at the edge of the Anthropocene:  in the absence of a political commitment to habitat preservation, and a willingness to live with the risks that wild animals, particularly large carnivores, can bring, soundscape ecology becomes a form of archiving rather than conservation, rather akin to the frantic late 19th century attempts to stuff display cases with the relics of vanishing cultures. The experience of soundscape ecology pioneer Bernie Krause highlights the very fine line between soundscape ecology as science and nostalgia.  Forty years ago, Krause, a member of The Weavers folk group, left popular music to order to collect the sounds of nature.  In his 2013 TED talk, Krause urges us to realize that “every soundscape that springs from a wild habitat generates its own unique signature, one that contains incredible amounts of information.”  In the early 1970s, Krause estimates that he gathered, on average, approximately one usable hour of acoustic material for every ten hours of recording: enough data for an album or a museum exhibition.  Yet though the quality of digital recording technology has scaled up dramatically since then (as prices have fallen), the natural sounds on offer have dropped precipitously or disappeared altogether.  Citing factors such as global warming and industrial noise, Krause notes that today it can take up to 1,000 hours of recording to capture the same amount of usable species data as was routinely available in the early 1970s within 10 hours of recorded time.   Approximately half of Krause’s sound archive, amassed over four decades of painstaking fieldwork, comes from habitats so altered or degraded that the original soundscape has either irrevocably changed or is diminished to the point of environmental silence.  In a perhaps inadvertent nod to Silent Spring, Krause noted that his recent recordings in Sugarloaf National Park (California), in 2015, captured “the first spring in my 77 years that was completely silent.  There were birds.  But there was no birdsong whatsoever.”

The soundscape ecologist Bryan Pijanowski, at Purdue University, rightfully asks, “if we disconnect with the sounds of nature, will we continue to respect and sustain nature?” It is a serious question, in fact a crucial one, that brings us full circle to the paradox at the center of soundscape ecology: namely, how can we ensure that the amassing of these sounds, however important in a scientific/ecological sense, won’t finally produce only a Museum of Lost Sounds rather than audibly vital habitats?  This is also the point at which soundscape ecology as science elides into art. Huia Transcriptions, by Sally Ann McIntyre, an Australian/New Zealand artist, asks us to listen to a music box in a forest playing the delicate calls of the huia, a New Zealand species of bird that went extinct in 1907 (due primarily to over-hunting by humans who prized its feathers).  McIntyre’s work makes us aware that we are listening to the huia at two removes: not only is the huia extinct, but the sounds we hear are actually re-mediations taken from the work of Mr. H. T. Carver, who had the presence of mind to notate the call of the huia in the late 1800s.

We also need to consider how soundscape ecology as both science and art takes on a particular cast when placed in the context of so-called “de-extinction.”  Since 2013, abetted by several deeply resourced Silicon Valley advocates and high-powered ambassadors such as the Revive and Restore Foundation, de-extinction, broadly defined, seeks to use advanced biotechnologies such as reproductive cloning (using closely related surrogate species) and gene editing to “bring back” certain extinct species.  Due to significant advances in extracting and analyzing ancient DNA, the idea is not quite as fanciful as it may sound.  In 2003, for example, Italian scientists managed to bring back in the laboratory, for seven minutes, a cloned bucardo, a notable achievement in that the last extant member of the species had died in 2000.  Of course, three-year-old DNA is significantly different in quality from hundred-or-four thousand-year-old DNA, hence the intense scientific controversy attending the notion of “bringing back” such species as the Tasmanian tiger or the woolly mammoth.  Still, biotechnology continues its rapid evolution, and proponents contend that genome editing tools such as CRISPR-Cas 9 may open up the possibility of splicing the DNA of an extinct species such as the woolly mammoth into the genome of a related extant species such as the Asian elephant, thereby technically ‘resurrecting’ this Ice Age icon.

That we can even seriously discuss de-extinction today is indicative of a bio-cybernetic age, an era in which science fiction and fact collide, merge and separate in a constant kaleidoscope of possibilities.  Yet if we do manage to bring back certain long-lost species, they are going to make some noise.  Think back, for example, to the movie version of Jurassic Park (1993).  Director Steven Speilberg knew that the audience needed to hear the T-Rex before it saw it, that the sounds created the suspense. The classic six-minute scene begins with the first visitors to Jurassic Park sitting stranded in their flimsy electric cars (the power has gone out), hot and bored, vaguely irritated by the absence of all those marauding monsters that they came to see.  Then, the precocious kid in the car (our surrogate) hears, faintly but clearly, a distant rhythmic stomping sound that reverberates under the ground and causes the water glasses on the dashboard to shake.  He motions to everyone in the car to wake-up, stop moving, and to listen.  The adult tentatively mutters that ‘maybe, it’s just the power trying to come back on?’  As anticipation builds, we hear a creaking gate and then see a large claw attached to a very large reptilian arm disappear back into the enclosure.  A few more micro-seconds tick by, the gate falls, and then we see it: a T-Rex that lets out an angry dinosaur roar which sounds as if it comes hurtling out of the blackest depths of ancient time itself.  Just the power trying to come back on, indeed.

Of course, it is virtually certain that no dinosaur species will ever be resurrected, due to the near-complete degradation of the DNA over time (as well as the lack of a plausible surrogate or adequate space), so we have the luxury of celluloid dreaming in this case.  But Jurassic Park, a popcorn fantasy, brings us back around to the politics of soundscape ecology in a compelling way.  In the midst of the present extinction crisis, digital sound can be added to these fragments via which we try to hang onto those things that are fragile, that are rapidly disappearing.  From this point of view, soundscape ecology is essential to support, but could, if we are not mindful, finally disconnect us from nature by severing the link between real animals and habitats and the sounds that they make.  This would not be the fault of soundscape ecologists or soundscape artists: their work is intended to force us to pay attention.  Yet technology can have strange distancing effects and we cannot always predict the uses to which data will be put.  If sound can be digitally divorced from place (and from actual species) in our bio-cybernetic age, and repackaged and remixed at will, then soundscape ecology becomes less about a vital future and more about a virtual one.  Still, we are at the early stages of this new discipline, and may yet have just enough time to think this through.  As the great theorist Jacques Attali reminds us, “for twenty-five centuries, Western knowledge has tried to look upon the world.  It has failed to understand that the world is not for beholding.  It is not legible, but audible. . . By listening to noise, we can better understand where the folly of men and their calculations is leading us, and what hopes it is still possible to have.”

 

 

Amy Fletcher lives and works in Christchurch, New Zealand, where her research focuses on the complex relationship between animals, technologies, and environmental politics.

Spinal Tap

by Kathy Miles

He’s a motley, a bag of pick-and-mix.
Black and white bullseyes, caramel,
a splash of raspberry ruffle under his tail.

He’s drumming tree trunks and feeders,
the ground below him fletched with feathers.
And the day stretches out, tethering me

to this silent house while his knocking
shakes the neighbourhood.
He drills my head like a neurosurgeon,

opens up the wormholes in my brain
exposing synapses and neurons;
searches it for grubs or tiny larvae.

He draws the fluid from my spinal cord,
pecks at the edge of the cortex.
Soon he will reach the heartwood.

I feed him ants and grasshoppers,
line his nest with tangled thoughts,
the gristle of my dreams.

 

Kathy Miles is a poet and short story writer living in West Wales. She has published three collections of poetry: The Rocking Stone (Poetry Wales Press), The Shadow House, and Gardening With Deer (Cinnamon Press). She has been placed in several major competitions, winning the Welsh Poetry Competition in 2014, the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2015, and the PENfro Poetry Competition in 2016. She has just completed an MA in Creative Writing, and is a co-editor of The Lampeter Review.

Hushed, arthritic tread: The Peregrine and health

by Miranda Cichy 

I remember precisely what drew to me to J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine (1967), in an undergraduate lecture over a decade ago. The lecturer was Robert Macfarlane, who I would discover was one of the book’s great champions: largely responsible for bringing it to the attention of this century’s readers. Macfarlane told the story of a man in the east of England, John Alec Baker, obsessed with a dying species of bird, the peregrine, which looked nothing like the red-tailed hawk on the cover of the 2005 New York edition. When Baker was writing, the British peregrine population was in severe decline. Having halved in just 23 years – between 1939 and 1962 – it did not look set to recover in his lifetime. Macfarlane told us how Baker observed and recorded what he saw as the peregrines’ final days. How he pursued them through the winter months with a fixation beyond the meticulousness of the bird-watcher: something closer to desire, to longing, to love. How he wrote in his book about wanting to become the bird.

And then, how he did. J. A. Baker, Macfarlane told us, had arthritis – the exact type of which I would not learn for several years. But I can remember writing down what I had heard in the lecture that day with a small shiver of fascination: Baker’s arthritis became so bad that his knuckles knotted and fused together, and his fingers became like talons.

Three years later I was working in the publishing house that owned the rights to Baker’s work. On an endlessly rolling six-month contract in the rights department, I was far from my dream of sitting amongst the editorial team reading fresh manuscripts. I spent the tube journeys from east to west London writing, and my lunchtimes wandering along the large grey expanse of the Thames, buoyed by its resolute and continuous journey through the city. Aside from the cheap lunches and free stationery, my favourite thing about my job was the book store. Employees could purchase old paperbacks for 20p, hardbacks for 50p. I was using it to build up a collection of cookbooks, but every now and then something in fiction or non-fiction caught my eye.

It was in that bookshop one day that I saw a hardback copy of The Peregrine. I remembered the lecture, and the man whose hands grew into claws, and the focus on literature I’d had back then. I bought it.

It was summer; I read The Peregrine by the river. The book surprised me. I found within it lyrical descriptions of a watery, estuarine landscape, detailed observations of birds I didn’t know (I read “plover” to rhyme with “clover”). I waited for the section where Baker spoke of himself, of his arthritis. As the book went on, it became colder, more brutal: there were herons petrified in ice, the blood of pigeons blooming against the snow. The author’s affinity with the peregrines intensified: there was a passage where he “sank into the skin and blood and bones of the hawk” (145). But there was no reference to his health, or his fingers, or to talons.

When I finished The Peregrine I wondered if I had missed something. I wasn’t disappointed – its sentences hung round me like threads, some of which I have never shaken off – but my knowledge of Baker from that university lecture felt at odds with what I had read. I wanted to know more of the author, largely absent from the book: his home glimpsed once “through the frosted window-pane at sunrise” (132), his life in the simple dedication: “To my wife.”

Several years later, studying an MA in Literature and the Environment at the University of Essex, I was amazed to learn of the Baker archive. In the Albert Sloman Library, Baker’s life was packed tightly into two clear plastic boxes. I found his Miranda binoculars (it seemed like fate), his scrapbook of cut-out bird images, his early poems, his letters. And then, notes from an interview by the filmmaker David Cobham with Baker’s widow, Doreen, where I first learned the name of his illness: ankylosing spondylitis.

“Pictures are waxworks beside the passionate mobility of the living bird” (19), wrote Baker in The Peregrine. Words can be too. Ankylosing spondylitis. I learned the phrase with the same blankness with which I’d first read plover. I used it in my first MA essay, which I wrote on The Peregrine: on Baker’s obsession with birds, his literary aims. When I mentioned the passage where Baker “crawl[s] across stubble and dry plough”, I wrote that “such images are both less and more heroic when you imagine the author as he was: large, myopic, and arthritic.”

There are sentences you wish you could unwrite. Three months ago, a year after I had graduated from my MA, I heard the words “ankylosing spondylitis” again. This time they were from a doctor of medicine, not literature, as he listened to my symptoms of joint pain, discussed previous doctor visits, x-ray results, booked blood tests that would ultimately show the inflammation in my system. He was ruling out that particular rheumatological condition, he explained, because the worst of the pain was in my knees and ankles, rather than spine, and I nodded; I knew.

I live now, as Baker did, in the east of England. I love the landscape for its expanse; for the heaviness of the clouds hanging above the water; for the endless rise and fall of the estuary banks, like lungs; for the glittering mud. For the godwits, curlews, plover (of which I know, now, there are several types) and sometimes the peregrines, when I am lucky – although we are already so much luckier than Baker ever imagined.

I love the east also for its flatness: for giving me the opportunity to walk, on the days the pain is not at its worst. I spent August and September away from the estuary, a lot of it on the sofa. Having always lived an outdoor life, I watched with desperation as the outside become the backyard, or what I could see of it: the bindweed choking the brambles, the block of sunlight flooding the sweet-peas. Some days the world is shrunk to one floor level. Some days it shrinks to my laptop: to self-diagnosis, self-prognosis, self-pity.

In the first week of October I went to the estuary. In previous months I would have taken a bus to the University, and walked along the river to Wivenhoe, and then beyond. This time we went direct to Wivenhoe. The walk was punctuated by benches. The following day was difficult. I think of what I wrote of Baker. Never less heroic.

It is a small loss that I never read Baker without being aware of his arthritis. Increasingly fewer people will come to The Peregrine without this knowledge, and I am sure that the forthcoming biography from Little Toller, My House of Sky, will further expand on this aspect of the author’s life. Macfarlane has written repeatedly of it, going so far as to say that Baker’s arthritis was one of two details (the second being short sight) that “bear most forcefully on The Peregrine.” He goes on: “Suffering as he did from curtailed vision and a stiffened body, the peregrine stood as both his dream totem and his prosthesis – perfected in precisely the ways that Baker was lessened.” Lawrence Buell has similarly speculated whether Rachel Carson’s “rage at the suffering inflicted on others’ bodies, and on earth’s body” was related to her own suffering from cancer during the latter stages of writing Silent Spring.

A small loss. I think, too, that it is not what Baker would have wanted. His biography on the first edition of The Peregrine was brief and wry and included the sentence: “He has no telephone and rarely goes out socially”. Not that this is going to be a piece about the rights of the author, or the power of the critic or biographer. So much of The Peregrine’s strength lies in the anonymity of the watcher: how we respond to his pursuit of – and increasing empathy with – the bird, his recoiling at mankind. I wonder how this changes for the reader who thinks of Baker in Macfarlane’s poorly-chosen term: “lessened”.

There is one instance in The Peregrine where Baker mentions arthritis. It is January, and he watches a moorhen walk across a frozen brook “with hushed, arthritic tread; the gait of the dying, yet still pathetically funny to watch” (129). I read that sentence again and wonder which part of it Baker wanted us to crystallise: the pathetic; the funny; the dying. Or just a description of a moorhen, carefully stepping its way across the ice.

 

1. David Farrier, “J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine and its Readers”, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, v. 22, no. 4 (Autumn 2015), p. 743.

2. J. A. Baker, The Peregrine [1967] (New York: New York Review of Books, 2005), p. 145

3. Robert Macfarlane, “Violent Spring: the nature book that predicted the future”, The Guardian, 15 April 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/15/the-peregrine-by-ja-baker-nature-writing

4. Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing and the Formation of American Culture (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 292.

 

Miranda Cichy is a writer and ecopoet with a particular focus on extinct and endangered animals. Her poems have most recently been published in Curlew Calling (Numenius Press, 2017), Driftfish (Zoomorphic, 2016), and the Nature and Myth and Nature and Regeneration pamphlets from Corbel Stone Press (2017). She currently lives in Essex and can be found on Twitter: @mirazc.”

Golden Eagle

by Garry MacKenzie

Ravens have him out of his depth,
daring collisions until he’s forced
to break his soar. They tumble him

round the cliffs and out of sight:
I’ve caught this drama’s middle act
that started minutes or an hour ago.

An adolescent, still more white
than gold, perhaps he’s reached the point
where confidence’s mooring line

has snapped and sent him spinning off –
perhaps he suffers this heckling because
there’s nothing yet to lose.

But this is not a play. Its meaning
is its happening, its time
is measured by a clock of blood.

It blows across the border
of my life as if I wasn’t there.

 

Garry MacKenzie has won poetry awards including the Wigtown Poetry Competition and a Scottish Book Trust New Writer’s Award. His poems have been published in journals including Dark Mountain, The Scores, Northwords Now and Southlight. His non-fiction book Scotland: A Literary Guide for Travellers is published by I.B. Tauris.

Shallow Names

by David Lukas

When we look out at the natural world around us it might feel like everything is known, or at the very least that everything is named. And while it is true that all known organisms are named, even down to the most obscure mushrooms and microscopic worms, how many of us look closely at these names?

Nearly all the labels for tens of thousands of plants and animals in North America have been given to us by scientists. This lends the names an air of authority and legitimacy, but the surprising fact is that much of this terminology is poverty-stricken: these names are mere place-holders, shallow names with shallow stories behind them.

I say this because the vast majority of these names were concocted by scientists who had little to no experience with an organism’s life or character when they named it (species are typically named first and then studied in detail only if someone later takes a special interest in that new species). In the case of North American birds, for example, this has led to anomalous names like Hermit Warbler and Solitary Vireo (birds that were named before their social tendencies had been studied).

An astounding number of names have been created by scientists in museums who have never seen the organisms in their living forms or in their native habitats. There is a sizable degree of arrogance encoded in these names, and they often leave real-world observers scratching their heads. Names like Ring-necked Duck, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, and Northern Rough-winged Swallow describe features that might be visible on dead museum specimens but are obscured in real life.

Many other names merely denote superficial features such as colors or shapes, or the geographic locations where organisms were first collected. At an even greater remove are the huge numbers of names that commemorate the male-based system of scientific reciprocity, men naming species after other men as a way of legitimizing each other’s “greatness.” The list of North American bird names bearing men’s surnames is daunting: Cassin’s, Cooper’s, Hammond’s, Harris’s, Heermann’s, Swainson’s, Townsend’s, Wilson’s, and so on. It is telling that out of some nine hundred North American birds, only three are named after women, and all by their first names only (which was never done for men): Anna’s Hummingbird, Grace’s Warbler, and Lucy’s Warbler.

And sadly, at least in the case of birds, there are very few names that signify spiritual, mythological, or poetic properties. The closest I can find are goatsuckers and ibis, although there is a kind of poetry in names like starling (‘little star’) or crane (‘to cry out’).

So does it matter if these names are shallow, and should anything be done about this? There are no easy answers, but it will be difficult for any of us to rethink the natural world when the entire system of knowledge is bounded by a coded language controlled by a single committee of scientists. (All naming rules and choices are decided by the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature, a group of twenty-eight scientists, only four of whom are women as of this writing.)

When all is said and done, these “technical” names are at best placeholders, rapidly created according to preconceived rules in order to keep pace with the furious rate of discovery (15,000 new species are named each year). The proper role of a scientist, after all, is to discover natural “facts” and keep moving with the frontier of discovery, not to double back and fill in human meaning. So here we are, looking at a world of placeholders, and the question is whether anyone wants to double back and fill in the places these names are holding.

One solution might be the radical re-creation of new names that arise from a deeper understanding of each plant or animal’s life, or that arise from a richer cosmology of the natural world. It is understandable, however, if a writer feels unable or unwilling to propose radical new names, so another choice might be to rename species through the less radical linguistic processes of clipping or blending. Thus, rather than entirely jettisoning common names like Brewer’s Blackbird or Douglas-fir (both of which embody the old practice of naming species after prominent men), you might end up with “new” names such as brewbird or dougfir. In fact, a handful of abbreviated names like these are already used colloquially by field biologists, but I know of no examples that have become commonplace in written communication.

Clipping is a common word-forming process whereby parts of words come to stand for whole words or phrases. Clipped words may look strange when they first appear, but some become so familiar that users forget or no longer use the original words. Examples of clipped words would be binocs for binoculars, flu for influenza, hyper for hyperactive, phone for telephone, or radio for radiotelegraphy. Clipping is not an exotic linguistic process; in fact it is a modern phenomenon that picked up steam in the twentieth century through the media of magazines and newspapers.

Blending is a process of forming new words from the parts of two or more words. Common examples of blended words include brunch (breakfast+lunch), motel (motor+hotel), and smog (smoke+fog). This process seems to be particularly successful where components from the source words overlap in pronunciation or spelling (e.g., motor + hotel). Blends are similar to and can include clipping to the extent that blends contain clipped words that have been joined to form new words. Another option is to blend the first letters of words to form acronyms, as in UNESCO, NATO, YMCA, UFO, or snafu (situation normal all fouled up).

Clipped and blended words typically arise in social situations where shared, long-term usage makes it possible to communicate clearly even when using parts of common words; this would make these words ideal within a community of people who share a passion for speaking of the natural world. Clipped or blended words are often faulted for having an air of frivolity, but they serve a vital social function by making communication within a group of people more succinct and efficient.

The processes of clipping or blending the common names of plants and animals opens up some intriguing ways to think about naming, though admittedly these processes may work well only for charismatic and widely referenced species. Examples already in common usage include colloquial names like redtail for Red-tailed Hawk, coop for Cooper’s Hawk, sharpie for Sharp-shinned Hawk, and coho for Coho Salmon. Creating other new names will require a sense of playfulness, but examples of how these processes might work could include sneg or snegret for Snowy Egret, cavi or cavire for Cassin’s Vireo, weki or wekibird for Western Kingbird, gianquoia for Giant Sequoia, polepine for Lodgepole Pine, and osapine or pondo for Ponderosa Pine.

It should be clear that clipping and blending are infinitely creative processes, so there is no reason to feel limited by these examples. Ultimately, these processes may or may not prove to be productive ways of responding to the issue of shallow names; they are simply one potential solution for taking ownership of the names you use.

 

David Lukas is a naturalist and writer based on the west coast of North America, where he has spent his life teaching people about the natural world and grappling with questions about how words and names shape our relationships with the natural world. His most recent book Language Making Nature (www.languagemakingnature.com) is an exploration of these same questions. This excerpt is part of his extended argument that we reclaim these vital relationships by playfully (and creatively) renaming the things of this world that matter most to us.