In Deborah Bird Rose’s most recent post, So Many Faces, on her website Life at the Edge of Extinction, Rose writes about the run-away levels of species loss due to land clearing practices that are still prevalent today. The hook that really drew me into Rose’s writing was her reference to Levinas’ idea that the ‘face’ awakens within us an ethical responsibility:
The great continental philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote of the ‘face’ as that which interrupts my self-absorption and calls me into ethical responsibility. There has been a lot of discussion in recent years as to whether the face means ‘a human face’. What about other animals? What about trees? What about understory? The definition of face that I find most inspiring treats it as a form of action. Here face is something one does rather than something one has: ‘facing is being confronted with, turned toward, facing up to, being judged and being called’.
The living world is filled with facings – to be alive is to live among faces, many of which are noisy and interruptive. This is good. This is life in the mode of ethics. At this time, this is also tough. There are so many facings, and often one feels so helpless.
I have written before about ‘seeing’ through feeling (liyan) and the process through which I have come to sense a communicable engagement with more-than-human entities. As well as a call to action (facing), the idea that the ‘face’ awakens a recognition with us humans that we have a responsibility to ‘others’ eludes to something very powerful; ‘face’ becomes a metaphor for deeprecognition. But recognition of what? Ourselves? Oneness?
Rose introduces the most recent literary work of Australian science writer Tim Low, Where Songs Began: Australia’s Birds and How they Changed the World:
… DNA evidence is now showing beyond any doubt that Australia was the original home of songbirds. In Tim’s words, birdsong brought ‘a new dawn for planetary acoustics’.
This quote stirred within me remembrance of a conversation I had had with an Indigenous elder about lyrebirds. When I ask Uncle Max about the significance of these lyrical birds, his very first and most punctuated word was ONENESS. Through my dialogue with Uncle Max an understanding is unfolding about my attraction to lyrebirds and the role that they play in the perpetual process of co-creation. I have not yet had the opportunity to read Tim Low’s book, but I wonder if the lyrebird plays a role (from his ecological/historical perspective) in the ‘singing up’ of the world and is in fact a creator, not just a mimic. Perhaps the lyrebird, through its songs (if we choose to listen), can remind us of who we are and what we are connected to.
Stooping over, I walk under tree-ferns with bison-like beards which arch over pathways. Their beards are rough and filamentary, but tight and trimmed. Fronds umbrella up and out, framing the grey sky like lacy curtains. Way above me, the canopies of Mountain Ash engage in deep conversation with the wind. Scars on these trees show where limbs have been lost. I feel meek and vulnerable walking under these giants on such a windy day. It is not just the trees that I have come to be with on this day; another has called me (back) into the cool temperate rainforest.
The singers are hidden amongst the long, fallen ribbons of bark, they are somewhere down in the gullies beckoning me forth. I cross over deep muddy puddles, past flowing creeks and decomposing fallen trees. Everything in the forest is saturated with water and deep iridescent green. Pulled deeper in as the sun hangs low in the winter sky, I know there is not long before I must retreat to places of light and warmth. Up a rise and the earth dries out. The track twists to somewhere unknown and I sense to halt. A dark grey rock nearby summons me. I sit atop this cool, smooth form and close my eyes. A singer repeats his calls across the track from me and another somewhere behind. Like a creator of all other beings, from its song emerges the Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo, Eastern Whipbird, Laughing Kookaburra, Eastern Rosella and its own songs. From oneness comes many. This bird holds songs and dances, it is an invoker and a weaver of creation.
When I stand from the rock, something has deepened. It is time to descend from this hill and retrace my steps below the swaying canopy. But an invitation to encounter holds me a few moments longer… a male lyrebird jumps onto a tree branch, his brilliant tail festooned below him. Hypnotized by sound, he repeats again and again the songs of the other forest beings and I wish for a feather. Why do I want for this material form? Is the song not enough to make me feel this reality? Turning to walk back I am stopped by something small, fluffy and grey on the track. So unimaginably wispy, it is almost not there. I delicately pick up this grey flank feather and hold it between two fingers. The wind quickly finds it and I watch it dance and swirl before me. Each feathery filament animated and stating its aliveness.
Source: Pizzey and Knight, The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, 9th Ed, Harper Collins Australia, 2012