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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

Geese Descending on a Sandbank (Bian Shoumin, 1730, ink on scroll)

Geese Descending on a Sandbank (Bian Shoumin, 1730, ink on scroll)

Wild geese are an important symbolic motif in Chinese art and literature.  According to this weird old dictionary of symbols I am looking at, the wild goose was regarded as symbolic of “yang” virtues of “light and masculinity in nature” (whatever that means).  Wild geese were thought to mate for life and were thus regarded as emblematic of marital fidelity and bliss.  Alternately, lone geese were seen as a symbol of powerful longing—as between lovers separated by great distances (or, even more sadly, by death).  Additionally, the annual migrations of the wild geese were important markers of seasonal change (and thus became representative of the overall passage of time throughout life).

In the hands of a master, this was a heady mixture of themes, and so goose paintings often represent fundamental questions about one’s journey through life.  Here is a scroll painting from the Ching dynasty painter-poet, Bian Shoumin (1684–1752), who also went by the evocative and slightly dirty-sounding sobriquet “Old Man Among the Reeds.”  He was one of the renowned “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou” and he was particularly famous for painting…geese (so maybe he was “among the reeds” simply because that is where he needed to hang out in order to best render his favored subjects).

Bian painted this painting in his mid-forties, and there is a middle-aged wistfulness and melancholy to it. The calligraphy poem at the top left reads as follows:

Just now wild geese came into the sky,

As I waved my brush before the master of the qin [zither];

Autumn sounds meld with autumn thoughts

As I stand beside I know not who.

Based on his poem, he sounds like a bit of a lonely goose himself.  The painting indeed shows a single goose staring off at the sky while a happy pair preen nearby.  It would be a sad subject, but, like an auspicious peach falling from heaven, a suitable companion goose making a beeline for the autumnal-hearted fowl beneath the poem.  Perhaps all is not lost, even for aging scholar-artists…

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