Unpremeditated Art

The skylark (Alauda arvensis), indigenous in Europe and Asia, has been introduced to North America, where it has not done well, and to other countries colonized by Europeans, such as Australia and New Zealand, where it has thrived. The European habitat was typically a biologically diverse grassland where the skylark—principally a ground-dwelling bird—could hide its nest and forage for seeds and insects. It has always been a welcome member of the republic of beings because it lends itself to easy field observation, and particularly because of the mating behavior of the male.[1] This involves a rapid ascent to a great height such that the bird is a speck in the sky, and then a slow spiraling descent accompanied by a thrilling, cascading song that fills the air with hope and joy.

The Eurasian Skylark population went into steep decline with the advent of industrial agriculture and the changing production regimes that accompanied large-scale market-driven cropping. Its plight demonstrates once again the vulnerability of open systems to catastrophic change. In The End of Certainty, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine describes emergent systems as at their most vital when they are pushed to far from equilibrium conditions by their interaction with other dynamic forces. All open systems, from ecosystems to cities are emergent systems.

[T]he universe itself is highly heterogeneous and far-from-equilibrium. This prevents systems from reaching a state of equilibrium. For example, the flow of energy that originates in the irreversible nuclear reactions within the sun maintains our systems far from equilibrium and has thus made it possible for life to develop on earth.[2]

Disequilibrium implies irreversibility, instability, uncertainty, and extreme openness to perturbation. In 1881 the British poet George Meredith wrote The Lark Ascending, in which this condition is described as follows:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
All intervolv’d and spreading wide,
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;
A press of hurried notes that run
So fleet they scarce are more than one …

The male lark, high in the air, 50 to 100 meters from the ground, sings for up to 20 minutes in the mating season, hovering on wings that have broadened through adaptation to female skylarks’ preference for males that can sing in suspended animation for long periods of time. The 16 centimeter skylark occupies a far from equilibrium condition. It commits itself to a steady, “intervol’d” downward drift as energy courses through the many internal and external systems that push the small bird through moments of instability and transformation. Meredith’s poem highlights the lark’s capacity, as this occurs, to spontaneously emit melodic song structures of extraordinary complexity and continuous novelty.

Larks, like all biological species, are disequilibrious open systems. As science writer Mitchell Waldrop points out, “it’s extremely meaningless to talk about a complex adaptive system being in equilibrium: the system can never get there. It is always unfolding, always in transition. In fact if the system does reach equilibrium it isn’t just stable. It’s dead.”[3] Open systems are necessarily unstable. The more open a nonhuman system is, the further it is from human ambition, from prediction, from value, from reason, from the reductivism of science and society. Open systems don’t care. Their ontology has nothing to do with human being.

To be far from equilibrium, then, is to be wild. To be wild is to exist in a condition of extreme openness – instability, uncertainty, and continual perturbation. And yet to be wild is not something that humans can achieve: it is unknowable. In other words, if something is knowable, it is not wild.

How do we enwild our world when we cannot know the wild? Surely we cannot draw the nonhuman into our world unless we make that world open to the wild? It is only when we find out what larks actually connect to that we can make a world for larks. We have to understand what captivates them. One of the founders of ecology, the biologist Jacob Von Uexküll, argued that the environment—or Umvelt—of any animal is defined by what he called “carriers of significance.”[4] These are the specific things to which it connects through its need for food, shelter, and procreation. The Umvelt of a lark stretches from the open sky to tufts of grass in a broad field. While this seamless milieu may not appear to be a particularly exacting requirement, nevertheless the carriers of significance that comprise it form an exclusive, reciprocal, and inextricably linked chain of elements that really is the only thing that interests the lark. Uexküll saw these components as “melodies in counterpoint,” and nature itself as “a gigantic musical score.”[5] The lark’s song, in Meredith’s phrase “an ecstasy to music turned,” is a perfect contribution to the score.[6]

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has been measuring this contribution by means of a bird census started in the early 1960s. The census shows that current lark numbers in the United Kingdom are only 10% of what they were 30 years ago. In the past, cereals were planted in the spring, grown in the summer and harvested in the early fall.  For reasons to do with global market forces, cereals are now planted in the fall, grown through the winter and harvested in the early summer. The winter-grown fields are much too dense in summer for walking skylarks to forage between the stems for seeds and insects. Additionally, studies of skylark populations in England and Germany show that territory density varies considerably according to crop type, compactness and height.[7] Also important is the intensity and timing of pesticide use, and whether the pasture is grazed between cropping. Single-species cropping reduces the structural diversity of agrarian terrains, pesticides kill insects, and intensive management interferes with the territorial requirements of the birds.[8]

Field ecology research has suggested that setting aside sufficiently large and numerous areas of otherwise commercially farmed fields, and reducing regrowth within these zones, can help to increase suitable nesting opportunities for skylarks and thereby improve breeding success.[9] As a result, farmers in England are now paid to maintain and create biodiversity for increasing the habitat of skylarks. Studies, conducted initially by RSPB, and more extensively by the Sustainable Arable Farming for an Improved Environment Project (SAFFIE), have shown that suitable nesting sites for larks can be made during the sowing of commercial crops, by turning the seeding machine off (or lifting the drill) for a five to 10 meter stretch as the tractor goes over the ground, to briefly stop the seeds from being sown. Repeated in several areas in the same field to make about two skylark plots per acre, these “seed tables” enable breeding skylarks access to multiple foraging opportunities, even within a wider regime of poor crop mosaics and continued spraying and fertilizing operations.[10]

The results from this large consortium-led research program (funded amongst others by the Agricultural Industries Confederation and Sainsbury’s Supermarkets Ltd) have suggestive implications for the ongoing reformation of rural areas. They bring the high-tech economic imperatives of the contemporary world into an expansive social and spatial continuum in which ordinary humans and delicate wild species may overlap and fuse. Skylark plots open up not only a network of physical spaces that can be appreciated by humans for their aesthetic and affective qualities, but an uncertain and fragile “golden cup” of indigenous (and sometimes introduced) species of plants, insects and small mammals. When the wheat crop grows, the skylark plots become zones of low vegetation where larks can easily hunt insects and build their well-camouflaged ground nests. These areas are also good for other ground-dwelling avian species such as pheasants and partridge, species that, with skylarks, emblematize the organic regionalism grounded in land use, husbandry, and rural mythologies that encouraged 20th century ruralists to consider the whole of a region as a work of art.[11]

The skylark initiative has the potential to operate across extensive territories of English (and European) farmland, linking small, individual, unseeded (even untilled) zones of skylark habitat within an open system of patches and corridors, that have been spared Jethro Tull’s benedictions (for it was he who invented the seed drill). A combination of top-down and bottom-up activism, it’s an integrated effort at skylark recovery that involves multinational companies such as KGT and Agriterra,[12] their financial strategists, PR departments, farm managers, and—importantly—their tractor operators, as well as rural communities, and even urban hikers, in the linked but essentially uncoordinated production of designed landscape conditions.

If implemented on the scale of districts and regions, the project could have fascinating outcomes. But the future spatial, ecological, and even social patterns of rural English farmland that may result from such a simple initial action as lifting seed drills for a few seconds are not actually able to be determined. Embedded, or nested, within countywide webs of agrarian structure and process, the skylark project offers a matrix of habitats that together form a shifting, drifting, network of feeding and breeding opportunities which are otherwise being lost. Over several years the locations and sizes of the skylark plots would necessarily change, as the project evolves and practices develop in different directions. The ecology of Alauda arvensis, however, has its own speeds and rhythms: precise timings of mating, nesting, breeding, and raising fledglings. It would be critical that these rhythms are combined within the corporative imperatives of crop production, management and harvesting.

Most countries have a considerable, and loved, catalogue of rural histories and place-based rural micro-cultures. These are still in some shape or form lived although, as Nick Groom advises in The Seasons, they need to be lived afresh through today’s experiences and values.[13] The collective of human and nonhuman beings continues to come together in country places without the husbandry of landscape architectural design, and are gathered by tradition, weather, and patterns of interaction between beasts, birds, and—these days—stockbrokers. It is easy to take an oppositional approach to changes in our shared rural patrimony, particularly the advent of agribusiness. The skylark project is an attempt to foreground inherited patterns, but within a network of cohabitation and encounter that firmly claims rural public space as a constructed realm. It suggests that large-scale agrarian infrastructure offers opportunities for the continuing development of the working countryside as an assemblage of production, observation, interaction, and enhancement that can achieve a multitude of goals.

In his 1820 poem To a Skylark, Shelley refers to the song of this much-loved bird as an “unpremeditated art.”[14] The phrase describes an open system that creates novelty through its encounter with indeterminate conditions. It’s a useful way to consider the potential of the SAFFIE project as it drifts across the English countryside like the lark’s  “silver chain” of notes “all intervolv’d and spreading wide.” Even though it is regulated by the structural parameters of the bird’s body and its organs, for walkers in the fields of Britain and Europe the song of the skylark is the spontaneous production of an open condition, far from equilibrium, a condition we call wild, that does not exist for us. It is the production of a small, brown bird of which Shelley declares, “What thou art we know not.”



[1] “Republic of beings” is Bruno Latour’s phrase. Latour has argued for an assembly of human and nonhuman “actants” within a broad social democracy that does not value species on the basis of their difference from humans (see his The Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004).

[2] Ilya Prigogine, The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos and the New Laws of Nature (New York: The Free Press, 1996), 158.

[3] M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1992), 147.

[4] Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal (2004) 40.

[5] Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1987) 315; Agamben (2004) 40.

[6] George Meredith, The Lark Ascending (1881).

[7] Jeremy D. Wilson, Julianne Evans, Stephen J. Browne, and Jon R. King, “Territory Distribution and Breeding Success of Skylarks Alauda Arvensis on Organic and Intensive Farmland in Southern England,” Journal of Applied Ecology 34 (1997): 1462–78, 1476.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid; see also J.G. Poulson, “Behavioural and Parental Care of Skylark Alauda Arvensis Chicks” Ibis 138 (1996): 525–31.

[10] “Skylark Plots,” The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, 2004, www.rspb.org.uk (accessed 29 June 2014). See also Morris et al “Sustainable Arable Farming for an Improved Environment Project: Managing winter wheat sward structure for skylarks” Ibis 146 [Suppl. 2] (2004): 155–162

[11] See David Matless, Landscape and Englishness (London, Reaktion Books, 1998) for an extended, insightful discussion of the development of material landscape cultures in England.

[12] Khalsan General Trading (KGT), headquartered in Dubai, is an international foodstuffs, electronics, and petrochemical company. It trades commodities such as rice, chick peas, seeds, dried fruits, and edible oils, as well as microchips, diodes, capacitors, and bitumen, gas oil, and urea: www.khalsan.com. The Agriterra Group (assets $57.5m) is a consortium of pan-African agricultural companies processing beef, cocoa, maize, palm oil, and other farmed and cropped products. Its business strategy is to become one of the largest agri-operators in Africa: www.agriterra-ltd.com.

[13] Nick Groom, The Seasons: An Elegy for the Passing Year (London: Atlantic Books, 2013).

[14] Percy Bysshe Shelley, “To a Skylark”, in A.S.B. Glover (ed.) Shelley: Selected Prose, Poetry and Letters (London: The Nonesuch Press, 1951).