Parable of Feet and Wings
scuttle and cackle and scuttle and hiss,
spooky because it’s coming through
the rolled-up poster I’ve stashed behind
my desk. All month long, nights flush
with hot rain, then first thing you see
the room’s four corners slick with wings,
bones from a feast. From somewhere
down the labyrinth that’s under my bed –
a guilty laugh. Or not: nature’s appetite,
says Dad, as he sweeps the glistening
film off the floor. Each perfect teardrop
snapped at the stem, a parachute made
to land a body somewhere safe or catch
a drift of tropical air above a reading-
lamp. Here, you’d best get used to it.
The cloud of ants, the geckoes’ joy,
small carnage. That’s all there is to it.
I think of a time when, clad unwillingly
in green, I stood sentry for a night in
a whitewashed post watching the shut
gates of the camp. Just keeping awake,
barely, the sharp knob of a rifle’s scope
slung against my ribs. Across the hard
grey square of the floor with their heads
bitten clean were the carcasses of ants –
often, with feet and wings intact. The
culprits? They made a whole show of it:
now slouching in wait beneath the light’s
bare electric coil, now tussling in full
view over a spent creature’s parts. Not
for any lack but seemingly, the fun of it.
When the sky softened into morning
the others found me still transfixed,
by the sight of the night’s last travellers
falling, exhausted, then hauled away.
Harmless, really. And even sometimes a
picture of good, the way they build whole
civilisations out of the soil. Industrious.
Not without grounds, our own distrust
builds – against their flightier cousins who
shimmer about the lights. In the dimming
years of Empire, some would later say,
the chandeliers at the Raffles ballroom
had never burned so bright. Oh, look how
they burned. In the days that followed
we learned nothing lasts in these parts
except what takes to the earth unseen,
gnaws through mud till the foundations
hold. (Not in this heat anyway, which
has felled kings and their men.) I digress.
It is the heat that draws both the geckoes
and their prey, long-limbed and free, the
ones still dancing when the lights go out.
Imagine my surprise when I found out
that these winged apparitions were not
a different breed. When the storms come,
a colony has two choices. Lose the walls
and chambers of their mud-slicked nest
to wet decay, or send their best sojourners
out – doves from an ark – that elsewhere
some hardy offshoot of their own might
burrow, thrive. A mystery, if only to our
earthbound eyes, that love by any other
name is flight. (Now, how much more
vicious in this light appears the geckoes’
appetites! Though this too, may be a trick
of the eyes.) Stoop close and see. How
fraught and, unburdened by metaphor,
how free: each whip of a tail, each graceful
taking to the air; which ones each season
leave earth behind, and yet are there.
– Theophilus Kwek
Theophilus Kwek reads his poem for the recent ARK launch
How, though, to move on from this roadside fascination? Wait a while until something of this has settled inside and you can walk off with it, that’s how.
Over the years you found the scintillations of birdlife had taken nest within the chest cavity where they continued to twitch and twitter as you went along. A sparrow even was good enough to have made a lasting impression and taken lodge within you. Together you made song lines through the streets.
Oh, but modern birds have been downed and poisoned and chased away. Bits of birds accumulated under hedgerows during the worst winters and the fatal seasons of flu. But still they came out with their tunes after everything, freshening up the sky, musicking our minds. Sometimes they could only be imagined through the great roar of civilisation. Yet they were so often with us. The freckled song thrush anyway could not stop his exuberant repertoire. He had been calling out each year since hominid ears first pricked into sensation, giving education in elocution and aesthetics.
When we could, we trapped those declamations of the air, brought them indoors for close communion. Possession brought attention. Side 1A: nightingale, cuckoo. Side 1B: blackbird, throstle, pied woodpecker (drum), green woodpecker. Side 2A: robin, wren, dunnock, turtledove, woodpigeon. Side 2B: chaffinch, willow wren, whitethroat, great tit. Knowledge and delight.
Solidified now, there were others to hear from the archive. Skylark in the air, skylark on the ground, curlew, woodlark, tree pipit, redstart, blue tit, willow tit, chiffchaff, mistle thrush, stock dove, heron, nightjar, wood wren, blackcap, garden warbler, little owl, carrion crow, jackdaw, jay, magpie, rook. A catalogue, a library, a vault of cosmic waves frozen in black shellac.
Today at least a blackbird on his bent aerial will still broadcast into the evening scene. In turn, another orange beak within sight and earshot makes his contribution as the first bird pauses. This reasoned to and fro between rivals remains a bloodless performance of rights. Up there on the rooftops, these two call beyond territory, messaging to the gods. They are intermediaries to a symposium in the sky. That is why we need to listen.
You heard once a flute made from the femur of a dead bird sing out a lonely, bleached sound. But we have no feathers or hollow bones in our pockets to take with us. Those charms were lost. Yet something of the songs remains within and without. Some must become anthems, sung by all creaturely comrades (them and us) until the bells ring in tune. All the worldly crowd breathing and singing together. How else to remember?
– Michael Guida
If you take out an annual subscription to Dark Mountain you can buy this issue of ARK for a reduced price.
IMAGE – Louisa Crispin
Graphite on paper
The FlightPath series explores the materiality of graphite media whilst considering the plight of our less popular insects. The narrative is focused on wildlife corridors, the importance of a network of routes between habitats to ensure diversity, and aims to resolve the tension between abstraction and figuration while encouraging open discussion. These concertina sculptures have focused my attention on the barriers to nature as I catch glimpses of insects between the folds and struggle to find empty space to draw a fly within the marks. It’sbecome a metaphor for the struggle in nature but also a symbol of hope as conversations begin.
Entranced by the cycle of growth and decay, artist Louisa Crispin captures the details on beautiful smooth paper using ultra sharp pencils and graphite powder. She is a member of the Free Painters and Sculptors, the Society of Graphic Fine Art and a Fellow of the Society of Botanical Artists. She sells her work mainly through selected galleries in the UK. louisacrispin.co.uk
Dark Mountain: Issue 22 – ARK
Our full-colour Autumn 2022 edition is an ARK carrying a cargo of testimonies, stories and artwork gleaned after the flood