Timothy Morton said of the libretto, “The recursive ecomimesis found throughout functions to reinforce the near constant alienation and isolation of the reader.”
“Reader” here is important as the libretto has long outlived the opera, the music being long lost and forgotten. Since the discovery of the libretto, it has been of minor interest in the field of ecocriticism.
to the top of a mountain
to throw himself from the top...
...birds are the only vertebrate group in which all species reproduce using external eggs; that is, unlike some reptiles, fish, and mammals, no bird gives birth to fully developed young. Reproduction using external eggs minimizes the time during which females must carry developing young in their bodies, thus minimizing the time during which the added weight of the eggs makes flying difficult...
...most avian features can be related back to this fundamental feature...
The central theme of bird evolution is flight...
...but upon reaching the summit
a sudden wind carried him
away, setting him
down into the
The opera was never restaged and was quickly forgotten by all at the premiere.
the grove he was nursed by a cow⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
along with her⠀⠀⠀⠀
and by summer
had fallen into
the rhythm of the herd.
...Birds maintain their core body temperatures at levels higher than those found in mammals of a similar size… typically [ranging] from about 40° to 44° C… this allows birds to extend the scope of their activities greatly, engaging in highly aerobic behaviors such as long-distance migration...
rutting season was
hard for the
composer. He had fallen into a harem
...The downside of course is that such a high body temperature requires a high level of sustained energy expenditure. This is where birds’ exceptional respiratory and circulatory systems come into play...
The following spring the
composer traveled back to the grove
to give birth to the Elkman. After two weeks
of isolation, nursing the newborn,
the two returned to the herd.
...The spongy tissue that forms the lungs [of birds] is denser than in mammals and takes up about half the space. Despite their smaller size, however, birds’ lungs weigh as much as mammals of a similar size, and they function more efficiently...
On the other hand
...birds have hearts that are larger than all other vertebrates’ and can be double the size of mammalian hearts… while similar in structure to the hearts of mammals, birds can fully drain their ventricles, thus increasing blood flow. A drawback of such high-performance features of the avian circulatory system is the extraordinary high blood pressures that result, making birds susceptible to heart failure at times of high stress...
By the next
the composer had left the
herd to return to live again with the
The elkman remained
with the herd, growing into
adulthood over the next five
years. While quite adept at living among⠀⠀⠀
curiosity began drawing
his interest elsewhere.
The opera was commissioned by an arts institution in the mountains.1 After months of preparation, the opera premiered in front of about 30 people and received a tepid and confused response from the audience.
At the age of six, the Elkman was accepted to study at a large university in Alabama.
After completing an undergraduate degree in⠀⠀
he moved to California for a postgraduate program in⠀⠀
Architecture at SCI-Arc, where he was introduced to the idea of Object-Oriented Ontology by
Graham Harman. He then moved on to finish a PhD in
English at Rice University. The
elkman’s thesis was a fairly critical repudiation of the
ecological philosophy put forward in Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael.
...Outside of daily behavior, i.e. sleeping, hunting/foraging, eating, etc , birds also engage in highly energy consuming circannual behaviors, including territorial defense, breeding, and migration... these behaviors together with annual events such as molting create a seasonal pattern of behavior called the annual cycle… All of these processes and behaviors require a large metabolic expense and as such rarely overlap...
...some species, such as Cassin’s Sparrow (Aimophila cassinii) may be molting when conditions become favorable for breeding; in cases such as these, the birds suspend their molt and then resume growing new fathers when breeding is over...
...a combination of molt and migration has been documented in some birds...
...Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) start molting before fall migration, suspend their molt while moving south and then finish molting on their wintering grounds...
...Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) and Bullock’s Oriole (Icterus bullockii) migrate in the fall to areas south of their breeding range, molt into their basic plumage for winter, and continue their migration...
After finishing his doctorate the elkman traveled to
Chicago, where his writing was published in several
Following two years of freelancing, he
landed a job in a small publishing house.
The elkman’s time among American⠀⠀
was not easy. His near constant need⠀⠀
to graze was an annoyance to his
classmates and coworkers,
and every rutting season he
had to work to contain the aggression he would feel
Chicago he eventually moved back to
the mountains to be close to his
herd. Not fully being able to
return to the rhythm of⠀
life, he got a part-time job at a⠀
gift shop in a nearby tourist town.
The Graduate student left her hotel and hailed a taxi. “Siebenundneunzig Prinzenstrasße, bitte” she told the driver as she pulled her backpack in after her.
After a few minutes the driver asked, in English, “Where are you from friend?”
“Toronto, well, actually Pittsburgh, but I’m at university in Toronto.”
“Ah, Canada! Very nice people there, very clean city Toronto, yes?”
“Well… I guess it depends on where you are… I dunno.”
A noted pause.
“What are you studying?”
“Ah! Yes! Well I’m in the Department of English, but I’m really studying ecology and aesthetics.”
“Oh like Wordsworth you mean!
‘I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze...’ “
“Oh wow! Yes, Wordsworth, but I guess I am more interested in the political implications of certain ecological aesthetics. Take “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” to what end does nature serve in this poem. It might seem like Wordsworth purely mucking about in contemplative synaesthetic pleasure, but if we dig deeper we can see this sort of romantic ecomimesis serves only to turn nature into object, and thus a discrete product of capitalism...”
...It is unclear whether the evolution of feathers was dependent on flight… There are two major lines of thought about how, and when, birds evolved the feathers and high internal body temperatures that allow them to engage in flapping flight...
Feeling uneasy both in⠀⠀⠀
society and in the herd,⠀⠀⠀
the Elkman reached out to the composer, asking
him to return and birth a second elkman. Feeling the weight of
responsibility and suffering from a general
lack of interesting commissions, the composer agreed
to the mountains.
By the next spring, a second Elkman was
born, and the two initiated a cycle of breeding so that in
a few years a sizeable herd/society
of elkmen2 existed
in the mountains.⠀
The Grad Student arrived at the flat. The Soprano shared the apartment with 4 other artists and seemed inconvenienced by the Student’s presence.
“I was hoping you would be able to tell me a little more about the opera.”
“Oh the Centre was amazing, such beautiful facilities, and the mountains, I miss the mountains, but god, the food sucked.”
“Yes, I’ve heard it is lovely there, did you happen to meet the librettist, or have an opportunity to talk to them about the script at all?”
“Everything there was just cooked in so much salt and oil, it was disgusting really, after spending a few weeks eating food like that you begin to just feel bloated and miserable all the time. It’s no wonder our performances were so lackluster.”
“So the opera was not a success?”
“The problem is that the meal card was a mandatory part of room and board, at first it seemed really exciting, Elk burgers and flatbread pizza, but by the time I left I was just going into town to buy salad and eating that in my practice hut. I probably had a couple hundred dollars left on my card by the time I left...”
Most elkmen spent some time within⠀
society. Many went off to pursue⠀
education3 or worked in the
town, often in part-time or
Others opted to
spend considerable time
incorporating themselves into the⠀
herd, allowing themselves to give⠀
in to their inherent biological
As the society grew,
the elkmen established themselves
self-sufficient, and later generations felt
less and less yearning to
engage with either⠀⠀
THE "TREES-DOWN" THEORY
For much of the 20th century, the conventional theory held that early birds were arboreal and that flight developed from primitive gliding activities similar to those of flying squirrels, which leap from tree to tree. According to this arboreal theory, feathers developed from early reptilian scales...
The theory was generated largely from the observation that Archaeopteryx had feet that could have grasped a branch. These grasping feet are taken as evidence that Archaeopteryx lived in trees, which makes the trees-down theory plausible.
The Elkmen herd/society became something of a nexus
for radical experimental
record of this is limiteds as the⠀
socratic discourse over the written word. The newly
formed and quickly evolving Elkman language, in conjunction with
concepts difficult to express in terms
thought, led to dubious and⠀
often contradictory accounts
of these dialogs.
“The composer and I really argued about representation in his opera, I mean there was not a single female character, it was really not acceptable, even back then.”
From Berlin the Grad Student had traveled to Saint Petersburg to talk with one of the producers of the Opera.
“Yes, this is something that is discussed now in modern readings of the libretto, but you say ‘the composer’, was the librettist not there?”
“Ha! The composer was the librettist, wrote it under a pseudonym, I mean he said he wrote it as a joke, the whole thing was very juvenile if you ask me. Anyway, his argument was that the libretto depended on being all male and that in fact it was radical for it. The whole thing about creating a utopian society of all men, removed from the “sins and temptations” of humanity, I don’t see how that can be read as anything but misogyny...”
Along with those
interested in transcribing Elkmen thought came
As elkmen receded from⠀⠀⠀⠀
society, they increasingly⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
became objects of curiosity.
came looking to flee⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
itself, seeing the elkmen as somehow
more pure and connected to⠀⠀
Many Elkmen were happy to⠀⠀
putting on exaggerated displays
of animalistic behavior, exposing simplistic⠀⠀
wisdom, and generally⠀⠀
playing into the⠀⠀⠀
expectations of their⠀⠀⠀
THE "GROUND-UP" THEORY
In contrast the cursorial, or terrestrial, theory posits that early birds were ground dwelling, bipedal predators that chased down prey on foot and captured victims with clawed forelimbs. Warm-body predators can sustain the rapid, repetitive muscle contractions used for running after prey for longer stretches of time than cold-blooded predators. Thus, feathers might have developed for insulation, which would have improved retention of body heat... as feathers developed, they could have improved balance or ability to catch prey, and as they enlarged, an airfoil developed, making flight possible.
This theory is based on John Ostrom’s proposal, linking Archaeopteryx to theropod dinosaurs, who were apparently all bipedal predators.
Others grew to resent and grow
suspicious of these⠀⠀⠀
feeling too much⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
decadence was being⠀⠀⠀⠀
introduced into their society.
They advocated expelling all⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
“Now I wonder how you would describe your current relationship with your father?”
“(indecipherable elkman language)”
“I’ve heard from several accounts that it was the opera’s failure that spurred the composer to join the elk and birth you, yet your society seems to be celebrated in the libretto. Why do you think your father shows little interest in your society now?”
“(indecipherable elkman language)”
question” was the beginning of
a violent schism in elkman
1 in the years following a mishandled mass layoff of employees during a period of crisis would discredit the institution. The oil barons sitting on the board of the institute used the crisis to transition the centre into a more profitable enterprise. While nominally still an arts institute, as much as needed in order to maintain funding from the province and federal government, the facilities now operate mostly to host corporate functions and retreats. [back to the text]
2 Note that this herd/society is very specifically made up of elk-men. The original elkmen, principle of their kind, were the sons of two fathers, and as such their subsequent offspring were all male. This process is now well known and documented across mammalian species. [back to the text]
3 A surprising number of elkmen who went on to get post-graduate degrees wrote theses related to ontology. [back to the text]