Sunday, December 29, 2013

O My Darlings...Lost and Formed Anew

A piece in Audubon magazine's last issue of 2013, titled "Climate Change is Causing Some Mixed-up Wildlife" by writer Katherine Bagley, left me feeling especially lucky that I've seen a total of thirteen bird species new to my life list this year, plus one mammal, the wolf, that I'd not previously seen up close enough or long enough to count as a real sighting. The article gives instances of animals including birds, butterflies, whales and bears cross-breeding, leaving behind or in their forefront creatures better adapted to habitats that are shrinking or blending together. The behavior is thought to be a response to changes in climate and landscape driven by people-pressure

Small flying critters like birds and butterflies I can more readily expect to interbreed because, most at the mercy of the winds, they can blow into each others' nesting range. Habitats blending into each other would add that much more incentive for birds or insects of species whose numbers are declining to settle for what they can get, including cousins so distant they compose a different species for mates.

But some of the news was startling: grizzly bears in the Arctic are breeding with polar bears. In the midst of all the other documented hybrids given in "Mix-up", which listed assorted kinds of whales, seals and porpoises mainly unknown to landlocked natural history buffs like me, the bears stood out, a much stranger category of cross-breeders than the wild canines briefly cited. I'm sure I have heard of American wolves interbreeding with coyotes. But a white female polar bear getting bred by a hump-backed brown grizzly early out of his den, as the article described the scenario? A person feels custom being eroded here, and even if we thought we accept the evolutionary process of speciation as it proceeds and reject religious creationism in which everything is sacrosanct with fixed name, form, repute and coloration, the polar-bear/grizzly cross offends the sense of what normally was and still has current meaning.

Studying the wild plants and animals over time we realize that their taxonomy, or very identity as species, is loosely set and fluid. Extinctions occur, and new species come of cross-fertilization and of local populations, isolated from others, morphing into new sub-species and eventually, in keeping apart from their distant cousins, becoming recognized as separate species. As per the article, when animals hybridize, results can vary from sterility in the hybrid offspring to a hastened rate of extinction in an ancestral species that's faring poorly in its ability to compete so it can eat and reproduce. The author grants that speciation, or evolution of new species and shrinkage in the populations of others, has gone on as long as there's been an animal kingdom. The article stresses that hybridization today among wild beings, like the escalating rate of extinctions, is driven by the take-over of earth by ourselves and by our chemical overflow into air, freshwater and oceans.

We're of course each of us free to judge the issue of cross-breeding, as well as the disappearance of species, however we like. People who are emotionally removed from wild places where they might encounter uncommon animals will ask what the loss is if one kind of creature goes away to be replaced by another that's grander, showier, hardier, or whatever.

Lately I was introduced by good friends to a fictional work, The Place of the Lion, by the British theologian, poet and novelist Charles Williams. Animal archetypes figure into that narrative in ways that must have so many parallels in the New and Old Testaments and other Judeo-Christian writing that I could face weeks of searching and listing if I wanted examples to cite. Archetypes are defined as symbols or images of our human nature and the experiences that we share universally as human beings, in the sense of a 'collective unconsciousness.' The Place of the Lion in Biblical and pre-Biblical tradition uses animals like the lion, the serpent and the unicorn to express lofty principles and virtues.

Here is a quote from page 53: "that this world is created, and all men and women are created, by the entrance of certain great principles into aboriginal matter. We call them by cold names; wisdom and courage and beauty and strength and so on, but actually they are very great and mighty Powers. It may be they are the angels and archangels of which the Christian Church talks... And when That which is behind them intends to put a new soul into matter it disposes them as it will, and by a peculiar mingling of them a child is born; and this is their concern with us, but what is their concern and business among themselves we cannot know.... In the animals they are less mingled, for there each is shown to us in his own becoming shape; those Powers are the archetypes of the beasts, and very much more..."

That each beast stands for a principle or virtue, while each new person represents a commingled recipe of these same powers, deserves consideration. I think there will always be room in my imagination for angels in winged or wingless guise, personalized or vague and faceless. But if, in ancient human collective consciousness, the lion stands for strength, the lamb for innocence, the serpent for subtlety, I'd like to recognize the animals according to species as I've confronted them from my own beginnings with the help of the books that named and differentiated them. The books and the databases are known to all of us who have handled them. Each species stands for a place whose conditions gave rise to it, and the place was also recognizable as a realm of certain principles or virtues re-characterized in each animal, also in each plant.

These distinctive creatures crossbreeding will cause the reactions due in each of us according to our values. For me any species diminished by the convenience of blending its identity with a neighboring species will represent a loss of something sacred. It was sanctified by the place it came from, itself likely lost or diminished. For someone else, the new hybrid form is the new species. For some other people species doesn't matter, it's all an illusion, and what matters is the energy, divine if they see it that way, that drives the creature across the field of vision in the dramas that figure in all our lives.

This all adds up to a myriad of creatures for the artist to conceive and work with. For me, the time I have lived within has its huge spread of fauna, named and classified, of which I want not a member to vanish. In my home region there are coyotes, foxes and wolves, whose varied habits all have a place, keeping them on their own paths. In the spring when warblers come back to the woods maybe at long last I'll get more than a glimpse at the Connecticut, out in one of the swamps, in spring dress on nesting territory true to its kind. But in any observer's imagination evolution may speed up, skip over the losses implicit in accompanying die-offs, and fabulous cross-bred beasts far removed from the unicorn, the manticore and griffon will come to populate a page or a screen--or a note card: