White dung, gold Guano
This is the story of the bird cormorant, the sea raven, and its excrements, Guano.
For centuries Guano was known as an organic fertilizer in South America, used by the Incas. The “world” did not become aware of it until the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt sneezed.
I am told it happened on his trip in South America, soon after he climbed mountain Chimborazo in Ecuador, the highest mountain above earth’s center. On the Chimborazo mountaintop, which no Man had climbed before and reached such heights and breathed such thin air, Humboldt found his love of nature. He stood on the mountaintop and began to see the world differently, that everything is connected and that nature has to be experienced by feeling.
But it wasn’t until on the docks in Peru, where shipment of Guano were passing him by, that he sneezed. The powder of the white gold entered his body and called out for a natural reaction. As Humboldt sneezed, his scrotum contracted in a sudden spasm.
At that time, in the early 19th century, the depleted soil of Europe was gagging for it, to be replenished, nourished and fertilized. It was exhausted. It was the time of the second agricultural revolution, a period during which new developments were made in synthetic fertilizers as the natural fertility of the soil had declined. The separation of town and farms had created a rift between the metabolism of humans and their environment. Excrement no longer seeped into the ground and revitalized the soil for another round of production. The cormorant’s organic white gold was to smear its fertility-inducing essence into the cracks of the soil so production could go on.
Guano became a precious commodity in the Westernized world. The imperialism of the Guano rush led to ecological exploitation, unequal exchange. The birds themselves, the producers of this valuable waste, were not given any significant attention. On the contrary, during the extraction of their product, they were often driven away, even slaughtered
Cormorants have long fallen under persecution. One scientist describes a zero tolerance policy for the bird and equals it to a witch hunt. The bird has undergone numerous periods of eradication and was hunted to near extinction for its supposed threat to ecosystems due the birds overindulgence in fish. However, no scientific data shows the cormorant to be a particular threat in that sense. What sets it apart from other fish-eating birds is that cormorants catch their fish by the shore, making the act visible to humans, unlike most other species, which do their fishing further off-shore.
Cormorants are a family of large aquatic birds found around the globe, on the shore and around the coast of fresh and salt waters. Their dinosaur heritage is considered particularly evident in their emerald eyes and oily black scaly feather’s. The earliest know modern bird is said to have essentially the same structure. Its body, neck and tail are all relatively long, giving its physique, especially the neck, a snakelike quality, while its legs appear disproportionately short.
A signature pose of the cormorant is standing tall with both wings held out from the sides of its body. The bird can hold this pose for anything from a few minutes up to an hour. The pose is said to have fuelled impressions of the bird’s dark nature, symbolizing something ominous, eerie, mysterious, even bringing up images of crucifixion and vampires. The practical purpose of the pose is not known. Hypothesis include, drying feathers, regulating heat loss and facilitating digestion, the production of Guano.
Neringa, Nida’s muncipality in Lithuania, holds the biggest colony of cormorants in Europe. Dead trees mark the colonies, as the cormorant Guano becomes toxic in Europe’s relatively humid atmosphere; the rainwater volatilizes and leaches nitrogen-containing ammonia from the waste. The website visitneringa.com refers to one Otto Glagau, born in Köningberg, Prussia, for an historical account of the cormorant’s presence in Nida. According to Glagau, when cormorants arrived in 1803, they became aggressor to another species of birds, the grey Herons.The fight between the two birds, the website states, while referring to Glagau, was eventually intervened by man as in the light of local foresters recommendations and local fishermen’s complaints, the Prussian government allowed the eradication of black strangers. Referring to Otto Glagau for an historical account of the cormorant and lack of metonym usage in the narration, is significant. Outside Neringa’s tourist industry, Glagau is best known for his anti-semtic writings, holding Jews responsible for the onset of the Great Depression and for coining the term “The Social Question is the Jewish Question.”
A youtube video put online by travel agency Baltic Travels presents the bird in their dead tree colony on a grey afternoon, accomapnied by an elevator porn groove jingle, giving a contrast to the otherwise fit and healthy representation of nature in Nida’s holiday resort. One could see the youtube video as a way of outcasting the cormorant or see the jingle as a variation on Peter and the Wolf, one where man does not tame nature. In this case, the jingle represents the bird outside the notion of pristine and pure, heterosexual nature: the porn groove becomes a mating call, calling out for a polymorphously perverse intimacy in a dark ecology, an ecology without nature.
The colony of the cormorants and their dead trees are in sharp contrast to the ideological exotic undertones of deserty Nida, the Sahara of the North.
The metabolic rift, the split between human and its environment, allows for fantasies and desires to be projected onto land. While in Nida I learned a dancing loop from a flamenco dancer, Marina de Flamenco, a member of a dancing group which performs regularly in Nida. The group is called Crazy Women. Tempered and irrational women give form to desire in a hot and sultry holiday resort. The dancing loop, which Marina and I created, was meant to evoke an uncanny state, a weird dance where flamenco’s relation to nature would shift. Creatures and ecological powers are often the inspiration of flamenco and its core, duende, a deep mysterious power. Immersed in the landscape of Nida this dancing loop called out for and drew its inspiration from the pink flamingo.
The flamingos are not pink birds as such, they only become pink because of what they eat. The dinosaur lineage of the cormorants is seen in their black oily outlook, the dinosaur fossils that become the basis of the modern world, oil, the substance of petrocapitalism and the plastisphere. You are what you eat. There is no place on earth that can claim to be plastic free. The cormorant becomes a companion species
The Northern Lights seen here on the right come from an artificial Guano production site. Here attempts are made to mend the metabolic rift and get ‘back to nature’. In an hydroponic farm system symbiotic relations are created between a fish called Tilapia, and a basil plant. Tilapia originates in the river Nile. The shit from the Tilapia is converted into artificial guano, that is fertilized water, high in nitrate. Since Tilapia is not native to German ecosystems, according to German regulations its guano may not come in contact with the soil outside. The fertilizer can therefore not be sold as any other commodity. The basil plant is therefore soaked in the fertilizing water, on site, and the water then brought back to the fish, with a high concentration of oxygen. The two life forms, the fish and the plant, are kept in separate rooms. The Tilapia likes it hot or around 28 degrees Celsius. The basil not. Strictly speaking, no soil is needed for this hydroponic farming system, but the customer, supermarket-chain Rewe, requested there to be soil.
In an attempt to recreate the Humboldt sneeze and his feeling for nature, I want to invite you outside, backstage, into the sand dunes of the bathing area of Malzfabrik. From my excursion in Nida I brought back a dose of black tar. I made the tar by keeping the bark of dead trees in a closed container by an open fire. This black and oily substance is said to be beneficial for the skin. So please, come outside and enjoy the Northern Lights, I will give you a scent of the tar, and you will see if your scrotum contracts in a sudden spasm while you listen to the jingle of the cormorant.