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nigel-gannet

For Valentine’s Day, I have saved this troubling obituary from the animal world.  Last month, Nigel the lonely gannet died.  Nigel lived on Mana Island, a desolate stony island about 25 kilometers northwest of Wellington, the capital of New Zealand.   Mana Island was once the home to many sea birds, but after the island was intensively farmed during the 19th and 20th centuries, the colonies failed. The…nutrients…provided by the birds gave the island rich soil but, without the birds this abundance faded away and the island’s ecosystem crashed (this is a sort of microcosm of what happened to the larger New Zealand ecosystem during the 19th and 20th centuries as waves of invasive creatures swept the remote archipelago).  New Zealand conservationists have been working to restore the empty island however they were left with a problem.  Gannets live where other gannets live.  How could they lure the oceangoing birds back to start a new bird colony?

The solution they settled upon was to play bird calls on electronic speakers and put out concrete decoys painted the handsome black white and ocher of live gannets, however this strategy did not lure gannets to Mana…except for Nigel.  He arrived a few years ago and selected a beautiful replica gannet and began to woo his concrete love with mating displays, nests, and excited chatter.  He even tried to preen her concrete feathers and explore physical intimacy with her.  Videos of Nigel trying to impress his inanimate mate became a real hit in the human world (where analogies are not unknown).  This year other living gannets finally arrived at Mana Island, and naturalists hoped that Nigel could find fulfillment and raise a family with a real bird, but it was not to be.  In late January of 2018, a ranger found Nigel dead upon his nest next to his concrete consort.  The futility of his life and bleak melancholy of his end have attracted worldwide attention.

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Ornithologists have speculated that Nigel was an odd bird, somehow injured, addled, or damaged, which is why he left his original colony. His defects, if any, were certainly not visible to the human eye and he looked like a healthy handsome seabird. Gannets dive from 30 meters (100 feet), and achieve speeds of 100 kilometres per hour (62 mph) as they enter the water.  Their speed and mass, and matchless skill as divers enables them to catch large fish deeper than most airborne birds can venture.  Nigel did all of this, but things just didn’t work out.

Except, maybe they did: there are now gannets nesting on Mana Island, brought there not by statues, but by a live gannet.  As one contemplates Nigel’s lonely life, it is hard not to imagine HIM transformed into a beautiful statue which says “Our Founder.”  We will watch the colony with interest and see if the gannets make it after their 40-year absence from Mana.

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Nigel’s life and his death raise bigger questions about the nature of life and how organisms work together, collectively and individually.  This blog has visited these issues before in posts about blood, clonal colonies, lonely geese, and siphonophores (animals made of other animals where the individual zooids serve in the capacity of organs).

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I have a long running philosophical argument with a friend concerning the nature of humankind.  He asserts that each person is a magnificent individual—a whole self-contained universe. I don’t think that is correct.  No animal is quite so solitary (unless it is the last of its kind) and especially not us: we are colony animals like mole rate or termites or honeybees.  If you see one human, you have a whole infestation.  This means our culture is as much who we are as ourselves (as becomes incredibly evident in heartbreaking cases of feral children or abused hermit loners).  The splendid fantasy of being alone is just that—a fantasy.  In reality we are as tied to our banks, gas companies, annoying colleagues, and odious loudmouth leaders more than we would ever like to admit.  We will come back to these ideas in subsequent posts, but for now Happy Valentine’s Day and RIP Nigel.  There really should be a statue of him, we could all see some of ourselves in that stone mirror…and some of humanity’s real nature in the living colony birds coming back to roost on desolate Mana Island.

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus), sky pointing courtship display

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus), sky pointing courtship display

My parents' geese

My parents’ geese

My parents have a lovely flock of pilgrim geese: I think these geese are mostly a hobby, but I suppose if society ever falls down, Mom & Dad could probably ramp up production and live on them.  The geese spend most of their time in a big pond in a field next to a pretty meadow (which in turn is next to an oak forest). The birds play and frolic and pursue their goose romances all the while conniving against one another like Roman patricians.  They practice a very intense form of goose politics (goosetics?) which involves lots of self-aggrandizing honking, aggressive jostling, and occasional political murders.  The ganders even look a bit like Roman senators with haughty hungry expressions and cloud-white plumage in place of togas (although the females are gray and slightly gentler).

Pilgrim Gander

Pilgrim Gander

Today’s flock has reached a parity point where new hatchlings replace unfortunate geese lost to the hardships of nature, society, and misadventure, but it was not always so. The first generation of geese arrived as gormless puffballs in the mail.  With no elders to teach them of coyotes, foxes, weasels, hawks, owls, and bobcats, they had to learn some hard lessons on their own. But even once they learned to survive against the wild animals which live in the forest, they still had a lot to learn about the world (like how to fly).

LG the Canada Goose

LG the Canada Goose

This is where a very strange character enters the story.  One day a wild Canada goose landed on the pond with a female mallard duck.  It became obvious that this unhappy duck was the unwilling paramour of the goose, but whenever she tried to fly away from him (I am calling this goose a he, but who really knows?), he would leap into the sky and coral her back down to the pond with his mighty wings and expert flight skills.  This weird pair kept to themselves and my parents watched their dysfunctional relationship with bemusement, christening the big strange goose as “LG” (which is short for Lonely Goose). One day a vast flock of migrating ducks landed on the pond, as they made their way to some rich wetland.  When they flew off, the mallard female joined them, and LG could not find her among the throng so she escaped and rejoined her kind and her further adventures are unknown.

My mother feeding LG

My mother feeding LG

LG however stuck around and began to insinuate himself into my parents’ flock of ignorant catalog-bought adolescent domestic geese.  At first they were standoffish and he was sadly alone at the bottom of the gooseatics hierarchy, but soon he was whispering in ears, teaching useful life lessons, and plotting against less-popular geese. When he moved into the middle of their society he was able to teach them to fly.  I have a distinct memory of LG flying from the farmyard down to the pond with the pilgrims flying after him. He landed gracefully on the pond and bobbed scerenely on the water as the pilgrims crash landed pathetically into the mud and the fields like the aftermath of some WWI aerial battle.  Indeed, flying lessons were not without casualties and my mother’s favorite pet goose swerved into a barn in order not to fly into her (which illustrates a degree of self-sacrificing care).

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Once the flock knew how to fly, LG ascended to the top of the hierarchy and he has been a top goose ever since.  At first my parents were afraid that he would fly off with the whole flock and the domestic geese would all turn feral, but the opposite seems to have happened.  Who knows what LG’s real back story is?  He has a hole in his foot and he looks somewhat old.  I speculate that he spent his life flying back and forth between the Arctic Ocean and Alabama until one day he saw a farm pond where he could retire and work his wiles on perfectly naïve geese. Geese live loooong lives (they can get to be more than 30 years old) so this may be true.  Or maybe he is some sort of bird-sanctuary renegade or just a big human-loving freak.

Whatever the case, these days LG has a special pilgrim goose girlfriend whom he looks after when she is nesting.  He doesn’t seem to be fertile with pilgrim geese and they raise broods of pure pilgrim goslings… but maybe it’s best not to pry too closely into other people’s domestic arrangements.

LG leading the pilgrims!

LG leading the pilgrims!

LG is mean as a serpent to the other geese (aside from his mate, with whom he is exceedingly tender) however he is very adroit at managing the humans in his circle.  He enjoys eating corn out of people’s hands (which most of the domestic geese will not do) and he tolerates being petted.  He is a very weird, weird wild animal.  I kind of love LG, and I always get angry when people badmouth Canada geese for defecating on golf courses or aggressively chasing dumpy middle managers into mud holes.  He makes his own way in life.  If he ever got tired of his girlfriend and his minions and being hand-fed corn he still has mighty wings and he could fly back to the enduring freedom of the sky above, but I really think he has retired and settled down.  I still wish he could narrate his biography, but I guess his friendship will have to suffice.

In previous posts I have written about the great German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich who came to prominence and fame at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  Unfortunately for Friedrich, art is fickle.  As he approached his middle years, the melancholy and dramatic realism which was his specialty fell out of fashion.  His patrons abandoned him and his art became even more bleak and pessimistic (which did nothing to help his sales). Although fashion abandoned Friedrich, his genius did not desert him: his works became more somber and metaphysical, but their lonely beauty and solemn majesty also became more pronounced.

The Oaktree in the Snow (Caspar David Friedrich, 1829, oil on canvas)

The Oaktree in the Snow (Caspar David Friedrich, 1829, oil on canvas)

Here is a picture from 1829 of a denuded oak tree standing alone in the snow.  Although leafless and broken the tree is still magnificent.  The artist has painted the dark tree looming up into an indifferent sky above the viewer.  The desolate winter landscape accentuates the bare branches and gnarled trunk of the tree which seems to strive against the cold grasp of winter–and even against time itself.   There is a paradox to this work: the very emptiness and plainness of the composition awakens an imagined spring within the heart of anyone looking at the picture.  Sadly, for Friedrich, spring was never to come again: his work did not regain its popularity in his life (and a stroke in 1835 robbed him of his ability to paint with oils). Yet The Oaktree in the Snow is a triumph—a fully realized painting of existential complexity in the simplest and boldest of compositions.

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