The first animals to evolve the capacity to fly (at least on this planet) appear to have been dragonfly-looking beasts that swarmed over the swamps and forests during the Carboniferous period 350 million years ago. Wings have had a troubled but productive time since, going from pterodactyls to seagulls to vampire bats to Paul McCartney.
Wings offer elevation, escape, and the capacity to migrate. Migration can have many parents—war, opportunity, famine, disease, environmental collapse. In the “natural world” (that perverse dichotomy humans cling to in the hope that your stretched Hummer to the prom didn’t add to net global misery—it did, and yes, we blame you) migratory patterns offer one of the clearest and least ambiguous datasets recording the ecological pressures of climate change. As the seasons have altered and the climate shifted, animals have been forced to adapt to the new world, and those that can’t face eradication. Migratory creatures like aphids, butterflies, red crabs, salmon, whale sharks, sea turtles, shrikes, flycatchers, blackbirds, terns, storks, and humpback whales, to name but a few—a veritable Noah’s ark of myriad species and genus—have been observed to be altering their migration patterns and behaviors in response to the changing environment. Many of their populations have also crashed, and some now teeter on the brink.
The photographer behind new book Tori—Japanese Zen artist Yamamoto Masao—believes that humans are drawn to depicting birds because “I think it is our original desire to fly freely in the open sky.” And so it may be, yet when it comes to migration, the birds themselves seem more constrained in their passage through the skies—forced by the winds, the weather, and the availability of food—thus their flight may be the illusion of freedom, rather than an unrestrained reality.
“Tori” literally translates as ‘bird,’ and refers to both the feathered creatures, and to the traditional Shinto gates that mark the transition from the profane to the sacred as one enters a Shinto shrine in Japan. Yamamoto’s thoughts on changing weather patterns are Zen to their core, and he believes that the plight of birds isn’t one we should really worry about—even if we can’t help ourselves but fret: “I do not think it is even a matter of whether we worry about [the] environment or not,” he instructed Flaunt on a flight towards the sacred, “We humans can only live in the environment. Environment allows us to exist in there. It is arrogant to try to control [the] natural environment. We cannot separate nature and humans. We only exist in the environment where all beings are united by the dispensation of the Universe. It would be ideal to accept everything as it is and keep my mind calm, but it is not easy to do.”
Written by Sid Feddema