Spotted Goanna : Where Keystone Species and Dreamtime Being intersect

In today’s post I get to the heart of the idea that underpins the whole Rock Art 4 Rewilding thing: unifying nature and culture through totemism as ecological metaphor.

The Dreamtime

First, what do I mean by totemism?

One of the old hunter gatherer rock art cultures that we actually know something concrete about is the one from Australia. We know that they had -and still have – a concept of a time of origins, which is conventionally known as the Dreamtime. We know that the Dreamtime is a time of great ancestral animal beings whose activities in the deep past shaped the world and brought into being patterns of activity that paved the way for the right way of living on the land. We know that the landscape is written with the memory of these stories, with features of the land being lasting testaments to the events that occurred there, and with some special features being the bodies of those beings when they became one with the land when the events were done. We know that for these people, a connection to this Dreamtime must be maintained and we know that the practise of rock art at these special places is one of the ways the potency of the Dreamtime – its ability to infuse and enrich the present – is maintained.

Art making as a re-enactment of Dreamtime creations

Because this rock art is about the process of creation, with the act of making the rock art image dissolving the artist back into the Dreamtime moment of primordial creation, it is a practise that is more about performance and mythic re-enactment than it is about the finished product. This is incredibly freeing. When you create rock art in this tradition, it isn’t just a competition about who can create the most realistic image. It’s about how deep you can get into the spirit of the thing.

A Fusion of Old and New: Dreamtime as Ecological Metaphor

But for me it’s not all about escaping to ancient ways of being in the world in order to leave behind modern ways of seeing. There’s actually a lot of scope for a new fusion, I think, between the Dreamtime as a cultural concept and that branch of modern science that becomes more important every day: ecology.

For me the idea of the Dreamtime – a deeply ancient period that is in some sense still present – is easy enough to equate with the scientific idea of evolutionary time, during which the various organisms of nature came into being and assumed their patterns of form and behaviour, patterns that are still present, still played out. Ecology understands that each species has evolved to fill a particular niche in the ecological landscape, and if they lose that niche and can’t find a close analogue for it, they’re in trouble. It was during the Dreamtime that the various procedures for living life on the land emerged, yet the Dreamtime still mysteriously encompasses and guides the present moment. And keeping with this analogy, the totemic physical landscape with its mythologised hills and rocks becomes a metaphor for the ecological landscape, with the right order that emerged and which is to be maintained taking the form of an ecosystem. There are certain keystone species whose presence is particularly important to the maintenance of a healthy ecosystem, and so the Dreamtime animal beings whose great bodies became one with the landscape in the form of rocks, hills, mountains and so on – these can stand for those keystone creatures that have had such a longstanding impact that other organisms have evolved around that impact, so that these keystone species are likewise lasting features of the ecological landscape. Were they to disappear, the land would be downgraded because all those other organisms that are used to them being there would reduce in numbers or disappear completely, leading to a loss of biodiversity and thus a loss of the robustness of the system’s ability to deal with whatever may come.

An animal like, say, a tiger, can be kept alive, with human intervention, in an environment that isn’t what it evolved for, like, say, a cramped city  Zoo, but its endless pacing back and forth is clear evidence that it is not happy; it needs to express its natural behaviour. The same goes for the animals that humans raise in battery farms, kept alive with antibiotics even though they’re sick; it’s no life for them. So we can go beyond cold, dry equations here, and consider that a high-functioning ecological landscape where the niches animals evolved for are still present…this is also landscape of fulfilment for the various stakeholders. And that goes for us too. Rewilded areas stir something natural in ourselves. And the fact that we engaged with nature in various ways including the creation of animal image rock art for many, many thousands of years suggests to me that it is a natural behavioural expression for us, and that might be part of why it feels good. I refer you back to my earlier points about doing paleo style art as I way to open a dialogue with your inner paleo self.

But back to the Dreamtime=Evolutionary Time analogy. I think the power of this analogy – where the Dreamtime-mythologised physical landscape is a metaphor for the deep-time evolved ecological landscape – derives from the fact that the physical landscape and the ecological landscape really are scarcely distinguishable from each other; ecosystems are what happen on landscapes when they’re left to their own devices.

The Goanna: both Keystone Species and Dreamtime Landscape Being

The Australian monitor lizard came to mind because it stands at the intersection between the ecological and Dreamtime landscapes, between the modern concept of a keystone species and the totemic concept of a Dreamtime animal, and that’s why I chose it for my piece of rock art.

In Australia monitor lizards are known as goannas, and in the Bundjalung area on the West Coast it’s the great goanna that is the primary Dreamtime totem of the local clan. It’s called Dirawong. There are various versions of the story of this creature. It was one of the beings that rose up out of timeless slumber in the Dreamtime and shaped the landscape during its battle with the Rainbow Serpent, including creating the course of a river that flowed out into the sea, before eventually settling into the landscape as a fixed form itself: the Evans Head headland that juts out into the ocean near this estuary. An ochre deposit on the top of this headland is said to be the wound where the Rainbow Serpent bit it, with the ochre being the blood of the Goanna. This ochre is held to be sacred, containing the potency of Dirawong, and the people apply it to the skin as body decoration in ceremonies, thus strengthening their quasi-ancestral connection to this being and its potency.

The Dirawong story does seem to lend itself very well to an ecological reading, because according to some versions, Dirawong attacked the Rainbow Serpent because the latter was trying to attack a bird and the goanna wanted to protect the bird. Snakes do eat birds and goannas do eat snakes, and this part of the story is echoed by the way that the goanna, as an apex predator, is a keystone species: if it were to be removed, there would be an imbalance in the system, a trophic cascade, a knock on effect cascading through the food chain; for example it might indeed be that there would be too many snakes and this could indeed lead to a reduction in the number of birds, which would have further knock on effects. Apex predators really can affect the course of rivers, as with the reintroduced wolves of Yellow Stone: by reducing the overgrazing of deer they allowed trees to grow again by the rivers which shored up the banks and changed the way the water flowed over the land.

I don’t know whether there was a time when the people in this part of Australia hunted too many goannas, noticed the impact this had on the other wildlife, and then chose to limit the hunting of the goanna to allow what we would now call rewilding. It’s entirely possible. But either way, the story fits the ecological narrative perfectly.

Also fitting with this is the way that this lizard, Dirawong, is directly associated with the order that emerged out of the Dreamtime and which is to be maintained if nature is to continue to be high-functioning, for Dirawong is believed by the people to have taught the correct way to live on the land.

There are other ways that monitor lizards are keystones, beyond the role as apex predator. It’s been found that yellow spotted monitors bury their eggs in burrows as deep as four metres underground and a whole host of other animals then repurpose these as their own burrows, nests and places to seek refuge. If the monitor lizards were to disappear, then a literal ecological niche in the landscape would be lost – these burrows. Gopher tortoises in the USA play a keystone role for a similar reason, their borrows being used by a vast array of other animals.

Among the many things that Dirawong taught the people was how to create rock art, which also uses the ochre – its own blood – as the substance. We could make a literal interpretation of the way that this lizard is seen as a teacher of body decoration and painting techniques, because the markings along its back are a series of spots that look like they could have been done by finger painting with yellow ochre, encouraging people to create similar patterns on their own skin with ochre paint for special occasions such as ceremonial dances in which they renew their connection to the totem.

Totemic peoples believe direct contact with sacred Earth pigment paint gives them a quazi-ancestral connection to the Dreamtime beings whose potency the paint is believed to embody, which provides the flexibility for newcomers to join a clan and acquire its totemic ancestors, but also connects them to nature. The ochre-blood of Dirawong and many other similar Dreamtime figures is in the land in the sacred places where it was spilled in the Dreamtime events, in the animals descended from the being and painted into being from that blood, and in the people who paint themselves with this same substance. So there is a three-fold consubstantiality connecting land, people and animals. Another example is Marlu, the Dreamtime red kangaroo, whose blood spilt when it was being hunted became the big ochre deposit at Wilgie Mia. Kangaroos are also ecosystem engineers in Australia, with studies showing that there are places where there was increased biodiversity where they grazed.

Dirawong: Teacher of Spot Art

We still like the feeling of belonging to a tribe, and engaging directly with Earth pigments can feel like an induction into a tribe that has no other, no enemy, because it encompasses all of us: the Earth Tribe, the People of Ochre in its many shades. We at least want the practise of rock art to be as hands on as possible so it can be a healthy counterbalance to the preponderance of digitally created images in the modern world.

As the teacher of finger painting and body decoration, Dirawong seems to draw us into an artistic engagement with the Earth and with nature, which I think has enormous value. Even in the current age, artistic engagement with rewilding is an important element of community uptake, facilitating a big shift in how it’s framed. Wherever we find communities who have embraced the reintroduction or conservation of a particular wild animal, we find them congealing this energy of communal enthusiasm into works of art that then radiate these positive feelings. Think of the German town of Bad Harzburg, which has taken the reintroduced lynx to its heart and expressed this through a number of sculptures; or the way the people of North East England have welcomed the reintroduction of red kites with the local buses being covered in red kite artwork; and in Africa’s first community-owned elephant sanctuary, the Reteti sanctuary in northern Kenya, the enthusiasm for conserving the elephant radiates from a wonderful contemporary large-scale piece of rock art of an elephant. There are many other examples, such as the bronze Golden Eagle sculpture in Glendoe in Scotland, and the giant 50-ton American bison monument in Jamestown in North Dakota.

For me personally, it’s the old practise of rock art that seems like a particularly appropriate medium for expressing ideas about keystone species who are part of the landscape, because both the rock and the paints made out of Earth pigment are themselves literally parts of the landscape, and more specifically the pigments soak int the rock and become a part of it.

I’ve gone for the contemporary Australian dot art style here around my rock art Goanna. This style evolved relatively recently, in the context of a non-aboriginal art market, but since it emerged it has always been associated with telling the stories of the Dreaming. I chose it here partly to make the piece more eye catching, but also because the dot art style comes out of the much older aboriginal traditions of body painting, where spots of colour added by finger painting are a common feature. This seems to be appropriate for this particular piece because of this way that the monitor has natural spots of colour of a similar type, as if it too has been decorated by finger painting.

Stay natural.

Herbivore Guild : Diversity creates Diversity

The short video here shows me making a rock art image of three animals that form a “herbivore guild”. For me, this is rich with intriguing associations – see my blurb below to find out why.

Like many people who are into “rewilding”, I like the idea of there being impressive creatures living lives where they can express their natural behaviours in natural settings in appropriate areas not too far from where I live. I felt an urge to create some art that carries the essence of that idea. The animals that live on a landscape are part of that landscape, which means the landscape includes the animals, and they also form an ecological landscape – a set of niches that various other animals have evolved to make use of – and so I thought I’d make a piece of art that does the same thing – makes animals that are part of the landscape, by using paints made from Earth pigments on a real rock canvas. So the canvas is a piece of landscape, or a micro-landscape. So in its very substance the rock art really embodies this idea of these animals being part of the landscape. That’s the basic idea of it: rock art for rewilding. 

Herbivore Guild and Mosaic of Habits

For this painting, I decided to show three large herbivores that together can contribute to biodiversity: a red deer stag, a hardy Tauros bull close to its wild aurochs ancestor, and a wild Exmoor pony, again, of a kind close to the ancient type, as these wild types are hardy and able to survive in the wild. Such guilds can form an important part of rewilding projects, where they are allowed to engineer mosaics of different habitats.

The importance of these mosaics is talked about a lot, but what does it actually mean? I think this can be illustrated by the case of the nightingales of Knepp. Ornithologists are still, at the time of writing, trying to work out exactly why, when these birds with their amazing song have disappeared from most of Britain and their numbers are still falling, there is a burgeoning population at Knepp which has arrived since the rewilding project began. It’s known that part of the reason has to do with the way that thick scrub has grown up in this landscape in a special way, namely where it is in close proximity to fertile grazed meadow. This has come about through the combination of allowing the land to scrub up, as well as introducing large herbivores hardy enough to survive without chemical assistance. These herbivores have both slowed down the process by which thorny scrub becomes closed canopy woodland and have kept open the areas of meadow between the patches of scrub, keeping these grass areas full of healthy dung that sustains large numbers of invertebrates, tightening up the scrub between the open patches in the process. Populations of creatures that depend on dung need it all year round, so animals that are hardy like their ancient ancestors and don’t need to be taken into barns in the Winter are important. This mixed habitat is what many animals are after. For example, the nightingale seeks the thick thorny scrub to nest and for safety and shelter, but it also likes to be on the edge of grassy areas rife with invertebrates where it can venture out short distances to hunt for food.

Knepp gives it exactly what it needs. Turtle doves and cuckoos are likewise honey-throated birds of the scrubby, grassy ‘woodland edge’ who are doing surprisingly well at Knepp and badly in most other places in the UK.

Earth Pigment Paints

The colours I needed for the three herbivores in my painting are not at all difficult to make, which is handy. I only really needed some red, orangey browns, dark brown, black and some white for the muzzles. I always use natural pigments, sometimes purchased or made using purchased ochres and sometimes I find pigment sources myself in the landscape. Finding the pigments can be fun. We’re hunter gatherers by nature, so we like to get out into nature, find something and bring it back. So going out and collecting earth pigment materials just kind of fits well with our own nature, which makes it an example of rewilding yourself, or perhaps re-naturalising would be a better term.

Making paints can be fun too. For this painting, the red pigment for the red deer came from a beach in Studland on the Isle of Purbeck. I made this from some soft red sandstone I got from a boulder that had fallen down onto the beach. I didn’t want the sand from the sandstone to be in the paint, making it rough and grainy. I didn’t want to grind the sand down into a fine powder either, because the inside of the grains is a light colour that would lighten the paint. I loosely broke it down into sand and then boiled and stirred it in water for a time, then decanted off the coloured water leaving the sand grains behind (as briefly shown in the above video). The other paints in this piece are also made form materials I’ve collected in the landscape, except the black which is lamp black: a paint made from soot. The rock slabs I use are a hard sandstone, which allows the paint to soak in and stain it.

Calling out from the past

As regards the subject matter, this is my own version of that scene in the Lascaux Hall of Bulls where aurochs, deer and wild ponies are shown together. A few years ago, I was out shopping – I think I was in WHSmiths – and the Simple Minds song with the refrain “Don’t you forget about me” was playing at the moment that I happened to be looking at some artwork showing some animals that went extinct around the time of the last mini ice age – I think it could have been a promotional poster for one of the animated Ice Age films. Anyway, the combination of this song along with the sight of those animals felt like one of those skin-tingling moments of a-causal meaningful coincidence that Jung called Synchronicity. In other words, it felt like this was a kind of message from the beyond saying “don’t forget about those animals.” When I chose the title for my current series of rock art paintings, I went for Keystone Creations, and I also chose a secondary strapline: Rock Art for Rewilding. Looking at those ancient cave paintings from places like Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira can give you the same skin-tingling feeling of something calling out from the past asking not to be forgotten. And in fact the feeling that these paintings give us has surely helped the rewilding cause in tangible ways.

Pony, deer and aurochs in Lascaux

While I felt the tingle, standing there hearing the Simple Minds song while looking at the Ice Age poster,  I couldn’t answer the why: why might it be so important not to forget about them?

The important of the ecologically “recent” past

From things I’ve been reading and watching more recently, I think I have more of an answer to that now. It’s not simply a matter of recreating something from the past that is lost, just for the sake of it. There have been many different ecosystems in different periods of Earth’s history with all sorts of creatures that don’t now exist, and we couldn’t recreate all of them. It has to start from a position of finding nature based solutions. I’ll pick out three things for now that need solutions. Firstly, the Earth, including my native Britain, is suffering from a great loss of biodiversity. Biodiversity allows nature to be robust in the face of future changes. We need to keep nature biodiverse. Second, in large areas of Europe there is rural depopulation and a decline in traditional agriculture. These areas could quite easily become self-managing national parks with the same kind of pull as those in Africa if they hosted diverse, vibrant and charismatic communities of flora and fauna. People would be drawn to visit them, which would have economic advantages for those areas. Thirdly, such rewilding areas would be of great psychological benefit to humans. Getting out in nature is good for mood, but having the Serengeti on your doorstep is at a whole other level.  

Large herbivore guilds are an important part of this picture. Animals that had an ongoing impact over evolutionary spans of time created niches for other animals to occupy. To upgrade ecosystems, you need an awareness of what those niches are, even if you need to introduce proxy animals or analogous niches to create them. Those plants and animals that are around now fit into niches in the recent ecological past, and by recent I mean the Pleistocene and Mesolithic, because evolution is a slow process. And it so happens that human culture existed in the Palaeolithic; we ourselves evolved into what we are, took on our current nature, during the Pleistocene.

The Eco-Services of the Aurochs

To choose one element of the herbivore guild shown in my painting, large, hardy cattle capable of eating a diverse natural diet can have multiple ecological effects. Aurochs were massive animals, with the males standing up to 2m at the shoulder. There are projects underway to breed cattle similar to aurochs, their ancient ancestor, such as the Tauros project in Spain. I should mention first of all that we’re talking about much lower numbers per acre than the ten million cows currently in the UK, so methane release is not something we need to be concerned about. The aurochs was an important feature of the fauna of old Europe. Some of the ecological effects are:

  • Maintaining a balance of woodland and pasture. Their heavy hooves push tree seeds into the ground and their weight and behaviours can help tree growth, which is to their benefit because the woods provide much of their winter food, when the temperature cools and the grass stops growing. Simultaneously they maintain areas of open pasture. The evolution of grass is such that it expects to be grazed. Without grazing, the old dead grass lies around, only decomposing slowly. Grazing rapidly turns grass into dung which puts the nutrients back into the earth more quickly in a decomposed form. This combination of wooded areas and pasture is good for biodiversity.
  • Healthy dung. Because these types of cattle are hardy, they can survive on natural food and without medication throughout the year. This means their dung is healthy, not polluted by strong chemicals. As a result, it’s fantastic for the soil and for invertebrates. A quarter of its own body weight in invertebrates per year are sustained by the dung of one cow. These invertebrates are then food for other animals such as birds and small mammals.  The urine and dung also enrich the soil, helping to increase biomass.
  • These large animals create paths through the forest that are important for many other small animals and plants. Because they browse, they also trim back the forest plants, which again creates the niche that natures expects, on an evolutionary level, and so benefits a number of plants and animals. Without these herbivores, certain plants grow into a “leggy” form that is not actually the balanced state that nature expects to see in evolutionary terms. These leggy plants crowd out other ones making poor quality habitats for flora and fauna.
  • Nutrient pathways. These large animals eat in one place, then move around, dropping their dung as they go. This can help to move nutrients from areas where they are rich to areas that would otherwise be nutrient-poor.

What about methane?

You might be thinking: hey, but aren’t the livestock that are killing the planet also large herbivores? There’s actually no comparison. It’s not just the difference in diet that means less methane. It’s also, above all, the massive difference in numbers. Natural, wild populations in functioning ecosystems are much smaller than intensive livestock ranches. Then there’s other factors, such as the make up of the herds. Livestock operations consist of young, fast growing, quick metabolising cattle, which are replaced rather than living lives as mature animals. Hence, they consume more and produce more methane. Then there’s the equine component: horses produce less methane than cattle. Plus there’s the fact that existing ecosystems are systematically destroyed in order to create livestock operations, which is very different to rewilding projects. But mainly, it’s the massive difference in the numbers.

A diversity of eating styles

The rewilding idea is not about introducing just one large herbivore. It is a mixture of different grazers and browsers with different dietary predilections that helps to maintain a diverse range of plants, and thus wildlife. While red and roe deer are predominantly browsers of fresh tree growth by choice but will also graze to an extent, fallow deer, ponies and cattle are grazers by choice, but will also browse. And while ponies eat coarse grasses, cattle prefer fine grass. As such, this trio are not in major competition for food, and because diversity creates diversity, these guilds are also good for maintaining a wide array of plants, their combined effect reducing the chance that one particular plant will dominate and crowd out others. As deer’s favourite food is saplings, they help maintain open grassy areas, which benefit the grazers, and the deer feel more safe with big things with horns on side. This guild can exist autonomously within mosaics of woodland and grassland, as a keystone collective, in other words engineering habitats that many other creatures make use of.

In various places there are now areas of mixed landscape combining grassland and wooded areas where herbivore guilds graze and browse in the ways they evolved for, such as deer as well as wild ponies and hardy wild cattle chosen to be as close as possible to their ancestors, as found in the old cave art. A pioneering example was the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands. As an experiment, to counteract biodiversity loss, a guild of large herbivores was introduced here featuring wild ponies, hardy cattle and red deer, to create a Serengeti-like landscape. The results were amazing, with populations of small mammals and birds rebounding. An example of a British rewilding experiment inspired by the Oostvaardersplassen is the Knepp estate in Sussex, which again has been an extraordinary success and has produced results concerning the numbers of other species such as rare birds and butterflies that conservationists had only dreamed about. I find it interesting also that the only place where a type of cicada lives in the UK is the New Forest, which has long been grazed by both ponies and cattle, as well as deer. The New Forest is a very important area for many other plants and animals too, several of which are found nowhere else. It’s interesting now that nature reserves in the Isle of Purbeck area are looking to follow in the footsteps of the New Forest, by introducing some ponies and cattle and also pigs I believe to reduce certain plants that are threatening to overtake the area. There’s also something to be gleaned from the fact that though sparrows have disappeared from almost all of London now – an extraordinary concept to get your head around – the one place in London with a descent sparrow population now is London Zoo, because of the insects that the large animals attract.

As well as this ecological motivation, such rewilding is also motivated by the idea that people will benefit from contact with such charismatically creative natural systems, and undoubtedly the images in those old caves has helped to inspire the vision. Indeed, one of the reasons why I think deer and horses should be considered where suitable and appropriate for rewilding projects is precisely that they create human engagement. Now that – like it or not – we’re in the Anthropocene, this is a very important factor, giving humans a gut level reason to value the area as an, in quotes “undeveloped wilderness”. Such animals become an asset to an area precisely for this reason. It’s been said that horses make a landscape more beautiful and the same can be said of deer, which we feel lend an air of nobility and majesty, and humans have long felt some kind of totemic connection to large ungulates such as cows. We continue to get a moment of thrill from seeing deer unexpectedly, derived in large part no doubt from ancient, atavistic instincts hardwired into us in evolutionary time, where we recognise an animal with which we existed in a natural predator-prey ecological relationship. Our myths are full of magical deer, white harts and golden hinds, spirit animals that guide us to our exalted fate in the enchanted forest. Really, they’re guiding us back into the world of our inner hunter gatherer. As such, the presence of these animals has the potential to further the conservation cause, because it is a major motivation at a deep, non-intellectual level, for keeping areas natural, much as the Norman kings kept forests to go hunting in.

True, deer can do a lot of harm ecologically if there aren’t other forces in the system moving them around to prevent over browsing in one place and keeping the numbers down. But assuming that’s taken care of, they are an asset to an area in the Anthropocene because of how they can turn it into one that humans value at a gut level.

This current painting, as I’ve mentioned, draws some inspiration from the palaeolithic art in the Hall of the Bulls in the Lascaux Caves. I’ve no desire to produce a replica of the Lascaux paintings – I want rock art to be reborn as a living tradition, not just a museum piece, so I’ve done them the way I wanted to do them.

If such guilds were in operation in Ice Age Europe, and this Lascaux art shows they were, then it tells us that there must have been open grassy areas, but it also tells us more than that. Deer are natural browsers and do not do well if there is only grazing, so presumably there were trees too, and in the cold of Winter, when grass stops growing, the natural tendency of wild cattle and bison is to browse in woodlands and eat materials from trees as grass stops growing and grassland no longer provides enough food to sustain them. There were no farmers around to provide bales of hay to supplement winter feeding. So the fact that these guilds survived the Winter tells us this must have been a balanced landscape of woodland and grassland.

How did areas of woodland manage to grow with these browsers around, eating the saplings? We’ll look at that in another post in this series, and it’s not just about predators moving the herds on and reducing their numbers; it’s also about nature’s barbed wire: thorny scrub. In terms of rewilding projects, before you let these herbivore guilds loose, you need to allow time for that scrub to develop, as via the process of succession these will create protective nurseries for saplings and will thus develop to become the wooded areas. But I thought it best to start with the large herbivore guild for my first painting in this series to establish the connection with the Lascaux art.

For now, let’s just take it as red that these herbivore guilds are moving around, not staying too long in one place, and that the landscape is a balance of woodland and grassland with a great diversity of different plants.

Stay natural.


The eland is, like the goanna (as I have explored here), an example of an intersection between nature (as an ecosystem engineer) and culture (as an important animal totem), with the latter – as it happens – able to work as a metaphor for the former. Indeed, we shall see below that the cultural associations of the eland are also connected to a process for both rewilding yourself (back to nature) and recivilising yourself (back to culture). Theres’ also a video below showing the rock art creation of the eland.

Eland as Large Herbivore Ecosystem Engineer 

The eland is the largest African antelope, and it’s so big and chunky that it appears more like a cow than like smaller antelopes such as, say, the springbok. There are areas in Southern Africa where eland used to roam until a couple of hundred years ago, and where now they are being reintroduced as part of a natural bush management approach to increase biodiversity. As large herbivores that naturally grazed and browsed these areas in the past, they are part of the natural balance of the ecosystem here. They graze grasses and browse trees and turn this food into dung which, with the help of dung beetles, brings nutrients into the soil. They are hardy animals, so can get on with the job without medication, and by keeping the bush in check as well supporting many insect populations with their healthy chemical-free dung, they help to restore biodiversity. (I explore the role of large herbivores more here.) 

The Eland as San Totem 

The indigenous hunter gatherers of Southern Africa, the San, hold the eland in very great esteem. For them, this is the first animal that the creator god made. At the time he did so, there were already animal-people (people with animal heads) and people-animals (animals that walked and talked like people), but there were no proper animal-animals and people-people. This was the time of First Creation when things had not been given names and so had not assumed fixed forms. The San group known as the !Kung or Ju’hoansi believe that their ancestors were eland-headed. Then the non-human eland was the first true wild animal created without human-like personhood, the first animal made to be a game animal for humans to hunt and eat. This creation of animals that were like they are now (as opposed to ones that walk and talk like people) was also the time of the creation of people that are like they are now: not half animal, and less wild. It’s as if those original eland-people split out into two directions, one going down the path of wildness (the eland) and one down the path of manners and civility and personhood. During special dances, though, the !Kung elders say they feel themselves to have gone back into First Creation and to have become those eland-headed ancestors once more. There are also accounts of !Kung who believe that when the creator made the first eland, he did so by first taking red mud out of a waterhole, and then using this to make the animal, and then using different coloured muds for other animals. This parallels the way that the !Kung’s ancestors took red haematitic clay from river beds and used it as a pigment for rock art painting. The Tsodilo hills are held to be the place where the first animals were made. The creator placed the animals on these hills, and the rock art images of animals still to be seen there are the marks left behind when he did so. There’s an ethnographical account of how the paint was made to make the red figure paintings on these hills, where red clay was taken from a river some way to the north of the hills, and then this was mixed with the fat from around the heart of a cow (in older times, before the arrival of cattle, this was probably an eland, since the fat from around the heart of an eland bull is believed by the !Kung to have magical potency.) It was also said that the first man, the first ancestor of the Red People (a way the San speak of themselves) was also placed on the Tsodilo hills at this time, and indeed the San have created many red figure rock art paintings of themselves.   

Some of the main criteria for a particular animal being a totem for a particular people (according to the anthropologist Tim Ingold) are: there’s an ancestral connection to the animal, and this is achieved via a physical consubstantiality. Very frequently in Australia (the classic totemic culture) this consubstantiality is achieved through red ochre paint. The ochre deposits in the landscape are seen as residues of the blood of the animal totem (the Dreamtime being) from when it was spilled in the events of the Dreamtime. The local clan then use this ochre to make paints, and decorate their bodies with the paint, and by doing so come into direct contact with the Dreamtime essence or potency of the animal. Thus, they maintain their quasi-ancestral connection to the totem. The San seem to meet these criteria: as we have just seen, the !Kung see their first pre-modern human ancestors as eland-headed, and they see their first modern human ancestor as having been painted into being using the same ochre-paint that was used to paint the first eland into being. I.e. they are consubstantial with the eland, having been made from the same stuff, the red ochre. And any painting that shows both the eland and human figures (or the bull and human figures) using the same paint for both, becomes a re-enactment of the creation of the first eland and the first people from the same potent substance. 

Eland Painting as Ritual Re-Enactment 

Another characteristic of totemists, as found in Australia, is that they hold it important to ceremonially re-enact the events of the Dreamtime by which the World was created. By re-enacting these events, they invoke the creative potency of the Dreamtime, which infuses the current world and keeps the natural landscape abundant and providential. Again, the San traditions fit the pattern. We know from the accounts given to the anthropologists Brad and Hilary Keeney that the !Kung believe that their eland dance invokes First Creation and in doing so allows the potency of First Creation to revivify their world, and further to this we may observe that whenever a rock artist took red clay from the ground and used it to make paint and then painted an eland onto a rock shelter in the hills, they were re-enacting the process by which the creator painted the first eland into being.  

There’s another San myth of the creation of the eland which also mirrors this process. In this version, while the creator was still making the first eland, giving it the qualities he wanted it to have, it was hunted by his sons while he was away. The eland was then recreated in a magical way: its blood was churned together with its fat in a pot, and then this mixture was used to make a herd of eland. This parallels a number of ethnographical accounts where eland blood and eland fat (together with red haematite) are mixed together to make a paint that is then used to create rock art images of eland. Here too, then, it is easy enough to re-enact the process. And we can still do this now, potentially tapping in by resonance to the morphic fields of the rite – if you’re open to such ideas – to experience the cultural essence at an ethereal level. In one of the accounts, the paint was to be mixed at full moon. Well, there we go, we can easily enough replicate this: get some reddish clay from a river bed, mix it with bovine dripping in a pot at full moon, and then use this to paint a rock art image of an eland. Or a bull.  

That is what I have done here, and on this occasion I decided to make it an eland. For the reddish brown, I and my daughters collected soft red-brown pebbles from the bed of the little river that runs through Stoney Littleton, south of Bath (as shown in the video above).

The Eland leads to the creation of the other animals – An Ecological Metaphor        

In the version of the myth where the first eland’s blood and fat are used to make a mixture from which an eland herd is made, the first attempts to remake the eland didn’t go according to plan, but did result in the creation of other animals. Since other versions of this myth are cosmogonic in scope (leading, for example, to the creation of the Moon), we may see in this a certain similarity to the widespread Proto-Indo-European myth of the creation of the World and the animals from the bodily substance of the first bovine. These stories have the theme of the animal being the first sacrifice and providing the first meat, as with the eland. (I explore this myth here in the context of the bison as a keystone species and looking at the possibility that in its early origins this was a myth of the cave painters who used paint containing the fat of the bison when creating the animals through their rock art.)  

A late example of the latter is the Mithraic myth. Mithras captured a live bull, took it back alive to his cave where he killed it, and had a feast with the Sun God while seated on the hide of the animal and the blood and other bodily substances from the bull brought the world to life, creating and vivifying the plants and animals. The Mithraeum temples were rooms used by Mithraic initiates that were seen as being the cave of Mithras, and an image on the wall of these known as the Tauroctony showed the world-creating sacrifice of the first bull and the other animals and plants that came into being as a result. As it happens, there are San ethnographic accounts that are quite similar. For example, there was a rite during which an eland was driven back alive to a cave, sacrificed, and then its blood and fat and other ingredients were used to make a paint, and this was used both for body decoration and to create rock art on the walls of the cave. Another San tradition relating to a rite where an eland was hunted ended with a meal of eland broth while sitting on the hide of the slaughtered animal – another curious Mithraic parallel.  

Whatever the reason for these parallels, I think that both the Indo-European and the San rituals and myths derive from the same thing: the fat of the animal in question (whether eland or bull) was used to create a paint, and then images of other animals were made using this paint. Correspondingly, they conceived of other animals as having been painted into being by the creator in the same way using the substances of the eland or bull as the case may be. In Australia there is a myth where sacred red paint was to be made by mixing red ochre – perceived of as blood spilled in the Dreamtime – together with the fat of a sacrificed emu, so that’s another example. The Sandawe people in Africa also have rituals connecting the sacrifice of a cow with the creation of the first people and animals at the site of a rock shelter by means of rock art and the use of the sacrificed animal’s fat together with ochre to make paint.  

And from this we can also derive an ecological metaphor. Just as the creation of the eland leads to the creation of other animals in myth, the reintroduction of the eland leads to increases in biodiversity in nature: the creation of other animals. 

Hunting as part of the order established in the Early Time – and the ecological parallel 

Another characteristic of totemists, according to Tim Ingold, is that they have a particular way of looking at hunting. The right kind of hunting is seen as part of the right way of living on the land in accordance with ancient ancestral precedent, as established by the formative events of the very early time. This has resonances with ecology and the idea of how apex predators are needed for balanced ecosystems. Some kind of hunting needs to be going on in natural ecosystems for balance to be maintained, otherwise you get trophic cascades leading to a great loss of biodiversity. In southern Africa, humans and animals evolved alongside each other. In other words, there was a time during which human hunter gatherers were actually a part of the ecosystem of this area. And sure enough in this San myth there is a strong element of this totemic attitude to hunting as something which was established back in the early, formative period. In the myth, according to an ethnographic account, it is explicitly said that when the creator created the first eland herd, this was when meat was first given to people and when the nature of hunting was established. There is also a strong theme that hunting should be done in the right way, as established during these events. This is the classic totemic view of hunting. 

So far then we’ve seen eland as ecosystem engineers, being reintroduced to “rewild” (in the paradoxical sense of “naturally manage”) the bush, restoring biodiversity, with ecological concepts also reflected in San myth; we’ve also seen how the eland is a totemic animal for the San and how the traditions relating to it involve the re-enactment of its creation in rock art. Next we’ll look at how the culture centred on the eland also relates to a way of periodically rewilding and then re-civilising ourselves for the purposes of psychological hygiene and, in that sense, revivifying our world. 

Not too easy to hunt – maintaining the balance 

There’s a further aspect to the San eland myth which is not merely something that we can make work as an ecological metaphor, but which seems to have been connected with the idea of preserving natural resources by the San themselves. When the creator made the first herd of eland, he made them huntable but not too huntable. They would be difficult to hunt, and hunters would need to become footsore in the process. He did this when he saw how hunters broke the rules and hunted the first eland when it was still small and was asleep. In yet another version of the San eland myth, this creator is concerned with taking away a hunter’s leather shoe. This, I think, may be connected to the same idea: when he originally designed the eland, it would be hard to hunt because hunters would become footsore while chasing it. But when hunters found out how to take the eland’s leather and make it into shoes to protect their feet, suddenly they could hunt without becoming footsore. In the myth it sounds like eland were made hard to hunt as a punishment for something that occurred long ago, but I think we ought to understand that the relevance is ongoing and it is not so much an ancient punishment as a continuing counterbalance to hunting intent; the anthropologist Ansie Hoff has written a paper exploring evidence that San culture included the concept of guardians of nature, with the eland creator being one of them. So it seems quite likely that the San themselves had a concept of natural balance, whereby eland were supposed to be hunted, but not too much.    

“Rewilding” Yourself…temporarily: Cyclical, Periodic Return to First Creation  

One or two anthropologists have suggested that the San ontology (the entirety of their way of being in the World, comprising beliefs, mindsets, attitudes, culture, mythology and so on) is a type of animism. Animists don’t see hunting so much in terms of a right order established by tradition originating in a far off time of origins, but rather see it as something that must be done in order for life force to be circulated from creature to creature, and which should be negotiated in the realm of spirits. Other animals are seen as being like people in their spiritual interior, which is why shamans can negotiate with them. The argument is that the San have stories where animals are like people, so they must believe animals are people on the inside. But it’s a faulty argument. 

As I’ve said, the San view of hunting is totemic (which contraindicates animism), and these tales are more like the stories of totemic peoples, because the animals that walk and talk are limited to an early period, a time of origins, and indeed many of the stories explicitly explain – and indeed take as their main theme – the changes that occurred that led to current animals no longer being like people, and people no longer being like animals.  

The San do make a point of returning to First Creation (the time of eland-headed humans before the creation of the first game animals) but not as part of everyday experience, but rather as something that is done as a counterbalance to everyday experience. So the blurring of animal boundaries is not a feature of San ontology, not a feature of their all encompassing view of the world including everyday experience, but a feature of, specifically, shamanic experience, and an indication of what their everyday experience is not. As the Jo’hoansi elders informed the anthropologists Hilary and Brad Keeney, in order to heal, it is necessary to periodically return to and then return from First Creation. One of the main ways this is done is through the trance dance, and as the Keeneys point out, this is about a change of mental state.  

In the !Kung mythology, during First Creation, things did not have names. It was when names were given to things that they assumed fixed forms. During the trance dance – and this is not trance in the sense of a totally hypnotised state, but rather a shift to a somewhat altered state of consciousness where there is full awareness – during this dance, the trance quietens the part of the mind that is constantly constructing narratives that define the present moment through limitations and fixed natures. Hunting anxiety is based on the idea that there are things called hunters that want but don’t have eland, and things called eland that are separate from them. All that tension dissolves into euphoric elation when the sense of hunter and eland being sperate fades away. The sense of chronological time goes away, as you’ve returned to a former period when the desired and the desirer had not yet been separated: people were half eland. According to the !Kung, this return happens when blood is released and lands on the ground. This can be the sense of relief when hunting anxiety releases, because the eland has been shot and its blood spilled. Or it can be the sense of tension lifting when premenstrual tension ends as a women’s period starts: when she bleeds, she is said to have shot an eland, these two types of release being equated with each other. Blood-like red ochre paint is associated with menstrual blood by the San, as we can see from its use in rites related to women starting their periods. So the eland was made from red mud, and then when it is hunted its blood spills by on the ground, staining it red, as if making ochre (red mud), and then ochre was used in paint to create eland through rock art images of the animal, replicating the original creation of the eland; I call this the totemic circle of creation, as opposed to the animist’s circle of life.  

Although a return to First Creation is needed for healing to take place, the aim is not to stay in First Creation, however; the idea of getting stuck there is explicitly warned against by the San elders. Following the return to First Creation, there should be a return back to Second Creation, whereby humans become modern humans, civilised and polite and mannered.  

For insight into why they need periodic returns to First Creation as a counterbalance to their everyday life, it’s important to understand that San society is, in a certain sense, very civilised, more so than the societies of many ‘developed’ cultures. The sense in question is that of manners. The San avoid direct social conflict at all costs, as Elizabeth Thomas Marshall learnt from living with them. This is not so surprising when you consider that hunter gatherer bands are small, tightly knit communities where it is essential that people get on with each other. As such, they’re not so different from the people who live on small, crowded islands such as the British and Japanese, who have similarly found that life works better if you live according to manners rather than direct expressions of emotion. But wait, before this sounds repressive, you need to remember that flip side: the return to first creation via the dance. The Early Race of First Creation were not mannered and polite, they didn’t have customs nor human things like clothes, but they did have euphoric potency. By returning to First Creation periodically, cyclically, San communities are able to resolve and release all those tensions that naturally build up when you don’t express your emotions directly to the people around you. And I think that, pragmatically, realistically, this is the best way forward for human societies. Some degree of emotional authenticity should be in there too in our dealings with others, of course, but polite manners counterbalanced by controlled cathartic release has to be the foundation. If you think that sounds Victorian, I would say: how often did the Victorians get involved in trance dancing?      

This is why I think books about “Rewilding Yourself” are lacking in nuance. As well as rewilding yourself, it remains essential I think that you also Re-civilise Yourself. Art ‘n’ culture and all that. What’s important is that you do both as part of a healthy cycle. 

The Moon is a useful reminder for this, particularly for men. Women, prior to the menopause, have their monthly cycles, which are a constant reminder that tensions build up and then release. But they also build up for men, as a result of the need to be polite. Remember how the paint for painting the eland was mixed at full moon. Imagine a cycle where each lunar month we unmake ourselves through the trance dance (the return to First Creation) and then make ourselves afresh, painting ourselves back into being like the painting into being of the First Eland at the moment of Second Creation that inaugurates the arrival of civilised human culture.   

All humans, I believe, have the latent ability to enter trance through music. People in different cultures find it works best with different types of music. Personally, I use the genre of electronic music known as Uplifting Trance. I find this very effective. Here’s a playlist with some beautiful music of this type. Trance-dance is not an ego-destroying psychedelic experience. It’s pleasant and you’re full aware and you can end it at any time, but you can definitely feel that narrative-constructing part of your mind quieten down, and it does indeed feel like returning to “pre-temporal time”, and you can feel rushes of liberating euphoria as you stop constructing limiting self-images. It is a joyous way to release many social tensions, and then when it’s over you feel a renewed interest into returning to the world of human culture and the everyday.  

Making Art in a Flow State 

For the San, rock art images of are reservoirs of potency that can help with future trances – you place your hand back on the image and allow that potency to help you deepen your trance. Certainly, I have found that when focussed on creating a piece of rock art, I can get very into the zone. Everything else falls away and it’s just me and the rock and the emerging image, and it feels good. So it’s a type of trance and it’s a type of meditation. And I’ve noticed that the image then becomes a reminder of the state you achieved while creating it. One thing that can detract from this a bit is when I film myself painting in order to be able to put the videos up on this site! So with this one, I made the focus of the video the collecting of the red-brown stones and the grinding and mixing of the paint, with just a few stills of the painting process at various stages, so I could focus on ‘raising eland potency’ while painting. The part of me with metaphysical leaning likes to believe that the passionate flow state of the artist could even be picked up transpersonally by sensing morphic fields, and I think any artist with a bit of romanticism in their heart should on some level have this same belief. It’s the escape route from the traps of twentieth century art where all art can do is “make you think”.  

All this has lead me to an image of what for me could be, in the ideal, a lunar cycle. Prior to full moon, you go out and get some Earth pigment from the landscape. Another thing you do before full moon is choose the rock canvas and draw the outline of your painting. Around full moon, you mix your paints. Also around this time you ideally have a trance dance experience, allowing the tension between your self-image and what you want to dissolve. During or shortly after this, you mix the paints further, and you imagine the energy of the elated resolution and liberation you achieved in the trance being infused into the paint. You then apply a little of this to your skin, taking that energy within yourself and letting it infuse into your refreshed self-image, so the new quality becomes a part of you, so that now you feel more able to have the thing you want. You also use your paint around this time to create some rock art, getting into the zone and using it as a mindful meditation to add further potencies to the paint and to the image. This rock art then becomes a kind of talisman, reminding you of that energy that is now a part of you. This is an ideal, as I say. How far it is possible in any given month to have that all go swimmingly is, perhaps, another matter, but all the same it’s good to have something to aim for.  

So there we go. Rewild Yourself by means of the trance dance, throwing off the shackles of modern manners, and then return refreshed, willing and ready to embrace civility once again with renewed enthusiasm.  

If you’re interested in a way to have effective trance dance experiences (without drugs) but just using your body’s own endorphins (“getting high on your own supply”) plus maybe a little caffeine, check out my other blog site, The Confessions of a Hungry Dawn RaverFor an overview, see for example this page.

Rock art for rewilding

We’re experiencing a change in our values. We’re becoming more acutely aware of the importance and value of biodiversity and sustainability. Self-sustaining ecosystems with high biodiversity are recognised now as an important feature of our landscapes. This shift in what we value is a vital part of the equation because we tend to create more of what we value. Art can play an important role in shaping and amplifying our value systems. Art can tap into and spread these feelings value, and then life imitates art. This is an example of how culture and nature are connected.

While now we know and feel that the world would be better if we restored ecosystems to high function with more biodiversity and sustainability, at the same time many people have a cultural resistance to the thought of changing the nature of parts of the countryside on their doorstep, even if that countryside has become a degraded, monocrop desert. They fear of a loss of cultural heritage, and so when it comes to actually making the changes, they suddenly get cold feet and worry that allowing a few wilded spaces in their local area would be somehow erode the cultural richness embedded in the familiar countryside. Art is needed to fill the gap, allowing people to see that culture remains very much a part of the picture.

This is where I think the cave painter culture is so valuable. We have within our human heritage a culture – or collection of cultures – that fit into a wilded world, cultures where people were happy to be one with nature. That’s why I’m looking to pick up the thread of this ancient tradition. For tens of thousands of years the rock art traditions were passed on from generation to generation. Then the shock onset of the Younger Dryas mini-ice age seems to have brought about its end in many parts of the world. But it’s only an end if we choose to frame it that way. I prefer to see it as just a lacuna, a temporary hiatus. We can pick up where we left off. It was a rich and vibrant tradition and the people who passed it on weren’t sub-human cavemen; they were anatomically modern humans, like us. Like the worlds of other indigenous people, the world of the cave painters had value and it has value still and it deserves to be remembered. It was really that culture that was lost, and we, the descendants of the cave painters, are the ones who are impoverished by the loss.

While some of us might have trouble with the idea that rock art directly increases the abundance of nature through some kind of metaphysical action or sympathetic magic that the cave painters may have believed in, we are more comfortable with the idea that art can change attitudes and that changed attitudes can lead to changed behaviours and decisions. Art can be an expression of the desire for a wilded world, and it can be, in a more modern sense, an artistic statement, and perhaps in some small way, it can contribute to a change of attitude to one where we’re more comfortable with wilding our world, and feeling that culture can be a part of nature. As an expression of care and labour of love, works of art can be repositories of value, indicating what we treasure and showcasing those appreciative feelings so they can catch on and be amplified. This is why they can help communities embrace rewilding and reintroductions of keystone species in a more positive, enthusiastic way. Art can be the lens through which rewilding brings positive feelings to communities. I’d like to see rewilded spaces that are also galleries of rock art, so that these are spaces where nature and culture interact and allow humans to feel engaged with and part of those natural spaces.

That’s why I’ve chosen to make my current series of rock art creations a set of images of some of those keystone species, each one being an ecosystem engineer that helps to balance out other forces and create habitats where many other species thrive. These are my Keystone Creations paintings, expressing my yearning for a rewilding of the countryside. All are made from homemade earth pigment paints, and painted onto rock surfaces.

To be honest, I don’t think rewilding is the best term, in as much as wild tends to be seen as one half of a polarised duality. It has an opposite: tame. But tame is a relative term. It just means subject to the will of humans. Humans are wild with respect to, say squirrels, because we’re not subject to their will. Meanwhile, an animal that is wild to us might be tame in the way it relates to its own kind, like, say, a wolf that’s part of a pack, an elephant that’s part of a herd, and so on. We tend to see things in anthropocentric ways. And calling a natural landscape “undeveloped”, ignores the enormous complexity of the natural systems that have developed there.

There’s also an implication that “wild” is the opposite of “civilised”. I do use the name Rewilding, as it would be churlish not to, but it does grate slightly against the vision I have of culture and nature working together, and of living in harmony with nature as a criteria of what it really means to be civilised. By allowing the return of appropriate numbers of large herbivores – an important part of rewilding – corridors through the woods are opened up, for the benefit of many other animals. This has more in common with the road-building projects of civilisation than it does with things going wild. Plants are trimmed by grazing and browsing, becoming less leggy and kept in better balance with each other rather than trying to crowd each other out. You could justifiably call this process “Retaming”. And with keystone species acting as ecosystem engineers, they achieve a type of cultivation of the natural world that would not take places without them, and the word “cultivate” is connected in etymology an meaning to “culture”. What I’d like to see is a blossoming of culture and of nature. But “Rewilding” it is. So be it. 

Speaking of nature and cultural being integrated and complementary, one of the things I’ll be exploring in my Keystone Creation posts is a particular rock art culture – that of Australia – which provides scope for cultural concepts that harmonise well with ecology, taking the idea of the order that emerged in the Dreamtime as a metaphor for the balanced ecosystems that emerged in evolutionary time, and viewing the concept of the totemic Dreamtime beings who became one with the land as a metaphor for those keystone species that became part of ecological landscapes, and taking the ongoing invocation of Dreamtime essence through rock art creation as an equivalent to my own project of Rock Art for Rewilding.

Stay natural.

Landscape Creature Feature: The Lion Mountain of Provence

Some background to the below video

Before we get to my video on the lion mountain, a bit of background. I like nature, and I like culture, and I think they’ve got a lot in common, and that they are also deeply intertwined. Because life imitates art, art can affect our attitudes to nature by reshaping the aesthetic. So, for example, art could champion the idea that all that really matters is human made stuff, while the other creations that go on out in nature are unimportant. Not a fan. Or it could take attitudes to nature that say that a field of sheep with a tightly cropped monocrop of grass and low biodiversity is the way to go. Again, not my bag. Or it could show a stag in a treeless Scottish highland landscape as if this is how nature should be. Once again, rewilders beg to differ. What if the aesthetic that art chose to showcase was based on concepts like sustainability and biodiversity, natural processes and intact ecosystems? This is why at the moment I’m very into the idea of a particular metaphor that I think harmonises culture and nature.

Dreamtime Landscape as Ecological Landscape

The indigenous hunter gatherer culture of Australia gives us the concept of the Dreamtime. Long ago, great animal beings emerged out of the dreaming, mysterious formlessness and shaped the landscape, and in doing so they established an order, and ways of doing things, and filled the world with a potent creativity that ensures that the landscape continues to be abundant. These animal beings became part of the landscape, their bodies becoming hills, rocks and mountains. However, if those landscape feature creatures were to be forgotten about and the patterns of activity they established were no longer followed, if people no longer continued to live on the land in the way that was established in the Dreamtime, the life giving potency of those Dreamtime beings would fade away and nature would cease to be so abundantly productive.

Now consider this as an ecological metaphor: long ago, ecosystem engineer animals evolved into being in deep evolutionary time and shaped the ecological landscape, and in doing so they established an order, because other animals evolved to fit around the impacts of these animals, inhabiting the niches that they created. As these impacts and niches remained constant over long periods of time, nature evolved to fill them to the fill, and a balance was established: a healthy ecosystem. So these ecosystem engineers have become features of the ecological landscape. However, if those ecosystem engineers, those keystone species, were to be lost from the system, balance would be lost and there would be a severe downgrading of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.

In Aboriginal culture, it is seen as important to maintain the rock art that anchors the potency of the Dreamtime animal beings into the landscape. Well, going back to the idea that life imitates art and art shapes attitudes via the aesthetic, I think there is something in this, and that is what Rock Art 4 Rewilding is all about: the rock slab canvas is the landscape and the Earth pigment images of keystone creature is an affirmation of the importance of placing those animals back in our landscapes. I haven’t done my big cat painting yet, but it is in my to do list. (It will be a lynx – watch this space.) But I thought my video below on the Lion Mountain of Provence would be something to be going on with.

Apex Predators as Keystone Species

The importance of predators in maintaining the balance of an established ecosystem was first discovered by modern science in the case of rock pools, where the removal of the top predator – the starfish – lead to a complete collapse of the system, with a total loss of diversity, and only one species – the mussel – remaining. If you’re at all familiar with the topics of rewilding and trophic cascades, you’ll probably be familiar with the more well-known story of the wolves of Yellowstone in the US. Wolves were eradicated, and it had a massive effect on the place. Numbers of deer (known as elk in the US) went up, and they also moved around less and spent time in places that previously they had avoided out of fear of wolves. Coyotes became the apex predator, but their prey was smaller, so levels of smaller mammals dropped. The deer overgrazed, reducing the number of trees. The beavers who ate these trees had less food and less material for their dams and shelters, and their numbers dropped. Without the cohesive effect of tree roots, there was much erosion of river banks and the courses of rivers were changed, becoming less meandering, and less conducive to wildlife. The numbers of fish, insects, songbirds and amphibians also dropped. Species that were used to scavenging on wolf kills also suffered, such as bears, eagles and ravens.

A decision was made to reintroduce wolves, and everything I just mentioned was reversed. That the wolf creates the right kind of order and even, indirectly, changes the course of rivers, makes it seem just like one of those Australian Dreamtime totems that emerged in deep time and created the landscape and instituted the right way to live on the land.

The Lion Mountain

In the ecosystem of the African savannah, the role of apex predator is played by a collective of animals that include big cats like leopards and lions, as well as wild dogs and hyenas. And when it comes to the large African buffalo, it is only really the lion that can take them down. In some areas, buffalo are lions’ primary prey. Lions therefore play an important role, creating the necessary “landscape of fear” that keeps the heavy, hungry buffalo moving around. As a keystone species, lions are a feature of the ecological landscape. And that, at last, gets the background out of the way, so here’s the video:

Barnes’ Owl in the Snow

(rhymes written after reading Simon Barnes’ blog post Barn owl in the snow)

Across the marsh, white passing over white 
the silent hunter flies then loses height  
descending to a favoured perch to stand 
and view with icy gaze an icy land 
Stray snowflakes catch my fancy, frivolous 
but never his; his hunt is serious. 

Across the marsh, white passing over white 
Outside the stables, freezing at the sight 
I let my busy, muck-filled spade fall still  
A thought occurs that gives a further thrill: 
this, and the pellet found the other day 
suggest the owls have come back here to stay! 

Across the marsh, white passing over white 
Fight on! Though cold Spring breeding left its blight 
The pellet, when with tweezers prised in two 
revealed the fine-boned relics of a shrew 
strange artefacts of Lilliputian size 
a fascinating wonder for young eyes. 

Across the marsh, white passing over white 
he signifies to me a world put right 
Will future generations ever know 
that world? To them, and our own souls we owe 
our best attempt to turn the tide around 
so nights then still awe-shiver at his sound. 

Across the marsh, white passing over white 
A treasured moment; may a poet write  
some verses that will eloquently share 
this plea and make the world more keenly care 
and feel, if all is lost, how dear the price. 
For now, the humble lines here must suffice.