When metaphors take flight
When I reread Mike Hulme’s article Why We Disagree About Climate Change for Part 1 of Culturing Climate Change, his repeated use of ‘circulating’ became ‘circling’. Memory carrying me to buzzards circling over my local woods quickly triggered an image of a bird high above a group of desert exiles. Oblivious, the humans are trapped in arguments about where they are, how they got lost and which way to go. A second bird joins the first. More gather, their shadows crossing and recrossing below. The arguing wanderers don’t notice until their patch of land is completely shadowed. Circling, birds wait for humans to … what? Fight themselves into extinction? Give in to weakness and fatigue? Finally act together? Fanciful, but the birdish metaphor stuck with me, and slipped into the cracks where I was busy dividing up ‘culturing climate change’ into wickedness, uncertainty and navigation.
These associations play off my fascination with a reference to ravens in Anticipatory History – a creative glossary on landscape and wildlife change. In one entry, Birds, writer and radio producer Tim Dee evokes the nearly supernatural skills that the power of flight gives birds in many of our myths:
“Two ravens tumble from the sky cronking and surfing towards the shoulders of Odin, the man-god. One is called Hugin, the other Munin. One whispers into Odin’s ears what it has seen; the other, what is to come. They fly with the world’s past and its future held in their black eyes. Later, ravens were thought able to predict the outcome of a battle because of their uncanny habit – it seemed – of coming around armies waiting to fight. How did they know? We read them as able to foretell what was to come; in fact, they read us based on their knowledge of how things had been in the past.”
Appearing in the 13th century Norse Poetic Edda, Hugin translates as “thought”, Munin as “memory”: twin abilities (or afflictions), bringing both futures and pasts into mind. Such troubling powers, perhaps, that myth puts distance between them and mere humans, gifting them instead to gods and animals…
Over the next few days, birds kept cropping up. Browsing the BBC archives for late night listening, I found Radio 3’s Is Birdsong Music? What is the relationship between what the 4,000-or-so species of songbirds produce and what we think of as music? Are they ‘simply’ speaking, or actually singing? As presenter Tom Service says, “This is all territory that skirts boundaries of language, music and anthropomorphic wish fulfilment.” Many composers have tried to capture the sound of birdsong in musical notation; an attempted translation that’s doomed to fail, but fails beautifully. Birdsong is too fast, too high and uses notes that don’t exist on anyone’s piano, operating “in a different scale of time and meaning than any humanly produced system of sounds, whether we’re taking about music or language.” Meanwhile, in 1889, 8 year old Ludwig Koch recorded his pet Indian Shama onto a wax cylinder: 128 year old birdsong.
The Great Animal Orchestra by sound recordist Bernie Krause has featured as Book of the Week on Radio 4. He chronicles how human sound (anthrophony) drowns out the biophony and geophony of the (rest of the) natural world. Maybe a small part of that deluge is recordings of long-dead birds… Krause also appears in Is Birdsong Music?, explaining how we should always hear the sounds of any species in the context of what else is going on in the local soundscape: “birds fill the niches left empty by other species in that particular habitat … where there’s no other acoustical territory being occupied by other creatures.” He suggests that humans learned the art of orchestration from the structure of sounds in the animal world, where each species has to find its niche in the overall “animal orchestra”: Nature as “proto-orchestra.”
He was there again, in The Listeners, a series about people whose professional lives revolve around listening. Krause’s work reveals a different facet to extinction than ‘simply’ eradicating the species: “Of the 4,500 hours of marine and terrestrial habitats that I have recorded, 50% are altogether silent or can no longer be heard in their original form.”
In Raven, presenter Brett Westwood and bird rearer Lloyd Buck go blackberrying with Brann the raven. Lloyd takes Brann for a flight every day and likens him to a “flying dog”. In the Mabinogion, Bran The Blessed, a Celtic king associated with ravens, was killed by invaders and his head buried on a hill, facing south to defend the land from further invaders. Clearly, he fell asleep on the job, as that hill became the site for the Norman invaders’ White Tower, the Tower of London. Bran’s association with ravens has led to the legend that if they ever disappear from the Tower, England will fall (a legend revisited in White Ravens, a Second World War re-interpretation of the Mabinogion tale from novelist and poet Owen Sheers).
Raven also told how when sound recordist Chris Watson saw a woodcut of Odin in Reykjavik’s Sagas Museum, there were Hugin and Munin on the Raven God’s shoulders, whispering in his ears. Remembering his own encounters with the call-and-response of roosting ravens, he says “I was struck by what I’d heard in that forest in North Wales, because I really felt as if I’d heard some of these conversations that Hugin and Munin must have had with Odin in the halls of Valhalla.” Watson later created a raven-based sound installation, Hrafn: Conversations with Odin, in Northumberland’s Kielder Forest: a twenty channel speaker system in the forest canopy. When he led his audience through the darkening forest to hear the sound of 2,000 ravens returning to roost, everyone was silent, the ravens’ conversations with their god the only sound.
Psychologist, and Scientist in Residence with the Rambert dance company, Nicky Clayton studies how ravens and other corvids “think in terms of movement rather than words.” She’s interested in the ‘mental time travel’ abilities of Hugin and Munin:
“the ability to remember the past and to think about the future. So you could see this as being memory and forethought. You might think that these are different skills but actually the two are interlinked. Specifically, our ability to remember the past, to project oneself in time to remember what happened where and when, that kind of memory really evolved for the future. So these are memories of the future, memories of tomorrow, and that’s why they’re linked to forethought. Ravens and corvids in general have absolutely stunning memories of past events, and they are one of the few animals other than us who are known to be capable of forethought, of being able to plan ahead.” – Nicky Clayton
But ravens can’t remember everything. They cache many small food hoards across their territories, to return to when food is scarce. But some is never recovered, and seeds take root. In Corvids Could Save Forests From the Effects of Climate Change, journalist and fiction writer Annalee Newitz summarises recent research on how this rather haphazard behaviour might help forests survive climate change, given the inconvenient fact that trees can’t up sticks and move themselves. “Over millennia of evolution, this arrangement has become mutually beneficial” and now conservationsts make use of this ‘ecological silviculture’; encouraging corvids to cache seeds in areas needing reforestation.
“Corvids have unwittingly become a key part of a virtuous cycle. By planting seeds, they lay the groundwork for entire ecosystems. Many plants thrive in the shade offered by trees like oaks and pines, and animals flock to the area as well. Finally, forest floors are excellent carbon sinks. Scatter-hoarding corvids are, in fact, guardians of the forest – or, as the researchers put it, geoengineers.” – Annalee Newitz
When I started seeing birds circling in my mind, I was thinking back (and ahead) to Hugin and Munin and their ability to help Odin navigate past and future. Ever since I first read Anticipatory History, this has struck me as a hopeful metaphor for our potential to cast ourselves back and forth in time and geography, to imagine ourselves beyond the impossibilities of climate change. So it was a natural bridge between the Wicked Problems of Part 1 of Culturing Climate Change and what was going to be Part 2: Navigating Complexities. Somewhere in my nighttime podcasting, I’d heard someone mention that Vikings used ravens to guide their ships far from shore: birds as real navigational aid(e)s, not simply metaphorical ones. But, listening again while I made my notes, I’ve failed to find this reference. Maybe I saw it somewhere else, or dredged up some other association, or just missed it on the second hearing? Memory has let me down, appropriately enough. But Wikipedia did offer a brief reference; Flóki Vilgerðarson, the first Norseman to (deliberately) sail to Iceland, took three ravens with him. When the first flew back to the Faroes, Flóki knew he wasn’t yet halfway. The second bird circled and returned to the ship. When the third raven headed northwest and didn’t come back, Flóki followed it to Iceland.
The search for whatever reference I’d heard before but missed second time got me slightly lost in my thoughts on navigation. But this did help me see that in fact it’s the uncertainty that I need to address in the second part of the series. So, the birds got me somewhere…
No one said metaphors had to be cheery, but it must be possible to find ones that suggest better ways to see the issues and possible ways ahead. What metaphors do you tend to use for environmental or climate change or the Anthropocene? What new one can you suggest?
Find out more:
BBC Is Birdsong Music? – The Listening Service, Radio 3 19th June 2016
BBC The Listeners, Series 2 Episode 2, Radio 4 18th August 2014
BBC Raven – Natural Histories, Radio 4, 14th November 2016
Tim Dee – Birds, in Anticipatory History (edited by Caitlin deSilvey, Simon Naylor & Colin Sackett) Uniform Books 2011
Bernie Krause – The Great Animal Orchestra – Book of the Week, Radio 4 April 2012, rebroadcast on Radio 4 Extra February 2017
Annalee Newitz – Corvids could save forests from the effects of climate change, Ars Technica, 8th February 2016
Owen Sheers – White Ravens, Seren Books, 2009
Chris Watson – Hrafn: Conversations with Odin
Wikipedia – Bran the Blessed
Wikipedia – Flóki Vilgerðarson