It is wintertime. My friends and I are rugged against the cold in beanies, scarves and jackets. Sheltering between boulders we are protected. The wind blusters around us at Mimosa Rocks National Park, New South Wales. From the lookout on the cliff-top we have chosen our place on the beach with purpose. Now, from our rock haven we hear surging waves crash in. We sit side-on to the shoreline, flat sands stretch out ahead of us.
I have travelled from Melbourne to be with this couple, writers who love the earth and the oceans. Grieving the escalating rollcall of extinctions, I sought their company and wisdom. On the beach, we have been reading aloud to one another, words on the wind. Our last reading is a Mark Tredinnick poem, mourning the absence of creatures, the languages lost with their vanishing.
Two Pied Oystercatchers, proud seabirds, stand tall on damp sand directly ahead of us. Their straight orange legs and long orange beaks have a sharp dignity and contrast brightly with their rounded bodies and black and white plumage.
We finish reading the poetry, but the Pied Oystercatchers have not completed their vigil. Long past our speaking we hold a silence whilst they remain motionless on stilt legs, straight and sure. Their unblinking eyes and sharp beaks point out to sea. In this region Pied Oystercatchers are noted as endangered. Curious, I later discover that in every other part of Australia they are listed as secure.
As we view them from our side-on-to-the-water position we see them in profile. Two sentries, guardians of sand and shore. What are these watchers watching? They are endangered. It occurs to me they might be bearing witness to an absence, or a presence we cannot see.
Generations of Oystercatchers have inhabited these coastlines, even longer perhaps than the Yuin tribe, whose middens lie beyond the duckboards we will later walk along.
Only since the landing of the white colonisers’ ships has the home of the Pied Oystercatchers been threatened. Are they watching for the danger of those long-ago sails? Or can they see the heft of outspread wings, once present, now absent from their own diminished habitation of this shoreline?
Writing about extinctions, eco-philosopher Thom van Dooren quoteshis mentor, the late Deborah Bird Rose. She prompted people to bear witness to those who are ‘slipping out of life forever’. He says she taught him ‘…an obligation to the dead and dying–not to abandon them….To abandon them was another violence–the violence of turning away.’ Thom reminds us that the second part of bearing witness is to testify in some way–to share those stories with others.
After long windy minutes the Pied Oystercatchers duck their heads, then deftly preen their plumage and fly back to the cliff face. From my crouching space between the rocks, I wonder –what knowledge do they carry? What will their beaked, stilt-standing honour tell the wind? There is something about their attentive composure that speaks to me. Their posture is resolute–neither hopeful nor defeated.
Plucked from another place, another context, I recall Tad Hargrave’s words that–between posturing and collapse lies composure. The Pied Oystercatchers know composure. Watching them from the rocks,
It is possible to drive oneself to a point of collapse and despair over the injury to habitats that we have caused or ignored. The posturing denial modelled by our parliamentary leaders makes it worse. In the tumult of this moment, to bear witness to the lives and deaths of creatures, we need the kind of composure that can ‘stay with the trouble’. We need the language of the stillness of the Pied Oystercatcher.