Reflections on Ecology

This page is an assortment of interesting, inspirational and insightful writings on things ecological.

I hope you enjoy these occasional contributions!

17. Vale Rod May … a tribute by David Holmgren

Rod May, a good friend, sadly passed away recently. This tribute, by David Holmgren, captures the essence of Rod’s extraordinary character and his amazing contribution from the global to the local over a lifetime of involvement in farming, Landcare and sustainable agriculture.

One of Australia’s ecological farming pioneers, and a close friend, passed away today. Rod May aged 63 died in intensive care after a road accident between Ballarat and his family farm at Blampied 5 days previously. Rod was a 4th generation farmer on 200 acres at the foot of Kangaroo Hills in the prime red cropping country of central Victoria. In the late 1970’s Rod returned to the farm motivated by interest in self reliance, organics and tree crops and “fell back into farming” as something to do in between starting the Central Victorian Tree Planting Co-op and getting elected to the very conservative Creswick Council … read on

16. Environmentalist. Conservationist. What’s the difference?

Aldo Leopold is not well known in Europe, but for many Americans he is the central figure in their pantheon of great conservation thinkers, more highly regarded even than Henry David Thoreau and Rachel Carson.

The attention he receives in the United States mostly came long after his untimely death, as he was helping to extinguish a fire on a neighbour’s farm in 1948, at the age of 61. When, today, that attention becomes adulation it can become problematic.

Extract from an article by Paddy Woodworth in the Irish Times, April 16th, 2016

To read this thought-provoking short essay in full click here.

15. Hear that? It’s the damning new silence of all that we’ve killed

by Anson Cameron, published in The Age, 14th August 2015.

Read more:

Jigsaw pieces of new silence begin to join, one-by-one, and fill the world. The erasure of this bird, the razing of that copse – the patches of aural nothingness coalesce.

Having pondered the problem an hour I’ve decided there’s no way to properly describe the cry of the bush stone-curlew in the dead of night. You’ve either heard it or you have not. That’s all. Neither Mozart nor Shakespeare could properly furnish that silence, or top up that emptiness, now the bird is gone.

That curlew used to come down from Queensland to my boyhood part of Victoria. It doesn’t any more. The sounds in the night there now, in what was open woodland, are human sounds: dogs barking, trucks humming on faraway roads, cows bellowing, Kanye bug-eyed with rhyme.

And the mopoke – that faint tolling in the night that announced the marriage between darkness and deep wondering – the mopoke has been exiled to an archipelago of leftover land; patches of poor scrub, water catchments, national parks, steep, untillable tracts.

I sit out in the night in places I once heard the mopoke and listen. That strenuous, fruitless listening where your ears yearn into a raw silence a beloved sound used to inhabit. A voice silenced is a sort of bruise on the air. A mopoke would call every few seconds for hours, until it became the night’s heartbeat. Now the darkness flatlines.

Another vocal night bird was the Willie wagtail. Cayley describes the wagtail’s alarm call as the rattling of a half-empty box of matches. And observed its chief call resembles the phrase “sweet pretty creature”. It had the persona of one of those small cartoon heroes to me: Atom Ant, Peter Pan, Fearless Fly or Kimba the White Lion. Puny but fast, up for a fight with an eagle or a magpie, endlessly cheerful and courageous. It could be heard out there in veriest midnight alongside the slinking, sinewy beasts that stalk the moonshadows. And it did not cower in silence, it called “sweet pretty creature” again and again advertising its whereabouts, audacious in the darkness. This seemed totally admirable to me. The wagtail made me braver. An intrepid super-urchin was abroad in the dark heckling villainy.

I’ve not heard a wagtail at night for a long time. They were once a lovely commonplace, now are rarer, and the night isn’t as happy or pretty as it was. The nightscapes of my past were jeweled with birdsong.

There is story in a curlew’s cry and a mopoke’s call, as there is in any song. And we are as easily able to recognise beautiful music in the shrill “sweet pretty creature” of the wagtail as in a Bach prelude. So I guess we will be pretty impoverished when they are gone. Poorer by three musicians whose concerts we attended. Poorer by three friends’ voices. Poorer by knowing we failed them.

They were three players who come to us in our beds and gave us a means of contemplating the array of remnant life that lies across the land. Three wraiths that journeyed with us from lights-out into dreams. In their voices you could hear past and future, corroboree and eternity, both memento mori and memento vivere.

If we f— everything – and with developers funding politics and orthodontists flying intercontinentally to shoot lions it seems likely – if all life, including homo sapiens, is gone at man’s hands, then, given that evolution took 4 billion years from the appearance of the first micro-organisms to shape the multiplicity of life we have known, and that our sun has another 5 billion years to burn, evolution still has time to start from scratch and achieve a greater biodiversity than its first throw. All this life may prove to be mere rehearsal – a first draft. What will it be next time? What new tenant will move in to our old home? Another Shakespeare? Will a curlew-like thing cry out curlew-like after the billions of year’s silence? Will a new being build a cage for his new curlew from the fossilised bones of our orthodontist? Will one species become a midwife to gods?

It’s likely that stars, given their lifespan, routinely shine on nearby planets as life begins and ends not once, but twice, three times … serially. What second coming, what fresh audience, will watch our star dim and go black? How long will the new curlew, mopoke and wagtail call into that last night with dawn not coming?

14. Mistaken observation of Pallid Cuckoo feeding its own young.

By Roger Standen – (originally published in the Victorian Bird Observer)

A spring visit to Kamarooka to survey an area recovering from a controlled burn revealed two cuckoos calling. One was a Pallid Cuckoo and the other a Fan-tailed Cuckoo. I tracked down the Fan-tailed Cuckoo that was calling from mallee trees adjacent to a watercourse and it called intermittently for over half an hour.However, the Pallid Cuckoo was the interest for the day. There was an adult that called regularly and what I presumed to be an immature that gave a hoarse, gravely squawk every so often.

To my surprise after watching them both at different places the adult bird came and fed the ‘immature’ bird a plump caterpillar. This was the only food I saw the ‘immature’ bird eat. This surprised me, as my understanding was that cuckoos did not have anything to do with the raising of their offspring.

The ‘immature’ bird sat around most of the time while the adult kept foraging and moving around, although it was stationary while calling. Both birds flew together several times but it was hard to determine whether the ‘young’ bird was following the older one or vice versa. I believed the ‘immature’ bird to not be newly fledged as it appeared to reflect the description and plates for the immature bird, rather than juvenile, in all the field guides I have (Simpson and Day (1989), Pizzey and Knight (1997) and Slater (2001)). It had achieved the sub-adult plumage as described by Pizzey and Knight and illustrated by Slater.

The Reader’s Digest states that after leaving the nest, immature Pallid Cuckoos may be fed by a range of birds other than their foster parents in response to the loud calling. Examples of this activity can be found in the literature. One of these is Kikkawa and Dwyer’s 1962 report on a fledged pallid Cuckoo that is fed by a Buff-rumped Thornbill, Jacky Winter and White-naped Honeyeater. Also, a review of 40 reports by Lorenzana and Sealy (1998) covered nine cuckoo species and focused on brood parasites feeding fledglings of their own species so it is a well-recognised activity.

However, the ‘young’ Kamarooka bird did not beg for food at all and despite a passing interest by a couple of Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters, no other birds paid the ‘young’ cuckoo any attention.

Another possibility was of an adult imprinting on a young of its own species to assist it to recognise that it was indeed a Pallid Cuckoo and not a honeyeater. This has been shown to occur with another brood parasite, the Great Spotted Cuckoo (Soler and Soler) but I am unable to find whether this has been shown for Pallid Cuckoos.

Another possibility I found for this ‘unusual’ sighting is that the feeding was related to sexual attraction and nuptial feeding that occurs among many species. It is ‘known’ for birds in the sub-adult stage to breed according to both Pizzey and Knight and the Reader’s Digest. Kikkawa, in a letter to the editor of EMU in 1968 raised several questions about the possibility of courtship feeding in Pallid Cuckoos and sought the detailed observations of others whenever this was encountered to be recorded and reported.

Following my initial investigations about what was happening with this feeding observation I was non-the-wiser as to what it really was. But I suspected it was not a random feeding response to a begging young cuckoo as described in detail by Kikkawa and Dwyer due to the lack of begging and response by any other birds.

Subsequent to all this, I thought I better check in the Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds (HANZAB) and to my surprise found that the plumage of adult sexes “differ markedly”! The plate in HANZAB clearly shows that the sub-adult bird shown in Slater (2001) is in adult plumage. The ‘young’ bird I saw was an adult female Pallid Cuckoo (dark rufous morph) and Danny Rogers, the author of the plumage section of HANZAB, after seeing my photos of the female, confirmed that.

HANZAB reports that the different plumages of the sexes was known early in the last century but from about the 1970’s articles and books started to refer to the rufous morph of the female as an immature plumage and this has led to my, and no doubt other’s, confusion over observations of adults feeding immature birds.

Armed with this knew knowledge, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that my observation was of nuptial feeding between adult birds. A quick check for more recent field guides fortunately found that the HANZAB knowledge is reflected there, for example in Simpson & Day (2004), and shows that even old birders can’t assume their knowledge is going to remain current. Whilst most of us do not own a set of HANZAB, this has raised the importance to me of adding a trip to the local, in my case university, library whenever I have a query on bird behaviour or identification to explore and see what HANZAB says.


  • Higgins P.J. (Ed) (1999) “The Handbook of Australian and New Zealand Birds (HANZAB)”
  • Kikkawa J. (1968) “Courtship feeding in cuckoos” EMU Vol 68(3): 213-214
  • Kikkawa J. and Dwyer P.D. (1962) “Who Feeds the Fledged Pallid Cuckoo?” EMU Vol 62:169171.
  • Lorenzana J.C. and Sealy S.G. (1998) Adult brood parasites feeding nestlings and fledglings of their own species: A review” J. Field Ornithol. 69(3): 364-375.
  • Pizzey G. and Knight F. (1997) “The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia”
  • Readers Digest (1976) “Complete Book of Australian Birds”
  • Simpson K. and Day N. (1989) “Field Guide to the Birds of Australia”
  • Simpson K. and Day N. (2004) “Field Guide to the Birds of Australia”
  • Slater P., Slater P. and Slater R. (2001) “The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds”
  • Soler M. and Soler J.J. (1999) “Innate versus learned recognition of conspecifics in great spotted cuckoos (Clamator glandarius)” Anim. Cogn. 2:97-102

13. Becoming Native to This Place by Wes Jackson.

Thirteenth Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures, October 1993, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Click here for an audio version.

In March of 1977 Fritz Schumacher came to Salina, Kansas (he died in August of that year). We had just started The Land Institute the previous September. Six weeks later our building burned down with all of our books and tools. I had resigned my position in California to begin this work, and what little retirement money we had, had been put into that building. There was really no reason to keep going except that we had some ideas. When Schumacher came in March, we were rebuilding, mostly with scrap materials. While he was there we arranged for him to give a public lecture, during which he told a story about traveling across the United States with some German friends at the height of the Great Depression, around 1935 or 1936 I imagine.

They stopped for gas in a small town near Salina and asked a fellow there, “How are things?” And he answered, “They’re all right.” Schumacher asked him, “What do you do?” “Well, I work on that farm right over there. In fact, I work for the man who used to work for me. I didn’t have any money to pay him, so I paid him in land. And now he owns my farm and I work for him.” Schumacher said, “That’s a very sad story.” And the man replied, “Oh, no; he doesn’t have any money either, so he’s paying me back in land!”

I like that story because at a very basic level this farmer shows us that in a certain sense all we have to do is figure out a way to stay amused while we live out our lives as inexpensively as possible within the life support system . It’s what I call the “Mill-Around Theory of Civilization”: if we can simply mill around and not expend too many resources, then we won’t do much harm to ourselves or the planet. The problem is, how do we learn to quit doing in a manner that uses up the earth’s capital? Or stated otherwise, how do we make our vessel so small that it doesn’t take much to fill it? Should not this be our journey?

I have a friend, Leland, who gets by on five hundred dollars a year. He lives in a six-by-sixteen-foot shack. He began his journey some twenty-five years ago. In some respects, he’s more important to me than Thoreau, for Thoreau’s tenure at Walden was brief. Leland’s idea is that once we start seeking pleasure, we start doing violence to people and to the landscape. He says there’s nothing wrong with the experience of pleasure, but when you start seeking pleasure, violence happens. He believes that my intellectual pursuits, for example, are a form of pleasure-seeking, that they create a kind of violence. He even quit growing his beautiful garden because he thought that too was a form of pleasure-seeking; now he just harvests the greens that grow wild in the yard and lives mostly on wheat. Leland took out Social Security because his wife, who lives in the house—he lives in the shack, less than a hundred yards away—felt she needed three hundred dollars a month to live on. He could get four hundred dollars from Social Security, and she could get two hundred, and because she needed only three hundred, he had three hundred dollars a month piling up in the bank. This money was making him have “creative thoughts” which he thought might start causing violence. So he scratched his name off Social Security and says he’s a free man again. There are other ways to think about living in the world, but Leland is important to me because he’s the most bottom-line person I know. He is very careful not to be judgmental of others. Seeing his example has made me pretty impatient with people who say, “We just can’t make it.”

But that’s not what I came here to talk about. I came to talk about becoming native to this place—meaning, first of all, this continent. I can do no better than to quote Wendell Berry in The Unsettling of America. He said that we came to this country with vision but not with sight: “We came with visions of former places but not the sight to see where we are.” Later, in a letter he wrote to me, he said that as we came across the continent, cutting the forests and plowing the prairies, we never knew what we were doing because we have never known what we were undoing. Dan Luten, the now retired geographer at Berkeley, in a paper maybe twenty-five years ago, said that we came poor people to a seemingly empty land that was rich in resources. And based on that perception of reality—“poor people,” “seemingly empty land,” “rich”—we built our political, educational, economic, and religious institutions. Now we’ve become rich people in an increasingly poor land that’s filling up, and the old institutions don’t hold. So here we are. We patch things up, give them a lick and a promise, and things don’t quite work.

Well, that’s all true as far as our settlement is concerned. But there is more, for standing behind settlement is conquest, which has left its legacy. Kirk Sale said it well in The Conquest of Paradise, a book I greatly enjoyed. After 1492 there was the gold of Mexico and the gold of Peru. So the conquerors thought (being Christians, believing things had to come in threes) there must be gold somewhere else. (It was a holy idea.) One of these men was Coronado, who was hanging out down in Mexico, married to the daughter of the bastard son of the king of Spain. He and a bunch of second sons out of Spain were mighty interested in finding that third hunk of gold. So in 1540 Coronado started northward from Compostela to Culiacán and followed the Culiacán Valley northward and finally reached an area straddling parts of present-day New Mexico and Arizona. They were looking for the Seven Cities of Cíbola. No matter that there were only six (seven, like three, is a sacred number, maybe because there are seven holes in our head). These cities reportedly had lots of gold. Coronado’s party consisted of a thousand horses and mules, a large flock of sheep, Indians to carry the baggage, and some three hundred Spaniards on horseback. It must have been quite a contingent. They made it all the way up there only to find poor—to their eyes—Pueblo Indians. No gold! But the Pueblo Indians had a slave whom the Spaniards called El Turko because they thought he looked like a Turk. I don’t know where he had been captured, but his people were the Herahay, who lived in the area of southeastern Nebraska and northeastern Kansas. Now, this poor slave was homesick and he wanted to go home. I’ll make a long story short. “There isn’t any gold here,” he said, “but there’s gold up in Quivira.” The easternmost part of the former kingdom of Quivira is about eighteen miles south of where I live in Kansas. The story gets a little complicated here. For some reason Coronado and his men left Pueblo country and lit out toward the plains of Texas. They got over to the Llano Estacado and ran into that dropping off point there. The Turk was telling them, “No, no; north and east of here, that’s where the gold is.” So they thought, “Well, what the heck” (that’s a loose translation), and Coronado picked some thirty men to go with him and sent the others back to Pueblo country. (Most of these young adventurers, by the way, were from some of the finest families in Europe. Most were in their twenties. The discoverers of the Grand Canyon were in their early to mid-twenties. Coronado himself was barely thirty.)

Convinced by the Turk, he and his thirty men took off “northward by the needle” of the compass—which is to say, north and east. Finally they came into the kingdom of Quivira—what is now part of Kansas—and what did they find? Houses made of sticks and straw, tall people, some of whom measured six feet eight inches high. Chief Tatarrax, summoned by Coronado, arrived. The only metal he had was a copper ring around his neck. There they were, frustrated and out of sorts, and Coronado was eventually convinced by his men that they should strangle the Turk. They put a rope around his neck, put a stick through the loop, and garroted him. Thus, the first murder by a European of a native of the central part of this continent happened somewhere between eighteen and fifty miles south and west of where I live.

At that particular time, de Soto was over on the Mississippi building barges. Had those two men and their armies marched toward one another for seven days, they would have met. De Soto died near the terminus of his expedition. Some three hundred years passed before that area would be filled in by settlers!

It is time to draw a long breath here and reflect on this history: the first Europeans in this country came as conquerors of the natives. The settlers who followed, as Wendell Berry says in The Unsettling of America, designated them “redskins” and treated them as surplus people. That designation and attitude are sins for which we have never atoned. Furthermore, by ignoring the wisdom and example of the native peoples, the settlers ensured that their own great-great-grandsons and -granddaughters would one day become redskins, surplus people. The loss of people from the land, the small towns and rural communities that have dried up—to the point that now only 1.9 percent of the United States population lives on farms—means that the new redskins have nearly been exterminated. So few farmers are there now that the U.S. Census Bureau has quit counting them as a category. And now we are all candidates for “redskinhood” because we never really came to terms with the attitude and the institutions—the system of laws, the justifications—that made the extermination of both the natives and the farmers possible.

Another long breath, another take on our history—1776. Here is Thomas Jefferson carrying in his mind the image of the Virgilian pastoral landscape. Jefferson had the idea that nature combined with farming carried with it a certain sort of virtue, an inherent virtue that would inform this new chance on earth. This was the Jeffersonian ideal of the small town and the rural community, informed as it was by his Enlightenment worldview, Jefferson believing in rationalism and giving us the grid and the system of laws. But here we have the reality of a highly diverse continent, an ecological mosaic, the product of a time long before any “Enlightenment mind” would appear. Part of this land would accommodate the Jeffersonian ideal, most of it would not.

To illustrate this, I would like to contrast an experience I had on a ranch in South Dakota one summer with the experience I had growing up on a farm in the Kansas River Valley. It was the summer I turned sixteen that I abandoned myself to the prairies of South Dakota to work on a ranch belonging to my mother’s eccentric and childless first cousin and her Swedish immigrant husband, Andrew. Ina was Andrew’s second wife; his first had been her sister Bertha. Andrew and Bertha homesteaded one-half section of land and Ina another. When Bertha died, Andrew and Ina married and joined their holdings. This was near the Rosebud Indian reservation, and on Sundays I sometimes rode with half-breed kids over those prairies, hearing stories of how their Indian grandfather had trapped eagles on this hill or that. Andrew, Ina, and I would go to White River on Saturday afternoon. These Rosebud Sioux would lie in the shade of the stores, and as the sun moved, they would pick up their belongings and move to the shade of the other side. Out on the ranch I would hear Andrew cuss and swear about how the Indians never did anything with the land. In town the very Indian from whom Andrew and Ina were leasing Indian land had once again charged groceries to their account. Andrew always paid, for to fail to meant that a neighboring rancher would be only too willing to lease the same land next year, perhaps forgetting that he too would be trapped into buying a bottle of whiskey at the liquor store, that he too would have to tolerate coming upon what was left of one of his steers butchered by the same redskins.

I fell in love that summer at a Saturday night dance. She was a beautiful white girl, her magic so overwhelming that I failed to sleep the entire night after I met her. Thirty-five years later when I saw her again, she was seriously overweight, had lost most of her teeth, her slip was showing, and she neither recognized nor remembered me as she lugged one of her grandchildren into the bar. I think it was the same bar where, as a teenager, I learned more interesting content at low tuition than at any time before or since. For it was there that I scrutinized, with the civilized eye of a Kansas River Valley Methodist, drunk cowboys—married or not—hugging and smooching young natives and from time to time disappearing with them into the shadows of the dusty back streets of White River.

The land was mostly unplowed and still is. The horse was central to that way of life then, less so now. Out on the ranch, besides the moon and stars the only lights were from Murdo and Okaton across the river twelve to fifteen miles distant. It was a summer of branding and castrating cattle, fixing fences, discovering dens of rattlesnakes, and catching pond bass. Many evenings on the ranch I’d drive out on “the Point” in a Cadillac coup or the pickup to shoot prairie dogs or to see the hundred head of horses in the bottoms or out on the range; “junk horses” Ina called them, for in the dry 1930s she would pump water for hours for the cattle, only to have fifty to a hundred head of Andrew’s horses show up, run the cattle away, and drink all the water. Andrew justified keeping these mostly wild creatures around by insisting it was horse trading that had made it possible for him to be so solidly positioned. But think of the slack Andrew and Ina enjoyed to be able to afford those hundred head of mostly unbroken horses.

I lived in a small wooden hillside shack set upon steel wheels, a shack Andrew had bought from Millette County, which used it to house the county road crew. It had been pulled by horses, perhaps the same horses used to pull the grader blade. Andrew and Ina lived in a small two-room house with a large attic, whose floor bowed from the weight of such old magazines as LifeThe Saturday Evening Post, and Ina’s True Stories about romance. Some evenings Andrew and I would sit on his steps, which overlooked the White River a half mile away. Andrew would cuss Roosevelt, the Yalta Conference, Indians, and neighbors—everybody but Ike, who happened to be Ina’s first cousin (otherwise I suspect President Eisenhower would have caught it too).

There was no electricity and only cistern water, which was used at least twice, the last time always to water a small backyard garden or the chickens.

With Ina on her buckskin, Dickey, and me on Bonnie or Violet (the names of two girls back home), we rode the range from one dam to the other, where poles were kept with lures so we could catch some bass on the way home. Or we might go to the abandoned school on the school section for some cottonseed cake to distribute as cattle feed somewhere across the nearly four thousand acres of paradise. I didn’t want to go home, and had it not been for high school football in September, I might have stayed. The place became my American dream, and looking back, even though Jefferson’s and Lewis and Clark’s Missouri was only fifty miles away, I now see that little of Jefferson’s vision was there beyond the section lines and the system of laws. His vision of the family farm must have been predicated upon thirty inches or more of moisture per year. Here, the land determined; no yeoman farmer existed. Even so, I loved everything about it. The Indians, the rodeos, the Danish and Swedish immigrants delighted with their land holdings, the rattlesnakes, even the colorful prejudice and how the natives got a little bit even through the butchered steer, the grocery bill, and the whiskey.

In the Kansas River Valley it had been another story. We were farmers there. Hoeing was endless during the summer, what with watermelons, sweet potatoes, cantaloupes, strawberries, peonies, phlox, sweet corn, potatoes, tomatoes, rhubarb, asparagus, etc. It was a relief to put up alfalfa hay or to harvest wheat, rye, or corn (my dad won the county corn-growing contest at least three years). Our farm and market were along U.S. 24 and 40, a two-lane road called the Pacific Highway, a subconscious naming, I suppose, because the nation looked westward. Six children were born to my parents. I was the last in 1936, a sister the first, born in 1914. Dad was fifty the year I was born, my mother forty-two. They were agrarians—fiercely so, I see now—Jeffersonians. They were also Methodist and Congregationalist: don’t waste time, motion, or steps. Don’t drink pop, alcohol in any form, or eat out. The contrast between that Kansas truck farm and the South Dakota ranch was striking. The row crops required cultivating and hoeing. Sweat of the brow, good manners, and quotable scripture went together. And from what I learned in that market, with people stopping in on their trips from coast to coast, I now sense that we were countrymen then in a way that we are not now. There were no bad jokes about either California or New Jersey then; we all inquired into one another’s well-being.

Here was agriculture—row crop variety, of course—which I knew and, I will even say, loved in a certain restricted sense, but it did not compare to the life of the range with the juxtaposition of natives and grassland, ranchers and rodeos. I made up my mind that I would have that South Dakota ranch one day or one like it. But Andrew died of prostate cancer and Ina died of injuries sustained in the pickup she was driving. The ranch was sold and the money willed to one of Ina’s nephews, who within a year paid it all out in a lawsuit due to being at fault in a car wreck.

Football and love kept me in college in what must have been one of the most misspent youths in history. And what smoldered in me were two experiences with the land: that of the sodbusting, Jeffersonian agrarian and that of the cattleman. I preferred the latter.

My great-grandfather entered Kansas the first day it was legal: May 30, 1854, the day the Kansas-Nebraska Act was ratified. Twenty-six years old, he had already been to San Francisco by way of Panama. Fifty miles into Kansas he broke tallgrass prairie sod and set right out to farming his 160 acres, Jefferson style, interrupting normal life to fight against pro-slavery forces with John Brown at Black Jack Creek on the Santa Fe Trail in 1857. But a man who was to become his son-in-law, one of my grandfathers, arrived in Kansas in 1877 with three hundred dollars the day before turning twenty-two. He felt lucky not to have put his money in the bank, for it closed the next day. He thus preserved his grubstake and threw himself onto the Flint Hills grassland of Kansas to run cattle on more or less free grass. By the end of ten years he had enough to go half-and-half with a partner and purchase half of 160 acres of sandy loam in the Kansas River Valley on the second bench, an alluvial terrace high enough above the river bed to assure no more than a flood or two per century. In five years he had bought his partner out.

I was born on that farm, love those soils, love to plow them, love to smell them. Even so, I have wondered why that grandfather, when the grass had been so good to him, would give up his cattle to farm. I think I know the reason: he had come from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. A Virginian! An agrarian! He was likely an unconscious Jeffersonian. He played the role and he played it well, for he was a well-off man when he died in 1925. As a school board member, he convinced his neighbors that the new school should be completely paid for in the year it was built. It was a fine, well-built school with two rooms for eight grades. My mother and I both went there. How could the community pay such a debt so quickly? I can’t speak for the neighbors, but I know that times were good on the farm generally and that Granddad never expanded his income by expanding his acreage. It was said of him that no matter what he did, things turned out right. I suspect that the reason this was true comes from something revealed in an offhand statement my mother made once. She said he would lean on his scoop shovel for a half hour or more, watching his hogs eat the ear corn, or lean against the barn door to watch them eat the soaked oats or boiled potatoes or whatever he had raised. As much as it was due to the times, his good fortune was due to a combination of joy, sympathy, art, and love rolled into one and tuned to the demands of his place. Here was the Jeffersonian dream, as imperfect as it was, at its high-water mark. The actuality or reality of that dream has been compromised and in decline at dazzling speed ever since World War II.

In fact, it seems now as if the Jeffersonian dream is, as Aldo Leopold said about conservation, like “a bird which flies faster than the shot we aim at it.” I won’t offer further evidence that the Jeffersonian ideal is receding—that is simply a matter of going through the checklist of environmental and social problems and the irrational patterns of current settlement. Nor will I even attempt an analysis as to why.

The question is, how do we reconcile these two situations on the prairies, scarcely one day’s drive apart at the modern speed limit? What is the lesson to be learned from them about future land use? We need to recognize the reality of the ecological mosaic across the country and to realize that there are some places, such as that South Dakota ranch, where the land determines and other places where human beings can actually make useful and appropriate changes in a favorable environment.

From Oklahoma to Saskatchewan, from east of Denver deep into the Midwest, thousands of small towns and rural communities are dying. Thousands of them! Schools are being closed, churches are being closed. This decline is the consequence of what Wendell Berry talked about in The Unsettling of America, explaining the title’s double meaning: the unsettling of these towns and communities with the migration of people to urban areas has led to an unsettling of the culture at large with its rising crime rate, increasing national debt, increase in soil erosion, and increase in chemical contamination of the countryside. We have to face it: the reward for destroying communion is power: power over nature, power over the indigenous, power over the constantly newly emerging redskins. Rather than looking to Washington, we must start thinking that small is beautiful. One way to effect this change would be to introduce a second major into our universities and colleges. Right now there’s only one major: upward mobility. It’s the major which accommodates the original set of assumptions we settled the continent with, the mind-set that fuels the extractive economy. The new major would be “homecoming.” It would educate people to go back to a place and dig in. We need a new generation of settlers, people who could go into these places with a fundamentally different mind-set, with the skills for what we might call “ecological community accounting.” They would start at the beginning, asking such questions as, “How does one set up the books for this accounting?” We have examples to follow, technological possibilities and idealistic notions from people like John and Nancy Todd, co-founders of the New Alchemy Institute and Ocean Arks International, who inspired our work at The Land Institute years ago; Amory and Hunter Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute; David Orr of the Meadowcreek Project, and so on. It is frightening how terribly underfunded these organizations are, making them so fragile that it doesn’t take much more than a blip before some of them are extinguished.

The Land Institute is running a project in a little town called Matfield Green, located in Chase County, Kansas. We say we are “setting up the books” for ecological community accounting as a necessary step for understanding how to proceed when it comes to revitalizing community anywhere. The book PrairieErth, written by William Least-Heat Moon, is about Chase County. It has a population of three thousand. Eighty-five percent of the county has never been plowed. It has one traffic light (a blinker light, so you don’t have to slow down too much). And in this county is a little town called Matfield Green, with a population of fifty. Matfield Green doesn’t have a lifestyle; it’s too small. It just has the basics: a half-time post office, a church that hosts eight to fifteen people per Sunday, and a beer joint. That’s all there is left.

I’ve managed to purchase several buildings in Matfield Green. Five of us went in together and bought the school, a ten-thousand-square-foot building, for five thousand dollars and gave it to The Land Institute. For the gym we paid four thousand dollars. My nephew bought the bank for five hundred dollars. I bought the lumber yard for a thousand. The hardware store we bought for six thousand and renovated; now some of our interns live there. I bought several houses for a thousand dollars or less, one of them for three hundred and fifty. Now, these are not what you call “top of the line” houses, but we’ve started renovations, putting new roofs on the buildings and replacing rotting stud walls. I’m living part-time in a house there that has cost me—including the purchase price and the purchase of the refrigerator, stove, and everything else in it—less than seventeen thousand dollars. The average homeless person now in New York City costs the city seventeen thousand dollars a year. There are people in that town living on seven thousand dollars a year.

At work on my houses in Matfield Green I’ve had great fun tearing off the porches and cleaning up the yards. But it has been sad as well, going through the abandoned belongings of families who lived out their lives in this beautiful, well-watered, fertile setting (Matfield Green averages thirty-three inches of rainfall a year). In an upstairs bedroom of Mrs. Florence Johnson’s former home, I came across a dusty but beautiful blue padded box labeled “Old Programs—New Century Club.” Most of the programs from 1923 to 1964 were there. Each listed the officers, the club flower (sweet pea), the club colors (pink and white), and the club motto (“Just Be Glad”). The programs for each year were gathered under one cover and nearly always dedicated to a local woman who was special in some way.

Each month the women were to comment on such subjects as canning, jokes, memory gems, a magazine article, poems, flower culture, misused words, birds, and so on. The May 1936 program was a debate: “Resolved that movies are detrimental to the young generation.” The August 1936 program was dedicated to coping with the heat: roll call was “Hot Weather Drinks”; next came “Suggestions for Hot Weather Lunches”; a Mrs. Rogler offered “Ways of Keeping Cool.” The June roll call in 1929 was “The Disease I Fear Most.” That was eleven years after the great flu epidemic. Children were still dying in those days of diphtheria, whooping cough, scarlet fever, and pneumonia. On August 20 the roll call question was, “What Do You Consider the Most Essential to Good Citizenship?” In September that year it was “Birds of Our County”; the program was on the mourning dove.

What became of it all?

From 1923 through 1930 the program covers are beautiful, done at a print shop. From 1930 until 1937 the effects of the Depression are apparent; programs are either typed or mimeographed and have no cover. The programs for the next two years are missing. In 1940 the covers reappear, this time typed on construction paper. The printshop printing never reappears. The last program in the box is from 1964. I don’t know the last year Mrs. Florence Johnson attended the club. I do know that she and her husband Turk celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, for in the same box are some beautiful white fiftieth-anniversary napkins with golden bells and with “1920 Florence and Turk 1970” printed on them. A neighbor told me that Mrs. Johnson died in 1981. The high school had closed in 1967. The lumber yard and hardware store closed about the same time, but no one knows when for sure. The last gas station went after that.

But back to those programs. The motto never changed. The sweet pea kept its standing. So did the pink and white club colors. The club collect which follows persisted month after month, year after year:

A Collect for Club Women

Keep us, O God, from pettiness;
Let us be large in thought, in word, in deed.
Let us be done with fault-finding and leave off self-seeking.
May we put away all pretense and meet each other face to face,
without self-pity and without prejudice.
May we never be hasty in judgment and always generous.
Let us take time for all things; make us grow calm, serene, gentle.
Teach us to put into action our better impulses, straightforward
and unafraid.
Grant that we may realize it is the little things that create differences;
that in the big things of life we are as one.
And may we strive to touch and to know the great common woman’s
heart of  us all, and oh, Lord God, let us not forget to be kind.                                                                                                                                        —Mary Stewart

By modern standards these people were poor. There was a kind of naiveté among these relatively unschooled women. Some of their poetry in those programs was not good. Some of their ideas about the way the world works seem silly. Some of their club programs don’t sound very interesting; some sound tedious. But the monthly agendas of these women were filled with decency, with efforts to learn about everything from the birds to our government and to cope with their problems, the weather, and diseases. Here is the irony: they were living up to a far broader spectrum of their potential than most of us do today!

I am not suggesting that we go back to 1923 or even to 1964. But I will say that those people in that particular generation, in places like Matfield Green, were further along in the necessary journey to become native to their places, even as they were losing ground, than we are today.

Why was their way of life so vulnerable to the industrial economy? What can we do to protect such attempts to be good and decent, to live out our modest lives responsibly? I don’t know. But we need to engage in this discussion, for it is particularly problematic. Even most intellectuals who have come out of such places as Matfield Green have not felt that their early lives prepared them adequately for the “official” formal culture.

I will quote from two writers to illustrate this discomfort with the reality of rural culture. The first is Paul Gruchow (in Townships, edited by Michael Marome [Iowa State University Press, 1991]), who grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota:

I was born at mid-century. My parents, who were poor and rural, had never amounted to anything, and never would, and never expected to. They were rather glad for the inconsequence of their lives. They got up with the sun and retired with it. Their routines were dictated by the seasons. In summer they tended; in fall they harvested; in winter they repaired; in spring they planted. It had always been so; so it would always be.

The farmstead we occupied was on a hilltop overlooking a marshy river bottom that stretched from horizon to horizon. It was half a mile from any road and an eternity from any connection with the rest of the culture. There were no books there; there was no music; there was no television; for a long time, no telephone. Only on the rarest of occasions—a time or two a year—was there a social visitor other than the pastor. There was no conversation in that house.

Similarly, Wallace Stegner, the great historian and novelist, confesses to his feeling of inadequacy coming from a small prairie town in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan. In Wolf Willow he writes:

Once, in a self-pitying frame of mind, I was comparing my background with that of an English novelist friend. Where he had been brought up in London, taken from the age of four onward to the Tate and the National Gallery, sent traveling on the Continent in every school holiday, taught French and German and Italian, given access to bookstores, libraries, and British Museums, made familiar from infancy on with the conversation of the eloquent and the great, I had grown up in this dung-heeled sagebrush town on the disappearing edge of nowhere, utterly without painting, without sculpture, without architecture, almost without music or theater, without conversation or languages or travel or stimulating instruction, without libraries or museums or bookstores, almost without books. I was charged with getting in a single lifetime, from scratch, what some people inherit as naturally as they breathe air.

How, I asked this Englishman, could anyone from so deprived a background ever catch up? How was one expected to compete, as a cultivated man, with people like himself? He looked at me and said dryly, “Perhaps you got something else in place of all that.”

He meant, I suppose, that there are certain advantages to growing up a sensuous little savage, and to tell the truth I am not sure I would trade my childhood of freedom and the outdoors and the senses for a childhood of being led by the hand past all the Turners in the National Gallery. And also, he may have meant that anyone starting from deprivation is spared getting bored. You may not get a good start, but you may get up a considerable head of steam.

Countless writers and artists have been vulnerable to the “official” culture, as vulnerable as the people of Matfield Green. Stegner comments:

I am reminded of Willa Cather, that bright girl from Nebraska, memorizing long passages from the Aeneid and spurning the dust of Red Cloud and Lincoln with her culture-bound feet. She tried, and her education encouraged her, to be a good European. Nevertheless she was a first-rate novelist only when she dealt with what she knew from Red Cloud and the things she had “in place of all that.” Nebraska was what she was born to write; the rest of it was got up. Eventually, when education had won and nurture had conquered nature and she had recognized Red Cloud as a vulgar little hold, she embraced the foreign tradition totally and ended by being neither quite a good American nor quite a true European nor quite a whole artist.

It seems that we still blunt ourselves by learning long passages from the Aeneid while wanting to shake from us the dust of Red Cloud or Matfield Green. The extractive economy cares for neither Virgil nor Mary Stewart. It lures just about all of us to its shopping centers on the edge of Lincoln or Wichita, Louisville or Lexington. And yet, for us the Aeneid is part of our story. It is embedded in our thought processes as part of Western civilization. Therefore, it is as essential to becoming native to towns like Matfield Green as the bow and arrow were to the paleolithic Asians who walked here across the Bering land bridge of the Pleistocene.

Our task is to build cultural fortresses to protect our emerging nativeness. They must be strong enough to hold at bay the powers of consumerism, the powers of greed and envy and pride. We have to call the shopping malls and Wal-Marts what they are: the modern cathedrals of secular materialism. One of the most effective ways for this to come about would be for our universities to assume the awesome responsibility of both validating and educating those who want to be homecomers—not to return, necessarily, to their original home, but to go someplace and dig in and begin the long journey to becoming native.

Then we can hope for the resurrection of the likes of Florence Johnson and her women friends, who took their collect seriously. Unless we can affirm and promote the sorts of attitudes and efforts that the New Century Club exhibited, we are doomed. An entire club program devoted to coping with the heat of August is indicative of its members being native to a place. That club was more than a support group; it was cultural information-in-the-making, keyed to place. The alternative, of course, is air-conditioning, not only yielding greenhouse gases but contributing to global warming and the ozone hole as well—and, if fueled by nuclear power, to future Chernobyls. As I see it, we can make technology our leading edge or we can make rich cultural information our leading edge. If we choose programs devoted to coping with the heat, we have a chance. But if we choose exercises in human cleverness in the technological realm as our primary focus, then we’ve had it. Becoming native to one’s place means making everything from our domestic livestock to our domesticated plants native too. And this is a very long process.

Finally, I come back to 1542, to Coronado and those thirty or so avarice-driven adventurers who made the side trip “northward by the needle” from the plains of Texas to the land of Quivira, the land that would one day become Kansas. When their guide, a native Indian slave, admitted that there was no gold, Coronado allowed this native of the land to be strangled with a rope twisted about a stick. What was his offense? He had told a series of lies to men made gullible by greed. He was no fool, and he must have known the risk, but he did it anyway, and he did it for one reason: he was homesick. Because he was a slave, the lure of gold was his ticket home. He thought he could outwit them in the end, but he failed. He was not cunning enough to overcome the power of conquest. The homecomer of today still confronts that power.

Wes Jackson, a farmer, world-renowned plant geneticist, author, and teacher, lives and works at The Land Institute, Salina, Kansas, which he co-founded in 1976. E. F. Schumacher was the first honorary member of The Land’s Board of Trustees. The Land Institute is a nonprofit educational organization conducting pioneering research into the development of a sustainable agriculture based on the model of the prairie. Wes Jackson was a 1990 Pew Conservation Scholar, in 1992 became a MacArthur Fellow, and in 2000 received the Right Livelihood Award (known as the “alternative Nobel prize”). He is the author of several books including New Roots for Agriculture and Becoming Native to this Place. With Wendell Berry he co-edited Meeting the Expectations of the Land: Essays in  Sustainable Agriculture and Stewardship.

Wes Jackson may be reached at:

The Land Institute
2440 East Water Well Road
Salina, Kansas 67401

12. What Do the Birders Know? by Brian Kimberling

Published in the New York Times, April 19th 2013 – click here to view the original article

A BIRD-WATCHER is a kind of pious predator. To see a new bird is to capture it, metaphorically, and a rare bird or an F.O.Y. (First of the Year, for the uninitiated) is a kind of trophy. A list of birds seen on a given day is also a form of prayer, a thanksgiving for being alive at a certain time and place. Posting that list online is a 21st-century form of a votive offering. It’s unclear what deity presides.

There was prestige in knowing birds in ancient Rome, and there is prestige today. There are also competitive insect enthusiasts and tree connoisseurs and fungus aficionados, but they lack the cultural stature and sheer numbers of bird-watchers. There are 5.8 million bird-watchers in the United States, slightly more than the number of Americans in book clubs or residents of Wisconsin. That’s a huge army of primitive hunter-mystics decked out in sturdy hiking boots and nylon rain gear, consulting their smartphones to identify or imitate a particular quarry.

There is nothing especially new about them except for their gear. Two hundred years ago the heartland teemed with second sons of wealthy European families who could have stayed home dissipating in traditional style, but chose to go to the New World and find a new animal instead. Reporting your sightings to the Audubon Society is decidedly less glamorous than dispatching a new specimen to a museum in Paris or London, but it’s a kindred enterprise.

Today’s birders are not exploring new territory geographically, as the early naturalists did; rather, they are contouring the frontiers of climate change. It’s April, and the kitchen-window bird observer is limbering up, too. Are the birds nesting early, nesting late? (Do they know something we don’t?) The reporting such observers do is crucial.

And what are today’s birds telling us? The Audubon Society estimates that nearly 60 percent of 305 bird species found in North America in winter are shifting northward and to higher elevations in response to climate change. For comparison, imagine the inhabitants of 30 states — using state residence as a proxy for species of American human — becoming disgruntled with forest fires and drought and severe weather events, and seeking out suitable new habitat.

The Audubon Society’s estimates rest largely on data supplied by volunteers in citizen-science projects like the Christmas Bird Count (first proposed in 1900, nine years after the first known use of the word “bird-watcher,” to set the hobby apart from the more traditional Christmas pastime of shooting birds). The birds in question have shifted an average of 35 miles north over a period of about 40 years — seemingly insignificant in human terms, but a major move ecologically.

Such documentation, drawing on databases and the practices of citizen science, is descended from folk wisdom, where birds are ascribed a certain predictive power. Folk wisdom holds that they nest high in anticipation of warm weather (not true) or fly low when they expect to get wet (true).

Folk wisdom has deep roots. “Auspice” and “augury” share a Latin origin with “avian.” An augur was a priest in ancient Rome who studied birds to determine the will of the gods (Cicero was one). When an elected official is inaugurated today, he or she is etymologically promoted to bird-watcher in chief. Mr. President, your binoculars. There are no accidental hawks or eagles in the “Iliad” or the “Odyssey,” either. This says more about humans than about birds. They remind us of time, hence the venerable history of the cuckoo clock. As James Baldwin noted, the whisper beneath the word “time” is death.

The ancient wisdom of fretting obsessively over bird behavior has obtained the vindication of modern science. Hawks and eagles do not appear by accident. When, where and whether they appear is, absolutely, a portent. The spotted owl is a bioindicator, a species that can be used to monitor the condition of an ecosystem. In other words, bioindicator is just modern parlance for omen.

And so the practice of bird-watching, no matter how geared up and teched out, cannot escape its ancient roots; or, rather, it has come back around. Birds are not moving north in anticipation of climate change; rather, they are moving in response to it. Still, they are becoming predictive in a manner not founded in superstition but well-documented in reported behavior.

We can’t escape trying to see the future through birds. Too many canaries were deployed to detect gas leaks in coal mines, too many ravens launched from ships to find land — bird anxiety is an essential component of the human predicament.

There is no telling what kinds of perverse ecological arrangements we will create for birds in the future, or what new technologies will be introduced to bird-watching. Google Glass, for example, has implications, and binoculars that double as digital or online field guides can’t be far away. We have reached an era when our instincts, anxieties and gadgets collide; our classical relationship with birds is reinforced and our understanding is enhanced. Unfortunately, we may need to start moving north.

11. Boris the Brambling by Paul Bird

The alley adjacent to our house in Vancouver has changed over the years as the fortunes of the neighborhood have risen and walls of garage doors have replaced leaning fences and open parking spaces. There is one remnant of this fading era that stubbornly resists change. Situated on the lot of a deteriorating house painted in the same faded green a garage stands, its roof covered by torn blue plastic tarpaulins. Reflecting the same standard of care that marks the garage and house the garden is overgrown with shrubs and blackberry bushes. The attached dwelling has attracted its share of alternative residents over the years and my first reaction on seeing a couple of characters looking through the broken fence into the bushes was to call the Neighborhood Watch number. However their persistence and expensive looking optical equipment seemed to rule out projected foul play and direct enquiry produced the answer.

In the overgrown shrubs and blackberry bushes, visible here and there as they moved around the twigs and chirruping noisily were groups of native finches, sparrows and juncos; sometimes flying off and flying back in groups of two or more, sometimes singly, coming and going but mostly staying. It wasn’t the native birds that the people standing around single mindedly were intent on seeing. It was Boris the Brambling. He was one of two star accidental bird visitors to BC this winter.

We only called him Boris later after he had become a celebrity and hundreds of people had come by and focused their Swarovski and Leitz binoculars on him and taken his picture with their massive telephoto lenses, chatting to and one upping each other about their other notable sightings. He is quite elusive and lurks deep in the undergrowth. A good picture is hard to get so there is a good deal of showing off of the good ones. Boris was one of three or four bramblings, a type of finch normally found in Asia and Europe, seen in BC this winter who had managed to lose their way getting from Siberia to Alaska and then coming South on the wrong side of the Pacific. Bramblings can flock in thousands in their native habitat but to see the solitary Boris was a necessity for any serious birder in the Vancouver region. And Boris is a dependable bird with an address and definite schedule who provides an easy way to chalk up a rarity.

Our neighbor Lena, herself a birdwatcher, had reported Boris to where one reports such things as she was uncertain as to the identity of the colourful bird on her feeder. After five weeks of Boris watchers she is starting to get a little fed up with the constant stream of people. However there was never that manic swarming that occurs in the UK when obsessive bird watchers (called twitchers) get to hear of a rarity. My mum lived in a small village in Norfolk famous for its rare sightings which is regularly brought to a standstill by the likes of a laughing gull or white crowned sparrow both bog common in North America but unheard of in Europe. Roads will become impassable as cars are abandoned in the haste to get a definitive sighting.

Boris invokes a much more leisurely and relaxed response perhaps a measure of the West Coast birding approach. Boris’s watchers are bemused by the twitcher phenomenon and do not see themselves as such. He hangs with the other finches and careers off with them to wherever they go to do their finch things but he always comes back to the overgrown garden providing a good probability of a sighting. He has a regular fan club, myself included, who share minutiae such as his preferred bird seed, the species he associates with and other locations he is known to frequent. He has a web presence of course.

He’ll be going soon. He should be making his way North to meet up with the other bramblings in Siberia. I wish him well and good luck in making it across the Bering Straits. But who knows, with the report of a brambling possibly sighted in Victoria and one in the interior of BC Boris may be lucky enough to encounter another accidental of his own kind and settle in as a permanent resident. Perhaps this is reflective of the times. Maybe Boris is the forerunner of a brambling invasion. Yet another indicator of climate change.

Many thanks to my good friend, and Newstead local, David Stratton for passing on this lovely story from his friend Paul.

10. A poem by Robert Frost (1874-1963)

contributed by Frances Cincotta

A Considerable Speck


A speck that would have been beneath my sight
On any but a paper sheet so white
Set off across what I had written there.
And I had idly poised my pen in air
To stop it with a period of ink
When something strange about it made me think,
This was no dust speck by my breathing blown,
But unmistakably a living mite
With inclinations it could call its own.
It paused as with suspicion of my pen,
And then came racing wildly on again
To where my manuscript was not yet dry;
Then paused again and either drank or smelt–
With loathing, for again it turned to fly.
Plainly with an intelligence I dealt.
It seemed too tiny to have room for feet,
Yet must have had a set of them complete
To express how much it didn’t want to die.
It ran with terror and with cunning crept.
It faltered: I could see it hesitate;
Then in the middle of the open sheet
Cower down in desperation to accept
Whatever I accorded it of fate.
I have none of the tenderer-than-thou
Collectivistic regimenting love
With which the modern world is being swept.
But this poor microscopic item now!
Since it was nothing I knew evil of
I let it lie there till I hope it slept.

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.

9. The Poor Poor Country – many thanks to Julie Gittus for alerting me to this wonderfully apt poem by the Australian poet John Shaw Nielson.

Oh ’twas a poor country, in Autumn it was bare,
The only green was the cutting grass and the sheep found little there.
Oh, the thin wheat and the brown oats were never two foot high,
But down in the poor country no pauper was I.

My wealth it was the glow that lives forever in the young,
‘Twas on the brown water, in the green leaves it hung.
The blue cranes fed their young all day – how far in a tall tree!
And the poor, poor country made no pauper of me.

I waded out to the swan’s nest – at night I heard them sing,
I stood amazed at the Pelican, and crowned him for a king;
I saw the black duck in the reeds, and the spoonbill on the sky,
And in that poor country no pauper was I.

The mountain-ducks down in the dark made many a hollow sound,
I saw in sleep the Bunyip creep from the waters underground.
I found the plovers’ island home, and they fought right valiantly,
Poor was the country, but it made no pauper of me.

My riches all went into dreams that never yet came home,
They touched upon the wild cherries and the slabs of honeycomb,
They were not of the desolate brood that men can sell or buy,
Down in that poor country no pauper was I.

The New Year came with heat and thirst and the little lakes were low,
The blue cranes were my nearest friends and I mourned to see them go;
I watched their wings so long until I only saw the sky,
Down in that poor country no pauper was I.

8. Daybooks of discovery – maintaining a tradition of nature writing and recording.

I recently came across a fascinating reference to a book entitled Daybooks of Discovery: Nature Diaries in Britain, 1770 – 1870 by Mary Ellen Bellanca. Here is a brief excerpt:

” … the nature diary includes any diaries or notebooks that contain a substantial amount of information about the natural world, that have a record-keeping aspect, and that are structured by the day. The category takes in many kinds of prose stylings, from the proto-scientific journals of Gilbert White and Charles Darwin’s diary aboard the Beagle to the more personal ruminations on nature in the diaries of Dorothy Wordsworth or John Clare … But it is a testimony to the interest the book engenders that one wishes for an account of the origin of the nature diary as it appears in some British newspapers today:  the  newspaper  column  that  records  daily  observations  of  nature meant  for popular voyeuristic consumption. The newspaper after all is the genre that bears the closest resemblance to the diurnal nature diary. Daybooks of Discovery provides a back-history not only to the avidity with which we approach contemporary environmental writing, but more poignantly to those obscure journalistic notations of the first daffodil of spring or the spring’s first sighting, just as Gilbert White recorded on 13 April 1768, of the house swallow: “Hirundo domestica!!!”

It struck me some time ago that environmental blogs have the potential to maintain the Victorian tradition of natural history observation and recording. The writings of observers such as Gilbert White are now seen as precious  insights into environmental changes associated with forces such as human settlement of the landscape and climate change. I would encourage those with more than a passing interest in their surroundings to consider adding to this valuable record.

There is an interesting blog The Natural History of Selbourne – journals of Gilbert White where you can view the daily records from 1768 – 1793 – it is a magnum opus!

7. “Good Luck” – the following is an excerpt from an editorial to the journal Pacific Conservation Biology by esteemed ecologist Harry Recher. Thanks to Todd Soderquist and Frances Cincotta for suggesting circulation.

ON last night’s (11 November 2009) ABC Television, I watched Sir David Attenborough being interviewed for the 7.30 Report by Kerry O’Brien. Sir David is a household name throughout the English speaking world, if not universally. Since the beginnings of television, David Attenborough has brought the world of nature into our homes. He has probably seen more of the Earth’s wild animals and untamed places than any known traveller in modern history; a compassionate, intelligent, thoughtful and articulate man, Sir David’s views on the future of the wild planet merit respect and careful consideration. In this interview, three things stood out. First, Sir David commented on how humanity has been separated from the world of nature, saying:

“Oh, there’s no doubt that we are becoming increasingly divorced from the natural world. There are lots of people who spend their lives in cities and never see a wild thing unless it’s  [a]  pigeon — or maybe a rat. So you lose touch with the rhythms of the natural world. You lose touch with the realities of a natural world. I don’t want to get too pretentious, but you lose touch with both life and death, with both how life is created and how death is inevitable.”

Anyone living in Australia and who is knowledgeable about the Australian environment will know immediately what Sir David meant. Outside of naturalist colleagues, I meet few Australians of any age who have any knowledge of the wild plants and animals they share the continent with. Not only do most Australians no longer come in contact with nature, but natural history is no longer considered a worthy subject for study at any level from kindergarten to post-graduate university. Losing rhythm with the natural world means that nature conservation is not an issue worthy of government consideration. I cannot think of any Australian politician, current or past, who has demonstrated a knowledge and understanding of the rhythms of nature let alone being prepared to protect those rhythms. As a nation, Australia is divorced totally from nature.

To read the rest of the article click here to download.

6.  Act now to save our birds……….Margaret Atwood The Guardian, Saturday 9 January 2010

Birds have always been endowed with symbolic portent – from Chekhov to Hitchcock to Twitter. We ignore their decline at our peril. There are glimmers of hope, but only if we act now urges Margaret Atwood.

How to justify the ways of men to birds? How to account for their attraction for us? (For, despite Hitchcock’s frightening hunt-and-peck film, The Birds, it is mostly an attraction.) Why is Chekhov’s play called “The Seagull” instead of “The Sea Slug”? Why is Yeats so keen on swans and hawks, instead of an interesting centipede or snail, or even an attractive moth? Why is it a dead albatross that is hung around the Ancient Mariner’s neck as a symbol that he’s been a very bad mariner, instead of, for instance, a dead clam? Why do we so immediately identify with such feathered symbols? These are some of the questions that trouble my waking hours.

For as long as we human beings can remember, we’ve been looking up. Over our heads went the birds – free as we were not, singing as we tried to. We gave their wings to our deities, from Inanna to winged Hermes to the dove-shaped Holy Spirit of Christianity, and their songs to our angels. We believed the birds knew things we didn’t, and this made sense to us, because only they had access to the panoramic picture – the ground we walked on, but seen widely because seen from above, a vantage point we came to call “the bird’s eye view”. The Norse god Odin had two ravens called Thought and Memory, who flew around the earth during the day and came back at evening to whisper into his ears everything they’d seen and heard; which was why – in the mode of governments with advanced snooping systems, or even of Google Earth – he was so very all-knowing.

Some of us once believed that the birds could carry messages, and that if only we had the skill we’d be able to decipher them. Wasn’t the invention of writing inspired, in China, by the flight of cranes? Thoth, the Egyptian god of scribes credited with the invention of hieroglyphic writing, had the head of an ibis. In the ancient world, an entire job category grew up around bird reading: that of augury, performed by seers and prophets who could interpret the winged signs. When Agamemnon and Menelaus were setting out for Troy, two eagles tore apart a pregnant hare and ate the unborn young. The augur’s prediction was victory – Troy would fall – but an ill-omened victory with a heavy price to be paid; and so it turned out. “A bird of the air shall carry the voice,” says Ecclesiastes, with impressive gravitas, “and those that have wings shall tell the truth”; and we can bet that those bird-borne truths were momentous.

By the 1950s, when I was what’s now called a young adult, respect for birds had dwindled considerably. Birds might still be thought to carry messages – “a little bird told me,” we were fond of saying – but these messages were no longer from the gods, and they no longer concerned the deaths of kings and the fates of nations. They were more likely to be from the girl who had the locker next to yours, and to be about who just broke up with whom. “Bird-brained” meant stupid, and people with too obsessive a knowledge of birds were considered geeky and ridiculous. Bird-watching had become an increasingly popular pastime – a trend spurred by Roger Tory Peterson’s 1934 publication of the first Field Guide to the Birds – but one of the effects of this growing popularity was the appearance of parody versions of such guides, filled with cartoons of silly-looking people in pith helmets with names like “The Spectacled Drone”, who were watching girls in halter tops and short-shorts captioned “The Rosy-Breasted Nutcracker”. There were also various puns on the slang word “bird”, meaning either an attractive girl or – cf Frank Sinatra – the male genital organ. The supposed light-mindedness and frivolity of birdy activity is mirrored today in the name of the popular Twitter site, with “tweet” being the term for a tiny info-tidbit.

But times change, and we’re heading back towards an older way of reading the birds. It’s Fates of Nations time again, and ill omens seen through birds in flight – or the absence of them – and deadly prices to be paid for getting what you want. The birds have something to tell us again, and the truths are not comfortable ones.

I’ve always lived in the birdy world. I grew up in it – my parents were early conservationists and naturalists – and I can tell you from personal experience that small children have a limited tolerance for sitting still in canoes for hours on end being gnawed by mosquitoes, to see if the Very Rare Blur will deign to do a flit-by, when they won’t see it anyway because they were making the more controllable ant crawl up their arms. But early training does sometimes bear fruit, and I reconnected with the bird world once everyone, including me, realised that I was nearsighted. I needed special help with the twirly thing on the top of the binoculars, at which point the Very Rare Blur resolved into something I could actually see.

Birds of a feather flock together, so I eventually ended up with another bird-oriented person – Graeme Gibson, more recently the author of The Bedside Book of Birds and the chair of the board of the Pelee Island Bird Observatory. Sitting in a canoe being gnawed by mosquitoes while waiting for the Very Rare Blur is a lot better if you yourself are in charge of the timetable – as in, “Let’s have lunch now” – so we did a lot of birdwatching. Graeme had the zeal of a recent convert, I displayed the nonchalance of the born denominationalist, but our shared pursuit took us to many unusual places in the world. Some of our sightings were not heroic – the distant never-before-glimpsed-by-human-eye prehistoric Mexican enigma turned out to be a brown pelican, the snowy owl was actually a white plastic milk bottle – or was it the other way around?

Back in the 70s and 80s and then the 90s, however, you could depend on the birds to be more or less where they were supposed to be, more or less when they were supposed to be there. Failures to see them were bad luck or lack of skill on your part: the birds themselves were surely just around the corner. If not this time, then next; if not this year, then next. But all that is changing, and it’s changing very rapidly. The suddenness of the decline – not only in threatened species, but in relatively abundant ones, such as the neotropical woodland warblers – is very worrying. No bird species can any longer be taken for granted.

In February 2006, Graeme and I accepted the position of joint honourary presidents of the Rare Bird Club within BirdLife International. BirdLife describes itself as “a global partnership of conservation organisations working for the diversity of life through the conservation of birds and their habitats”. Sometimes it subtitles itself “Working for birds and people”. Under that broad umbrella, it supports an impressive number of activities carried on by its country partners all around the world – everything from running a Preventing Extinctions programme focused on birds at risk, to studying international migration flyways in order to remove thoughtlessly-built man-made hazards, to monitoring toxicity that kills birds fast and people more slowly. (A hint: if birds are dying in the water, don’t swim there.) BirdLife’s many projects are implemented on the ground through its country partners – over a hundred of them, and growing – but the secretariat that does much of the science and manages the overall network is located in Cambridge, and it has the same problem all conservation organisations have; it’s easier to attract donations for individual projects than for overall management.

The Rare Bird Club’s task is to support the secretariat, and to fundraise for it. Graeme and I agreed to take this on, not because we had time on our hands – we didn’t – but because we knew about the crisis in the life of birds, and also about the connection between a healthy ecosystem and a healthy human population. “Canary in the coal mine” – which comes from a time when miners knew that if their caged canaries toppled over it meant imminent asphyxiation for them – is not an empty phrase: where birds are dying now (through poisons, habitat destruction, and famine), people will die later. The die-off in seabirds, for instance, signals a die-off in sea life, including fish. It doesn’t take a very smart augur to read that kind of bird omen.

Three snapshots: two summers ago, we were with some Rare Bird Club members in the high Arctic. We were watching a polar bear finishing the remains of a seal, while nearby two all-white ivory gulls waited to pick over the bones. Everyone present knew that all the main elements of this scene – the feeding bear, the gull, the ice itself – might soon disappear from the earth like a mirage, as if they had never been. This could happen, not in centuries, but in years. It’s was global warming, not as a theory, but in a very concrete form.

Much further south, on an island off the coast of Georgia, we stood on a beach and watched a large flock of red knots – named originally for King Canute – feeding along the surf line. They were busily at work there, but we knew that further up the coast people were “harvesting” the horseshoe crabs that spawn on the beach, thus eliminating the crab eggs the birds depend on to sustain them during their long migration.

Further south still, at the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island, we went out one night to see kiwis – those flightless balls of feathery fur with long curved bills we first met, as children, on tins of shoe polish. Sometimes not a single kiwi is sighted on such trips. But we were favoured; we saw five: young, mature, male and female. None of these had fallen prey to those scourges of ground-dwelling New Zealand birds – the cats, the rats and the dogs – but many of their kindred had. All flightless and ground-nesting New Zealand birds are under threat. The carnage since the arrival of people on New Zealand has been brutal.

That’s the key: “Since the arrival of people.” Most of the time, we don’t kill birds on purpose. We kill them by accident, or at second-hand through our technologies, our pets, or our fellow-traveller pests.

Here are a few statistics. In the United States, power lines kill 130 to 174 million birds a year – many of them raptors such as hawks, or waterfowl, whose large wingspans can touch two hot wires at a time, resulting in electrocution, or who smash into the thin power lines without seeing them (think piano wire). Cars and trucks collide with and kill between 60 and 80 million annually in the US, and tall buildings – especially those that leave their lights on all night – are a major hazard for migrating birds, leading to between a hundred million and a billion bird deaths annually. Add in lighted communication towers, which also kill large numbers of bats, and can account for as many as 30,000 bird deaths each on a bad night – thus 40 to 50 million deaths a year, and due to double as more towers are built. Agricultural pesticides directly kill 67 million birds per year, with many more deaths resulting from accumulated toxins that converge at the top of the food chain, and from starvation as the usual food of insectivores disappears. Cats polish off approximately 39 million birds in the state of Wisconsin alone; multiply that by the number of states in America, and then do the calculations for the rest of the world: the numbers are astronomical. Then there are the factory effluents, the oil spills and oil sands, the unknown chemical compounds we’re pouring into the mix. Nature is prolific, but at such high kill rates it’s not keeping up, and bird species – even formerly common ones – are plummeting all over the world.

One more statistic: according to Al Gore, 97% of charitable giving goes to human causes. Of the remaining 3%, half goes to pets. That leaves 1½% devoted to the rest of nature – including the crisis-ridden oceans, the eroding, drying, or flooding land and the shrinking biosphere on which our lives depend. How crazy are we? We’re a lot like those old cartoons in which the foolish character is sawing off the same tree branch he’s sitting on, while beneath him is a sheer drop to nowhere. It makes you want to stick your head in the sand, like – apparently – almost everyone else, and just eat a lot, watch old movies from the time before things got so scary, and go shopping. Or, as James Lovelock keeps warning us: enjoy it while you can, whatever “it” is, because it’s not going to last much longer.

Despite such gloom – or perhaps because of it – there are many intrepid individuals and organisations out there, hurling themselves on to the tracks in the path of the speeding EcoDeath Express. There are international organisations, national ones, local ones; all are understaffed and overworked, like hospitals during pandemics. As I’ve said, my own connections are with BirdLife International; I attended its international convention in Argentina last September. These conventions happen only every four years, and they bring together the representatives of BirdLife’s national partners from around the world. The energy and enthusiasm were contagious, and it was clear from just a few glances around that the days of the 50s stereotype of the harmless, nerdy Spectacled Drone was gone forever.

Those now involved in bird conservation are serious and gutsy people – much more Seven Samurai than Jerry Lewis. They know their stuff, and the stuff they know can be pretty edgy. We heard tales of how the Ecuadorean organisation, Aves&Conservacion, had fought illegal habitat destruction and tree piracy with online posts, and when these generated death threats, it had posted the threats as well, until it had finally forced its government to act; of how the Maltese partner, BirdLife Malta, had finally stopped the devastating, and – in the EU – illegal spring bird hunt on this key migration island with the help of the European Commission, which had taken the island to court. There were death threats involved in that action, too, and car bombings as well; but with the support of more than 70% of the island’s residents, the cause had finally been won. We heard about the compilation of the Guide to the Birds of Iraq, an enterprise that involved great danger for those doing the work. The conservation movement has its leaders and its foot soldiers, but also its martyrs: there have been human deaths as well as bird deaths.

A large part of BirdLife’s energies are directed towards mapping important bird areas and attempting to protect them, and in cataloguing rare birds and monitoring them. In this way, rare and endangered birds that live in such areas and never leave them can be saved. But what about migrating birds? They run the gauntlet: if every stopping point but one is made safe, it’s the one unsafe point that will kill the species. This is where international networking can help.

Consider the albatross. Nineteen of the 22 albatross species – the literary bird whose corpse was hung around the neck of the Ancient Mariner “instead of the cross,” to symbolise a non-human sacrificial being – has been under threat for years from long-line and trawl fishing. The hooks – as many as 1,000 per line – are dragged along behind the boats, and the bait on them attracts fish, which in turn attract albatrosses, which then get snagged on the hooks. The fishermen don’t mean to catch the albatrosses; in fact, it’s a disadvantage to them. As for the albatross, the breeding cycle is very long and typically only one chick is reared at a time, so it’s been very easy to kill more birds than can be replaced by the species themselves. Before 2005, hundreds of thousands were dying annually. The albatross is a circumpolar bird, living mostly at sea, so trying to monitor it and help it cannot be the work of any one country.

In view of these difficulties, BirdLife established an international albatross task force in 2005 to work in seven countries, with a mandate to help both fishermen and birds. The task force placed specialised instructors on the fishing boats, to teach the simple, effective, and money-saving solutions – mere changes in fishing techniques – to the fishermen themselves. The result has been that thousands of albatrosses are now being saved. For instance, in the south Chile seas, the accidental capture of seabirds has been reduced from 1,500 a year to zero, with a close to zero rate having been achieved in Argentina. Despite these gains, 100,000 albatrosses are still being killed in fisheries every year, and 18 albatross species are facing extinction. But there’s a glimmer of hope: the task force has shown that with a lot of will and with ridiculously small amounts of money, the death trend can be turned around. But it’s a matter of time, and extinction is forever. Human beings, it seems, are like little children, who never do quite believe that “all gone” means there isn’t any more, at all, ever.

Still, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson. Too often, these days, it isn’t. But in the case of the albatross, it is, if we’re reading the bird signals right. Or at least it could be; which is the nature of hope.

5. From Henry David Thoreau’s 1846 book The Maine Woods, a journal of Thoreau’s travel across northern Maine by foot and bateau and his climbing of Mt. Katahdin:

“Strange that so few ever come to the woods to see how the pine lives
and grows and spires, lifting its evergreen arms to the light, – to see
its perfect success; but most are content to behold it in the shape of
many broad boards brought to market, and deem that its true success!
But the pine is no more lumber than man is, and to be made into boards
and houses is no more its true and highest use than the truest use of a
man is to be cut down and made into manure. There is a higher law
affecting our relation to pines as well as to men. A pine cut down, a
dead pine, is no more a pine than a dead human carcass is a man. Can he
who has discovered only some of the values of whalebone and whale oil
be said to have discovered the true use of the whale? Can he who slays
the elephant for his ivory be said to have “seen the elephant”? These
are petty and accidental uses; just as if a stronger race were to kill
us in order to make buttons and flageolets of our bones; for everything
may serve a lower as well as a higher use. Every creature is better
alive than dead, men and moose and pine-trees, and he who understands
it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.

Is it the lumberman, then, who is the friend and lover of the pine,
stands nearest to it, and understands its nature best? Is it the tanner
who has barked it, or he who has boxed it for turpentine, whom
posterity will fable to have been changed into a pine at last? No! no!
it is the poet; he it is who makes the truest use of the pine, – who
does not fondle it with an axe, nor tickle it with a saw, nor stroke it
with a plane, – who knows whether its heart is false without cutting
into it, – who has not bought the stumpage of the township on which it
stands. All the pines shudder and heave a sigh when that man steps on
the forest floor. No, it is the poet, who loves them as his own shadow
in the air, and lets them stand. I have been into the lumber-yard, and
the carpenter’s shop, and the tannery, and the lampblack-factory, and
the turpentine clearing; but when at length I saw the tops of the pines
waving and reflecting the light at a distance high over all the rest of
the forest, I realized that the former were not the highest use of the
pine. It is not their bones or hide or tallow that I love most. It is
the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which
I sympathize, and which heals my cuts. It is as immortal as I am, and
perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.”


Doug Ralph contributed this piece written by Satish Kumar, President of Schumacher UK, Editor of Resurgence
and Director of Programmes at Schumacher College.
From the September/October 2005 edition of Resurgence:

“RECENTLY I WAS talking with Kay Dunbar, the founder of Ways with Words,
a literary festival which takes place every year at Dartington, UK. Kay
said, “In urban and industrial civilisations people are increasingy
losing Eco-intelligence.” The moment I heard the word ‘Eco- intelligence’
it rang a bell. I realised that the article by Paul Stamets, ‘Mushroom
Magic’, is exactly about that: mushrooms are intelligent. So are trees,
rivers, oceans, animals and all the creatures of the Earth. We belong
to a living Earth in an intelligent universe. Intelligence is not a human
monopoly. The universe is made of intelligence and consciousness. Planet
Earth is a self-organising, self-managing and self-correcting living organism.
Wherever there is life there is intelligence and consciousness. Eco-intelligence
means the eco-system is an intelligent system.

Humans are intelligent, but people in urban and industrial societies
are mostly living in human-made, technological and artificial environments:
air-conditioned homes, cars and offices hold us within a cocoon which
is disconnected from the eco-system and the natural world. Young people
in our schools can recognise more than fifty logos of business corporations,
but if you take them into the woods, very few will be able to name ten
varieties of tree – not to mention insects and other creatures. We cannot
read the book of Nature. Knowledge of the natural world is mostly obtained
from TV channels. People are afraid of cold, heat, rain, snow, thunder,
lightning, and the roar of wild animals. This disconnection and alienation
from the biosphere leads to severe intelligence deficiency. The great
universities of the world are full of people who have technological and
academic knowledge but are ignorant of the real world. Universities are
no longer the centres of intelligence and knowledge – they have become
the citadels of ignorance. They need eco-literacy and eco-intelligence.

It is the work of poets and writers of the imagination to expose our
ignorance and challenge the mindset which places the natural world out
of human reach. Adam Thorpe, a novelist and a poet, expresses his anger
and frustration at the way we are destroying the natural world and discusses
what artists can do to redress this. Christopher Lloyd suggests that if
the Conservative Party wishes to earn the trust of British people, it
has to regain its intelligence by connecting with people, planet and future
generations – in other words become ‘True Conservatives’ and start conserving
the Earth and perennial human values.

The whole raison d’être of Resurgence is to recognise the intelligence
of the Earth and to inspire people to return to their own intelligence
about the Earth. These two aspects of eco-intelligence are paramount to
a sustainable future. Tony Juniper, Director of Friends of the Earth, is challenging us to realise that huge problems such as climate change cannot be addressed unless we understand and establish a symbiotic relationship with nature. Nature is not out there as an object to be manipulated and exploited. Humans are Nature too; ultimately life is one, manifesting itself in millions of forms”.

Satish Kumar

3. THE OLD TRACK by Bob Brissenden (1921-1991)

The old track is still there, hacked like a ledge
Into the sheer hillside. Fallen trees
Block it, saplings and young cycads spring
Out of its crown, each year
The rains gouge deeper gutters from its banks.
Soon even the maniac trail-bike boys of summer
Will let it die. Creepers veil one corner.
Part them and you can walk
Onto the hill’s high shoulder, and there from shadow
Look through columned gums down to the sun-lit
Water, darkly blue, Grasshopper Island’s
Forelegs fringed with surf,
The sea-birds wheeling like tiny pieces of torn
Paper, the beach – and beneath your feet, too steep
For the loggers, the gully, where the cabbage-tree palms
Like green fountains rise
Out of its secret tangling pocket of rain-
Forest, seeking the sun. All as it was
When, half our lives ago and wild with love,
We saw it first together.

Today, alone, I gazed out at the sea,
Feeling the forest breathe around me, systole
And diastole of life and death, of love
And the harsh fight to survive.
Native violets, golden hibbertia and small
Pink star-flowers shone among the maiden-hair
Beside my feet – ruthless blind possessors
Of their patch of earth, their measure
Of air and light. Ants ate the eyes of a dead
Bird; a gannet folded its wings and dropped
Like a homing missile into the wave; a vine
Silently strangled a tree:
Slow agony, unending pain, a myriad
Soundless cries of death filling the bright
Day loud with the confident joyful choir
Of everything that lived.

We heard that note of joy: our blood pulsed
To its music when beneath the trees, bare
To the sun and summer air, caught in the timeless
Dance, we spoke our love.
On that bright day we heard the melody.
Now, trapped in this treacherous, clumsy, ageing
Beast my body, I hear the undersong:
And know that death is a part
Of love, a part of life, as pain is a part
Of joy. The dead skin flakes from my fingers,
The dry bark strips from the tree, the leaves rot
In the teeming forest floor.

The moon has risen. Under the old track
Seeds stir. Owls flex their talons. Lover, friend,
Adversary – I give you now, as ever,
My imperfect love.

“R.F. Brissenden was the author of six collections of poetry, published between 1971 and 1990….his work reflects a profound love of nature alongside his abiding interest in jazz and literature. A conservationist as well as a writer and teacher, he is considered one of the pre-eminent poets of the Australian coastline and of the rainforests”.

From “Suddenly Evening The Selected Works of Poems of R.F. Brissenden” (McPhee Gribble 1993)

2. Wendell Berry is an American farmer, poet and conservationist who has written some of the most compelling and insightful works on the intertwined history and future prospects for agriculture, landscape, community and the environment.

In a commencement address delivered in June 1989 at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, Berry gave some advice that to most modern graduates would sound old fashioned, indeed backward. But the advice he gave was timeless, and his reminder seems apocalyptic in view of the world’s current environmental crisis and, as Berry sees it, America’s cultural crisis. In a sense, Berry’s deliverance of such a critical message parallels Moses’ deliverance of the Ten Commandments, for Berry’s advice is also a prescription for cultural healing through the imposition of a set of laws. The laws Berry delivers, however, seem to be Nature’s laws. He closed his address (later published in Harper’s as “The Futility of Global Thinking”) with a series of ten commands, which, he said, “is simply my hope for us all”. These instructions are at the heart of Berry’s personal and literary world, and collectively they express the thesis informing all of his work, a canon now in excess of thirty books of essays, fiction, and poetry:
1. Beware the justice of Nature.
2. Understand that there can be no successful human economy apart from Nature or in defiance of Nature.
3. Understand that no amount of education can overcome the innate limits of human intelligence and responsibility. We are not smart enough or conscious enough or alert enough to work responsibly on a gigantic scale.
4. In making things always bigger and more centralized, we make them both more vulnerable in themselves and more dangerous to everything else. Learn, therefore, to prefer small-scale elegance and generosity to large-scale greed, crudity, and glamour.
5. Make a home. Help to make a community. Be loyal to what you have made.
6. Put the interest of the community first.
7. Love your neighbors–not the neighbors you pick out, but the ones you have.
8. Love this miraculous world that we did not make, that is a gift to us.
9. As far as you are able make your lives dependent upon your local place, neighborhood, and household–which thrive by care and generosity–and independent of the industrial economy, which thrives by damage.
10. Find work, if you can, that does no damage. Enjoy your work. Work well.

Wendell Berry – “The Peace of Wild Things”

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

1. John Muir

There was no one like “poetico-trampo-geologist-botanist and ornithologist-naturalist” John Muir. No wonder then that he styled his own brand of rhapsodic prose.

For Muir, the natural world deserved all of the praise and glory usually reserved for royalty. In a letter probably written in 1870, he makes his exuberance felt.

“Do behold the King in his glory, King Sequoia! Behold! Behold! seems all I can say….Well may I fast, not from bread, but from business, book-making, duty-going, and other trifles, and great is my reward already for the manly, treely sacrifice….I am in the woods, woods, woods, and they are in me. The King and I have sworn eternal love – sworn it without swearing, and I’ve taken the sacrament with Douglas squirrel, drunk Sequoia wine, Sequoia blood, and with its rosy purple drops I am writing this woody gospel letter.

I never before knew the virtue of Sequoia juice….I wish I were so drunk and Sequoical that I could preach the green brown woods to all the  juiceless world, descending from this divine wilderness like a John the Baptist, eating Douglas squirrels and wild honey or wild honey or anything, crying Repent, for the Kingdom of Sequoia is at hand! ”

John Muir’s letter to Mrs. Ezra S. Carr was posted Squirrelville, Sequoia Co. and dated “Nut Time.”

To read more about John Muir

One response to “Reflections on Ecology

  1. Nature and Culture
    NATURE AND CULTURE The need for biodiversity protection has long been understood, but the importance of cultural protection is only just emerging. Understanding their relationship and interaction is crucial in ensuring that both Nature and culture survive and thrive.

    NATURE AND CULTURE converge in many ways that span values, beliefs and norms to practices, livelihoods, knowledge and languages. As a result, there exists a mutual feedback between cultural systems and the environment, with a shift in one often leading to a change in the other. For example, knowledges evolve with the ecosystems upon which they are based, and languages contain words describing ecosystem components. If plants or animals are lost, then the words used to describe them are often lost shortly afterwards, and this changes the way the natural environment is shaped by the practices of those human communities. Nature provides the setting in which cultural processes, activities and belief systems develop, all of which feed back to shape biodiversity. There are four key bridges linking Nature with culture: beliefs and worldviews; livelihoods and practices; knowledge bases; and norms and institutions.
    Beliefs and worldviews

    Culture can be understood as systems by which people interpret the world around them. These meanings and interpretations are most diverse in their linkages to the natural world, with the most conspicuous links often found in traditional resource-dependent communities. Whereas many traditional communities do not seem to differentiate between Nature and culture, many modern societies perceive them as separate or even opposing entities. E. O. Wilson, however, has said that all humans, no matter their culture, have an innate connection with Nature based on our common histories as hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists (the biophilia hypothesis). With the coming challenges of climate change and peak oil, it is conceivable that those with industrialised livelihoods may have to undergo substantial transitions in the near future.
    Livelihoods and practices

    As a set of practices, cultures shape biodiversity through the selection of plants and animals and the reworking of whole landscapes. Such landscapes have been described as anthropogenic Nature, as their composition is a reflection of local culture and a product of human history. Growing archaeological and ethnographic evidence tells us that many habitats previously thought to be pristine are in fact an emergent property of resource-dependent livelihood practices. For instance, some North American landscapes were sustained through periodic burning and grazing regimes. These landscapes represent ecological profiles shaped by localised cultural practices. This has now been acknowledged with the naming of our era as the anthropocene.

    This has led, amongst other things, to a split in attitudes to the concept of wilderness. Some wilderness societies are passionate advocates of its values (often without a clear idea of the role of traditional societies in shaping the ecology), while for traditional societies the term often causes anger because of the implication that traditional societies played no role in the shaping of their ancestral landscapes.
    Knowledges about Nature

    If diverse cultural practices and worldviews are central to the management of biological diversity, then the key link between Nature and culture is knowledge. How people know the world governs behaviours, understandings and values that shape human interactions with Nature. Knowledge of Nature, variously called traditional, Indigenous, local or ecological, is accumulated within a society and transferred through cultural modes of transmission such as stories and narratives. Cultural understandings of the environment not only give rise to sustainable management practices, but also to knowledge of species requirements, ecosystem dynamics, sustainable harvesting and ecological interactions. This culturally engrained knowledge can enable people to live within the constraints of their environment in the long-term.
    Norms and institutions

    Ecological knowledge also gives rise to socially embedded norms and regulations. These govern human interactions and behaviours towards the natural environment, and have often co-evolved to sustain both people and Nature. They often take the form of common property rules that govern the use of resources from forests to fisheries. These rules define access rights and appropriate behaviours, and maintain the productivity and diversity of socio-ecological systems – which is ultimately in the best interests of the community.

    There has been an unparalleled shift towards both landscape and human monocultures in recent years, and many of the reasons are common. Some pressures have arisen from capitalist economies that stress unrestrained economic growth. The result is a shift in consumption patterns, even in traditional societies that interact with the capitalist economy, the globalisation of food systems, and the commodification of natural resources. These pressures are at their most damaging when they lead to rapid and unanticipated periods of socio-economic change, which jeopardises both cultural and ecosystems resilience. They are also likely to have destructive health outcomes, particularly for young people if they spend less time in Nature. Time spent directly experiencing Nature improves psychological health and wellbeing, as well as increasing physical activity levels. But disconnection leads to feelings of biophobia and a fear of the outdoors, perceiving it to be a wild and unfamiliar environment. This extinction of experience seems to be producing a new lost generation who are disconnected to any place in particular and unable to feel innate relationships with Nature.

    These pressures are also paving the way to wider cultural monocultures, as a result of cultural extinctions caused by assimilation, language loss and knowledge loss. Rural communities are migrating to urban areas, cultural knowledge transmission between generations is declining, oral knowledge is being replaced with written knowledge (just as classrooms are replacing direct experience), and traditional livelihoods are being replaced by modern occupations, all at the expense of cultural diversity. This comes at a cost to human societies as a decline in knowledge causes a decline in the possible solutions that humanity holds to future global challenges.

    THE NEED FOR effective policies in biodiversity protection has long been understood. But the importance of cultural protection is only just emerging. Since many common drivers exist between biological and cultural diversity, policies should now target both in a new approach for conservation. Locally, efforts could include local recovery projects, revitalisation schemes, culturally appropriate education schemes, and language revitalisation. Other approaches include the revival of culturally appropriate healthcare systems, the protection and careful commercialisation of traditional food systems, and the greening of businesses.

    Larger-scale movements include fair trade and the recognition of land rights so that the integral relations between Nature and culture can be realised. Investment into community-based conservation and the dissemination of power to grassroots initiatives and institutions can strengthen mechanisms that favour social and environmental sustainability.

    To conserve global diversity effectively, policy efforts need to be internationally driven, geographically targeted, multi-level and inclusive. Policies emphasising political empowerment, self-governance and territorial control at grassroots levels have the potential to provide a solid platform from which communities can play a central role in biodiversity conservation whilst retaining their own cultural distinctiveness and connectedness to the land.

    The degree to which the diversity of the world’s ecosystems, upon which we as humans depend, is linked to the diversity of its cultures is only beginning to be understood. Ironically, it is precisely as we come to understand this linkage that many cultures are receding towards extinction. •

    Jules Pretty is Professor of Environment and Society and Sarah Pilgrim is Post-doctoral Research Officer at the Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.