Trans-species Pidgins

Why ask anthropology to look beyond the human? And why look to animals to do so? Looking at animals, who look back at us, and who look with us, and who are also, ultimately, part of us, even though their lives extend well beyond us, can tell us something. It can tell us about how that which lies “beyond” the human also sustains us and makes us the beings we are and those we might become.  – Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human

One of the most frustrating things about Western civilization is its relentless anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism.  Most of us modern, Western, scientific humans think that we are the only truly conscious beings, the only beings that can think, feel, and communicate.  Itʻs a form of blindness or self-mutilation, in my opinion, as if we deliberately bound our feet or shut down one of our senses in order to belong to Team Civilization. Certainly such blindness makes ruthless exploitation of the natural world a lot easier on the conscience – if you consider all of it to be mindless matter then why not bring on the bulldozers?  Continue reading “Trans-species Pidgins”

22h BATS + HOT CHOC

We were at a campsite in Brittany this summer, in a green valley thick with oak woods.  On our second night there was an announcement on the chalkboard outside the reception hut:

22h BATS + HOT CHOC

BRING TORCH AND MUG

Who could resist?

10pm that night we turned up at the hut, and followed a trail of waggling torch beams around to the river side of the the old mill building. The group of 15 or so people, parents and kids, gathered to listen to the campsite owner,  himself a dad with young kids.

The mill was a hundred and fifty years old, and disused for half a century. A big, broken, rusty old mill wheel, like something off a paddle steamer, leaned against the rough stone wall. We could make out the black rectangles of window openings along the upper story, where the bats live. 500 of them. The second largest colony of their species in France. By this hour most of them had come out to feed, and by torchlight we could pick out two or three zipping back and forth across the surface of the dark water.

Our host directed a handheld monitor towards them and it crackled like a Geiger counter, translating inaudible squeaks into something we could process. We learned that while human hearing goes up to about 30kHz and dogs to 60kHz, these little critters operate at 120kHz.

They fly blind but see by echolocation, snapping up a midge every couple of seconds. In two or three hours of the night they’ll consume twice their own weight in midge. I guess that means coming home weighing three times what you did when you kissed the family goodbye and flew off to work.

If you’ve ever been in the Scottish highlands or similar latitudes on a summer evening and tried to swat a midge, you’ll know it can’t be done. They’re fast, and practically too tiny to see. To them, we must be as big as the Eiffel Tower, and almost as immobile. But the bats have got midges figured.

Clever little things! There are over a thousand species of bat in this world, filling niches across the land.  Much reduced in total number these days as their habitats have been occupied or eliminated, but this wooded valley, with its appealing old mill building and unpolluted, midge-rich river, is a still a niche that needs them.

Another canny feature of their lives that our host told us about: in autumn the bats congregate at a wooded spot downstream to meet and mingle with other colonies. They mate, but the females don’t fertilize until spring, once they’re sure it’s going to be a good season for foraging. They raise a single baby bat every one or two years.

The hot chocolate was ladled from a big shiny vat, and was as good as any I’ve ever tasted.

Metamorphic: for all the Wild Ones

For we cannot think like Indians; at most, we can think with them.  – Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics

As far back as I am able to think, to remember, which is a kind of thinking, there are memories of places, of plants and animals, of a kind of light and air, the smell of water on leaves, root and dirt, the strange sight of lava flows reaching the sea, the band of white coral touching blue ocean, of roads leading through orchards, of flowers against the sky, of moss-covered rocks and river pebbles.

I have these myths.  These are my myths.  Continue reading “Metamorphic: for all the Wild Ones”

If you cannot catch them, stampede em over the cliff

Thanks Chris for pulling on this thread so to speak

Perhaps these photos are just of excesses of the past, of things we label charismatic megafauna, then promptly tend to forget, whereas the bugs and bees fallen to pesticides, and the fish eaten for survival do not seem to evoke the same feelings of loss.

See also today’s news about a recent paper describing the human impacts on the larger mammals: https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/04/19/604031141/new-study-says-ancient-humans-hunted-big-mammals-to-extinction

Wonder how many babies this female had every year…

When you tug a thread

I tore this picture from the newspaper last month and put it on the shelf behind some books, but the image didn’t let go. The sorrow it engendered seemed disproportionate. I follow the news and know that human lives and hopes and dreams are being extinguished all over. Children’s lives and hopes and dreams. Why bother about a hundred-year-old photo of some extinct animals?

They are Tasmanian tigers, or thylacines, in a zoo in about 1910. They were hunted to extinction in the wild around that time, and the last of their kind – though there are occasional unverified sightings to this day – died in captivity in 1936.

The thylacine was a marsupial. It raised its young in pouches like a kangaroo, and evidently evolved to fill a dog-shaped hole in its environment. “Convergent evolution”, zoologists call it. I guess because of some conditioned affinity for dogs, I’m more moved by those faces than I could be by any image of a dodo. See those curious, questing, intelligent eyes. And the physiognomy, so familiar and yet so strange. What a dreadful loss.

I’m not sure if we ever carried out a proper accounting for this loss, and I believe we need to – for our own well-being if nothing else. Our ancestors wouldn’t have allowed such a thing to pass without appropriate acknowledgement. Without mourning.

I’m talking here about our deep ancestors, way back when our kind still lived and died amid wonder and mystery, both as a part of Nature and apart from it. Way back before wild grasses were tamed on the silty flood plain. Before wild creatures were hobbled and roped into our enclosures. Before settlements, property, hierarchies, laws, slaves, money, taxes, royalty, God, soldiers, politicians, bureaucrats and the execution block. Before we had to indulge wealthy simpletons boasting about their plans for colonies on Mars and everyone living to 100! Before all the generations of stunted minds and lives. Back to when our distant but actually not so distant kin were strong and alert, and well aware of how deadly our gifts of fire and tools and storytelling could be for the magical web of life on which it all depended.

We could consider the thylacine just another twig snapped off the Darwinian tree, one of many. After all, those who study these things tell us that 99-point-something per cent of all species ever have gone extinct, that’s how evolution works. So… chill. But no. Tug a thread, and then another, and pretty soon the whole fabric comes loose. That must have been clear as daylight to our ancient kin, for whom every waking morning was a reminder of how blessed they were and how dependent on Nature’s grace. It was clear to Shakespeare (“For nothing so vile that on the earth doth live / But to the earth some special good doth give”) and it’s clear to a lot of us today. It’s an important truth yet one that’s glossed over in the narratives that drive our global, urban-agro-industrial culture. So the threads go on being tugged out, one after another.

Scholars of the Sixth Mass Extinction report that species are now blinking out at between 100 and 10,000 times the background rate of extinction. No time to mourn them all, of course. In fact, no time to mourn any of them. Our culture of extraction and consumption has to keep pressing forward, eliminating obstacles along the way.

Stop now and it all collapses.

Carry on and it all collapses.

But at least let’s account for what we’ve done and where we’re at. Even though it hurts. Our deep ancestors, if they came among us now, would surely look at us – their own distant progeny – with eyes of affection, and admiration, and sadness. They’d know full well the price that is paid for injuring Nature, and they’d understand the thylacine can’t be brought back. The thread can’t be pushed back into the fabric, no matter how hard we might wish that.

I believe they’d also consider it the responsibility of our kind, once Nature’s favourite child, to face up to what’s done, to take on that burden – not bury it – then live with it as best we can.

Nickering

I’ve heard that the Bedouin celebrate the birth of a foal as an event second in importance only to  of emergence of a poet, which seems an admirable way of looking at things to me.  After weeks of anticipation and nervousness, I am celebrating the birth of a tall, black filly with one white foot and a star on her forehead. Continue reading “Nickering”

Pastoralist Propaganda

Of late, I’ve been under the spell of the Mongolian film-maker Byambasuren Davaa.  She has made three movies: The Story of the Weeping Camel, The Cave of the Yellow Dog, and The Two Horses of Genghis Khan (Das Lied von den Zwei Pferden).  I’ve only seen the first two of Byambasuren’s movies, the last was not released in the US.  Her movies are a fascinating blend of fiction and documentary; the actors, humans and non-human, are themselves, they don’t even play themselves, they live their own lives but there is a movie camera and a story that they act in.  Sometimes they think of the camera for a split second, as real people would do Continue reading “Pastoralist Propaganda”

Fish in a tank

A few evenings ago he was sitting up on his bed looking troubled. His cheeks seemed blotched and his eyes were flicking and blinking, almost as if he was going to cry. But he’s nine, and I think it’s a point of honour with him never to cry. He said quietly, as I bustled around getting ready for lights-out, “Daddy, there’s something that bothered me today…”. I paused for a proper look at him and asked what’s up? “On the way back we stopped in the Chinese supermarket. There were all these fish in the tank. There were so many they could hardly move…”, and that’s where he tailed off. His expression told the story. Continue reading “Fish in a tank”