Behavioural Plasticity

Landing Places has prompted me to give this concept some thought. It was the theme of my PhD. Behavioural plasticity is the ability of organisms to respond behaviourally to a changing environment. The whooper swans of Lough Beg have already shown considerable behavioural plasticity; but that does not mean that they are capable of coping with the latest development.

From a literary point of view, migrating swans and geese have contributed so much to Irish and Celtic legends and mythology that it seems staggering that we are risking undermining that heritage by putting more pressure on these birds. I blogged (on my PhD blog, chasingavianvoices) about related issues after hearing a wonderful talk by David Cabot on our migrating barnacle geese. Before that again, I wrote a poem, The Visitors, about the whooper swans of Landing Places. At that stage, my main concern was the effect of climate change on their summering grounds. Ahead of Saturday’s reading, I am trying to write a follow-up, But on re-reading my first poem, I was struck by how I’d already incorporated many of ideas of behavioural plasticity: while it’s elastic, it has limits.  Chris Murphy is leading (and personally financing, hence Saturday’s fundraiser – if you can’t make it, please consider donating here), the legal challenge on behalf of the whoopers and other rare species. Like him, I greatly fear that the rerouting of the A6 will push the wintering whooper swans beyond the limits of their ability to respond.

So, ahead of Saturday, I’m posting the original poem, The Visitors, as it foregrounds some of the environmental changes that the swans have already coped with so admirably as a way of perhaps highlighting the danger of stealing any more of their resilience. The poem was published New Hibernia Review (vol 12, no.4) in winter 2008.

(NB: the visuals of the poem suffer here because of the refusal of wordpress to allow me to indent. But the content/lineation are as in the previously published version).


The Visitors

Another winter flown by
and I didn’t take the scope, stop at Toome
and welcome the Whoopers with proper fervour.

Weekly, this year, I’ve bussed past, eyes
sharpening to their flecks of purity,
a microscopist’s skill resolving them

from dish-rag smudges of sheep.
How unlikely this territory
is now for their wintering!

Once, I suppose, the lough’s hinterlands
made a marshy refuge: spongy ground tufted with rushes,
shaggy with willows; shallow pools ragged with sedges and reeds;

a damp undramatic country
to counter the sear of polar light, a summer’s
exertions, the long hazardous flight;

misted quietness to dabble and drift winter by.

Now it is farmland, claimed, drained,
to a flat uniformity, the silt of ages
greening its pastures;
and still the swans come,

faithful to the ways of their ancestors,
grazing like miniature aurochs, hazed
by their distance from the road.



They adapt, these birds. I’d thought to write
of their great white wings, the chill of blue light
they bring south; a poem of legend and magic;

but somehow it wouldn’t fit these avian herbivores.
They are almost domestic, urban. What did they make
of the re-engineering of their winter grounds

the autumn the by-pass was finished? – that arc of the new bridge,
its purple neon glowing like some hooped rod
to ground the aurora borealis?

How topography morphs: a country road snakeskins
to dual carriageway; buildings yo-yo;
the land is sliced by new scars.


I could wish for ancient patterns to maintain
long after the drains, the sheughs, collapse; swamps
return; that blebs of wildness still flourish

when the bridge’s brightness has slumped
into a marsh; a humanless world scab over;
and, true, these bustling arctic burghers

lend that hope. Creatures cope;
until they can’t; and it’s not this road, this vehicle
and the like that will break them – changes

related, insidious, will, out of sight,
high on the cap of the planet, rob their nesting
grounds from under them. We are not destroyed

by dangers we can see: it’s the unpredicted,
unlooked-out-for, consequence that steals
resilience, pushes a body beyond its measure.

The swans
look comfortable with their wintering.

It’s their summers I worry for.

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