A bird’s-eye view of mass extinction



Throughout her life time, Block Island resident Elizabeth Dickens (1877­–1963) amassed a assortment of 172 stuffed birds—whenever a person died, locals would convey her the specimen—which she made use of to teach the island’s young children about ecology. Her life and work tell “Taken from a Cat,” a solo exhibition by the Brooklyn-primarily based artist Katherine Wolkoff that remains on look at at Benrubi Gallery in New York by June 18, 2022. The present options forty photos displaying Dickens’s handwritten labels recording how each individual bird died, and 5 much larger landscape views of the island made with a lensless camera. Below, Wolkoff discusses these works—an “index of death”—which are also a sobering reminder that approximately 3 billion birds have disappeared from North America considering that 1970. 

I GREW UP Heading TO BLOCK ISLAND simply because my father worked for the Character Conservancy for about thirty several years. I initially realized of Elizabeth Dickens as a baby when a mother nature preserve was named in her honor there. In 2005, I saw a poster about her on the Block Island ferry, and turned intrigued in photographing her hen selection. I was earning silhouette portraits at the time, and it appeared a fitting way to photograph the selection, given that the silhouette is these an vital software in bird identification. At that time, I also photographed about six of the tags, which resided in my memory.

Dickens, like each and every of the tags, has these kinds of an interesting narrative. She lived on Block Island her whole existence and was a self-taught ornithologist and citizen scientist. She lived in a remote spot, by no means married, and viewed the birds migrating by means of her turkey farm each period. In addition to currently being an avid birdwatcher, Dickens was a devoted journal keeper. On February 1, 1913, she built her first entry: “Gannet 12, Canada Goose 10, Herring Gull 75, Tune Sparrows 3, Meadowlark 5, Horned Lark 12.” She wrote day-to-day entries for the next fifty many years, listing each and every bird she saw. The journals chronicle her life and information of the pure world. “I stand on the bluff at Dickens Point at midday and glance east, west, south and north with glasses and cannot see a fall of h2o, just just one sheet of motionless ice,” she wrote in 1918.


Katherine Wolkoff, Barn Swallow, 2021. pigment ink print, 6 1⁄2 x 8",

The tags stand in for the true birds and are hung in flock-like formations on the gallery wall. As I expended time in the fields creating the extended pinhole exposures, birds flew in excess of me, but I was not equipped to get them in the photographs. My incapability to photograph them is by some means relevant to their perilous existence. These birds are threatened in so quite a few ways due to habitat destruction and weather adjust. So a lot of my previously get the job done is also about absence, the silhouettes of people and birds, as nicely as deer beds—impressions still left by sleeping deer in grass. Because the pinhole has no viewfinder, I could not see what I was photographing, and this felt critical as the resulting pictures ended up a lot more out-of-control and ephemeral. The publicity periods have been also out of my control—six seconds for sunlight, 20-6 for an overcast day—and there was a large amount of failure associated. The ensuing illustrations or photos are chaotic, in motion, and have a desperate feeling—exactly how I visualize migrating birds experience when landing on Block Island.

One of my favorites in the present is the American Egret’s tale that reads, “Alighted on fishing vessel ‘Friars’ on George’s Lender during N.E. storm April 2, 1931. Introduced to Block Island by Capt Alfred Jacobsen who gave the specimen to Fabyan Allen who donated it to this collection.” This is a wonderful hen with extravagant plumage, and I like to consider about the care it took to move this useless fowl from man or woman to person so it could be incorporated in the collection. Somehow the text reminds me of a sea shanty or The Rime of the Historic Mariner. There are numerous species in the collection that are seldom found in North The usa, like the Northern Lapwing, who ought to have gotten caught in a enormous storm or misplaced, considering the fact that they typically dwell in Europe as well as the Spectacular Frigate chook, whose regular assortment is Florida to Ecuador. 

The horizon line in the photograph Snake Hole tends to make me feel about how the birds navigate 1000’s of miles making use of the stars and their internal navigation to find their way. It is nonetheless so shocking to me that these fragile creatures journey these kinds of long distances. Birds primarily migrate at evening, and I examine a little something about how in excess of a million go as a result of the night sky throughout migration, wholly unseen by humans. I like to believe this cliff landscape is what they see in the dusk as they depart from Block Island to keep on their journey. 

There is a extended custom of land conservation and habitat defense on Block Island. Persons there who hold employment generally viewed as incompatible with environmentally friendly politics—like dairy farmers, fisherman, and hunters—have been environmentalists for generations. I think it is in portion the legacy of Dickens that produced this possible. I am drawn to the narrative of the place becoming a resting spot for birds, and the remarkable attractiveness of the cliffs, but the fields sense like house to me. I am intrigued in the way these tags, from more than a hundred several years ago, foreshadow the precipice on which we now sit. The tags are not “about” local weather improve for every se, but the way they are an index of demise feels modern as so a lot of species experience extinction.