Water Mammals

by Emily Hasler

I enter the water on the wide stage of Carbis Bay. I swim out slowly beyond my depth, stop and float on my back as is my habit. It is then I realise I am being watched. The seal comes closer, dips, hunching its shoulders like a cat about to pounce, before diving gently again. Closer. Those unblinking eyes and sharp whiskers becoming more and more distinct. It made contact—eye contact. And in that moment I was suddenly aware of my feet—everything fell inside me and beneath me and I began to pedal, suddenly feeling utterly terrestrial.

***

The Latin name for the Grey or Atlantic seal is Halichoerus grypus, meaning ‘hook-nosed sea-pig’. Those mannerisms and whiskers—which are super sensitive and allow seals to hunt successfully even if blind—are feline, but the profile of a grey seal is most often called canine. Then again, another name is the horsehead seal. The young are pups, or calves. They breed in rookeries. Their nearest land relatives are bears or mustelids (weasels, otters, badgers, etc.). The old Orkney word for the grey seal is ‘haaf fish’, literally meaning ‘fishing fish’, highlighting the tense relationship between the two parties. But it also sounds like ‘half fish’ and recalls Trinculo’s discovery of Caliban in Scene II of the Tempest:

[…] What have we
here? a man or a fish? dead or alive? A fish:
he smells like a fish; a very ancient and fish-
like smell; a kind of not the newest Poor-
John. A strange fish! […]

More often still than any of the other beastly comparisons, seals are likened to ourselves. Their eyes especially, which are actually completely unlike ours, but that look in a way that is familiar, knowing—even accusing. Where other animals might see us, they look. And not, like a horse, with a seemingly submissive nod, but eye to eye. This is what happened. I was swimming and the seal knew it. It came towards me and then it came closer.

***

The tail of a seal is not a tail, but feet. It is as if their legs had been bagged and tied together. We can see this in photos of them reclining on their backs, nonchalantly crossing their flipper-feet. Seals belong to the family of pinnipeds; pinna for fin and pedis for foot. Finned and footed, they are different animals on and off land. The sea-slick grey seal is pebbled, glossy. On land she is dulled and mottled. From this shape-shifting has grown stories of selkies; tales of love, vengeance and transgression, of crossing between worlds. For, like cetaceans, seals have returned to the sea, performing an elegant loop in evolution. Here’s R.M. Lockley in his tender and still useful 1966 book Grey Seal, Common Seal:

The structure of the skeleton and limbs of the seal show that they once lived terrestrially with four articulate limbs able, like the polar bear and otter today, to walk about on dry land. Having become land mammals with man, they are returning, have almost completely returned, to the sea – which may yet be man’s not too distant future when the land fails to satisfy his requirements and if he continues to destroy his environment through lack of foresight.

This is one of the UK’s largest wild mammals; adult males are about 7ft long and 500lb but can be bigger in their prime. I suspect the individual I met with was female, slightly smaller but, toe-to-toe, surely taller than me. But we were not standing, and the sense I had is not of being outsized but of being out of my element. My eyesight underwater, even with prescription goggles, is pretty useless. My sense of smell is blunt, everything is overpowered by salt. I have no whiskers—though I do think I sensed being watched before I spotted my watcher. The seal knew about me being in the water long before I knew about it and came to investigate the trespasser.

***

Back in Essex, I recount my adventures with the seals again and again: how I took the train and saw the bay studded with seal-like shapes I took for buoys. How I swam the first day and thought I saw a log being washed ashore. How all these returned to me as seals when on my second day I ran into the water under a rainbow and one of the buoys sprouted whiskers, grew eyes and began to move towards me.

It could not be told enough. It could not be told. So I read.

“Did you know there are less grey seals in the wild than African elephants?”

“Fewer,” my friend replied.

“Yes, fewer. But I saw loads of seals, and no elephants at all!”

The UK has about 40% world’s population of grey seals. Although persecution has lessened, it does still go on. Microplastics work their way through the food chain to the bellies of apex predators while ghost nets attack them from without. When we encounter animals it is difficult to remember their endangeredness. Their scarcity makes them more vivid, causes them to occupy more space. How can we see what is no longer there to be seen? How do we spot what is missing? I keep butting up against this thought, just as I keep coming close to but not reaching my encounters with the seals—not touching.

***

On my last morning in Cornwall I decided not to swim. Instead I sat with my tea on a low but sheer cliff. In the pre-dawn light everything is temporarily vibrant, more distinct. A group of grey seals complicate the blue-black water, appearing as slightly darker blue-black flecks. There are at least a dozen, maybe twenty. It is hard to keep count as they appear and disappear across my field of vision. They seem to be acting as a group, coming together in pairs or threes and forming a loose assembly, sometimes ‘logging’ (lying lengthways), sometimes bobbing vertically (‘bottling’). Research on fur and elephant seals show they sleep with half a brain at a time in the water, while on land they sleep full-brained as humans. They dive and surface in their slumber, dropping to the bottom and then swimming up unconsciously to breath every seven minutes or so.

This Cornish colony of seals is easier to observe in the winter because their numbers in the bays increase. This morning it is as though they huddled together in the lee of the cliffs. The ‘as thoughs’ and ‘apparentlys’ proliferate, but something tells me to trust my animal sense; warmth, security, shelter. We can’t avoid the fact that when we encounter animals a human is always involved. We can’t take ourselves out of the situation. But we also can’t remove the other, the animal. In the exchange we ourselves become animalled. At several points I think one of the seals has spotted me, seeming to stop and stare back. I raise my flask in acknowledgement.

***

We need encounters with wildness to know that we cannot reach it. We need to butt up against that gap (which we feel in the belly, not the head) every once in a while. Documentaries are wonderful, but incredible underwater images won’t do it—they bring us too close. We talk of feeling so close we ‘could touch it’; what we need to remember is not touching, not reaching. There are so many necessary impossibilities to be tackled. We need myths and folklore, stories of meetings and crossings. We need to complicate our understanding, to be aware of our closeness and profound distance.

Of course there are some simple mammalian similarities. The same ventral fat which causes the sleeping seal to roll onto its back gives me my natural buoyancy. It is what lets me bob about in the waves as I love to do, allowing my body pivot slowly according to the tides and currents. I bask and swim lazy strokes, delighting in the water. But there is also, always, fear, even here in my own lonely North Sea. For each time I enter the water I am not quite alone. I catch grey shapes from the corner of my eye and my body plummets through itself before I realise it is just a gull, or a buoy.

Emily Hasler’s debut poetry collection, The Built Environment, was published by Pavilion Poetry in 2018. She was born in Suffolk but has washed up on the Essex-side of the river Stour. She works as a freelance proofreader and writer, and in a pub.

References
R.M. Lockley, Grey Seal, Common Seal (London: Andre Deutsch, 1966).

A Failure of the Imagination

by Sherry Rind

When our wish calls him forth,
a mass breaks the bush and into
the weight of being,

part dancer trotting en pointe,
part tank, lumps and horns everywhere
until we sort the symmetry

of snout broadened into scimitar tusks
and heavy bone sculpted into ridges
protecting the high-set eyes.

The closer we move, the farther the warthog drifts
across the veldt, leaving familiar smells
of dried mud and pig.

The herd plays Our Town,
piglets ramming foreheads and the smooth sows, tails swinging,
strut and mutter, as various as ourselves.

There is no one warthog. We pull them into our world
named as barbeque joints, armored bombers, biker clubs,
cartoons video games, children’s toys,

scars and knobs edited away
the originals lost
in the dry grass closing behind them.

 

 

Sherry Rind’s poetry books are The Hawk in the Back Yard (Anhinga Award) and A Fall Out the Door (King County Arts Award, Confluence Press). Chapbooks are The Whooping Crane Dance and A Natural History of Grief. She has received grants and awards from the Seattle and King County Arts Commissions, Pacific Northwest Writers, National Endowment for the Arts, and Artist Trust.

Requiem for an American Mink

by Bethan Wood

As I stepped out of my car onto my drive, I stood on something that softly cracked and squelched. Looking down I saw the bottom half of a frog – its head and front legs were missing. A whole frog I could understand; our small loch produces thousands of them and sometimes they are accidentally run over by vehicles. Half a frog was something new.

I looked around and noticed many similarly discarded frogs in various stages of dismemberment. Heron? Fox? It was then that I sensed I was being watched. No more than 8 feet away, an American mink sat (yes, sat) watching me. It showed no fear, no alarm, but waited for me to move so it could continue with its meal. I was both horrified by the carnage around me but intrigued to see a mink in the flesh. A colleague who studies small mammals in southern Scotland had told me and my students in a presentation that if you ever accidentally catch a mink in your Longworth trap you MUST apologise profusely and release it on the other side of a wall if possible, as mink are known to attack if cornered. So I went into the house and ran upstairs to watch from a window.

A little bit daunted and excited I spent the next hour watching as the mink entered the water of the loch, caught its prey, brought it to the driveway, dismembered it and ate the parts it wanted. My excitement I confess did turn to anger. Despite its fluffy tail and pointed snout, this was undoubtedly an indiscriminate predator which certainly was born to kill. Our resident moorhen family was nowhere to be seen; blackbirds, chaffinches, and our tenant robin were all sounding continuous alarm calls. This one small mammal which is only a fifth the size of an otter had unbalanced the peace of this small ecosystem.

The American mink (Neovison vison) is not native to the UK and as such has no natural predators here. It was imported in the 1920s to satisfy the demand for fur – coats, muffs, collars, etc. In the 1950s there were estimated to be around 400 mink farms in the UK with thousands of animals at each. With that number of individuals, it was no surprise that many escaped (or were deliberately released) and went on to flourish in the wild. For me, the most incomprehensible wildlife crime involving these animals was executed in the name of ‘animal protection’ when animal activists deliberately released these animals from fur farms into the countryside. It is estimated that in the 1980s and 90s thousands of mink were released by these campaigners which added to the already significant population in the wild.

The carnivorous American mink feeds on small mammals (including rabbits), fish, birds (especially moorhens – hence my concern), crustaceans, as well as my frogs and other amphibians. However the most noteworthy UK species it has influenced over the last few decades is the Water Vole (aka ‘Ratty’, in the Wind in the Willows). In the 1900s it was estimated that there were around 8 million water voles in the UK; Scotland has a darker population which came from southern Europe around 10 000 years ago when there was a land bridge to Europe, while England and Wales have the lighter water vole which originated from the Balkans. Despite the longevity of these populations since the last Ice Age, ninety percent of water voles disappeared within a few decades of the release of mink from fur farms in the 20th Century. By 2002 it was declared extinct in South West England. In 2011, one of the biggest conservation schemes commenced in North East Scotland, to remove mink from the rivers in a bid to protect and increase the numbers of the native water vole.

I am fairly convinced that we have water voles on our land in southern Scotland. I have found a few latrines over the years and found evidence of the cropped grass around a burrow. The presence of this mink was therefore of concern. Mink cannot be released back into the wild if caught because they are a non-native, invasive species; our animal was humanely killed by a single shot as it sat feeding on yet another frog. As the body slowly cooled I took the opportunity to examine this compact, evolutionary-superb animal. I first ran my hand down its dark-chocolate back and the silky, velvety-smooth fur made me see why women in the early 20th Century had valued its pelt. Its sparkly black eyes were slowly dimming but still kept a remnant of its intelligence. The bright white markings on its chin and throat reminded me of the brilliance of newly fallen snow. The long slender body was muscular and solid, and the feet webbed. It was the size of a small domestic cat. I confess, I admired this little animal and its tenacity to seize a niche in a new country and thrive. Research has shown that the presence of otters can limit mink numbers as the otter outcompetes the mink. As our rivers become cleaner our native otters are slowly returning to their former habitats and this creates hope that the mink population will decline as a result. However, we must remember that humans caused this ecological conundrum – and sometimes to save many species we may have to control a single species which in this case is an alien in this ecosystem.

One day later, as I was leaving for work, I heard the familiar call of one of our moorhens and saw that all of them were present and correct – clever birds!

Bethan Wood is an ecologist who lives in Southern Scotland. She teaches ecology at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

Paralarva

by Rebecca Gethin

a pulsating jig
of injelligence,
all on my own
in the waterdance

Disguised as water
I see through myself
a series of dots
connecting
suckers to brain

My arms think
for themselves,
each one choosing
a plankton
so I eat 8 times more

Three hearts
whisperbeat
my life after-egg,
so long as I don’t become
another being

Up there,
in the overwater
light heats me
dark cools me
In between

there’s a reddening
Uncertain if this is
the swallowing
till I sink
into myself

 

 

Rebecca Gethin lives on Dartmoor. In 2017 two pamphlets were published: A Sprig of Rowan by Three Drops Press and All the Time in the World by Cinnamon Press who previously published a collection and two novels. New poems appear in UK magazines and anthologies. She runs a Poetry School seminar in Plymouth. In 2018 she has a writing residency at Brisons Veor. www.rebeccagethin.wordpress.com

The Sea Wasps: Chironex fleckeri

by Marija Smits

Saltwater rich in iodine calls to us; it sings to our aeons-old nervous system. It speaks to our cells: it is time. It is time.

We see all and sense all.

Now, it is dark.

We move rapidly through the ocean, unlike the others of our kind, our translucent bells pulsating: contract, relax, contract, relax. A hypnotic kind of locomotion this, and one which belies our dangerous nature. Our prey has little chance of surviving our tentacles; we are not passive in our feeding, like the others, our cousins. We are canny, we do not trust to the vagaries of the tide, that mistress of the others, the passive ones. We seek out our food: worms, shrimps and prawns, and paralyse them with our venom. Our oral arms draw the creatures into our mouth-anus, the entrance — and exit — to our gut. They are then digested, their flesh broken down into smaller and smaller fragments until they are but molecules. Necessary fuel for our cells.

What is it that we fear in the ocean? There is almost nothing that we fear. Green turtles, crabs and the silver and coloured fish — butterfish, rabbitfish, batfish — are our only predators, seemingly immune to our poison which we use to defend ourselves, lashing out to disable, striking to kill. Although there is also the invisible threat: the malevolent force — wrath of Poseidon? Cyclone? Storm? — that comes from nowhere and leaves us stranded in our thousands on the shore.

It was then, when we were beached, prone, and barely alive, that the inquisitive apes poked us with their sticks, although those that were more knowledgeable (and less curious) ran from us, aware that our tentacles were still deadly, despite our deaths. We were left to drown in the thin air beneath a cerulean sky and reeling gulls.

Still. The light levels begin to increase. We migrate.

Contract, relax, contract, relax.

It is time. It is time.

It is time to mate, to reproduce; the iodine promises success to our offspring, our polyps. In these waters they will change and grow into adults, like us.

These waters are perfect, there is enough light, enough food, enough oxygen, enough iodine. The temperature is just right too, and the thinking apes have left enough debris in the waters for our polyps to cling to; so it is here that we will congregate and bloom. A stalk of us enters the waters and then another and another. The stalks become a swarm, and then a bloom, for we are here to mate. This is no chance meeting of medusae, the currents flinging us into each other. No, there is purpose here.

The increasing light levels are a signal to spawn; the males release their sperm, the females release their eggs, and the waters become thick with gametes that float into each other, touch, fuse, join, fertilise. The eggs, when fertilized, become larvae and sink to the seabed, which is littered with debris. We do not know why, but the shore-dwelling apes, the ones with language and tools, aid our proliferation; for when they are not poking us with sticks, or watching us from above the water in their vessels, they are building us great reefs for our polyps. Made of strange materials, these reefs sometimes house fish for us to feed on. They have made the waters warmer too, the water more nutrient-rich, oxygen-thin. They kill off our predators. We do not know why they do this, but it matters not. These apes they come, they go. Yet we go on.

Contract, relax, contract, relax.

Our larvae, attached to a firm structure, will become polyps; these will then grow and strobilate, and produce more free-swimming cube-shaped medusae, like us. We will be dead by then, for we do not have long to live, but it matters not. Today, while it is light, we bloom and spawn; today we witness the spectacle of reproduction.

Some of our kind have mastered immortality; some, like the tiny Turriptosis, when hurt, or ill, or simply close to death, are able to revert into polyps. From adult to offspring, then offspring to adult, the process can go on forever. We practise a different kind of immortality.

We see all, we sense all. The light levels are dropping. It is time to stop spawning. The bloom begins to break up into stalks of sea wasps.

Contract, relax, contract, relax; we move apart, into the darkening waters.

The last of the fertilised eggs float downwards. They are changing already; cells are multiplying, proliferating, DNA is being replicated. We move through the water, not much more than water ourselves, and senesce. By the time the light levels increase again, some of us will have died. Yet it matters not, for our offspring will survive. We will endure.

Contract, relax, contract, relax.

Marija Smits is the pen-name of Dr Teika Bellamy, a mother-of-two, ex-scientist and editor whose art and writing has appeared in a variety of publications. When she’s not busy with her children she’s running the indie press, Mother’s Milk Books. ‘Teika’ means ‘fairy tale’ in Latvian.

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.