RECOVERY

by Michael Engelhard

The scene on the highway’s exit ramp caught me off guard. A stout woman, in her sixties perhaps, with glasses and frizzy brown hair, dressed in sneakers, jeans, and a sweat-shirt, stood near her parked truck, transfixed by something in the grass. Bicycling closer, I noticed she was Native American and the object of her attention was a bird plump as a chicken and glossy as obsidian. Fascinated by all wildlife and fond of aerobatic corvids clowns in particular, I stopped on the gravel shoulder. The raven’s left wing dragged; feather tips skimmed the grass. The chisel bill hung ajar, as if its owner were panting, displaying the mouth’s soft lining. With each blink, white nictitating membranes closed on the bird’s eyeballs like camera apertures freeze-framing the world.

“It’s injured,” the woman offered, stating the obvious. “I’m trying to take it to a vet.”

I asked if she needed a hand, and she went to the truck, returning with a sweatshirt. Noon sun ironed my back, undeterred by clouds like gray paunches that sagged toward the horizon. As cars sped by, curiosity flickered across the drivers’ faces. Oblivious to the streaking of traffic and pain, the bird focused on the more imminent threat we represented. Each time the woman approached, it hopped beyond reach, tucking the hurt wing close to its body, as a person would a dislocated arm. Circling around, I distracted it long enough for the woman to throw the shirt over it. She stooped, nimbly for somebody so compact, and scooped up the raven before it could wiggle free.

We walked to her truck and I opened the door.

“Would you like to come to the vet?” she asked. “You could hold it while I drive.”

I wedged my bike and backpack full of groceries into the truck and got in. En route to the opposite end of town, she rang a friend who had worked in bird rehabilitation. She already had called that friend for advice as soon as she spotted the bird.

“I got it and am driving to the vet now. A guy is helping me.”

Through fabric my fingertips sensed the bird’s heart. Unable to tell terror from resignation, I listened to its labored breathing, worried that it might suffocate or overheat. A scaly leather foot, tipped with lacquered claws, had escaped from the wrap, and pressed against my belly. Occasionally, as frost heaves or cracks in the pavement shook the truck, wings brushed against my breastbone like spruce boughs or a book page. I had never been that close to a raven before.

My grandmotherly accomplice, Margaret, recalled how she had trapped a raven by accident when she still lived in her village up north. She had been setting snares to catch rabbits; to her surprise a raven stepped into one of her loops. She released it and, getting stabbed in the process, came to respect the bird’s moxie and imposing bill.

Research for a school paper she had to write turned up little scientific information about corvid-human interaction, but Margaret unearthed a wealth of raven lore, knowledge rooted deeply in time, accounts and beliefs that branched far beyond North America into Siberia and Europe.

She could have learned about charcoal sketches in the caves near Lascaux that depict corvids and imply their importance to early humans as messengers or even as human souls. Or that, in Norse mythology, two ravens named Thought and Memory perched on Odin’s shoulders, gleaning news of the world on daily excursions. And that without stars to guide them through summer’s nacreous midnights, Norse settlers released hrafnar and trailed the black scouts landward in their single-mast ships.

Illustration from an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript depicting Huginn and Muninn sitting on the shoulders of Odin. Courtesy of Árni Magnússon Institute, Iceland / Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout the northern hemisphere this bird attended shamanistic flights of trance. It was teacher and totemic ancestor. It stared bug-eyed from the limbs of family trees along the Pacific Northwest coast, populating genealogies hewn into cedar trunks. Kwakiutl dancers acknowledged the bond by wearing masks with four-foot-long bills that closed with whip crack sounds. Crow-walking under the spell of gourd rattles, they became birds. Other raven masks split like seedpods, revealing a second mask and thus the deception of first impressions, the hidden nature of things. In the mythology of Margaret’s own people, the Gwich’in of the Yukon and northeast Alaska, Raven acted as trickster and transformer. In the course of his exploits, he often suffered violence or deformity, comparable to the bird I was cradling. Vulgar and petty, scheming and greedy and often not very smart, he embodied the sacred and the profane, the light and the shadow inside each one of us. At the beginning of “Distant Time,” he created not only humans, but also animals, some of which looked after people as guardian spirits. As part of a bargain between species, people honored obligations, obeyed unwritten rules, and offered gestures of attentiveness, feeding dried fish to a wolf they had killed, or not disturbing a raven on its nest, lest the weather would turn cold. In a mythical age that for believers is present to the same degree that it is past, Raven stole daylight for his creations, which until then scrambled around in the dark. Inspired perhaps by the bird’s love for shiny objects or by a solar eclipse, one tale told around midwinter fires recounts Raven’s theft of the sun. A chief in the sky had given the orb to his child as a toy. When the toddler dropped it and it rolled into the room’s corner, Raven covered its glow with his wing. Then he flew back to earth with it, illuminating the world of people. His benevolence is believed to assume the form of actual ravens that guide hunters to fresh wolf kills, moose or caribou, the bounty of which feeds entire families. Villagers in Alaska pay close attention to the living environment, and a raven rolling onto its back in midair is “dropping a package of meat,” announcing good fortune for the observant.

I told a few anecdotes of my own. On a snowy Fairbanks sidewalk I once found evidence of a raven meal: a scuffle of rune prints, banded feathers, and at the display’s center a grouse foot. During a Grand Canyon trip, fat twin marauders in search of food hacked into my backpack and pulled out smelly socks. (I had been mad enough to fling rocks at them.) Similarly, a mile above timberline on Denali’s buttressed heights, ravens had made the connection between bamboo wand markers and the food caches climbers left in a snowdrift, excavating peanuts, cheese, and beef jerky with great gusto. While many climbers consider them flying rats, many other Alaskans, like myself, have a soft spot for them. In downtown Sitka, I saw car drivers wait patiently for ravens to grab a meal on rain-slicked Harbor Drive instead of honking their horns or trying to squeeze by or to run over them.

As our conversation progressed, Margaret and I realized we had common acquaintances in a city of seventy thousand that can be as tight as a village, among them my former Native-language teacher. Our conversation, which had begun as a trickle, meandered from the invalid bird to its kin until the current widened, roiling raw stuff to the surface.

Between raven stories nestled Margaret’s confession that she was a recovering alcoholic. She hinted at divorce, at a step- or adoptive parent. Her children and grandchildren lived as far away as Tucson, and she rarely saw them. Beadworking had given her strength to pull through. “It keeps my hands and mind busy all the time,” she told me. She talked about her style, how she kept seeing images and patterns in nature, which she then translated into art. Craft and expertise ran strong in Margaret’s family. Her mother had passed on the gift; at age fourteen, she had fashioned a fringed, shell-and-bead-encrusted hide shirt for Margaret’s great-grandfather, a chief. It now hung in a display case at the university museum on the hill above town—a snippet of culture enshrined.

When we finally reached the clinic, the raven felt heavy and warm, like a swaddled, if damaged, foundling. The bird’s weight on my belly released feelings that, for a non-pet person sworn to childlessness, welled up unexpectedly. I imagined how easily an observer could have mistaken our trio for a family rushing its infant to an emergency room.

There was an entrance for dogs and another for cats, but none for birds. We stood in the air-conditioned office’s neon glare, with sterile surfaces and posters that advertised pet health care. I sweated where the cotton bundle touched my body. Margaret tugged on her T-shirt, admitting coolness to her skin. While a receptionist had her fill out some paperwork, my arms tired and I braced them on the Formica counter. The bird squirmed again and let out a rusty squawk; I tried to keep a good grip, mindful not to break feathers or injure it even more. Before long, a veterinarian’s assistant took it into another room. She returned to hand Margaret her soiled sweatshirt.

“I’ll have to wash this,” Margaret said calmly.

“What will become of the bird?” I asked the receptionist before we left.

“The vet will see what she can do,” she said. “We’ll check with a rehabilitation place here in town, and when the bird is ready it will be released where you found it.”

Back at the truck, Margaret volunteered to drive me home. On the way there, we talked some more. I wondered aloud if it was even legal to pick up or keep wildlife. “Let ’em come find me, if they want,” was all she said. Before I stepped from the truck, Margaret showed me photos of her traditional yet innovative beadwork, paraphernalia of many-hued glass that she sold at church bazaars: garlands offsetting inspirational poems, necklaces culminating in bear pendants, tanned-hide discs blushing with floral designs, and wall hangings embroidered with the sign of her people’s adopted faith. I asked for her phone number in case I ever needed a customized gift.

I intended to let Margaret know the outcome of our rescue mission, but, for personal reasons, I also needed to follow this story to its end. At the time, my writing, if not my curiosity, had almost ground to a halt. The world did not seem to provide any new plots. Words did not come easily anymore and, when they did, mimicked flowers pressed in a book more than the green fertile mess that threatened to swallow my yard. But the minute I closed the cabin door, I grabbed pen and paper, and sentences began to form.

The next day, I rang the clinic to inquire about the patient’s condition. The diagnosis was bleak and the outlook even more so. As the result of heavy trauma, typically caused by collisions with cars or windowpanes, the raven had broken a wing bone and dislocated a shoulder and would never fly again. It shared the fate of many residents-turned-trespassers, an opportunistic lot that includes ants, magpies, rats, coyotes, deer, and here in Alaska, gray jays, bald eagles, and bears. Often lacking familiarity with technology’s traps, as well as the luck to dodge development, these camp followers glean from our tables, our henhouses, our backyards, our interstates. We’ve created predator-free havens filled with tidbits and trash, and they flock to them. An attentive observer can witness a trick bag of raven slyness outside of supermarkets, or marvel at how they dive into greasy Dumpsters, haggle over scraps, or, heads cocked sideways, gauge the speed of traffic before dashing onto asphalt to peel off mangled rabbit flesh. Such scavenging devalues them in the eyes of some people who regard them as vermin. But is the ravens’ defiance of human plans and conventions not a kind of wildness?

Some creatures become so familiar that our perception of them dulls. They blend into the landscape as if plumage or fur were a camouflage coat. When we do take notice, we sometimes label them “common” or consider them vulgar, but there is nothing common about this rogue bird, except for its manners. Of all my wild neighbors, it is the one that seems the most human.

Raven at the Headwaters of Nass hat, Seattle Art Museum attributed to Kadyisdu.axch’, Tlingit Kiks.ádi clan, active late 18th – early 19th century. There are human figures crouching within Raven’s ears. Photo by Joe Mabel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At Prudhoe Bay’s oil fields, ravens begin to nest in late March, at minus thirty degrees. With no twigs free of snow, they requisition unusual nest-building material: welding rods, plastic cable ties, copper wires, survey stakes. Some assemble to meet incoming cargo, waiting at the airstrip for the plane’s arrival. During the unloading, they raid food crates, rip open the packaging, and sometimes hide loot in industrial structures, away from patrolling foxes. As soon as the snow melts, they waddle after lemmings; they pilfer eggs and chicks from migratory birds. They mostly ignore oil field workers but will avoid a researcher who previously trapped them, recognizing the enemy even when she wears borrowed coveralls and a hard hat in disguise.

Ravens handle cold snaps of minus fifty degrees or below far better than they do cars. Their physiology enables them to prosper anywhere between the Sonoran Desert and the Arctic Ocean. Reminiscent of Raven’s mythic coup, they capture minute amounts of sunlight with their dark, absorbent plumage and fluffed up retain precious body heat. Sheer size, combined with stockiness, helps these largest of passerines to preserve life under winter’s harsh cloak. On clear winter days, you can surprise ravens with spread wings that are sunbathing on the ground or rolling exuberantly in heavenly down. If you sit still enough, long enough, in a Fairbanks parking lot, vignettes of urban raven life will accumulate: Seven birds aligned on the back of a truck, eyeing its garbage-strewn bed and clucking at the sudden bonanza. A pair locked together in midair, tumbling tails-over-heads, scattering feathers as if in a pillow fight. A scruffy loner extracting ketchup packets from a plastic bag, stashing them in snow piled around the foot of a parking meter for future consumption. They live like street bums or heroes fallen from grace; some people take this as a sign that the ancient spirits no longer care for their animal manifestations. But not me. Fledged under Alaska’s raw skies, the birds still belong more in this place than I, a transplant from afar.

In Distant Time stories, Raven as the trickster and culture hero often tripped over his own appetites. Left alone, its descendant, the specimen Margaret and I had brought into the clinic, also was likely to meet a bad end. Without the use of a wing, it would starve or fall to the next predator crossing its path. The vet was still trying to contact the only qualified bird rehabilitator in town. If that person could not give it refuge, the raven would be euthanized. Appalled by the news, I wanted to take it home but discovered I needed a permit and an appropriate setup for keeping a wild animal. The vet refused to free the bird and, detecting my frustration with clinic protocol, reminded me that I had interfered with nature’s workings when I helped retrieve it. But, I wanted to shout into the phone, I’d stepped in only because our kind caused the accident in the first place.

I called again the following day, a Sunday. The receptionist kept me in a limbo of Muzak laced with commercials. When she came back on the line, she informed me that the bird had been put down. I pictured the vet thrusting a syringe through the iridescent mantle into warm flesh I had held. As jet black button eyes lost their luster, I wished for one less story to tell.

When I phoned Margaret at work the next morning, she had already heard about the mercy killing. “Too bad,” she said while I gripped the receiver. Regret and compassion colored her voice, and an entire people’s weight rested upon those two words.

Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon and of the essay collection American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, from which this essay has been excerpted. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic. michaelengelhard.com

 

Header image – Raven at Dawn. Photo by Bryant Olsen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On Sighting a Bald-headed Eagle

by Julie-ann Rowell

Steep above me, on the handle
of a red cedar, sits white-haired
fish eater, steering for a chance.

I wait for his drop
to the rocks, flash of brown feather,
giant yellow feet, comic

in a jagged sense. This art
of danger I’ve never
learned, this turn, this complete

dependency on prey. A flurry
of effort and his wings are flapping
flat on the surface of the creek,

as if broken, but he lifts his body
off and up, his talons empty,
to wing to the stem he chose.

Julie-ann Rowell’s first pamphlet collection, Convergence, published by Brodie Press, won a Poetry Book Society Award. Her first full collection, Letters North, was nominated for the Michael Murphy Poetry Prize for Best First Collection in Britain and Ireland in 2011. She has been teaching poetry in Bristol for ten years.

POW

by Ian McLachlan

Shaking palms snap
buzzing machine heart
thwack of wheels
shouts
under red skies;
in hiding.
Are they born
mad? We say
they are born mad.
They bare their
white teeth.
Bang.
Staked out
on log stretchers
each a bag of meat
a black purse
of meat my kin.
The plain torched.
Their war
on the world.
They show me off
a prisoner of war
rap the glass
to get me
looking
shuffling forward
into the light.
Closer. Click
click, click
is their sound.
Look my hands
are like theirs.
I catch the tang
of animal on them
how ignorance
also cages.

Ian McLachlan’s writing has been published in a number of magazines including The Rialto, Magma, Aesthetica and Under The Radar. He has a cat named Calcifer who likes to put mice in his trainers, and tweets @ianjmclachlan.

Shelter

by JoeAnn Hart

White caps rolled in sideways from the ocean, little waves hello from a storm tossing around in the Bahamas. A chill wind pushed a mist over Port Ellery; not enough to make Duncan close his truck window but enough to soften the world. It might be mean weather for early October, but inside, he was radiating a tropical front. Orders for the spring season were pouring in from nurseries around the country for Go Kelp! fertilizer, his new mix of dehydrated fish waste and seaweed fertilizer he’d created at his family business, Seacrest Ocean Products of Maine. This bounty, this unexpected burst of sales, this lifesaver thrown to him as he was going down for the third time, he owed to a seagull. They’d saved one another. The bird had a six-pack holder wrapped around his neck, strangling himself on the beach, but Duncan was able to catch him in a feat of daring that had been caught on camera and posted on YouTube, making them both minor celebrities, the bird a symbol of hope in hopeless times. The gull was still convalescing at Seagull Rescue, where Josefa had named him Kelp, inspiring the name of the fertilizer. Seacrest’s marketing consultant was considering putting the bird’s picture on the label since their fate seemed spliced together now. Fans had been leaving offerings at Seacrest’s for Kelp and Josefa’s other rescued gulls: Cases of sardines, medical supplies, stuffed animals, and most important, checks. Leaf peepers swung through town to see the beach where Kelp had been saved, with hopes of meeting Duncan, the gull’s savior. His maintenance man, Wade, kept them out of the factory, but profited by selling photo-copied directions to Josefa’s for $2.00 a pop.

“Don’t take advantage of their devotion like that,” said Duncan.

Wade mocked insult. “A public service,” he called it, and perhaps it was. The city’s streets had been laid out in the 1700’s on top of mule paths, then randomly marked as one-ways, so getting into the center of downtown was a challenge even for natives. Duncan wished he had one of those maps right now as he found himself trapped on multiple dead-ends or driving against one-way traffic as he tried to navigate the inner world of Port Ellery, a grim corrective to its public face of beaches and clam shacks. Narrow streets rose up sharply from the water, joining at the top to create a high mound of old brick buildings. Altitude had protected them from the sea over the years but the salted wind and reflected sun had aged them. A wet day like this gave them a dark luster. Josefa lived on the other side of the hill where the newer housing—meaning built sometime in the last century—looked older still. Vinyl clapboards were chipped and bent back exposing foil innards, and satellite dishes sprung from eaves like warts. Dirt yards were landscaped with swing-less playsets and the only color in the neighborhood came from plastic flowers at the Madonna bathtub shrines. As he circled the streets, lace curtains opened, then closed, and he felt himself being scrutinized. With some sense of accomplishment, he pulled up to Josefa’s at last, a single-family home that was this side of complete dilapidation and had the acrid smell of penned birds. The lawn was white with droppings. On the locked, chain-linked gate, there was a sign: “Sshh, Kelp is sleeping.” Josefa was nowhere to be seen but he heard her dogs barking inside. In the course of looking for sick gulls, she often picked up other needy animals, especially in the weeks after Labor Day when the summer people left, abandoning their pets. She found homes for them all eventually, but this time of year she still had a full house of dogs, cats, cockatiels, guinea pigs and even a ferret. When he climbed down from the pick-up, a half dozen cats were sitting in the branches, as solid as sandbags, staring at him.

He took his cell phone out of the zippered pocket of his windbreaker and dialed Josefa. She opened the upstairs window and even though they were only twenty feet apart they continued to use the phone. Josefa had a mild speech impediment which caused her to talk in stops and starts, and raising her voice would only make it worse. “Mrs. Delaney called to say you were … on the way over,” she said. “So did Mr. Potts. Guess you were driving around. In circles.”

Duncan looked down the street. If they all knew where he was going, why didn’t anyone bother to show him the way? “And then you locked the gate?”

“Oops,” she said. “Forgot I did it. They won’t leave us alone.”

“They?”

“Kelp’s admirers. Dear souls. Money’s pouring in through the web site. If this keeps up …. I’m going to have my dream. A proper seagull rescue home.” She looked wistfully down at the yard. A blinding white cockatiel came up behind her with a flurry of wings and settled on the windowsill. Josefa, a child of the 60’s, did not believe in cages and even the ferret ran free.

“I have checks for you,” said Duncan. “Does that let me in?”

“Goody,” she said, and she clicked off the phone. She brushed the cockatiel back in the house with her arm and closed the window.

As he waited for her to come down he examined the yard. A few gulls were in cages, some stood still, hunched up, deep into themselves. The healthier ones limped around trying to maneuver around the piles of flotsam Josefa had assembled over the years, a maze of buoys and lobster pots, tangles of driftwood and buckets of seaglass. There was a mountain of seine nets—ghost nets, she called them, the ones that floated free to entangle whales and diving gulls. She took what she could off the beaches so they could not be washed back out again, then found homes for them during tomato season as trellises.

The door to the house opened in an explosion of dogs who stormed the gate. When Josefa swung it out, two little ones still clung on for the ride. Duncan stepped in and Josefa pushed the dogs back with her foot as she latched the gate again. “What are you wearing?” he asked.

She pulled the bottom edge of her baby blue sweatshirt out so he could admire the words “Go Kelp!” superimposed over a soaring gull.

“Nice advertising for both of us,” he said. “I’ll sponsor the next batch.”

“Look who’s talking… money,” said Josefa. “Sponsoring no less.”

“It’s good having money again,” said Duncan. “I just hope it stays this way. You’re doing pretty well yourself.” He pulled a wad of envelopes out of his pocket, all filled with checks.

Josefa took the envelopes and splayed them out like a hand of cards before putting them in her back pocket. “My daughter, Lavinia … the architect? Wants to come home. Plans to make her name designing my ‘facility,’ as she calls it. She sees a white building with arched wings to create shade for the outdoor cages.”

“Seems like a lot of design for a place gulls come to die,” said Duncan.

“You’ll be glad for good design when it comes your time,” she said. “Maybe it’ll be all that matters.” She pushed the dogs back into the house so Duncan could bring the supplies in. “We’ll even have a crematorium …. which should warm your heart. We won’t have to dispose of them at Seacrest’s.”

Josefa could not possibly dig enough graves for all her failed rescues, so she sometimes threw them down Seacrest’s waste chute that led to the grinder, the first step towards dehydration. It was more nitrogen for the fertilizer mix but it made Duncan very uneasy.

“In the end, it’s all about disposal, isn’t it?” he said. He filled his arms with cases of sardines and carried them over to the storage shed. He put them down and picked up a sign. Buoys, $10.00. “Since when have you started to sell your collection?”

“When people started to buy it,” she said, pawing through a bag of stuffed animals. She pulled out a red plush crab and tossed it to a wiry dog who caught it mid-air. “I’m selling eel heads these days too.” She pointed to a white five gallon bucket that sat up on a cage, out of reach of the dogs. Scrawled on the bucket were the words, Eel puppets—2 for $5.00.

“Gross,” said Duncan, peeking in.

“I get them for free down at the dock … dry them out in the sun. The kids love them. The heads don’t hardly smell after a while.” She picked one up and stuck it on her finger. “Hi Duncan,” she said in an eely little voice. Then she gave it a good sniff, but there was no trusting a nose that lived with that many animals. She put it back and picked up a box of white and gray feathers. “Their favorite is still seagull … feathers” She lowered her voice. “I say they’re all from Kelp.”

“How is my boy?”

“Oh, he’s fine.”

“Can I see him?”

“Duncan, when you’ve seen one seagull … you’ve seen them all.”

This was not like Josefa. Usually she bombarded him with minute differences between individuals. He looked over by the fence, and in the finest of her cages was a gull and a thickly-lettered sign saying “Kelp.”

“There he is,” he said, and walked toward him.

“Oh … Duncan,” she said, then turned to busy herself with creating order in the shed.

Duncan squatted next to the cage and greeted the bird, who stood in profile, looking rather noble with its blunt beak. He thought of the bird’s beginning, its dramatic break out of its isolating shell to discover itself in a cozy nest with other young gulls and doting parents who brought food, and in time, freedom, showing it how to lift its wings and leave that nest, off to lead the life of a bird, floating over land and sea, swooping like an angel over this earthly existence. To think that a creature so intricate and grand could be brought down by a lowly piece of plastic.

“Hi Kelp,” he said. The bird looked at him with a dark eye, turning its head from side to side to bring him into its vision, appraising him with no recognition. Some gratitude. It moved a step closer to the wire and tilted its head with a look that read: Food? When it saw that Duncan had none it turned its back. Its feathers were dirty and the injured wing still hung limp by its side. There was not much that could be done for badly damaged birds. If they weren’t already in shock when they were picked up, aggressive treatment might stress them into it, a point from which very few returned. Sometimes the only thing to do was to give them a quiet place to wait it out and hope they would heal themselves, which seemed to be the ticket for Kelp’s head. Around the beak where the six-pack holder had dug in was completely healed over. In fact, the feathers were fully grown in. A miracle.

“Maybe too much of a miracle,” he said out loud. He considered the wing hanging by the bird’s side and thought back to the month before when he held Kelp under his arm. He was sure the bad wing had been on the left. This was the right. He stood up and turned to Josefa.

“That’s not the gull I saved,” he said.

“Isn’t it?” she asked, continuing to stack boxes.

“No,” he said. “It’s not. Unless he healed one wing and then broke the other.”

She put her finger to her lips, leaving her work to join him by the cage. She looked around and spoke in a whisper. “I have something to tell you Duncan. It didn’t heal. Kelp died.”

Duncan looked at the bird and felt a stab of sadness. Even though he knew the chances were slim, they were chances nonetheless, and now they were gone.

“Then who’s that under the sign that says ‘Kelp’?”

“Let’s call him …. Kelp the II. You have to swear, Duncan. Not a word. People will lose enthusiasm. I won’t ever get the new place.”

“You’re lying?” Duncan asked. “About a seagull?”

“People have gotten very attached. No one can know.” She reached her hand through the cage and the gull pecked at it. “I’m on the alert for gulls that looks like Kelp … or can be made to look like Kelp. Like this one. I’m going to need a really good bird in a few weeks that’s only a little injured. I can tidy him up and set him free. I’ve talked to the mayor about calling it Kelp Day. A national TV station wants to cover it.”

“Josefa, I’m sort of surprised.”

“Why? A little lie to benefit an entire species? It’s not like I’m taking the money to live in Aruba. Keeping Kelp ‘alive’ is going to help … everyone. New clean housing, medicine, veterinary care, a flight cage. All the things I could never afford. Hard to be in a position to want to help only to have your hands tied by lack of money. We’ll bring seagull rescue to a whole new level. I have a crew of volunteers now who search the beaches and help feed and clean. I’ve been swimming hard to keep up with the tide … now I want to float in with it.”

Duncan put his hands in his pockets and made fists. Of all the people he knew, Josefa had seemed the most honest and trustworthy. What did it say about the human species if even she could be tempted by money and fame? “It’s the thin edge of the wedge, Josefa.”

“Think about the greater good. Speaking of which.” She turned away, back to the storage bin and took out a lumpy trash bag. A webbed claw broke through the plastic. “Could you dump this at Seacrest for me?”

“No!” Duncan said. “With all those tourists hanging around waiting for me to rescue another gull and you want me to dispose of one?”

“Two,” she said. “It was a bad day. That’s why I put the ‘closed’ sign up … so I could move bodies around. Go ahead. Do it after closing, who’s to know?”

“I’ll know,” he said. “And lately everything that I do the world seems to know. I couldn’t even drive here today without a constant report on my progress. I can’t do it.”

And yet he followed Josefa out of the yard and through the gate to his pick-up, where she dropped the bag on the ground. “Duncan, I’ve never seen a man fret so much over the silliest things … It’s a couple of dead gulls. Give them a useful afterlife.”

“Josefa, I’m worried enough about the new mix as it is. My lab guy tells me he’s finding traces of plastic.”

“Plastic?”

“The fish eat plastic granules thinking they’re food, and then the plastic ends up in the guts I process for fertilizer. Now we have to somehow separate these microscopic bits out, because if the fertilizer is used in food production, the plastic continues to break down and causes hormone disruption. You’d think fish and seaweed would be completely clean but there’s nothing pure in this world anymore.”

“I don’t think nature can still produce a pollutant free fish,” said Josefa. One of her seagulls squawked and they both turned to look at it. “Goodbye, Duncan … do what I say. Take care of that bag.”

The mist had changed to spitting rain and he put his hood up. Josefa went back into the house, joyfully welcomed by the dogs, with their muddy paws and muzzles caked with seagull dung. She loved them anyway, and her love for them would find them homes. He looked over the yard to the cage that held the false gull. It was love that fueled her lie about Kelp. After all that effort to save him and he’d died anyway. It was hard to pin too many hopes on life, considering the competition. He stood for a moment as the wind tunneled up the hill from the harbor, whistling around him. High above, seagulls wheeled in the air, crying like lost souls. He picked up the bag of dead birds and threw it in the back of the truck. “There’s nothing pure anymore,” he said to the lifeless bag.

“Nothing pure but death.”

JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novels FLOAT and ADDLED, and her short fiction, essays, and articles have been widely published, most recently in Orion magazine and Design New England.

Endless

by Lisa Kemmerer

Activist-philosopher-professor, Dr. Lisa Kemmerer is the author/editor of nine books, including Eating Earth: Dietary Choice and Environmental Health; Animals and World Religions; and Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice.  Known internationally for her work, she has most recently been invited to speak in Europe, Asia, and South America, as well as across the United States.  To learn more about her work, visit lisakemmerer.com.

Mauritius – Paradise Regained

by Danielle Clode

As the plane tilts on its final descent, a sharp gasp is drawn in unison from the passengers as we catch an unexpected glimpse of our destination in the late afternoon sun. Angular volcanic peaks jut almost vertical from a green plateau, ringed by glistening white beaches in a sea of the most astonishing blue. Ripples of reef enclose viridian bays protected from oceanic breakers. In its pristine isolation in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Mauritius presents a picture-postcard image of idyllic tropical beauty.

By the time we land, night has fallen with sudden equatorial surety. The warm darkness gusts through the open-plan airport, redolent with the earthy aromas of fecund humidity and decomposition. Tourists struggle to pile overloaded suitcases into taxis, en route to beachside hotels and villas and trailing the scent of coconut sunscreen and holiday indulgence. I lower the window of the taxi, enjoying the warmth. We slip between rows of thick vegetation and I catch glimpses of the vast sugarcane fields through a tangled regrowth of guava, eucalypt, lantana and privet. Weeds, I think instinctively. I can’t help myself. Tropical paradise or not, Mauritius is famous among conservationists for reasons other than its beauty. It is an island synonymous with extinction.

Dead as a Dodo. Grumpy, fat, stupid, flightless – reality has been subsumed by a wealth of fictional representations in books and movies. When humans first arrived on Mauritius, in the early 1600s, the Dodo was abundant in the lowland coastal forests. The Dodo became an easy source of food for hungry sailors, its eggs favoured by rats and its forests stripped of timber for visiting ships. The last mention of a living Dodo was in 1688. It disappeared before we even learned what it was like.

The Dodo heads a long list of Mauritian extinctions. Isolated for millions of years, the rich endemic plant and animal life of this island diversified and evolved almost without any mammals – without humans. Fruit bats were the only mammalian colonists and bird life flourished – much of it unique to the island. Yet in the 400 years since human settlement, over 100 plant and animal species have disappeared: including two giant tortoise species, a giant skink and two fruit bats, thirteen bird species, and at least thirteen endemic snails. Several of these species went extinct before even being described—probably the early victims of rats from visiting ships and shipwrecks, as well as predation by introduced cats, mongooses, and monkeys. We only know of their existence from cave deposits and subfossil records in the Marre swamp region.

Deforestation has played a major role in the ecological tragedy of Mauritius. In little more than a century, from the 1730s, more than half the island’s native vegetation had been removed. Today less than 2% of Mauritius is covered by native vegetation. The rest is cultivated by agriculture or covered with a mongrel mix of introduced environmental weeds.

It’s hard to even imagine this highly modified landscape covered in the ebony forests for which Mauritius was once famous. I wonder how many visitors even notice the loss. Ebony once provided the highly prized black timber for piano keys, furniture and jewellery. The largest trees were thousands of years old, their stocks soon exhausted by harvesting. Today, the remaining protected forests are dominated by small trees and harvesting is no longer possible. Almost a third of the island’s endemic plant species are critically endangered, some represented by just a handful of known specimens.

I visit the neatly manicured lawns of the Curepipe Botanic Gardens to see some of the survivors. The loneliest palm in the world, Hyophorbe amaricaulis, stands here in splendid isolation, encased in cyclone mesh and scaffolding, subject to increasingly desperate, yet fruitless, efforts at cultivation. No-one knows if it grew here wild or was planted in the garden, but it stands in mute testimony to the untimely extinction of many of the islands unique plants and animals.

This terrible legacy may not appear to bode well for Mauritius. By the 1970s, many of the endemic land birds of Mauritius were critically endangered. The once-widespread population of Mauritius Kestrel had been reduced, largely by pesticide use, to the rarest bird in the world, with just four known individuals in the wild. The Pink Pigeon population had been reduced to just ten individuals. The striking Echo Parakeet numbered a mere twenty-five and rarely bred successfully, while the tiny red-headed Mauritius Fody and exquisite Mauritius White-eye were similarly on the brink of extinction. And yet, despite this dark ecological past, Mauritius today is looking to set a new, and altogether brighter, record in modern conservation biology. Today, Mauritius can boast of having saved more species from near extinction than any other country.

The conservation crisis on Mauritius came to public attention in 1976, when British naturalist Gerald Durrell described the wildlife of Mauritius as ‘hanging on to its existence by its fingernails’ in Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons. He was underwhelmed by his first view of the rare Pink Pigeon, but having captured one to take back to his Jersey Island Zoo for captive breeding, he changed his mind. On closer inspection, he noted the ‘vivid and beautiful’ colours of pale chocolate, rusty red and cyclamen-pink.

‘It was a remarkably handsome bird,’ he later wrote. ‘Gazing at it, feeling its silken feathering against my fingers and sensing the steady tremor of its heart-beat and its breathing, I was filled with a great sadness. This was one of the 33 individuals that survived; the shipwrecked remnants of their species, eking out a precarious existence on their cryptomeria raft.’

Without intervention, many Mauritian species would face the same sad future as the Dodo. Durrell’s Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust took up the task of promoting conservation and captive breeding efforts for Mauritian wildlife which had already begun locally. The establishment of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation in 1984 provided a focus for local and international conservation efforts.

Early work concentrated on saving those species most at risk, even when such efforts seemed in vain. The chances of the Mauritius kestrel recovering from a population of four seemed unlikely and, to some, not worth the effort and cost of trying. Initial efforts to artificially incubate eggs failed. But the conservationists persisted, removing eggs from the nests of wild birds and providing supplementary food to the pairs, encouraging them to lay replacements. Slowly the number of young produced each year increased, both in captivity and in the wild. By 1984, there were 50 kestrels in the wild and today there are estimated to be around 400 in three populations on opposite corners of the island. With bans on the pesticides that precipitated their rapid decline, the Mauritius kestrel is no longer considered to be critically endangered, merely vulnerable.

The story of the last surviving parrot in Mauritius follows a similar path. At the time of human arrival, the Mauritian forests were home to three parrots. The Broad-billed Parrot was a large grey-blue parrot with a heavily crested head and a raucous crow-like cry. Thirioux’s grey parrot was similarly coloured, and described by early visitors as being exceptionally tame and social, with large flocks of birds apparently coming to the call of a single captured individual. By 1764, following widespread forest clearances, both parrots were extinct.
Only the bright green Echo Parakeet has survived on Mauritius—and only just. Despite being extraordinarily abundant, the population was reduced to fewer than 12 individuals by the 1980s. Unlike their introduced cousins, the ring-necked parakeets, Echo parakeets are forest specialists, rarely feeding on the ground or in the open. Having survived intensive hunting by humans, they found themselves in an ever shrinking habitat as forest clearance radically altered the Mauritian landscape.

At the time conservation efforts began, few of the known wild pairs of Echo parakeets were breeding successfully in the wild. Some individuals were taken into captivity as an insurance policy. Eggs were collected and hand-raised and malnourished juveniles were rescued and rehabilitated before re-releasing into the wild. Artificial nest boxes were provided to replace the old-growth cavities, lost to logging, on which parrots depend for breeding. Supplementary feeding near nest and release sites significantly increased the breeding success of the birds and by 2011, more than 500 individuals were recorded in the wild.

The program has not, however, been without its setbacks. In 2004, conservationists attempted to create a new subpopulation. Of the 36 birds released, 32 died in an outbreak of beak and feather disease. This was not due to lack of genetic diversity (often blamed for such problems). Echo Parakeets have retained high genetic diversity despite their population crash. But they do suffer from an excess of males in the wild population, the cause of which remains a mystery.

Like most mainland species, recovery of both the Mauritius kestrel and the Echo parakeet continues to be limited by a lack of suitable habitat and the impact of introduced plants and animals. The birds are vulnerable to mongoose, rat, cat and macaque predation on adults and young, while invasive plants choke the tiny pockets of forests to which they are largely restricted. Greater success, however, seems to be had on some of the offshore islands, where predators can be removed and native vegetation restored.

A glimpse of what Mauritius might have looked like before Europeans first arrived here four centuries ago, can be seen on one such island, Ile aux Aigrette. I took a short boat ride across the clear green waters of the sandy Mahebourg Bay, to the island, perched precariously on the dark pockmarked rocks of coralline limestone, Here, the thin sandy soil supports a regrowth dry coastal forest of spindly ebony trees, spiky dracaenas and elegant palms. It is not so lush, less welcoming, as a holiday-brochure image of a tropical forest, but it has the palpable candour of authenticity about it. It feels real – like all the components belong.

The island has nominally been a nature reserve since 1965, and since 1986 has been the subject of intensive restoration efforts by the Mauritian Wildlife Trust. The nursery on the island produces 6,000 plants a year for revegetation work on the island and in other reserves. After years of work removing invasive weeds, the island began to recover, but it was not until rats were eradicated that the ebony trees began to regenerate. This forest is now home to the only wild population of Pink Pigeons, whose numbers have been restored from just ten individuals in 1990 to over 400 today, although not without some difficulties. In 1994, a newly hatched pigeon chick was taken by a Mauritian kestrel in an improbable case of the imperilled eating the endangered. As we walk through the forest, our guide points out the Mauritius Fody, characterised by their red-headed males in the breeding season, while tiny Mauritius White-eyes flicker and zit with irritation through the bushes and trees around us.

Aldabran Tortoise. Image courtesy of Danielle Clode.

A wrinkled neck emerges from the undergrowth. Smooth polished shell and elephantine legs follow. The giant tortoise turns to watch our approach with equanimity, the remains of a leafy meal slowly masticating in its jaws. The guide motions us around, putting his hand on the animal’s head. Its eyes widen, pushing against the man’s hand like a cat soliciting affection. It moves closer, clearly enjoying the attention as he strokes its shell which, we learn, is sensitive to touch.

Both species of Mauritian giant tortoises, once so important as herbivores and seed dispersers in the lowland forest ecosystems, have been extinct for almost as long as the Dodo. When the Dutch first established a regular stopover point in the harbour now known as Port Louis, they called it Rade de Tortue – Harbour of Tortoises. The large tortoises provided meat, oil and entertainment. One barrel of oil could be obtained by boiling down 500 of these creatures. Their ability to survive without food or water for up to six months meant they were a valuable source of fresh meat on long sea voyages. And their broad backs and sturdy determination lead to tortoise racing, carrying up to four people on their backs. By the early 1700s both the Domed and the Saddleback Tortoise were extinct, along with their cousins on the other Mascarene islands of Rodrigues and Reunion.

Without these giant tortoises, there was little hope of the Mauritian forests being authentically restored to their original ecological balance. And so the last surviving species from the region, the giant Aldabran tortoises now take their place on Ile aux Aigrette and Round Island, providing an additional refuge for this endangered species and providing both the island, and its visitors, with a replacement for the species which have been irreplaceably lost. Since their arrival, the tortoises have brought many non-native weeds under control and significantly increased the germination and dispersal rates of the ebony trees. These gentle natured beasts are the gardeners of the Mauritian forests, slowly and steadily returning the islands to their natural glory.

Other reptiles have also found refuge on predator-free offshore islands. Bright-eyed geckos, in brilliant green or mottled camouflage, scuttle through leaf litter, sunbathe on posts and slip silent into shadows. Several species of night geckos have made their home in the reserves of Ile aux Aigrette and Round Island as well as Guenther’s gecko, Telfair’s skink and the only Mauritian snake, the Round Island boa. Seabirds too, whose breeding colonies on the mainland have been devastated by predation, are also being relocated to Ile aux Aigrette and other protected island locations as fledglings, in the hope that they will one day return here to breed in safety.

Despite a long history of extinction and over-exploitation, and the ongoing economic issues of a small, isolated, resource-poor economy, Mauritius is attempting to build a future in sustainable development and tourism. The hard-learnt experiences of Mauritius have taught us the value of combining captive breeding, hand-rearing and in-situ breeding strategies to bring species back from the brink to which we have pushed them. With further habitat restoration and the continuing conservation efforts of a small band of dedicated researchers and wildlife staff, perhaps one day Mauritius will be better known for the fairytale story of the species it has saved rather than the species it has lost, and its great natural beauty will be reflected, not just in its white beaches and blue seas, but also in its revegetated forests and rich biodiversity.

Danielle Clode is a zoologist and author of several natural history books covering topics as diverse as co-operative killer whales, bushfires, Pacific exploration and prehistoric creatures. She is also an essayist and fiction writer. Details of her work can be found at danielleclode.com.au

Requiem

by Karen Lloyd

In the spring I’ll travel to the valley –
a witness to the sky-dance
of the last Golden Eagle, writing
his own elegy across the clouds.
Riggindale’s cragged bridal nest,
a heathered double bed
in which each year the female laid
another barren egg. Each year
the eggs collected, bequeathed
to the museum; archived, boxed,
retained behind the scenes.
An unproductive cist of eggs,
one, bone-white, an elongated moon,
cratered by its own demise.
Another, brindled gold. A third
the patina of umbered valley earth.
Another splashed with a stain like
rain, mountain-dripped,
slowly seeped beneath the feathered
warmth. One more, marled sienna
as if marked by the sun itself.
A hollow case of promises,
of reasons not to be.

There were rumours of others,
hidden in the west.
Defended day and night
by men in camouflage – but still
the eagles failed.
A box of golden eggs, a fairy-tale;
a curation of what might have been
and what was not. Then this
the sixth, drawn with a looping
calligraphic script; a code
we are unable to read –
forecasting the end?

In the spring I’ll travel to the valley.
I’ll watch our Goldie launch himself
from Eagle Crag or Kidsty,
signalling to a mate that never comes.
The landscape holds the memory of flight.

Note:
In February 2016, The RSPB announced that England’s last Golden Eagle was dead. No corpse has ever been found, and sightings are still reported. But perhaps, fed up of waiting for a partner, the eagle simply moved on. In his compelling book, ‘Call of the Eagle,’ Dave Walker details his own efforts to keep the Riggindale eagles fed; without sufficient trees and scrub cover, there is little infrastructure to support small mammal life. The story is representative of much that is wrong in our uplands.

Karen Lloyd is a Cumbrian writer whose work in both non-fiction and poetry centres on the natural world and our relationship to it. Her prize-winning book, ‘The Gathering Tide; A Journey Around the Edgelands of Morecambe Bay’ is published by Saraband. Her next book, ‘The Blackbird Diaries,’ discusses the loss of England’s last Golden Eagle, and is due to be published in 2017.

The Great Egret

by Karen J. Weyant

This time of year, in the middle of October’s bright colors, anything white in nature seems out of place: a McDonald’s napkin, a plastic straw, a Styrofoam cup, a cigarette that has been carelessly discarded before it has been smoked. All are remnants of human invasion; their stark brightness are reminders of places where we shouldn’t be.

This is why I am struck by the stately bird wading through the shallow pond just off Peck Settlement Road. Its wings, as white as starched bed sheets, stand out against the murky waters and the thickets of cattails that are slowly splitting and dying.

I drive past this pond every day on my way to work, often very early in the morning when night hasn’t quite let go of its grasp. On these Autumn days, my drive is often foggy, so I have to pay extra attention to the road in front of me. White-tailed deer linger in the shadows, as well as wild turkeys, groundhogs, rabbits, foxes, and even the occasional black bear. Children stand at makeshift rural bus stops, often located at the end of dirt roads. Although I am sure they have been told not to wander out onto the highways, they are children afterall, and even a small amount of jostling may send a wayward second grader sprawling in front of traffic.

This white bird fascinates me. I pull over for a better look. Pure white birds are rare in this area. There are gulls and pigeons, but both kinds of birds are marked by subtle shades of gray. Occasionally, a Tundra Swan will get blown off course in migration, and just two years ago, rural Western New York, along with much of the northern United States, was treated with a Snowy Owl irruption, a term that always makes me imagine a volcano that spews feathers and wings, instead of what it really means which is that there’s an unexpected, and many ways, unexplained invasion of white owls from the Arctic tundra.

Still, I readily recognize that the bird in front of me now is not a snowy owl. This bird, I will later find out, is a Great Egret. “They are rare in this area,” says Jan, who is a biologist on the campus where I teach. “But not terribly unusual,” she qualifies, telling me to enjoy the sight because the bird probably won’t stay for long.

Later, I thumb through the pages of my worn field guide, and I find its drawing on page 49. The description notes that the Great Egret is a slender white bird that has a yellow bill and black legs and feet. Yes, this looks like my bird.

The range map, however, is a little confusing. Shading on a small thumbnail map shows that the Great Egret makes its home along the east coast and the states in the far south. The interior is splattered with spots marked with two disclaimers: internal breeding sites very localized and range expanding. In other words, it seems to be rather hard to track the egret away from its normal coast line hangouts.

As I study the map, I notice there is no shading over my part of the world. This egret seems to be far from home. Jan is right. The bird won’t be here for long.

Still, as the days turn into weeks, the bird stays.

****

One morning, when I find myself lingering too long on the side of the road while watching the egret, I think of the stories my father would tell me about the white buck that used to come out in the fields behind the factory where he used to work. Mostly, it was the workers coming off third shift who saw the deer, its white glow bright in the morning mist.

My father admired the buck, talking about it at home. But he cautioned me to never harm a white animal. “Bad luck,” he said. I don’t know where this belief came from, except that it reflects other superstitions about animals that are seemingly out of place. Many of these beliefs have sightings of specific birds as bad omens. A sparrow loose in a house, for instance, means that someone in the home will soon die. A Barn Swallow that settles near a home foretells poverty. And an owl, any kind of owl really, that appears in the day suggests that bad luck is soon to follow.

There is no question that the egret is out of place here. I hope its appearance is not an omen of bad luck or sorrow or grief. I have had enough of sadness.

I am recovering from a particularly hard summer. In early June, I received the news that a colleague of mine had died suddenly during a routine surgery. “She was enjoying retirement,” a friend told me. “It’s a shock.”

The following week I lost a student who had been in my creative writing class just the year before. More devastating news came when I learned that another former colleague and mentor had died after losing her battle with brain cancer. She was only 59 years old.

Then, July came, and Anthony’s father who had been in ill health for many years was placed in hospice care. A week later, he died, leaving my husband with these words, “I don’t know how to feel about my father’s death.”

I lost my mother seven years ago. I don’t say that there is no one right way to feel. I don’t say that the loss will never go away. I don’t say that the world will suddenly look different, although it will be hard to explain why. I don’t say that it’s disorientating to look at a landscape that should be so familiar, but suddenly isn’t.

I don’t describe that landscape out loud. Still, I remember how in the weeks before my mother’s death the weather had been alarmingly warm, especially for the Snow Belt of rural Pennsylvania. Temperatures reached into the eighties, and on a walk through the woods that were located just a few blocks from our apartment, I had been amused that the only white I had seen were leftover milkweed seeds that were floating on parachute fluffy strands through the air.

After my mother died, temperatures plunged and suddenly my world was coated in ice. Roadside guardrails were bent in twisted ways that I never noticed before. Trees stood barren, with a few withered leaves clinging to branches that were shredded and torn. Dried sumac berries that once brightened gray winter afternoons now only looked faded and worn. Wildlife had virtually seemed to have disappeared, with even the few song birds like chickadees shivering miserably in the cold.

Still, life went on, as the often quoted cliché suggests, and that winter broke. Instead, of adding any kind of happiness in my life, I was angry. How dare the world move on as if nothing had happened? How dare the landscape struggle to look the same when nothing in my life would ever be the same again?

Now, as I watch the egret wade through the shallow water, I think of two close friends who are fighting serious illnesses. I don’t know if either will be with me a year from now.

Scientists frown at the concept of anthropomorphizing, or giving human characteristics to animals, but as I watch the egret, I can’t help but wonder if it does feel lost. There is so much here that has to look familiar: shallow water and songbirds that cling to dry weeds. But then there are the muskrats that trail through the dark waves, eagerly building their lodges out of leaves, sticks and mud. Wild turkeys hide in the roadside brush, with the occasional woodcock flying through the weeds. These are animals that would not be found in warmer, coastal waters. Even the texture of the waves has to feel different.

The egret turns towards me, suddenly. I am sure that once it catches sight of me it will fly away, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t seem to care that it’s out of place here, that winter is right around the corner, and that a bird that is used to more tropical weather, will find itself lost in these icy shallow waters. It only continues to wade through the murky waters, gingerly, as if it is so sure that there is reason to stay.

Karen J. Weyant’s poetry and prose has been published in About Place, Barn Owl Review, Briar Cliff Review, Cave Wall, Harpur Palate, The Nassau Review, Spillway, Tahoma Literary Review and Waccamaw. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, and teaches at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, New York. Her website is www.karenjweyant.com

Standing on Stromatolites

by Anja Semanco

Let us think about life at the beginning. Not the false beginning in which we picture some kind of wicked finned fish or terrible trilobite rolling around in the primeval waves of ancient oceans. Not the Devonian period in which we consider the brachiopods and ammonites, the slinking swimmers pushing their way through a burgeoning ocean. No, let us think back further. Only a slim billion years after the earth’s formation, as it hurled through the universe like a pebble of rain in a fierce storm. Just moments after the surface finally firmed a semi-stable crust on which life could begin to take hold.

Imagine then an ocean, stretching down to inky black depths, and filled with a profound emptiness. Barely more than water filling rock, like a great sterile cup holding the potential for eternity. The expansive water world replete with nothing more than the lifeless stones and minerals that have pieced this new creation together. The only deep-sea movement arising from magmatic ocean vents, sending roiling flumes of shimmering, searing water bursting from the ocean floor. Rising through the curls of ocean currents as a ritual. And not a creature paddles through the soup to notice.

Float back now to the surface and follow the hull of this primordial ocean, in all its vastness to a clear, warm continental shelf, where the ecotone of empty rock and empty sea meet. This gently sloping mantle of tepid sea water, filled with piercing sun is where it all begins. It starts where everything starts, on the bottom of the ocean.

Here, the sea is not so empty. Here, rising from the shallow bottom like Grecian pillars, stand the slimy mounds of stromatolites. Wadded into gummy black and green piles that hold firm in the shallow pools as sentinels, watching for the molecules of creation to begin. Geologists believe they are earth’s first life form. And although the stromatolites do not know it, they will serve as the assembled platform, the great heaving crust that will eventually breathe all life into the world.

These columnar mounds of archea and cyanobacteria are weaved together in perfect fibrous stoicism on the new earth, in the shallow shelf of the new ocean. As nothing greater than a collection of single celled organisms, they are stitching together the fabric that will support multicellular life.

By day, the photosynthetic cyanobacteria take in the sunlight, while producing a layer of sticky mucus. As the sediment of this early sea settles over them, they migrate upward, forever upward, toward the sun, leaving behind a mound of calcium carbonate and other minerals they no longer require. Tumbled upward and forming a spongy scalp, they accept new light into their wriggling single-celled bodies.

One expelled puff at a time, these simple bacteria let out a breath of oxygen, like the plants we know today. A super organism hauling the breath of life into an atmosphere filled with carbon dioxide. Each exhalation brings the prehistoric world one step closer to cells with a nucleus, cells that gather together to create skin, and gills, and eyes. An insufflation that eventually leads to a nervous system, a brain. To us.

And it all starts here, beneath the waves, in what has long been referred to as the primordial soup, where these simple creatures know nothing more than the ocean waves and themselves. And over time, over the next few billion years, they continue this slow gentle breathing, until the atmosphere begins to take on a different tone. Suddenly an infantile world awakens one morning to find itself filled with a gas unlike any it has ever known. Oxygen. The DNA floating freely in the liquid bacterial bodies notice too. And so they modulate. A helical double twist churns, turning one base pair to another, mutating one letter here and there, until something inconceivable begins.

Life diversifies, accumulates, multiplies, until the liquid oceans are teeming with it. So much so that they burst forth onto land and overflow over the rocks, rocks that for so long knew nothing more than the wind and the rain. And here they are now, feeling the claws and scales and scuttles of this new life wordlessly plowing onto their shores.

The incredible unraveling mystery begins. And so we can look back to our early oceans as a space where the dregs of life accumulated into a deeply textured biota, and know that this is what we are made of. Our blood is saline, we are pumped full of the early oceans. Our cells turn over the molecular oxygen, this universal currency produced by our photosynthetic hosts billions of years ago in the salty shallows. Some of us still regard it as sacred.

Some of us still stand along the coastlines while the stuff of life washes over the pink soles of our feet and we know that it is all one thing. The tenderness of a milky warm tidal pool, the rapture of gale ripping over the shore, it is all intertwined like rope and we are clinging to it for dear life.

And still the stromatolites breathe on. Changing little over a few billion years, but nothing beyond their wrinkled microbial mats stretching up to the sky. They are still recognizable off the coasts of Australia and Mexico today. And still they breathe and breathe and breathe, letting their oxygen bubble up in the sloshing waves, standing in as living fossils, showing the world as it might have been back at the beginning.

The beginning is what I’m searching for. At the top of a mountain in the Snowy Range in Wyoming, I am looking for that baptismal creature, the invigorating confrontation of what is left from the rush of early life. These mountaintops were once the sea level beaches and shallow ocean shelves, clustered with marine life. But geology is a swift river, scarcely waiting a single second before shifting, adjusting to new intricacies. And all of a sudden, wham, the ocean floor is solidified and sitting atop a mountain, and the stromatolites glued like cement to that floor are 12,000 feet up in the air, mineralized, preserved as altars to the past.

The little fragile bodies of the bacteria are of course long gone, but the mounds of sediment they left behind fill with minerals and remain. The act of fossilization operates much like a treasure map, leaving behind just enough bits and clues that you can begin to piece together what might be truth, but equally could be wild postulation that later collapses under the weight of new information.

The ocean erases, but it also preserves and I am seeking the lone survivors that travelled all this way for all this time. The impulse to see the old world is inexplicable and I am overwhelmed by the thought of these husks of life perched on the mountaintop like fierce gargoyles. I know few who are immune to the thoughts of the light and wild wandering of the cosmos. And these oceanic fossils bring me there, bring me back to the beginning of it all.

I am weightless as I hurry over the dirt trails and past glacial lakes. There is a sense of urgency looming over me, that I might miss it. That somehow these fossils will pick up and dissolve just before I crest the final lip of the mountain. I know right where they are. I was here three years ago on a field study and my feet pass over the rocks like fingers over braille. It is all familiar.

I crash through bushes and tree branches along the banks of a glassy glacial pool, and there in the distance, at the far end of the lake, I see it like a cliff, jutting into the water. From here, from the edge of the trail, it might be nothing more than glacial till, a remnant of the mountains past. But I can see its circular brim, the laminations streaking it, waving to me in incomprehensible gestures.

I descend, through alpine buttercups, sunflowers and lupine. Down the bank, and then it begins. The rocks suddenly change and I notice the wave-like striations, folded into one another. Melting together in a pillowy cluster, these are the footprints of creation. The hillside is strewn with bits of stromatolites. But I am racing towards the largest one, the ‘big daddy,’ resting in the water much like it would have done during its biotic years.

I tumble down the alpine grass and come to rest on the stromatolite’s surface. Lying down with my belly against it, I don’t even come close to stretching all the way across. I trace my fingers through the valleys and ridges and if I close my eyes I can hear the ocean waves from billions of years ago. I am lying on our origination. I am lying on the beginning of time. So much of who we are began right here, in this collection of preserved ocean life.

It is here in this glacial lake, lying on this ancient life that I am reminded just how new we humans are. We are soft lanugo on the head of a baby while the earth grumbles as an old man below us. My hand dips into the chilly lake and I imagine an ocean lapping against my fingertips. I can taste salt in my mouth.

I sit like that on the edge of the stromatolite for a long time, letting the cool water run over my hands. We are born from the mesmerizing ocean, with the power to create or destroy in the same swift wave. This is the very stuff of life. This is our inheritance.

And as our inheritance we must recognize that just as the cyanobacteria of stromatolites changed the atmosphere drastically, so we too are changing our atmosphere in extreme ways. Rachel Carson pondered this sentiment as well in her famous book, The Sea Around Us.

“It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.”

We must believe that if a tiny speck of bacteria can alter the course of the earth, then we can do significantly worse. Carson was referring to the testing of nuclear weapons and dumping of nuclear waste in the 1950s. But now we must look to the carbon dioxide we emit. We must look to the acidification of our mother oceans, our earthly wombs. We must watch shelled creatures dissolve before our eyes, and coral turn white as cotton, while we continue to emit, emit, emit.

Carson’s words hold true more than 60 years later, that regardless of when and how life crumples, the oceans will always be there. And perhaps those oceans, after sitting in perfect silence for billions of years when all other life has been obliterated, will begin the living world again as mounds in a shallow sea. A blob of bacteria gathering to create something new.

We are just one more life form jetting our waste into the world. The difference is that we are cursed by the knowledge of our actions and therefore cursed by responsibility.

The sea is our creation story. The sea is our mythology. We arose from it just as mysteriously as any other miracle.

We can look to stromatolites as the irrevocable truth that no matter how small the life, no matter how seemingly insignificant, as a collection, any organism can change the world. As a collection, we are changing the world in one way, but I believe as a collection we can also change it back.

Like the tides, we flow, but we can also ebb. We can pull back our impact.

Geology speaks in time and through our need for consumption, production, progress, we humans are speaking over it. We are yelling louder than geology by speeding up processes that take thousands and millions of years. We are yelling over geology, we are yelling over nature, and we are yelling over ourselves. We are hoarse with all there is to say.

The oceans hear us. They are harboring our toddler like tantrums in the form of depleted fisheries, ocean acidification, miles of slick spilled oil. Yet they are silent. Or so we believe they’re silent. We never stop shouting long enough to listen.

I thought all these thoughts as I lay belly to stromatolite, breathing my own breath of life. The glacial lake became a silent, waveless ocean. The glacial lake was a stilled mind. I was back at the beginning but I was also at the end. From rise to fall it all cycles through whether we want it to or not. We have the choice to show up for it, or wait crouched in the water with our eyes shut tight.

There is something primordial about the silence. I watch the little fishes peak out from beneath the fossil and wondered how much more it knew than I, if only I could hear it.

We are on the cusp of the beginning. We are on the cusp of the end. We are standing on the edge of the oceanic shelf, peering out over what is held below in black water. We cannot know what it contains. We are stromatolites piling up. If we listen, we might hear the depths calling to us, telling us something new.

The sea is our mother, our womb. I leave the stromatolite believing we are kin.

Rachel Carson said, “Eventually man, too, found his way back to the sea. Standing on its shores, he must have looked out upon it with wonder and curiosity, compounded with an unconscious recognition of his lineage.”

 

Anja Semanco is a Boulder, Colorado based writer. Her graduate student work at the University of Colorado Boulder focuses on environmental journalism and the importance of natural history. Her nonfiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appears in Terrain.org. Keep up with her at anjasemanco.wordpress.com

df-ad

Bottom of the Food Chain

by James Michael Dorsey

Sound skims over the water like a flat stone, distorting distance while betraying those who would move silently through the morning fog of the inside passage.

The blow of several Orcas filters through the mist, and I sense they are near.

It is summer in British Columbia, and transient whales are following schools of Salmon heading north to spawn. In my kayak, I am just one more errant log floating through their domain.

One year ago while paddling near this very spot, I watched these animals conducting a funeral. The morning was a dull grey through a perpetual mist that merged water and sky, setting the mood for what I was to witness.

I was powering my way through a raft of bull kelp when the first blow reached my ears. A large bull led the way, cruising through the mist like an apparition, bearing a stillborn calf across his rostrum. The calf, still bright pink, slumped over his snout like a limp rag, its head and flukes trailing under the surface. The bull moved slowly, not blowing, and five smaller whales followed in single order until they reached deep water in the center of the channel. The bull stopped, holding his silent charge, while the other whales drew alongside. The bull slowly lowered his head, and the stillborn whale sank into the depths.

The pain of their loss hung in the air, thicker than the fog.

An old female, most likely the matriarch, lob tailed the water twice, perhaps in silent goodbye, or maybe just a signal that they were finished, but as she did this, all six Orcas sounded in unison. They knew I was there and ignored me.

That moment was a gift; a point of connection between two species that share the planet, but rarely meet. It is the silence of a kayak that allows me to enter their world, and whenever I do, I feel the inferior one.

In these grey northern waters I am so small compared to all that surrounds me, so insignificant. It is easy to lose myself here to thought and memory. It was in these waters that I first felt truly free and it is still to them that I retreat whenever city life threatens to overwhelm me.

I stop paddling and scan the fog bank. Whales are close.

It is cold this morning and calm. The sun has tried to break through twice without success. The silence is broken only by the cry of a lone eagle taking fish from the littoral. Minnows are jumping; a sure sign larger predators are about. My breath hangs visibly white on the air and I zip my fleece up higher.

The silence is broken when a young harbor seal shatters the surface, lunging for my boat and startling me into action. He is clearly terrified, seeking refuge on my bow. In another time and place I might let him rest there, but I know what is coming and he cannot stay. I slap the water hard, and he veers off, only for a second, but this animal is panic driven and will not be easily deterred. He approaches a second time and I fend him off with the flat of my blade, watching his pleading eyes as he arches for a final dive. He disappears behind a trail of bubbles.

A brief silver flash passes under my boat, and a second later I am hit square in my flotation vest by a young Salmon. It flops onto my spray skirt, flailing to get back in the water. Then one fish after another begins to strike the side of my boat.

Suddenly a black dorsal cuts the fog like a periscope, leaving a white wake, bearing down on me. A quick look around tells me I am surrounded.

The first Orca crosses my bow, lunging as it takes a fish in midair.

The pod is herding a school of Salmon, driving them against a rock wall twenty yards to my port. The pod is arrayed in a semi-circle from twelve to six o’clock around my boat and they have the Salmon cornered. Shiny black dorsal fins slice the water all around me, churning it a crimson red as they take their prey. The Salmon, in total panic, are slamming head first into the wall, knocking themselves senseless, unable to flee.

bottomoffc2
Image by James Michael Dorsey

Killer Whales,(Orcinus Orca) have been around my boat on many occasions and have always shown themselves to be curious and friendly. Even though they are the alpha predator of this planet, to the best of my knowledge there has never been a recorded attack by one of them on a man or boat. They are ruthless when it comes to the hunt, raiding in packs, yet gentle when in contact with man. Still, as always in their majestic presence I fight the urge to panic and must brace continuously to keep their wakes from rolling me over. Even in the middle of this blood frenzy, they know exactly where I am and never so much as nudge my boat. Adrenalin is pumping and my body switches to automatic, giving muscle memory its head as there is no time to think logically. Constant reaction is necessary to stay upright with the water so churned. I have become a dancer in the ballet of death that surrounds me.

I know these are resident whales because transients only eat mammals, and then I flash on what a silly thought that is at the moment, since I am a mammal.

A white saddle patch zips under the boat, rolling at the last second to clear my keel while another whale passes parallel, showering me with blow as it moves in for a kill. Glistening dorsals cross left and right, parting the water like torpedoes. I can feel their clicks and squeals echoing through the fiberglass hull of my boat. They are executing a perfectly coordinated hunt, calling to each other, giving orders, and all of it with the knowledge that I am here.

Salmon lunge in all directions, clearing the water with great leaps. Large black heads break the surface taking fish down from midair. One whale is coming hard, broadside, and I instinctively brace for the crash as he breaks hard left, taking a Salmon as he dives, his backwash causing me to brace the other side. I am soaking wet from blow and covered with bloody scales. I carefully push a meaty hunk of Salmon off my deck with my paddle blade, not wishing it to tempt a hungry whale.

For infinite minutes the whales take fish, then gradually, the actions slows. They have eaten their fill and I see Dalls Porpoise moving about, taking the stragglers. Orcas often allow their smaller cousins to join them near the end of a hunt to clean up leftovers, but the final touch is something I have never seen.

Half of the pod forms a single line, parallel to the wall, and turn their flukes toward it. They begin to slowly lob tail, causing waves to break against the rock. They are dislodging the few scared Salmon that have taken refuge in the cracks and crevices while the rest of the whales and the porpoise take them when they break cover. It is the final act.

In a few moments the whales go from a feeding frenzy to total lethargy, logging on the surface, gorged and happy like large black sausages. The sudden calm allows me to take a headcount and I realize they are all females or juvenile males; not one mature bull among them.

While Orcas are a matriarchal society, it is the alpha bull that stands as protector, and this hunt was sanctioned on his watch or it never would have happened. He is nearby. I try to imagine where I would place myself as the bodyguard of a dozen feeding whales, and paddle further into the channel to sit and wait him out.

Within a minute the tip of his tall black dorsal rises slowly; there is a soft blow that the wind carries towards me covering me with the finest mist, and I am sitting by the great whale no more than thirty feet away.

bottomoffc
Image by James Michael Dorsey

 

He has surfaced slowly like an island being born, and his back fin towers over me by five feet. Sunlight dances on his ebony back and his saddle patch reflects light like an alpine glacier. His dorsal has a slight bend to it and a missing chunk tells me he has met at least one great shark. He is half again as long as my boat and outweighs me by nine tons; a flesh eater; the mightiest predator since dinosaurs, and now, I am alone next to him.

He logs on the surface like a great submarine, leisurely, sure of his power, in control of his domain. I am an insignificant interloper, here by his indulgence. He has not surfaced by chance as he is too wise for this to be a random happening. He has chosen the time and place to show himself and is now making a statement. I am not here by accident. My boat sits between him and his pod; a position he would never allow an enemy to reach.

He knew of my presence long before the hunt began and not only tolerated me, but allowed me to bear witness. I feel this as strongly as if he were talking to me.

Perhaps I have been demoted to a curiosity, but I choose to think of it as communication. His black eye, no larger than the tip of my thumb, is fixed on me as I try to fathom the thoughts behind it. Once again, I feel myself the inferior one, lacking the ability to understand what this animal would tell me.

I dip my paddle slowly, not wishing to spook or provoke him in any way and begin to push away. As I do, the bull moves forward, inching ahead in low gear.

I paddle a little harder and he is with me, so I dig in and begin to push the water behind me as my bow rises. The bull starts to pull ahead, then senses my frailty and checks his speed, matching mine, even and steady.

His head rises and falls, eye just under the waterline, watching me, urging me on. In my head, I hear him say, “Stay with me” He is allowing me to paddle with him and I take up the challenge. My heart is racing and emotional tears start to cloud my vision.

Even at his lowest speed it is hard for me to keep pace, but I am now part of his pod, and he is my leader, and this merging of divergent species will never happen again. I pull my paddle now, abandoning technique in an all-out effort to maintain speed. My arms scream with pain but time has stopped. I have entered a different reality and all that matters now is that I stay with this great beast.

orcaleaping
Image by James Michael Dorsey

For a brief time there is nothing but the two of us, moving as one, and if ever an animal gave a gift to man, this is mine. I have no idea how far we have come, but soon I can go no further. I lay my paddle across the cockpit and glide to a halt. I am cold, wet, exhausted, and have never felt more alive.

The great whale sees I have stopped and logs a moment, his black eye fixed on mine, and then he raises his flukes and is gone. For a few seconds I am totally alone and the silence is deafening. I look all around and the immensity of the landscape slams into me. I let out a primal scream whose origin comes from a place inside I have never reached before and listen as it echoes across the flat waters before gradually disappearing into the forest beyond. I am just sitting in my boat, the last man on earth.

In the distance I see the bull surface where the pod is reforming.  He is probably reporting to the matriarch, telling her about the strange creature that swam with him. They turn their flukes toward me and begin to swim.

The fog closes slowly and I watch dorsals fade into it like a movie ending. Tears are streaming down my cheeks and I know it will take a while for the day to seem real.

I hear the cry of an eagle in the distance and turn my bow towards land to paddle home.

 

James Michael Dorsey is an award winning author, explorer, and photographer who has traveled extensively in 47 countries. He has spent the past two decades visiting remote cultures around the world. His latest book, Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails, is available from LULU.COM. He is a 13 time SOLAS AWARD category winner. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club and former director of the Adventurers Club.

df-ad