Plants eating birds, swiftlet nest soup, the ortolan bunting

Killer plant ‘eats’ great tit at Somerset nursery

In 2009, I exhibited an image/text piece called Thesaurus for Ceasing War at the Illinois State Museum, Chicago Gallery. The piece, a triptych of embroidered silk photographic panels and a 12-part poem, is now in the permanent collection of the USC Fisher Museum of Art. I write and make visual art simultaneously, though often I finish one or the other first (or last). Thesaurus involved months of embroidery — the panels measured seven feet by seven feet when hung and I embroidered silk thread across the top half of all three printed panels — which gave me months to think about and write the poem I wanted to accompany the panels.

I often begin with titles, sketches or problems I want to solve when I begin a new work. Thesaurus began with one of each: the title I took from a late-Edo period unpublished text written by a peace-time Shogun lord, Mosonari Ozeki, that contained directions for braiding and embroidery techniques used in the making of samurai armor (the making of the armor preoccupied enough people to keep peace, perhaps, which is why the techniques were synonymous with a ‘thesaurus’ of how to prevent (and stop) war); the sketch was the photograph that I’d taken several years before in Chicago of the crooked skyline and a half-constructed building (that seemed to be deconstructing) obscured by a heavy rain storm; and the problem was how to marry these ideas of war, the prevention of war, imperialism and ecological disaster, which all seemed linked to me, though I wasn’t sure how yet.

It was the making of the work and the writing of the poem where the link became clearer. I began to gather articles and research that seemed related, stories of power and empire and collapse. I found academic papers written for our war colleges that used Chaos Theory, originated by a meteorologist to help predict weather patterns, to explain how to fight guerrilla warfare. I found stories of sludge and slurry from coal mining and promotional materials for geo-engineering, technological “fixes” for our technologically-induced climate change. And I found stories of cave swiftlets and their secreted nests, which are eaten in soups by the elites of Asia. As more and more people have aspired to be elites (and enjoy the trappings of wealth), the nests have become incredibly valuable, so that now there are farmers who raise swiftlets solely to pilfer their nests for black markets. I included all of this in the poem, which was published last year in Word For/Word, and hung the poem near the panels in the museum installation. In the poem, I have a section that imagines Francois Mitterand, France’s first socialist president, enjoying his last meal, the decidedly aristocratic dinner of an ortolan bunting:

and then remember the slight

ortolan caught in Cook

‘s net:

plumped and prepared (certainly does not

feed on brandy or wine, though

either will bathe the bunting in a suitable soup)

her delicate nest found on or near the ground, (the hunting

of beetles and grass seeds and the feeding of her young

make for a glorious Last Meal,

a fine recompense for toppling the Pacific)

she sings sweetly enough to encourage

thoughtful, though rather sentimental,

treatment from the highest

of authorities: even in death, her gaze

makes the steeliest of men shield their mortal-

weary mouths from the All-Knowing

Word. Shroud yourself in fine linens, Sir, as you feast

one last time, this reprimand your reward

for Good Taste.

This is what came to my mind today when I read about the Pitcher Plant eating a bird whole. What we consider not being predator or prey but rather something to gather becomes the predator/consumer, eating a small bird just as the socialist president consumed his ortolan, taking his place in the long line of French kings who enjoyed an outlaw dish in their final hours.

August 9, 2011