Our existence is dependent on relations to human and non-human others, which shape and transform us just as we shape and transform them. However, relations are never easy, never risk-free. In text and images Anja Byg explores the challenges, joys and paradoxes of relations.
May 2018, Bird of prey centre, England
We arrive at the bird of prey centre on a sunny May afternoon. It is not a place I would normally visit with its connotations of turning wild animals into a spectacle for tourists. We are here in order to pick up frozen mice used to feed wild owls in their nest boxes when they are briefly captured for research purposes (another story altogether…). As we arrive at the centre, a stack of what looks like pizza boxes is being unloaded from a van. On closer inspection, we see little chicken feet sticking out of the ‘pizza boxes’: a take away delivery for captive birds of prey. Inside the centre, raptors from all over the world sit on perches in little stalls along a small path, their feet securely tied to their perch. One bird has been taken from its perch, momentarily released to be flown in front of a group of people in wheelchairs. One of the centre staff gets the bird to fly to his glove. He then goes to hold the hands of some visitors in his so they, too, can have this close encounter with birds that we normally only ever see from afar.
The bird is eventually returned to its perch, and another one is set to fly. This one is a black kite. At first it dives at the handler, as if to attack. Calmly, the young man waves it off and explains that this one is quite bad tempered and always starts off by going after him. The kite circles a bit, then sits on a perch and only flies again when the handler holds up bits of meat for it. Quicker than we can blink, the kite snatches the offered meat from the man’s hand.
After the show is over, we stay behind and chat a bit to the people working there. The head of the centre shows us his newest acquisition: a Siberian Eagle owl, only a few weeks old. It has been bred in captivity like all the other birds here, which are mostly sourced from breeders in different places in the UK. The young owl is just developing its adult feathers and is half fluff and half proper feathers. It has impossible large, orange eyes with beautiful eyelashes and blinks slowly in between looking curiously at us and everything else around us. It is difficult not to fall immediately and hopelessly in love with this creature, which when I offer it my hand gently nibbles at my fingers. The head of the centre explains to us that he takes it home with him every night in order to imprint it and make sure it gets used to humans. He is clearly passionate about the birds and sees the centre as a way of educating people about birds of prey, hoping to inspire awe and curiosity rather than fear and hatred.
Despite the sadness of seeing these birds sitting on their perches like curiosities at a funfair or live merchandise, it is difficult not to feel the fascination at being able to see them so close up and even touch them. He tells us that the birds are tied to their perches so that they will not attack each other and that they could, after all, fly away if they wanted to whenever they are set to fly. But then again, they have never lived in the wild, so how would they ever survive, and how would they be able to choose a freedom they never knew? In captivity they undoubtedly have an easier life and most likely also live longer than most wild birds do. And maybe they will indeed help their wild relatives meet with more positive attitudes. When we finally leave with a bag full of frozen mice, half my heart stays behind, lost in the yellow eyes of a Siberian Eagle owl while the other half beats uneasily in my chest.
Lost towns are everywhere, though few of them are mapped or consciously known. Most of the time we suppress and ignore their presence, though on still nights we may hear echoes of laughter and cries, long ago pub brawls erupting again, the whisper of long dead lovers. Only when their material remnants in the forms of walls or corpses cannot be ignored do we admit them into our consciousness, into our lives. But we live with them always, no matter what.
I was once given a tooth, a molar, of a long dead person. A strange gift that could not be refused, though I did not know what to do with this tooth. It brought up images of a ghost wandering toothless and restless, searching for their missing tooth, casting curses as they went along like the Egyptian pharaohs wrestled from their tombs. The tooth came from a body that had lived and died in a city now lost, a ‘ciudad perdida’ in the jungle between the Amazon and Andes, lost in time and in place, no longer with a name but that of ‘lost city’.
I never made it to this lost city and do not know how old or how big it had been, who had lived there, what was its history and what caused its demise. Had this been one of the bustling pre-colonial urban centres that existed in the Amazon before the epidemics and violence generously bestowed by the colonial forces drastically diminished the populations of the Americas? Or was it much younger, an abandoned colonial enterprise swallowed up by the place that it had meant to subdue and ‘civilise’?
Nowadays, the area is home to a mix of peoples, living uneasily side by side. One of them brought me this tooth, unasked for and unwanted, whether a gift or curse, I could not say. The roots of the tooth were brown with age, the tooth more yellow than white. How old was it, what things had it chewed, what life had its bearer known, of what had they died?
For years it went with me, as I moved from place to place, both of us far from home. I was searching, longing for a lost city of my own, or maybe just a place to call home. A few times, I came close to finding such a place, but the tide pulled me out again. Found cities were lost once again, sunk to the bottom of the sea, where drowned souls still wave at you from below.
Eventually, after some years, I buried the tooth on a hill. It was the highest point of where I was living at the time, a continent away from where the rest of the body still remains (or so I hope). I would have liked to take it back, but never made it there again. And so I made do, and hope the tooth will, too, with this hill with a view, embedded in fertile soil. Behind it is forest and in front stretches out a plain of former seabed, now farmed. On clear days, other cities can be seen on the horizon, hovering in shimmering air, not lost yet, but on their way, as all cities must be.
Stone circle The circle Is not big Not impressive Not like Stonehenge Or some other Big Thing From the Past It is small With yet smaller circles inside Like one of those flower shaped Diagrams Children sometimes make With compass and pen Learning to draw As if the people of the past Thought Geometry might teach them How to die. The rows of trees Leading us here Keep silently watch While little brown beetles Run this way and that Or sit still On the stones. Are they souls Of the dead Who were buried here On long ago winters’ nights Now returned to see Whether we remember them Still And uphold the laws From before? The farmer next door Says he does not care Much for stone circles Or the past He sees stones enough When he ploughs his fields. And the cows Press against the fence And shout out their grief At having their calves Taken Yet again While the old farmyard dog Comes limping towards Hoping To have her belly scratched.
We usually talk of imagination as something positive, something to be celebrated and berate the lack of imagination. However, looking out at fields of straight lines where no unwanted being is tolerated (be they plant, animal or something else), I wonder what this is, if not the expression of someone’s imagination. Aldo Leopold wrote about hunting down wolves to create an imagined hunter’s paradise until the day that he realised that this fantasy was at odds with the earth’s way of being and resulted in mountains stripped of vegetation and starving deer.
I read of atrocities now and in the past, those committed by individuals at the microscale of their family or immediate surroundings and those committed on a larger scale and embedded in structures, institutions and beliefs. These, too, are based on imagination. So often this is an imagination of an ideal of purity and control. Sometimes the imagination itself is benign in its intent: we imagine a world without hunger (for humans) and invent pesticides, chemical fertilisers, electric fences and growth hormones. We imagine a world without danger (to us) and invent surveillance cameras, tracking devices, death bringing clouds the form of a mushroom, and ways of keeping out (or in) those we deem dangerous, or just too different from ourselves.
We imagine we can control things, that we can keep away anything unpleasant and painful, that all our desires can be fulfilled, that we do not have to wait for and depend on the goodwill of a djinn or fairy godmother who will grant us three wishes, but that we can create our own djinn and that we can have as many wishes as we wish.
And what do we imagine happens next?
Uganda, 1997: I am walking through the rainforest with a friend. We are both students, attending a course in tropical biology. Several times a day we follow the same route through the forest, monitoring the insects on a particular kind of plant as part of our student project. We come round a bend of the path and see three black-clad people crouching on the path. My first thought is that they must be some of the other students, but then I realise my mistake: these people are not human; they are chimpanzees.
We stop and crouch down, looking at the chimpanzees, who are looking at us. We sit there, silently, watching each other. Their eyes are dark and round, their faces with expressions that I cannot read, but I know that not only are we being watched, we are also being evaluated in some way. The chimpanzees are watching us and thinking about us, just as we are watching them and thinking about them. I do not know what they think or what form chimpanzee thoughts take, but I know that this is not a subject-object encounter, but an encounter between persons that happen to belong to different species.
At one point, my friend wants to get closer and all hell breaks loose. All three chimpanzees are now jumping up and down, shouting at us. We sit, terrified, afraid they will attack, as we know they can do. Though they are smaller than us, they are much stronger and can rip us to pieces if they choose to. After a while, they calmly sit down again, having made their point, and apparently satisfied that we have understood. A little longer we sit and watch each other until they get up, turn their backs on us and silently disappear back into the forest.
Greenland, July 2015: I am on a ferry from Disco Island to Ilulissat, a town on the west coast of Greenland. I have spent a few days on the island, a temporary visitor, hiking up the mountains and along the coast. Off the coast icebergs float by in fantastic shapes, the dreams of some strange underwater creature risen to the surface. Sometimes you hear the rumble and crash of junks of ice coming undone and crashing down into the water. You never see them fall, only the aftermath in the form of icebergs rocking gently back and forth before finding their equilibrium again. Other times you hear the powerful yet gentle ‘whoosh’ of whales exhaling, air released after having been held in giant lungs and carried deep down below the surface of the sea. The whales themselves only show the arching shapes of their backs and tail fins, black glistening hills momentarily appearing before sliding out of view again.
The ferry is still tracing the east coast of Disco Island when suddenly a whale appears, not just breaching the surface with its back, but propelling its whole body out of the water and into the air. For a few seconds it is completely out of the water, flying through the air like an unlikely ballet dancer, before it comes crashing back down into the water with a heavy thump. Moments later it is back up in the air again, another gravity defying flight. I have seen this on television, but never in real life and now that it happens it seems entirely impossible. The animal is bigger than we can take in, and it defies understanding how it can do this. ‘Awe’ is the only word that can describe the feeling that arises as I watch. My understanding of the world begins to crack as I come to know, to really know deep down into my bones that the world has brought forth creatures such as this, mysterious giants who can erupt from unknown depth to fly through the air.
Every year in spring or summer, there comes a time when the local farmer shoots rooks, crows and pigeons. Rats, who in the farmer’s (and most other humans’) world also belong in the category of ‘pests’, are dealt with by poison. From time to time, a white van arrives with big letters saying ‘Pest Control’ on its side. The white van is the only sign of the rats’ death. The rats themselves presumably crawl off into a sheltered place to die when the internal bleeding caused by the poison sets in.
In contrast, the death of the rooks is very public. Not only do the shots reverberate around the farm, but usually one dead rook is tied to a fence post or other prominent place on the farm by a string around its neck. The hanged body of the rook makes it look like a medieval execution has taken place. It brings to mind feudal warlords impaling the heads of their enemies on stakes, bloody signposts for others to read.
It feels violent and aggressive. At the same time, though, it is an acknowledgment of the consciousness of the birds and an attempt to communicate across species boundaries. It is an old farmers’ way of trying to scare off birds, and it may even work. Birds in the crow family are known for their intelligence (as measured against human constructs of what makes up intelligence). Those who study their behaviour say that even carrying around a piece of black cloth can cause crows distress as they think it might be a dead member of their species.
So, maybe, in its own gruesome way, the hanged rook means the farmer will shoot fewer birds, and maybe I should be pleased about that. Nevertheless, the unease and the feeling of being in the middle of a war remain.
Dancing on Volcanoes
Iceland, August 2018: This place has a Martian beauty to it: entirely alien, barren and desolate but with a surreal beauty. Created out of many-coloured rock, rock that recently was liquid fire and flowed over the land, consuming everything that it met on its way. It is a beautiful and deadly landscape. You can see where the lava stopped its flow, and steam rises out of the earth like the breath of a buried dragon. In school, I learned about the fire flowing somewhere deep down below our feet. However, this was never real and made no more impression or felt more real than if someone had told me the moon was made of green cheese. Standing here suddenly makes it real. This feeling is reinforced later on in the Icelandic museum of volcanoes when I enter a room filled with one large installation: a scaled-down model of Iceland sitting on top of a giant pillar of orange fire stretching from the floor all the way up to the ceiling. Knowing this aspect of the world brings with it a feeling of vertigo: we are literally living our lives on top of a pool of fire, separated from it by a thin crust of cooled down rock floating on top.
In the same museum, a wall with a row of screens shows the testimonies of people who have experienced volcanic eruptions. Some tell of having to flee their houses in the middle of the night as rivers of fire came flowing down the mountain, others of days as black as night and sheep whose eyes were stuck together by the falling rain of ash. How can we understand such forces and make sense of them? Death as part of the food chain is somehow understandable, even though we mostly try to deny that we are part of it. But this kind of death on a grand scale that does not seem to serve any purpose, how do we make sense of this? How do we live floating atop a sea of magma? How can we dance on top of volcanoes?
I’m on my knees in the vegetable patch with a trowel in my hand. It is April, and the sun is beating down from blue skies. The air temperature is no more than ten degrees and this morning the ground was frozen, but it feels hot in the sun now. In the farmer’s fields next door, the wind is picking up the soil and carrying it out over the North Sea in a miniature dust storm.
I dig the trowel into the soil where a dandelion is emerging and bring up roots, soil and earthworms. Much has been written about the beneficial effects of gardening, which often makes me wonder at the experiences of others and my own. To own up right here: I am a deeply conflicted and reluctant gardener. I never wished for a vegetable garden, but ended up in an old farmhouse with a large vegetable patch that has been carefully tended and handed down over generations. Though nothing was ever said, there is a sense that renting this house comes with an obligation to tend to this vegetable patch. If not for our own sake, then for those who come after.
But what does it mean to look after a piece of land? Looking at the surrounding fields, I see monocultures of grains, grass and trees. Each species confined to neatly delimited squares of land. ‘Looking after’ in this case comprises planting a single species, applying fertiliser and pesticides. This provides nutrients and kills off any insects or weeds that might impede the growth of what the farmer or the forester want to grow. The care in this case consists of trying to optimise conditions for the one thing that will benefit us. It all looks neat and tidy and not like the mess that is our vegetable patch. However, in the autumn after harvest, the stubble fields are dead spaces where nothing grows and nothing moves. If left to its own, life quickly comes back in the stubble fields and clear cuts. However, it is usually in a diminished form, simpler and with fewer species compared to what it could be.
In the garden, we try to be less destructive, to be more mindful, to allow for more diversity, more life. And yet, we still hold on to the power to control what shall exist here and what not. Dandelions, couch grass, creeping buttercups, thistles, cleavers and many others are all pulled up and put in the bucket to make room for broccoli, kale, carrots, courgettes and lettuces. Others, such as clover and violets, we tolerate to some degree, as long as they don’t become too dominant or grow too close to the plants we want.
Killing a wild animal to eat means only taking the life that you will consume. But when tending to plants or animals that you intend to eat later, you invariably end up taking the lives of many other creatures: plants and animals that are in the way or that are competing or threatening to eat what you want to eat. Others are casualties you didn’t intend to harm, but that you harmed nevertheless. No life can exist without causing harm to others, but where do we draw the line? How much harm and what kinds of harm do we allow ourselves to cause while maintaining our own lives? Some say that the important thing is not to take a life without a good reason, but what makes up a good reason and according to whom? Would the dandelions agree that wanting to grow peas for me to eat is a good enough reason to uproot them? Is this even the right question to ask?
Working away in the garden, I also notice how it changes my relationship to the plants and animals I encounter there. On the one hand, there is an increasing awareness, a noticing of things I would not notice without spending hours on my knees, my nose and eyes a few inches off the ground. The smells of different plants as I pull them out of the ground, the fluorescent blue dots along the side of particular earthworms, the clumps of slug eggs, shiny like pearls, buried in the ground. On the other hand, I can feel myself sliding into a judgemental frame of mind, classifying plants and animals as good or bad. There are weeds that seem intent on taking over and smothering everything else, pigeons that pull up every brassica seedling they can find without ever eating a single one, and slugs that in a single night can decapitate entire trays of seedling, leaving not a single one alive though none have been eaten up entirely. I can feel the frustration rise in me at the wasted labour, at having to start all over again, at the relentlessness of it all.
At the same time, though, it also makes me aware that just as these other beings are thwarting my plans, so am I thwarting theirs. The plants have put all their energy into producing seedlings and then I pull them all up, or the fruits they have produced, which I pick and eat before the seeds can ripen and disperse.
At times, I manage to admire the tenacity and ingenuity of these other beings. The way a slug seems to be able to smell a ripening tomato from a mile away and squeeze through the smallest crack or abseil on a thread of mucus from the one open window in the greenhouse’s roof. The way that couch grass can move long distances underground through the soil, sending up little shoots from time to time in order to thrive wherever a possibility arises, carrying on when there is no possibility, coming back after it has been uprooted. The way that brambles and cleaver climb over everything and put down new roots whenever they come into contact with the ground again.
I am still not at peace with gardening and I still do not know what I am doing or how to handle all these conflicting notions and feelings. The only thing to do seems to continue searching for a better compromise. How we could produce and provide food for humans on a larger scale in a less destructive manner, I do not know. I look at the fields around me and know that this way is only death even though the farmers care. However, their care mostly focuses on humans and the economics of modern day farming do not allow for much space or negotiation with other beings. And so I continue crouching in this little patch of soil, silently negotiating with myself and the beings I encounter how to deal with our overlapping and sometimes conflicting claims to space and existence in an uneasy and never fully resolved way.
Dreamings For so long We have been caught In dark world dreaming And the dreams Were whispering Telling us To fight To cut To overcome To control Be strong Never weak Never give in Never give up Be king, They said, And we thought That meant Killing our fear By killing those We feared And making the others Do As we wished But the wishes In our dreams Were heavy as stone Drowning us Beneath their Wish fulfilling Weight Meanwhile The water Trickled on Tirelessly Softly Taking shape And shaping in return And the wind blew And raven Dancing on the breeze Watched With laughing eyes.
This post is part of a project entitled ‘Imaginative dwelling in troubled relations’ which explores the role of the imagination and embodied practies in shaping our relations to humans and the more-than-human. The project constitutes the creative part of Anja Byg’s final project for the MA in ‘Poetics of Imagination’ at Dartington School of Arts. Thanks are due to the human and non-human others whose inputs have been an invaluable part of this project.
Anja Byg‘s previous existences include those of an ecologist, ethnobotanist and social scientist. She is currently in the process of transitioning to an as yet unknown form of existence. For the time being she dwells in Scotland.
Photos & text © Anja Byg 2021.