Editors Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt introduce Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (2017) by saying that “the deep time of geology, climate, and natural science is collapsing into the historical time of human technology.” Our species, Anthropos, “has become an overwhelming force that can build and destroy, birth and kill all others on the planet.”
We can counter this process by noticing what Deborah Bird Rose, in Chapter 3, calls “shimmer,” however. Rose notes that what’s occurring in the extinction crisis is more dire than the numbers of extinct and threatened species indicate. Because everything is connected, “relationships also unravel, mutualities falter, and whole worlds of knowledge and practice diminish…Shimmer, the ancestral power of life, arises in relationship and encounter, so extinction cascades drag shimmer from the world. The loss is both devastating and barely comprehensible…
Shimmer is an Aboriginal aesthetic that calls us into multispecies worlds. I use the term ‘aesthetic’ in a nontechnical way to discuss things that appeal to the senses, things that evoke or capture feelings and responses. Flowering plants, for example, have lures that both entice one’s attention and offer rewards.
In his classic essay ‘From Dull to Brilliant,’ anthropologist Howard Morphy discusses art in the Arnhem Land region of North Australia. His focus is on the Yolngu term bir’yun, which translates as ‘brilliant’ or ‘shimmering.’ When a Yolngu painting has just its rough shape, the artists describe it as ‘dull.’ The crosshatching that comes next shifts the painting to ‘brilliant,’ and it’s the brilliance of the finely detailed work that captures the eye. Bir’yun is the shimmer, the brilliance, a kind of motion that brings you into the experience of being part of a vibrant and vibrating world, the ephemeral dance of it all.
In contrast to Morphy, I didn’t work with people who were visual artists; I encountered people who focused on ritual performance, connecting bodies and earth through dance and song. In music, there are multiple temporal patterns, and through them one can also experience shimmer.” The seasons, from the dullness of the dry to the shimmering new growth of the wet, pulse this way, too. “Absence is potential rather than lack. This is where one grasps the awful disaster of extinction cascades: not only life and life’s shimmer, but many of its potentials are eroding…
The term bir’yun, which doesn’t distinguish between domains of nature and culture, is characteristic of a lively, pulsating world, not a mechanistic one – a world not composed of gears and cogs but of multifaceted, multispecies relations and pulses. To act as if the world beyond humans is composed of ‘things’ for human use is a catastrophic assault on the diversity, complexity, abundance, and beauty of life.”