Monday, November 25, 2019

Incendiary Ghosts on Morrell Creek: The Dark Shimmering of Creation

Larch Snags on Morrell Creek
A world can burn and burn and yet remain a garden of green.  This remarkable truth, know to all who live in ecosystems sculpted by their very flammability, was in full display this summer along the national recreational trail to Morrell Falls in the foothills of the Swan Range of Montana. Spreading along this very route, the Rice Ridge Fire, which commenced with a lightning strike on July 24th of 2017, resisted being quelled for nearly two months.  Throughout August it continued to burn, blanketing the surrounding mountains in acrid smoke, until over 46,000 acres had been consumed.  Then fire became megafire, growing mightily in early September to scorch an additional 100,000 acres in a mere two weeks.

Now at every step hikers finds themselves surrounded by the charred snags of lodgepole pines, along with a sprinkling of those of larches and firs, all of which had succumbed two years earlier.  Yet everywhere one looks to the earth lying underneath this sobering scene, one finds it festooned with colorful blossoms, as fireweed, lupine, salmon berry, hare bell, hyssop, wild hollyhock, wild licorice and a host of other plants are putting newly-available sunlight to good use. This is especially true of the fireweed which has shown up in droves to reclaim blackened soil still peppered with carbonized bits of wood.

Fireweed among the Snags
The luminosity of fireweed, its neon blooms shimmering with psychedelic intensity, is compelling as it overtakes a forest seemingly in ruins.  "Neon," at least to this writer's eyes, is the particular shade of hot pink, as it has been named by those who worry about such things on the internet, that more or less matches the distinctive and showy color of a fireweed's distinctive and showy raceme of flowers. In this particular case the descriptive term turns out to be an apt one.  The fireweed's inflorescence literally glows from within, even when fully-exposed to sunlight from without.  And when the angle of one's gaze is such that a conical clump of flowers is silhouetted against the background of a charred stump, the effect is doubly electric.

To be among these and the other colorful colonizers who are embroidering a heavenly scene on the drab remnants of forest burned to the quick is to experience what Deborah Bird Rose has characterized as the shimmer of creation.   The nature of life is to be lively.  In the environs of Morrell Falls and the two small lakes lying directly below it, this liveliness now shows up as what one writer for a local newspaper characterizes as a "landscape under revision."  But as witty and catchy as this phrase might be, I would advocate as well for a "landscape re-envisioned." One is eager to walk in these environs not simply to satisfy one's curiosity about how forest succession occurs, as the fabric of an ecosystem is woven anew in the wake of its recent immolation.  One also is called upon to behold how what is now emerging offers itself in a wholly other light, indeed, in one that shimmers.

Deborah Bird Rose speaks of this shimmering as a translation of sorts of what the Yolngu People of Australia characterize as bir'yun, a "brilliance" that is also "a kind of motion," indeed one that "grabs you" and "allows you, or brings you, into the experience of being part of a vibrant and vibrating world."   Yet another translation of shimmer might be that of the Hebraic "chavod," the glory of creation, in which the heavenly shows through the things of this world and leaves them resounding beyond their own means to account for themselves.  In shimmer, Rose argues, it is made clear that a forest is not simply a contraption of "gears and cogs," an elaborate mechanism that somehow keeps itself, in spite of firestorms and infestations, well-oiled and running.  That would certainly gain our admiration, but only as a well-crafted tool might. Such admiration in turn would be forgetful of how the forest is iridescent with the creative dynamism of the diverse agencies of diverse living things, with for instance "the ancestral power," as Rose would put it, of lodgepole pines and fireweed as they renew old ties, the pulsing of life in one living kind communicating its energy to another.  Gifts are piling up all about us.

 A Landscape under Revision

Ancestors I
But it is not only life that shimmers.   Death in its own fashion does too.  And it is this latter possibility that fully claimed me on two successive July evenings as I walked among the forests of charred snags left in the wake of the Rice Ridge Fire.  As night descended and the visible world moved back into the shadows, the outlines of a multitude of carbonized trunks and their leafless branches, only dimly registering in the eye, nevertheless came alive with intimations of their former lives that would not let me be.  One might say that I had been visited by ghosts.  Indeed, more accurately, I was the visitor, as the ghosts were arrayed all around me. The power of what these trees had been, their decades and centuries of rambunctious life before succumbing to fire was for that moment undeniably palpable. The ancestors were speaking.  One had the sense that one was being addressed, that a forest that once had been green and living was now revisiting its haunts on its own behalf, reminding those who tread here now of what had been offered up to the flames for the sake of the coming generations.

Everywhere one turns in a more-than-human living world, the invitation to liturgy abounds.  This is to say, one is invited to offer one's prayers, one's thanksgiving and veneration on behalf of all those other living kinds who contribute to the very possibility that one is offered for at least the brief moment of one's all-too-human life one's own place under the sun.  The fires of one summer might leave the earth smoking and blighted, its waters smudged with soot, but this in turn only insures the emergence of a garden green and shimmering in the next.

Ancestors II
Ancestors III

Ancestors IV

Ponderosa Pine Unfazed by the Fire

Morrell Falls

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Mantis Birth

Ready for the Wider World
Once you know where and when to look, finding a nest of hatching mantises is not so difficult as one might think. Mid morning seems to be the best time.  The mantises wriggle out rear-first from the oocenta, their egg case, one by one, wet and folded in on themselves.  Just like moths or butterflies emerging from a cocoon, they need to stretch out and dry.  Then, if they don't simply drop away from the writhing mass of their fellow hatchlings hanging in mid air, they clamber back up by the thread by which that whole cluster is hanging and find immediately nearby the highest perch available.  And then, when their oocenta-mates begin to dispute that perch, they climb down a stem and scatter into the garden.  Such an event! 

The Oocenta over a Cluster of Newly-Emerged Mantises
Moments like this one stop me cold.  One cannot simply note them and then move on.  They demand meditation, or at the very least, rumination, the turning over in the mind of the various ways in which, for instance, the birth of a clutch of mantises is no small thing.  Or perhaps, better, how the small thing that is that birth is all the same remarkable, fully endowed with the capacity to invite one's awe.  The everyday world of earthly things, it turns out, is wild, dense with meaning.  

Not a single mantis crawls about the face of the earth that did not emerge from an oocenta such as those dotting my garden.  All too often, one takes for granted that the living kinds are simply going to show up, that the earthly, after a long winter's nap, is automatically set to repopulate itself.  But this expectation ignores the long waiting in the cold, the sudden registering of warmth, the developing of an egg until its occupant is ready to squirm tail first into the light of a spring morning.  

I have been working through with my students this semester a series of readings raising the prospect for a contemplative ecology.  Sensei John Dado Loori in a small set of essays titled "Teachings of the Earth" speaks of how the river verifies the river, of how the earthly communicates itself precisely as itself.  We need to get out of the way, Loori recommends, so that the suchness of earthly things is rendered palpable in our thinking, so that we might become intimate with them.  

The wild is not to be found in the bizarre or the exotic, the untamed or untrammeled.  Rather the wild is precisely that which in its very ordinariness verifies itself as such.  If there were ever a moment that begged for a contemplative response in an ecological vein, certainly the birthing of mantises would suffice.   As ordinary as the unfolding of a leaf or the rising of the sun, the birthing of a mantis reassures us of our own place upon the earth.  If, that is, we were simply to attend to it with an open mind... 

Emerging one by one from the Oocenta

Competing for Perches


On the Way Down


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
Lowlands
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
Topography
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.