Entanglements in an Anthropocentric World -Thom van Dooren on Crows and Hospitality.

House Crow (Corvus splendens), Tirunelvedi, India. Photo KI Hari Krishnan, Creative Commons.

House Crow (Corvus splendens), Tirunelvedi, India. Photo K. Hari Krishnan, Creative Commons.

Perhaps it is we who have not yet “evolved” into the kinds of beings worthy of our own inheritances‘. -Thom van Dooren, Flight Ways.

Twice on recent walks I’ve encountered older men who evidently thought I was one of their kind.  Although I am older than Jeremy Corbin and do use a walking pole when out on the hills -not least to test the depth of sphagnum bog or peaty puddles- it soon became clear to me on both occasions that I was talking across a cultural chasm.  Both men seemed desperate to vent suppressed fury, and launched into worrying diatribes.

The first encounter, which occured shortly after the British electorate had voted -by a narrow majority in an ill-conceived referendum- to leave the European Union, was with a man I’ve often shared wildlife news with.  He told me he’d voted to leave, and proclaimed, rather dramatically, that “we need someone who’ll give the bastards a good kicking”.  The second encounter was with a dog walker who approached me when I sat down to have a snack.  My new ‘friend’ began by reminiscing about his alcoholic father, but soon embarked upon an account of the Second World War, which, in his view, we only got involved in ‘because some idiot had decided to invade the poor Germans’.

These unsettling cameos seem consistent with the 42% spike in reported racist hate crime in the two weeks before and after the referendum (see here).  And, of course, a week before the referendum the country was shaken by the appalling murder of Jo Cox, a Labour M.P. with an impressive record as a humanitarian activist.  A fund set up in her memory raised £1 million in three days for Hope Not Hate (an anti-extremist charity), the R.V.S. (who care for elderly people), and White Helmets (Syrian search and rescue volunteers).(1)

I’m writing this on a warm early September morning with the window open, but can’t see or hear any House Martins.  Local birders report that they’ve had a bad year, so I’ve been looking out for the larger groups that should be gathering in preparation for their autumn migration.  I don’t know what multispecies stories underly this disruption, but in a period of unprecedented anthropogenic species loss, one of many concerns about ‘Brexit’ is that we have a farming minister who has described key E.U. environmental legislation (the Birds and Habitat directives) as ‘spirit crushing’.(2)

Entanglements

In the current issue of Environmental Humanitiesa thought provoking open access journal, Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose ponder the writing and thinking practices that inform their research on species extinctions.  In an article entitled Lively Ethography, Storying Animist Worlds they invoke Emma Restall Orr’s notion of “the relational awakeness” of the world and elaborate an approach ‘grounded in an attentiveness to the evolving ways of life (or ethea, singular ethos) of diverse forms of human and nonhuman life, and in an effort to explore and perhaps restory the relationships that constitute and nourish them’.  Their vision of ecological animism attends to a world ‘woven through with co-forming patterns of responsiveness, attention, desire, and communication.’

The authors illustrate their approach with a series of ethographic vignettes from ‘sites of entanglement’ involving Hawaiian monk seals, lava fields, lichen, and alalā, or Hawaiian crows.  Although the latter are regarded by some humans as aumakua, or ancestral deities, the focus of van Dooren and Rose’s ‘art of witness’ is very much on ecological realities rather than engagements with a spirit world.  Despite my strong interest in the subtle dimensions of inter-species relationship I can see that, in some contexts, such issues might distract from urgent discussions about species loss and nonhuman agency -and in any case wholeheartedly endorse van Dooren and Rose’s concern to ’embrace the ethical call others make upon us in the meaningfulness of their lives and deaths’. (my italics) (3).

Hawaiian Crow, Corvus Hawaiiensis. Plate Mammology and Ornithology, Atlas. Cassin J, 1858. Philadephia, C Sheerman, Creative Commons.

Hawaiian Crow, Corvus Hawaiiensis.  Mammology and Ornithology, Atlas. Cassin J, 1858. Philadephia, C Sheerman, Creative Commons.

Thom van Dooren’s work appeals to me because he writes extensively, as an environmental philosopher and anthropologist, about birds.  In Flight Ways (4) he fleshes out Val Plumwood’s notion of human exceptionalism in relation to the lived experience of species such as Laysan and Black Footed Albatrosses, Oriental, Long-billed, and Slender-billed Vultures, and Whooping Cranes, that face the possible extinction of their kind.  When vultures disappear, for example, what Deborah Rose calls a ‘doubling’ of death occurs as the ecological connections and entanglements necessary for life are unmade.

In two recent articles Thom van Dooren writes about two very different species of crow.  In one he discusses the predicament of the Hawaiian Crow, or alalā (Corvus Hawaiiensis), a bird which has been extinct in the wild since 2002.  Van Dooren explores some complex questions that arise around a captive breeding programme in which two small extant populations survive, focussing on ecologists’ attempts to ensure that despite the inevitable loss of vocal repertoire/vocabulary/animal cultures by captive birds, released alalā behave ‘authentically’ (e.g. eat forest fruits rather than forage amongst human garbage).

One informant tells him that released birds are not really alalā at all.  Hawks no longer respect them.  They have become a different species.  Van Dooren responds by questioning notions of fixed and essential species identity.  Building upon Val Plumwood’s call to reconceptualise evolution in a way that respects nonhuman agency, he argues that behaviour is a relational and developmental achievement.  ‘As crows around the world move into cities and learn new ways of life, they conduct experiments in emergent forms of crowness’.

He goes on to suggest that ethical relations between humans and other animals might require ‘careful and deliberate forms of detachment’, respectful distance, a ‘paradoxical absent presence’.  Humans need learn to ask ‘what kinds of relationships and forms of life are crows themselves interested in taking up?'(5)  Although I’m wary of social theories that rely on analogies between human and other-than-human ‘natures’ and ‘cultures’, the parallels here with, for instance, Rogerian client-centred counselling amongst humans, are intriguing.  In Flight Ways (pp133-142) van Dooren cites research documenting the ability of corvids to show empathy, and it seems, to grieve.  What is being lost in the forests of Hawaii, then, may well be an other-than-human culture that includes ways of grieving -for so many deaths, for the loss of a way of life, and perhaps for an entire species.  Yet amongst human cultures the passing of a nonhuman species is rarely marked or mourned.

House Crow Feeding Chicks, photo Emanjsr2611, Creative Commons.

House Crow Feeding Chicks, photo Emanjsr2611, Creative Commons.

In another recent article Thom Van Dooren directs our attention towards the complex realities of a crow species that may, just possibly, have earned its bad reputation, and of the magnitude and effects of power within late modern/global capitalist human societies.  The Unwelcome Crows, hospitality and the anthropocene (6) tells the story of a small group of about thirty five to forty House Crows, a species from the Indian subcontinent, that had set up home in Hoek van Holland.  House Crows have proved themselves to be adept at stowing away on ocean going ships, and are now quite widely dispersed.  Their ‘invasion’ of Europe has not been taken lightly however, and the Dutch authorities launched an eradication programme based on fears that they would damage crops, threaten other species, and spread disease, apparently without first undertaking a detailed study of the birds.

Thom van Dooren’s visit to the location prompted him to reflect on conceptions of hospitality and to write that that the arrival of strangers ‘is always haunted … grounded in specific pasts and futures, imagined and/or lived’.  The attempted eradication of these avian invaders is juxtaposed against the operations of the gargantuan port of Rotterdam, just across the river, characterised by van Dooren as ‘a key driver, an engine, of the Anthropocene’.  Seven days a week, day and night, ships arrive and depart.  ‘This is how old growth forests become floorboards, how we are able to keep burning fossil fuels at low prices’.  How dirty industries, toxic materials, and carbon emission responsibilities, are outsourced to unseen corners of distant lands.  Rather than blaming a singular ‘humanity’ for all of this ‘we’ need to ‘open up the question of who it is that is marking and appropriating the world at our present time’.  Van Dooren pithily comments that ‘here, at the epicentre of our remaking of the world to suit our designs and whims, the lives of forty crows could not be tolerated’.

He then ponders the ability of jackdaws to get on with the new arrivals, and how humans might have responded differently, by moving beyond the ‘logic of the host’, with its appropriative claim. ‘What is needed … is an entirely new frame of orientation: an acknowledgement that the world and its future were never ours -never any individual or group’s- to give in the first place, to welcome or not.’  In multispecies worlds lives inescapeably overlap.  ‘My house, my body, are always already others’ territories too …. [  ] … alter-territorialities are possible’.  Which brings me back to my own recent unsettling human encounters, played out, of course, against the appalling backdrop of an epic migration crisis in which thousands of our fellow human beings are dying as they attempt to reach the shores of Europe.

B.T.

11th September 2016.

Sources:

(1) The Killing of Jo Cox, Wikipedia.  (accessed 1/9/16).

(2) Brexit would free UK from ‘spirit crushing’ green directives, says minister,  The Guardian, 30th May 2016.

(3) Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose, Lively Ethography, Storying Animist Worlds,  Environmental Humanities 8:1 (May 2016).

(4) Thom van Dooren, Flight Ways, Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, Columbia University Press, 2014.

(5) Thom van Dooren, Authentic Crows; Identity, Captivity, and Emergent Forms of Life, Theory, Culture, and Society, 2016 Vol 33 (2) 29-52.

(6) Thom van Dooren, The Unwelcome Crows; hospitality in the anthropocene, Journal of Theoretical Humanities, vol21 no2 June 2016.  This article is available here (you can register as an independent researcher).

Environmental Humanities

Thom van Dooren – Encountering Crows

Ted Hughes on Oracular Corvids

 

crow-ted-hughes4
This morning, as I was wondering whether to write something about Ted Hughes in the context of recent hill walks on a rather bleak and exploited stretch of the Lancashire/Yorkshire border -a place he reportedly retreated to during the awful personal nadir from which Crow emerged- an e-mail arrived with a link to a documentary involving Hughes, made by the National Film Board of Canada (in 1994), called Seven Crows a Secret What follows is a brief recommendation of the film, and a footnote on a possible source for the idea of Cave Birds.

In the film a rather subdued and life worn Hughes (who only had another few years to live) reads from Crow and (towards the end) talks about the crow as ‘the totemic oracular god of Britain, a fact which has unfortunately been forgotten’.  Interestingly, given his views on the potential magical power of the photographic image, and doubtless also an understandable resistance to biographical exposure, he doesn’t look into the camera at any point.

The film opens slowly, but if you’re interested in Ted Hughes, crows, or bird lore, its worth persisting.  The first interviewee is Leonard Baskin, the sculptor and printmaker whose extraordinary drawings enliven the Viking Press edition of Cave Birds.  It was Baskin (who also had only a few years left to live when the film was made) who had found Hughes in a very depressed state and suggested he write some crow poems.  I don’t concur with the bleak view of birds, or the rest of nature, he expresses in the film, but I wouldn’t want to judge a Jewish artist renowned for his scupltures at the Ann Arbor Holocaust Memorial on that score.

The film also visited Bernd Heinrich, an engaging ornithologist who conducted influential research on ravens.  Heinrich kept pet crows from a young age, and several years before his major life project on ravens began, recorded a dream in which he heard ravens croaking, telling him that their nest was near.(2)  There’s some nice footage of ravens in the film, and the commentary highlights the widespread negative perception of corvids, pointing out that crows are ‘a model of monagmous devotion’, and loyal parents, and that ravens will give their nest over to their growing chicks, going elsewhere to roost in order to give them space.  This endearing habit has been misinterpreted in beliefs that ravens make bad parents.  Prejudice of this kind is contrasted with a Haida story of the raven ‘trickster’ who coaxed little creatures into the world with his beautiful soft voice, before the first Haida Indians were born.

It’s often assumed that birds don’t mourn, so I was pleased to hear about two ravens at the Tower of London, named Huggin and Munin after Odin’s raven emissaries.  After the female, Munnin, died from a heart attack, her partner Huggin mourned for two years before showing signs of interest in another bird.

After centuries of persecution ravens have benefitted greatly from legal protection in the U.K.   Since the 1990’s they have returned to most areas, including the Lancashire/Yorkshire Pennines.  Unfortunately, following a spate of predation by ravens on lambs in Scotland, farmers and gamekeepers are now calling for them to join other corvids on the list of species on the General Licence.  This would enable landowners to kill them without applying for permission each time (at present ‘destructive ravens’ can be shot or trapped under individual licences).  The R.S.P.B. and other conservation bodies are opposing this  move, which could precipitate an indiscriminate cull. (see here).  Gamekeepers, who clearly don’t regard the crow as an oracular totemic god, and who, ironically, often invoke pejorative lore about the ‘unkindness’ of ravens, justify this on ecological grounds.  Research shows, however, that the presence of ravens has not been a significant factor in the precipitous decline (by up to 50% in the last quarter of century) in populations of wading birds such as lapwing, dunlin, golden plover, snipe, and curlew. (see here and here).

Raven, Corax Corax.

Raven, Corax Corax. (Photo, Pixabay, Creative Commons).

Cave Birds?

I’m not a huge fan of Ted Hughes’s Crow collection.  Ironically, given that he clearly realised the harm done by negative lore and beliefs about corvids, Crow, which was truncated by the second appalling tragedy in his life, has been criticised for its unremitting and unredeemed bleakness.  I agree with those who prefer Hughes’s shamanistic sequel, Cave Birds, in which existential anguish is assuaged, if not resolved, in moments of beauty and ecstasy, though like Hughes, I feel ambivalent about its appropriation of ornithomorphic imagery to explore all-too-human concerns.

After writing about Cave Birds (here) I stumbled upon a reference to the use of actual ‘cave birds’ in Hittite divination.  The birds in question were thought to have been a kind of partridge, the tadorna, which were either sacrificed and subjected to haruspicy (the examination of their entrails) or an examination of superficial signs on their bodies, or released so that their flight could be interpreted.(1)  Ann Skea was unable to find the original sources (dated 1963, 1966, and 1975) in Ted Hughes’ library at Emory University, but thought he may have come across them at Cambridge University library, to which he kept returning (pers comm).

Whether or not Hughes was aware of this connection, there’s a tradition within astrology (and other esoteric disciplines) that names can be significant, even where significance was not intended.  Given that an autobiogaphical strand permeates Cave Birds, given that Ted Hughes’ life would be subjected to intense biographical scrutiny, and not least given the poems’ imagery of interrogation, judgement, disembowelling, lobotomy, and the skinning of souls, a co-incidental naming of the collection after birds who were sacrificed and had their entrails examined, would perhaps have been apt.

B.T 2/5/16 updated on 24/5/16.

Sources:

(1) Michael Lowe and Carmen Blacker eds.  Divination and Oracles, London, George Allen and Unwin. 1981 pp 151 and 153-4 (and references on pp170-171).

(2) Bernd Heinrich, Mind of the Raven, Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds, Harper Perennial, 1999.

Also: Ted Hughes. Crow, From the Life and Songs of the Crow, Faber and Faber, 1970 and Cave Birds, Viking Press, 1978.

On alchemical symbolism in Cave Birds see Ann Skea, Ted Hughes, the Poetic Quest, University of New England Press (1994), also her web page on Crow.