Upside down all their days
night wardrobes their singleness for them.
Each bat, alone, puts off crowding and chatter,
once above the perches he becomes the unfolded, far-speeding, upward-sidestepping hawk-owl-outflying one.....The Flying-Fox Dreaming, Les Murray, Australian Poet
To media artist and documentary photographer, Lisa Roberts, "Grey-headed Flying-foxes are upside-down contortionists that can addle the human brain. I sometimes flip the images so that humans can better read them."
She works from her cliff edge studio in the town of Bairnsdale overlooking the Mitchell River, the largest, wild (un-dammed) river remaining in Victoria.
Roberts has re-vegetated her patch of riverbank with rare endangered Blue Wattle and luscious native foliage that echoes ancient Eucalyptus woodland. In a nearby drift of poplars a permanent nursery colony of Grey-headed Flying-foxes take annual refuge.
Bairnsdale is the 'gateway' to Far East Gippsland on the south-east coast of Australia. It is an area of some 21,000 square kilometers encompassing national parks, old growth forests, mountain high country, a ninety-mile long ocean beach, the extensive Gippsland Lakes and rivers system and a large indigenous population.
Roberts lives right in town but she has a 'ring-side' seat to observe the seasonal traffic on the "river highway" where "flying and swimming species breeze up and down the river." Flocks of cormorants, pelicans and occasionally dolphins follow the schools of fish. Cockatoos fly up river in the morning and down river in the late afternoon and each Autumn she begins to photograph the resident Flying-fox colony.
They are Megachiroptera - the large Grey-headed Flying-fox (P. poliocephalus) species. They are listed as threatened under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The colony is a maternity camp where they give birth and raise their young. She has slowly become attuned to their behavior, their complex social interaction, breeding habits, nurturing of their young, their intricate anatomy, intelligent eyes and extraordinary hand-wing span.
The Flying-fox colony has slowly drawn Roberts into to a meticulous investigation of the species. She monitors fledgling scientific research programs and consults experienced field naturalists. She underpins her work with regular field trips to the coastal wilderness, lush rain-forest gullies, river gorges and towering Eucalypts to photograph the native forest habitat of the Flying-fox and to gain understanding of their role as long-range pollinators.
As an artist fully trained in media and photography (University of NSW College of Fine Arts, Sydney) Roberts brings a range of visual documentation skills to this task as well as a lifetime of connection to the regional environment and its rich and diverse ecosystems.
In her bid to map the plants of a pre-Colonial landscape she followed the example of botanists searching through historical archives, photos and paintings to reconstruct the flora and fauna of the native forests.
Her images challenge the mythology that has demonized the Flying-fox species over centuries.
There is substantial evidence that the Dreamtime culture of indigenous clans integrated the flying fox into their totems, kin and stories. Professor Deborah Bird Rose has explored the indigenous people’s Dreamtime stories of flying foxes going back to creation, stories that link them into kinship and their matrilineal totems. She articulates the strong human and non-human connection to Flying-foxes including their role to remind the Rainbow Snake to bring rain.
Deceased indigenous artists such as master bark painter George Milpurru depicted the Flying Fox Dance Yirritja Njärra as custodians of the Nlyindi sacred site now in the National Museum of Australia. ThanaKupi (Dr. Dorothy Fletcher James A.O) Australia's seminal indigenous ceramic artist of Queensland engraved Guiree, the Flying-fox into her oxidized stoneware pots that she referred to as her "story pots." Flying-fox Dreaming, a painting by George Djelminy of Milingimbi Northern Territory on Stringybark (Eucalyptus) is housed in the National Gallery of Victoria collection.
(These images are subject to strict copyright but may be accessed via the above underlined hyperlinks at the time of publishing)
These precious artifacts now housed in Australia's leading museums and galleries contain important knowledge that helps to restate the traditional significance of the Flying-fox still tainted by the myths of Stoker’s 19th century Gothic novel Dracula and its associated European folklore.
At the local level Roberts has spearheaded an awakening in the community to the ecological significance of the "bat" colony on the river and stirred up a political maelstrom, one that typifies the cultural issues associated with the co-habitation of human and non-human species.
Complaints by a group of riverside residents about the noise and smell of the colony have led to potentially lethal eviction strategies driven by local government authorities. Indeed, the East Gippsland Shire officers have secured an exemption that overturns the Conservation Act and which enables them (with conditions attached) to remove the poplar trees in which they roost. This 'knee jerk' style of management solution by local government authorities has seen conflict emerge in communities right up the east coast of Australia where many similar colonies of Flying-fox have sought refuge in urban neighborhoods.
Scientists have been slow to unravel why Flying-fox colonies migrate into urban centres.
Roberts has set up an on-line community network entitled Pteropus poliocephalus (the scientific name for Flying-fox) where experienced field naturalists, conservationists and enthusiasts monitor the research programs, share and test information. They document action by local communities engaged in protecting vulnerable Flying-fox colonies.
Roberts pursues her direct investigation through the camera lens with fresh eyes and a growing recognition of the vital interconnection between the colony adjacent to her Mitchell River frontage and the diverse ecosystems of the region.
She captures the characteristics of the flying-foxes and observes their complex social behaviors.
The older members of the colony hang, she notes, in the central branches of the roost while the cheeky young males hang and play noisily on the outer branches. She captures babies maturing as they begin to stretch, crawl and then hang next to their mothers for short periods.
Initially intimidated by outbursts of intense noise and excited communication in the nursery, Roberts observes that physical conflict is rare "possibly because their anatomy is too delicate and they could tear each other to shreds with their strong, sharp claws and also because they also appear to share food and the nurturing of the young."
"I think of Flying-foxes as giant long-range bees carrying large pollen loads over distant, fractured eco-systems."
Her images capture the extraordinary wingspan that enables them to fly distances of up to 60 kilometers at night to feed on the protein rich pollen and nectar of nocturnal flowering Eucalypts and shrubs. Poet Les Murray dubbed them "finger-winged night workers" and according to Dr Les Hall (Conservation Biologist, University of Queensland) the native flowers that only truly open at night have co-evolved with night-time pollinators - moths, sugar gliders, feather gliders, native marsupial mice and some owls - "but it is the Flying-foxes that are unique for their long-range pollination".
Roberts is determined to make sense of their strategic role in the macro environment and to reverse the ignorance that fuels their satanic, disease carrying reputation.
The task of a documentary maker is to bring truth to life.
She experiences the anxiety and sense of urgency that goes with taking responsibility for a threatened species not only because she has grown to understand and respect their role in the wider ecological context but because she cohabits with the colony as neighbors. As a documentary artist she has a forensic interest in the Flying-fox colony and their viability.
"We seem to understand that no bees equals no food. No flying foxes will be the death knoll for our native hardwood forests."
She is concerned about the impact of the controversial Victorian $41 million budget for "bushfire fuel and risk management ('burning-off') programs" and native forest logging. On her regular weekend field trips to monitor the destruction of nectar rich Banksias, a keystone species that feed the Flying-foxes in their native bush habitat, there is growing evidence that they are unable to regenerate between burns. This suggests unsustainable destruction of old trees and native ecosystems.
In the meantime Robert's continues to monitor the roost in town. In the discomfort of insects descending on the river at dusk when most activity occurs at the colony, she opens her shutters and goes to work on building her visual documentary file.
She is aware that by flipping her images upside-down she attracts disapproval from the purists and naturalists but Roberts brings an artistically trained eye to the visualization of the Grey-headed Flying-fox colony. It is a pertinent example of the potential for greater collaboration between artists and scientists in their bid to communicate science and facts to the skeptics in our communities and bureaucracies.
JOMO ( Jo Moulton) December 2017
For further reading on Flying-foxes:
Professor Deborah Bird Rose Adjunct Professor in Ecological Humanities at UNSW.
Hall, Leslie, and Greg Richards. Flying Foxes: Fruit and Blossom Bats of Australia. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2000.
Les Murray, The Flying-Fox Dreaming Selected Poems: The Vernacular Republic Australian Poetry Library