With help from ecologist/anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose and a flying-fox called Triggy, Abi Andrews finds hope in the brilliant shimmer of the biosphere.
Triggy the black flying-fox. Photo: Abi Andrews
You are so other; arms like hooks with lycra skins, movements like trying to sweep holding the very end of a broomstick. Ungainly like a heavy bird, penguin-like posture, face of fox. What if in the near-future we have no comparative animals left to describe the remaining ones? When there can’t be ‘penguin-like’, ‘fox-like’ as a way of describing this ‘bat’, or when the recollection stands only as a reminder that there are so many now missing? What about when we forget the missing?
Body made for heat. How does it feel then, too hot and panting, fanning yourself with your large, black-skinned wings, so much like a human lying in a hot bed, parachuting the sheets. Do you understand, dropping one by one from the trees you clasp with long clawed fingers, the ground you spend no time on, suddenly colliding with your body?
Dead bats along the ground, in the leaf litter, garish black against it, like scattered bin-bags torn open by feral cats. A deafening sound of babies crying. Because you carried your babies, you saved them from the exertion. They need human hands to pick them up now, strewn along the bush, clinging to the stiffening bodies of their mothers. The only hope for your babies is that they will be picked up, wrapped in towels, and taken to a human home to be nursed, tenderly, back towards life. A small reparation, then.
‘Solastalgia’ is suddenly common in our lexicon. It captures a feeling of distress, anxiety or sadness at an environmental change, acknowledging a diminishment; a longing for what was before, like a homesickness. Perhaps we have attached to the word because it is an articulation of a thing we didn’t quite know we were feeling, and we are, in a way, relieved to now be able to define it.
Can animals other-than-human feel it too, this diminishment? Consider the alarm of the flying-foxes whose sun, so familiar, is suddenly hostile, the panic of the flowers that wait for the flying-foxes that don’t come after forty million years of having come. The flowers are in want of their missing pollinators, who are not arriving as they should to carry off life as pollen on the fur of their red bellies, their sticky fingers, and snouts perfectly shaped for nectar licking. The eucalyptus forests of eastern Australia, on which the lives of so much other wildlife depend, may not pollinate far enough to sustain their own population, if the flying-foxes are lost. This is the beginning of a cascade, where others are dragged into the slipstream.
“In this time of extinctions, we are going to be asked again and again to take a stand for life, and this means taking a stand for faith in life’s meaningfulness”. Deborah Bird Rose was one of the leading white voices at the intersection of ecology and anthropology in Australia. She spoke of herself as working with ‘communities at the edge of extinction’, both human and more-than-human. Originally from Seattle, Rose lived and worked closely with communities of Aboriginal Australians in the Northern Territories for over thirty years. I make the point of her whiteness, because this intersection borrows heavily from indigenous knowledge systems that have many of their own, less credited voices. Rose made it her work to amplify these voices and knowledges, to act as an interlocutor.
In her essay Shimmer: When all You Love is Being Trashed, she invoked the Yolngu Aboriginal term bir’yun which translates as something like ‘brilliant’ or ‘shimmering’. This shimmering is a Yolngu aesthetic; she gave the example of an Aboriginal painting technique that first blocks colours; this stage of the painting is described as ‘dull’. It is when great detail is added that the painting reaches its potential and is bir’yun, it shimmers.
Shimmer manifests not only in a human action like an Aboriginal painting, but in the iridescence of life in interaction, ‘the brilliant shimmer of the biosphere’. Here she describes the meeting of flying-foxes and their flowers, in the moment of symbiosis which is a give-and-take, and an affirmation of life. The brilliant shimmer is ancestral power for the Yolngu. The shimmer could also be seen as ecology; it is a process of encounter, the point at which ‘different ways of being and doing find interesting things to do together’. Perhaps it is the opposite of what induces solastalgia, then.
And do the flying-foxes feel the shimmer, reminding them that they are part of a vibrating world? And what about when the others can’t find others to do interesting things with, will they feel solastalgia, a loss of shimmer, and are we on track for a dull, diminished, shimmerless world?
Having pored over the words of Rose, I’m now in the land that captured her. And like her, I am in the position of not being from here by any degree. An uninvited guest, and on stolen land. There is so much shimmering in this country. So much that at first it unnerves me. Frogs calling on the dam at night so loudly that again and again, about to drift to sleep, I sit up convinced I left some music on. Possums make a nightly habit of dive-bombing the caravan roof, loud as sacks of sand, off on their foraging trails. Thousands of tiny huntsman babies on the move, their eyes reflecting in my head-torch – an infantry of glitter. Rain so fat it might leave bruises. And a flying-fox that returns to the banksia outside my window at the same time each evening, to greet the banksia and spread its seeds far throughout the forest. I don’t know if it’s the same bat that keeps coming back, but I let myself think it is.
I take a tin boat out on the dam one evening as the sun is going down. A single flying-fox skims the surface of the water in front of the boat, wetting its chest to cool itself. Soon, I am surrounded by diving, skimming bats, Little Red flying-foxes, beating their impossible plastic wings against the black water, thick with the sound of frogs and cicadas and the air beneath bat wings. It looks like they are bowing to the water and kissing it. They upward swoop over the boat, regarding me haughtily, under their shoulders. Even this feels like a gift; to be regarded by them.
Having been vaccinated for lyssavirus, and under the auspices of the wildlife sanctuary at which I am living in a caravan, surrounded by mammoth hoop pines, their dense foliage almost black against the big, wide sky, tall gums as white vertical dashes against the red-brown of the nearby ridge line — I receive a bat.
The bat that has come into my care is named Trigeagle, as that is the name of a small town in country New South Wales where he was found. I call him Triggy, he is a black flying-fox. He is traumatised, having been clinging to his dead mum for several days, and so he behaves anxiously, wrapping his stick-arms around his hand-made ‘bat-wrap’, (a contraption of fabric around a paint roller which emulates the body of a bat-mother) and squealing.
The methods of flying-fox care are unique, in that carers are encouraged to bond with the bats in their care, to give them lots of fuss and attention. Flying foxes are highly social creatures that live in large colonies, and the thinking goes that a baby bat starved of social attention in their first ten weeks will be maldeveloped emotionally and socially — even the human sort will do. This is anathema to the gospel that surrounds all other species of wildlife that come into care, with whom there are strict protocols against bonding or ‘humanising’.
I haven’t felt such careful attention before I interacted with a baby flying-fox. Always looking at you, with eyes so glassy and huge you want to cover them in case too much light gets in. Ears always on the move, each ear independently, like little radar disks catching and processing all available sound. Firm, rough chests; good for scratching. They make a sound when contented by scratching, near the soft churring of a guinea pig. Triggy’s wings seem so delicate that at first I‘m terrified to touch them. Outstretched, I am glad to find them a robust, rubbery membrane, which feels a little like taught human skin when I apply moisturiser with a soft cotton bud.
For shimmer to shimmer, there must also be the absence of shimmer, the dullness to be marked against. When we understand the absence, we should be able to see it not as a lack, but as a potential; the bats that will come to the bat-made flowers, the absence of shimmer as shimmer-to-come. Extinction is this process interrupted.
This, Rose showed us, is what makes extinction so very awful. She called it a double — an extinction is not a singular disappearance of one species. It is the death of reliance and renewal; the loss of whole worlds of being. Not only the extinct creature, but the many potentials to shimmer-with them that are being lost. The dullness is then what has become missing, rather than what may come. She called this The Great Unmaking.
I come from the UK, a place whose environment is so far along in its unmaking that I was born too late to notice the transformation. In this place, I am holding two feelings at the same time. One; I have never lived in a place with so much life in such shocking abundance. There is something that just feels good and right, about a bat that keeps returning to a banksia. Maybe, because I know what it feels like to live in the dull, the shimmer-starved, I see the shimmer here all the more vividly. All the things that are there as they should be.
And the other is a panic that follows this vividness like a cat sneaking through a closing door. Because where there is more with which to be newly acquainted, there is more then to lose. Living more closely means investing in this loss. Am I learning to love only to see it all trashed? Am I now in a front seat to the Great Unmaking? What difference does nursing them have, when we are giving them back to a compromised world? And what good are these hands really, that have such blame on them?
But there is something, Rose has helped me to think, in the ache of this loss-to-come that is beautiful because it reminds us what we love. Solastalgia says something of the power of loss that is as dark as it is beautiful. Still, despite everything, there is the incessantly joyful assertion, over and over, of creatures saying yes to life and to flourishing. Because when you release a flying-fox, you know it will find its way back to a blossom if it can. It will rejoin its colony, take up its place in the squealing and the chatter. Life wants to shimmer. Rose asked that we take a stand, for faith in life’s meaningfulness. Every small act is more shimmer preserved. Every orphaned bat taken in by a human is at the very least a hymn, for a certain kind of world.
I leave Triggy in the ‘creche’ he will live in with other teenage orphans, so that they can socialise before being released together back to the colony; a kind of decompression chamber from their human mothering. I tell him I am very pleased to have met him, and that I’m sorry there won’t be any strawberry yoghurt out there, his favourite. He doesn’t seem scared, like he was when we were first brought together. He finds a position to hang on the wire roof of the pen, just out of swiping reach of the rest of the excited bats. He watches me a little, his ears fluttering every direction, like black butterfly wings.
For Rose also, there was this vivid and morbid proximity; the curse of watching closely, through her life’s work, as everything she loved was dragged towards the edge. On November 23rd, 2018 she asked on her blog, ‘will I finish my book about Australian flying-foxes, or will illness overtake me?’ The same month that year, a colony of Spectacled Flying Foxes were decimated in a heat event in northern Queensland. Carers there were overwhelmed; a heat event of that intensity doesn’t usually happen in the tropics. On December the 21st 2018, Deborah Bird Rose passed over too. She managed to get her book, Shimmer: Flying Fox Exuberance in Worlds of Peril, to her publisher just before her death.
‘Shimmer: Flying Fox Exuberance in Worlds of Peril’ was published by Edinburgh University Press in February 2022, and is available here (£13.94).