Follow the flight of the blackpoll warbler

Diversity is a mark of richness and environmental health - and birds are its flag-bearers.

Bird variation set both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace on the path to discovering natural selection and its role in evolution. Wallace observed it on the Molucca Islands, Darwin on the Galapagos. Diversity is a mark of richness and environmental health and birds are its flag-bearers. Their disappearance, like the collapse of the canary in the mine, is our warning signal.

Yesterday, wondering where blue tits and great tits have gone this summer (am I providing the wrong kind of peanuts?), I found the Shakespearean phrase “nature’s riches” used for a site explaining the rich geological pickings of the Arctic, now being unlocked by global warming. It could equally refer to the tropical forests being destroyed to make monocultures such as palm oil. Maybe only migrating birds know (though it must be a special kind of “knowing”) the true force of the paradox that areas of greatest biodiversity are also areas of greatest conflict – and how fast biodiversity is being lost in our time.

This is true above all between Arctic and tropic. These words first occur in the late 14th century. In Greek, arktikos means “belonging to bears”. Not polar bears: people knew the night sky and the constellation of the Great Bear. Tropic, from the Latin tropicus and the Greek trope, meaning “turn”, refers to the daytime sky where the sun, after reaching its northernmost or southernmost point, stands still (solstitium) and turns back.

If all birds stayed in the tropics, many would die out through competition for food and nesting sites, so species evolved to migrate. As resources regenerate each spring in the north, millions of birds trade tropic for Arctic: less competition for insects, longer daylight hours to find them. When Arctic food dwindles in autumn, they return to the replenished tropics.

These journeys are risky but better than the alternative. Blackpoll warblers winter in Venezuela, then fly north in spring over the Gulf of Mexico up to Alaska, where they build little cup nests in fir trees. They take a different route back: they fly south-east over the Great Lakes and from the New England coast some follow the shoreline down to Florida, some island-hop to South America, but most fly east to pick up winds hurling them over the Caribbean non-stop, day and night, for 88 hours to Venezuela. Four days over the Atlantic in peak hurricane season, facing spiralling winds, clouds, rain. Many crash exhausted in the sea. Yet it’s worth the risk because this route is 1,500 miles shorter and survivors establish a winter feeding territory earlier.

Nature is prodigal, said Darwin. So much waste. “The face of nature may be compared to a yielding surface, with 10,000 sharp wedges packed closely together and driven inwards by incessant blows, sometimes one wedge being struck, and then another with greater force.”

His understanding of the conflict driving nature’s apparent harmony was triggered by reading “An Essay on the Principle of Population” by Robert Malthus. This led him to the concept of natural selection and also to ideas about the evolution of instincts and human psychology.He was young: after South America, his mind was racing. “The principle of population is strife”; “All forms compete against others”; “You can understand the true conditions of life only if you use your imagination to hold on to a sense of the ruthlessness of the natural forces that could waste the bright surface.”

This side of his work inspired Freud’s insight into psychic conflict and the origins of human aggression. “The human mind is shaped by its animal past,” said Darwin. Nature’s ruthlessness is ours, too: our bodies, our psyches.

Unlike a blackpoll warbler, we can’t fly away when resources are gone. In our time, it seems, Arctic and tropic will change their meanings again. But biodiversity may no longer be part of the equation.

Good migrations: macaws fly over a river in Peru. Photograph: Frans Lanting / Gallery Stock

Ruth is a British poet and author with close connections to conservation, wildlife, Greece and music. She has published a novel, eight works of non-fiction and eight poetry collections, most recently The Mara Crossing, which mixes poems and prose to explore migration. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Council Member for the Zoological Society of London.  See her website for more.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism