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Of Birds and Barley

I saw them during my fieldwork, hundreds of swans in the fields, whitecaps on oceans of gold. The endless bevies struck me as an impressive example of what Kantian aesthetics calls the mathematical sublime, the experience of being awestruck by natural features of an immense magnitude, size, or number. But to the farmers I met, these flocks are nothing more than constant reminders of ecological imbalance. I saw the agitation during my fieldwork: defensive body language, irritation in voices. The wariness of the swans, circling and scanning the fields.

“Of Birds and Barley” explores the contentious protection of whooper swans in Iceland. While swans are widely admired for their beauty and beloved for their symbolic attributes, they are cursed by others for their role in agricultural damage. Is there a way to reconcile cultural values, economic interests, and ecological integrity?

This essay, originally published in Orion (in print and online, Summer 2020), is an adaptation of my MSc thesis in Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Iceland. Through interviews, field observations, and review of the literature in conservation biology and the environmental humanities, I examine the biopolitics that shape conservation policies around an iconic species. “Of Birds and Barley” was selected as Editor’s Choice of the issue.

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