Midnight at the oasis

By Rebecca Lawton ILCW member (USA)

Once oases supported human evolution. Now, our addiction to fountains, pools and palms threatens our survival

Seen from the air, the single verdant parcel of land with its straight borders and sharp edges resembles a green postage stamp pasted on a great expanse of manila envelope. Inside the boundary, a screen of trees hides a palatial estate, acres of emerald turf, a paved circular driveway, and an extensive array of tumbling, marble fountains. Outside the rectangle, a hot, rock-strewn fan of tan alluvium extends unvegetated and unwatered for half a kilometre to another such parcel, then another, then another. Toward the city centre eight kilometres away, residences cluster closer together but emulate the lush feel of the outlying estates with their surfeit of palm trees, water features and improbably green turf.

Downtown, a shimmering strip of casinos, restaurants, luxury shops and lounges lures visitors indoors off the sunburnt street. Fountains and gazing pools convey a sense of plentiful water, as if the strip were supplied by healthy dousings of rainfall. One cannot tell by looking that the city, Las Vegas, normally receives less than 11 centimetres of rainfall a year in a climate where summer temperatures regularly soar above 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit). To build an oasis at a desert resort requires more sleight of hand than a card shark playing a casino. Yet Las Vegas, like other arid communities, routinely pumps water for just this purpose from underground or outlying systems – in this case, the Colorado River impounded in Lake Mead, a reservoir 50 kilometres away.

The green succour of true oases has been part of humankind’s experience for millennia, occurring where precious below-ground springs and aquifers nearly reach the surface. For centuries, oases have marked the locations of communities and trade routes. In recent generations we’ve extended the oasis habit into our built environment, pumping water into faux oases – such as Las Vegas – to complement what nature provides. But our human impulse to convert the desert, to build oases wherever our surroundings are arid, has produced an 11th-hour crisis of water mismanagement and shortages worldwide.

A landscape deemed forsaken, ‘desert’ derives from the Latin desertum, ‘something left waste’. In the geographer’s lexicon, a desert is an area receiving less than 25 centimetres of rainfall a year. The world’s largest are the polar deserts, each approximately 14 million square kilometres of ice, snow and tundra in the Arctic or of bedrock in the Antarctic. Next comes the Sahara, 9 million square kilometres of gravel plain, sand and dune spread over 13 countries and covering a quarter of the African continent. After that, the Arabian Desert comprises 2.5 million square kilometres and reaches into six countries. Equal to one-fifth the area of the continents, often inhospitable due to extreme temperatures and lack of water, deserts are also the settings where natural oases, some of the most appealing land- and water-forms on the planet, can be found.

The moist, fertile zone of the oasis consists of a central pool of open water surrounded by a ring of water-dependent shrubs and trees, notably palms, which are in turn encircled by an outlying transition zone to desert plants. In contrast to the vast expanse of the world’s deserts, the oasis ecosystem is relatively minute, rare and precious, the largest measured in dozens and hundreds, rather than millions, of square kilometres.

Oases figure prominently in human survival and evolution. The earliest people lived and hunted around surface water, matching their ranges to the persistent springs and pools that also attracted wildlife and watered vegetative sources of food. Paleontologists studying early evidence of Homo sapiens at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania found that our forebears probably relied on isolated oases when other potable water became scarce during times of drought.

Oases also formed bridges between larger bodies of water, anthropologists hypothesise, allowing humans to migrate within and ultimately out of Africa. Natural oases determined the trajectory of trade routes and desert settlements. From the sure signs of underground water signalled by a grove of fan palms in the Sahara to the early dwellings along great rivers on the Colorado Plateau in North America, water determined the locations of communities and pathways among them.

The longest known network of trade routes, the 7,400-kilometre Silk Road across Africa, Asia and Europe, traced its course from water hole to water hole, relying on oasis communities such as Turpan in China and Samarkand in Uzbekistan. The Darb el-Arba camel route in middle Egypt and Sudan, the Moroccan caravan route from the Niger to Tangier, and the aboriginal foot trails in the Mojave Desert in the American southwest were all oasis-linked routes that otherwise would have been impassable.

Over time, cultures integrated the oasis experience of rest and recreation into the built world. In ancient Rome, thermae (large-scale imperial baths) and balneae (small-scale public and private baths) were created through elaborate systems of aqueducts leading from rivers and springs to most towns and villages. The public baths were the community centres of their time, where citizens could meet for conversation, soaks, massage and exercise. The Latin adage for the healthful properties of water, ‘In Aqua Sanitas’, conveyed the philosophy that water immersion for recuperation and rejuvenation was central to good health and even good citizenship.

In the tradition of Rome, resort towns elsewhere became popular, their engineered waterworks full of healing waters from naturally occurring mineral springs and shallow stores of groundwater. The community of Spa, Belgium, gave its name to a soaking custom replicated worldwide: toplice in Slovenia, bain in France, Bad in Germany, fürdő in Hungary, città thermale in Italy, hot springs in America – destinations that were and are cultivated to offer respite to those who want to ‘take the waters’.

In arid regions, recreating the experience of healing waters requires some doing. Water must be pumped from a natural source up inclines, over artificial ledges, often into buildings or fenced areas where cement-rimmed swimming pools emulate the grass-sloped natural pool. Resort gardens are made to order, their fully mature trees installed by cranes and work crews, their water needs met through irrigation and timed sprinkler systems. The hot dry desert of the Las Vegas valley, one of the world’s greatest faux oases, serves up a modern-day mirage – the fantasy that we can keep taking large quantities of water from elsewhere to make the desert green, without paying the price.

The oasis has beckoned and tantalised us for millennia, offering the weary desert traveller a dip in an open pool, the green shelter of palm fronds and the relief of shade and refuge. These are not just creature comforts; they also enhance health.

As it happens, water immersion also enhances the function of the brain, by improving the ability of blood to transport oxygen and nutrients to it. In a 2014 study from the University of Western Australia published in the American Journal of Physiology, subjects immersed heart-deep for 10 minutes in a tank of water at 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) experienced greater cerebral blood flow over the duration of immersion.

Similarly, an oasis’ green foliage is likely to promote wellbeing. Testing what nature‑lovers have long intuited to be true, researchers in environmental psychology are measuring the electrical response of the brain to green space. An article on the ‘urban brain’ in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2015 reports that subjects exhibited ‘lower frustration’ when moving into natural areas and ‘higher engagement’ when moving out. Compared with brain response to other zones, such as shopping or commercial districts, the improved mental state measured in subjects moving along paths in green zones showed the potential for restoration and recovery from stress.

The oasis also helps us stay focused. The common experience of feeling a kind of brain fog in the hot sun isn’t just imagined; it’s real and measurable. Studies have shown that mammals, including humans, require a two- or three-fold increase in natural evaporation to maintain reasonable body temperature when exposed to desert sun; conversely, slipping into shade increases performance and physiological measures. Getting to an oasis at the end of a day spent in desert heat fulfils the simple and necessary function of preventing overheating. Brain temperature stays about 0.2 degrees Celsius higher than the rest of the body, says a 2011 study from the University of Copenhagen. In hot environments with no relief, we become unable or unwilling to continue walking or performing other forms of exercise. The simple break of an oasis can keep us on track.

Given all this, it makes sense that the resort or spa, the modern emulation of the ancient oasis, adds therapeutic treatment to the natural benefits of water, plants and refuge. Some benefit comes through stimulation of endorphins, morphine-like molecules associated with the experience of deep pleasure. Candace Pert, the late American neuroscientist and pharmacologist, discovered that endorphins attached to opiate receptors not just in the body, but also the brain. Ultimately, an entire system of hormones and receptors was discovered in neuroscience labs, powering the nascent field of psychoneuroimmunology – the study of an interconnected brain-body loop driving mood, health and disease. The ‘way in which [chemicals] circulate through the body, finding their target receptors in regions far more distant [from the brain] than had ever been thought possible,’ Pert wrote in her book, The Molecules of Emotion (1997), ‘made the brain communication system resemble the endocrine system, whose hormones can travel the length and breadth of our bodies.’

Poised to deliver that sense of wellbeing to the length and breadth of our bodies and brains are faux oases, today represented by the $40 billion resort and spa industry, one of the fastest-growing sectors of leisure travel worldwide. Wherever there are spas, travellers can find water, in whirlpools, steam rooms, fountains, mud baths and other assorted features, all in the service of relaxation, rejuvenation and health.

In arid regions, the bulk of water is, of course, already directed to agriculture and urban use. Yet desert biomes also host tourists, who come for built oases, above all else. In 2007, the architect Aziza Chaouni at the University of Toronto conducted an investigation in the Sahara Desert, where a resurgence of tourism in the 1980s ‘induced both the extension of existing colonial accommodations and the creation of new large hotels, a phenomenon which not only drained the scarce water resources but also shifted local economies from agricultural to service‑based’.

Installing greenery and engineered water features to create resort complexes stretches already-exhausted water budgets in Dubai, where 2.4 million residential users consuming 492 litres per capita daily long ago outgrew freshwater supply. A destination for foreign tourists and workers, Dubai has the advantage of being a wealthy seaside resort that can meet its water needs through desalination plants. Though roughly twice as expensive as water from recycling or impounding, desalination is still an option in oceanfront locales.

Land-locked Las Vegas, on the other hand, is restricted to freshwater supplies. With 603,000 residents inside the city limits, more than 2 million in the greater metropolitan area, and a tourism-based economy, the area’s once-adequate surface and groundwater no longer meets its needs.

The Colorado River fulfils 86 per cent of the Las Vegas valley water portfolio, apportioned and piped annually to the state in the amount of 500,000 acre-feet (617 billion litres). The river allotment is supplemented by groundwater, which contributes another 10 per cent to metropolitan and urban use; recycled water makes up the last 4 per cent. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which controls supply, estimates that casinos and resorts use 32,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water (7 per cent of the apportionment) and 4,000 acre-feet of groundwater from private wells, or 36,000 acre-feet in all.

A large quantity of this water – some 60 per cent of all water delivered to homes and businesses in Las Vegas – goes to irrigate landscaping and create water features, according to the Water Authority. An estimated 70 per cent of residential use and 20 per cent of casino and spa use is applied outdoors on turf, landscaping and swimming pools.

In fact, in Nevada, most outdoor use is consumptive – that is, fully used and lost to the system. As a result, groundwater has declined more than 100 metres and associated land has sunk several metres. Resulting earthquakes, irreversible ground collapse and property settling have caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage in the Las Vegas valley alone.

Similarly extensive pumping of groundwater from the San Joaquin Valley aquifer system in California for agricultural and urban use has ‘caused groundwater levels to decline’, according to the United States Geological Survey, ‘resulting in as much as 28 feet [8.5 metres] of land subsidence’. Once an aquifer is drawn down, the underground space for it closes up, and the land’s ability to hold water in its best, natural location – the cool underground – is eliminated as an option.

Pulling surface water from rivers also puts civilisation at risk. When flow is reduced too much, the water remaining in streams can no longer sustain native aquatic life or even the habitat critical to climate resilience for a range of species, including humans.

Taken to an extreme, mismanaging water supply destabilises cultures. The Syrian refugee crisis can be understood as a direct result of water instability driven by a changing climate. According to a 2014 United Nations report on drought in the Middle East, an estimated 800,000 people have lost their livelihoods due to water mismanagement in the region. ‘Water scarcity is forcing people off the land,’ said Hussein Amery, a Middle Eastern water management expert at the Colorado School of Mines, in an interview with National Public Radio in 2015. ‘These refugees are very much water refugees, a product of water scarcity in the region.’

In the American West, much of the water mismanagement that has drawn down stores stems from the creation of the faux oasis, what the late water resources consultant Marc Reisner called the ‘Cadillac desert’. ‘In the West, it is said, water flows uphill toward money,’ he wrote in Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (1986). ‘And it literally does, as it leaps 3,000 feet across the Tehachapi Mountains in gigantic siphons to slake the thirst of Los Angeles, as it is shoved 1,000 feet out of Colorado River canyons to water Phoenix and Palm Springs and the irrigated lands around them.’

It is the 11th hour at the oasis – 11:59 pm, in truth – past time to act. With the faux oasis a fact of life, and water a dwindling key resource increasingly at risk, our best next step is to cut consumptive use.

The Pacific Institute, a research and outreach organisation in Oakland, California that ‘creates and advances solutions to the world’s most pressing water challenges’, evaluates water use for improved conservation and sustainability. The institute’s analysis of resort consumption concluded that increasing water needs can be met with no change in guests’ water use habits (and presumably no decline in their quality of experience) if hotels and spas install technologies such as water-saving showerheads, low water-use toilets, and upgraded appliances in laundries.

Even more can be done. The Green Spa Network of Sebastopol, California, a leader in the effort to reduce the water footprint, recommends that spas use native plants – trees, shrubs and herbs naturally found in the arid and semi‑arid environment being landscaped. A founding member of that network, the Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone, California, has not only changed landscaping but also installed a greywater system on site. The system, which processes and recycles wash water from laundry right at the spa, has cut water use at Osmosis by 3,800 litres per day. In a state where severe drought is in its fourth year, wildfires are burning in increasing size and number, and reservoirs are depleted, all water savings count.

In California in general, simply re-landscaping residential, commercial and institutional gardens with native plants and other drought-tolerant species could reduce water use by 1.3 million acre-feet annually. This reduction, according to the Pacific Institute and National Resource Defense Council, would be ‘equivalent to a statewide per capita use of 30 gallons per day [114 litres]’ when the current use is 140 gallons per day [530 litres].

‘At home, widespread adoption of water-saving appliances and fixtures, along with replacement of lawns with water-efficient landscapes,’ says the Pacific Institute, ‘could reduce total residential water use by 40 to 60 per cent, saving 2.2 million to 3.6 million acre-feet per year,’ for savings of up to 5.2 million acre-feet per year overall.

Our emotional desire for oasis might never leave us, but if the natural oasis is to endure, the faux oasis might have to hold sway only in our minds. Water in the natural world – in wild rivers rather than engineered canals, natural lakes rather than reservoirs, true falls rather than recirculating fountains – is the fix. Draining our actual water supply to create the faux oasis endangers the true refuge and puts us all at risk.

Rebecca Lawton is a fluvial geologist and former river guide who writes about water in the West. Her latest book is Steelies and Other Endangered Species: Stories on Water (2014). She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

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Driving tigers to the brink

By Sanjay Gubbi, ILCW Member (India)

Previously published by the IUCN Newsletter

The survival of tigers in the wild depends lagely upon the willingness of the tiger range countries to ensure adequate protection of sufficiently large areas from inappropriate development and activities such as roads and poaching.

Roads and traffic threaten tigers across their range in many ways. Research on Amur tigers in Russia suggests that direct mortality due to vehicle collisions can reduce survivorship and reproductive success of the species. The death of individual tigers also results in social instability. The death of a territorial male can lead to infighting of transient males trying to establish territories, infanticide by the new territorial male, and it also affects tigresses due to unstable male ranges possibly leading to depressed birth-rates. Chital and sambar, principal prey species for tigers in the tropical forests of south Asia are one of the commonly killed species in vehicular collisions, resulting in reduced food source for tigers.

Furthermore, roads are used for illegal activities including hunting of tiger and their prey. In the Russian Far East, six Amur tigers were poached over a 10-year period along one road. In 2010, poachers apprehended in southern India confessed to be illegally hunting chital and other deer species in Bandipur, Bhadra, and Biligirirangaswamy Tiger Reserves by driving on roads at night time.

Highways and vehicular traffic act as barriers for movement of tigers affecting their dispersal, movement patterns thereby splitting populations into sub-populations that cause several direct and indirect effects.

Tigers have been affected by new roads in many parts of their range. In western Malaysia construction of the North-South highway, and another highway that bisected a bottleneck area in Taman Negara National Park has caused fragmentation of tiger habitats. The wildlife corridors between Nepal and India are threatened by upgradation of a highway. The effects of roads are serious in India, a stronghold of the global tiger population.

The spike in India’s growth over the last decade has involved a considerable expansion of infrastructural development projects. However, the welcome benefits of economic development have gone hand-in-hand with serious costs both to people and wildlife, especially those that are wide-ranging such as the tigers. Among these, road and highway projects, which provide the vital foundation on which other sectors of the economy can be built, have received a huge boost. This, in turn, has triggered a rapid growth of motor vehicles in India at 10 – 12% per year, and further intensified the demand for better roads. Often, road improvement and highway development projects are proposed within India’s protected area (PA) network, which forms a mere 5% of the country’s landscape. Roads passing through several key tiger habitats, including Corbett, Kanha, Bandipur, BRT, Anshi-Dandeli, Kudremukh, are listed for resurfacing or conversion to highways.

Unlike many forested tracts of Africa, South America or in South East Asia, where road projects open up frontier areas to markets, in India road and highway projects have primarily involved an enhancement in the quality of existing roads, setting off proximate increases in vehicular activity, rather than fundamentally altering connectivity patterns, although important exceptions exist.

Although these roads enhance connectivity between key economic centres, the upgrading of minor roads to high-speed highways also poses a serious threat to tigers and other wildlife. The current rate of mortality of tigers due to wildlife-vehicle collision in India appears to be relatively low, with approximately 20 documented tiger deaths in various reserves over the past 15 years; although this number is likely an underestimate due to non-detection in some instances. Furthermore, as the population size declines and the road network expands, the direct and indirect effects of mortality due to collision with vehicles and fragmentation of tiger habitats will become a greater concern.

In the past the Nature Conservation Foundation has worked with the government in southern India that has resulted in closure of highways for vehicular traffic at night (when the negative effect of traffic is the highest) through two key tiger reserves, development of alternate roads for highways that are closed to vehicular traffic at night, and realignment of a stretch of a highway to outside a tiger reserve. Such moves by the government is extremely helpful in reducing impacts on tigers and their prey.

Given the strong likelihood of changes to vehicular density in India and other tiger range countries, wherever possible, alternative road alignments need to be developed so that high-speed traffic can be permanently kept out of key tiger habitats. Similarly, the closure of vehicular traffic at night, when wildlife, especially young ones, are most susceptible to road-kills, may also be an advisable option inside PAs.

One of a tiger range country’s biggest challenges today is how they could reconcile the pursuit of economic growth with the protection of integrity of tiger habitats. To make economic growth and human development sustainable requires the identification, understanding, and alleviation of the ecological costs of growth and development without forsaking their benefits.

Although roads and other infrastructure are important for economic development, poor planning, disregard of ecological aspects and excessive road expansion into tiger habitats will further fragment and destroy populations and their habitats in the long-term.

For tiger conservation, there is no escape but to invest in a more holistic process of development planning that includes—rather than ignores—the conservation of our priceless natural heritage.

Our experiences in India offer key lessons on managing the impact of roads in the tiger’s range:

  • The most effective mitigation strategy is to decommission existing roads from tiger landscapes, particularly from source populations, and re-route them outside important habitats and prevent construction of new roads;
  • Effective mitigation of road impacts requires engagement of all levels of government and the community;
  • Dedicated wildlife crossing structures will likely be required in tiger landscapes because standard drainage structures alone are ineffective at mitigating the negative effects of roads and traffic.
  • International funding agencies are financing the rapid rate of construction of roads in many tiger-range countries and they must become involved in measures to ensure these developments do not further endanger the persistence of tigers.
  • Rigorous and peer-scrutinised Environment Impact Assessments (EIA) by trained wildlife biologists should assess the broader impacts of roads rather than focussing on the physical aspects of their construction. Second, it is essential that the EIA process be changed such that development projects that are already approved in PAs be assessed on a continuing basis for unforeseen impacts, and post-hoc mitigation measures are legally mandated where necessary to reduce such impacts on tiger habitats.

Sanjay Gubbi is a Scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF)

Dawn Song

 

(5 am, enroute to the spring board meeting of the Wild Foundation)

By Michael McBride, ILCW Member (USA)

The moon’s smile flickers in sparkling waters,

A sliver arc curls into downstream willows.

This is it, I thought, this is all there is, all there needs to be,

Amused, the Pleiades watches for what would unfold.

Alone with my thoughts, a dark highway, a distant city ahead,

A stream running down valley sending up the sun.

Great Spirit, may this building moon guide my thoughts,

Inspire my words, make bold my actions and lead me to a place

Of joy, peace and renewal among my cherished friends

Drought and the Ostrich Syndrome

By Rebecca Lawton, ILCW member (USA)

“The Ostrich Syndrome is a very human tendency,” said environmentalist, author, and philosopher Edward Goldsmith in 1970. Although ostriches are misunderstood—they’ll fight or flee as well as hide—Goldsmith implied that their cartoon personae resembled societal response to deep environmental crises. We lean toward wishful thinking. Or we apply superficial remedies. Ignore it, or slap on a band-aid, and we’re good to go.

Last fall, as a visitor at the University of Alberta, I shared what I knew about the extended drought in California. My colleagues had heard of our lack of rainfall but not how dire the situation had become. They weren’t strangers to dry spells themselves. They, too, have suffered devastating dustbowls. Today their prairies share the severe drought covering much of western North America. Glacier-fed water sources are dwindling as climate patterns change. Canadians know they have thirsty neighbors to the south, too, never an enviable position.

Imagine my surprise to return home after many months away to find water use unchanged and California still stymied: calling advisory group meetings, debating where cuts should be made, discussing who should be metered. Governor Jerry Brown hadn’t yet imposed mandatory restrictions, and now that he has, they don’t touch the biggest users.

Why the delay? Why the inadequacy? California’s response to crisis reeks of Ostrich Syndrome—a long time spent with heads in the sand followed by superficial remedies and, perhaps, wishful thinking. According to one of my neighbors, “We’ve been hoping for a lot of rain and snow to come along and end it.” Others claim political complexity and expediency: if you’re a government official who waits to address a natural disaster like multiyear drought, you might garner more support for grand-scale water-diversion projects you’ve wanted to complete for years. Never mind that there isn’t the water to put into them once they’re built.

It’s not accurate to say no one saw California’s dilemma coming. The current drought began in 2012. The year 2013 was the driest on record since at least 1894, according to Western Regional Climate Center. Since the 1930s, we’ve put in waterworks to rival any built any time or anywhere, using several tiers of public funding—Central Valley Project, State Water Project, Colorado River Aqueduct. We’ve been Herculean in our success moving the 75 percent of our water supply in the north to the 80 percent of our population in the south.
We’ve had no shortage of science. We’ve known California’s fresh water supply varies from 60 to 100 million acre-feet in any given year, posing unique challenges for storage. We’ve studied tree-ring data and understand that shortages can last for decades. We’ve grown accustomed to a status quo in which people use half the available water—20 to 40 percent for agriculture, 10 percent for cities and towns—leaving just half to an environment that once had it all. We’ve seen California’s cities become comfortable using twice the per-capita water that Australian cities use in comparable climates.

We’ve understood that our breadbasket Central Valley farmers, among others, have pumped groundwater to replace the rainfall we’re not getting. We’ve seen agriculture become more efficient with its water use, although we also recognize our convoluted rules force desperate and self-sabotaging behaviors: some users who must exercise or lose their rights sell water south to make up the difference. Net effect: depletion of groundwater under their feet.

In short, we’ve known we have work to do.

Drought is just one of many natural crises of which we aren’t ignorant but that we fail to face with sufficiency. I live on an active fault, part of the San Andreas system, which any day could deliver the next Katrina-sized disaster to my hometown. Citizens of Pompeii before Vesuvius knew their city was prone to devastating seismic shaking likely due to fire in the volcano. But life goes on—for some. Whether we live with drought, earthquakes, tornadoes, unlivable atmospheric CO2, or flooding, we tend to get together our emergency kits (or not) and hope for the best.

The root of the word crisis holds the key to understanding how to react. Often it’s used to mean a difficult or dangerous time, but it comes from the Greek krisis, which means decision. That sense of the word dates from the 17th century: a time at which a difficult or important decision must be made.

When we reach crisis points, when important decisions must be made, barriers block us from moving from talk to action. There are jobs at stake, homes to lose, communities at risk, ways of life to upend. There are privacy issues, property rights to observe, tradition to respect, history to study.

Meeting and conversing take patience and perseverance. There are models through history of how to do it best. In the Quaker tradition, one remains in meeting until consensus, not compromise, is reached. In the Greek tradition of dialogos, discussion is aimed at the issue at hand rather at each other in a debate to win. Facilitated meetings, committee and subcommittees, rules of order, memoranda of understanding—all are part of the fabric of civilized decision making. Without them, we unravel.

Yet meetings must lead to action. Protecting the commons. Saving resources for a (non) rainy day. Monitoring seismicity and translating data to action. Allocating the resources for suitable public works. Acting as if we had a future, for our children and the many generations ahead.

When ostriches hide, they do it in plain sight. They don’t really bury their heads in the sand, although they do collect crop stones in that familiar and much-mocked head-down posture. They lay low when sitting their eggs, flattening their whole bodies to escape notice. They hide when they have to, but as I’ve said, they’re just as prone to take critical action in their best interest.

They’re just as likely to model excellent behavior we’ve not yet grasped.

Giving In

By Rebecca Lawton (USA)
Previously published by Hunger Mountain, the VCFA Journal for the Arts

American Robin
When someone raps at my kitchen window, I jump out of my chair. It’s before dawn, in the hour when the horizon emerges as a gray line on the ephemeral lake before me. I’m staying in the Oregon Outback, at a retreat center as remote as Neverland, where the prospect of a face at the glass spooks me. I peek around. It’s a robin tapping, pausing, and tapping again. My pulse settles. I can consult avian specialist Noah, also a writer in residence at Playa Fellowship Program, about whether the robin is mentally ill.

When I ask Noah, he tells me that the robin’s failing the “mirror test” – he doesn’t recognize the face in the glass. Instead, he sees a possible mate or a territorial rival. His disregard for data is normal, Noah says, and won’t stop until I close my curtains.

I loathe shutting out some of the most dazzling light on the planet, though, on the parched edge of the Great Basin. During my first stay at Playa, I labored as an ant does from sunrise to sundown despite the light. This second residency, however, comes when the batteries in my brain are flatter than those in a mislaid flashlight. The idea of working would amuse me if I had the energy to laugh.

Somehow, I’ll rally. I’ll strive again through the hours. I’ll barely leave the cabin for breaks. I’ll do as Jack London said he would do (and did): “I shall use my time.”

But now, there’s this robin. Out beyond his little head, fields flash with the scarlet and yellow of finches and goldfinches attacking dandelions for their seeds. An oriole hops branch to branch in a pine, his orange and black matching the sunrise. People and birds come here for pretty much the same reason: to stop over for long or short stays in a basin with a wide, blue sky and sweet, seasonal water. Some migrators pass through in minutes. Some linger for days or a season. A lucky few stay for years or a lifetime.

I draw the curtains. An inner voice warns that I need rest, but I push it aside. When else will I have such an opportunity to work? The planet needs every voice it can get now that climate deniers have been voted into major public offices.

The robin moves to a bedroom window. I put on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that I thought I’d never need out here. The tap-tapping continues, but farther away. Something could be learned from the robin, I’m certain, but lessons be damned. I labor on. Thirteen more days to go.

Common Poorwill
The next days of my residency mimic the first. Rise, go to the desk, and put new words on paper. When I stop, it’s not for long. At night I seldom sleep, tired but wired. I persevere, despite knowing that the Latin roots are per, meaning thoroughly, and severus, meaning severe. Thoroughly severe, implying, to continue with little prospect of success.

On the fourth morning, when I review what I’ve written, my heart falls. The sentences lack life. There are no original ideas. It’s dull and overblown. In short, it’s utter crap. Discouraged, I step out to my deck as a flock of white-faced ibises, long necks outstretched, pass over the lake’s shimmering surface. Noisy pairs of Canada geese bark like small dogs in tall grasses. Each day more migratory birds arrive in hordes.

Returning inside I look in the bathroom mirror. Fatigued eyes in a drooping face stare back. That can’t be me.

I almost never drink, and never alone. After all, didn’t Rhett Butler say, “Never drink alone, Scarlett?” Nonetheless, I open a bottle of Grenache I’ve brought from home and down a glass before taking the rest to dinner in the Commons. Conversation is the last thing I want, but around the big communal table, I find instant rapport with the other residents. The residency has opened up their creativity in unforeseen ways. Noah and another passionate birder, the poet Farnaz, are planning to drive up Highway 31 after dark to look for common poorwills. My curiosity stirs, but I push it down, knowing I plan to rise at dawn to write.

Across the table a printmaker, Barbara, describes the arc of her nearly completed six-week residency. Her work shifted partway through her stay, after a visit to the archeological caves south of Summer Lake. In those ragged holes in an ochre cliff, some of America’s oldest fossil human feces have been found alongside the bones of waterfowl, fish, and extinct camels and horses. Once Barbara’s curiosity was ignited about the ancient landscape, she developed a process of collecting images directly from the ground. She strapped wooden blocks to her feet before hiking nearby trails and Forest Service roads. After the treks, she removed the worn and roughened blocks and inked them for printing. The results are both coarse and fluid depictions of geologic textures.

 

“I gave in,” Barbara says. “When I opened to this place and the people, and let the surroundings transform my work, it made all the difference.”

 

Immediately, I decide to go into the night with Noah and Farnaz. We drive to Picture Rock Pass, our windows open to the scent of new things growing. Parking by the side of the road on a pullout covered with volcanic cinders, we tread with care to lessen crunching noisy rock. At the end of the pullout, overlooking the stunted piñon-juniper forest, Noah pulls up a sound recording on his phone – the call of a common poorwill. The bird is known to answer to a whistled poor-will.

Poor-will, poor-will, goes Noah’s phone. Silence, silence, goes the night. In a minute we hear the steady advertising call of a northern saw-whet owl. A few ring-billed gulls above us mew like loud kittens. Miles away in the valley, cattle moan, their ghost voices carrying above farm and forest.

The nagging advice I’d disregarded sinks in – this is what I need. This valley, this night, this basin, these people. Otherwise, my well is too dry to sustain writing about water or climate or anything else. I could no more write a new book than walk five miles into this night on printmaker’s blocks.

The poorwills remain silent, not hearing or believing the silicon voice of Noah’s phone. On the drive back to Playa, he and Farnaz tell me about the Punchbowl. It’s an open dish of land set among ridges above Summer Lake. One resident saw five black bears, all at once, on a hike there last week. I vow to go, too, alone. It will be just one day off from the ten more days of residency, in this dry valley where robins attack windows and sleep stays a stranger.

Mountain Bluebird
At dawn, after four hours of actual slumber, I set out with my writing notebook, binoculars, bird book, and a canister of bear spray. I’ll return to Playa by late afternoon, before large carnivores start their dusk feeding. Following the Forest Service trail, I find early wildflowers bursting forth in crimson, gold, and lilac every few feet. Meadowlarks burble and flee as I approach. A thin cloud cover rests on a jagged row of ridges in the distance. The only large trees still standing are white skeletal snags, stripped of their foliage and bark by a past forest fire.

Soon I come to a broad basin that must be the Punchbowl. The trail continues, though, and so do I, despite new growth crowding the trail and fallen trees blocking the road like log gates guarding Oz. Climbing up and over them, I’m careful not to twist an ankle or blow out a knee with each landing. Somehow, I manage to scrape both shins through my hiking pants, drawing blood.

After hours of thrashing, I reach a patch of live woods. The air is chilly and full of mosquitoes. Busy swatting insects, I nearly miss a bird perched just yards away. It’s the bluest bird in the history of the world, a mountain bluebird, poised to fly. It’s many shades deeper than the sky. Remembering that a story’s told in the details, I catch some in my notebook, quick, like floating dandelion seeds.

On my way down the trail, the pull of gravity makes the return trip easier. Midway back, I flush a poorwill from a clump of manzanita in the overgrown trail. The bird escapes on a rush of wings. If only Noah and Farnaz were here. Back in the cabin, after eight hours away, I barely have energy to clean up and eat while standing in my kitchen. I fall on the bed and sleep until morning.

Nine days of residency to go. It may not be enough.

Franklin’s Gul l
At dawn, I drive ten miles to the Summer Lake Wildlife Refuge. An introductory kiosk notes that hundreds of species of mammals and birds live on nineteen thousand acres watered by an elaborate system of pipes and canals. I enter on a dirt road at the breakneck speed of ten miles an hour, seeing only a few ducks and geese. I hit the brakes at the eastern edge of the property. Thousands of ducks, geese, terns, gulls, sandpipers, phalaropes, and other shorebirds browse a shining pond. Some are in flight. Some stroll beaches. Some dive and dabble. Some face beaks-first into the wind. A small gull wings past, a species with a black head and thick white crescents above and below its eyes. A newbie for me, it’s a Franklin’s gull, which breeds and summers farther north.

I gaze until I’m satiated, then find another kiosk sign that tells me aridity is increasing, as are nearby human populations. I pull out my notebook and write.

Water in refuge = life. Climate change = drier refuge. Alfalfa shipped elsewhere = broken local water cycle.

When I leave the refuge hours later and return to my cabin, I type up notes on wildlife and its dependence on the same water depleted by growing irrigation demands. I work without effort until dark. I don’t count the days left in residency.

I’ve started writing about things that I came here to write about.

Calliope Hummingbird
On my last full day, I take a Forest Service road to Winter Ridge. The well-groomed gravel surface would allow me to drive fast if I felt like it. Instead, I go as slowly as the (nonexistent) traffic will allow, about eight miles an hour. Maybe I’ll see a Williamson’s sapsucker, a life bird for me, up in the high forests. Reaching a wet meadow with a small stream, I hear wood-pecking all around. None resembles the start-and-stop, Morse-code tapping of sapsuckers, so I continue on.

I drive with my windows open, pulling over often, stopping near patches of old-growth forest among the new growth recovering from logging. The woods are full of life. A red-tail hawk masquerades as a broken pine branch until he lifts wings and flies. A golden eagle dwarfs the telephone cross-pole she’s hunkered on. A brilliantly colored lazuli bunting, more turquoise than lapis blue, hangs out on a log.

The last bird of the day is a stunner, a calliope hummingbird feeding in a burned-over patch of woods. The smallest bird in North America, dragonfly-sized, arrives with a flash of violet throat and soft buzz of wings. The bird hovers only a moment before zooming off.

So it goes with writing and birding.
You try to find a sapsucker, but stumble up on a tiny jewel of a hummingbird. You persist and strive despite a robin showing you the insanity of ignoring results. You go out calling for a poorwill, only to flush one out the next day after discovering another bird more blue than the sky. Or you think you’ll uncover a labyrinthine waterworks, but spend hours immersed in sanctuary and the surprise of a new species. Near the roof of a basin that holds light and sky in the same grip as alfalfa and cattle, you open to it.

Somehow, you do not fail the mirror test. You find a way, as Barbara did with her printer’s blocks, as Noah and Farnaz do with their birding, as the birds do with their migrations. You crunch the data, no matter how it comes to you.

You return to the world again and again and pour it out in your own voice.

Global Warming Explained… in 320 words

By Stephen Leahy ILCW Member (Canada)
One night in a bar a Russian journalist who I’d just met says:  “This global warming is too complicated for people to know if it’s real or not”.
“You don’t think climate change is happening?” I asked with surprise since we were both covering a big United Nations climate conference.
“No one has been able to give me a good explanation to prove it’s real,” said Yuri (not his real name).
“I can explain it to you in less than one minute,” I replied.
Yuri was sceptical but I went ahead and said:
“The moon has no atmosphere so it is scorching hot (+100C) during the day and bitterly cold (-150C) at night. The Earth has an atmosphere made up of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases. Over 150 years ago scientists proved that CO2 traps heat from the sun. We also know without any doubt that burning fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal emits CO2.
Measurements, not computer models or theories, measurements show that there is now 42% more CO2 in the atmosphere than 150 years ago before massive use of fossil fuels. That extra CO2 is like putting another blanket on at night even though you are already nice and warm. The Earth is now 1.0 C hotter on average according to the latest measurements. Heat is a form of energy and with so much more energy in our atmosphere our weather system is becoming supercharged resulting in stronger storms, worse heat waves, major changes in when and where rain falls and more.
That’s it.
After a long silence Yuri says “I guess that makes sense…”.
I’m not sure he was convinced but the truth is that climate change is not that complicated.

Live Wire, Fried Wings

Will the Great Indian Bustard be the first species to go extinct in India?
Originally published in the Outlook magazine (2, October 2015)

By ILCW member (India) Prerna Singh Bindra

On the afternoon of 15th September, a farmer in the Karamba village in Solapur, Maharashtra, a state in western India, was grazing his cattle when he noticed a large, severely injured bird on the ground, its wings singed. Hovering by, helping death to strike were a few feral dogs. As he edged closer, he saw a black mobile like device on the prone creature.  He knew the bird, a frequent visitor to his fields from the adjacent Nanaj Wildlife Sanctuary, and immediately informed the forest department. Within minutes, a rescue team reached the spot, gathered the inert bird and rushed it to the veterinary hospital at Solpaur. But it was too late, ‘Alpha’ was dead.

Who was Alpha, and why such a hullaballoo about a bird?
Alpha was the rarest of the rare—a Great Indian Bustard, that unfortunate bird usurped of the India’s National Bird status by the glamorous peacock as bureaucrats fretted that ‘bustard’ would be likely misspelt, causing considerable embarrassment!

The GIB, as it is a called, is listed as Critically Endangered with a global population of less than 150, almost exclusively in India. Once found in the dry bush and grassland sweeping across the Indian subcontinent from Pakistan in the west upto West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu in the south, it’s now been wiped out from 97 per cent of its range—even in sanctuaries created for its protection, like Gaga-Bhatiya in Gujarat, Rannibenur in Karnataka, Sorsan in Rajasthan, Son Chiraiya (Karera) and Ghatigaonin Madhya Pradesh. Its two most viable populations are in and around Desert National Park in Rajasthan at about 100, while Naliya in Kutch counts about 30. The rest are sparsely scattered in a few other pockets in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka.

Alpha was special. As his name suggests, he was the dominant male, ‘productive’ and had successfully mated this April.  In fact, so enthusiastic was he about this whole affair that the forest staff (devoted to their task and the birds) nicknamed him ‘Vicky donor’(A hyperactive professional sperm donor in a popular Bollywood film)!!

Alpha was one among the three GIBs in Maharashtra (besides the odd transient ones). The other male was younger, and imaginatively called Chotu (usually an affectionate nickname for the youngest son). Both had been tagged by wildlife researchers, to understand the mystery that surrounds the birds, like where they migrate to during the non-breeding seasons.  Interestingly, Chotu, who was fitted with a GPS transmitter in April 2015, revealed the great distances these birds fly, and the large areas they use. Writes Vaijayanti Vijayaraghavan, a researcher with the Wildlife Institute of India, working in Nanaj, “As the monsoon commenced and the breeding season set in, Alpha drove Chotu, out of Nanaj, propelling his journey across the landscape.” Chotu was to fly over 1,200 km, across districts, and to the neighbouring state, Karnataka border in the three months he was monitored.

Alpha is dead now, electrocuted on 15th September, 2015. The same morning Alpha was seen displaying, strutting his feathers, in a bid to impress the lady. He then took wing, flying for about 15 km around Nanaj before he hit a power transmission line. The post mortem indicated charring due to electric line collusion.
GIBs are tall, standing up to four feet, and amongst the heaviest of flying birds, and so fly at low heights. Coupled with their relatively small binocular field, they are more prone to such collisions.  In the past decade, six GIBs have died as a consequence of collision or electrocution by electric lines. Alpha is the seventh.

With so few remaining, the loss of every bird is catastrophic—pushing the species closer to the brink.

It’s imperative that transmission lines in, and around, at least 10 km of bustard areas simply must go, and be replaced with underground cables.

Transmission lines, though, are just one among a medley of threats.
Historically, widespread hunting, accelerated by vehicular access to hitherto remote areas, for sport and food precipitated the bustard’s decline. The rampant hunting (and the abundance) is indicated by records in The Oriental Sports Magazine of one Robert Mansfield who bagged no less than 961 GIBs in Ahmednagar district, where none exist now.  Poaching appears to be a serious threat in Pakistan’s Cholistan desert–birds fly across the two countries, irrespective of hostile borders, and Pakistan has a small resident or transient population. According to a report, 49 of the 63 GIBs sighted in four years between 2001-2004, were hunted (Khan et al, 2008).

But the key cause of the near-extinction is the steady annihilation of its habitat, grasslands, a vital, vibrant ecosystem harbouring rare and endemic wildlife such as wolves, caracals, blackbucks, rhinos, pygmy hogs and, of course, bustards. Yet, grasslands and deserts are the most neglected ecosystems, as per a report (Sept., 2011) of the Task Force on Grasslands and Deserts appointed by India’s Planning Commission. Officially, grasslands are designated wastelands; and therefore degraded, diverted, destroyed for real estate, industry, roads, mining, canals, agriculture. ‘Greening’ deserts by planting exotic trees, and well-intended schemes like the Indira Gandhi Canal in the Thar, change the ecology of the region, rendering them hostile for its xeric biodiversity.

Pesticides and changing crop patterns—a shift to mechanised farming and cash crops—have taken a toll too. Bustards are ground nesting birds, and hence very vulnerable to predators, and any other disturbance.

A relatively new—and perhaps unexpected–threat comes in the form of wind and solar farms, which have taken over swathes of bustard habitat in both Thar and Kutch, further crunching vital breeding areas, besides causing bird mortality. Renewable energy is critical in an era of Climate Change, but its placement must undergo scrutiny for biodiversity impacts.

It is almost too late for the Great Indian Bustard.  Alpha’s death serves as a grim reminder of the extreme vulnerability of the species. Former Additional Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests& Director of Wildlife Preservation, MK Ranjitsinh fears its imminent extinction, “Were this tragedy to occur, the GIB would be the first species in the history of India to have been allowed to go extinct,” he says.

I am reminded of this book I read Witness to Extinction. It’s about the baiji, the Yangtze river dolphin, a species as old as 25 million years, extinct in 2002. Writes the author Samuel Turvey, “All that’s left on stage are the commemorative baiji statues. As for the baiji itself, it looks like it is the only thing not made in China anymore. Poor old Baiji. You deserved better.”

‘Our’ Great Indian Bustard deserves better too. RIP Alpha. Here is hoping that your death is not in vain, and stirs urgent action to save your kin.

To save the GIB:
    Designate well-protected core breeding areas, with a landscape conservation strategy where the bustards’ ecological needs are factored in with low-intensity livelihood concerns. Enlist support of local communities and other relevant departments.
    Conserve grasslands. Curtail detrimental infrastructure and other projects in GIB priority areas
    Policy changes regarding land use and prioritisation of ‘Bustard-friendly grazing’ and cropping policies. Controlling feral dog populations in and around critical GIB areas.

Prerna Singh Bindra is a former member of the National Board for Wildlife and trustee, Bagh. She focuses on the conservation of endangered species and wild habitat. Her area of expertise is conservation policy and communications.
She is a writer and is currently working on a children’s book on tigers.

………………
The War on Trees
By ILCW member (USA) Elizabeth Carothers Herron

Drinking tea in bed on a rainy night (the cat
curled next to my hip), I lean
to the warm cup on the bedside table

and then, like the glimpse
of a young girl running through a far woods,
almost beyond sight, almost lost, caught
with the surprise of a sharp pain —
a thought, a memory

like waking at night and tripping
over the stool left mid-rug, losing your balance
in the dark. And so we fall

toward what hurts – all the losses, and listening
to the worrying, the constant effort
to make up for old failures.

Still I wasn’t quiet. I didn’t quit fighting.

Under the alder branches, hummingbird nest a thimble
of lichen in leaves, now you see it now you don’t sway
of spring. Going back and seeing
they’d cut them, my beloved alders, guardians,
of the path to my door.
Where did the hummingbird go to make her nest?

Ten times four seasons – prayers
of leaf buds unfolded into pairs of green wings
as if for a while the bare branches were filled
with tiny green birds fluttering in the spring breeze.
catkins with their blessing of pollen
smeared the sidewalk chartreuse.

(the tea cup warm in my hands, the sleeping cat)

All the slain trees I’ve loved — Why this war? The lies
told to cut them down. The arborist knowing to say
one is diseased so others can be saved.
And what of the souls of trees?

What of their generous spirits, welcoming
branches open to the rain, the wild waltz to winter winds?
How they cooled the house through hot summers.

What is this war on trees?

The thought of some things hurts so
the mind stumbles
and falls into the still-howling self —
what is beloved and taken by malice or caprice.
Some trees.

Now two hawks swim through winter oaks, gone in a blink.
Fifteen years here and those alders from the old place
come back and back. (the cat purring, warm)

Was I so lonely?
The great tenderness of trees.

How the alders grew, and the ginkgo by the kitchen —
so slowly yet one day it reached the second story window,
my writing room, and how I watched its leaves toss
in October, a shudder of yellow fans
and then the puddle of gold they made around its trunk.

The quiet comfort, the small steady joy of some trees (some animals).
………………
Global Warming Explained… in 320 words
By Stephen Leahy ILCW Member (Canada)
One night in a bar a Russian journalist who I’d just met says:  “This global warming is too complicated for people to know if it’s real or not”.
“You don’t think climate change is happening?” I asked with surprise since we were both covering a big United Nations climate conference.
“No one has been able to give me a good explanation to prove it’s real,” said Yuri (not his real name).
“I can explain it to you in less than one minute,” I replied.
Yuri was sceptical but I went ahead and said:
“The moon has no atmosphere so it is scorching hot (+100C) during the day and bitterly cold (-150C) at night. The Earth has an atmosphere made up of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases. Over 150 years ago scientists proved that CO2 traps heat from the sun. We also know without any doubt that burning fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal emits CO2.
Measurements, not computer models or theories, measurements show that there is now 42% more CO2 in the atmosphere than 150 years ago before massive use of fossil fuels. That extra CO2 is like putting another blanket on at night even though you are already nice and warm. The Earth is now 1.0 C hotter on average according to the latest measurements. Heat is a form of energy and with so much more energy in our atmosphere our weather system is becoming supercharged resulting in stronger storms, worse heat waves, major changes in when and where rain falls and more.
That’s it.
After a long silence Yuri says “I guess that makes sense…”.
I’m not sure he was convinced but the truth is that climate change is not that complicated.
One additional thing to know is that CO2 is forever. Every little CO2 molecule we add to the atmosphere will continue to trap the sun’s heat for hundreds and thousands of years.
………………

The Vertigo of Tradition

MEMBER WRITINGS
The Vertigo of Tradition
By ILCW member Justin Fenech (Malta)

Death is now the phoenix’ nest;And the turtle’s loyal breastTo eternity doth rest.
Shakespeare’s ode to the death of ideal love necessarily marries the phoenix and the turtle dove. The poem is one of Shakespeare’s vaguest, most indecipherable. But one thing is left without doubt: even the loveliest things die.
Scientists warn of impending turtle dove British extinction.”
The headlines were un-ambiguous. Malta was to blame. Joey remembered the arguments he had had with his girlfriend, the day he met her parents. He was a hunter. He was voting Yes in the Referendum. Tradition is his constant companion. Familiarity makes his living fortified. It is an idle mindset but very tempting. The spirits of the unadventurous flock to tradition like birds flock to the shoulders of Francis of Assisi. Without it, how would he remember his dead father. Without it, he would be abandoning his mother’s faith.
The last turtle dove he shot: he barely hit it, only one bullet hole in its sharp wing. It must have been the fall that killed it. Or his Spaniel’s over-eager retrieval. As the Spaniel dropped it at his feet, he had a moment of compassion. The turtle dove’s lifeless eyes reminded him of his father’s.
I have inflicted upon this animal the same fate cancer had imposed on my father. Are my actions cancerous?
In that moment, he was progressive. Revolutionary. He was thinking rational thoughts enlightened by tragedy. It was the same breed of thought that must have occupied the mind of a gavroches getting himself killed to steal a few bullets for the Revolution. And he was a revolutionary then. The turtle dove, in his hands, was a Marat in the bath – but he feared it would be a Franz Ferdinand. So he carried it to his truck, fearing the traitorous war it might spark in his soul of souls.
Birds are the ancestors of dinosaurs. There was a big bang of diversification after the ancient masters went extinct. Some bird songs and means of communication activate similar areas of the avian bird that speech activates in the human brain. Turtle doves, members of the Columbidae family, are closely related to the common pigeons, the saintly white-winged dove and distantly related to the iconic dodo. It is a diminishing species juxtaposed in between the already extinct dodo and the flagrantly flourishing pigeon. Piggy in the middle. The future unclear. The death of each individual is another nail in the coffin.
Joey and Nadia’s children, should they ever come, might grow up never seeing a turtle dove. How would Joey feel, if his love for tradition helped to bring about the end of that very same tradition? What would he tell his children? All he had were tales of dead doves: for his children’s curious, nature-hungry minds, it would not be enough. And with each passing generation, tradition is itself getting closer to extinction.
Or so it seems. Traditions, by their very nature, are a myth. They are the personal projected into the public. As Joey talks to his potential in-laws, looking into the father’s eyes as if he were a puppy begging for scraps, he feels a bubbling animosity welling inside him. His father-in-law is a chef who cooks such oddities as turtle dove soup, yet belligerently despises hunting.
“I don’t want to see that man in my house, Nadia. He has blood on his hands.”
“It’s just a fucking bird, dad.”
“It’s not that. I know that man. His father was a wife-beater.”
“How do you know?”
“He used to live round here. Every night we could hear his wife’s screams, her sobbing, and his tyrannical voice.”
“Why did you never report him?”
“He was a police officer. How could anyone report him? And he’s no different. For now he kills birds. But God knows what he would be like with you.”
Nadia contradicted her father, as a young lover would, but that night she had her doubts. Does a strong sense of tradition mean submission to the autocratic whims of parenthood? Was Joey destined to be what his father was? She decided to go with him to a rally held by the Yes camp. A walk in the countryside organized by hunters for hunters.
There were dogs everywhere. Children. Hunters in shirts. Some drinking. Beauteous sunny days only the Mediterranean could conjure up. Joey was jovial, in high spirits, he introduced her to some other hunters. She felt uneasy around them. And that night she had a dream which decided what she would vote in the referendum.
She saw a turtle dove flying in a borderless sky. She was not moving, yet still she flew alongside it. She could see its wings, orange-brown like a phoenix, chest heaving, pink as if reflecting a flamingo’s dream, the striped patch on its neck like a priest’s collar or a proudly poured Guinness: its cooing summoned forth strange flying reptiles, feathered and beaming. It cooed in her ear: “love me one last time.” Then, from behind the clouds, a shot rang out and she saw the dove falling at dizzying speeds through the sky, descending endlessly.
When will it hit the ground?
When will the splat come?
She wept for it. Alongside her she saw her mother jumping out of a burning building. Also no ground in sight. Endless falling. Asphyxiation but no release. When will the end come?
She awoke before the longed-for death could arrive. She turned over in her bed and found next to her the disfigured corpse of the very same turtle dove.
She screamed aloud. And she woke up again. This time, for real.
The referendum was over: “Malta rejects spring-hunting ban.”
“The historic referendum was decided on a razor thin margin, with just 2,220 more votes deciding against the ban out of a total of of 250,648 votes cast.”
Joey wanted to celebrate with Nadia. But Nadia was still reeling from the sight of the turtle dove decomposing in her bed. She went out on her own, for a drive to the Buskett woodlands. There, in the dense tree-cover, she listened to a myriad bird-song illuminating the breezy silence. She felt compelled to say a prayer for their sakes. A Hail Mary or an Our Father. But she thought: most of the celebrating hunters are saying the very same prayers. She wanted no part in that. She realized no prayer was necessary. She merely indulged in the orchestra. Indulged her sensuous humanity.
Her silence overthrew the myth of tradition on the day the whole country plunged into the unmoving quicksand.