#Resident’s Notes – Maarja Pärtna


Nida notes No.1

On my first day in the International Centre for Translators and Writers, something hit my window with a loud thump. I went outside to see what had happened, and found a treecreeper on the ground. A treecreeper is a small brown mouse-looking bird with a downcurved bill that forages trees for insects, creeping up tree trunks in a spiral motion. It lay on the fresh grass, stunned, but alive. Hoping it would recover, I decided to leave it where it was and went back inside.

Keeping my eye on the bird, I continued to work on an essay about the shifting baseline syndrome, a concept used to explain why it’s difficult to have a meaningful connection to biodiversity loss. In short, our sense of the natural world is based on our early experiences with our surroundings. We tend to take what we see around us as the norm, and presume things have always been more or less the same. That’s how we develop so-called baselines.

Biodiversitly loss happens relatively slowly and gradually, often spanning generations in human time, and is therefore hard to percieve. Some creatures might have become lost long before we were born, but we might not be aware of it at all. If treecreepers had died out a hundred years ago, how would I know they used to be here as vital parts of the ecosystem, if I’ve never encountered any? And would I miss them? Maybe I would, if I were an ornithologist, who was educated in detail about birds. But we can’t all be scientists, and don’t need to be, because culture and literature have an important role to play in helping us make sense of these things, too. I think stories that engage deeply with environmental history are good at countering shifting baselines, because they allow us to see human experiences in a wider time frame, and help us understand how environments have been transformed over long periods of time. In a way, stories informed by environmental history restore our memory.

After an hour, the treecreeper was still there. I was worried. So I went outside, to see how it was doing, thinking I should put it in a darker and more hidden spot to help it recover, perhaps under a young pine tree across the street, or on one of its lower branches, if it can hold on to it.  I picked it up as gently as I could. It was so incredibly soft and light, I felt like I was holding a single feather. Suddenly, it took off, flying towards the forest of the Curonian Spit, to continue living its one wild and precious life.


The “Artist Residencies” project is funded by the Nordic Council of Ministers.


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