Monday, July 23, 2018

Buffalo and Trains: Deeling Gregory's Gigantomachia on the High Plains.

Deeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 1*
On the high plains of Eastern Montana, images of buffalo emerge whichever way one turns.  Car dealerships and bars, stock brokerages and coffee roasters, sports teams and local banks, art galleries and t-shirt shops: the buffalo, or at least the image of the buffalo, is in evidence in all of these places and more.  Charles Russell, the great Montana painter, famously employed a buffalo skull as part of his signature on his artworks.  In doing so, he can be understood as insisting that all who remain here and now remember that buffalo had been here too.  In any event, the many ways of depicting buffalo - whether sketched out in a full-bodied side-view or frontal approach wth horns lowered, whether rendered as bleached skull or as tanned hide, or simply reduced to a silouhette  - is explored obsessively by a broad range of artists in these parts.  An infinite appetite for the image is seemingly at work

The hunger for the presence of the buffalo that these images communicate is all too often nostalgic.  The buffalo are welcomed as long as they remain safely in the past, a memory of other times, of a world that was destined to be superseded even if once remarkable in its own manner.  In this way, the iconifying of the Buffalo becomes nothing more than a re-inscription of what Australian anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose has termed "the Year Zero," a reordering of time by settlement peoples such that what has taken place before the arrival of European culture (and particularly in this case, European agriculture) is relegated to a legendary past that ceases to impinge too strongly on the moment in which one is currently living.  To remember the buffalo is fine, as long as they are not too near or too meaningful.

Railroad Poster**
But the imagery of Deeling Gregory's contribution to the public mural painted on the concrete walls of the First Avenue Railroad Underpass at Great Falls, Montana is another manner entirely.  To understand exactly how this is the case, it might be helpful to consider an image - supplied by an advertisement poster for a railroad - from the time when Buffalo were being wiped off the face of the earth with gleeful abandon by settlement culture.  In this picturing of that event, a steam engine plows through a herd of Buffalo running in panic before the onslaught of riflemen shooting at whatever moves on the prairie.

Deeling Gregory's Gigantomachia*
Gregory reinterprets this image as a Gigantomachia, in which two great forces are in battle with one another.  In her version, rather than simply fleeing the onslaught of settlement, the Buffalo, along with a white dove, oppose the steam engine as it ferociously invades the prairie.  In doing so members of the herd offer their very bodies in resistance, as they are crushed under the weight of the locomotive and ultimately paved over by railroad tracks.  Still they resist in spite of their defeat.  They do not assent to the imposition of the Year Zero, regardless of what riflemen and plows in the meantime might have accomplished.

What comes across in Gregory's portrait is entirely absent in the railroad poster: Buffalo, Gregory would remind us, were not dumb animals to be eagerly chased down and heedlessly slaughtered but august fellow creatures whose capacity to inspire and instruct us humans is not to be underestimated, let alone dismissed.  Particularly striking in this regard is how Gregory treats the individuality of each Buffalo in the herd she pictures.  Each visage is alive with sentiment as it submitted to ecocide.  Consider these images taken from the mural

Deeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 2*
Deeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 3*

Feeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 4*

Feeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 5*

Deeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 6

Deeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 7*

Deeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 8*
Those who might pause to meditate on these figures and their connection to the very location in which they are pictured will find provocative instruction on how settlement culture might reconsider its place in time.  The imposition of the Year Zero is not a fiat accompli.  Not only, it turns out, might the Buffalo one day return, but also in truth, they have never left.

* Images from the First Avenue North Underpass Mural are used with the permission of the Business Improvement District of Great Falls Montana.
** Railroad poster image taken from the interpretive materials provided at The First People's Buffalo Jump State Park near Great Falls, Montana.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Dreaming the Waters: Regenerative Ecology on the Banks of the Choptank

Waters of Rosemary's Spring on the Choptank
Nick and Margaret Carter have dreamt of many things under the sun in the fifty years since they settled along the upper reaches of the Choptank River.  But arguably at the bottom of those dreams, if there is ever a bottom to a dream, are the very waters of the river itself.   They are, it turns out, worthy of the devotion of entire lives.  Nick and Margaret have offered theirs in an ambitious project of regenerating  a forest dominated by native species on farmland that had been plowed under early on in colonial settlement and planted in corn and other monocultural crops for centuries.  Regenerating a forest inevitably requires regenerating the waters by which it grows, although Nick Carter might see this in its inverse relationship as well.  For him, the project is as much about restoring good water to the Choptank as it is about restoring ecosystem diversity to the watershed.

Nick would be quick to note that one's notion of a river's waters needs to be expansive.  The very land on which the couple lives, for example, is underlain by an aquifer, the Columbia, whose slow-moving lateral drift, inching along underneath one's feet, is as much a part of the Choptank's flow as the waters explicitly meandering between its banks.  The rain then that falls on the Carters' land, percolating in the soil and infiltrating into that aquifer is also part of the river's flow, indeed so are the weather fronts that have brought precipitation here in the first place.  To make things particularly complicated in this version of the hydrological cycle, if one dawdles a few hours along the edge of the river, one discovers that it has the disconcerting habit of flowing both down and upstream, as it interacts with the incoming and outgoing tides of the Chesapeake Bay, of which it is a tributary.  The river's source then is at times downstream as much as upstream, briny as much as fresh, the fate of all estuaries.
Nut Sedge found in a Swale
A river turns out not to be a piece of plumbing, a conduit for efficient delivery of a liquid, but rather a great and multifarious metabolism.  Complexity is its life, and a rough circularity is its function.  This is not to say that things don't get moved around, but they do so, at least when the river is working properly, in a manner that fits with the intricate and interwoven gestures of a master practicing Daijijuan.  Paradoxically, in a healthy ecosystem, the more abundantly its waters flow, the more complex their movement becomes: the very meandering of the river, in which it rhythmically undulates from right to left and then left to right, even as it moves downstream, is perhaps the best illustration of this point. The Choptank, then, is not a jet train powering ahead to its oceanic paradise, but rather a contemplative act focused on remaining precisely where it is, keeping itself in tune with how its manifold waters pause, even as they pass, eddy even as they stream.  Indeed the very notion that a river is not a singular but rather plural element, a gathering of the waters, hints at this.

Ground Cedar (Lycopodium complantum) showing up in a former Cornfield
A failure to attend to that complexity and its related aptitude for circularity has shaped all too much of the landscape surrounding where Nick and Margaret live.  For instance, if one were to look for the proverbial source of the Choptank, its starting point, one is likely to find it these days in a series of ditches draining fields of corn and soybeans.  This at least is the result that occurred when local writer Curtis Badger, in his A Natural History of Quiet Waters, attempted to trace the headwaters of the nearby Pokomoke.  From the 1700s onward, he notes, the ditch, as much as the plow and the ax, were the tools by which European settlement transformed the extensive swamps formerly characterizing this area into what locals like to say is "working" farmland.  A lot of work, indeed, does go into dewatering the land in this area.  Unlike a river, a ditch is a piece of plumbing, in which not the waters but only the water, as a singular, homogenous and troublesome element, is siphoned off and then unceremoniously disposed of.  For the digger of ditches excess water is not a precious element to be conserved but instead unwanted refuse, trash.  And "industrial-strength ditches," as Badger puts it, crisscross this landscape.  Indeed many of them have names suggesting a certain rural charm: "Bald Cypress Branch," "Coon's Foot," "Cowhouse Branch," "Gum Branch," "Gray's Prong," "Tilgham Race" are just some of these.   But Nick would remind any visitor to his property such fetching words are wasted on a form of interaction with the land that only ends up in leveling and ultimately impoverishing it.
Fern along a Brook flowing into
the Choptank
And so we return to the dream mentioned above.  Nick and Margaret have been busy for over fifty years on a project of regenerative ecology that for the most part has involved doing precisely nothing, of letting an extensive plot of farmland literally go to seed.  This has been accomplished with attentiveness and love, rather than indifference and neglect.  And along the way, at least some explicit interventions were indeed called for.

As Nick guides me down a path running along the edge of the property, he points out the remains of a ditch, in shambles but still waterlogged, that was dug early on in the history of European settlement.   In those times, he notes, ditches were often excavated after a winter thaw.  Farmers would determine where the snowmelt was flowing, charting out the lowest contours on the land, in order to place the ditch's course along these.  Ditches constructed in this manner, at least on the Eastern Shore, have a laudable tendency to tap into the aquifer, which often is only a few feet below the surface of even the more elevated areas.  Not unsurprisingly ponds and seeps abound on this particular ditch as it caves in and dissipates from Nick's studied inattention and particularly so after he dammed up a few decades ago one section of it.  As the land in that area reverted to a bog, interesting things began to grow there of their own accord, including ground cedar, really a clubmoss, sphagnum moss, and even the occasional stand of orchids.  When all these appeared, Nick and Margaret knew their project was working as they had hoped it might.

Sphagnum Moss reappearing on the Land
Beech Trees in the
along the Chop-tank
The earlier part of our walk had angled down from the farmhouse through former cornfields toward the river.  On these uplands, where crops once grew poorly on dry, sandy soil, an entire forest has sprung up over the last fifty years with loblolly and Virginia pine, black walnut and pignut hickory, southern red and willow oaks now predominating.   Under the loblollies, pink lady slippers, which are dependent on a particular fungus associated with this tree, have appeared as if by magic.  The magic unfortunately has not kept  deer with discriminating taste buds from eagerly chowing down upon the blossoms.  To Margaret's consternation, the number of lady slippers in that area is in decline. But still, all in all, things are going reasonably well.  Amazingly, not very much management for feral trees and exotics, including Norwegian maple, crape myrtle and all the rest of their ilk, has been necessary.  Nick attributes this to the fact that land along the river, too wet for crops, was planted in trees in 1927 and then managed as a woodlot. Today, a healthy, mature beech forest sustaining a wide variety of native plants and shrubs now flourishes there. This older, mature forest in turn has served as a dependable source of seeds and spores taking root in the former cornfields upland from it.

Lady Slipper under a Loblolly Pine

Jack in the Pulpit: A Green Bloom
in A Green Shade
There is no end to Nick's meditations on the intertwining of this land and its waters.  As our walk nears its goal on the banks of the Choptank, Nick points out three consecutive swales marking the course of the river in times past.  The first one we reach, he fancies, is the river a thousand years back. These depressions, meandering across the forest floor, make for difficult crossing.  Their boggy muck, glistening in the sunlight, threatens to swallow one's foot with every step.  Surrounding us are literally thousands of jack in the pulpits, a species of skunk cabbage with a fetching bloom, not to mention a scattering of spring beauties, Indian cucumber, May apples and other spring ephemerals that love moist feet.  Here and there a wood frog or bull toad hops out of the way of our passage.  Reaching the dryer area lying between two swales, Nick comments on how berms of sand built up here, as well as in tandem with the current banks of the Choptank, are the residue of yearly flooding, as the waters overrunning the river's banks are interrupted by the trees and shrubs of the forest.  This allows time for sediment captured upstream to drop out of the water and be deposited anew.

Nick takes me to the final berm near the Choptank and asks me to consider how its sands engage in ionic capture of nutrients and pollutants, leaving the waters of the river to pass downstream cleansed of excess phosphorous, as well as a host of unseemly chemicals. Listening to him, I finally begin to get a hint of the complexity and breadth of his vision.  He is asking that those who visit here join him in the contemplation of the journey and fate of each and every drop of the waters finding themselves, however temporarily, at home here.  When Tom Horton wrote that the unexamined place is not worth living in, he surely had Nick and Margaret in mind.  There is no walking this landscape in their company without every step becoming an interrogation in how the waters are making their way through it.

Crane Fly on a Sedge Leaf

Wood Frog

Complicating the
I ask Nick if he ever dreams of the land in his sleep, and his answer is disconcerting.  In his dream, it turns out, a phalanx of bulldozers are poised at the edge of his and Margaret's property.  The foreman of the crew shows Nick a legal document ordering the uprooting of the newly-regenerated forest to make way for a suburban development.  This nightmare lies literally in plain site during Nick's waking hours in every direction from where we stand.  "The leveling of the land," as Nick puts it, involved in suburbanization and farming, continues unabated.  Imagine, Nick asks me, to think of what a single branch fallen from a tree does to the waters encountering it on the forest floor.  The branch interrupts the waters' progress, complicates their flow.  The irregular topography of land is what makes it amenable to the diversity of life.  Farms and suburbs tend to smooth out the land and channel its waters quickly away into ditches and storm drains.  Nick's goal, on the contrary, is to keep the waters around and active as long as possible.  This is accomplished by intensifying the roughness of the terrain, by letting duff accumulate and fallen branches, not to mention entire trees uprooted, lie.  Nick intones, "When you walk down the land in spring and puddles are all around, the land is doing what it ought to do."

At least for the time being, Nick and Margaret's land is indeed doing exactly what it ought to do.

Nick and Margaret Carter

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Last Good Water

Rosemary's Spring in April
 Springs are magic, and we humans can't keep away from them.  If one is nearby, we go and look, and, if we are just a bit foolhardy, we even go and drink.  For several years I have been dreaming of a spring on the headwaters of the Choptank that is likely without a name on any map but is called Rosemary's Spring by those who know it up close and personal.  Recently I had the chance to visit it again, to spend time in its company, and to take photographs of it in the early light of the day.

Names, of course, matter.  The Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan reminds her readers that determining the appropriate name for a living kind or earthly element is a crucial part of our human vocation.  We need, she argues, to be very careful about how we name things and how we use those names once they have been found.  In English, for instance, we have come to name our home the Earth.  That's a pretty important name and, as names go, this one has its charms.   But it also gives the impression that our planet's surface is mainly composed of soil and stone.  It's all about the land.  But between puddles and bogs and springs and streams and ponds and lakes and seas and oceans, not to mention the innumerable aquifers underlying even deserts, we could just as well have named our planet the Waters.  Indeed our bodies are more water than anything else, a feature we share with most earthly living kinds. We humans then are precisely the proverbial fish out of water, except that we've also learned the trick of bringing the waters along with us in our only semi-solid flesh.

Rosemary's Spring and the marshy bottom land it feeds into is a fiesta of salamanders and frogs and toads, of sphagnum moss and skunk cabbage, of spring beauties and unpleasant nettles.  The poet Catherine Carter, who grew up with the spring, has written a poem about it that I cannot get off my mind.

The Last Good Water.

By this spring you cannot stand
to drink like a man.  If you would drink,
crouch on your muddy knees,
four-legged, or lie
flat on the ground braced on wet hands
in the swale. Set your lips to clear
water, but shallow, not even
an inch.  Move your dry
tongue to swallow, and taste oak leaves
and darkness.  The spring
is a puddle that seeps
from the ground; dip it up
and you get mud.  You must
be an animal here,
prostrate yourself.  This spring will bear
no hand, no cup.

I love this poem because it insists that one should not just stand there and take in what one sees.  Instead one is to get off one's own hind limbs and ether crouch or prostrate one's body upon the earth.   The activity involves a lowering of one's regard, a bending down of one's skeletal frame, a nearing of one's lips to the face, literally the surface of an earthly element.  In this act, one is cautioned against becoming so consumed with the swollen tongue, its perpetual obsession for quenching its thirst, that the waters become muddied, and one's drinking is spoiled.

Simply put, Carter's poem is liturgical.  It asks its reader to engage in an action that is solemnly heedful of another.  In doing so one is reminded that drinking water from a spring is a form of prayer.

The specificity of Carter's liturgy is also instructive.  Other waters call for other rubrics.  For instance, in Linda Hogan's essay, "What Holds the Water, What Holds the Light," the dappling of desert sandstone with ephemeral pools of water after a heavy rain is celebrated.  "Along the way," she writes, "my friend and I stopped at a cluster of large boulders to drink fresh rain collected in a hollow bowl that had been worn into stone over slow centuries.  Bending over the stone, smelling earth up close, we drank sky off the surface of water."  Here the genius of the waters of a particular country, of a certain place under the sun, to shape one's all-too-human doings is as filled with light as the seep of water in Carter's poem is troubled by darkness.  The heteroglossia of water, tis many registers of instruction, call for liturgical improvisation and renewed interventions.

Birch, Holly and Oak Leaves in the Waters
Intimations of the biblical story of creation suffuse Carter's poem, although with a difference: one is called upon here to hover over the shallows, instead of the depths, as in the case of the Most High, in order to confront an elemental darkness.  A muddied one, to be precise.  The depths, tehom in Hebrew, of the account in Genesis, are offered a surprising counterpoint here. The shallows, it turns out, are demanding in their own way.  Another surprise is that the poem brings the upright human down to the level of the crouching animal in order that the former might be instructed in humility in regard to its creatureliness.  One is called then to the poverty of a drinking that bears neither human hand nor any cup fashioned by a human hand.  Human preeminence is questioned, as the drinker is deprived of her or his usual props.  But a grace remains.  Darkness is permeated with the taste of oak leaves.  That is a darkness one might be able to bear.  That is the gift of Rosemary's Spring.

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.