Jeannie Baker is a big name in Australian picture books. She has made such a wonderful body of work over the years. The illustrations in her books are all photos of the amazing, intricate collages she makes, and her books often deal with environmental themes or urbanisation. I've read most, but not all of her books, and seen a previous exhibition of her artwork.
I'd somehow never heard of Jeannie Baker's new book Circle until I walked into my favourite bookshop and snatched it off the shelf recently. I read it standing there, then I bought it. I was rather excited. You see it's about migratory birds, and bar tailed godwits in particular. I stalked godwits in New Zealand a few years ago and am thrilled to see their extraordinary lives highlighted in this book.
Circle tells the story of the godwits migration, leaving Australia for the Arctic, and later returning. Their departure is witnessed by a young boy, a rather enthusiastic birder, in a wheelchair who longs to fly like the birds.
As with any Jeannie Baker book there are a fabulous set of collages, 23 here. Jeannie Baker began making collages at art school, initially collecting textures, but becoming more representational as an illustrator. Children love pouring over illustrations with lots of detail and Jeannie Baker provides so much of it- there's always a new detail awaiting discovery.
|My favourite Circle collage, a glorious double page|
I was a bit confused by the final image for a while. Why are people shown taking their dogs and horses where they are clearly prohibited?
And what is the boy doing with that dog? It helps to realise that it is not his dog that is chasing the birds into flight. The boy casts down his crutches and binoculars and is trying to stop the dog from charging at the birds. In one of the videos linked below Jeannie explains that she was using the boy to show that we can all individually make a difference in our local area.
There is an Author's Note at the end giving more information about godwit migration, and a Godwit Migration Map.
There is an exhibition of Jeannie Baker's marvellous collages for Circle travelling Australia at the moment, and will be for the next two years. I can't wait to see it somewhere. The exhibition is then proposed to follow the path of the godwits internationally and be shown in Alaska, South Korea and China.
You can hear Jeannie Baker talk about Circle here. And an interesting SMH profile of the artist here.
Coincidentally I recently listened to an amazing 4 part radio documentary Flying for Your Life, an ABC and BBC coproduction. It complements Circle beautifully. If you can access these extraordinary episodes I'd highly recommend it. I learnt so much from each episode. Episode 1 is in Australia and explains our main threats to shore bird populations here - development, environmental degradation and dogs. It also describes how a migration actually starts.
Episodes 2 and 3 deal with the Yellow Sea, the most important staging and feeding areas for their migration north. The Yellow Sea is shallow and provides 20% of the world's fishery products. Sadly two thirds of the intertidal habitat of the Yellow Seas has been "reclaimed", i.e. destroyed in the past 50 years. It is funny to hear North Korea described as the "biggest organic farm in the world" and portrayed as possibly the saving grace for migratory birds. It had never occurred to me that people could eat shore birds before.
Episode 4 tells of the behaviours of the birds in their Northern summer breeding grounds in Alaska and Russia. Here global warming is the biggest threat to the birds, they are starting to hatch at times to miss out on the peak feeding times and are becoming smaller birds with smaller beaks. The birds completely change their foods for the southern and northern hemispheres, and change their body composition to prepare for their flights. The birds appear to monitor air pressure to time the start of their migration, and can fly at up to 80 km/hour! Bar-tailed godwits fly nonstop, up to 1500 km per day to travel the 11-12,000 km from Alaska to Australia and New Zealand in 8 or 9 days.