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  • Nature in the Anthropocene?A Reflection on a Photograph
  • Thom van Dooren (bio)

As we approached this beautiful Laysan albatross nesting on the north shore of the island of Kaua’i, he stood to greet us. He may have been proud of his egg and wanting to show it off, but it is more likely that he was familiar with the routine of human visitors and knew that if he didn’t stand someone would soon reach underneath him to check his leg band and inspect his egg. Wanting to get it over and done with, I suspect, he stood as we approached—just long enough for me to snap this photo—and then settled back down on his egg as we passed.1

This brief encounter with an albatross left me wondering about nature, about what this concept means and what it might yet mean for the future to come. Is there anything salvageable about ‘nature,’ a concept profoundly infected by a history of dualized thinking that sets humans and our projects apart from the rest of the living world (Plumwood)? While this question perhaps remains open to debate, this albatross grounds our speculations in a solid reality: at least some of what we once called the ‘natural world’ is still hanging on, and so may yet still be ‘saved’ (whatever this ends up meaning). [End Page 228]

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A nesting Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) on Kaua’i.

Photo by the author.

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This albatross encounter took place on a warm December day while I was travelling with a friend and colleague, Deborah Bird Rose. The two of us had met with a local conservationist, a passionate and knowledgeable guide into the worlds of albatrosses. She took us to this little known spot on Kaua’i where albatrosses still nest each year, behind fences and far from public eyes. Together we walked, mesmerized, along the top of steep cliffs with quietly nesting albatrosses dotted all around us. For a while we sat and watched young birds engaged in courtship dances while others launched themselves off the cliffs to circle in the sun before touching back down where they began. While we walked, sat, and watched, sometimes within a few feet of birds, they paid us little attention; an occasional look in our direction, perhaps a beak clack or two, and then back to sitting quietly, eyes closed.

Later as the three of us chatted about the experience, the conversation turned to the peculiarity of walking among albatrosses. The conservationist we were with used the word ‘trust’—hesitantly but in a deliberately provocative manner—to describe the albatrosses’ reaction to human visitors. In a world in which so many free-living (‘wild’) animals are wary of humans, watching us closely for signs of potential danger, the calm responses of albatrosses seem somewhat odd when experienced firsthand. Of course, the particular bird in this photograph was familiar with people; but other albatrosses—on first encountering people—react in a similar way. They may not stand up, but nor will they run or fly away. This fact is illustrated graphically by the tragic history of feather hunting and egg collection in the North West Hawaiian islands in the 18th and 19th centuries—practices that wiped out albatross colonies on many islands, colonies that are yet to return (Lindsey).

Today, albatrosses face a wider and more insidious range of threats. Accumulating plastics and synthetic chemicals in the world’s oceans are causing a range of reproductive and developmental problems for birds (Auman, Ludwig, Giesy, et al.; Auman, Ludwig, Summer, et al.; De Roy, Jones and Fitter). Even more significantly, ‘bycatch’ as a result of commercial fishing activities—especially of the longline variety—are taking an incredible toll on albatross populations, year in year out (Arata, Sievert and Naughton; De Roy, Jones and Fitter). Meanwhile a range of other threats at breeding sites, including newly introduced predators and even lead paint chips, are further compounding their problems. These impacts have combined so that albatrosses are today the most endangered family of birds on the planet (De Roy, Jones and Fitter 149).2 [End Page...