I remember when I was young, every so often my parents would have houseguests ( remember those?) and they d bring out the slide projector (ditto) and we’d all herd into the best room, and look at the pictures they’d laboriously collected of their foreign trips ( Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and, er, Shetland).
If what follows gives you the sinking sense of disappointment I would feel then, you are excused, to spend time in the living room with the TV , and, in time, a plate of cheese on sticks and Twiglets will appear through the serving hatch. If I remember..
Meanwhile, back in the best room, I want to show you the images that go with my intention to explore Plant Being. I hope its also going to stop me banging on for a bit..
I have no claims as a photographer, so you ll see my thumb at times, and wonder if your eyesight is on the blink, but you may , I hope also see what I saw..
I was struck again and again by the replication of forms at all scales and angles. I remembered Darcy Wentworth Thomson , and the sense that this was a balancing of forces of growth , a kind of dynamic equilibrium in the multitude of multitudes
In a wood there is never just one thing going on, the reaching down into air, light and moisture is endlessly repeated at many scales
Each surface is used and becomes in turn another surface
With the plant thinking going on in my head I’ve made a couple of field trips to familiar woods – Hermand in West Lothian, and the Birks of Aberfeldy in Perthshire ( which I ll say more about in part 2).
I wanted these places to feel less familiar, but not to find myself pathfinding or orientating. And I ve used the words ‘field trips’ to echo the language I would have heard as a trainee ecologist, because it has a sense of purpose and ,in my head at least, that I would be taking notes – although I dont think people do that anymore, and a battered mobile phone seems less intrusive than a damp notepad and pencil used to .. So for a change I actually took site notes, which I ve used to reconstruct this piece , and matched the photos I took there more closely to them.
Within all this process I wanted a more immersive experience , something about being within, which seems to be returning when I go back to the recordings and the pictures..
I think I was drawn back to Hermand because its a bit untidy.. From what I could see things have been living, dying and falling over pretty much undisturbed for the last fifty years or so.. This is not uncommon in neglected estate woods, but because it has now been established as a nature reserve ( basically gotten rid off as useless by the landowner) , and because the main reserve management plan is based on trying to restore the moisture level in the sponge of raised bog which is at its centre, the trees are minor actors and are more or less left to their own devices.
For my purposes this is an area large enough to imagine what it is like to be in a wood. There is an attraction to think of this as a natural feeling, that parts of our physiology are evolved to work best in green light , but then you watch a coal tit, or a wood mouse moving around, and then go , “Nah, no really.” In a wood there is rarely only one thing to focus on.. I took several photos which were designed to show this, to limited effect, I think , before realising that the idea of taking a frame with a centralised focus was another kind of anthropocentrism which I was trying to escape from.
I had similar problems with the other thing that I noticed strongly, which was the nature of edges, both within and without the wood. There is a very clear boundary established by the fence and the agricultural process (grazing and management for grazing) which it either excludes or contains ( depending on your perspective). It is interesting to me that rewilders are now following the advice of woodland historians such as Francis Vera and introducing large browsers to break up the understory and humus layers to create (or restore ) woodland landscapes.. I don’t know how I feel about that as a kind of authenticity ( or gardening) , except it might stop us seeing the wood for the trees.
The way I see the boundary between the wood and the field is that on one side there is what I thought of as a plethora of stuff, where it was not clear what was what and everything was an opportunity for something else to grow, and where individual things were not really distinct, and on the farmed side, coming from the wood, things seemed simplified , denuded, and diminished.
I could feel a sense of repeated destruction ( what it felt like) or control (as it would have been seen if I d wanted to eat mutton). What plants were left were either densely grazed or seperated as individuals – it was easier to notice the trees . My take on all this once I d walked out a bit into the field was that this was how we had become used to seeing things, our idea of landscape is based on that view -tree, space, animal , boundary, repeat.. I wondered what it might be like not to have grown up with that landscape in my head..
So I went back into the wood..
In the wood I am rarely upright, or striding purposefully. I am often scrambling, or disentangling (briars, outlines, fruits) and there is a type of motion which works better for this which allows the spaces between things to appear to find you. Similarly it is helpful to stay still and wait for things to appear – this is the best way to see a wood mouse, and probably the only way to see a badger ( although of course, these don’t actually appear because its dark – lets not get too much into the Arcadian Idyll School of Nature Writing). But something, I feel does happen to consciousness and my sense of time, and Being , when I do this..
Firstly, you can’t see the trees for the wood. Much of the wood at Hermand is birch, or alder and so not huge, and, for trees, quite short lived. Ecologists call it , rather patronisingly, ‘stage 4 of primary succession’ .. And, the trees are not visually dominant. They seem mainly footholds for what in my ecology days were called lesser plants – these being ferns, mosses , lichens, liverworts and fungi. This ‘lesser’-ness would have been based on size, what we knew (or cared) about them, and how much we could identify with them. Identifying with a plant is a huge misnomer, but we have given some plants ideas of sexual behaviour, individuality and purpose, in a way which is increasingly obviously anthropocentric. The lesser plants have been there longer, have more diversity and variation in how they reproduce , where they live ( having had much longer to experiment, in an evolutionary sense) and are sneakier in how they do things – that is , we don’t notice or can’t project our notion of purpose onto them. Who makes liverworts central characters in their poesy*?
I also notice that making sense of things I am more familiar with – birds- is different in the context of the wood.. I ve already got my head round the idea that most woodland birds have feeding zones which are divided Mainly vertically,and experienced horizontally ( although of course not in a rigid way). Thus a wren will be heard from below, and a coal tit from above. Most of our most familiar birds are found around our headheight – that is in the understory of a mature wood , or at the level of our front window in a suburban garden…
What I noticed is the association with the plants that is there. Feeding opportunities ( and it is autumn so that is mainly what bird activity is about) are about plants ( or insects which might be living on the trunk of plants, in the lives of vertical feeders like treecreepers and woodpeckers), and movement is about he detailed exploration of those, at speeds higher than we are used to living and often by touch or sound. The trees and bushes do give the additional protections of camoflague and refuge which give the birds here a kind of confidence to feed on above and around me.
I find some boundaries in the wood, which are more like transitions or zones of contention. I find them on the edge of lichens, between those and moss, under the shade of birch or beech . They are chemically created and controlled, and have no sharp edges.. the space is quickly filled when the defences breakdown..
Throughout the wood fungi appear, or at least their symbols, or fruits, the mushrooms and toadstools we can identify . I think these are my joy in the autumn.. I am still astonished by novelty.. I think this is a morel, or some such and a huge chunk of difference from anything I ve seen before.
I’m also aware that this is the only time we can see them and they are remarkably different. My visit coincided with my first sighting of the idea that ‘higher plants’ are different evolutions of symbiotic collusions (or collisions, or coincidences depending on your view of evolution) between fungi and algae over deep time.
And that the whole picture of ‘wood’ might be a description of a way that fungi are sourcing energy from light and water (rather than their more traditional source of decaying organic matter).
This made me think about my last idea, as I lay down amongst the beech mast and the fungal fruits protruding. Which was that things might be the wrong way up.
Apparently Charles Darwin also considered this ( his interest in soil covered not just roots but also earthworms). Darwin felt that the ‘head’ of the plant was really its root stock, the part which regenerates and maybe leads development, and that the seed usually germinates underground.
The more modern view would be that the connections of the ‘wood wide web’, the points of symbiosis between the mycelial nets of fungi and the cell structures which lead to the algae above held in chloroplasts in the leaves as high into the light as they can go , are the control centre, and that the stems and structures are only a way of dangling bodyparts down into the air, to collect light and water and toss out seeds. And our idea of what is useful and what we want ( wood and fruits) have made us unable to see this as the Beings themselves might (at least as a possibility)
I stood , around this time, in another wood along the bottom of a gorge, and looked up at the trees from below the canopy. Foreshortened, I saw a see of trunks and losing my usual sense of scale I felt I was looking at a part of something , the words I had were ‘organs of a body’ and ‘pumps’ transferring some power from one place to another. I felt they were holding together the sky and the ground, and maybe from the view of a wood they are.
* so i googled , and apparently three people have, although this seems to include listing them as ingredients in spells, which I totally think is not ok, so I m still right. Because it s my blog..
So all this plant thinking . What does it amount to really?
Here are my take home points .
1/ If I have been exploring the Being of other types of being it is to find out if imagining them, and their needs better, might stop us overlooking them. Of course , for most of us, this might only mean we mourn them better as they gradually disappear.
2/ Plants are, differently. The problems of imagining Them (and it may well be that each plant is a Them) are so much greater . But not to do it excludes them from Being, from the attention to ‘their rights’ or existence which we might wonder about, and choose to value.
3/ So how might I do that (number 2/)? I ll consider some of the writing about plants which has been appearing recently – which I think is driven (sometimes directly, like Michael Marder’s philosophy, sometimes more obliquely like the woodwideweb idea, or the growth of concerns for plant rights).
4/ And I have spent some time with actual plants . I’ve thought around them. I wanted to find a different method of working which might be more sensitive to their Being so I’ve used a recorder and a camera to build the pieces which follow from it.
5/ We are seeing plants upside down. Their kernel is below the ground, their roots drop into the sky collecting light, water and air.
6/A plant is a community. It might be seen as a symbiont of algae and fungi, a giant enhanced and diversified lichen. To think like this, we introduce the idea of deep time into plants, and a notion of dispersal which moves through both time and space at once.
7/No plants live alone. They exist in place . They make places and within them they are never unique. Any encounter with real plants is an encounter with a tangle, or a shimmer.
8/Many of the ways we think about things ( like ourselves ) are challenged by plants . Like the binaries – one/many, inside/outside, whole/part , up/down, mine/yours. I’ve found that finding a place for plants in my head is only possible obliquely and periodically, but like many things that are hard to do creates a capacity that wasn’t there before.
Here I am leaving instructions for participating in this 4WCOP event over the weekend of 5-6 September. I’ve also made a you tube video which contains a more improvised and personal introduction to the activity. You can find that here..
The activity is to guide us to an awareness of the precariousness of the creatures that surround us in an age of global extinction.
My intent is that you have a chance to consider how they use and experience our shared environment, and in doing so you might be able to consider how to imagine their potential presence, and (unfortunately) probable absence, and your feelings about this. In this I am trying to use psychogeography as a way to overcome the numbness that has been recognised as a feature of our emotional response to the rapid changes happening in our world.
Heres a warm up exercise..
from ‘Becoming Gull’
Walk back and forth between your living room and kitchen as a seagull.
Move your head to look around , do not move your eyes. Tilt your head to either sideto look up and check the sky..and look down for food, like chips , on the floor..
(Marcus Coates, A Practical Guide to Unconscious Reasoning)
So I ask you to go out into your locale, alone or with others, at a time of your choice, and imagine that world through the senses and priorities of any or all of these three creatures whose worlds overlap with ours, and who are facing serious threats to their existence. You can either experiment with expanding your senses in the direction that they have (in the way Marcus Coates suggests) , or you can imagine their relations with the landscape (as Charles Foster does further down).
Culled from popular natural history sources and, of course, Wikipedia, here are some hints at how you might practice experiencing the worldviews of my choices –
House Sparrow passer domesticus
-You are more comfortable if you are overhung or protected.
-You have your eyes on the side of your head, and you use your peripheral vision to look out for cats and sparrowhawk.
-You like hedges and bushes to roost in and nooks and crannies for nesting.
-You have an irrational hatred of yellow flowers which you tear to pieces.. no one knows why.
-you eat seeds mainly on the ground, and you prefer to hop around rather than fly if you can.
Formerly one of the commonest birds in the world, your numbers have dramatically crashed in some places. In the UK numbers have fallen by 69% between 1977 and 2010.
Main threats seem to be changes in agricultural practice, insecticides and pesticide residues, pollution in towns, changes in construction practices, and lack of invertebrate food for young.
The animals and I speak a shared language; the language of the buzzing of our neurones. often they speak in a difficult- though never quite incomprehensible dialect. when it is difficult to make out what is being said, context helps. the context is always the land….What is an animal ?It is a rolling conversation with the land from which it comes and of which it consists. Whats a human? its a rolling conversation with the land from which it becomes and of which it consists – but a more stilted, stuttering conversation than that of most wild animals. (Charles Foster, Being A Beast, pp19-20)
Common frog Rana temporaria
-You first exist as a soft-bodied invertebrate with external gills living in water
-then you absorb your tail and grow legs
-then you absorb your gills and grow lungs
-then you absorb your soft skin and grow a thick outer layer.
-then you cover yourself in a layer of spittle
-leaving water you are defenceless and need to movequickly from damp cover to cover
-from hiding you catch prey with a sticky tongue and swallow it in one gulp
-you spend winter in a state of torpor
-When you wake in spring you are drawn back to the water by the smell of algae
You are finding less standing water, and less invertebrates to eat and you are starting to be infected by a global pandemic of ranaviruses, which has already caused the extinction of many other frog species .
Brown long eared bat Plecotus auritus
-your hand has become webbed and the fingers spread into a wing, your arm has shrunk to hold it firm against your shoulder
-your ears are nearly as long as your body
-you flutter slowly around the canopy of trees listening intently for moths under cover of darkness
-when you find prey you scream at it and use the echo to grab at its aural silhouette
-you enter large buildings through cracks and roost their during the day
-you swarm once a year around the mouth of caves and tunnels and find mates
-you sleep the winter out in a tunnel or a cellar
-you are finding fewer places to roost and hibernate , less food and have been having to move into unfamiliar territories.
The second part of the exercise is to contrast how the spaces you ve visited have changed as you imagined your animal(s) , and then how they would change again through their absence.
What escapes the eye when species go extinct is a much more insidious extinction -that of ecological interactions (Daniel Janzen)
What is actually occurring is more dire than the numbers indicate. There are the functional extinctions, the extinction cascades, the extinction vortexes – these are ways in which as things start to slip down that death road, other things start going too. Relationships unravel, mutualities falter, dependence becomes a peril rather than a blesssing, and whole worlds of knowledge and practice diminish. We are looking at worlds of loss that are much greater than the species extinction numbers suggest. Shimmer, the ancestral power of life, arises in relationship and encounter , so extinction cascades shimmer from the world ( Deborah Bird Rose, Shimmer, p52, in Tsing, Swanson et al) also as lecture here
While these quotes describe what is going on from an ecological or cultural perspective, some kind of felt or imagined response, is, I think the grounding which can place us back in the midst of the changing world around us. I also think that an embodied response, such as happens in psychogeography , is particularly evocative.
I am very interested to hear whether others are similarly affected. Here is a link to do that (or if you dont want to use Facebook, or possibly can’t for what are usually described as ‘technical reasons’ you can comment at the foot of the blog – I hope to be able to respond to some of the comments in the plenary session at the Congress..
As well as the authors who I ve quoted in the text I ve also been inspired indirectly by Thomas Nagel’s What is it Like to Be a Bat? and ‘In the Absence of Sparrows’ by Helen Whale and Franklin Ginn, in Mourning Nature – Hope at the Heart of Ecological loss and Grief , Cunsolo, Ashlee and Landman, Karen (eds), (2017), as well as the work of Lost Species Day-around whose annual remembrance day for lost species ( 30 November) I intend to resume my contact with the ghosts of the bramble cay melomys, which inspired this presentation.
This is a piece of constrained writing, which I thought was inspired by OuLiPou , but I now know is actually inspired by my misapprehension of what OuLiPou did, and so of an invented OuLiPou, of daring and stylish literary anarchists swooping through the arrondisements of Paris and making off with a haul of found writings.
I dont think I want to go to Paris, which I m sure will be a large disappointment, but I did go to the part of Edinburgh which is nearly Leith (or viceversa) and imagined the boundary ( as I see it psychogeographically) between the two for a while. This takes me from Edina Street to the bottom of McDonald Road, and onto Rodney Street,into an area which sometimes gets called Inverleith. Inbhir is, from Gaelic, something about mouths , or meeting . Usually of rivers, but since there are no rivers meeting in Inverleith ,maybe we can imagine it is about a boundary of a more psychosocial aspect, the one that locals still sometimes claim exists between Leith, that old mottley port, and the more aspirational Enlightenment of Edinburgh. Something to be at the meeting of.
In tribute to the reclamation of the streets over lockdown I did my piece by voice recorder from my bicycle. The rules I followed were to record street writing (signage, graffiti, advertorials) in order. I was allowed to omit words, change grammar and punctuation and use homonyms. I did add a couple of other ones I saw on my journey back in line with the concept of litterature potential
the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy”.
(I took pictures to illustrate this too – but they are stranded in another pocket of cyberspace, as indeed are these words which I am unable to share directly with a group of psychogeographers who are trying to meet. Its an echoey place the internet , full of highways and upgrades but with very few pedestrian crossings. When I find one I ll drop the pictures off , meantime you can use your imagination, which will be better, and indeed one day may replace the internet)
Smile orny pups
Stay for hours
Only, only , only, only
Victorian school Mixed recycling
Milky, Milky, Milky
One hundred and fifty
The power of kindness
To let, to let
Badge holders only
Stops to city
Rise for heroes
Take control plants crossing
We are registered
You can follow us
We care about appearance
Dry rice our inlet
Only, only, only, only ,only
Past this point
Fissures in the city
I said I would not forget, and I want to write to you disembodied totem spirit of an ex thing that I probably dont believe in, because I want to bear witness, to envision the end of an existence.
It was, of course, absurd. My friend reminded me of this as we waded out to a bench on the edge of a flooded pond carrying a paper replica island towards a herd of confused and curious swans. How could it be otherwise?
Firstly death just is. At an individual level – not in a jolly Halloween cartoon Grim Reaper way, but in a deep epistemological way. We humans can’t comprehend the absence of existence. And we dont like it. It unsettles us.
It is a further step to imagine the death of something that you dont know existed in the first place. That is a loss of opportunity. But also a leap into a gap which the imagination or unconsciousness might fill with projections. My own are of failing to protect something innocent and precious. Was that really you, Bramble Cay Melomys?
I also spend time thinking about rats. Attentive readers will have noticed in the sister post how quickly I conflated the unknown extinct rodent with the rats thatthe BBC is cheerleading to extinction. The analogy becomes more problematic when we consider the survival of the melomys, until climate change finally did for it, occurred mainly because occasional human visitors to Bramble Cay had failed to bring with them the opportunistic and competing rodents which had caused the extinction of other ground-living island dwellers in the area. Real things are always fucking up our best metaphors. But still, as a familiar example of undervalued beings in our midst, rats work pretty well. We are to be observed by several as we launch our craft.
Around the time of the commemoration I saw an artwork by Marcus Coates. Entitled Extinct Animals it is composed of plaster castes of the artists arms, hands or even fingers as he makes shadow figures of various extinct animals. Some of these are frankly very schematic, but that doesnt really affect the impact much. These creatures no longer cast a shadow, so..
I ve been drawn to Marcus’ work for several years and soon after I was able to see him talk about it. He described his fascination in embodying a message of communication of some kind – and I ve noticed that this is often across a barrier of some sort, of time, kind, language or even, and often, species. I’ve watched him being interviewed as a Blue Footed Booby on Galapagos TV, attend a community meeting in a condemned council block wearing a deer skull on his head before going into a shamanistic trance, choreograph a number of volunteers sitting in their cars living rooms and waiting rooms into a replica of the dawn chorus, and take a question from a man dying in a hospice on a journey to and from an ageing woman in a hut in the Peruvian Amazon. Here he is , encouraging a Canadian island community to apologise to the extinct great auks which used to live there.
None of these admirable projects look anything other than absurd. But they do encourage a way of connecting which is uncanny, disorientating and affecting. I think they tug around our felt senses.
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Within the growing field of climate psychology is a recognition that our response to the evidence of climate change is also necessarily un-canny, and will feel at least some part absurd.
We have the notion that Tim Morton draws from object-orientated ontology of the ‘strange stranger’, the thing that we can only encounter in a phenomenological way without prejudice or preconception, and the hyperobjects he develops from that way of thinking ( I d suggest that extinction is another hyperobject that is spreading through us at the moment, like a lump of indissolvable plastic). In the more cautious and classical philosophical position laid out by Jonathan Lear in Radical Hope,
We do not have to agree with Plato that there is a transcendent source of goodness – that is a source of goodness that transcends the world – to think that the goodness of the world transcends our finite powers to grasp it. The emphasis here is not on some mysterious source of goodness, but on the limited nature of our finite conceptual resources. This I think most readers will agree, is an appropriate response for finite creatures like ourselves. Indeed, it seems oddly inappropriate – lacking in understanding of oneself as a finite creature- to think that what is good about the world is exhausted by our current understanding of it. Even the most strenously secular readers ought to be willing to accept this form of transcendence (pp.121-2, 2006)
Lear’s ‘hero’ ( I think that is fair) ,the Crow chief Plenty Coups , uses a dream he has interpreted, to suggest that his tribe should give up their traditional virtues, and find an accomodation with the crushing forces of American colonisation, which would ( and indeed did) allow them to retain their identity and integrity. His message, however, is that in a situation when our known virtues clearly no longer protect us we must search beyond.
We must find new ways of thinking whether these come to us from overlooked Indigenous tradition, cyberidentities, art practice, experimental philosophies or paradigm shifts in science . All of these are fruitful responses to the crisis of the anthropocene.
As, I think, psychogeography might be. Psychogeography is a child of situationism, but has been dallying with shamanism for a while too. Being inhabited, haunted, dealing with the margins, and the supplements are the business of our trade – using the tricksterish slogan of ‘Seeing Things As They Really Are'(@Tim Smith, ..)which suggests we live in an illusion of some sort, and that our imaginations might find a reality that is somehow missing ( although of course what is missing might in fact be our imagination)
So digging into this methodology I decided I wanted to create a funeral representation of the absent and unknown creatures.
I dont actually have these kind of craft skills – which is, of course, entirely the point. We end up with a green paper tray covered in straw and leaves I gathered from the edges of a new semi-permanent floodpond near my home , some sugar mice-purchased hurriedly in something that felt like a drug deal from an olde sweetie shop , and used to mould others out of moss and used kitchen towels, purslane seeds ( which apparently grew on Bramble Cay) ,and some Australian incense (which wouldn’t light in the stormwinds of Edinburgh in February). The frustrations , dead ends, ineptness and questing for meaning is what I know to be grief work. It is a process to enter that only gives partial outcomes, and usually leaves you somewhere (else).
Despite the percieved increase in eutrophication (and sugar content) of the already heavily polluted pond, the freezing conditions, and the herd of swans , we launched the tray , which floated out on the strong westerly into the mid distance and sank gradually beneath the water. My friend said it was like watching a feeling happen.
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As I struggled with the process of representation I faced the futility , cost and projections in my task, I was able to ignore or avoid my own decay, overfeed my domestic guest rodents, and engage with what go missing with extinction. The answer as the ecologist, Daniel Jansen*says in terms of biology, and the anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose echoes in human terms, is an opportunity to connect, potentially or actually.
As my work sunk under the water, unnoticed by the rest of the world, I felt something of that loss. I may have murmured melomys rubicola under my breath without needing to know exactly what it meant.
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As we looked for a site for extinction day commemorations I checked out the National Museum of Scotland (NMS). I had only a mild hope that I might find a melomys amongst the stuffed animal collection. What I did find, was a display board listing some of animals which had become extinct – which did not include the melomys or indeed any other animals which had disappeared since 2010. Which gave the commemoration another more practical focus.
The list of extinct animals I was then to send to the NMS ( including only mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and freshwater fish) covering only the years 2017-19, and based only on two reputed websites and a cursory check of the IUCN Red List data base, contained 25 names. It excludes those creatures which live on only in human captivity, which we are best able to watch die out ( like the Northern Rhinoceros or the Spixx Macaw). Some of the species have been declared extinct more than once, as a specimen occassionally blunders out of the undergrowth in some unlooked-for place ( usually at around the time it is being levelled to make way for human activity). Others were only ‘created’ as species after they were gone. So its not really an exact science, but really neither is speciation, which is looking increasingly like an anthropocene construction..
But what is not in doubt is that many, many types of animals are disappearing and that everywhere in the world the trend is for a reduction in variety and overall number of non-domestic animals. We are living in an age of mass extinction, which human activity is ultimately responsible for. For most of our existence as humans we acknowledged our kinship with other creatures , and it is only in the transformations to capitalism that philosophy and science have created these divisions ( and which belatedly both are now striving to close).
To see extinction as a hyperobject, is to see it extending , largely unnoticed into numerous dimensions of existence. Some of these are exemplified in the specific losses noticied by Jansen and Bird Rose – the destabilisation of ecosystems (one wonders what is happening to Bramble Cay without its main herbivore,for example) and the loss of cultural resources ( for example the oft-quoted Lost Words which have vanished from the every day vocabulary of our children), and others are there buried in our psyche. We watch wildlife documentaries , are shamed or activated by images of turtles with plastic around their necks , and maybe are beginning to percieve morality in terms of reducing our environmental impact ( or reacting against those perceptions in aggressive, nationalistic justifications of our privilege).
Around us a shadow army of pets, parasites and animal crops provide us with a distorted connection to that legacy. We are becoming used to finding our friends grieving their pets, upset by the truth of food production, or shocked by the running over of roadkill. Grief is after all, grief, and I suspect that the central part of it is the shock of how fragile life is. Our life.
After some correspondence and a brief protest action the NMS offered me a dialogue about how they commemorate extinction as part of climate change . Can I ask them to do it absurdly?
I d like there to be a way in which connections disappear, and the visitor is left increasingly in a void. Ideally this might be subtle, but colour and noise or smell would disappear.
Or there is a game when it becomes a choice of what to save , but the choice has unintended consequences.
Or they could suddenly find that all the exhibits in the lower level are under three feet of water.
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I realise now that I am going to have to end the article. And in doing so I will feel the loss of the Bramble Cay Melomys, and the rich connections I’ve had from virtually knowing them.
And I will also remember the list of the other known, unknown animals which I’ve learnt about after their end. And think about the unknown, unknown animals I haven’t learnt about. Yet, or more probably, at all.
And now I see the image of Sadness from the film Inside Out , who I think should be there to meet us at the exit of the new exhibit. I m with her now..
* What escapes the eye when species go extinct is a much more insidious extinction, that of ecological interactions
I keep thnking about the rats. Which are gone. And werent really rats . if there had been real rats the unreal rats would have been gone long ago. But they are now anyway. Ten years ago, and we didnt really say goodbye. Or indeed hello.
The unreal rats were small rodents which lived on a small island, which is part of Queensland, which is part of a large country which appears to be on fire, but is not sure if it can admit that. On Googlemaps the small, uninhabited island ( Bramble Cay) is next to another country called Papua New Guinea (PNG), and is at the north end of the Great Barrier Reef. You have to downscale quite a long way before you get a sight of Queensland, but it has annexed all the islands in the Torres Strait, presumably to control access and mineral rights. It is quite odd to think about a country which (stretching a point ) was founded as a colony of your own country as being a major imperialist power, but there you go. One of the other things that Australia has found useful about the islands off the shores of PNG is to imprison immigrants in much the same way Britain used to do in Australia. There were some fairly nearby when the unreal rats used to live.
There are no brambles on Bramble Cay, but there is some scrub, which looked a bit like them to the itinerant British sailors who named it. The Cay is very small, and considerably smaller now due to global warming, which has caused a rapid sea rise in the Torres Straits, and was very bad news for the unreal rats, which had originally got there when the straits were a land bridge from PNG to Australia, and got left behind. Some people at the Queensland Bureau of Something -sounding-Wildlife-Friendly and a few research scientists knew they were there, but didn’t visit much, saving their efforts for trying to keep alive more accessible wildlife that we are more interested in. The kind of beasts that make it onto the wildlife documentaries that I ve been watching over the holidays. The kind of beast that there might be some outrage about if it was to suddenly not be there. And which we believe we are omnipotent enough to keep alive. Possibly in zoos, or by juggling with them very quickly while their habitat burns around them. These folks have their work cut out.
A few years ago (2009) some game fisherman saw the unreal rats when they landed on the island. In 2014 wildlife rangers went back and couldn’t find them. They set some traps and again, in 2016, there they weren’t. It seemed there had been some floods. John Woinarski, Australia’s leading biodiversity researcher, has published a paper pointing out the lack of strategy, funding and, indeed, interest in preventing the extinction of the unreal rats (and a further two vertebrate spp which the Australian government has not got round to declaring extinct yet, which also lived on small offshore islands, as many rare animals do). In February 2019 the bureaucratic process of declaring something extinct was completed – in fairly quick time as these things go, as where else could those critters have been hiding?
And shortly afterwards someone noticed that this was the first mammalian species extinction that could be unequivocally attributed to anthropocentric climate change. Which makes a good headline, doesnt it? And meant, I found out about it, at a climate psychology event in December. Which would be at least a decade after the unreal rats drowned. In one of the best known and richest countries in the world. Where there are hundreds of professionals who make careers out of studying and protecting these kind of things. You ll allow me to question how unique this event might have been.
There are pictures of the unreal rats on the Net, which make them look gawky and cute, but I am not linking to them. There is a poignancy there for those of us who would look at the dodo, thylacine , great auk and think ‘I ll never see one of those’. But honestly, these animals, ( and maybe some of those others too), were not really valued when they were around, so trying to preserve their image now feels like hypocrisy. It might be better to imagine what we might have lost.
The unreal rats who stalk my dreams look a bit like gerbils ( see blogs passim) , non-descript, opportunistic, herbivorous rodents of the types which scurry across roads in our headlights late at night, or live in our drains, or in our fairy tales , or in cages in our childrens bedrooms where they teach us lessons about love and mortality.
On the radio, tis the season of contemplation. There haven’t been any programmes about losing obscure species in the age of mass extinction, but there has been an episode of ‘Positive Thinking‘ on BBC Radio 4, which pissed me off considerably. Its about how climate change has increased rat infestation in places which may have flooded, and how mass culls of invasive rats in New Zealand (and on some other small islands) ‘may’ give hope that the rat populations could be eradicated ( which is a scientific word for ‘wiped out’). No one suggested that a man with a flute is going to lead them off to the Underland. I just went there by myself.
Instead we might think positively, that large scale community efforts might do the business – apparently people in New Zealand are enjoying spending their weekends trapping rats, in a patriotically inspired campaign to remove a predator on the remnant populations of native fauna ( which by geographical accident did not include any terrestrial mammals), and presumably in the hope these might then revive. Oddly none of the contributors mentioned the other animals which had been introduced there – dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, horses- that have changed the islands irreversibly. Or that the rats are spreading as one of the consequences of global warming, which (along with the floods , contamination and displacement of pests) will go on without them. Unless the guy with the flute sorts it out.
Or about the sense of unease that some of us might feel about deliberately eradicating another species in an age of mass extinction. ( At this point it might be worth noting that Britains most endangered mammal is the black, AKA ship, rat, which survives only on a small private island in the Irish Sea. People I know have got visiting it on their bucket lists.)
Frankly the BBC is desperate to produce greenwash stories which fit into its adapted mission statement to educate us about climate change, without frightening the licence payers or the new establishment , which only a few weeks ago threatened to remove Channel 4 s franchise for replacing an absent BJ with a lump of ice in their climate change debate. Please be deeply sceptical about what these programmes don’t mention. We owe it to the unreal rats.
_Deborah Bird Rose was an Australian writer on environmental humanities with a particular interest in the sociological meaning of extinction . Here is what she says , writing about another endangered species
when scientists offer us numbers,they are talking about a kind of verifiable presence or absence.. However, what is actually occurring us more dire than the numbers indicate.. Relationships unravel, mutualities falter, dependence becomes a peril rather than a blessing, and whole worlds of practice and knowledge diminish. we are looking at worlds of loss that are much greater than the species extinction numbers suggest.
She introduces a concept she calls ‘shimmer’, which she characterizes as noticing connectedness and encounter, with a kind of brilliance which she recognises in Aboriginal culture. It sounds very like the kind of ideas that George Monbiot is describing in his book Feral. Her conclusion is that ‘In the time of extinction, we are going to be asked again and again to take a stand for life , and this means taking a stand for faith in life’s meaningfulness’. By so doing we will encounter the ‘shimmer’ that we are losing from our lives.
I found this memorial to the unreal rats. After I d written all this , natch. The cartoonist clearly believes no one will pay attention to February 18, but I know I will.
I imagine the last rats climbing the shrubs and bushes as the flood waters rise on their island, and as these sink progressively below the water, struggling off in to the waves. I’m reminded that the Wikipedia entry for melomys describes them as the ‘only endemic mammalian inhabitants of the Barrier Reef’ . As they drowned their bodies will have drifted down to the sea bed where they will have joined the skeletons of bleached and dying coral, the plagues of starfish, unfertilised and dying fish eggs, amongst the microplastics, fishing tackle , fuel exhaust and dumped cargo residues which now make up most of what I wrote in my primary school project was’ the greatest natural wonder on earth’.
What on earth have we done?
A windy day in the Tyne Estuary . I am walking out into the flat samphire desert . I d like to get down to ground level and crawl out through the tiny boababs each stem unique and upright in defiance the intolerable salinity.
There’s a driftwood log below the sandbank where the martins have nested. They are tacking across the wind to try and get back into their holes, cutting back into the wind to decelerate and turn and then dropping off to the right. Failing and going round again. I can distinguish the juveniles from their low success rate. At occasional moments I am looking at the heads of oncoming birds, wings outstretched, but artificially stilled, and I remember the illustrations in What to Look for In Summer – a book I stared at for long hours in childhood ( and was not alone in this). The illustrations are by CF Tunnicliffe, the doyen of the expanding field of wildlife art in the post war years . They are iconic images – still life but not stuffed life, tableaux crowded with observable wildlife a little more-closely packed than would ever be likely
but distinctly tickable.. lots of hirundines ,
crowds of butterflies ( maybe feasible in 1960, when the book was first published)
and turnstones, always turnstones, the maestro’s piece de resistance ( turnstones spend the summer in Siberia, although they start to reappear in August, so might make it back for the encore of WTLFIS).
Tunnicliffe’s illustrations are memorable because the birds ( and he is mainly a bird artist )seem to be about to move, and, for the young naturalists Ladybird targeted, there are less obvious things to find in the background (did you see the lizard on the rock?).
I wonder what an illustration of the scene around me today might look like – parched summer estuary, pondering psychogeographer on rock, intrusive long lens photographer stalking rarity, distant samphire collectors, an invasion of painted ladies blowing around, stork-like bird standing out of its carefully drawn background like an overlay.
Or maybe the spoonbills, which have drawn me here, only stand out to me. I wandered Europe a bit when I was younger, egrets on the Guadalquvir, flamingoes in the docks of Sfax and the saltpans of the Camargue, were as much part of the scene I wanted to experience as the names, the language, and the curious foods. Spoonbills, as I learned in my pre-teens, from the Observers Book of Birds, lived in Holland, were ‘remarkable migrants’ and ‘Visitor’ to ‘southern estuaries’, and were not worthy of an expensive illustration in the second edition.
Change has come fast though –
Eurasian spoonbill is a very scarce passage migrant to Scotland, with small numbers occurring especially in spring.
according to the Birds of Scotland, which I bought on publication in 2007. Only sixteen records were made in the second half of July between 1850 and 2004 . But in The BTO Bird Atlas of 2007-11 records of non-breeding usually immature birds occurred in 233 10km squares in Britain, around 20 in Scotland, and a first breeding record occurred.
The Tyne birds I can see wandering in the background today , known as the ‘Fab Five’ (and representing the equal largest group of birds ever recorded in Scotland since 1859), have obtrusively sieved the upper estuary around Buist’s Embankment (again atypical as the birds are usually solitary wanderers) , roosting picturesquely in a dead tree throughout July and into August. I’ve gone down after the thrill has gone. The spoonbills are quietly filtering the mud around the river channel, standing out from a long distance as gloss white (as indeed the incoming egret populations do) , and clearly finding lots to eat. I like the process of locating them , distracting myself, and then finding them again amongst the other white blobs on the estuary -mew gulls, shelducks and at least one plastic bag.
The prevailing ornithological consensus that they will not manage to survive a Scottish winter may also be challenged soon – the Atlas also records a major increase of winter range into the South of England , and that is already ten years out of date ( I’ve stopped buying these kind of books because they date so quickly). Meanwhile colonies in Turkey, the Balkans and the Med are declining . My book mentions habitat destruction, and seems in that way dated too.
Scientists and natural historians are now empowered to mention climate change, but may not yet be obliged to do so. It sort of spoils the bucolic otherness of our idyll. But that why they are here. They are climate refugees. I d like to say my distant white blobs look bemused or out of place, but they don’t . One estuary full of shrimps is much like another.
We now have the egrets, cranes and spoonbills of the other side of the north Sea. Vagrant storks are following. Flamingoes are breeding successfully on the Dutch/German border. Our local council talks about the potential upside of climate change for our tourist industry – they ll be pleased about this..
As a person I ve been losing things most of my adult life. For a while I considered this an irritating maladaption to the demands of competent masculinity ( I probably wouldn’t have used that term though). I’ve now learned to enjoy the pleasures of rediscovery and redemption, as well as the immersion in the river of things that passes while I look for my keys.
Absence is part of life. Loss is permanent (or unwanted) absence. Items of biota are always going missing, and usually return. We love them more because they do. You can tell the first sightings of the season – buttercups , swallows or skeins of geese- but how do you know its the last? How would you know its the last ever? And if you’ve started to wonder that how do you refrain from hanging on?
My current immersion in the river of things started when I began to become concerned that absences were turning into losses. That it was becoming harder to find things I d taken for granted – butterflies, skylarks , grasshoppers, hedgehogs. Things I had looked for in summer.
So the main element in what to look for in the future will be lack. The space once occupied by.. cuckoos. for example. Bernie Krauss talks about the gaps in the sonograms of denuded environments which evolved niches for particular bird songs spacing out to maximise their impact for the listening species mates. The sonograms confirm the absences that we might not easily notice, or put down to nostalgia.
Lack of honey bees. There arent many pollenators in the illustrations in WTLFIS. Small details seem to have been technically or contractually impossible to reproduce. Vaguely turd shaped honey bees are servicing the lime trees above some housemartin nests (more hirundines). Those honey bees are around a garden , and thats probably the best place to see them now. I have become able to cycle downhill through the farmlands of east lothian without getting a face full of flies . The word ‘agri -desert’ would have made no sense to Tunnicliffe, but might have been part of the premonition of Rachel Carson which was happening around that time ,and we now take for granted to the extent we are surprised that things still survive amongst the crops.
What to Look for in An Age of Mass Extinction?
Small items about distant natural disasters at the end of the news
Large items about nearby near natural disasters at the start of the news
Unfeasibly cheery items about accords, developments, technological breakthroughs and research elan.
Somewhere nearby where you can by an electric fan
Clouds of flying ants
A day trip to see a butterfly
Seagulls attacking children and family pets.
Ash dieback and oak processionary moths
Flamingoes on the Wash
Nostalgia support groups (and indeed political parties)
My own whimsy this summer has been to learn more wildflowers, and it has gone well. I ve spent a lot of time looking down.
The attention I’ve paid to the below the knee has taught me that there is a constant series of flowerings which sequence the weeks from April to September stretching out into a procession of ancient names and associations – aconites,coltsfoots, ransoms, bluebells, campions, hawksbeards, meadowsweet, toadflax, herb bennet, hellborine , centaury, gentian.., the tangle, the word tangles, the word ‘tangle’,also a seaweed – the pollen , in the breath, the tangled breath ..they bud, explode , get up your nose , get the bees drunk, wilt, fade and disappear, their names likewise forgotten and recovered next time round. We hope.
What to look for in summer is summer. It is the passage of the sun across the sky , the growth and decay, the green fuse driving those flowers. Dx/dt, experiencing time as curving, and then the serpent swallowing its mouth and time being circular. Normally.