To companion the companion: To grieve not only for but with a bird

A letter to Nigel the gannet, from Erin the human



Dear Nigel,

As I was driving up to town this morning, I saw something that made me sad. It was a little, green, feathered body, wings bent askew, smudged in the red gravel that verges the bitumen road, just past Taranna. What was equally heart-breaking was the other green rosella standing vigil beside the body, alone. It looked forlorn. I didn’t want it to be the only one to mark the passing of that life, so I decided to write this to you; to eulogise it I suppose.

But now I write this I find myself thinking: you are probably the bird least likely to appreciate the situation of the grieving rosella, although possibly I am being utterly unjust to you and the internal life you lived alongside those concrete gannets, inside your bird-brain and bird-heart, away from my narrow comprehension. Or possibly, I am reverting to some kind of lazy, anthropocentric position on grief. You might not know this, Nigel, but grief has long been framed by humans as anthropomorphic in a rather anthropocentric manner, as something human-shaped (anthrōpos, being Greek for human; morphē, being Greek for form or shape) and something that is constitutive of the properly human – that is, as something that gives shape to the human. In other words, humans have long thought that our capacity for grief is one of the things that defines us as a species, one of the things that sets humans apart from animals.1 However, the observations of pretty much anyone who spends time around many different species of nonhuman animal, as well as current scientific literature on an array of species, calls into question this binary assumption.

There are many examples I could choose from to illustrate this point, but let’s pick a bird example (and possibly a type of bird you know, Nigel, given the fact you’ve been known to hunt alongside them): the short-tailed shearwater. Shearwaters mate for life, and have one chick a season, which both parents take the care to raise, and if that chick dies the risk of divorce in the pair-bonded parents increases dramatically. The divorce itself, I think, can be understood as an act of grief, a response to their loss; and for them to experience that loss, for them to act out in this disruptive way (because divorce, no matter the species, is always a huge disruption in the course of a life) would indicate a profound emotional connection with the chick in the first place. That could be love, couldn’t it? And the reaction could be an act of grief. Because what else does it mean if the two adult birds—who if all had gone to plan would have lived wing by wing for the duration of their lives—could not look upon one another without seeing the ghost of their dead chick and were so haunted by this loss they would rather not look upon one another again at all? (A human might make an argument here for evolutionary impulses, but to that I would say firstly that emotions are one of the drivers of evolution, and secondly, such an unnuanced position reduces the interior world of the bird in a manner that reveals the lack of imagination and capacity for empathy of the one who takes this stance [in other words, it reflects more on them and their lack, than it does on the birds].) The proposition here is not that nonhuman animals grieve like humans, or that in reading grief in nonhuman animal behaviour we humans anthropomorphise them and so commit some kind of fallacy; rather, it is to suspect and perhaps imagine that other species might have their own mourning sequences, like or perhaps unlike our own.

And you, Nigel – might you not have grieved, or loved, for that matter, in your own gannet-shaped way? But what would you have grieved? Your life before you moved in with the concrete birds? What would you have loved? The concrete birds? The gannets you lived with before? And were you lonely? Does loneliness only arise out of loss—an awareness of company and companionship missing? If so, is loneliness a type of grief?

Do you remember the day you first saw them—the concrete birds? I’m speculating here, about what must have happened: you were coasting along on a billow of briny air when you spotted what appeared to be the white back, tucked wings fringed with black-tipped feathers, tapered tail, and yellowed neck and head, of a gannet nesting on the little island—not just a gannet, but a number of them, some with their heads thrown up to the sky, others with their necks hunched into shoulders or bills burrowed in breasts, others staring ahead placidly. You spotted them, and it changed the course of your life forever.

And then what happened? You spied them, and then what? I would genuinely like to know the answer to this: what was it like for you, seeing them, living with them. Why did you do it? Was it a decision, or did you stop off one day and then just sort of find yourself living there, in a way that became habit and home without your noticing? All I can do is speculate.

I can imagine that their stillness struck you as disconcerting when you first saw them, but that you then heard their chattering and nattering—snippets of it drifting to you in pre-recorded strains from the strategically placed speakers, sounds that to your ears were the conversational to-ing and fro-ing of call and response, melody and harmony. And then, what? And what had happened before that, for you to make the decisions you made? Who were you, really?

Perhaps you were a curious pioneer, perhaps something instinctual inside of you drove you to spread your genes about the place. I wonder if you were lonely already and were looking for a new community to ingratiate yourself into. Perhaps you had committed some gannet faux pas back in your birth colony—you were clumsy taking flight and had knocked a cousin off his egg, and in the process, that cousin had tripped on the egg, causing a slight fracture in the chalky blue shell; something like that. And perhaps all the others had gathered around the egg to inspect the damage, but you, Nigel, perhaps you were hungry and so made a snap decision that you would regret for the rest of your life: you looked over your shoulder, saw the way the colony was flocking about the rookery, and decided that even if there was damage (because despite your impeccable eyesight, it wasn’t like you could see anything from your vantage point in the wide blue sky, especially with all of those feathery figures in the way) it wasn’t as if you would be of any real assistance right now. So you made the decision to wing your way out across the ocean, rising and falling on wafts of cool and warm air, until, bingo, you spotted a bait ball.

And then what? You did what you always do, of course. You swooped towards the ruffled surface, inclined sharply and pulled yourself up, up, up, grabbing at the air with great flaps of your wings. Once you’d climbed high enough, you straightened out and back-winged, hovering, craning your neck down so you could observe the turmoil of fish thrashing against the surface, which from this height looked a navy graze marring the cobalt plane (but you knew the presence of silver beneath, which was thrashing that navy into motion). You back-flapped once more, and then with another great pull, shot yourself down, tucking your wings to your torso and letting gravity do the rest.

I imagine this: How you loved that split second before impact: that moment when your view is suddenly filled by a close-up of that focal point of ocean teeming with fish, and your gaze narrows in, almost of its own accord, to that one silver wriggler in direct line with your beak. You feel yourself go almost cross-eyed, so focussed on it are you as you pierce the surface, body held in such a tight arrow that you barely shoot any spray up into the sky. You are cushioned just enough by the air sacs in your face and chest that the impact doesn’t hurt, it only thrills, and the density of the water slows you, but not so much that your open beak isn’t scooping that fish, as you kick and flap after it. And there! You caught it! So you dip yourself up and sluggishly flap your way to the surface, which is not so very far above.

But on this day—this day I am imagining into being—that fish, and then the one you caught on the next dive, didn’t sit easily inside you, and so even though you weren’t yet full, you winged your way back to the colony. But there you were met by a wall of feathers and hissing bills, and your cousin bowed over his egg which was slowly leaking fluid through three places where the finely spidering cracks in the shell were most discernible.

You were so ashamed you took to the air; so mortified you couldn’t imagine returning.

You flew for days, as hard as you could for days, hoping the ache in your wings would ease the ache in your heart. And it was in this flurry of shame and sorrow that you spotted those still birds, but their stillness was offset by the movement of their chatter on the wind.

And then what happened? You landed, sidled up to them, introduced yourself—but you must have known then what they were: concrete faux-gannets. Their painted features, the smooth, cool curves of their bodies. The feathers that never ruffled with wind, indignation, or care. It can’t have been a homely night, nestling up beside them, that first time, and it must have been strange, waking in the morning, flexing your wings for the rising sun, and noticing that none of them did the same.

But still you stayed. Why? Because you felt you didn’t deserve a colony of real birds, who could love you and care for you and flock with you, feather to feather? Or were you a reconnaissance dreamer who had discovered a new land and was waiting to be joined there? Possibly, were you just a bit anti-social—a weirdo, with some sort of concrete bird fetish one of the researchers said.2 Whatever it was, whatever you were, you stayed. You lived with those concrete birds, you loved those concrete birds (if we can take sexual rubbing and flapping as code for love, if we can take nuzzling as code for love). And then you died with those concrete birds. Alone? Maybe not so alone. Maybe as you wasted away you imagined them to be standing vigil for you, as the green rosella stood by its dead in the gravel on the side of the road.

What you don’t know, Nigel, is that humans stood vigil for you too—the conservationists who observed your life mourned you, felt empathy towards you, were devastated by the loneliness of your death.3

Grief is always directional, and is so rarely reciprocal particularly in the context of loss and death. But in the context of inter-species grief, this lack of reciprocity is something else: their—our—anthropomorphic grief was directed towards you: a now absent gannet, who, if he ever grieved at all grieved in a gannet-morphic way; who, if he lived to receive it, might not have been able to recognise the grief they—we—thrust towards him.

But what I really want to know is how to not only grieve for nonhuman life, but grieve with it, alongside it, particularly in this era of mass extinction. I can’t help but wonder if a grieving with—and loving with, for that matter—is what it might mean for humans to become true, entangled companion species. To companion the companions, if you will. And I guess, Nigel, that’s why I’m writing to you about grief and love and that dead rosella. In my way, I’m mourning with a companion of the dead. I’m bowing my head, feathered with hair, and holding open the wings of my heart for that victim of roadkill, rather than wilfully looking the other way as I drive past. I’m stopping my day to mark the life. I wish I knew how to show solidarity in a less anthropomorphic way, but I am human-shaped and this is all I can do for now.

With love, in failure, yours—

Erin





Erin Hortle's piece To companion the companion: To grieve not only for but with a bird / A letter to Nigel the gannet, from Erin the human was co-commissioned by Contemporary Art Tasmania's Journal project and Fernando do Campo's Companion Companion Reader. For other commissioned writing by Journal go to https://contemporaryarttasmania.org/journal/




  1. As Thom Van Dooren writes, Knowledge of death, or a relationship with the dead here joins a long list of other ‘lacks’, other characteristics or attributes thought to ground an essential difference between humanity and animality: be it the possession of language, mirror self-recognition, rationality, moral agency. Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 131.
  2. Matt Novak, Nigel the Bird Found Dead Next to the Concrete Partner he Tried to Woo for Years, Gizmodo, February 3, 2018, https://www.gizmodo.com.au/2018/02/nigel-the-bird-found-dead-next-to-the-concrete-partner-he-tried-to-woo-for-years/
  3. Eleanor Ainge Roy, Nigel the Lonely Gannet Dies as he Lived, Surrounded by Concrete Birds, The Guardian, February 2, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/02/nigel-lonely-new-zealand-gannet-dies-concrete-replica-birds