Friday, February 9, 2018

Marsh Grasses and Corn Cobs: Tundra Swans Wintering on the Chesapeake

Tundra Swans Arriving at Nightfall
Winter evenings set in early, so Tom Horton, spokesperson for all things Chesapeake, makes sure we reach the headwaters of the Chicamacomico River before the buglers begin to arrive.  After leaving the vans parked a discrete distance from our final destination, Tom and his students walk down a gravel road to the edge of a network of marshes interlaced with open water, an old mill pond now mostly filled in and located to one side of Highway 50.  In the distance, a steady stream of cars obliviously pass by, their headlamps flickering through the trees surrounding our site. In the chilling air, we quickly settle down on blankets, or lean against tree trunks, staring out into the deepening evening with notebook and pen in hand, ready to write down our thoughts, should any arrive, at a moment's notice.  But the real wait is for the Tundra Swans themselves.

Waiting for the Swans to Arrive
Our vigilance is soon rewarded.  Each flight arrives, a few birds at a time, fast-moving, ghostly blurs nearly swallowed up in the growing darkness.  Even in the dim light, the grace and strength of their movement is undeniable.  As each successive flight plows into the Chicamacomico's waters, it is enthusiastically greeted by a growing cacophony of fellow travelers.  "A four foot windpipe can make a lot of noise," Horton notes later.  At the time, I wonder at how it might be to be a swan in the midst of swans, to be settling into cold waters for a night's sleep while bugling out my lungs, my feathered skull filled with the din of voices from kith and kin.  I ask Tom if the commotion goes on for very long.  "Off and on all night," is his reply.  "They might quiet down a bit before dawn but mostly you're in for a noisy sleep if your tent is pitched nearby."

A Ruckus of Feeding Swans
Tom's love for these great birds is infectious.  For the previous two hours he has been leading us literally on a wild swan chase, as the vans sped down backroads in the fading afternoon light to locate where the birds have been feeding for the day.  At first we have no luck.  The site Tom scouted the day before, fields that were planted with watermelon during the long, humid summers typical of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, are now deserted.  Finally we turn down Ravenswood off of Middletown Branch Road to find a good number of swans out in an expanse of stubble.  The birds are strung out along an elevated irrigation pipeline, clustering into familial pods of mating adults accompanied by their maturing offspring.  "If you listen," Tom points out, "you can hear the young ones making a sound that's not yet a bugle. More like a 'chirrup.' They're still learning to sound like a swan."  The students, following Tom's lead, half walk and half wade across a wet field to the edge of a wide drainage ditch.  On the other side a few hundred feet away the swans perk up, a sea of heads pivoting in unison to gaze in our direction and suss out what's afoot.  A good number take to the air and then settle down again a bit farther out.  The rest remain on the ground, not yet convinced we are a force to be reckoned with.
Taking Notes in the Company of Tom and Tundra Swans
As the students watch and listen, Tom shares Tundra Swan lore.  These birds, he explains, have been arriving from the arctic reaches of Alaska and Canada to winter in the Chesapeake for nigh on 10,000 years, since the end of the last ice age.  Before that it's anyone's guess exactly where summer and winter ranges were located.  But now the birds before us have flown across a continent, their newest generation in tow, to be here.  Before the last hundred years or so, the swan's winter range was focused on the bay itself, where an abundance of grasses - redhead, widgeon, and sage pondweed, among others - provided rich opportunities for feeding.  But increasingly these sources are disappearing from the waters of the Chesapeake, as the bay succumbs to depredation by humans and, ironically. also by the Mute Swan, a European import and cousin of the Tundra Swan.  Nevertheless, Tundra Swans are resourceful omnivores, so they have switched to handy food sources nearby in the plowed fields bordering on the bay and its network of marshes.  Walking out into the stubble of this particular field, one sees everywhere discarded cobs, stripped of corn and left by the combines to rot back into the soil.   The harvest, it turns out, misses enough kernels to feed a host of swans.  One has to admire an agricultural process that keeps a fellow living kind well fed, even as it nourishes us humans and our livestock too.

Tom Horton in Thoughtful Mode

But Tom cautions against being too satisfied with this state of affairs.  In an era of mass species extinction, when the populations of a wide range of living kinds are plummeting across the face of the earth, the survival of the Tundra Swan is not at all assured.  Tom notes that the fate of this swan is tied up even more with the fate of the arctic tundra than it is with its feeding grounds in the Chesapeake.  As the former undergoes climate change, the permafrost is melting and with this the marshy pools of water stretching across the reaches of the arctic north, crucial to the swans' thriving, will diminish, if not out and out disappear. By 2080 the Audubon Society estimates 61% of the northern range of the Tundra Swan, which is the place where they mate, bear their young and regain body mass lost during the hard travel and less fruitful feeding of the winter months, is going to be gone. The tundra will have ceased to be tundra, at least as we have heretofore understood this term to mean something.

Perhaps the most crucial bit of information Tom offers about the swans is that there are, in the entire world, only 140,000 of them.  That number is not at all a lot of one kind of a living kind.  Just in the United States there are around 180 towns and cities with more human beings, big boisterous primates, than there are Tundra Swans, feathered and aloft, on the entire planet.  Joliet, Illinois or Mesquite Texas alone has as many people as there are Tundra Swans altogether.  Even if we see these great and graceful birds in noisy congregations of hundreds and even thousands, it's important to keep in mind that each mating pair needs a minimum of two square miles of fruitful tundra if they are going to successfully produce offspring and then raise them.  The adults put in a lot of work doing so, and if their efforts over the long haul prove unsuccessful, their kind disappears.  We humans need to keep in mind that the fauna of a more-than-human living world are not merely mindless automatons effortlessly reproducing themselves down through the ages.  Mom and dad, at least in the case of swans and cranes, of robins and nuthatches, of eagles and osprey, as well as many other similar living kinds, have to show up and put in significant time.  And this effort on the part of individual birds and other fauna to sustain their own living kind calls for our respect.

Thom Van Dooren, in his brilliant study of endangered birds titled Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, reminds his reader that the disappearance of a living kind from the face of the earth does not occur in a single moment with the cutting of a single thread, but rather is the outcome of a massive unraveling over generations of a particular species' entanglement with its habitat and a host of other living kinds   In the last century or so, a lot of unraveling has been occurring in the Chesapeake region, but the swans have been busy re-entangling themselves in the land and waterscapes of their winter home.  If bay grasses disappear, the swans possess the genius to reengineer their residency, to seek out kernels of corn and fallen soy beans amidst the stubble. And they are not so shy that they can't spend the long winter nights on open waters in the vicinity of highways busy with traffic.  The question Tom and his students, as well as the writer of this blog, are left with, is whether the swans possess enough genius to resist our massive altering of both their summer and winter habitats, or whether we humans might even find a way to temper our activities and make more room on the planet for a lot more of more-than-human living kinds.  A world without tundra swans would be a poorer world indeed.

Friday, April 28, 2017

"Most Unfortunately, We Have a Plan."

Amitav Ghosh at the Wilson Center
60,000,000 human beings, notes Amitav Ghosh, are currently migrating across the face of the earth, vast arrays of the homeless in search of a home, any home at all, under the sun. This ongoing dislocation of humankind fleeing intractable wars and regimes of terror, sustained famine and abject poverty, accompanied, as they are, by innumerable drownings on the high seas and mass incarceration on the lands of newly-found shores, constitute the largest movement of human populations that has ever been witnessed in human history. And this phenomenon, Ghosh reminds us, is in no small part due to the economic and ecological contortions that both have wrought and have been wrought by the catastrophe that is named Global Climate Change, a situation that is only going to become worse in the coming decades.

Ghosh's talk on "The Great Derangement: Global Warming and the Unthinkable" took place on April 26th at the Wilson Center in D.C. at a meeting of the Washington History Seminar, just a few days before the Global Climate March planned for April 29th.  Situated in a building across a narrow public walkway from the doors of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, an institution now intently oblivious to all talk about human-caused GCC, the Wilson Center provided a telling venue for Ghosh's theme.  He began his talk by sharing the history of his own family, displaced by a massive flood in Bangladesh a few generations back, an event that killed the majority of the persons living in a village that now no longer exists.  The theme of forced migration then is personal for him.

Perhaps most probing philosophically was Ghosh's discussion near the opening of his talk on the plight of a global culture framed by the European Enlightenment and, as a result, no longer capable of even recognizing catastrophic changes of the environmental variety, let alone amending one's practices to allow for them.  The modern novel is symptomatic of this situation, Ghosh argues, in which the natural world is repeatedly rendered as a mass of static details against which the singular actions of individual humans then emerge, heroically or otherwise, to be recognized as such.   This manner of proceeding is a new phenomenon, one that ends up locating the uncanny, if it is to be found at all, in the solely-human rather than in the world surrounding us.  But the tiger's gaze and the course of a flood are uncanny in ways that call for a different manner of conceiving the issue of how one is to be aware and to act.  We are, Ghosh argues, surrounded by animate others, more-than-human forces and realities that are capable of intervening in human thought and life, and have been doing so all along, regardless of our own obliviousness to them.  Earth is, it turns out, not so different from the planet of Solaris, as it is pictured in Stanislaw Lem's novel by the same name, over-brimming with protean energy and intent on its own ways.

That the manner in which one writes of the world becomes determinative of how one understands oneself capable of acting in it is an important insight.  During the emergence of an era of Global Climate Change, the political state has repeatedly assumed the non-exceptionality of the earthly, that mass of inert and uniform details against which the magnificence of human activity, its technological capacity to effect change and regulate its surroundings, purportedly shows its stuff. This is what gives us atomic power plants and middle class housing developments located on the very lip of oceans. exposed willy nilly to voracious forces that eventually come calling.  Earlier peoples would not have been so presumptuous, Ghosh argues.  Or at the very least they would have recognized more quickly the folly of building a civilization as if the planet were its plaything.

At the core of Ghosh's lecture then was a plea for a discursive retooling of our modes of recognition,  for our adopting manners of speaking and writing that stand ready to attend to that which exceeds our own all-too-human capacity to have anticipated it.  "The tiger's gaze is invisible - and then it is not!," Ghosh reflects.  So too is global warming.  In this wise, Ghosh is grateful for the gravity and straightforwardness found in the lucid prose of Pope Francis's Laudato Si, as opposed to the intricate indirection and celebratory claptrap of the recent Paris Climate Accords.  The pope speaks of a "catastrophe," but the nations insist on rendering the situation as a set of "adverse impacts."  Further, the hunger for miracles, whether they be supernatural ones fashioned by the Most High or technological ones fashioned by humans, must be kept in check, if we are to attend soberly to the plight in which we are entangled.  If the Pope already knows this, Gosh wonders, why is this insight so difficult to attain for the secular authorities to whom the fate of an entire planet has been entrusted?

In the time after Ghosh's talk reserved for questions, a member of the audience observed in regard to the overwhelming forces unleashed by Global Climate Change, "people are paralyzed by what they have created," and wondered whether Ghosh might offer some small shred of hope, or at least a word of advice, that might move us beyond our intransigency.  Ghosh's response was characteristically sober:  "This thing we think of as paralysis is not really paralysis.  Rather we know, and we have a plan - to do nothing and let others die."  These are not soothing sentiments.  A bit later in response to yet another questioner asking in a similar vein "What words would you leave us with that are not simply succumbing to despair?." Ghosh again resisted any easy reply.   He spoke instead against a teleological view of history in which human actions inevitably lead to universal contentment and liberation. "The arc of history has moved again toward strife," he observed and reflected on Carl Schmidt's notion of history as a "labyrinth," in which "we do not see where the exits and entrances lie."  He continued: "For Buddha human life is sorrowful.  Why do we insist on an inevitable movement to a happy ending?"

Precisely the sobriety of Ghosh's response, of his refusal to participate in magical thinking in the throe of radical emergency, is the example called for in a time all too often characterized by its inattentiveness, misdirection and even delusion.  Ghosh reminds us in the words of Jean-Pierre Dupuy: "We attack and harm nature, not because we hate it, but because we hate each other."  The Great Derangement is finally a product of our own selfishness and hardened hearts, indeed, of our knowing complicity, even as it remains astutely unacknowledged, in a world in which others are eaten as if they are merely our daily dole of bread.  Generosity begins at home, but so too violence.  These are likely more helpful sentiments to carry us into a difficult future than those provided currently by the technocratic imperium, obsessed as it is with interpreting catastrophe as a set of adverse impacts, wth promoting the virtue of overcoming the intractable rather than learning to live uneasily with it.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Larapinta: Extinction, Temporal Discernment and the Reaches of Creation

Water Hole on Finke River/  in Evening Light

I was out of touch.  After a night of uneasy sleep, still topsy turvy with half-remembered dreams, I wobbled out into the early morning light of Glen Helen Homestead and sat down on a bench overlooking the waters of the Finke River.  It was time to take stock.  Of what exactly was unclear - of the last week, month, or year, or perhaps even of an entire lifetime, at least as much as the latter had progressed so far.  In my 67th year to heaven, as Dylan Thomas might have put it, should he have lived so long, I found myself again in the Red Center, looking yet again to make some sort of contact with what matters.

Stone Marking Tjilpa Country
A few years ago, I had spent a week in these environs with anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose engaged in preliminary ethnographic research regarding Dasyurus geoffroii, the Western Quoll, also known as Tjilpa to the Arrernte families here traditionally responsible for its well-being (See Rose and Hatley, 2011). Like many of its marsupial kin in the area, Dasyurus geoffroii is a threatened species, yet one more living kind being summarily consigned to non-existence in an era of mass species extinction.  In fact, this marsupial cat, as it is has sometimes been called by Europeans, has long since disappeared, at least in the flesh, from these surroundings and is now only found in the wild in the southwestern corner of the continent. Nevertheless, Tjilpa remains in this country a ceremonial presence, its dreaming still a powerful element of Arrernte cultural life.  I witnessed during that visit how even in the shadow of its absence, Tjilpa still reaches out to touch those who would remain faithful to it.  And now I had returned to express my own commitment, however fraught it might be with the destructive legacies of European settlement, to this living kind's continued life upon the face of the earth.

Thinking about mass species extinction as one's day to day activity leads to a disquieting way of life.  When Deborah Bird Rose, along with Thom van Dooren and Matthew Chrulew, instituted the Extinction Studies Working Group in 2013, we were well aware that the challenges presented by our subject were as much spiritual as conceptual.  One's love for the diverse creatures wth whom we humans from our very beginnings have shared a home on the face of the earth, leaves one, here and now, the target of terrible knowledge and uncanny grief.  At the bottom of it, one is called upon to witness a degree of disloyalty on the part of humanity to its more than human kin that is not easy to bear.  The temptation is either to succumb to anger, becoming consumed with rage, or to yield to despair by simply growing numb.  Even worse, one can just let the madness of it all settle in, giving free rein to the mania and incoherency feeding the catastrophe.  One acts as if all is well, regardless of what might actually be the case.  One denies climate change and habitat loss, as if reality can be dismissed with a quip.  When worlds are ending, it turns out, for those who remain the shopping can be fantastic.  At least temporarily.

Dragon Perched on Stone in Ormiston Gorge
Yet what is really required is the courage to remain faithful to all involved, both the human and more-than-human living kinds who make their homes here.  Half a continent away to the east in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, both eastern and western quolls can be found at the Secret Creek Nature Sanctuary, thriving not in the wild but in pens designed to protect their inhabitants from the marauding cats and foxes permeating the countryside.  The quolls are cared for by former coal miner Trevor Evans.  A prodigious soul bustling with energy, Trevor once looked me straight in the eyes and said wth blunt frankness:  "If you write about a creature, about a living kind, then you owe it.  You shouldn't just write something, and then walk away."

Blooming on the Finke River
Those words have stuck with me.  And so these several years later, contemplating retirement and the looming question of what to do next, I had repaired to the Red Center to revivify my faith in things in general and Western Quolls in particular.   Arrernte artist and author Margaret Kamarre Turner puts succinctly the devastation wrought by European settlement here when she writes: "The land's...been turned upside down" (Kemarre Turner, 192).  Yet she also observes: "We see our country, even though it might be destroyed by another species, we see how the beautiness is still in the country. It doesn't matter that horses and bullocks have caused such destruction, we still the spirit of that Land glistening" (Kemarre Turner, 141).   If nothing else, I had hoped, perhaps in my just witnessing a place in which so much is still flourishing, in which the very land still speaks of quolls, even if they are not so easily found, healing and insight might be offered.  Yet after a week of motoring about the desert, stopping here and there to be still and listen, or at times even to kneel down on the earth and observe as closely as possible the goings on (lots and lots of ants!), I was still more than a bit lost.

Cliffs overlooking Larapinta

And this brings me back to that moment recounted above on the banks of a river.   Known on contemporary Australian maps as the Finke. Larapinta rises in the McDonnel range of the Red Center and then meanders several hundred miles before disappearing into the arid reaches of the Simpson Desert. Named in 1872 after a benefactor in Adelaide bankrolling an expedition into these parts, the earliest European account of the river's Arendan name mistakenly understood it as a word denoting the rainbow serpent; only later did it become clear that Larapinta refers to the briny waterholes dotting the riverscape (Koch and Hercus, 292).  Still, the river's serpentine course bordered by white sands and green marshes twisting left and right across the desert floor - as if the the milky way had looked down to find its reflection on the face of the earth - makes the mistaken translation a bit more forgivable and perhaps even inspiring.

Reading one of the earliest accounts of contact between European outsiders and the Arrernte people on the banks of this river is instructive.  In his journal, Ernest Giles writes: "We made an attempt at a long conversation, but signally failed, for neither of us knew many of the words the other was saying.  The only bit of information I obtained from them was their name for the river – as they kept continually pointing to it and repeating the word Larapinta" (Koch and Hercus, 291).   The river itself then serves as the hinge of encounter, the auspicious occasion for the first word shared between one people and another.  Personally, I am saddened when I read Giles's characterization of the medium of this precious exchange as "a bit of information." So much went wrong so quickly when whitefella met blackfella, but in this first interchange might be found a hint as to another way in which the settlement culture now housed at Glen Helen Homestead might find its way into the truth of things in this place under the sun.  Something much more than "bits of information" will be involved.

"Ancient River Gum" by Roland Hemmert
And so early on November 29, 2016, if I had been keeping a diary at the time, I might have written something like this: "I am not sure what is happening as I face the great glistening cliffs hovering over the river this morning. I do not know its name, but I am being touched by it and heartened, my anxieties eased, my despair assuaged.  I have been scurrying to and fro over the floor of the desert looking for a sign these last days when all along the earth was speaking loud and clear right outside my door."

This experience is one that is more often than not dismissed these days as romantic claptrap by many of my scholarly colleagues.  And perhaps more often than not, they are right to be suspicious of, if not outright scandalized by, yet another denizen of the non-Indigenous world seeking out sunny climes usurped from other peoples in order to feed her or his appetite for spiritual enlightenment.   All the while, all around one, the catastrophic consequences of colonial usurpation continue unabated.  Better perhaps to pack up and leave and go home.  Of course, the very home one would return to is itself stolen land.  The more one thinks about the position of the great-grand-children of colonial settlers upon the face of the earth, the more homeless one realizes she or he might be.

Larapinta is among a small group of rivers, it turns out, whose courses are older than the mountains surrounding them.  When one views the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, one looks down at waters that began carving into the earth some six millions years ago. The story gets more complicated when geologists note that earlier rivers had already begun sculpting these canyons, so that the defiles themselves go back some 70 millions years (Greenfield-Boyce).  This is already a long ways.  But Larapinta adopted another strategy altogether, continuing to meander over the face of the earth, even as mountain ranges were thrusting up around it, inch by inch (Pickup (1988), Wells (1988), Haines (2001)).  The path the river follows is now 300 to 400 million years old, older by far than the diverse species of marsupials, Tjilpa among them, now making their home here.  As a whole they have only been in residence upon the earth for the last 90 million years.  Yet next to these we humans are rank newcomers.

When one is called upon to take stock of one's time upon the face of the earth, one would do well to consider the immensity of the past into which one's own life is rooted.  European colonists were convinced that the earth was a recent phenomenon, no more than four or five thousands years in age.  While other cultures might not have quantified so precisely the time involved, they seemed far more aware and respectful of a temporal depth to earthly existence transcending the human capacity to conceive of it in straightforward terms.  They realized we humans are in need of discernment to understand how time itself provides for us.  We were not here upon the face of the earth, when Larapinta first arose, nor when Tjilpa first set foot on the desert floor surrounding its banks.

The birth of a living kind is not an overnight phenomenon.  Larapinta instructs us concerning the powers at work on the face of the earth, powers that mold the living kinds, that call the very dust of stones into the restless shapes moving through time that are both ourselves and our biological kin.  Before we who are now living can begin to appreciate what is involved in the threatened loss of Tjilpa among many others in a time of mass species extinction, we would do well to listen to what this river has to tell us about the reaches of creation.

Hills Overlooking Larapinta's Waters Transformed into Molten Light/

River Gum near Larapinta

Works Cited

Edinburgh, Unviersity of.  "Origin and Evolution of Marsupials." University Natural History Collection Website:

Greenfield Boyce,  Nell.  "The Grand Canyon May be Older (and Younger) than you Think."  NPR Website.  January 27, 2014:

Haines P.W., Hand M., Sanford M. "Palaeozioc synorogenic sedimentation in central and northern Australia: a review of distribution and timing with implications for the evolution of intracontinental orogens."  Australia Journal of Earth Sciences. Vol. 48, no. 6 (2001): 911-928.

Hemmert, Roland.  "Ancient River Gum," a pastel composed and completed in pleine aire nearby the Larapinta, is in my collection of artwork.  More can be read about Roland's work at:

Kemarre Turner, Margaret. Iwenhe Tyerrtye -what it means to be an Aboriginal person (Alice Springs: IAD Press, 2010).

Koch, Harold and Hercus, Luise.  Aboriginal Place Names: Naming and Renaming the Australian Landscape (Canberra: ANU E Press and Aboriginal History, Inc., 2009) Access:

Pickup G., Allan G., Bakerr V.R. "History, palaechannels and palaeofloods of the Finke River, central Australia.  Fluvial Geomorphology of Australia.  Warner, R.F., ed. (London: Academic Press, 1988), pp. 177-200.

Rose, Deborah Bird, and Hatley, James. "Tjilpa - Quoll - Native Cat - Dasyurus geoffroii - Dreaming - Vulnerable."   Blog originally published on the Extinction Studies Working Group Website in 2011. For an archived copy see:

Wells, A.T., Forman, D.J., Ranford L.C., Cook, P.J.  "Geology of the Amadeus Basin, Central Australia.  Bureau of Mineral Resources, Australia Bulletin (1988), p. 100. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Haunted by Dragonflies

Green Emerald Patrolling the Rockhole at Rungutjirpa

A deep cleft splitting the mountains asunder, Rungutjirpa has been known for 40,000 years or so to the Arrernte People of central Australia as a site of creation.  A Goanna Dreaming is storied here, their tussling long ago putting things today as they are.  For the last 200 years or so Whitefellas have know the place as Simpson's Gap, in honor of the same geographer, A. A. Simpson, whose name also serves to designate a nearby desert and more distant cape.  Whether the life of a Whitefella geographer constitutes a dreaming serious enough to merit being mentioned in these environs is not an unimportant question. Personally, I am not so confident of a positive outcome.  And so even if doing so makes me more than a bit uncomfortable, calling on the tongue of the very people whom the people of my tongue have so persistently displaced, I end up referring to this site in its Arrendan rather than English instantiation.

Following anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose's example, I come first to Rungutjirpa whenever I reenter the country of the red center.  Showing up here is not something to be taken lightly.  In late afternoon the green waters lapping at the rocky foot of the cleft catch bits of sun and bushels of shadow.   After clambering around a boulder or two, I settle down on a spot along a bit of sandy shore overhung by stone and stare up into the airy heights and then down into liquid depths.  Their muddy bottom is likely only a few meters below my folded knees, but what the waters suggest are abysses as deep as creation itself.  The immensity of the world above is effortlessly gathered onto the pond's surface, an image shuddering with the passing of every breath of air. We are, the waters whisper, agile enough to encompass all that is illumined.  And, they could just as well add, all that is not illumined.

Wandering Percher Resting
on the Path to Rungutjirpa
The sun flashes on the wings of a green dragonfly, a single Emerald Tau (Hemicordulia tau), capering and gliding in great figure eights over the length of the pool.  Below its path more diminutive wandering perchers (Diplacodes bipunctata) hover near the water's surface into which they are regularly dipping their red, red abdomens, as thin as colored pencil leads, as they lay their eggs.  Just above these yet others are coupling in flight, male with female. The wandering perchers are less standoffish, coming near from time to time to perch, just as their name promises, abdomen flexed upward on stone within an arm's reach.  The Emerald Tau, on the other hand, circuits ceaselessly never alighting anywhere.   Scooping up mosquitos and gnats on the go with its opened jaws, the dragonfly replenishes its energy and continues to claim its spot under the sun.  Other males will be driven away.  At one point he even breaks off from his path and rushes toward me, hovering at eye level four or five feet away for a few moments. I can't help but think he is making clear that I am in his sights.

The globular eyes of dragonflies are famously immense compound organs, honeycombed with 30,000  or so "ommatidea," each of which in turn is shaped in a hexagon composed of a lens fixed over a small patch of light-sensitive cells.  But even if we know precisely the anatomy involved,  what the dragonfly actually sees is not so certain.  Some theorize its field of vision is a vast mosaic cobbling together individual bits of light, others that the outlines of things are not so distinct even as any movement nearby is magnified thirty-thousandfold, others that the dragonfly's visual field circles a full 360 degrees around its body, effectively immersing it in a globe of illumination.  Its tail would be as available to it as its forelimbs.  Possessing no fewer than eleven and as many as thirty chromatic opsins (proteins with distinct sensitivities to color in the diverse rods of its many retinas), it is rumored the dragonfly lives in a far more colorful, even ultra-chromatic universe. I wonder then what the Emerald Tau makes of the redness of the red earth here, already intense to my mammalian eyes with only three opsins to call upon, not to mention the overwhelmingly blue sky stretching overhead.  What boiling bubbles of color might my own mammalian flesh be for these non-mammalian eyes?

Green Emerald over the Waters
 "When we appeared in their eyes/ we were strangers":  In these lines from his poem "After the Dragonflies" (Merwin, 2016), W. S. Merwin wonders not only of how foreign we might seem to this living kind but also of how enigmatic and perplexing we become to ourselves when we muse upon our own all-too-human image making itself at home in a dragonfly's perceptions.  At the core of the exchange of light between one species and another, the eyes work magic, bringing the flesh of another living kind, or at the very least its facsimile, into one's most intimate depths.  The Bible might have well proclaimed that man has been made in the tselem, the image or imprint, of the Most High but should have added that immediately this image radiates outward into the eyes of arthropods and amphibians, of mammals and birds.  And when we turn to the world surrounding us and see ourselves there being seen by all these others, might this not be just as disconcerting and unsettling, as our seeing ourselves in the gaze of the Creator?   "Where art thou?", the dragonfly is asking.  Easier to imagine oneself in the mind of God than in that of an arthropod.  But the latter meditation offers its own peculiar invitation into spiritual insight, into humility before and complicity with others that undoes the assumption that one's loyalties can be confined to one's own hominoid skin.

Golden Winged Skimmer in my Garden in Salisbury, MD
These days, dragonflies are doing well at Rungutjirpa but not so well in one's own backyard.   W. S. Merwin's poem imagines a world in which dragonflies, once "as common as sunlight," have disappeared.  And already to a degree they have, given the persistent applications in urban areas across the planet of a diverse array of insecticides targeting mosquitoes.  A governmental study recently concludes, "Virtually every pesticide currently used to manage mosquito populations has the potential to adversely impact nontarget species" (USFWS, 14).  The adverse effects, for example of mathoprene, has been observed in fourteen aquatic taxa including odonata, the dragonflies and damselflies (Breaud et al.).  I remember, as Merwin does, a time in my childhood when dragonflies aplenty helicoptered about the yard, hooked to one another in dazzles of profligate and promiscuous mating. Not so in my garden today despite its proximity to an entire landscape of marshes and swamps comprising the eastern shore of Maryland.  The dragonfly population just outside my door regularly crashes throughout the summer  One can only theorize as to why.  Even more troubling is a recent German study which hints that the biomass of insects is plummeting across the face of the earth as complex ecosystems are transformed into huge swaths of monoculture regularly seasoned with pesticides.  A trap set up in the Orbroicher Bruch Nature Reserve that yielded 3.5 pounds of diverse species of insects in 1989 only yielded 10.6 ounces in 2014 (Schwaegerl, 2016).  Something is afoot.

Images of dragonflies abound on the internet.  We humans love to observe this particular creature in all its intimate details, to hold its taxonomical characteristics fixedly and precisely in our imagination.  This often results in what might be termed the money shot, one in which every filament and hair, every anatomical detail, is rendered with precision.  The results are truly spectacular if not just a bit pornographic.  One wonders whether a picture of a human being similarly rendered might be similarly sought out and for what reasons.  Imagine a close up focusing on every hair and pore, not to mention the nearly microscopic mites inevitably finding their way into such environs, speckling the face of a fashion model.  So much for Descartes' notion of a clear and distinct idea.

Colonial seizure of lands often involved the renaming and reimagining of things in a manner that was not necessarily intent on who was involved. The land might speak, but we Whitefellas weren't necessarily interested in listening.  Goannas might dream, but Geographers were for the most part fixed on describing, delimiting, and classifying topographical features.  And of making maps so one could know where to find them again.  The colonial project in a nutshell: uncover, designate and store for future use.  The images of dragonflies mentioned above made with a view to fixing the precise details of their taxonomy fit well into this attitude.  In lieu of these the images offered on this blog hopefully move toward the iconic if not the Icon.  The living kinds involved have not been removed from their habitat and held firmly in place between one's fingers or by means of some other implement in order to get the money shot.  Instead, the photographs here verge on the oneiric, as the gesture of a dragonfly's flight over the waters of Rungutjirpa actively threads a line between darkness and light.  One is hopefully summoned into a world revealed through the powers of a fellow creature.  Are we willing to live in the company of dragonflies, to invite them into our most secret recesses?  I pray that we are.

Works Cited

Breaud, T. P.,  J. E. Farlow, C. D. Steelman, and P.E. Schilling. 1977, "Effects of the insect growth regulator methoprene on natural populations of aquatic organisms in Louisiana intermediate marsh habitats  Mosquitoe News 37: 704-712.

Merwin, W. S.  "After the Dragonflies,"  Matthew Zapruder, ed.  New York Times Magazine.  July 22, 2016.  URL:  Accessed, December 15, 2016.

Schwaegerl, Christian. "What's Causing the Sharp Decline in Insects, and Why it Matters."  Yale Environment 360.  July 16, 2016.  URL:  Accessed, December 15, 2016.

USFWS. "Environmental Effects of Mosquito Control: Appendix K."  Edwards, 2004. URL:  Accessed, December 15, 2016. No longer accessible on USFWS Website.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Salmon Creation: A Midrash

The following entry was written after spending time on Sitka Island observing the Salmon run on Indian River.  In Tlingit these waters are named Kaasda Heeni, perhaps best translated into English as “Human's River.”  A story is told that the Tlingit once saw a canoe moving upstream, powered by people they did not recognize.  When they investigated, they found a log with frogs perched on it, drifting in the current.

Salmon over a Redd
 I. Salmon Run Reverie

In August the chum, dog salmon, arrive, at first insubstantial, green shadows flickering over green stones, green shadows slipping noiselessly between fingers of light.  But soon the fish thicken in the river, settle in, their great bodies churning the waters, flashes of silver, backbones clothed in gray-green bands bending to the current, yellow dorsal fins, translucent and extended, cutting into the surface of waves.  From time to time a thick ribbon of flesh smothered in scales flashes up from the depths as a salmon turns on its flank and arches sideways toward the heavens.  Females pick out spots in the channels and burrow into the riverbed, beating on the gravel with tails and bellies to hollow out a redd, while two or three males cluster around them, jostling one another, one male sometimes swimming upstream then curving 
Males Fighting for Position
back and descending with the force of the current on the others, teeth sinking into meat, tails thrashing the waters, suitors' jockeying for position.  The fish, both male and female, no longer eat, oils stored in their muscles leaching out to feed the growing genitalia.  Spawning females pump out roe, a thousand or more reddish translucent spheres the size of peas, to be bathed in clouds of milt by the males before burial in the gravel.  Eagles descend on the river, bears too and ravens, all intent on tearing away their daily dole of salmon.  Brown bears biting off with expert precision a chunk of the skull, intent on the protein and fat in the brain, another chunk of the belly in the case of the female, where her ovaries are charged with unfertilized eggs, the eagles dancing around one another on the banks stripping meat off the bones of a landed fish, the ravens crowding in afterward for the scraps.  All of this over and over and over again, for days without end, and then the emaciated bodies of salmon, their flesh growing leprous in ivory splotches, muscles and organs shriveling until all that is left is skin and skeleton, the eyes caved in and glazed over in death, that is, unless they have been picked out already by the beak of a raven.  In the end, for days the entire river stinks of rotting meat.

By the next spring, buried in the gravel the roe hatches, the fry emerge and a new generation begins.

II. Tohu v'Bohu: Dare we Name it?

How is one to understand this moment as a moment in and also of creation?  How exactly has one been called as a creature to make sense of the salmon consumed with their final run and its inevitable culmination in morbidity? What is one to make of this way of life in which life is dispossessed of itself and how this in turn instructs those humans who come eagerly to be witnesses of it, crowding against one another on the bridges overlooking the waters? 
Final Offering
To learn from salmon is to encounter a questioning, a way of thinking that is relevant not only to theodicy, the justification of the ways of the Most High, but also to biodicy, the justification of the ways of life itself.  In carrying out this latter project, as in the former, the temptation is to emphasize the illumination offered by the salmon run, to focus intently upon the very light life sheds upon itself in its renewal from generation to generation.   Those fry emerging from the redd, no matter that most suffocate or are eaten within a few days of their hatching, no matter that their ultimate destination is to return to the very riverbed from which they emerged to culminate their life in exhaustion and death, these fry, indeed the very idea of them, indicate a beneficence, a well-doing, that calls forth life anew even as life dissipates.  And in doing so, doing well is said to transcend incapacity, the failure to do whatsoever.   Rather than on moments of darkness, of form dissipating into the formless, of meaning losing its own hold upon itself, one focuses one’s thinking on the magnificence of the sacrifice of one generation for the sake of the next, on the transcending of one's particular existence for the goodness of those lives who follow.  In doing so, the world comes to be articulated by principles ordering and affirming its persistence in being.  Creation itself in this wise is understood ex nihilo, as arising in an emergence whose very illumination as emergence sustains itself ever after by the power of the inauguration of its very illumination.   This might be one translation of the Hebrew tov, in which the Most High, in the opening accounts of Genesis, recommends creation as being good in its emergence of ordering and purpose, in its rendering of distinction within lawful constraints.  Once the seven days have passed, the reverberations of lawful emergence sustain creation into eternity.  Once the Word has been spoken, there is no taking it back.

But for the Rabbis the significance of Creation is not exhausted by its goodness, its capacity to illuminate and be illuminated.  Surprisingly the attribution of purpose as the overriding significance of Creation is resisted by at least some of the rabbis as they focus on the opening lines of B'reshit, the Hebraic name for the biblical text called Genesis by Christians.  These dissenters intimate that something darker is afoot, something devastating, afflicting.  By focusing on principles, upon the emergence from the beginning of a lawful edifice by which creation is to be governed, one fully evades these troubling thoughts.  This is not to say the discussion of the issue proceeds without ambivalence. In MIdrash B’reshit, the opening line of the creation story, "In the beginning the Most High created," is interpreted by Rav Oshaya and Rav Hanina  in a doubled movement.  On the one hand, Rav Oshaya argues the Most High is to be understood even before the beginning to have created Torah, learning or wisdom personified, by which the very manner in which Creation is then to proceed is already laid out.  In this wise, the Most High is even pictured as consulting Torah, as a king might consult an architect in building a palace, in order to proceed in an orderly manner with the doing of creation, with the construction of its many chambers.  But on the other hand, right after this discussion Rav Hanina raises the possibility of understanding Creation as the work of a monarch who "builds a palace on a site of sewers, dunghills, and garbage," a translation into parable of what is to be understood by "tohu v'bohu," the "formless and the void," over which the Most High hovers, in the picturing of the act of creation in B’reshit.  R. Huna adds, "If the matter were not written [that creation begins in an acknowledgement of tohu v'bohu] it would be impossible to say."

In fact Rav Huna argues one should not say it at all, this scandalous blasphemy inflected from within the very work of the Most High, the ambivalent not-so-well-doing of Creation, even if it has been written into the Torah itself, that one is better off if one's lips were "bound, made dumb, and silenced."  Involved here are matters "withheld from His [Elohim's] creatures."   Yet the story that is not to pass one's lips is recounted just a few sections later when "a certain philosopher" approaches and interrogates Rav Gamliel about "the good materials" the Most High called upon in order to create the earth.  "Tohu, Bohu, Choshech, Mayim, Ruach, v'Tehom" - "the void, the formless, darkness, the waters, wind and the deep" - is Rav Gamliel's reply. In justifying his remarks concerning Tohu, Bohu, and Choshech, the Rav calls upon Isaiah, where it is written "I make peace and create evil.  I form the light and create darkness."  To this the philosopher replies: "Woe to that man," meaning, to Gamliel who has just affirmed chaos in the midst of principle, who has built a house of law upon a primordial sewer, or in the case of salmon, a river stinking of rotting meat. 

Bog Waters
III.  Darkness has its Day,

Taking seriously the train of thought developed above concerning tohu v'bohu, Catherine Challier in her Talmudic study, Le nuit, le jour au diapason de la creation (“Night, Day in accord with Creation"), speaks on behalf of Creation characterized as de novo rather than ex nihilo.  Further, she understand the former differently than in Maimonides, for whom Creation de novo was a manner of scrupulously acknowledging the priority of the Most High in regard to what is created, Creation de novo indicating that there is particularity in the creature's beginning, that the mundane cannot be dependent upon the most high as emerging ex nihilo but nevertheless eternally so. Rather for Maimonides Creation de novo emerges as a specific event with a specific beginning.  For Chalier, on the other hand, Creation de novo indicates a Creation ever in crisis, a Creation that perhaps has not yet actually begun, at least in its fullness, a Creation whose instantiation is not in "an act situated in a past of long ago" but one which "occurs here and now." This view fits, she notes, in a tradition of prayer inaugurated by the Rabbis, who each morning address a Creator "renewing without ceasing the work of creation."

In this work she includes the Creator's breaking into speech, affirming logos, in the proximity of tohu v'bohu, the latter of which is not simply to be characterized as "nothing" but rather as "a shadowy power of dislocation and confusion, that is to say, of decreation." This power of decreation does not predate Creation but is itself inflected from within the very drama of Creation de novo.  She notes: "If speech is an illumination for us, this is precisely because speech gives being to differentiated creatures and that it does so from out of unformed magma." In Creation discourse comes to itself not from out of a pure nothing, crystalline and transparent in its emptiness, but in the face of the deep, a "shadowy disorder and incessant troubling."

In Creation de novo understood in this manner, the emergence of creatures as beings is not assured ever.  In a sense the beginning has never occurred sufficiently to be a beginning.  As a result, Creation de novo as understood by Chalier requires that one receives in humility and poverty the thought of how all one's theories about Creation, all one's stories of Creation, are themselves already conditioned in a manner beyond one's own capacity to reason out or to tell, to specify or to locate. Her approach cultivates discernment concerning the profound even abysmal inability of the creaturely to account for itself in its own terms, and cultivates sensitivity to how unendingly vigilant one must be in regard to respecting, attending to, this impoverishment in one's reasoning. The first thought of Creation then is cultivating patience in the proximity of shadows.  In this wise, the very theorem of causation, that Creation is the outcome of the Most High's capacity to be a cause, is to be attended to as yet another mode of idolatry, as yet another manner in which the creature would presumptuously fix the reality of Creator in creaturely terms.

IV. Naming Muddam Naming Salmon Naming The Most High

Immediately following upon the account of Creation beginning B'reshit, a second story is offered, both resonating with and differing from the first.  The most important difference lies perhaps in how the Most High cries out to the heavenly court "lo tov!," "not good!," upon witnessing the first human, standing singular and alone on the face of the earth.  A crisis is brewing in spite of all the "tovs," all the proclamations of the good that had ensued heretofore in Creation's first account.  In the second account, the collapsing of tov into its negation moves the Creator to unusual measures. 

To understand these one needs first to consider how in creating the human consumed in loneliness characteristic of the second account, the very dust of the ground must be gathered, formed, shaped into the facsimile of a living entity, before breath can be instilled in it by the inbreathing of the Most High who hovers above the inert form.  As if to underline this fact, in the human's very being named as "Adam," better translated as “Muddam” or “Dustam” or "Eartham,” if you will, the very matter of the human creature's being of matter, that is of "earth/adamah" is given expression. This matter in turn is worked upon, animated, by the breath of the Most High, in the case of Muddam, and by the breath of Muddam in the case of the remaining living creatures.  In the latter case, with the Most High standing behind Muddam, Muddam is brought before the newly-formed creatures to name each of them in its own kind through the power, the tov, the goodness of his human breath, namely, his speech.  Only in this gesture can the creation of the animals, which began with the Most High fashioning them from out of the dust of the earth, be accomplished in its fullness. The verb here is i'caro, “to call,” which suggests the naming is not pronouncement, objective, named from afar, but a bringing near, a cultivation of proximity.  The Most High started it, but Muddam finishes it.  In this way, among others, the Most High provides consolation, provides reassurance, for the perilous state of Muddam's having been created. In all of this are refractions of the first story of creation, the one in which the Most High hovers above tohu v'bohu/.

In the Current
Even now the dog salmon of Kaasde Heeni, witnessed last August in their run on rainy days of diminishing sun in the northern reaches of the planet, even now these salmon are decaying in these words, even now eagles are ripping these words apart, rendering them unruly, a descent into shadows and confusion.  This is to say, these words name salmon, even as the salmon insist on the impoverishment of all naming, on rendering these very words here and now creaturely in their attunement, words in search of company, of creaturely others to share the burden of creation, its inevitable lo tov, its affliction. 

Here is encountered a naming that perhaps for a moment attends to the grandiose theorem of evolution as teleological development, of the unfolding of the manifold niches of creation as if it were a palace plotted out by an architect, even if the project is continually and currently under renovation.  But troubling this teleology from within its very movement is mutation and inexactitude, morbidity and extinction, instability and loss.  And did I mention everything creaturely is eating everything else that is creaturely in the process?

The Rabbis speculate: Because Muddam has named the animals, he is now capable of naming himself as Muddam.  And because he now recognizes the humility of humus involved in his own naming, the Most HIgh feels free to ask him as well:  "What is MY name."  To which Muddam replies with the four-lettered-one, the four-spelled, the name not named, the name immediately translated in the mouth of the text's reader as "Adonai," as Lord.   Rashi adds, in the naming of this name the quality of mercy is engaged. And in the naming of this name, it might be added, the salmon too are making their run.