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  • Off Course
  • Elizabeth Chaney (bio)

On April 18, the Center For Research on the Poetics of Flight hosted “Off-Course: Interfering (facing) with Migratory Songbirds,” a presentation by ecologist Dr. Lesley Bulluck.

At noon, we met around a picnic basket set atop a cluster of stools on a sidewalk. The adventure started as I asked each member of the group to take a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich from the basket: “Make note of the wrapper; it shows four endangered songbird species. On the way to the site, we’ll keep our eyes and ears open for these birds.”

Sandwich birding guides and camp-stools in hand, we walked down the street. “Is that Bewick’s wren? Do you hear Bachman’s sparrow? And the two species of warbler are matched counter-singing!”

At the site, we spread parachute blankets illustrating the golden winged warbler’s migration range, and we unfolded stools that showed the bird’s wintering and breeding grounds. We sat to listen to Dr. Bulluck speak on her involvement with bird ecology.

Her research focused on the declining warbler population and on the role of habitat loss as a primary factor in the bird’s reduced numbers. Dr. Bulluck’s study of the birds in Tennessee revealed an unexpected trend: the warbler’s numbers were actually growing, contrary to regional patterns. More unexpected was that coal mining in the Cumberland Mountains had created an abundance of suitable breeding habitat for the bird. As abandoned mines were reclaimed by vegetation and wildlife, the developing scrub-shrub habitats proved ideal as postbreeding grounds for fledging warblers.

During the Q-and-A session after her talk, I asked Dr. Bulluck about what it was like to consult with mining executives whom she’d initially believed were opponents of her goals as an ecologist. She recalled from these conversations how most expressed concern about their industry’s environmental impact and were committed to reducing negative impacts—so long as the [End Page 73] measures taken to do so would not drag down profit. Her ideas about the role industry could play in wildlife conservation shifted as a result of this dialogue. She realized a need for ecologists to maintain conversation with developers and to consider them partners in conservation, rather than ideological opponents.

This describes the biggest hope I have for my work: to generate conversation between communities that need to talk and to cause small shifts in how people who participate in the work understand their role in the creation of knowledge. The work is a platform for participants (myself included) to discuss interests and share expertise, in the case of the Center for Research on the Poetics of Flight project, as they pertain to flight (the physical movement or related concepts, such as escape, transcendence, etc.). [End Page 74]

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Figure 1.

“Offcourse,” 2008. The group convened around a wicker basket set atop stools illustrating the wintering/breeding range of the Golden Winged Warbler. After introducing the talk, I handed out peanut-butter and banana sandwiches wrapped in the birding guide. Photographer: Lauren DeSimone

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Figure 2.

“Offcourse,” 2008. Dr. Bulluck and Barbara Tisserat helped spread parachute blankets at the site. Photographer: Lauren DeSimone

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Figure 3.

“Offcourse,” 2008. The lecture began with Dr. Bulluck’s account of how she became interested in birds and wildlife ecology as an undergraduate. Photographer: Lauren DeSimone

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Elizabeth Chaney

Elizabeth Chaney grew up in the woods of southern Virginia. She studied sculpture at Virginia Commonwealth University, earning a bachelor of fine arts in May 2008. After working with a community-based arts collaborative in Richmond, Virginia (the X-Pollination Project), she headed west to Marfa, Texas, to intern with The Chinati Foundation. Through the Center for Research on the Poetics of Flight (a semifictional research organization founded by Chaney), she is currently developing a self-propelled mobile living and work space for travel across the southern United States.



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