Various bird drawing experiments, and a bilby

Drawing an ibis, with an ibis feather. A little exercise in response to Timo pondering, in response to a question posed by Eugenia Bertulis, how we might co-create with birds.
Playing around with digital drawing tools. I still, and probably always will, prefer pens and pencils and paper — the material feedback is such an important part of drawing me into the ‘zone’ when I work. A stylus and a screen leave me cold.
I ran a workshop on Nature Storytelling at Taronga Zoo in the April school holidays, for the Youth at the Zoo program. One activity was sketching the movement of small birds (Zebra and Gouldian finches) — not drawing representations of birds but using sketching as a mode of active observation. The workshop is an offshoot of The Urban Field Naturalist project, which is a parallel project to this Precarious Birds project, but there are crossovers and looping threads between themes (conservation, nature-culture storytelling, human-wildlife conflict/entanglement) and collaborators (Timo has contributed stories to UFN, we are drawing on the expertise of John Martin, Dieter Hochuli and Thom van Dooren in this project, Andrew Burrell and I co-designed an Augmented Regent Honeyeater birdbox with audio of Timo and I talking … a longer post on that coming soon).
Half way through the session, a naughty bilby – four of them cohabit with the finches in the ‘desert room’ educational space – crossed over to the designated human side of the space. Expertly guided by Zoo staff, the 30 or so YATZ (youth at the zoo) were calm and collected, until he was redistributed to the nonhuman side. I just stood there drawing, animal handling is not my forte.

Pentti Linkola

Scots pine snag, Skatanniemi, Helsinki, July 2019. Photograph by Timo Rissanen

Pentti Linkola is something of a conscience for Finland and for humanity. His ideas are radical, often shocking and sometimes dangerous. Yet I’ve shared some of his thoughts in moments, as a visceral reaction to the persistent destruction of the biosphere that I have witnessed, and contributed to, throughout my life. While a lot of his thinking resonates and inspires, I do not share his nationalistic thoughts. In the face of a planetary emergency we ought to question the ongoing usefulness of a nation state. This is a time for all humanity, for one humanity. When we accept the emergency, the viability of national borders begins to crumble. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about becoming indigenous to place, a more productive way for us to simultaneously consider our individual and collective place in the world, though this must be a robustly decolonised practice. The way Linkola voices the losses of these times and is able to see connections most of us look away from, either from ignorance or discomfort, is familiar to me. The forests and lakes he writes and speaks of, that he lives among, are familiar to me: Finnish forest is where I experience something I might begin to describe as indigeneity. Though Finland hasn’t been home for 24 years, drop me in a Finnish forest and I can tell you the month of the year by observing the presences and absences, and the movements and the sounds around me.

Otto von Busch shared the following clip of Linkola’s account of a profound loss. I identify with it because many of the woods of my childhood no longer exist. The forest next to my school, where friends and I discovered a pig skeleton in second grade, has been replaced by a kindergarten and houses with perfectly manicured yards. I wonder if the spring we also discovered, magically bubbling with clean, cool water out of the earth, is still there? Through the satellite view on Google Maps I can see that the ditch where frogs spawned each spring is covered by a parking lot. Where do they spawn now?

At our summer house, most of the spruce woods, dark and heavy trees that had grown since at least the 19th century, have been clear-cut during my lifetime. There was one particularly gloomy spot of dense moss understory cradled by massive spruce that I keep forgetting hasn’t existed for 25 years. Each summer when we get to that spot I find myself momentarily surprised after the bend in the road, that instead of being dwarfed by majestic elders, their branches making a tunnel out of the narrow road, we come to a spot of ten-metre high regrowth, half my age. The memory of what once was is stubbornly vivid. Some years ago I had a dream that I was there, chatting with my late mum among the giant spruce. Waking up was a harsh reminder that both the trees and she were long gone. Along with others. I cannot recall how long it has been since I saw a Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker. (I much prefer the Finnish name, pohjantikka.) Maybe they are still there, clinging on to a memory, scattered across the few remaining patches of old-growth forest. Or maybe they went north where I pretend the forests are less intensively managed. During each visit I hope to see or hear one.

It would be intellectually lazy to outright dismiss a radical thinker like Linkola. Criticality is necessary and we ought to ditch whatever ideas we find destructive. As Linkola’s account above shows, our elders hold memories we cannot have, because of what we have destroyed in the name of progress and development. While we cannot have Linkola’s memories we can learn from them, to ensure that at least some of our memories continue to manifest in reality, in thriving, balanced ecosystems that also include us.

Patch of forest in Lauttasaari, Helsinki, July 2019. Photograph by Timo Rissanen

 

Braiding Sweetgrass

Patch of young growth, Averill Park NY, November 2019

“Weep! Weep! calls a toad from the water’s edge. And I do. If grief can be a doorway to love, then let us all weep for the world we are breaking apart so we can love it back to wholeness again.”

A friend and colleague recommended Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass a few months ago. It has been my audiobook companion while cross-stitching, and I’m now coming to an end. And many beginnings, it is clear. Kimmerer incisively braids together her indigenous wisdom and scientific knowledge, all the while acknowledging directly the deep losses brought with invasion, genocide, extermination, “progress”. Like in this project, grief is always present, inseparable from love. I have nothing to add to Kimmerer’s call above. Read the book, mourn the losses and then get to loving the world back to wholeness again.

Storytelling for the uncanny present

Uncanny sunrise, descending into Sydney

While overseas in November, I caught snippets of news from home: unprecedented bushfire smoke choking major cities; koala populations declared functionally extinct (not all koalas); heritage-listed rainforests burning; farmers traumatised by the screams of dying animals.

From afar, these unsettling accounts seem fictional, like the ‘raining frogs’ in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. Except in Anderson’s film, the uncanny frog-storm is a narrative device used to pull the disperate plotlines together. In Australia, politicians are instructed not to link the catastrophic bushfires with climate change, led by prime minister Scott Morrison who sends ‘thoughts and prayers’ to affected communities but publicly suggests Australia could increase emissions without worsening the fire season. As science journalist Ben Lewis asks, if now is not the time to talk about climate change, when is?

As my plane descended, the landscape looked more Mars than Sydney. Walking through the tunnel connecting plane to airport, the smoke further discombobulated me – days before, that same smell wafted from the chimneys of Averill Park homes, as Timo and I crunched through Autumn snow to the residency. Autumn and spring should smell worlds apart.

48-hours after arriving home, my sensitive sinus reacted to the smoke particles with a gnarly middle-ear infection and a throat full of ulcers. A week and a bundle of antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals later, I’m still deaf but I can lie down without searing pain. I cannot imagine how those closer to the blazes are suffering.

6pm sun in Sydney. I worry photographs like this aestheticise the problem.

In a recent project, I borrowed Margaret Atwood’s term ‘the everything change’, which better encompasses the cascading changes associated with a altered climate. Bushfires devastate landscapes, communities, creatures and exhausted rescue services in their paths. As I’m now painfully aware, bushfires also impact those sensitive to smoke pollution and the medical services we require. There are social and economic impacts, with increased sick days and closures of schools, offices and infrastructure when the air quality is too poor to venture out. There is psychological distress, not just the trauma suffered by victims and rescuers, but also associated with a world changing so fast we barely recognise ‘home’.*

The term solastalgia refers to a homesickness experienced while still at home, a nostalgia for a familiar place made strange. Returning from a month overseas to an uncanny version home, I feel solastalgia keenly.

3.30pm Leichhardt. Sunset is 4 hours away.

Collecting Raph from daycare at 3.30pm in apocalyptic pink haze, at a time of year I associate with blue skies late into the evening, I realise this is what spring is to him. A time of indoor-only play, a season when his mum squints constantly from sinus headaches and pleads for quiet, when water restrictions prevent planting a spring garden and soot-blackened ocean swims are unappealing. His childhood cannot be like mine.

How can I prepare a child for a world I don’t recognise? What stories can I tell him, to prepare him for a future that makes a climate scientist think twice having a child at all? What stories can I tell myself, to avoid infecting him with my anxiety and solastalgia?

On aeroplanes, adults are instructed to fit our oxygen masks before helping children. This advice seems relevant for storytelling.

At the residency, Timo and I unpicked our personal motivations for this Precarious Birds project. I hesitantly brought up motherhood, and my mild embarrassment about the cliche of developing environmental concern after having a child. Timo affably encouraged me to get over it.

I am not, directly, performing this project for Raph. Nor for my students. Yet searching for ways to actively notice the ‘overlaid arrangements of human and nonhuman living spaces‘ and to ‘stay with the trouble‘, I hope to see the world anew. If I can find ways to better comprehend the uncanny present and unknowable future, I will be able to narrate these ways of being within the world back to both Raph and the students in my care. Storytelling is a form of action, and without action there is no hope (to paraphrase a conversation with Timo).

* I am not equating feelings of solastalgia or my gnarly sinus/middle ear pain with the trauma experienced by those directly impacted by fires. That trauma is beyond what I can comprehend, and hope to never experience. I’m writing this as a personal response to an environment I’m struggling to recognise as home.

Remembering buntings, forgetting buntings

Ortolan Bunting, male. Drawing by Wilhelm von Wright (1810 – 1887). Scanned from Svenska fåglar, efter naturen och på sten ritade 2nd ed. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Emberiza_hortulana_2.jpg

Ortolan Bunting, female. Drawing by Wilhelm von Wright (1810 – 1887). Scanned from Svenska fåglar, efter naturen och på sten ritade 2nd ed. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ortolan_bunting#/media/File:Emberiza_hortulana_1.jpg

The Ortolan Bunting and Yellow-breasted Bunting were plentiful during the first decade of my childhood. (I was born in 1975.) The latter was never common in Finland; the country was on the edge of its distribution, but it was an abundant birds throughout its range across northern Eurasia. Well, no more. Yellow-breasted Buntings are no longer seen in Finland every year and more than a decade has passed since the last documented breeding. The Finnish population of Ortolan Bunting has declined 99% in my lifetime. It is a bird I remember from my childhood, now at risk of vanishing completely from Finland within a decade or two. Both birds are caught in large quantities and eaten; the Yellow-breasted in its wintering grounds in China, the Ortolan during migration through the Mediterranean. Eating an Ortolan is an ignominious tradition in France. While habitat loss due to changes in farming is also impacting the Ortolan, hunting it does not help. I can’t help but ask: is eating these birds out of existence worth it? We did it with the Passenger Pigeon and then repeated it with the Eskimo Curlew: we replaced them with more of us.

Change in distribution of the Ortolan Bunting in Finland between the Bird Atlas of 1974-79 and 2006-10. Source: http://atlas3.lintuatlas.fi/tulokset/laji/peltosirkku

Change in distribution of the Yellow-breasted Bunting in Finland between the Bird Atlas of 1974-79 and 2006-10. Source: http://atlas3.lintuatlas.fi/tulokset/laji/kultasirkku

Will I be the last generation of Finns who remembers the Ortolan Bunting from their childhood? Xeno-canto allows me to remember the soundscape of my younger years but once I’m gone, will we care about another species if we no longer remember it? This question has been coming up for me a lot. It is not just species we are losing but we are losing the individual and collective memories of them. To borrow from Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, the Ortolan and Yellow-breasted Bunting are becoming ghosts in the Finnish landscape, and in Finnish memory. We are ghost-makers. And yet, the remarkable recoveries of the Laysan Duck and the Kakapo, two of countless island specialists, reminds us that we are effective avian ghostbusters when we choose to be.

Arts Letters and Numbers residency

How many PhDs does it take to set up a blog? In ‘the plant room’, Timo and I flick jalapeno chip dust off ourselves, smug that we have finally figured out how to insert this blog into the site, on day 3 of a 5-day residency at Arts Letters and Numbers, Averill Park, NY.

Although brief, the residency provides an invaluable opportunity to escape the distractions of our regular routines and focus on this project, which we started more than 18-months ago. Video calls between NYC and Sydney are sufficient to keep us rolling, but dedicated time to talk through and work in concert are essential for the collaboration to continue.

Blue jay, mourning dove, black capped chickadee, hawk. Walks in the surrounding woods give me more exposure to nature than I’ve had this year. An evening sighting of the international space station passing overhead adds another element to sky gazing.

HumanNature podcasts

On day three of the Arts Letters and Numbers residency, we listened to podcasts from the Australian Museum’s ‘HumanNature: Connection and cooperation in a time of climate change’ series, (accessed through AM soundcloud account).

Bruce Pascoe’s excellent speculative fiction, predicting Australian life in 2023 if current social, cultural, political and environmental conditions continue as they are. Question time is worth listening to; he speaks for most of it.
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“Bruce Pascoe’s ground-breaking research completely reconsiders the notion of pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians as hunter-gatherers. Explore and challenge the colonial myths that have often underpinned efforts to justify dispossession in this fascinating discussion. Reading the diaries of early explorers, both with and against the grain, Pascoe retells Aboriginal history and argues that it is time to take a new look at Australia’s past.”
“Aboriginal poet and novelist Tony Birch explores how First Nations ecological knowledge could help mitigate the impacts of climate change. In his urgent call to action, Birch identifies the powerful roles that First Nations ecological knowledge, environmental activism, scholarship and creativity can play in addressing the impact of climate change, particularly on vulnerable and disempowered communities suffering human rights abuses as a direct result. No less pressing, he argues, is the acceptance of personal responsibility towards forming respectful and humble relationships with country and the planet.”
“How does giving and receiving take form in, and give form to, our living world? While most discussions of gift-giving focus on exchanges between humans, Deborah Bird Rose is also captivated by the many forms of connectivity and flow that are integral to ecological processes. Drawing on her research with Indigenous people, Rose asks: what might it mean to understand gift giving as central to, and moving across and between, many systems of life; and what might it require of us, in this time of extinctions in which countless living forms and their possibilities for giving and receiving with others, are slipping away?”

I decided not to say much about the heartbreaking things that are taking place on Earth today. We’re in the midst of a great betrayal of life’s gifts. But I’ve chosen rather to praise life, and in this mode grief may be transmuted into advocacy. Along with mourning the loss, I’m asserting that in the shadow of death we’re called to defend life and to avoid despair.

Deborah Bird Rose, HumanNature lecture delivered at the Australian Museum, 2018
“Environmental martyrs put their bodies and lives on the line, risking imprisonment, violence or burial in a shallow grave in the dead of night. Some activists remain anonymous, while others gain posthumous fame and power, their deaths becoming a rallying call for others to join the cause. Rob Nixon, Professor in Humanities and Environment at Princeton University, and author of the award-winning Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, explores the surge in environmental martyrdom around the world over timber, water, land and mineral rights. Martyrdom is direct action in extremis, he says. But why are so many people sacrificing their lives? And what is the relationship between the fallen martyr and the felled tree?”

The thing with feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

— Emily Dickinson

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Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird? 
David Attenborough

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I hardly think a few birds are going to be the end of the world: 
— Alfred Hitchcock, The Birds