‘Birds are our literal canary in the coal mine’

Jony Easterby

Immersive night-time adventures into a ‘wild avian landscape’ are taking place this week as part of Brighton Festival. Artist Jony Easterby explains why he and his team created the woodland trail, inspired by the flight – and plight – of birds

I, like so many other artists I know, have become struck dumb by the impending crises of climate change and global catastrophe. Everything I had previously worked towards which I thought to be socially important, aesthetically pure, and culturally relevant suddenly felt dubious, even negative. I need to address my fear for the future but also work with forces that symbolise hope, beauty and timelessness.

These creative strands can be confusing, but I have learned to go with the flow: nothing ever comes of forcing the vision in the wrong direction. One day while kayaking on the Dyfi Estuary in Wales, exploring tides while thinking about rising sea levels, I travelled upstream to investigate a vast honking flock of geese during their summer migration. As I paddled around the strandline, I noticed that there were thousands of primary wing feathers on the sand and in the water.

I need to address my fear for the future but also work with forces that symbolise hope, beauty and timelessness

These seemingly fragile objects belied their history and purpose. Geese lose all their wing feathers in the summer and become temporarily flightless. Before this, they had been subjected to thousands of wing beats, across thousands of miles of migrations, through storms and seas. On a whim, I pushed the quills of two feathers inside each other and used a pin to create a spindle. To my delight, it became a perfect and very efficient miniature wind turbine.

Over time, I began to talk to likeminded artists about building a show. We began to design, collect and build sculptures, installations and collect video that reflected the various aspects of birds, their lives and indeed their deaths alongside human relationships. The trail, For the Birds, evolved as a way to talk about these issues.

It invites people on a meditative and immersive, self-guided journey through wild landscapes after the onset of darkness. The environment is transformed by 30 bespoke light and sound installations. As transient and light as the birds themselves, these installations have been created using a mixture of low tech, low power equipment, using low energy lighting and small scale multi-speaker systems, electro-acoustic performances, projections and kinetic sculptures. The show was first staged in collaboration with the RSPB at the Ynys-hir bird reserve in west Wales, and has also been staged in New Zealand.

Although we are celebrating their lives, our birds are in a state of crisis, both in reality and within our show. Under the surface of each piece is a darker tale. We look at their catastrophic population loss, extinctions, dystopian representations, of habitat destruction, layers of artifice and disrupted migrations.

The birds in our show are rapidly disappearing from our lives. We have replaced them with artifice, technology and at worst a simulated televisual version of nature. What remains in our show are fragmented remnant ecologies, human bird imitators, birds imitating humans, caged cuckoo clocks, digitally reconfigured flocks and even a 78rpm recording of nightingales from 1939, accompanied by a cellist.

The birds in our show are rapidly disappearing from our lives. We have replaced them with artifice, technology and at worst a simulated televisual version of nature

The more I thought, read and experienced about the lives of birds the more I believe that these extraordinary and beautiful creatures are the key to talking about the state of our planet and understanding our relationship to nature and humanity. To save them is to save ourselves.

Birds offer human imagination, mystery and beauty, of other lands, other ways of being, of resilience and of renewal. They are sign-bearers, omens. They are our literal canary in the coal mine.

They transcend boundaries and make us realise there are no real borders, no isolated languages, and patterns of migration as long as time itself. The global focus on nurturing garden birds testifies to the fact that their presence makes us feel good. But what about when we interact with birds directly and face their physical and ecological reality?

Through art and a little artifice, For the Birds aims to bring joy and wonder to our experience of our avian friends, whilst questioning our history in helping preserve their beauty, life and song for future generations.

For the Birds is being staged, at a secret woodland location, as part of the Brighton Festival, until 28 May. Click here for more information

Images: John Nguyen


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  • LossExperiment

    Birds are our literal canary in the coal mine, only if they’re literally canaries in a coal mine. What you should have said was that they’re our metaphorical

    canaries in a coal mine.

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