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.