Animal Histories

Early theories about Birds of Paradise.

Perhaps they were fallen angels, these wingless birds. Their plumes were like haloes. Perhaps they moved as comets across the sky, in perpetual motion and only occasionally visible. They might be immortals in the flesh, or they might be the Phoenix. Whatever the case, it seemed impossible that they could land, given that they had no feet.

Theories sprouted. That the female must lay eggs in an internal chamber of her body where she incubates them until they are ready to begin lifetimes of continual flight. Or that they might rest after all, from time to time, using their featherless extensions like strings from which to suspend themselves from the branches of the highest trees. Perhaps they would twine these together while mating. Here is an image of one. See how it drinks the rain. 

Some hypothesized that the birds would never submit to close study, so averse are they to the prospect of being sullied by this world. As context for these speculations, it can be helpful to consider the earliest arrival of these birds on the continent. They had arrived, after all, as the precious cargo of a colonial ship, far from their songs, their homeland, and their days of flight, with legs and wings removed.

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Inspiration for this post: This morning I learned that today is the birthday of Conrad Gessner (1516-1565), the renowned swiss zoologist who published the Historia Animalium (History of the Animals), which was the most widely read natural history in Europe during the renaissance.  It was summarily banned by the Catholic church as heretical. Having once been harshly scolded as a first grader in Catholic school, for depicting a unicorn at the center of my elaborate marker drawing of the Garden of Eden, I felt my sympathies drawn toward Gessner’s work. In my unsuccessful efforts to find a readable digital copy of this extensive work, I came across this article about early theories of birds of paradise. To his credit, Gessner was among the first to speculate that the birds must not subsist entirely on air, rain, and vast internal fat stores, but must eat actual food, somehow. 

Hello, Stranger

For the love of seaweed.

There is the familiar arrangement of well-known symmetrical forms, the sort that draws comments of Cute, and Beautiful, exclamation mark. These are not that. Slick like raw meat, covered with film over knotty, bulbous appendages, they were dubbed the useless class of botanists. Perhaps it is the fate of things deemed useless, to be collected by fringe enthusiasts, who pressed them between paper, offered collections as gifts. They would sell them during the first world war, to raise money for wounded soldiers, and this is one of those things I can’t stop thinking: how when a continent was immersed in mechanized violence on a scale unprecedented in human history, some responded by collecting delicate specimens of fragile ocean life, to press between pages. 

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Inspired by Sasha Archibald’s Love and Longing in the Seaweed Album in the Public Domain Review.

Sanctuary

Protection is a delicate dance.

After the wetlands disappeared, many feared the cranes were gone, too. Extinct, many believed. The horror of this. What are we without our cranes? They are our loyalty, our longevity. And when they dance! A wonder to behold.

Farmers on the island began to sprinkle corn. Schoolchildren would perform this ritual every morning. Superstition, an outsider might say, this feeding of the disappeared.

But then the birds began to return. Encouraged by this glimmer of hope, more took up feedings. Ah, says an old woman now, I can’t go anywhere because of these birds. I worry about them if they don’t show up, but of course we want them to fly off, be wild again, whatever that means.

Some dig wells to create ponds for the cranes. An old man, bringing smelt to one of these ponds, spots a crane couple. He waves his arms and one of the cranes waves back, as if to dance with him.

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Inspired by, and using borrowed phrases from this wonderful article by Motoko Rich and Hikari Hida in today’s New York Times.

Among Ancients

Old growth wisdom.

The Pando, a trembling giant, is the oldest living organism on earth––also the largest and most dense, its name means I spread, which it does over one-hundred and six acres.

How old? I wondered. Some date this clonal colony back 80,000 years, a moment that roughly corresponds to the first known human burial. This seems significant.

There is a woman who travels the earth photographing the old trees. Time is the trunk, she says. Notice the split, she says, pointing to one of the ancients. To accommodate the storm.

She looks and looks. In each careful frame, she watches the old souls, how they shape the light. Making a record, she says. Lest people forget who they were, in the event of further collapse.

In their presence, she finds a reminder. There is still grace. There is still beauty. There is something and it’s made of grief but also beyond it, and it is still here.

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Inspired by this article on photographer Beth Moon’s quest to photograph ancient trees, and also by this articleabout the world’s oldest clonal colony of aspen. I learned about the earliest known human burial here.

Embodied Poetics

Years ago, amid a different terror, one concern was a sort of numbness. I remember what the poet said about attention to the senses. This is an act of resistance, he said. To survive the war and still do poetry, this is defiance of the death machine.

It can be done without a pen. You want to know what poetry in motion looks like? The poet asks.  A man walks to safety from an active bombardment zone. . . His two cows walk with him.

I am thinking of this as I am noticing how there comes a point of being saturated with images of shelled buildings, bodies in the street, and I observe the creep of a familiar numbness. I walk from the screen to put my nose in the fur of our cat, run fingertips across my daughter’s watercolor painting. Birds at sunset.  A mind can say live, but a body needs so many reminders, all of them in the senses: this is why, and this, and this.

When I return, it is to celebrate a mother who lost her father the day before the invasion, who drove with her husband under sirens and past tanks, making arrangements until it was time to leave with the children and the dogs. How they left the car to walk the last ten miles, how the walk was hard on the oldest dog, Pulya, who kept falling. How she carried Pulya, how he let himself be carried over her shoulder, with silent acceptance. How the husband stayed behind in a village with no water or food, using firewood to heat the home, tending for the old ones who can’t leave.

It is our love, this woman said, that gives me strength now.

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Inspired by the wild love of those persisting in the face of horrific violence, and by poet Ilya Kaminsky’s recent observation about poetry in motion, italicized above. I first encountered the story of Alisa Teptiuk, who carried her dog to safety, in this article.

Offerings

Between lives.

At the discovery of crows nesting nearby, some shoo them and some shrug, but one woman puts peanuts out. The crows love the peanuts and take to returning for more, sometimes cawing her awake on weekends. After some time, they begin to bring her gifts: here a marble, then a bottle cap, then an acorn. Crows are known to do this to show their appreciation. The woman keeps these gifts from the crows in a jar, shows them off to her friends, and now there is a baby bird in the nest. Look, she says. Now we’re a family.

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Inspired by this article.

Underground Music Scene

Subterranean symphonies.

To listen through soil is to be reminded of the inadequacy of words for sound, the curious choral cacophony of those out-of-sight creatures so easily out of mind, the soundtracks of springtail, of mellifluent moles mirroring the melodies of mice amid mesh of mycelium; these reverberating roots a revelation, calling a body back to unknowing. This is what the birds are turning their heads to listen for, plainchant of these porous depths, resounding.

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Inspired by Ute Eberle’s recent Knowable Magazine article about the emerging field of soil bioacoustics, which some prefer to call biotremology or ecoacoustics.

Winter Gestalt

Whispering landscapes.

Story of ages, these quiet ruins now submit to the embrace of twisted oak limbs. What solitude erupts through the ghosts of former sermonizers when somber winds replace old battle hymns. From twilight to light on this reticulated branch, snows drumming winter suddenly stop. What music now?

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Loosely inspired by the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), whose work has been credited with capturing “the tragedy of landscape.” He is said to have inspired painters such as Dali, Rothko, and Munch. His Moonrise Over the Sea is reported to have inspired Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.