A bird’s-eye view of mass extinction

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Throughout her lifetime, Block Island resident Elizabeth Dickens (1877­–1963) amassed a collection of 172 stuffed birds—whenever one died, locals would bring her the specimen—which she used to teach the island’s children about ecology. Her life and work inform “Taken from a Cat,” a solo exhibition by the Brooklyn-based artist Katherine Wolkoff that remains on view at Benrubi Gallery in New York through June 18, 2022. The show features forty photographs displaying Dickens’s handwritten labels recording how each bird died, and five larger landscape views of the island made with a lensless camera. Here, Wolkoff discusses these works—an “index of death”—which are also a sobering reminder that nearly three billion birds have disappeared from North America since 1970. 

I GREW UP GOING TO BLOCK ISLAND because my dad worked for the Nature Conservancy for over thirty years. I first learned of Elizabeth Dickens as a child when a nature preserve was named in her honor there. In 2005, I saw a poster about her on the Block Island ferry, and became interested in photographing her bird collection. I was making silhouette portraits at the time, and it seemed a fitting way to photograph the collection, since the silhouette is such an important tool in bird identification. At that time, I also photographed about six of the tags, which resided in my memory.

Dickens, like each of the tags, has such an interesting narrative. She lived on Block Island her entire life and was a self-taught ornithologist and citizen scientist. She lived in a remote area, never married, and watched the birds migrating through her turkey farm each season. In addition to being an avid birdwatcher, Dickens was a devoted journal keeper. On February 1, 1913, she made her first entry: “Gannet 12, Canada Goose 10, Herring Gull 75, Song Sparrows 3, Meadowlark 5, Horned Lark 12.” She wrote daily entries for the next fifty years, listing every bird she saw. The journals chronicle her life and details of the natural world. “I stand on the bluff at Dickens Point at noon and look east, west, south and north with glasses and can’t see a drop of water, 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 actual birds and are hung in flock-like formations on the gallery wall. As I spent time in the fields making the long pinhole exposures, birds flew over me, but I was not able to get them in the photographs. My inability to photograph them is somehow related to their perilous existence. These birds are threatened in so many ways due to habitat destruction and climate change. So much of my earlier work is also about absence, the silhouettes of people and birds, as well as deer beds—impressions left by sleeping deer in grass. Because the pinhole has no viewfinder, I could not see what I was photographing, and this felt important as the resulting pictures were more out-of-control and ephemeral. The exposure times were also out of my control—six seconds for sun, twenty-six for an overcast day—and there was a lot of failure involved. The resulting images are chaotic, in motion, and have a desperate feeling—exactly how I imagine migrating birds feel when landing on Block Island.

One of my favorites in the show is the American Egret’s story that reads, “Alighted on fishing vessel ‘Friars’ on George’s Bank during N.E. storm April 2, 1931. Brought to Block Island by Capt Alfred Jacobsen who gave the specimen to Fabyan Allen who donated it to this collection.” This is a beautiful bird with fancy plumage, and I love to think about the care it took to pass this dead bird from person to person so it could be included in the collection. Somehow the text reminds me of a sea shanty or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. There are several species in the collection that are seldom seen in North America, like the Northern Lapwing, who must have gotten caught in a massive storm or lost, since they normally live in Europe; as well as the Magnificent Frigate bird, whose usual range is Florida to Ecuador. 

The horizon line in the photograph Snake Hole makes me think about how the birds navigate thousands of miles using the stars and their internal navigation to find their way. It is still so shocking to me that these fragile creatures travel such long distances. Birds mostly migrate at night, and I read something about how over a million pass through the night sky during migration, completely unseen by humans. I like to think this cliff landscape is what they see in the dusk as they depart from Block Island to continue their journey. 

There is a long tradition of land conservation and habitat protection on Block Island. People there who hold jobs often viewed as incompatible with green politics—like dairy farmers, fisherman, and hunters—have been environmentalists for generations. I think it is in part the legacy of Dickens that made this possible. I am drawn to the narrative of the place being a resting spot for birds, and the dramatic beauty of the cliffs, but the fields feel like home to me. I am interested in the way these tags, from over a hundred years ago, foreshadow the precipice on which we now sit. The tags are not “about” climate change per se, but the way they are an index of death feels contemporary as so many species face extinction.

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