Pfeilstorch, 1822

by Miranda Cichy

 

On the lawn of Schloss Bothmer
the stork blew in like a silk dress
lifted from the line. Shot once

by spear in Africa, it carried itself
across the countries twice,
gravitated to their guns.

They knew then that everything
was wrong: how birds flew
to the moon and back for winter,

slipped below thick ice
on winter ponds, morphed
into other beings, slept.

The stork’s wings spread
a dark horizon. Fingers drafted
arcs above its death.

In the museum, they folded it up,
fixed its legs to stand parallel
with the spear. As if you might

confuse the two as one, as if
the white neck would not raise
its fountain, without their splint.

 

 

Miranda Cichy’s poems have most recently been published in Curlew Calling (Numenius Press) and Nature and Regeneration (Corbel Stone Press). She is due to begin a PhD in ecopoetry and avian extinction at the University of Glasgow later this year.

Reconnection: Spring migration in the Cairngorms

by Andrew Painting

2/4/2018

“They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working”
Ted Hughes, ‘Swifts’

Six days until the wheatears come back and a fresh layer of snow is covering the ground. Late snow is normal here in the Highlands. Nevertheless, and in spite of the full knowledge that a wheatear is far hardier than a human, you can’t help worrying for them a bit. Wheatears are small birds, related to robins. Every year they come to Britain from West Africa to breed. They are gorgeous – slate grey, black, amber and white – cocky, charismatic creatures. They are welcome company after a long, cold winter.

Like a person, a place cannot be understood in isolation. It is only in understanding the creatures which call it home that you can come to something like an understanding of what a place means. Birds and places cleave; they become with one another. Birds lend a place its character, while a place’s character defines its species assemblage. Birds are the embodiment of the places they live – the world made flesh.

My patch is the Cairngorms. The Cairngorms are ancient mountains, 400 million years old, hunched over and gutted out by glaciers. It is a large patch of uplands, a mosaic of native pinewood and plantations, steep gorges, clefts and corries, heather moorland, blanket bog, burns and great rivers. And high above it all leers the Cairngorm plateau, the highest, coldest, least friendly place in Britain. It is a place steeped in wildness, but perhaps not quite so much as people sometimes think. A lack of humans (there are twice as many red deer living in the Cairngorms National Park as there are people) does not mean that our presence is not felt.

One of the things about upland areas at high latitudes is that they are extremely inhospitable to most things in winter, and extremely hospitable to lots of things in the long days of summer. For birds, this means one thing: migration. The annual cycle of the place, the emergence and withdrawal of plants, insects, even people, is calibrated with the annual cycles of the individual birds that spend some of the year here. It’s less that this place exists like clockwork; more that clockwork mechanically mimics the rhythms of this place.

First redwings and fieldfares, subarctic thrushes, quietly depart in February, to be replaced a month later by mistle thrushes. Pied wagtails, reasonably anthropophilic, turn up on the 8th March most years, loudly announcing their presence, strutting along rooftops. Lapwing, oystercatcher, common gull, goosander, greylag goose, curlew, redshank, return to the marshes, usually in that order. Lapwing quickly get down to the business of breeding, showing off their head plumes, cavorting into the air in improbable displays of virility. Up here they are regularly on eggs while the snow is still falling. These eggs are the original Easter eggs, once harvested in their thousands, now in extremely short supply.

Meadow pipits come in mid-March, look a little confused for a couple days, and then settle down. On the rivers and burns dippers, unlikely birds which enjoy hurling themselves into icy, fast-flowing streams to catch insects, also return in mid-March (‘icy water’ is not an exaggeration – just last week I saw one dipping away as ice was forming on the river. This wasn’t a small mountain burn either – this was midstream in the mighty River Dee).

Early April. Keep an eye on the sky. Following the prey are peregrines, merlins and hen harriers. Some days pink-footed geese fly over, hundreds at a time, heading north to Iceland. Tree pipits return at some point, but they are so similar to meadow pipits that no one notices until they start singing, usually the third week in April. Now we’re getting to the long-distance migrants. Willow warblers and redstarts, woodland birds, once common across the country, now less so. Chiffchaffs and blackcaps, once uncommon up here, are becoming regular migrants. High up in the hills ring ouzels and whinchats return to their usual haunts. Golden plover fill the bogs. Higher still, on only the coldest, remotest peaks, dotterel return in early May. Most people are supremely unaware of this rather stupid bird, but they are prized by birdwatchers for their rarity, inaccessibility and beauty.

House martins usually turn up around the 24th April, chirruping outside my bedroom window. They are normally beaten here by sand martins, their less famous cousins, but nobody notices them because they don’t live right outside people’s windows. Then the swallows come about a week later. Then the cuckoo, about the tenth of May. Finally, the stragglers, spotted flycatchers and swifts, and dunlin, a reasonably common bird that through a mixture of excellent camouflage and a taste for the wettest, boggiest parts of the country is rarely seen in its breeding plumage.

Memories of arrival dates are accompanied by memories of past migrations. Places, birds, people, do not live in isolation. Last year’s grey wagtails were spotted while I was swimming in clear snowmelt pools. Swallows recall childhood picnics in English meadows. Peregrines throw up memories of central London, the Tate Modern, the brown Thames. Oystercatchers remain incongruous to me here; I will always associate them with the coast.

It is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking of ecosystems as complex but unthinking machines, working like clockwork, a mere backdrop to human affairs. Spring migration, should you care to notice it, provides a deep connection with one’s environment, a reworking of the mechanics of one’s perceptions of the environment. The act of noticing is an expression of what it is to be a human part of a complex ecosystem.

9/4/18

“When the swallows come back to Capistrano,
That’s the day you promised you’d come back to me.”
Leon René

This song, with its slightly exploitative nostalgia, easy romance and stoically suppressed pain, its forlorn hope that a loss might yet be regained, gets me every time. The swallows, signifying spring and fecundity and a world working as it ‘should’, provide an evocative counterpoint to the singer’s romantic travails. We know of course that the song is a lie, and that she’s not coming back, but for all that, for the duration of the song, the promise of forlorn hope is seductive.

Wheatears today, two males and a female. One day late. In fairness they probably turned up a couple days ago, but that was the weekend and I was away.

For twenty years, off and on, and with varying degrees of accuracy and enthusiasm, the ecologists, gamekeepers and rangers at Mar Lodge Estate National Nature Reserve have been recording the arrival dates of a few species. Four of those species have been recorded enough to analyse their average arrival dates with some degree of statistical accuracy. Each species is now arriving back at Mar Lodge between two days and twelve days earlier than twenty years ago. This is probably because of climate change. It’s probably an example of birds becoming out of sync with the emergence of their favoured prey species. For some species, like dotterel, this is very bad news.

The dawn of the Anthropocene, where humans are the principal ecological and geological driving force on the planet, forces us into new relationships with our environment. The anthropologist Andrew Whitehouse came up with the term ‘anxious semiotics’ to describe the sense of unease that comes with watching birds in the Anthropocene. Whitehouse writes that “while listening to birds can still iconically and indexically ground people, signs of absence and change can precipitate anxieties that stem from the ambiguities implicit in the Anthropocene’s formulation of human relations with other species”. Such is the insidious nature of the Anthropocene – if you’re not careful it permeates your each and every interaction with the environment.

Swallows and house martins are particularly anthropogenic birds. They have changed their nesting behaviour to exploit human-created ecological niches, and feed in human-created habitats. Now humans are putting them under threat. Industrial scale insecticide use is stripping the country of their food, while architectural changes mean that modern housing has fewer suitable places on which they can make their mudspit nests. Every year I count the house martins outside my window. Thankfully ‘my birds’ are doing just fine.

This is the anxious semiotics of the Anthropocene – every year, the lingering sense of discomfort, no longer trusting the seasons, because you think you’ve broken them. Every year the concern that things are becoming disconnected. The emptiness left by a lost chunk of evolution, the sense of relief when birds arrive when they ‘should’, and the concern that one of these years they simply won’t turn up at all, are symptoms of an Anthropocentric mind.

14/4/18

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”
Aldo Leopold.

Late snow makes walking on the high plateau slow work. Still, spring is coming here too. Mountain hares are shifting from white to brown, ptarmigan from white to grey. And everywhere the rusty bike wheel call of golden plover, already paired up, picking off insects trapped around the edges of the snow fields. Pink-footed geese, sure enough, flying north, just one big skein of around 150 birds. They would have gone unnoticed were it not for their incessant honking, heard from well over a mile away.

Lower down, in the usual place in the glen, three ring ouzels enjoy a lone mature rowan tree, feed on short deer-clipped sward and rummage around ruined dry stone walls. One of the males lets out a reel of half-hearted song. The other male fights him away.

Ring ouzels can be pretty long-lived birds, and they usually return to favoured haunts, so you can be pretty sure that the bird you saw last year is the same one you’re looking at now. Over the hill, at Abernethy, a remarkable osprey named EJ has returned to the same nest for the last sixteen years, usually sometime between the 21st and 29th March. Individual birds are place incarnate.

British ring ouzels have their own culture. In Scandinavia they’ll breed in any old scrubby patch of birch or willow, but in Britain we don’t have many scrubby patches of birch or willow, because we cleared it all away. Here, they like rocks, with short sward grass, and if possible a tree to perch on. There aren’t many of these places left either any more, and ring ouzels are declining badly. The breeding habits of ring ouzels in Britain are an expression of human history, culture and government agricultural policy.

Leopold’s line, now seventy years old, draws on the growing disconnection between the average punter and the environment they live in. The ecologist lives with the intensely isolating understanding that she sees the world in a very different way to other people. But there is also the individual’s isolation from their environment. The Anthropocene promises fewer encounters with other creatures. Disconnection from the rhythms of the creatures we share the world with makes us lonely. No wonder pets are so popular in Britain.

Feeling or expressing anxious semiotics requires a specific perceived relationship between human and more-than-human, where humans are both responsible for and different from an immutable more-than-human, and where all human actions have the potential to alter negatively the life and behaviour of the more-than-human. It is good to remember, then, that the more-than-human retains its own agency, its own rhythms and connections. It is a wonder that ring ouzels continue to return here at all. And yet they do.

And here lies the silver lining, the hope that transcends the false hope of Capistrano’s swallows. With an ecological education comes the understanding of what is being lost and what to do to stop it. Humans have caused great ecological changes in Britain, some good, but mostly bad. Redemption is still possible, but it will take a great reconnecting.

Birds are the embodiment of the environment in which we live, their migrations connect us to lands most of us will never see. Their sheer corporeality is to be cherished. It is rare these days for me to feel a simple joy in wildlife, one that is not accompanied by a lingering sense of foreboding, guilt, or anger. Such is the price of living in the Anthropocene. For today, at least, the ring ouzels provide me a complex happiness. They’ve made it again, which means the globe’s still working.

Quotes taken from:

Hughes, T., 1974. Seasons Songs: Spring Summer Autumn Winter, London: The Rainbow Press: 1974

Leopold, A., 1949. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whitehouse, A., 2015. ‘Listening to Birds in the Anthropocene: The Anxious Semiotics of Sound in a Human-Dominated World’, Environmental Humanities, vol. 6, pp. 53-71.

Andrew Painting is an ecologist living and working in the Cairngorms National Park.

Common Raptors and their Prey

by Michele Battiste

1. From the Ground

Where the sky, where
the water tower, where
the parapet, the eave, the telephone
wire, where the lights are beautiful
but also warn, I have never felt light

in your company. I have never clung
to a precipice. If I have a tragic
flaw, none would call it
optimism. None would notice

the culvert, the decayed vegetation
along the road, broken glass and gravel.

Some things I’d rather creep past
delicately, body language admitting
I smell it I am sensitive
to the disturbance
I would rather be
a great distance

away. If you are searching for me, don’t look
up. When I am spotted among the weeds,
it is always from above.

2. From the Sky

Landscape is not bounty, but a code
to be deciphered:
_____Juniper bush, sagebrush, rivulet, warren.
_____Sagebrush, culvert, juniper bush, warren.

I have

never felt empathy in your company. I have never
felt much beyond hunger, how it turns
a body weightless, sends forth a talon.

Grace is a product of air currents I did nothing
to earn, that do nothing to hide me. You have
mistaken me for something else and I am not sorry.

3. Identification

Osprey, secretary, vulture,
hawk. Falcon, kestrel,
owl, eagle. Buzzard,
harrier, condor, kite.
We all cast a shadow
when the sun is bright.

4. Commons

Juniper bush,
sagebrush,
bluestem,
fen.

Culvert, river.
Woodland.
Warren.
You are not

native and should keep
to yourself. I know
where to burrow.
I know how
to forage. When you are not

here, I am free
to fear the natural
order.

 

 

Michele Battiste is the author of Uprising (2014) and Ink for an Odd Cartography (2009), both from Black Lawrence Press. She is also the author of several chapbooks, most recently Left: Letters to Strangers (Grey Book Press, 2014). Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Rumpus, Memorious, and Mid-American Review, among others. A finalist for the National Poetry Series, she has also received grants and awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts, AWP, the Center for the American West, the Jerome Foundation, and the NY State Senate. She lives and works in Colorado.

Held by the River

by Katy Ewing

1st December 2017

Tim holds her strongly safe, her struggling surely an instinctual response to being out of her element. She’s already been calmed by hanging for a short time in a soft mesh net, to adjust to being out of the water. He lays her on the prepared towel and pats her down; any water now could ruin the whole process. He holds her over the plastic bowl, also carefully dried, her head in darkness under his arm, and emulating the contact made by the cock salmon in the dance they’d normally engage in, begins the stroking movement down her underside that will let the eggs come. They begin to flow out suddenly in a thick stream and pool in the bowl like small wet shiny coral beads or berries, stunningly bright in colour. The process halts a few times and needs begun again, her body reacting to the strange circumstances.

I’m out of my element here too (though obviously not as thoroughly as the salmon); the bone-chilling cold, the wet, the dark of the metal hatchery building – outdoors I’d more readily be found under cover of woodlands than near water. But I married a waterman, child of biologists, whose broad biological knowledge and academic and professional expertise, as well as enjoyment, interest, love, especially focuses on the life of the waterways. Through our twenty seven years together I’ve grown to be so much more open-minded to the myriad forms of life around us, despite my learned/inbuilt squeamishness around the grubs and slugs and wormy things. And we’ve raised daughters not afraid to engage with even these less ‘cute’ beings. In so many ways he’s shown me how to see that which was invisible, through noticing and by knowing what to look for, to see beauty and wonder in life in all its forms.

It’s the first time I’ve seen Tim strip the salmon, of the many, many times he has. I’m struck by the intimacy of the process: the mother, like all of us, at the mercy of her body, her hormones, the conditions of the world around her, and on this Heavily Modified Water Body, needing human help to complete her life’s work. At some point my eyes meet hers and like any such encounter with a captive wild animal, I feel her look as blameful, fear and anger at her impotence. But maybe that’s just me. Soon the hen salmon’s back in the tank, recovering. Next another female goes through the same process and then each cock salmon is netted out of his tank, calmed and dried and similarly held and stroked until he squirts milt over the eggs, startlingly white against their jewelled mass.

Traditionally a dry goose feather was used to stir the sperm amongst the eggs, but Tim uses his hand, making sure the mixing is thorough. Next, fresh burn water is added and mixed in and at this point the sperm and eggs are activated and there is a window of less than two minutes in which fertilisation can take place. After this time, the eggs are well rinsed of all the excess milt (which can otherwise lead them to clump together, risking fungal infection) before being laid out in the hatchery trays and covered over to be in the dark, with a small flow of water running through. Tim will return every day or so to check the eggs and pick out any that weren’t fertilised and are dead, but at this ‘green’ stage, while cell division and then differentiation are taking place the fertilised eggs are particularly vulnerable to damage and should be left alone to develop as much as is possible.

The river we live near, that we’ve lived near for the last twenty-two years is a unique creature. The Kirkcudbrightshire Dee in South West Scotland (as opposed to the Aberdeenshire Dee in the North East, commonly known simply as ‘the river Dee’), is called ‘Deva (the Goddess) on Ptolemy’s map,’ and was the main route in these parts in the days before sound roads, the boundary between tribal lands when the Romans were here 2000 years ago, and before the bridges built in the late eighteenth century, was renowned as dangerous and difficult to cross.

In an ideal world, our Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar) would have found their way upstream from the sea where they’ve spent between the last year (grilse) and probably two or three years (multi-sea-winter salmon) in their silver-skinned salt water form, feeding on crustaceans and oily fish, perhaps ‘as far afield as Greenland and the Norwegian Sea,’ doubling in weight each year, preparing for their epic journeys back up the river, transformed for fresh water and in breeding colours, to eventually reach the spawning ground where they began. But the Kirkcudbrightshire Dee has extra challenges for migratory species, and these hatchery fish were all rescued from the Tongland fish ladder which lies only ‘1.7 km upstream of the tidal limit’ , where late season fish often struggle to ascend in falling water temperatures – unable to progress upstream and complete their life cycle, and vulnerable to illness and predation.

In 1936, after many years of planning, negotiation, and the eventual passing of a bill through parliament, the Galloway Hydroelectric Scheme, ‘the first large-scale integrated hydro-electric complex to be built in Britain for the purpose of public electricity supply,’ was finally completed on the Kirkcudbrightshire Dee, the ‘second largest river catchment in South West Scotland,’ effecting ‘the complete absorption of the whole river from its outermost tributaries to the tidal water.’ If this scheme was proposed today instead of in the 1920s, it would not be approved in this form. If a river has ‘important areas of good fish habitat’ upstream of a proposed scheme, or does not already have a man-made or natural ‘barrier to the upstream movement of fish species’ immediately above or downstream of it and if risks to fish passage cannot be ‘avoided through appropriate mitigation’, then a proposed Hydro scheme will not receive even provisional acceptance.

In the 1920s however, the need for electricity in industry was seen as a national security issue when after the First World War, the British Government became aware that the country’s industries were very reliant on individual aging power stations. This, plus a Labour government which favoured state intervention in industry and the recent development of the national grid allowing transmission of power from relatively remote locations to consumers elsewhere all combined to make the planned Galloway Scheme not only technologically possible, but financially viable too. The national grid as a government project also needed power sources such as this one in order to produce ‘peak-load capacity’ since the existing thermal stations could only produce ‘base-load capacity’ , and both are necessary to meet demand. The river then, was radically altered; from that time on, the many dams, barrages and hydrological alterations throughout the system changed everything for creatures living within it.

The salmon was in some ways lucky – the humans who had influence over the implementation of the scheme had an interest in protecting the life and movement of these valuable and revered fish: the ‘salmon run’. When the Galloway Hydro-electric scheme was first approved by the UK parliament in 1929, one of the bodies which had had to be appeased was the Kirkcudbrightshire Dee District Salmon Fishery Board (KDDSFB), made up of riparian owners and others whose fisheries stood to be impacted by the building of a series of dams throughout the river system. In order to minimise the detrimental impact to the river’s population of Atlantic Salmon, a series of fish ladders and passes was added to the initial plans, along with altered flow regimes to enable the triggering of the salmon’s instinctive migration behaviour. As it turned out, the hydro-scheme did still cause large difficulties to the migratory salmon and other species, but for the time-being, the humans with fishing rights were generally placated.

By contrast, the European Eel (Anguilla anguilla), another migratory species, had no-one to fight its corner. The eel was numerous on the Dee in past times – in the 1791 Statistical Account for our parish, Crossmichael, the Reverend Mr John Johnstone writes that ‘the eels are never interrupted in their possession of the waters as the country people have an insuperable prejudice against feeding on an animal which so strongly resembles the serpent’, but that in ‘the dark ages when the art of cookery was but little understood, there was, in this parish, a fishery of eels, which were exported to Italy’.

In recent years, the European Eel has suffered from a generally diminishing population (as has the Atlantic Salmon ) and is now categorised as Critically Endangered in the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List due to a sharp decline in the population of more than 90% since the 1970s. Efforts are being made internationally to attempt to respond to this important ecological issue in the form of Eel Management Plans, and on the Dee, an Eel Restoration Project.

Unlike the salmon, which is anadromous (migrating to fresh water to breed, growing to adult form in salt water), the eel is catadromous (migrates to salt water to breed after reaching adulthood in fresh water). The European Eel is also not bound to return to particular rivers in the way that salmon are, but has a quite complex and specific life-cycle, still only partially understood and observed, apparently spawning 5000 km from Scotland in the Sargasso Sea, ‘metamorphos[ing] into transparent blade shaped larvae “leptocephali”, which passively drift to Europe’ on ocean currents, undergoing further transformations before developing pigmentation and becoming ‘elvers’, ready to migrate upstream from the salt water of the sea into the fresh water of rivers and streams. At this life stage, the Kirkcudbrightshire Dee’s hydro-scheme poses an almost insurmountable problem for the eels and though many have been seen trying, very few make it upstream past the first dam at Tongland, to the detriment of the river’s ecosystem.

Retrofitting technical solutions for the eel (or the salmon) onto 1930s technology would be prohibitively expensive, even if possible, so those that work for the river do their best with what they have.

The dam system is not the only factor impacting salmon numbers on the Dee. Acidification and other problems due to extensive intensive coniferous forestry plantation implemented in the twentieth century (particularly since the 1950s), nutrification due to agricultural practices, as well as, as noted above, salmon numbers declining everywhere for reasons unknown, all play their part. These other factors are also being addressed as far as is possible, however, salmon numbers had dropped so low on the Kirkcudbrightshire Dee by the end of the twentieth century that the population was at risk of becoming genetically unviable and some riparian owners and scientific advisors felt that it was high time to look into a more proactive approach.

After several years of talks, meetings and persuasion, it was agreed that Scottish Power, owner of the Hydroelectric Scheme, would fund the implementation of a salmon hatchery on the Kirkcudbrightshire Dee to attempt to conserve the particular strain which has developed to spawn on this river. In 2005 the hatchery was opened, initially with capacity for up to 300,000 ova (although low stock numbers mean this maximum capacity has never been reached).

Tim has been involved with/instrumental in the attempt to restock the river from native fish since the very beginning in the late 1990s and has managed the hatchery since its early days. In many ways we have been bound to the salmon life-cycle too, staying rooted by this river all of these years, for a whole segment of our own life cycle; from pre-parenthood young adults, through growing our own daughters from ova and sperm to maturity, to an imminently empty nest.

March 27th 2018.

The eggs in the hatchery have developed into ‘eyed ova’, and are nearing hatch. I go with Tim to take them to one of the sites where they will be stocked out, and he explains how he is again emulating the salmon’s own choices and behaviours. I help to carry the equipment over rough fields to the perfect spot upriver and he points out why this area is ideal: a corner holding pool just upstream where the adult fish would run to and wait to spawn; the right kind of gravel and cobble riverbed to build their redds (nests); great habitat for juveniles to feed and grow because of good aerated flows, dappled shade and insect life provided by bankside vegetation and deciduous trees.

In nature, the fish would be paired up and the hen would dig out a series of redds in the gravel riverbed, laying eggs while the male simultaneously fertilises them. Tim, in his chestwaders, builds his redds in the riverbed, digging with a mattock and rearranging cobblestones and gravel by hand in the cold fast water, patient and precise, each one taking about half an hour, turning his hands bright red.

A black plastic pipe is incorporated into the centre of the redd to act as a funnel to pour the eyed ova into the safe centre, followed by some protective gravel. There is a tense moment when the pipe is gently removed, in case Tim’s redd has gaps which allow the river to wash the eggs back out but it is sound. Even if a few are washed out they would be likely to work their way into gravel downstream and be okay, but ideally they’ll stay in this dark nest while they hatch into ‘alevins’ with their attached yolk sac. Once the yolk is used up, they will emerge from the gravel as ‘fry’ and begin feeding on invertebrates.

Those that survive long enough to reach fingerling size become prettily marked ‘parr’. In the early 19th century, these were thought to be a separate species, so different in appearance are they from the life stages before and after.

In spring, the largest parr will ‘become silvery smolts and start to drift downstream at night towards the sea,’ travelling in shoals near the surface and vulnerable to predation and water pollution (and on this river they will have to again traverse the various dams, avoiding being drawn into the dangerous turbines ). Those that survive will ‘head out to sea on their way to the main ocean feeding grounds.’

Once all the redds are built and the last eggs are stocked out I ask Tim if it isn’t quite difficult to let go of these young he’s tended for months, worked so hard to protect; to leave them to whatever fate they might meet. I suppose it’s the same for any foster parent/surrogate mother; maybe for any parent – you do your best while they’re in your care and then have to trust that they’re as well prepared as you could have made them. Tim says for him it’s mostly a huge relief, that his part of responsibility is over and they’re back in the hands of nature. We walk back to the car and back to the rest of life.

Katy Ewing is an artist and writer who lives in rural Southwest Scotland. She has had poetry, prose and illustration published in several magazines and anthologies including New Writing Scotland, Gutter, Southlight and From Glasgow to Saturn, and is currently writer in residence at Oxfam Books and Music, Dumfries. She graduated in 2017 from the University of Glasgow with an MLitt in Environment, Culture and Communication.

starlings

by Jean Atkin

when I looked, the starlings
_____were there on the estuary
__________blacker than its greys

they lifted, shapeshifted
_____became single, coiling reptile
__________that rolled through air

__________raked a humping spine
_______________& muscled a ripple out
____________________to weighted tail

____________________it hunted the fields of the sea-edge
_______________then stooped

__________from the window I caught one steep

meat fall and plunge behind a hedge
_____& dragon
__________boiled along the grass

my train left then
__________just as
_______________it slithered its existence out

 

 

Jean Atkin has published Not Lost Since Last Time (Oversteps Books), five poetry pamphlets and a children’s novel. Her poetry has been commissioned for Radio 4, and featured on ‘Best Scottish Poets’ by the Scottish Poetry Library. Her recent work appears in The Interpreter’s House, Magma, Lighthouse, Agenda, Ambit and Poetry Salzburg. She works as a poet in education and community.

A Sahara Camp

by Elizabeth Bernays

I am in Gao, Mali, as the only woman member of a British-sponsored interdisciplinary team studying night migration of grasshoppers. From the records, vast numbers of them seem to appear from nowhere, eat what meager patches of vegetation can be found and thereby add to desertification. Where do they come from? How do they get there? How can there be so many so suddenly?

We flew to Niamey in Niger and for two days we traveled north in land rovers, crossing into Mali, following a rough road that follows the River Niger upstream. We left some of our group at Daoga and will head north from Gao, away from the river and up the wide, stony, Tilemsi valley. The two teams will camp 50 miles apart across the InterTropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), an area of low pressure that forms where the Northeast Trade Winds meet the Southeast Trade Winds near the earth’s equator. As these winds converge, they force moist air upward. This causes water vapor to condense, or be “squeezed” out, as the air cools and rises, resulting in rainfall. In desert areas, the InterTropical Convergence Zone, which moves north in summer and south in winter, is a place where grasshoppers may find plants, at least some times, some years.

Our food for the month was purchased in England and shipped to Niamey. Our water drums are filled in Gao, and we must get used to managing in camp with little more than a gallon per day per person. That afternoon in Gao, six of us sat around a wooden table covered with green plastic cloth. No one wants any of the dark-coloured food in the glass cabinet, which is unidentifiable, though some of it is probably goat meat. A door with torn screen blows open and shut. Through dusty glass I see two bearded men in long white robes squatting in the heat under a neem tree. One draws shapes in the dirt with a stick, his robe folded up over his head. The other gazes into the distance, cloth drawn tightly round his thighs. They talk little and I wonder how they manage to squat for so long without moving.

Here in the hot afternoon café we daren’t drink the water but instead drink warm, sweet, very fizzy, very brilliant orange-coloured Fanta. It is good to sit still after rattling along for two days in a Land Rover, but conversation lags. Joe, who is fluent in French, talks briefly with the waiter. There was a sandstorm two days ago, drought continues, the best well has become contaminated with grasshopper corpses.

We hear the mid-afternoon call to prayers from the nearby mosque, and I realize that we have been in the café for a long time. Three men go by, one in long red robes, the other two in white. They prod a single Zebu bull ahead of them. “Fulani,” murmurs George, but they have gone by before I have time to register their faces. That I miss some details is unimportant. That I have no watch doesn’t seem to matter. That time passes so idly seems reasonable.

Reg and I are silent. We are partners in every sense. I know he thinks as I do, of the sights of the past two days, the villages of Ayoru, Tillaberi, and Ansongo, with their low mud houses and narrow streets full of people and animals in the cool of the morning, classic barren desert beside the wide brown river Niger, large decorated boats being loaded with grain to be paddled or motored downstream to bigger towns. There is a wide alluvial strip between barren desert and water that is almost luminous-green with rice, turning the adjacent red sand dunes into a delusion.

Two men on camels pass by in the street. They are Touareg nomads, draped from head to foot in dark blue cloth. Only the top halves of their faces are visible under turbans, faces also blue from the dye of the cloth. I learn that for centuries, these people herded camels and goats across the Saharan plains, leading a hard but independent existence. When the French colonized the region in the late 1800s, the Touareg put up a fierce but unsuccessful resistance. Then, with independence in the 1950s, the Touareg were parceled out among the newly created countries, and their nomadic existence restricted. However, they sit erect and silent on their camels and we will see more of them in the camp at Tin Aouker.

The sun is low. Dust-laden rays of sunlight hit the edge of the tablecloth, highlighting the feeding and copulating of flies. I notice that one of the flies has only five legs but is in no way hindered in its activities. If anything, it seems to get more matings than the others. As I watch them they hang their heads when extending probosces with spongy tips, and note how long the sponges engage in licking old food spots on the plastic. Flies have been so engaged for almost one hundred million years, and I become conscious of time or perhaps timelessness here, so far from everything I know.

When we finally arrived at our campsite at Tin Aouker in the Tilemsi Valley it was almost dark. Reg put up our two-man tent by starlight while I struggled with our camp cots and nets outside the tent. We all got our water rations and turned in early, exhausted from the rough journey. The hot day turned into a cool night and we needed blankets out under the stars where the donkeys startled the midnight hours with braying and we woke early with the dawn.

Don made his little camp some distance from the rest of us, saying, “I need distance.” When he rose next morning he found his cot beside a skeleton emerging from the desert sand, and it wasn’t long before several Touareg men arrived, gesturing and shouting among us. We had accidentally camped on an old burial ground with some special significance. The skeleton was to be dug up and reburied. We had to move camp. Don was one of those people to whom things happen. The next night the nomads brought him back after he lost his way when he went off in the dunes to pee.

At the new campsite, Nick picked up a stone arrowhead and we all marveled at the quality of the point, the details of the tiny notches. Then George found a stone axe head. In the next hour or so we all had found stone tools and we forgot grasshoppers in our excitement. The tools were scattered all around on the stony slopes of a low hill, exposed I imagine, as sand had been blown from the surface. None of us thought about the archeological value of the site with tools in such abundance, and it was twenty years before Mali established laws restricting export of such items.

My arrowheads are between one and two inches long. Some are narrow with very fine lateral serrations and sharp points. At the base they have hafts that must have fitted into wooden handles, so that they look like very symmetrical miniature pine trees. One is broad, with five large serrations along each edge. Another has rounded sides and a particularly sharp point. The roughest looking has sharp smooth sides and is almost completely flat. Each, I suppose, must have had a different use. The fine “axe heads” were probably scrapers and hand held, varying from about an inch long and even smaller in width, to about two inches square, polished and rounded with perfect edges. No signs of chopping or flaking to make the edge, making them Neolithic, at the earliest probably between four and six thousand years old.

I hold an axe head. It fits exactly in my palm. Each of my fingers runs over the silky-flat surface, as I imagine a dark hand long ago that may have treasured such a tool. I think about the hands that held the axe then and what thoughts may have engaged the man in long hours spent grinding and polishing. Was there joy in making and holding this thing? Was it the Swiss army knife of those times? And why was there no sign of wear on its sharp edge? Had he dropped it out of his woven bag as he ran from some enemy? Was it kept for prestige? Had it been used in a burial? Did the maker wonder about the meaning of human life? What tribal identity, myth, and ritual gave order to his days? What have we inherited from those distant days in our needs for aesthetic detail, quality tools, mythical explanations of who we are and why we are here?

George in Daoga was on the two-way radio talking to Nick up with us in Tin Aouker.

“Our radar shows big swarms of grasshoppers heading north at 500 meters, going at fourteen meters per second. Wind from the south at five meters per second. Over and out.”

“When should we see them on the radar up here? Over and out.”

“If conditions remain stable you should see them in about four hours, so let’s say one a.m. We will need the wing beat frequency from your upward-looking radar too to get the species. Over and out.”

Those of us with daytime jobs were sitting around the table under the mess canopy, chatting about the day’s work. The temperature had finally fallen to something comfortable as we drank tea and picked at the broken shortbread from a big square tin.

“Interesting that all the females are immature – no sign of eggs in ovarioles,” mentions Don, who had been dissecting insects under the microscope in the lab tent.

Reg replied, “Well, that would be typical, not just for grasshoppers, but for most migrating insect species. They need to get where they are going before putting on weight.” He continued, “What was the species profile from last night’s light trap?”

“Oh, a mixture – Oedaleus, mostly.”

“Yes, that’s what I got on the transects around here today,” said Nick.

“Liz and I went north to where the radar showed concentrated takeoff last night and at first we saw nothing. Then Liz poked a stick down into the deep cracks left by drying mud in a wadi and you wouldn’t believe it, but it was full of resting grasshoppers, all of them Aiolopus.”

As darkness fell, the radar team was busy in the truck, monitoring activity in the air above on an oscilloscope. Insects appeared as white dots and a group of them at similar altitude showed as a circle of white dots. Groups at greater altitude created circles with larger diameters. With many insects in layers the screen became a mass of concentric circles, but when the air was dense with them the screen was entirely white. Dense in this context meant a couple of insects in one hundred meters cubed.

Our mission was to understand the night-time migration of pest grasshoppers that were adding to the desertification of the Sahel in West Africa. Life for the nomads is hard enough in such a desert, without the added problem of competition from millions of these grass-devouring insects. They were inconspicuous and cryptic in the daytime, but with conventional scanning radar we could see them at night, and measure the density and flight speed. With upward looking radar we could detect the orientation and wing beat frequency of the insects used to characterize each species. We had build a plastic-lined pool in the sand that we filled with water and lit at night and we obtained additional evidence for species flying not just from ground surveys in the daytime but from collections of insects that dropped down into the watery light trap at night.

The meteorologists provided measurements of wind speed and direction at different elevations. The hypothesis was that the grasshoppers were programmed to fly downwind and thus pitch up at the InterTropical Convergence Zone, the best place to find food. The masses of individuals flying at night were mixtures of species all doing the same thing. They flew before they were reproductively mature, presumably banking on getting food and then settling down to eat, mate and develop eggs in the only likely places to find vegetation.

The team of people worked well together – radar scientists, electronics technicians, meteorologists, ecologists, insect physiologists, and Nick, the taxonomist and trickster. There were fourteen of us plus the Malian locust control man, Coulibali, and our Malian cook, Ibrahim. At sunset, with the day jobs done and the night jobs yet to begin we all sat down together to report the highlights of the day; grasshopper survey counts, finds of stone tools, Touareg activities.

Surveys sometimes took us close to a Touareg camp. We could hear radios with occasional French words emerging from crackle. Radios are typical gifts from Europeans or Americans crossing the Sahara, running out of water and being saved by nomads. The batteries run low, but no one seems to mind that hearing the words or music is impossible; the volume is kept up just the same.

In the distance was a block of windowless rooms built by the French in a vain attempt to provide a permanent township. In the other direction, were heat mirages over the stony hills.

We saw it coming. A distant brown blur across the rocks and dunes of the desert. And the wind is rising. “Quick,” yelled Nick, “Get the tents down, chaps.” We set to as the brown mass came toward us. We flattened every tent over its contents and held it down with rocks or whatever heavy objects we could find. We did the mess tent last, and that was difficult with the wind blowing hard and the first sand blowing in our faces. John and Joe covered the radar dishes and tightly closed the equipment truck containing the generator and oscilloscopes. Then we all got into the Land Rovers, rolled up the windows, locked the doors and waited.

For three hours we could see almost nothing but brown as the sand and dust whipped across the desert, sanded the paint on anything left exposed, scratched the glass on the windscreen. The vehicles rocked. The edges of tents flapped free from their anchors. The sounds were eerie with whines and none of us spoke. We listened and watched the violence, and wondered how long. I wondered how the Touareg managed sand storms and what on earth the grasshoppers did. Surely the sand would wear away the waterproofing of their cuticles.

The air calmed down and the sand settled. The storm was over by late afternoon and we were able to put things in order again before dark. And that was good because sunset involved a ritual that every single one of us valued above all other things in this Mali camp. The generator, brought to run electronic equipment for the nighttime radar work, ran a small refrigerator during the day. It was just big enough to hold one small bottle of beer for each researcher, and every evening at sunset we emptied the day’s ration with such smiles and goodwill that I am sure, after a long day of piercing sunshine, shade temperatures above 400C, a monotony of warm water, salty soup and hot tea at predetermined intervals, that beer was critically important to the success and enjoyment of the trip. I started to think of that treat quite early in the day, and by mid afternoon could think of little else. The faces at sunset when Nick called, “OK chaps,” told me I was not alone.

The day of the sand storm happened to be Sunday and Don, who had thought out the whole menu for all these people for weeks and weeks in the desert, had decided that Sunday should involve some kind of treat. His choices overall had been excellent. We had muesli with milk made up from powder for breakfast, together with lots of tea. For lunch we had soup made up from powder, some canned meat or sardines, Ibrahim’s pan bread, canned or dried fruit and lots of tea. Dinner varied. But usually we ate stew from dried meat, scrambled eggs made from powder, rice dishes from packets, cheese, jelly, and lots of tea. On Sundays a big can of Dundee fruitcake was opened and the fruitcakes marked the passing weeks. And so, on the day of the sand storm, after sunset beer, and dinner, we sat around the trestle table in the mess tent with lamps burning, eating fruitcake, and telling tales of life in the desert. From time to time we heard the light splash of an insect hitting the water at the light trap.

I live in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona but by the standards of the Sahara it is hardly a desert, with its winter and summer rain and rich flora. Where we worked in Mali there were just three plant species and those scarce and restricted to wadis, the spots that are slightly lower, where water collects a little when it rains. It was not always so. Neolithic humans lived here in abundance. But it is the nature of deserts to make us aware of time, of the past, and of endurance. It is the nature of deserts to trigger contemplation of who we are and where we came from.

Under the vaulted dome of skies over a nameless continent, unhurried human existence passed its days here for thousands of years. The stone tools that took long days to perfect in such abundance suggest a rich living. So long after, we come by plane for a matter of weeks to this barren place littered with the artefacts of lives long gone and empty air where we imagine conversations, thoughts and hopes of people who shared all our genes. We leave again by plane taking with us insect specimens in bottles and on pins, information collected in files and notebooks, celluloid film recording the places and events, and exquisitely durable prehistoric artifacts and with them dreams of who we were before our world of electronic overload, reverberations of a past in which grinding patience and unrecorded ideas belied the future wilderness of a world enthralled with its own momentum and blind to risks of its own demise.

Two months of work in the Sahel and we could tell a story. Several species of grasshoppers have acquired a migration pattern perfectly suited to making use of the rare and scattered patches of edible vegetation. They always fly downwind, whether they are north or south of the ATCZ. Individuals can sense the direction of the wind so that they always turn and fly with it, whether it is northerly or southerly, gaining speed that they would not have on their own. This inevitably brings them to the very limited, narrow region where rain is most likely to fall, allowing a bit of grass to grow and giving them the means to grow and reproduce there. They put on fat and mate. Then females develop eggs and lay them in the ground. If there is a little moisture in the sand the eggs will develop and the young hatch and grow in the same place.

When a new generation is ready, individuals do the same thing that their parents did, flying downwind and giving them their best chances for passing on their genes. By then the ATCZ is again distant maybe north, maybe south, depending on the season. It turns out that the simple rules employed by these insects are remarkably effective at allowing them to find the little patches of vegetation in the Sahel.
Two factors make it seem that they have come out of nowhere. First, they hide in the daytime down deep fissures in the terrain, giving the impression that nothing is there. Second, they accumulate suddenly in one place on the southerly and northerly winds that bring them from wherever were the last bests spot for them. Of course it seems like mysterious event when you visit such a place, but our work discovered the simple answers that have evolved for such success in such a place.

Elizabeth Bernays grew up in Australia and became an entomologist in UK before becoming a professor at the University of California Berkeley. From there she became Regents’ Professor at the University of Arizona where she also obtained a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing.

Oxen

by Sarah Brown Weitzman

Last night a calf was born
to my yoke partner’s mate
and we moaned though low
because it is to live as we

and all before us live
we who have never lived
wild. Nor will this new tiller
already stumbling

after his mother as she returns
to the grindstone rounds
rise up to rebel
and lead us out of slavery.

Oxen have no other fate.
We gave up
counting our steps in the fields
or the persistent prods of the rod.

We know no longings
but for food. We drag
over the difficult earth.
But sometimes the smell of dew

on new-cut grass or the shadow
of a bird rippling over
the furrow ahead
lets us know our despair

we who tow the boats and bear the loads
we who turn the wheels and push the carts
and feel nothing
but the soft powdery explosions

of the clods that burst beneath our hoofs.
Yet when times are bad
and men eat the grain
meant for us

then the fear of nothing
finally makes us yearn
to hold even this
treadmill life of pulling.

 

 

Sarah Brown Weitzman, a past National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Poetry and Pushcart Prize nominee, has been published in hundreds of journals and anthologies including The New Ohio Review, Poet & Critic, The North American Review, The Bellingham Review, Rattle, Mid-American Review, The MacGuffin, Poet Lore, Spillway, Miramar, and elsewhere. Pudding House published her chapbook, The Forbidden.

Outnumbered by an Albatross

by Kim Steutermann Rogers

With their slender wings longer than I am tall, Laysan albatross clock an average of 74,000 air miles a year soaring over the North Pacific. That means if I were an albatross I would have tallied nearly four million frequent flyer miles in my 53 years of life. And, yet, the oldest known wild bird in the world is a Laysan albatross named Wisdom, at a whopping 67 years of age, and she’s pushing five million lifetime miles. That’s a feat of nature hard to grasp with my big human brain or two hands or whatever we use to fathom things.

Where would five million miles take me? From my home in Hawai‘i to San Francisco and back more than one thousand times. From here to my mother in St. Louis—she would love for me to visit more often—and back 1,250 times. Around the belly of the earth 208 times. Ten roundtrips to the moon.

Let’s look at it another way. My insurance agent banks on me putting 15,000 annual miles on the odometer of my car. I’ve been driving since I was 16. That’s 555,000 miles. If I click off 10,000 steps a day on my FitBit—optimistically speaking—that’s 88,000 miles I’ve walked since I started toddling on two legs. If I make one trip by air to see my mother every year—still not enough if you ask her—and another, perhaps, to the West Coast, add another 100,000 air miles for the time I’ve lived in Hawai‘i. We’re looking at a total of 750,000 miles of movement in my lifetime, and that’s relatively little compared to Wisdom. Wisdom makes me look like a wimp.

In thinking about the evolution of an albatross, I wonder why they adapted to have such long, slender wings? I mean, why spend so much time in the air? Why travel so far? I’ve always understood that food drives evolution—the business of finding it and the evasion of being it. That tells me in order to survive, albatross need a lightweight, aerodynamic body to travel the great distances required to find the bits of squid and fish they need to survive. Swimming, I reason, would be metabolically inefficient, not to mention risky since the seabird’s only natural predator, sharks, reside in the sea. But the bird’s miraculous wings do more than allow the bird to soar to the buffet line of food in the North Pacific, they also provide a refuge for sleep. Albatross sleep on the wing, as biologists like to say. Their version of sleep is more like a dolphin resting half its brain while its body keeps moving, rather than our curled-up-ball-of-a-heap of sleeping. That’s some kind of auto pilot.

These are the gymnastics of my imagination.

But I ache for the albatross, flying tens of thousands of miles around the Pacific in search of food for their hungry chick sitting expectantly on its ground nest, on some spit of an island in the middle of the sea. All the while the chick is susceptible to being washed away by the numerous tropical storms sweeping across our globe these days, entire nesting colonies likely to be swallowed up by rising oceans. Ninety-nine percent of the species nests on islands, islets, and atolls that stand a few feet above sea level. I wonder how hard it must be to find food in our warming and overfished seas. I fear these majestic and beautiful birds will succumb to fishing boats and their tantalizing baited hooks of death. I worry that after flying five thousands miles round-trip on a single foraging trip that lasts two weeks or more, a parent may return and regurgitate a meal containing a sharpened bit of plastic that slices its chick’s belly wide open. Albatross are the most threatened group of birds in the world.

Every November on the high-elevation of Kauai where this species is just starting to re-colonize, I wait for these charismatic birds to arrive for the start of their eight-month breeding season, these birds that ocean conservationist and albatross biographer Carl Safina calls, “the world’s greatest living flying machines.” Over the years, I’ve come to know a few of these birds personally. Albatross form decades-long, sometimes lifelong, partnerships and return to the same patch of land to nest year after year, decade after decade. For six consecutive breeding seasons, I’ve watched a pair canoodle under the same Casuarina, an ironwood, and use the tree’s wispy needles and thimble-sized cones to scrape a nest cup around their egg that’s the size of a 12-ounce soda can. There’s also the male hatched on an island off Mexico who I first noticed, because he sported an orange-colored identification band rather the usual colors I’d come to expect of Kauai birds. It took him two years of courtship, rising on tiptoe, tilting his bill into the air and performing maybe a couple dozen different dance moves before deciding on the right and perfect mate. Males take the first long shift of incubating, and right now he’s sitting on an egg on a bluff overlooking the ocean, not a better view, nor better spot for a chick to take their first flight in six months time. Just down the coastline from my Mexican dancer, there’s an adult that, as a chick, was injured in a dog attack, whose neck was miraculously re-stitched by a local seabird rehabilitator and who survived to fledge five years ago. She’s nicknamed Stormy for the moment she realized she was an albatross. After days of care, she shook off her lethargy and shock post-dog encounter when a passing shower reminded her of her purpose in life—to fly. No, to soar. And soar, she has. She’s now partnered with a male two years her senior, and their hopes for the future rest on an egg she laid.

I fear the loss of this family of birds. They are unlike any bird I have ever known. I tell myself we love our world too much to let the extinction of albatross happen. That some child somewhere is right now finding a Nobel Prize winning solution to cleaning up the plastic that’s killing seabirds and whales and eventually us. Maybe already us. That a scientist will slow the warming of our earth, find some way to stop the ice caps from melting. That governments—if not ours—are conspiring right now to eliminate the dredging and destroying of our seas. That we are humans, amazing beyond belief, inventive, creative, and caring. That we won’t let this happen. We won’t desecrate our world.

When Stormy turns her feathery face to mine, this bird, this survivor, this kin of Wisdom the Wonder, both eyes looking at me, emoting and expressing, I see what? Concern? Pleading? Inquiry? I feel her commitment, diligence, fidelity to life. I realize she will continue doing this, flying and providing, for the rest of her days, the rest of ours, the rest of our world’s days, however long. That’s what she does. And, in that moment, I know I will do what’s mine to help her.

Kim Steutermann Rogers fell for albatross on a USFWS volunteer trip to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in 2008. She’s been writing and photographing them ever since, including for Audubon and Fourth River. Read more at www.kimsrogers.com and see her photography at www.albatography.com. Follow her in the social sphere @kimsrogers.

Vixen

by Jane Lovell

 

and there
through this Japanese ghost garden
this monochrome dreamscape
slips a half-dreamt wraith

born from the last shades of dusk
she is tip tip toeing on footfall so soft
it uncurls snails
dizzies galaxies in dew

her vagabond heart beats
with the tremors of the earth
balances on owl call
and the breeze rushing the trees

behind her swim timorous worlds
we can never enter

so slight and swift she moves
that without the moon billowing through
the cherry and all the fallen blossom
luminous as snow
I would not see her

 

Jane Lovell has been widely published in journals and anthologies. She won the Flambard Prize in 2015 and has been shortlisted for the Basil Bunting Prize. Three pamphlets are forthcoming in 2018: Metastatic  by Against the Grain Poetry Press, One Tree by Night River Wood and Forbidden as a limited edition portfolio by Coast to Coast to Coast. Her website is at https://janelovell128.wixsite.com/janelovellpoetry

What Remains

by Thomas Lloyd

It had been a dry year.

Not the driest within memory, but a dry one nonetheless.

The trees had at first thrown out their leaves, greedy to suck in all the light they could, but soon they realised their mistake. Those once green leaves had now wilted into husks too dry to rot, fated only to be blown away and disintegrated on the wind.

The ground shifted beneath their every step.

The nomads left trails behind them that sometimes stretched for miles, until they too were obliterated by the wind. After that, no one would ever know they had passed this way.

Grandmother was thirsty. She had been thirsty for days. She could feel it in the back of her throat. That old, cloying desiccation. Not quite an ache, not quite a pain, but so, so familiar. Every way her thoughts travelled, the thirst was there too. Always in the gaze of her attention.

It would not be ignored.

Yesterday they had come to the East-Canyon-River Oasis. Even when the river itself had all but melted away there would remain a lake, nestled in its deepest curves.

But they had arrived to find even that on the very precipice of dryness. What water was left was mixed in with the foul mud and the desperate, dying creatures that lived in its darkness when the river was full.

It had caused Grandmother some distress, but she had handled it in her quiet way. She did not want her daughters to see that she had doubts. It would have caused them to have doubts too.

So they had taken what water they could, and moved on.

The youngest were still on their mothers’ milk, which was a mercy. But their legs were not as strong or seasoned as their elders, which was not. And with East-Canyon-River dry the nearest oasis was many miles further to the north. It promised to be a difficult trek.

Grandmother had held hopes for East-Canyon-River. It had served her well in the past, but this year fortune had not been on their side. The thirst had chased them across the plains from watering hole to watering hole. It had passed with them the bodies of the creatures too weak to keep on moving, all the while growing stronger with every step and every dashed hope.

But hope was not yet gone. Not entirely. There was still the Oasis-in-the-North. Grandmother had not been there for many years. But once, long ago, it had saved them. It had stayed green and lush and wet even when it had felt like the whole world was dying.

But to go there would mean passing her.

They walked for hours in the blistering heat. The withered trees casting scant shade that was as blissful as it was insufficient.

Her daughters walked alongside her for a time. They could sense her apprehension. The eldest amongst them knew what awaited them, further down this path. They also knew that Grandmother would not have led them this way had there been any alternative. It caused her too much pain.

But there was no alternative, and they were running out of time.

Her youngest daughter had born a son earlier last year, when the world had been green.

It was her first child and the cause of much joy amongst the family. He was healthy and mischievous, and would no doubt cause them great trouble on his precarious path to adulthood. But now the boy did not have the energy to misbehave. The journey had left him tired, and his mother struggled to keep him moving.
It was a hard truth to look in the eye, but If the Oasis-in-the-North failed them too, then he would be the first to die. And he would not be the last.

Grandmother stopped and smelled the air.

This was the place.

The others stopped too, the youngsters taking full advantage of the unexpected rest.

On a patch of earth and sand indistinguishable from any other for miles around, they found what remained.

The bone was a white so bright and pure it gleamed from the dirt. Her one unbroken tusk protruded forward in a graceful arc. It was enormous. It showed that its owner had lived a long life, and that proof was solace of a kind for Grandmother.

That year, the rains had not come.

The youngest and the weakest went first, as it has always been. Even now their skeletons punctuated the byways that link the ponds and lakes and oases across the land. Faces and voices that Grandmother remembered even now.

They had left them behind.

To stay with them would have been to die with them, they understood that. They had always understood that.

But Mother had led them on. She had kept them moving, those who could still move. She did not abandon them to despair and grief. She had saved them. She knew about the Oasis-in-the-North and had guided them to it its very edge. But no further.

Because Mother had been old. And it had been a dry year.

Grandmother, or the girl she had once been, had wanted to stay with her, to wait and hope. But they understood. They had always understood. They had to keep moving.

Grandmother reached out and made contact with the skull on the ground. It was polished impossibly smooth by the sand and winds of decades. Bone and memory, all that remained.

Her daughters joined her, placing their trunks alongside hers. None of them had known the individual who had died on this spot. None of them had even been alive when the mighty force of her life had deserted her.

The children followed their example, jostling between each other and the legs of their elders for space. They were uncertain what it was they were doing but convinced of its importance.

Finally, Grandmother let her trunk fall away. They could afford to stay no longer.
Her every step took her further into the north, and closer to whatever they would find there.

But a piece of her, something older than her children, and heavier even than they had been when once she’d carried them inside her, it stayed behind. And her steps were lighter for it.

Grandmother knew that in all likelihood this would be her last visitation. Her tusks were already as long and beautiful as Mother’s had been. And she knew this also; that one day it would be her bones, lying on the ground. And the daughters and granddaughters around her now would gather close and show their children what remained, without them fully understanding why. Why sadness radiated from their mothers like heat from a terrible sun.

But they would, in time.

Grandmother breathed deep. The sound reverberated amongst the trees. Trees that looked dead, but in truth were only sleeping.

There were still many miles between them and the Oasis-in-the-North.

But Grandmother was almost certain she could taste water on the air.

Thomas Lloyd is a Welsh writer with a longstanding love and fascination for the natural world. He has had a short story published in Three Drops From A Cauldron magazine and another short listed for the 2016 Flash Fiction Prize at Bare Fiction magazine.