Thursday, 28 December 2017

No 54 - The solace of birds

'Batis and acacia' (c) Dan Wylie
Most mornings, for a few months, I’ve been awakened at first light by a rattling flurry of sharp sound. The cat would startle up; I’d wonder if someone was knocking, or tossing hard seeds onto the roof... We got to know soon enough that it's a testosterone-loaded little Cape Batis, very neatly dressed in black, white and russet suit, but positively furious at seeing his reflection in the dawn light on the eastern window. You’d think after a couple of weeks he would twig that this was not a rival male, but a virtual bird, a fake-news bird, not worth expending all those calories on. But no, self-recognition not being a strong point, or maybe actually enjoying a kind of gym session, on and on he goes at it. Sometimes he is joined by an African Paradise-Flycatcher, resplendent in breeding brick-red colour, or a Dark-capped Bulbul. Are they learning from each other?

I wonder if a Klaas’s Cuckoo chick somewhere is being deprived by this distraction, as the Batis is a prime sucker for the cuckoos to foist their eggs on – and already I can hear an immigrant cuckoo lilting, My-iki, my-iki in the pines upslope of my cottage, its white belly making it all but invisible against the paling sky. Nearer to hand, the Batis churrs and grouses. As Terry Oatley has written, this is a hard sound to describe; he finds the only satisfying one is C J ‘Jack’ Skead’s, likening it to pebbles being rolled together. I think of it as more woody than stony, a sort of rolling gurRRR-rrRRRrrr-rrr. But it has always been a problem for the bird-guide compilers to describe bird-song. The old Roberts guide (eds. McLachan & Liversidge) was quite richly poetic: I think it was the Pel’s Fishing Owl’s call that was compared to the cry of a desperate soul falling into the pit of hell! No one ever having heard such a soul, actually, this would not do for the more recent scientific generation, as represented by Gordon Maclean, compiler of the 1984 Roberts, the hefty edition with its handsome maroon dust-jacket. Though the descriptions of songs became blander, Maclean did include sonograms, little graph-like diagrams like ECG printouts, which I found very useful in gauging relative smoothness or harshness of calls, time intervals, and more. In the yet more recent Roberts field-guide (Chittenden, 2007), much pared down in the interests of making it more convenient to carry about, the sonograms have disappeared. For the Batis, Maclean repeated the “two stones” notion, as does Chittenden; but without amplification it’s not so useful.  The massive seventh edition (Hockey et al), despite being 1200 large-format pages long, has done away with the apostrophe after Roberts, the sonograms and the stones: the Batis now says chewarra-warra-warra, which is quite good, even if it reminds me of Tigger trying unsuccessfully to be fierce in Winnie the Pooh.

Why do I even possess these books – alongside two huge volumes of the Bird Atlas project, the two beautifully-illustrated volumes of Geoff McIlleron and Peter Ginn’s Ultimate Companion, Peter Steyn’s Birds of Prey, a battered Newman’s field guide, and still others? After all, I am far from being a dedicated “twitcher”, more a sporadic observer, and these books are far more technical and detailed than I will ever need. I blame the bird atlas project, which my mother and I participated in for a time in its first round; that educative experience drew me into buying the atlases when they were published (obviously, since our names were in the back, hoo-hah!). Then I bought more, and more... Apparently South Africans buy more bird books per capita than any other nation on earth. Yet I do like to know who I’m seeing and attach a name. A name confers a certain intimacy on a raw observation, allows me to feel more at home and attuned, even if the bird itself doesn’t give a tiny white poep about your human sense of intimacy.

The clumsiness of our attempts to describe birdsong means: dump the books, go out and listen. There is no experience but the experience. I take a chair onto the front lawn, look out over the forest tree-tops, the coastal plain beyond, sit and listen. A certain kind of knowledge and layering of meaning comes from the books, to be sure; a different kind from memory and experience. A number of species in this forest also occur in my home forest of eastern Zimbabwe, so are heavy with evocative memory. And they are all present this crystalline morning, talking to and past and over and despite one another.

The Batises (Batii?) are worra-worra-ing and chirping; White-Eyes chitter in a little group dashing from erythrina to wild-olive; Dark-capped Bulbuls sound fruity greetings from the leaf-tops of hubris. These are the little people, but soon along come the royals, first bounding along the branches, half-kangaroo half-bird, eyebrows strikingly painted white on green, jungle geishas, then with a growling churr launch through the air between trees with a flash of wing as crimson as a caesar’s robe. Knysna Louries – sorry, Turacos (I’m of that generation still stuck with the ‘old’ names). One, and another, three, and four: then the arching, raucous call: graaah, graaah, graah. My mother used to say that that call, depending on strength and rhythmic duration, presaged mist or summer storm. I was a bit dubious: it was both the rainy and the breeding season, so the two were likely to coincide quite a bit anyway. But it was a little myth that I nurtured, part of how we identified with and interpreted those who shared the forest with us. Damn the taxonomists, who now insist that what we had back in the Vumba were Livingstone’s turacos, with a slightly pointier crest and a slightly bluer tail. Well, they are like enough, and remain as magnificently aristocratic and broad-voiced, aristocrats and criers of rain.

There are other littlies who will talk down kings, whose voices are louder than climate-change denialists’, exceeding their bodily importance a thousand-fold. Most vociferous this morning is the Bar-throated Apalis; I think of him as frenchified, dapper and lively and piping Phil-IPPE, phil-IPPE, phil-IPPE. The indefatigable Jack Skead noticed that some individuals’ throat bars were thicker than others. Theories competed like waxbills at a birdbath. Was it dimorphic? Was it a sex symbol, like a flashier cravat? Was it just that the feathers lay at different angles at different times? Lately, it’s said that a thicker bar signifies greater territory and dominance. How would that even work? OK, my territory is one hundred and twelve wingbeats wide, let me add two millimetres to my bar, like a corporal promoting himself to a sergeant? There remain profound mysteries in such relationships between colour and behaviour.

The middle classes are also coming into voice: Lesser Striped Swallows taking an interest in my back porch with little gazoo-like squeaks; Rock Pigeons’ chesty love-notes on the roofline; one Southern Boubou shranking out a sound like shook foil, answered by another with a high bright cry, clearer than a bell. Forget your legend- and poetry-saturated English lark and nightingale – colourless calls in comparison with our Oriole’s ringing clarion, or the Burchell’s Coucal’s falling-and-rising bubbling, somewhere between clarinet and harp. It is an orchestra this morning, albeit one thoroughly disorganised and aleatory. A clatter of vociferous Redwinged Starlings, too, creaking and glurping and scolding the cat. They're often accused of excessive aggression, but none of my books mention that they mourn. I once saw a group, on a road in town, surrounding the body of a flock member that had been killed by a car. They said little or nothing for a while; then by some secret signal one starling hopped forward and covered the body in a flurry of frantic shivering feathers and wings. This was explained to me as a pseudo-sexual act, perhaps a futile effort to revive the dead; but, as that individual backs off and, after a quiet interval, another comes forward and does the same, it looks more like a ritual, respectful and concerned and arranged.

Who is this - Steppe Buzzard?
Now the thermals rise with a seaborne sough, bringing in some of the big guys: raptors. Never all at once, of course, but there is the drawn-out kwheee of a Long-crested Eagle, who is often to be seen perched on poles alongside the cuttings near town. I can anticipate the sharper yelp of the Jackal Buzzard, or the spiralling continuous yow-yow-YOW-yow-yow of a Crowned Eagle displaying and looping for his mate. A little worry for my cat, who could be easily taken by this huge predator: I have a vivid memory from the Vumba of a Crowned Eagle snatching a young Somango monkey off an acacia tree-top right below my bedroom window. And maybe a Fish Eagle will wander up from a coastal watercourse, to utter that silvery thrilling cry that is in my memory forever welded with the dawn honking of hippos and the booming of Ground Hornbills and the powerful silky slide of the Zambezi River.

The thermals are also lifting a cabal of White-necked Ravens into the lively sky. There are far fewer of them than just a few years ago; has there been some shift in local migratory patterns, or have too many been poisoned by farmers putting out toxic carcasses for the odd jackal and rippling destructively and blindly out into vast ecosystems? At any rate, these croaking priests of the air are playing on the wind – it is surely playing, a cavorting that has nothing to do with preparing for a hunt: a revelling in the gift of flight, a passing fixation on formation-flying, an occasional mock aerial joust. In his fascinating book, Pleasurable Kingdom, Jonathan Balcombe argues that seeking of pleasure is as potent an evolutionary force as Darwinian competition for resources. Birds, he thinks, enjoy singing; he cites philosopher and ornithologist Charles Hartshorne:

'Raven Games' (c) Dan Wylie
There is no conflict between ‘birds sing for pleasure’ and ‘they sing to maintain territory or attract mates.’ The more essential an activity in the whole life of the bird, the greater the proportion of the bird’s pleasure which is realised in that activity.

And it’s just about impossible not to feel that pleasure and pride inflect the singing in the thickets below me of a Red-capped Robinchat (the old Natal Robin; only a committee could rename a bird whose cap is not at all red but at best, according to the guides, “cinnamon-brown”). At any rate, this Robin is going great guns, mimicking a Crowned Eagle, sliding into a flycatcher screek, a riff of gardener’s lazy whistle, a couple of inventive sequences of his own, back to a modified snatch of eagle – astonishingly variable,  unique to this individual and, well, happy. Balcombe also quotes Joseph Wood Krutch, writing in 1956:

When I hear a particular robin singing on a bough – I do not think: ‘Irritable protoplasm so organized as to succeed in the struggle for existence’.

I could go on and on, just with what I’ve heard in an hour – a web of sound-textures melding with the scent of sap rising off complexities of vegetation as the day heats up. In our addled, politicised, monetised world, the birds are my distraction, solace, unselfconscious Mercurys of wisdom and unalloyed delight. So many people are oblivious to all this; even most of my eco-literature students have proven woefully ignorant of the extraordinary interlacing of sound and colour, texture and scent that makes up such a multidimensional sensory experience: their smartphone-centred world, for all its globalised reach, can come nowhere near to so deeply engaging the complete person. 

And without learning to love all this, how can we know we need to save it, or would want to? 


Saturday, 23 December 2017

No.53 - Robert Mugabe and the fragility of power

"Blow, winds, blow!" (c) Dan Wylie
Some friends have asked whether I am going to write about the Zimbabwe situation. After all, I am ‘from there’, so I should, no? As it happens, I have no more an inside track on developments there than any other outside observer, though I have followed events with great interest. I plan to go to Zim soon, and will report back on my experiences.

In the meanwhile, anyone who has any kind of historical consciousness will be neither surprised by Robert Gabriel Mugabe’s ouster, nor particularly utopian about the immediate future. We have to be grateful that it has happened with minimal bloodshed and public upheaval, while recognising that the coup consists of little more than a shuffle amongst the incumbent stalwarts of the party. Emmerson Mnangagwa has been the staunchest securocrat of them all, the organiser-in-chief behind the suppression of ZAPU and the Ndebele from even before 1980, more viciously in the 1980s, including the Entumbeni clashes of 1980-81, and the massacres of Gukurahundi (his denials notwithstanding), the serially rigged elections. His recently announced cabinet does not have a man in it under the age of 65; despite their pragmatic noises since the coup, this doesn’t feel like a team that is going to radically change direction to reboot production, resolve the cash crisis, open up genuine reconciliatory dialogues to address the buried past, or transition smoothly to truly transparent electoral democracy. We can but wait and see.

Meanwhile, I share the national delight that at least RGM (the Rogue Grand Manipulator) and his poisonous wife have been sidelined. As it happens, I have been reading Stuart Doran’s great doorstopper history of ZANU(PF), Kingdom, Power, Glory, which was published before the coup but offers a densely-documented backdrop to it – especially Mugabe’s willingness to use violence at any point to gain his ends.  Doran cites Mugabe himself, speaking in 1981:

Our methods will differ according to the situation. If a situation warrants we use vicious methods, I can assure you that we will use vicious methods. ... If other people are planning coups, planning revolts, then let them be warned that we are well prepared for such eventualities. Once again, if it is to be an eye for an eye, well, we will remove two eyes for one eye. (Doran, p.270)

Talk about being hoist with one’s own realpolitik petard! It is only too ironic that Mugabe’s deposition, for which he seemed wholly unprepared, happened so non-violently – not the norm amongst the world’s tyrants. There has to be some psychological link between tyranny and short-sightedness – for who, gazing down the bloodied steppes of history, would dare become one? A sorry outcome would seem fore-ordained: look at Caesar, Hitler, Mussolini, Gaddafi, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Mengistu – overthrown by outsiders they have provoked into war, assassinated by trusted brothers, driven into exile... Live by the sword, etc.

"Et tu, Brute?" (c) Dan Wylie
It so happened that I have also recently seen an excellent Al Jazeera documentary on the 2016 trial of Chadian strongman Hissène Habré. At almost the same moment as Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade was killing off Ndebele ‘dissidents’ in the south of his country, Habré was doing the same in the south of Chad. Like Mugabe, Habré had come to power through the entanglements of a civil war, occasioned in part by colonial boundaries having shackled together historically incompatible peoples in a new ‘nation’. Like Mugabe, he was well-educated in the ways of the West – each gained several degrees –  which helped persuade some powers to overlook his obvious abuses. Habré was propped up by France and the United States because they could use him as an ally against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who had invaded disputed territories on Chad’s northern border. With French help, Gaddafi was repulsed, eventually to meet his own bloody demise. Habré himself lasted only eight years as leader of his horrifically abusive one-party regime, from 1982 until his overthrow by Idriss Déby in 1990. Habré fled into exile in Senegal, but his crimes, which included rape, sexual slavery and ordering the deaths of 40,000 people, followed him. After protracted negotiations to get him extradited from Senegal, Habré was finally brought to trial by a supra-national African court. On 30 May 2016 he became the first ex-dictator to be convicted of crimes against humanity in such a court.

It has often been asserted that Mugabe had been clinging gamely and lamely onto power because he is afraid of being hauled up before such an international court himself. The question may now be moot, seeing as how his former henchman, now usurper-successor, Mnangagwa has granted him immunity – though on what divinely-appointed judicial authority one man can immunise another for mass murder is a perennial mystery. And one doubts that conscience is much of a driving force amongst such people. Mugabe will probably, like some other ex-tyrants, die in muffled and luxurious isolation.

It also so happened that while the Zimbabwe coup was unfolding I was marking exam scripts – students responding to a question on Shakespeare’s magical play The Tempest. Nowadays one is pressured to interpret even such ‘old’ works in a ‘decolonising’ or ‘post-colonial’ context – or be deemed irrelevant, if not white supremacist. Since the story involves an Italian-European magician, Prospero, taking over an island from its pair of native inhabitants, Caliban and Ariel, The Tempest is indeed susceptible to such a reading. (Another colonised islander, Caribbean writer Aimé Cesaire, did just that with his counter-play, Un Tempête, which our students also study.)

"Monster/Magician" (c) Dan Wylie
But The Tempest is about nothing if not power and usurpation of power: Prospero is exiled on the island following his overthrow in Naples by his very own brother; and not only the oppressed Caliban is scheming to overthrow him – so are some of Prospero’s own countrymen, themselves shipwreck victims. This is, it seems, Shakespeare’s symbolic vision of history: cyclical dislocation and chaos breed unseemly squabbles for position and patronage – not to mention getting the girl.

As I’m sure many commentators have observed before, Shakespeare was positively obsessed with the usurpation of kingly or tyrannical power, returning to the theme in play after play. Hamlet opens famously with the eponymous hero confronting the ghost of his father, murdered and usurped by his own brother. Macbeth strives in vain to atone for his lethal royal sins and avoid being ousted by his erstwhile lieutenants. Julius Caesar is assassinated by men he has always known, including even his closest colleague, Brutus. King Lear (sort of) voluntarily hands over power to his daughters, but the unexpected consequences drive him into crazed exile, raging at the storm which is also the upheaval in his mind. (What a scene: I was immediately provoked into painting tableaus from these plays!) The History plays – all those Henrys – are about little else than the moral legitimacy or otherwise of kingship, and the mechanisms by which one ruler takes over from the last. In Henry V Shakespeare penned the immortal, rightly oft-quoted line about the fragility of any tyrant’s hold on power:

            “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”

If I remember right, I first encountered that line as the title of a biography of King Hussein of Jordan. Anyone – decolonised or otherwise – who argues that Shakespeare is irrelevant or passé has either never truly read him, or is too narrow-minded to understand. Few writers are more incisively observant about those psychological blind-spots that make the lust for power both so dangerous and so fragile.

In contemplating these commonalities of human political behaviour, the patterns that go on repeating themselves, century after dispiriting century, I always find myself going back to another doorstopper book, St Augustine’s City of God, written around the year 400:
"His father's ghost" (c) Dan Wylie

Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms? ... If this villainy wins so many recruits from the ranks of the demoralised that it acquires territory, establishes a base, captures cities and subdues peoples, it then arrogates to itself the title of kingdom, which is conferred on it in the eyes of the world, not by the renouncing of aggression but by the attainment of impunity. (IV.5.4)

Augustine had your measure, RGB, 1700 years ago. Please read the script, Emmerson.