The Pickieterno

by Stephen Rutt

It had died in the past hour. Severed, crimson-fresh, and glassy eyed. Soft to touch — pre rigor mortis. I’d pulled it out of the long grass under the wind turbine. An arctic tern with one wing, one head, one severed chest. Its heart, as thick as my thumb but half as long, glistened, still damp with blood. With that small organ pumping life around its body, it flies from here to the southern oceans and back to this small island — 30,000 miles a year. I saw the length of the world in its heart, a map in its gristle, flyways in its sinews.

I’d spent three months on the island before the arctic terns appeared. The island was North Ronaldsay, a four-mile-long fragment of rock, an aberration in the sea on the northern edge of the Orkney archipelago. Twenty-seven miles beyond lies Fair Isle, visible on clear days. Occasionally Foula, fifty miles due north, could be seen in the absolute clarity of early morning, before the air filled with salt haze. It appeared like a child-drawn volcano, an acute triangle of rock in the Atlantic. I’d become used to this scale. By the distances of modern life they weren’t too far away. On the scale of an island’s horizon, massive. Fair Isle and Foula belong to a different archipelago, one that is almost impossible to get to from here. They have a different dialect and a different identity. Over there they call a tern a ‘tirrick’. On North Ronaldsay we use ‘pickieterno’.

The terns appeared out of the grey, ahead of a squall, one morning in May. Sterna paradisea: tern of paradise. Like an old friend reacquainted from last year, it was both joyful and jarring. I always forget over the winter quite how they look. How small, thin and light they are. The elastic elegance of their wing beats, as if they fly through a different substance, lighter, more buoyant than air. They bear a superficial resemblance to seagulls. They have a glossy black cap. Vivid red feet and a bill as bright. The bill is stout, though up close more delicate looking, with a gentle downward curve. Their legs are tiny, and when they are perched they resemble pale flakes of rock. Like an overcast sky, the body and wings are soft grey and white. Against the light the wings are translucent white, though smudged with a smoky grey edge. The white and grey tail is as long as a swallow’s streamer and responsible for the colloquial name, sea swallow. As with all close relatives they are and they aren’t like seagulls: familiar in features and utterly different in spirit.

The terns have come here to breed; I have come here to help count them. North Ronaldsay bird observatory thrives on volunteer staff that come from all over Britain, united by a love of birds. We are not ornithologists but variously builders from Cornwall, Somerset fishmongers, gap year students, future doctors and exiles from London without a science degree between us. We count and tag the birds that migrate through or breed on the island as part of the observatory’s work, the twenty-ninth consecutive year this has happened. It doesn’t take us long to get into the swing of work and life in such a remote part of Britain. The terns don’t take long either. Within a week the old colonies on the preferred rocky outcrops around the coast are alive again. That’s where I needed to go for monitoring.

A sharp pinprick. The splatter of shit on the back of my coat. I was being driven off. Terns overhead, queuing in the air above me, taking turns. They cry — a noise like they’re being ripped in two but with almost mechanical regularity. I had seen this before on TV. A polar bear stumbling over rocks in the tundra, arctic terns darting down, showering it with blows until they drew blood. The bear moves away; the tern is mightier. Another tern made a pass at my ear; I spun around on a seawater-slicked rock and ended up sitting in a rock pool.

Life in a tern colony is not calm. They are loud and quick, and anger pulses through them – though anger is perhaps not the word. It is vigilance and belligerence, a full-hearted defence against intruders. Colonies depend on joint defence. Individually they are smaller and lighter than gulls, skuas and sheep, but together they can drive almost anything off. The bigger the colony, the more success they’ll have.

Success seems a long way off. A tern’s definition of summer is May to August, but this far north the increasingly unpredictable climate is jeopardising that season. May was cold and grey. June was a washout. The grass didn’t grow, the cows were on silage until July. The fish came, then went, then came again. The water levels rose and rose. The first broods were destroyed, a literal washout, or for those further away from the water’s edge, the grass that didn’t grow around the nests presented them as an egg platter, or a small chick snack fit for the maw of a marauding great skua. I saw what I thought was teamwork. A pair of great skuas, one flying fast at the edge of the colony. White-tipped wings flashing in bright sunlight. It flew low and hard at the edge and the terns’ belligerent instincts kicked in. The colony rose up like a wave and chased it off. The second skua drifted over an unprotected feast.

Image by Stephen Rutt

I have some sympathy for the devils. They nest on the west coast in a boggy field near the airstrip. There are no raptors on the island and the skuas fulfill that niche, picking off the plethora. They move with brute charisma, an angry swagger. If you walk too close to them they will defend their territory from you like the terns will. But they don’t feel like a pinprick. Skuas have a five foot wingspan, a bill like a machete and clawed-feet dangling as they fly straight for your head. You duck and get out of the field quickly. I have seen skuas give gannets a good head-start, then chase them down and upend them to steal their fish. There are more gannets still — one misty morning 5,000 streamed past the observatory like salmon running up an Alaskan river. There are good numbers of seabirds remaining currently, but they won’t last forever at this rate. Arctic terns are amber listed. Declines are concerning. And when they’re gone? The world loses a global species — a tie that binds the north and south, polar bear and penguin.

I’m reminded of Tennyson’s struggle to understand how nature changed around him. In the 1850s, while grief-struck, he wrote of nature: ‘So careful of the type she seems, / So careless of the single life;’ (In Memoriam, LV, L5-8). We have swung almost completely around from Tennyson’s concerns. We’re now so concerned with the single life that we forget to be careful of the type. A single dead tern under a turbine is upsetting. Global warming driving the species ever further north and south is even worse. At 59 degrees north, Orkney is at the southern end of their breeding range, a range that extends as far north as Cape Morris Jessup, the northernmost tip of mainland Greenland. They spend the winter on Antarctic pack ice. For the great travellers, there’s not much more room for them to go.

The solstice came in a thick haar — the longest day of daylight and you couldn’t see a thing. July: a blessing in 30 days where I didn’t need to wear my winter coat once. By the end of the month, the first dispersal of the year. Adults and young, successful and unsuccessful breeders, turned up on the rocks at the top of the island. Counting terns is deceptive. A manageable flock on the rocks triples in size when a skua drifts past, or a walker kicks a stone, or a sheep ventures too close. It becomes chaos, like counting snowflakes in a blizzard. It is our job as monitors to decipher the chaos — sort order out of panic. It is also, in a way, like panning for gold, such as when a black tern from Eastern Europe was found. Though not irregular in England, they’re eye-wateringly unusual this far north and west. The arctic tern flock reached 4,000 terns, or 80 birds to every islander. Those that have bred remain communal and retain aggression. Another opportunity for breeding began.

When the day’s monitoring is done, I read from a book called Birds of the Western Palearctic (BWP). It is the ornithologist’s bible — all the scientific studies on every European species summarised and condensed. It stretches to nine volumes. It is monolithic, and I feel like a heretic reading it. A faker, sidetracked by facts from Lake Myvatn in Iceland, where one arctic tern was recorded making 4.6 dives per minute with a success rate of 69.2%. I separate what I actually want to know out from the dense scientific prose. The eggs weigh on average 19 grams. 4cm by 3cm. Both parents look after the young and the bond lasts into the southward migration, but then dissolves. Apparently the parents won’t spend the winter together.

From the northernmost headland the news is not positive. Here the terns nest on a broad sweep of rock down from a headland to the sea, finding crevices amongst the rocks bunched and crumpled like discarded paper. There is no aerial frenzy, no bombardment. From a count of 150 pairs a few weeks ago, we only find three fledged young and many abandoned eggs, as cold as wet rock to touch. It is mystifying — this colony was a third bigger than the one next to it and should be better defended. It is not until we leave that we stumble across the reason why. Stashed in a hollow by the drystone dyke, half-hidden by the long grass we find a few loose tern feathers. Then a wing, a tail, legs. Half a chick, feather shafts half-grown from its downy wings. The hallmarks of cat predation. A colony without life is a haunting place. Instead of the screeching of adults, all you can hear are waves gently rolling into the shore. The conspicuousness of absence. The wrongness of it is unbearable. It feels like a disaster.

Back at the observatory I carry on my reading. BWP tells me that the terns are monogamous but ‘divorce’ happens, more frequently amongst younger birds. For the birds that lose a partner, they skip a breeding season. Then, in future years, they will return late to the colony, pair up later, breed later. I don’t know how ornithology knows this, but it feels important that someone somewhere does.

The tern blizzard has worked though. By the lighthouse we count 95 terns sat flush on the rocks, immobile and impervious to the thousands more that bustle around them. On a fine day a week or so later we entered the colony. Showered in excrement from the bird blizzard. Our heads hang, eyes scouring the ground and our footfall. Nobody wants to be the one to stand on an egg, or worse, a chick, and nobody does. It’s a dangerous time. We choose the fine days so that eggs don’t get cold or wet while the adults are up in the air. We move quickly to minimise disturbance.

On the rocks we find chicks. I find one chick hiding with its head tucked into a crevice in the rock. It is downy soft, stone brown, speckled darker. They can vanish from above, but on eye-level they look ludicrous, with adult-thick orange legs and a stubby carrot of a beak. Born two days ago, I reckon, though I can’t tell for certain. I turn it on to its back, my fingers either side cradling it. I pull out a ring and gently plier it shut, checking to make sure it fits as a perfect circle around its leg. I place it down, back where I found it, to resume its life on the hard rocks.

The ring has a unique code on it and back at the observatory it will be put into the national database. When the bird next gets trapped, the ring code will be read and logged on the database. It’s a simple method but it’s how we know that arctic terns will live for a quarter of a century. It’s how we know that one tern, ringed as a chick in Northumberland was found in Australia three months later.

I walk towards another chick I can see, looking like a stone shuffling over stones. This one is older — it has feathers instead of down, an adult-sized bill and wings that aren’t fluffy stumps. I reach down. It jumps up. Flaps its wings and takes off. First flight. Its wings are not quite fully grown, its feathers not quite the sharp-tipped tools that will take it to Antarctica. They are stumpy and half-formed, but good enough. It flaps deep wing beats and flies off down the other end of the rocks, gracefully dropping down. I guess some things just come naturally.

Image by Stephen Rutt

The season is out of kilter. Colonies, in an ideal world, all lay eggs and raise chicks in sync with each other. As we move through we find freshly laid eggs and recently fledged young, alongside full grown young from other colonies on other islands. I notice one egg tremble, cracks spreading throughout its shell. An egg tooth — the hard knob on the tip of its bill — breaks through, as the impulse to life drives the chick inside to break the warm wall of its embryonic state and change its world forever. It’s a complicated experience. I don’t hang around to watch it happen, despite a compulsion, the nagging sense that it will be the most extraordinary, privileged event to witness. By the same token it feels like an intrusion, a transgression of some necessary boundary. It doesn’t feel right. I am merely happy enough that there are tern chicks still hatching. It means the world to me.

From the 95 pairs we counted 59 fledged young from that colony. On paper, not the most productive part of the island, an offshoot of two pairs around the corner from that colony managed to raise all their chicks. The statistical outlier. From a total of 579 paired terns, 95 chicks were fledged. A 0.16 productivity rate looks terrible, but in reality it is a relief, each fledged chick a victory in defiance of a most unpredictable summer. As the season ends in August the 4,000 strong flock dwindles to several hundred, then a mere handful of birds. Shetland, Norwegian, Icelandic young pass through. Possibly even Greenlandic young — maybe the birds from 84 degrees north at Cape Morris Jessup — might pass through on the back of a gale.

Autumn. Absence again. Silence. Wind and rain. The occasional tern still hurries past, south-bound, but suddenly they seem out of place. They are no longer starkly white against a blue sky, but grey and flimsy, too light for the weather we experience. They should be halfway south by now — a month and a half after fledging — the birds breeding north of the arctic circle experiencing night properly for the first time around the equator. In another month or so, as we slip into winter, they’ll be back in the season they chase from one end of the earth to the other, at home, in perpetual daylight on the pack ice of the Antarctic summer.


Header image by Stephen Rutt

Stephen Rutt is a naturalist, writer and photographer from East Anglia. He has recently completed the MA in Wild Writing from the University of Essex and his work has appeared in Earthlines, The Harrier and on the Wild Easters blog. He tweets a lot @steverutt



by Michael Engelhard

Everything is flowing—going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water.
—John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (1911)

Encounters with wildlife can feel like payback for karmic points earned and keep some of us buzzing for days. Perhaps more than in its weather or plants, the land’s life force concentrates in its creatures, sharpened to poignancy, similar but foreign enough to our own to be captivating. To a few people it—or a thing closely related to it—becomes audible. A fellow wilderness guide describes it as a low frequency sound, “like a didgeridoo,” which she has come to expect in certain places and greets as an old friend. Of course, the humming just might be tinnitus, or our mind wanting to hear something, anything, beyond sub-polar silence.

One fall day on a Canning River raft trip I guided, at the western boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, will always remain special to the trip’s participants for what the land offered up without asking for anything but our attention.

Sipping coffee in the morning’s quiet, looking south from the top of the bluff where we had pitched our tents, I noticed a white lump on the bench below muscling toward camp. I did not believe my eyes. A polar bear! The clients popped from their nylon cocoons like ground squirrels from their burrows when I alerted them—one clad in boxer shorts and a down jacket. My co-guide Cyn insisted on getting the shotgun from its waterproof sleeve by my tent. We stood and watched the bear sniff and root around. To the marine mammal-dependent carnivore (the largest on land), ground squirrels, foxes, or birds could have been the only morsels of interest there. But as mere flashes in its metabolic pan, they would never provide enough calories for this blubber-burning powerhouse.

The bear’s wedge of a head swung on the pendulous neck, snakelike, gauging god-knows-what. Thirty miles from the coast, radiant against willows and heather, the bear looked more displaced than it would have in a zoo. The previous year, sea ice—a haul-out for seals and hunting platform for the bears—had shrunk to the third-lowest extent on record. Hunger or curiosity could have driven the bear this far inland. It appeared healthy and fat, but if the spring ice had broken up early again, it would be in for a long fast.

Polar bear near the Eskimo village of Kaktovik by Rich Wilkins

In the spring of 2008, Native hunters had killed a polar bear near Fort Yukon, two hundred and fifty miles south of the Beaufort Sea coast. Its inland excursion was the longest ever recorded for an Alaska polar bear. Normally at that time of year the animals would be foraging on the sea ice. I only found out after our trip that our sighting qualified as the farthest inland sighting of a Polar Bear in the Arctic Refuge. In 2011, a scientific study reported a polar bear marathon swim. A GPS-collared female with her yearling cub had paddled 426 miles—from east of Barrow to near the Canadian border—across the Beaufort Sea. In search of an ice floe to haul out on, she spent nine days straight in barely above-freezing-point water. Her cub did not survive. Clearly, as far as northern species and their behavior go, we now should expect the unexpected.

Without a care in the world, the bear we’d been watching lay down for a nap halfway up the bluff’s slope. What was there to fear?

We sat and kept our binoculars trained on the pile that could easily have been mistaken for a limestone boulder. Occasionally, the bear lifted its head to sample the air. We crouched downwind from it, and it remained unaware of our presence.

Before long, a golden eagle stroked past. Mobbed by some songbirds but regal in its bearing, it scrutinized the bear, which did not wake up. Then another bright spot heading downstream caught my eye. A cub? But the gait was different, a trot with a mission more than an ambling; the mark of canine determination, not of the larger carnivore’s easy opportunism. A scan with my glasses revealed a white wolf.

Animals congregating near us for no obvious reason leave us mystified and in awe, even more so when they are charismatic or rare. They represent connections we have lost, evoking lineages and life ways that once were familiar but now seem arcane. They appear as sudden emissaries, omens, or uncanny messengers, although most of us no longer speak their language. At our layover camp, tracks of caribou, wolves, moose, bears, foxes, and a wolverine had stamped the mudflats with the animals’ hidden intentions. The day after, we had observed a black Arctic fox, a moose built like a bulldozer, and a peregrine striking a ptarmigan on the fly and passing it off to a juvenile bird—all within one hour. Animals even sought contact with us on occasion, mirrors of our own curiosity: mew gulls escorted the rafts, shrieking blue murder and sounding like rusty door hinges. Caribou high-stepped closer, curious, eyeing us nervously. I baited them by waving my paddle overhead. A red fox—non-native like myself and likely to cannibalize its smaller arctic cousins if it came upon them—investigated our dinner setup. Even in the continent’s frugal margins, the paths of animals had changed. We had changed them by our mere presence.

Sure, there were explanations for such meetings, for the overlapping of agendas in space and time, or at least the beginnings of explanations. Caribou are known to be curious, gulls and terns aggressive toward intruders. Mornings and evenings, warm-blooded animals tend to be more active, avoiding mosquito peak times or heat, fueling up for a cold night or the day ahead. With their patchwork of habitats, rivers provide food and cover for predators and prey alike. Their corridors ease travel, funneling animals—and humans—from the boggy and lumpy tundra onto natural highways. In part, our encounters were signs of the land’s seasonal abundance, the narrow window for blooming and birthing, maturing and mating, that winter too soon slams shut. We also had to account for selective perception, our minds’ intense focusing. The more we yielded to our surroundings, the better we learned to look and listen for signs and shed our civilization’s blinders, the more animal sightings were our reward. When our attention strayed to daydreams or to each other, wildlife must have slipped past us unnoticed. Despite our desire, the landscape seemed lifeless for hours at a time and miles around. We frequently surveyed it from a hilltop or standing up in the rafts, finding no movement except in the river’s slippage beneath scudding clouds. What orchestrated the meanderings across this land? What tangled invisible paths at greater than random frequency? Did life attract more life, beyond caloric or reproductive rewards? Was there some animal magnetism, some orbiting of terrestrial bodies about which we knew nothing but which included us?

Shadowing the Porcupine Caribou Herd on their migration for a thousand miles, the writer and wildlife biologist Karsten Heuer heard a “guttural thrumming” at significant moments in the herd’s migration. Low-frequency “infrasonic” exchanges across distances much greater than those covered by high-frequency sounds have been documented for elephants and whales. Heuer believes the phenomenon he witnessed could be a key to understanding communication that orchestrates the Porcupine herd’s moves and even transcends species boundaries. This strongly resonates with the beliefs of Gwich’in Indian hunters who, regarding caribou as distant kin, claim that they can converse with them.

Unconcerned with attempts to make sense of it all, fully present here and now, the wolf approached the sleeping bear. Casting sideways glances and giving it a wide berth of respect, it then sauntered over a ridge, out of sight but already etched into memory.

Because the bear was not moving much and posed no immediate threat, I had breakfast and broke down my tent. Then, I acted as lookout while the rest of our group took their turn and loaded the rafts, screened by the bluff and prevailing wind. As I contemplated Sleeping Beauty with some voyeuristic unease, I realized once again that, out there, who spots whom first amounts to a matter of safety. Vision, hearing, and sense of smell have been refined to various degrees in the tundra’s denizens to ensure survival of the most sentient. Exposure and this landscape’s spare natural soundtrack awaken instincts long dulled in us. Alert, we become fully, if at times frightfully, alive.

As if to drive home that point, a camouflaged couple we’d run into below the Marsh Fork confluence came floating around the bend. Velvety caribou antlers in the raft’s bow attested to their prowess as hunters. But they drifted by with their bloody cargo, oblivious to the predator outside their field of vision that had just bumped them to a lower rank on the food chain. I shuddered to think how often I had courted disaster unknowingly, like this.

When we shoved into the current a few hours after the initial sighting, the bear was up and moving again, sniffing and pawing through bushes on the bench. We snuck away like thieves, enriched by an encounter that luckily stressed none of the parties involved.
Over the next fifteen miles, our course intersected with that of a northern harrier, a rough-legged hawk, more peregrines, and low-flying, yammering loons. Another arctic fox popped from between tussocks and then sat on its haunches with erect ears, intrigued by the bipedal transients.

Hours later, a tundra airstrip and a water flow gauge perched on a terrace on river right announced the end of our journey. They were the first manmade structures we had seen since we launched, a week before.

After a dinner upgraded by fresh grayling and salmon-red char, I dumped dishwater down the cutbank, scattering ground squirrels that had staked out riverfront property by tunneling below the rim. Straightening up, I faced a grizzly nosing along the opposite shore. As we were gathering to keep tabs on its progress, furtive movement on our side caught my eye. Some dark troll momentarily rose on its hind legs for a better view of us. Bear cub, my thoughts clicked into the familiar groove; but Cyn correctly identified the creature: “It’s a wolverine!” Loping toward us on flat feet, it stopped repeatedly, as if considering a dare. This allowed us to check the bushy tail, burly legs, and brawler’s face characteristic of one of the North’s most elusive animals. I stared in disbelief until my eyes watered. This was only my second run-in with the weasel on steroids, and the first time, in Denali, it had been a mere glimpse. At roughly a hundred yards, the wolverine hesitated. Deciding that it had crossed some kind of threshold, it bolted, jumped into the river, and dogpaddled to the other side. Onshore, it shook its backlit coat, sending a burst of droplets flying in all directions. By then, the bear had bedded down for the evening. The wolverine continued upstream where it spied the bear. Like its wolf counterpart before, it detoured around the shaggy, sleeping mound. Then it clawed from the gravel bar up onto a bench and vanished behind a rise.

What a strange variation of a theme—like an Animal Planet rerun with a different cast. But to capture scenes like the ones we had witnessed in a single day, a documentary film crew would have to spend weeks or even months in the wilds.

Sunset had turned the northwestern horizon into a garish smear. A string of geese sailed right through it, black cutouts pulled by instinct to their fall staging grounds near Beaufort Lagoon. The river shone gunmetal blue, braiding and unbraiding into its delta, enticing us to carry on. Struck by oblique rays, sea ice glowed in the distance. The bear was still snoozing. When it got too dark to make out its shape, the clients crawled into their tents, trusting in our arsenal of pots and pans, pepper spray, and assorted firearms.

As evening river sounds will, the Canning’s monologue made me pensive. In my fifty-two years on the planet—much of them spent in the backcountry—I had never seen a federally endangered species. This summer, I had seen two, the polar bear and a passel of humpback chubs in the Grand Canyon. I wondered if the odds simply increased as more animals ended up on that shameful list, or if, on some subconscious level, I sought out the rare and the blighted before it could disappear. The thought that my clients essentially funded my wildlife viewing and that the carbon footprint I left on the way possibly outweighed any awareness I hoped to instill further complicated matters.

“A few recovered species don’t compensate for the lost company of great beasts,” the marine biologist Carl Safina writes. Sadly, he’s right. But here there still were some, and we in their company found a measure of solace in these seamless days on the river. I knew that whenever the refuge played big in the media, because yet another attack on it was being launched, visitor numbers rocketed. Many people with whom I spoke confessed that they wanted to see this place while there was still time; a refuge for wildlife, we needed it just as badly. What we all felt, I’d like to believe, was a mixture of helplessness, guilt, and regret rather than morbid, rubbernecking curiosity. Like conscientious criminals, we were drawn to the scene of the crime, witnesses and perpetrators rolled into one, forever haunted by our deeds and sins of omission. Perhaps, in the great beasts’ presence, we were hoping to somehow be forgiven.

Before I turned in, the realities of our streamside world dissolved into those of another, one by then almost forgotten. To the north, near the coast, orange gas flares and red strobes turned the night into a mad carnival. Flames split, fused and twitched in the crystalline air like some live alien thing. They spelled the undoing of everything we had experienced this past week. They proclaimed the place where sanctuary yielded to busyness, where extraction passed for production, where the earth and its creatures took second billing. They hawked the stuff that became our gear and got us to the river: Prudhoe Bay crude.

Michael Engelhard is the author of the forthcoming essay collection American Wild (Hiraeth Press) and of Ice Bear, a cultural history of the polar bear (University of Washington Press). He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and still works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.

Header Image: With no natural enemies except humans, polar bears often take naps in the open. Their clean lines and flowing form inspired the English sculptor and painter John Macallan Swan in 1903 to this untitled sketch. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The Imagined Bear

by Kimberly Moynahan

Or in the night, imagining some fear
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!
______________– Shakespeare. “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”

The rain had started before bedtime. Now in the dark of night, it whipped itself into a full out storm; heavy drops pounded the shingled roof of the three-sided lean-to and wind snapped the tent fly we had hung over the front opening. With each gust the fly billowed, launching a light spray onto our sleeping bags and faces. Between lightning flashes the dark was so thorough it seemed solid. With everything but our imagination drowned out by the beating rain we strained our ears, listening for the bears.

I trembled.
“Mom, are you scared?”
“No,” I whispered. “Just cold. It’s okay. Try to sleep.”
I wasn’t scared. I was terrified.

Still shaking, I snuggled my sleeping bag closer to Xan’s, pressing her small body against the side wall of the shelter. Glenn moved closer on my other side. We lay still and quiet. Listening.

It was our first backpacking trip that summer and we had hiked into Lake Colden, a popular camping destination in New York’s Adirondack High Peaks, earlier that day. Expecting rain overnight, we claimed one end of a first-come, first-served shelter. Only halfway through our five day trip, there was a lot to be said for keeping the tent dry. The lean-to, a sturdy log structure, perched on a slope overlooking the lake. The hewn logs held the dusky scent of damp wood and decades of campfire smoke and bore the carved inscriptions of scores of hikers who had enjoyed its shelter before us.

By the time we arrived, Lake Colden was already abuzz with backpackers – a term I use loosely to describe the scrabble of people who had walked in from the parking area seven miles up the trail. Lake Colden didn’t attract backcountry hikers but was more an overnight destination for families and partygoers. They arrived in loud groups, men hefting coolers of beer between them; women with loaves of bread and cook pots strapped to their packs; teenagers munching through crackling bags of Doritos; and children dropping M&Ms and tossing crackers into the water to attract ducks.

Glenn and I had backpacked together for more than a decade. We preferred the isolation of the backcountry, but now, with Xan only in her third summer of hiking, we kept our trips local. She was a spunky hiker, preferring a good rock scramble to a mundane forest trail, but whatever the terrain, there was no rushing an exploratory seven year-old. To her, backpacking was an adventure. In a photograph from that trip, she stands barefoot on a log, her pink sweatpants and “I Climbed Old Rag Mountain” t-shirt looking the way you’d expect after three days spent clambering over rocks, trying to catch tadpoles and crouching next to smoky fires. Her blonde hair captures a bright spot of sun falling between the trees and she holds up a shredded blue nylon sack in one hand and a Ziploc in the other. She grins at the camera, looking not at all frightened, considering what we had just been through.

That evening the talk in camp had been about black bears. Apparently they had raided the camp the night before taking everything edible. This was surprising. We knew that bears frequented camping areas, but we had never had any trouble with them. We had ways to protect food.

The American black bear (Ursus americanus) is the most common bear species in the world, once ranging across North America, from northern Mexico to Alaska. Hunted relentlessly for fat, meat, pelts, bounties and trophies, black bears were all but exterminated by the late nineteenth century. Only in the last century, through conservation efforts and the bears’ own resilience, has the species recovered. Today, close to a million bears thrive across North America; four thousand of those make their home in the Adirondacks.

The wild black bear is a reclusive and resourceful omnivore with a strong vegetarian leaning. In the spring and early summer it browses tender shoots, roots, grasses and leaf buds. Later, as the summer days wane, the bear turns its attention to more calorie-intensive fare – insects, grubs, honey and a variety of berries. Come fall, acorns and other nuts add the final layer of fat needed to sustain winter hibernation.

But make no mistake; the black bear has no compunction against carnivory. Easily acquired animal protein – bird and turtle eggs, fish remains, or the carcass of a road-killed deer – make up a small but regular part of its diet. And, indeed, a black bear will kill for food. Young deer and bison, unwary beavers and nests of baby birds and mice regularly fall prey to black bears.

For most of us, this wild bear is like an image on Plato’s cave wall – a shadow cast by an animal we will never see. We know its name and shape, but are left to imagine the details of its being – its pungent smell, the coarseness of its coat, its warm breath on our skin. Armed with clear but indirect knowledge, it’s easy to imagine a bear that is as two-dimensional as the shadow it casts.

For many, the imagined bear takes a simple friendly form resembling a large sociable dog. This is the bear of folklore, entertainment and advertising. Embodied in such amiable fellows as Paddington, Winnie the Pooh and Smokey, this teddy bear persona is easy to approach. And, at their peril, many people do, leaving their cars to photograph roadside bears and feeding those that venture into their yards.

For others, the bear’s shadowy form takes on a more menacing temperament – that of a blood-thirsty predator, always lurking, ready to take down an unwary hiker. “Aren’t you afraid you’ll be attacked by a bear?” such people would ask me.

My answer was always, no. My own image of a wild bear took its form from biology. The true “wildland” bear is a solitary creature that would just as soon avoid people. As bear biologist Dr. Lynn Rogers wrote, they are ruled by fear and hunger, in that order. Should a well-fed black bear accidently encounter a group of hikers, it would likely retreat, dissolving ghostlike into the dark woods. In all my years of backpacking, I had never worried about wildland bears.

But on hearing the campers’ stories I realized these bears were nothing like the image I held. These were campsite bears – a brand of urban bear – the kind that meet us on shared ground. An urban bear is a formidable thing, bold and brash. It swaggers into camp and sets about rummaging through packs and snuffling tents while campers scramble out of the way and look on helplessly. Habituated to people, no amount of pot-banging or arm-waving fazes this animal. Short of physically repelling it with bear-spray, the only way to prevent a campsite bear from invading camp is to not create such a bear in the first place. That means making sure it is never tempted by human food, something campers at Lake Colden had long failed to do.

Twelve feet up and six feet out; that was the backcountry rule for hanging food out of bears’ reach. That meant finding a horizontal branch more than twelve feet off the ground and suspending food where it could not be reached by a savvy bear on the ground, tree trunk or branch above. But at Lake Colden’s southwest end, the towering grove of white pines offered no horizontal branches. Instead we fashioned a rope high between two trees from which we would suspend our blue nylon food sack.

After dinner we packed our food and empty containers into the bag. I mentally inventoried everything, trying to recall some forgotten item that might attract a bear. Opportunistic urban bears eagerly consume, or at least test for palatability, things that we don’t think of as food – soap, toothpaste, gum, hair gel, food wrappers, cooking utensils, medication, deodorant – anything with a scent that hints of flavor. I had Xan check her pockets and she handed me a granola bar wrapper and popped a lone M&M into her mouth.

A bear’s sense of smell, the primary means through which it discerns food from non-food, is seven times stronger than that of a bloodhound. A black bear can detect human scent more than fourteen hours after the hiker has left the trail. Even if a tent is food-free, a prevailing wind filling it with the tantalizing essence of a neighbor’s fish fry is enough to entice a bear to investigate. Who knew what tempting odors a bear would pick up in a well-used shelter?

Once we were satisfied that we had included everything, Glenn hung the food bag. Xan climbed up on his shoulders and tied off the anchor rope as high as she could reach. Then we tied dummy ropes to several nearby trunks, all within easy reach of the bears. If nothing else, maybe they’d get busy with those and miss the real bounty.

In our years of backpacking Glenn and I had never laid eyes on a wild bear. But in the backwoods, thoughts of bears are never buried deep so we had encountered our share of imaginary ones. Only two days before, our hike had taken us past an abandoned shelter. Many of the surrounding trees had fallen in a long-ago blow-down and the landscape was hauntingly barren and silent. Our uneasy feeling grew into alarm when we realized that every remaining tree in the clearing was marked by bears. Like gang graffiti in the bad part of town, claw marks declared this bear territory – leave or else. We left.

But claw marks are nothing compared to encountering a ghostly ursine image. In Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains we once spent ten heart-pounding minutes motionless on a rainy mountain trail trying to make out a shadowy bear-like image in the fog. With unsteady hands we unbuckled our hip belts, preparing to sacrifice our packs if it came to that. Finally, the mist cleared just long enough for the shadowy shape to resolve into the upended roots of a fallen tree.

There is a dark place in our psyche where predatory creatures lie in wait. Humans have been hunters since Homo erectus developed stone weapons a million and a half years ago. Hunting moved us up the predatory food chain, but it didn’t change our position as prey for the animals that had stalked us across Africa for the previous two million years. Some twenty-nine large carnivores including saber-tooth cats and giant bear-dogs fed on our unfortunate ancestors.

Coming of age as prey indelibly imprinted a healthy visceral fear of tooth and claw onto the human psyche. An ancient part of our brain, the amygdala, maintains memories of ancestral threats. Poised to act on our behalf, it checks incoming sensations – the whisper of movement in tall grass, a subtle shift in activity around us, a low rumble in the dark – against known dangers. At the slightest hint of trouble, even before we are conscious of the threat, it springs to action, flooding our bodies with adrenalin in preparation to fight or flee.

Today we don’t live in a world where cave bears make off with our young, but our imagination still harbors this dark space. Now we layer its surface with modern fears – public speaking, job interviews, final exams. But long removed from our wild origins, we are still haunted by the ghosts of predators past. Perhaps this deeper well is the source of a child’s closet-monsters and a sleepless mother’s worst fears.

The thunderstorm settled into steady rain that kept up a patter on the roof. I dozed off and on, each time waking with a start, hearing or imagining grunts and scuffling outside the tarp. The metallic clang of someone banging a pot lid jolted me fully awake. I felt Glenn tense. We listened. Were they warning off a real bear or chasing their own ghosts? I guessed real. The imagined bears, I knew, were as dark as the night and were in here with us. We both pressed closer to Xan, our bodies between her and our night terrors. Finally exhaustion won over worry and I slept, my anxious dreams crowded with bears – dangerous, uncontrollable and terrifyingly near.

Sometime in the early morning the rain must have stopped. I woke to the comforting smell of campfire and sounds of campers zipping out of their tents and talking among themselves. Had the bears come? We peeled back our damp sleeping bags and pulled aside the tarp. I squinted in the daylight. The morning had broken clear and warm and the long view was serene. Lake Colden gleamed in the morning sun. On its mirror surface, Avalanche Pass, neatly cut between the flanks of Mt. Colden and Caribou Mountain, formed a postcard perfect reflection.

But the near view told a different story – ripped plastic bags; bent and battered Tupperware, shredded cereal boxes, frayed segments of security straps, mangled toothpaste tubes – the remains of an ursine feeding frenzy. Xan picked up something from the mud in front of the shelter: a well chewed granola wrapper.

Weary campers picked garbage from the wet pine needles and searched for their belongings. But as discouraging as the mess was, I couldn’t help but marvel at the bears’ ingenuity. They had moved rocks and dug up buried caches, opened peanut butter jars and licked them clean and had chewed ropes to let food bags fall to the forest floor. They had even retrieved and opened a sealed cooler that had been anchored in three feet of water out in the lake.

Our food fared no better. The anti-bear techniques we had successfully deployed in the mountains and woods of Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire and Maine had failed in the face of these New York bears. Only a bit of unraveled anchor rope on a tree trunk remained. Our decoy ropes hadn’t fooled them.

Xan found the shredded remains of our food bag up the hill behind the lean-to. A few feet away a red squirrel chattered from the middle of a pile of Rice-a-Roni, the grains presumably too small for a bear to care about in the face of the surrounding smorgasbord. We salvaged a can of tuna, a Ziploc of teabags and a bottle of Advil. Xan stepped up onto a log and held the remains aloft. I snapped her picture.

Bears have captivated human imagination for much of our recorded history. Our ancestors coexisted with cave bears and brown bears in Eurasia for at least a million years. Over thirty thousand years ago our Pleistocene progenitors painted cavern walls with red ochre cave bears and other great beasts of their time. Each image was artfully placed so that the natural features of the rock gave it a three-dimensional aspect and the flicker of firelight brought it to life.

In the same way we have shaped today’s urban bears, painting another dimension onto their shadowy profiles. We have aided their evolution into creatures that easily partake of our generous lifestyle. When we venture into their territory bearing bags of irresistible delicacies, they meet us and accept our unintended offerings. Then, perhaps impatient with our slow and seasonal delivery, they advance onto ours.

Today bears are moving into our cities in unprecedented numbers. New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the nation, is home to the tightest intermingling of black bears and humans in North America. Where there were only fifty black bears in 1993, today some 3500 adult bears and their offspring share the state with nine million people, a number that is growing as urban bears enjoy unprecedented reproductive success. This crowding results in several thousand uneasy “nuisance” bear incidents every year, dozens of which directly result in the deaths of bears. The story is similar across the United States and Canada.

The bears are moving in, not because we are driving them from the woods, but because we tempt them to our table. When we open our communities to them, they amble forward, eagerly helping themselves to our leavings. At our implicit invitation, they walk into towns, scavenging Dumpsters, knocking over trash cans, pulling down bird feeders and rooting up gardens. Now bolder and wiser and no longer content with our leftovers, they go right to the source, breaking into cars, campers, cabins and homes.

In providing for black bears, we have changed their very nature, in some ways making them more like us. Why roam an entire forest in search of berries and nuts when the same calories can be found in a single McDonald’s Dumpster? With little else to do, why not nap? And that they do, sleeping up to five hours a day more than bears that have to forage widely. Predictably, this languid lifestyle has made urban bears fat, some weighing up to thirty percent more than their wildland cousins.

With no compelling reason to leave, many urban bears never leave the city, even to den for the winter. They prefer instead to settle under porch decks or in culverts – that is, if they den at all. Some stay active all winter, partaking of our year-round bounty. Those that do den tend to start later and emerge sooner, knocking up to six weeks off the typical denning time and further increasing the chances of human-bear conflict.

Along with their newfound brashness and couch-potato existence, urban and campsite bears have changed in one other alarming way: they have become nocturnal. Unlike their wildland cousins, these animals take advantage of us under the cover of night. In truth, the bears are simply avoiding us. But in our imaginations, these newly nocturnal animals become the solid form of darkness, invisible but acutely felt. They are the bears that haunt our dreams.

After packing up our much-lightened packs, Glenn, Xan and I sat on a log overlooking Lake Colden and shared the tuna and tea for breakfast. Now it was our turn to answer to fear and hunger.

[Exit, pursued by a bear]
–Shakespeare. “Winter’s Tale”

Kimberly Moynahan is a freelance writer and blogs on natural history and science at “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” ( Her work has been published online at The Center for Humans & Nature City Creatures blog and in print in Scientific American’s Best Science Writing Online and in “WOLVES Magazine.” –

Mea Culpa

by Jane Routh

Today I killed a pheasant. No bumps under the wheels; in the mirror it lay on the road plump and shiny, one small black feather floating away. It was still there, still in perfect condition, when I drove back up the hill twenty minutes later. I saw a car coming downhill straddle the corpse so as not to squash it.

Most days there are bloody feathers somewhere along this road, attended by a couple of crows cleaning up. A dead pheasant is such a common sight round here, we call them suicidal, stupid. (All the same, I felt better when my corpse had disappeared a couple of hours later without trace. No mark on the road, no stray feathers: it hadn’t been run over. It must have simply been uplifted whole by some four- or two-legged creature with an eye to supper.)

I’ve been reading a lot about butchering and living on wild creatures. Concern over Arctic ice re-ignited my longstanding interest in the ‘quest’ for the North West Passage and Sir John Franklin’s failed attempt to find a way through the sea ice from east to west. That led me to accounts of those who went looking for Franklin’s lost ships, including Elisha Kent Kane’s journal from winters trapped in the ice – as must have happened to Franklin a few years before. Kane survived where Franklin did not, at least in part because he learned from the indigenous people of the north west Greenland coast how to live off the limited resources of that dark and frozen landscape.

As time goes on, Kane’s account shifts from rationing the ship’s supplies of flour and dried apples and salt pork and trapping the ship’s rats for food, to tales of capturing and butchering seal, walrus and polar bear. (Not that these new foods provided nutrition without mishap: “All our party sickened after feeding on the liver of a bear that we had killed; and a few weeks afterward, when we were tempted into a similar indulgence, we were forced to undergo the same penance.”) Kane’s increased contact with indigenous people and gradual respect for their survival skills (if not their traditions and culture) enabled his crew to secure enough food for many of them to survive the ills of scurvy and damage of frostbite and escape from their ice-stricken brigantine with sledges and small boats.

But after 443 pages of small type in the mind-set of the 1850s, it was time for Barry Lopez again. Arctic Dreams is a book which speaks afresh every time you re-read it. This time round, I discovered that polar bear liver contains toxic (to human beings) amounts of vitamin A, so no wonder it had Kane and his crew vomiting. In fact I was altogether more interested in Lopez’s chapter on polar bears, particularly his account of nineteenth century attitudes and actions towards them, which are horrific – two cubs shot, for the purpose of seeing whether it would distress their mother (It did. She “stood for some time moaning”.) “Killing polar bears”, writes Lopez, “became the sort of amusement people expected on an Arctic journey.”

That was the nineteenth century. For all that, Lopez continues “the craven taunting, the witless insensitivity, and the phoney sense of adventure… are not from another age.” Which brings me back to my dead pheasant – for, while our attitudes to polar bears may have swung right round into sentimentality now that we have taken away the ice on which they travel to hunt and into which they build dens to raise their cubs, our attitudes to pheasants are little different from “the witless insensitivity, and the phoney sense of adventure” which Lopez nails.

Mea culpa: fellow creatures are neither “stupid” nor “suicidal”. So what is going on with all those dead pheasants along our road? The meadows on the north side of the road slope down to a beck; beyond that, the land rises to rough moorland and scrub that’s used for a pheasant shoot. The birds are bred to be killed. Trays of the small, smooth, almost shiny, olive-coloured eggs are set and incubated. Hundreds of small yellow-grey balls of fluff hatch out, immediately able to run around, peck and eat. They feed from trays, drink from drinkers and fledge within a few weeks. Able to fly up into trees to roost, they’re released on the moor; grain at feeding stations helps keep up the population density.

Why don’t they just fly away? Because where they are born is the centre of their world. If the pressure on territory is great, they won’t fly for miles looking for somewhere new, but will just move to the edge of that territory. (I remember advice given with my first few geese: pen them up for ten days and after that they’ll be “hearthed”. They can wander freely after that, but will come back in the evening to the place at the centre of their map.)

So. There are many pheasants around, their population artificially stocked. But why always on the road, and always being run over? The fan of wing feathers lifted from the tarmac by the breeze is strongly coloured: the corpses are usually cock birds. What can the road signify from their point of view?

I’ve watched cock birds, one either side of a wire fence, posturing (heads down, tails up) threatening to lunge at each other, the fence appropriated as a territorial marker – a very useful one, since they can’t actually do each other damage through the wire. They’ll keep this up so long, I don’t think I’ve ever watched one of these performances through to a conclusion. Is the road a territorial edge? Is that why there are so many cock birds on it – live ones, as well as the road kill?

Thinking back, my pheasant was a black one – one of the recently introduced Italian ones which are said to be more “flighty” and so offer better sport than the lumbering purple-brown ones which will whirr low over a hedgerow and down again as soon as possible. When you walk across pasture or through woods, pheasants will protest and clatter up into a tree long before you’re anywhere near them, yet even a flighty one didn’t fly away from my car. But he wasn’t on his own: a second cock made it into the verge. The late lamented bird could well have been in a stand-off with the second cock, and maybe so strongly determined that the road marked his territory that he went into a stand-off with the wheeled creature coming his way downhill. Maybe less suicidal than determinedly defensive?

If the moor were not stocked with birds to shoot, there’d be no more pheasant corpses on the road than there are – let’s say – red-legged partridges. Their population would fall (they are after all ground nesters, and many creatures – stoats, badgers, foxes all enjoy an egg for breakfast). The canniest would survive. The road would cease to be a significant boundary. We’d see them rarely, and when we did, we’d say how beautiful their band of dark green iridescent neck feathers…

Who knows. But we do know that a pheasant will have its own creaturely view of the world. Our view of its world is absurd: we arrange at great expense for it to come to life, in order to have the “amusement” of killing it, and that’s been going on so long we don’t even register the distant pop pop pop of a Saturday morning shoot. “A phoney sense of adventure”… that phrase of Lopez’s is what started this rain of thought: not from another age indeed.

Jane Routh has published 3 collections of poetry with smith|doorstop, and most recently Falling into Place, a prose book celebrating wildlife, work and weather in the uplands of N W England.

ATM Street Art

“I want to inspire real change in the way we treat our environment. Making people aware that these birds exist is the first step. I like to paint birds that have a connection to the place where I paint them.”

ATM is a London-based street artist whose work has been spreading across the UK and Europe for several years, appearing initially on the walls of buildings on run-down housing estates. His first piece, a snipe painted in South Acton, highlighted the decline of this bird in southern England where it was once common in areas of marshland that would have existed in Acton before the spread of urban housing engulfed the landscape. Many of his pieces show birds that have vanished from the areas in which they are painted. Other projects include a painting of a male hen harrier at Shellness on the Isle of Sheppey to bring attention to the illegal killing of these birds on the many grouse moors across the country by moor owners. ATM is part of the Human Nature Art Show collective which, in 2015, created “Darwin’s Wonderland” at Leonard Lane in Bristol, a run down alleyway which had been popular with taggers. ATM was recently named one of the UK’s most influential conservationists by BBC Wildlife Magazine.

“Evolution tells us that birds aren’t designed but the process of creation came up with all this incredible beauty as well as functionality. I wonder why they appear to be so beautiful to our eyes. One of the reasons they develop that plumage is sexual selection but the question is, why do those subtle colours and contrast and touches of another colour look so beautiful and harmonious to us? They are invariably beautiful to human eyes as well as the eyes of other birds because we’re part of the same process. If they were as separate as we like to think then we wouldn’t recognize them as being so beautiful.”

The header image of a griffon vulture was painted in an Occupy movement community garden: Jardin Miravillas, Malasana, Madrid.

Male Hen Harrier – Shellness, Isle of Sheppey
Snipe in South Acton
Great Spotted Woodpecker in Southwell Road community garden, London SE5, made from a completely unused area of tarmac on a housing estate, by the the London Wildlife Trust's Lost Effra project.
Great Spotted Woodpecker in Southwell Road community garden, London SE5, part of the London Wildlife Trust’s Lost Effra project.
Wood Warbler, part of UpFest street art festival, Bristol.
Wood Warbler, part of UpFest street art festival, Bristol.
Work in Progress, Leonard Lane, Bristol
Work in Progress, Leonard Lane, Bristol
Hawk Moth in Leonard Lane, Bristol.
Hawk Moth in Leonard Lane, Bristol.

Poetry – Issue 6.1

Buffalo Nickels

By Donald Illich

Buffalos lived on nickels because kangaroos
kept jumping off, sloths slid from their faces,
bald eagles tore the metal with claws.
They were content to graze in our pockets
among the valleys’ lint bushes, tissue trees,

mercifully taken out and spent quickly
when we needed more meat for the newspaper.
Once they purchased a whole sandwich
or a bottle of soda pop. Herds stampeded
across cash registers. Pennies trembled,

dollars acknowledged their silver majesty.
In the Depression people asked each other
if they could spare a dime, two beasts
on the loose, clanking against tin cans,
horns helping solve their dilemmas.

President Jefferson shot all of them,
dragged the animals to Monticello on the back,
served them on his dining room table,
declaring their independence gone.
They’re making comebacks in coffee cups.

We gather their bodies in white bowls.
We pour their lives into clicking machines,
determine how much time we’ve wasted
to see them feed George Washington,
lower gigantic heads for Abe Lincoln’s hand.

Small Bird Poem

by Gillian Prew

blossom-breast and a song.

Her fatigue.
A lost note.

She is. She is.

Love and berry-fruits on her tongue.
She rises her wept eye/
__________the sun. The sun.

The Bittern’s Chant

by Helen Kidd

Dip, dip and nib the inky black of shallows’ silt,
stalk and pause, stalk and turn my tall eye
to your silver ripple threads that eel their eddies
through the reeds.
__________________My needle bill takes aim…snap, clack,
grapples you into the thin wind, out from
your spilling world into mine, all air and space
ruffling my russet fishing cloak.
__________________Minnow crowds,
souped and sucked at, glide into my gullet, down
into my downy, damp belly bag.

Oh, all you little fishes, praise ye the Bird;
that you be uplifted, translated, spirited air-
upwards into the great bullrush sky, the sedge-
sibilant heavens.
__________________And step wade, lift, step
wade, plaff the pulpy and palpable glugs and
puddles. Here dusk glimmer’s best, under dark eves
of mist-rising screens.
__________________Full fed then, I steeple
through stems and raise my plainchant, my fine
baritone, my boom, my song bell, my boom, my
throat drum, my boom that paints this night’s
echo chambers. Bellying, my voice bowl darkens.
Bitterly bitterning with lonely woe, my gullet psalms
roll through waterlands, and genuflecting rushes.

Coyote’s Bone

by James Brush

There’s a cracked old deer bone
in a small field by the stream.
It’s been there for years
and every few months or so,
it moves a few feet. Maybe
a season goes by and it’s buried
in the grass and wildflowers, but
when autumn comes again,
the bone resurfaces like driftwood
from an ocean turning brown.
I wonder what coyote picks it up
only to spit it out a few steps later.
After the bleached taste
of years and sun-dried blood
on brittle bone, does he go
to the stream to drink away
the taste or let it linger, a reminder
of all the songs he still can sing?

Invisibility is as natural as it is to be above or below sound*

by Jean Atkin

The morning moon is halved
& silent.
The Dwyfor runs
& will be tides.

An oak leaf,
then a beech leaf
falls, without a sound
that I can catch.

The woods have many paths
that peter out.
What don’t
I see?

As if invisible, a deer
has stepped exactly
through the yew tree roots
before me.

* From R. S. Thomas ‘That, there…’

At ‘Floral World’

by Jenny Donnison

a lone flamingo beside a tainted pool
still but for faint tremors
of her slender leg

head beneath wing
pale coral feathers unreal
sculpted from soft stone

close to
naked to our gaze

she stretches her neck
pinprick eyes unsee us as she preens
at pains to oil each pink quill

blank to where
______________she is

Poet Biographies:

Donald Illich has published in Iowa Review, Passages North, Nimrod, and other journals.  He lives in Maryland.

Born Stirling, Scotland in 1966, Gillian Prew studied Philosophy at the University of Glasgow from 1984 to 1988. Her fifth publication, Three Colours Grief, has just been released by erbacce-press. She has been twice short-listed for the erbacce-prize and twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. You can find her online at

Helen Kidd: poet, editor, critic, academic, has taught Creative Writing and English for many years, and run projects in hospices and prisons, amongst others. She is co-editor of the Virago Book of Love Poetry, and. her second collection, Blue Weather, won the Cork Manuscript Prize. She still teaches in Finland every spring.

James Brush lives in Austin, TX where he teaches high school English. He’s the author of Birds Nobody Loves, A Place Without a Postcard, and numerous scraps of paper around his house. You can find him at He also edits the online literary journal Gnarled Oak.

Jean Atkin lives in Shropshire. Her first collection Not Lost Since Last Time is published by Oversteps Books. Her recent work has been published in magazines including Under the Radar, Envoi, Ink, Sweat & Tears, The North, Earthlines, The Moth, Dark Mountain, and also commissioned by and performed on Radio 4. She has held residencies and worked on education and community projects in both Scotland and England.  Her poems have won various prizes.

Jenny Donnison completed an MA in English Literature and Creative Writing at Sheffield University (2012). Her poems have appeared in Now Then, Route 57, The Sheffield Anthology and elsewhere. She is currently studying for a PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing at Sheffield University.

Poetry – Issue 6.2


by Julia Older

If there is a wild, let it be a little wild.
_______________________Park Manager

The leopard lies on the operating table,
her four legs spread-eagle, belly shaved.
A plastic tube snakes past the pearly gates
down her snoring larynx.
A video guides the laparoscope
to her smooth white ovary
with the precision of Jacques Cousteau
focused on a whale’s eye.

Routine GYN and insemin-
ation. They roll the sedate cat
to recovery. She staggers and lunges
against the bars like an incar-
cerated drunk.

Down. Dreaming of Bangladesh where,
sated on freshly killed bait,
she posed for Gray Panthers on elephants.
Dilated now, her pupils glaze over
the sal and bamboo, over her mate
wearing a transistor and ear tattoo.

Her newborn American cubs,
like their turncoat Pa in the Bronx,
will soon be eating hamburger.

The Dragons of Eden

by Sue Howell

Alien Iguanas Overrun Florida Island
_______________National Geographic News

They crawled ashore and multiplied, eating
the hibiscus and frightening the children.
Not little green aquarium pets like Max,
who was bathed in a porcelain tub by my neighbor,
but needle-backed beasts the color of mud.
They spit and whipped their spiky tails, clamping
dragon teeth on hands that fed them, leaving
noxious trails of feces on the borders
of hot tubs and blue swimming pools.
_______________________The citizens shot
the lizards with pellet guns,
or stuffed them in freezers until their sluggish
hearts stopped. Now hired trappers set out
poisoned maraschino cherries for the foreign
invaders, who ate the lovely fruit and died.
But as the ancient creatures disappeared,
_______________________we felt a lack,
saw the sun-baked emptiness of barren stone.
For a time they shook the world we thought
we owned, took us back to the earth’s half-seen
past, where the blood of dragons swam in their veins,
as it does, perhaps, in ours. Will their leaving
streak with red that last sunset, which waits
for the breaking of all blood ties? We watch
the signs from the restless ocean, the infinite sky.


by Mark Totterdell

You’ll need to learn to read their signature
to follow their slow progress through the sallow;
leaves with their tiny veins remaining, then
leaves with just midribs left, and then the shoots

with leaves completely stripped. You’ll need to gauge
how old the damage is; how well the scars
have healed, whether there’s new growth from the base.
You’ll need to search the ground beneath for frass.

You’ll need to be wise to their long-evolved trick
of clinging to the undersides of sprigs,
making the daylight cancel out their shades,
flatten them to leaves. You’ll need to turn them

to see each one leap into three dimensions,
unmissable now, its warts and stripes and all,
its unreflecting eyes a brittle shield,
the startle of its little sky-blue tail.

winged words

by Morgan Downie

ἔπεα πτερόεντα*

full forty miles
the fulmar flies
without wingbeat

precipice’s acrobat
profligate of air
greedy for flight

at rest, sat in pairs
squawk and skraak
on the narrowest edge

there is no romance
like the romance
of fulmar

wind’s intimates
each moment
a life examined

each moment
a telling
and retelling

*from homer

Scientists discover a new species of frog

by Suzanne Garnish Segady

She poses cleanly on a plucked leaf
__________soft brown on brown
balled toes caressing the drying veins —
she is arrow-slender
eyes wide, sidelong to the camera
__________coquettish smile
and because they so wanted her to belong
they searched the lexicon
and named her for something thought lost
and something familiar
__________Hypsiboas cocoa

How long has she been
__________living resin
in the kinship of trees, smooth
in the scuff of the bark, a skitter
of limbs, a peeking
__________tourmaline wink
from behind the outstretched leaf
a tiny truth, uncounted
and unnamed —
the unmarked spark
___________of family?

Poet Biographies:


Julia Older was the nineteenth woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Recent books include an update of her NOBA “Classic” APPALACHIAN ODYSSEY, A BORIS VIAN BILINGUAL READER, and eleventh poetry title TALES OF THE FRANÇOIS VASE. Poets also infiltrate her researched Isles of Shoals Fiction Trilogy. One of Older’s poems was embroidered in Afghanistan, another displayed by the Smithsonian. She has work in SISTERS OF THE EARTH, NRDC, and New Hampshire POET SHOWCASE anthologies; The New Yorker, Poets & Writers, Stanford’s Uprooted and numerous other publications. Townies call her Puma Lady—from a cougar sighting-hearing! while in her studio overlooking Mount Monadnock (NH).

Sue Howell is a retired teacher of literature and writing who has lived up and down the Mississippi River and recently moved to North Carolina. She has a long-time interest in wildlife and the need for humans to understand our deep connection to the animal world. She has written about vultures (a poem published on the World Wildlife Federation website), sea turtles, snowy owls, and other forms of wildlife threatened by a warming planet. Many of her poems are set in the New Orleans area and in Florida, two especially fragile sites for wildlife. Her work has appeared in Passager, Southern Indiana Review, Minerva Rising, and various other journals. She was a finalist in the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival contest.

Mark Totterdell lives in Devon. His poems have appeared widely in magazines and have won competitions. His collection ‘This Patter of Traces’ was published by Oversteps Books in 2014.

Morgan Downie is a poet, short story writer and visual artist. His published work includes stone and sea, a collection of poems about island life mainly centred on the Western Isles, and distances, a Romanian- English photopoetry collection.

Suzanne Garnish Segady writes of the intersections of the wild and suburban. She has been published in A Poetic Inventory of Rocky Mountain National Park, Pilgrimage Magazine, and Poetry While You Wait. She lives in Colorado Springs, where the foothills bend to plains, watching, and trying to tune out the growing hum of traffic.

No one mourns an unnamed animal: Why naming animals might help save them

by Midge Raymond

When I volunteered to help with a penguin census at the Punta Tombo colony in Patagonia, among the thousands of birds I counted, one of them stood out—and I still think of him ten years later. His name is Turbo—so named because he’d inexplicably built a nest under a turbo truck instead of within a burrow, like the other penguins of his species—and instead of looking for a mate, he preferred to hang out with the researchers.

Turbo has been tagged with a metal band by scientists, along with thousands of other birds in the colony. Yet Turbo also has a name, making him a local personality, while the other tagged birds in the colony have only five-digit numbers to identify them, making them nothing more than data. “Anthropomorphism,” the practice of projecting human qualities onto non-human animals, is often viewed pejoratively by the scientific community. But as a writer, not a scientist, I’m far more interested in character than in numbers. And since my time at Punta Tombo, whenever I receive updates on the colony, I look first for Turbo’s name, for confirmation of his return from his months at sea.

Like humans, animals don’t come into this world with names, at least not in any human language. It took a non-scientist, Jane Goodall, to challenge conventions when it came to studying animal behavior; by naming chimpanzees instead of numbering them, she was able to live among them and observe them like no researcher before her ever had. She observed the chimp she named David Greybeard making and using tools. She witnessed an adolescent chimpanzee, Spindle, adopting an orphan named Mel. And when the mother chimp she named Flo died in 1972, The London Times printed an obituary.

When we give an animal a name, we give it an identity, an individuality that sets it apart from the rest of its nameless species. And, in doing so, we often can’t help but develop an emotional attachment to these named creatures. This is why zoos and sanctuaries name their animals, and why, increasingly, wild animals whose species need attention are finding followers and sympathizers. When Cecil the Lion, a well-known and beloved resident of Hwange National Park, was killed by an American dentist last July, the world was outraged, and Cecil’s death highlighted the endangered status of certain species of lions, the cruelty of trophy hunting, and the practice of raising lions for hunting.

Yet Cecil was just one of many. It took his death—and the fact that he had a name—to raise the world’s consciousness, to give a face to the lions of Africa. In a similar fashion, Lonesome George, the last of his species of Galápagos tortoise, who died in 2012, reminds us all of the fragility of these islands and of their endangered animals. Migaloo, the Australian humpback whale, is known not only for being a rare albino whale but also draws attention to issues facing whales and oceans worldwide.

That writers name animals to give them equal weight as characters is nothing new, and is especially common in children’s literature—we all remember Charlotte and Wilbur, Stuart Little, the rats of NIMH. In adult literature, however, animals are more rarely seen as main characters. In Animal Farm, for example, the animal characters are allegorical rather than truly animal—and yet in more recent fiction, such as Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain and Gwyn Hyman Rubio’s Love and Ordinary Creatures, the dog and cockatoo characters, respectively, are meant to be just what they are: animals.

In my novel, My Last Continent, I gave a name to a penguin who plays an important role in the story. He’s called Admiral Byrd, after an explorer admired by the human character who names him. That this penguin needed a name other than “the gentoo” or “the penguin” or “the bird” was based not only on his importance to the characters in the novel but his importance to me, as the author. I wanted Admiral Byrd to represent all the penguins in my fictional world, who in turn represent all the penguins in the real one.

Humans have a complicated relationship with animals, though, and naming them—in literature or in life—doesn’t always mean saving them. In 4-H clubs around the country, animals raised by children and called by name are sold for slaughter by the pound. Oregon’s first confirmed wolf since 1947 is called Journey but is more commonly known as OR-7. Even animals at the shelter where I volunteer, though they have names, are identified primarily by number.

New York Times editor Philip B. Corbett wrote in a February 2, 2016, article that the Times uses “person” pronouns “only for animals who have been given a name, or in cases where the sex of the animal is specified. Otherwise, we stick with ‘it’ and ‘that’ or ‘which.’” In other words, the Times is about grammar, not about a point of view. But for those of us who do write with a point of view, names and pronouns are important.

We live in an era in which so many species are in decline that it’s impossible to keep count. From the Malayan tiger to the New Zealand sea lion to the Galápagos penguin, the numbers of endangered animals are staggering. Yet if every species has a named representative or two, we civilians might get to know who will be lost—and we might be more inspired to help them.

The scientists can continue to resist anthropomorphism—but this won’t save the animals, or make the rest of the world pay attention. Yet if we give these animals names, if we look at them as more than data, we might care more deeply. The more we humanize animals, the more human we become.

Turbo the penguin is now eleven years old. He’s still single, preferring the company of humans to his own species. This fall, I’ll eagerly await news of his return to the colony—where he will choose build his nest, whether he’ll still be a bachelor or will finally settle down. The data may tell us one story—but as long as Turbo shows up, I feel as though there is hope for all of these birds.

Midge Raymond is the author of the novel My Last Continent and the award-winning short-story collection Forgetting English. Her writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, American Literary Review, Bellevue Literary Review, the Los Angeles Times magazine, Poets & Writers, and many other publications. She lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she is co-founder of the boutique publisher Ashland Creek Press.

Tracing the Silent Spring in The Peregrine

by Elizabeth Lee Reynolds

House sparrows chirp viciously from opposing rooftops. As I make my way along the road it begins to feel like a scene from The Birds. The tiny creatures appear sinister and plotting against the humans below, and in truth they have every right. For decades we have pushed them to the peripheries in their own homes as use of pesticides across the countryside litters their contorted bodies over the landscape. But these little brown birds are now coming back in force.

Their resurgence carries a small personal victory for me. When I was about 8 I wrote a letter to Tony Blair about the dangers of pesticide use to sparrows which frequented farms. Somewhere, tucked away, I still have his reply; a short, polite but uncommitted letter from an assistant, assuring the Prime Minister’s concern for the matter.

When I wrote it, it seemed like I had done a terribly important thing, but the cynicism doesn’t take long to kick in. Despite that I still cherish my first act of environmental activism, as tame as it may be.

With the state of near environmental catastrophe the world is currently in, pesticide use and its effects have started to be a less prominent concern in activists’ agendas. Perhaps this is partly because the majority of the casualties are less obvious.

These scenes, however, were not uncommon when pesticide use first became a concern in the 1960’s. Marine biologist, Rachel Carson, played a key role in bringing the dangers to the public and government’s attention. In her powerful book Silent Spring she stated: that central problem of our age has… become the contamination of man’s total environment with such substances of incredible potential for harm- substances that accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals and even penetrate the germ cells to shatter or alter the very material of heredity upon which the shape of the future depends. 1

Through an account that appealed to scientific reasoning and emotional narrative, Carson managed to completely change the public opinion of the use of these dangerous chemicals and urged forward changes to national policy on pesticide use.

On the other side of the Atlantic the elusive John Alec Baker was taking regular walks through the Essex countryside and documenting the rare peregrines he saw there. Diaries, from over ten years, would become compressed into a single winter in The Peregrine. This text was foremost a celebration of a remarkable bird which Baker dedicated intense study to and whose heavy decline he mourned. Wildlife poisoning and loss of countryside provide a dark undercurrent to this text, which many have called “an elegy” to a disappearing landscape and threatened bird; a final celebration of things that Baker thought would soon be completely lost. 2

Whether it was Baker’s early description of peregrines who “die on their backs, clutching insanely at the sky in their last convulsions, withered and burnt away by the filthy insidious pollen of farm chemicals” or Carson’s lengthy explanations of “the numbers of doomed birds… in the agonized tremors that precede death” (103), many readers in the early 60’s would be able to recognise their own experiences of the death bought by chemicals. 3 In 1961 much of the English countryside was littered with dead birds as waves of new experimental pesticides were used, with similar scenes to be found in America. 4 For Baker “Peregrines were totems of a wilderness under siege” 5 and they could, if no action had been taken, have become extinct in the same year Baker’s book was published in a trend clearly linked to the introduction of ‘organochlorine’ pesticides in Britain. 6

Chemicals were rampant in this period, in the human population in the 1960’s it was impossible to find people not consuming DDT with their daily meals apart from in remote and isolated communities (Carson, 163). Although Carson primarily focuses on the situation in America there is a part of her text that ventures into England to describe the widespread destruction there due to seeds being treated with insecticides. From Baker’s own Essex one report told of 100 pheasants dying on a farm.

The use of pesticides, certainly heavily applied in the densely agricultural East Anglia, lies partly unseen in The Peregrine, perhaps sometimes even by Baker himself. As Jameson insists: “Read about the dead birds, and think toxins” (15). They slink in the background during many occasions. The 5th of January concludes with: “A fungus of whiteness grows upon the eye, and spreads along the nerves like pain” (106), implying a poison which spreads along the nerves echoing the fact that the chemicals of pesticides primarily attack the nervous system (Carson, 39).

There are very few instances where Baker refers directly to pesticides; a “poisoned crow” (100) is mentioned but otherwise it is often up to interpretation. It may even hide in the seeming tameness of the peregrines Baker observes. He can closely approach a bird, even when he hasn’t seen them in months. Perhaps rather than an endearing love story between man and bird there is a morbid twist. In Lord Shackleton’s introduction to Silent Spring he notes how foxes lose “their fear of mankind” through a sickness of unknown origin at the time, but now put down to the poisons of pesticides. 7 Pesticides burning in the peregrine’s insides may be an explanation for their unresponsiveness to Baker’s approach.

Some have also noted a certain sense of exaggeration in the report of “619 peregrine kills” over the course of ten winters (21). It would not be unfounded to imagine the peregrines might share these kills with the chemicals, especially when considering how Carson notes the poisons are known to “lie dormant like a slumbering volcano, only to flare up in periods of physiological stress” (40), such as the harsh winter of 1962-1963 that is believed to be that depicted in The Peregrine. Poison lingers unseen in the bodies of the birds; emulating those already dead, hidden under the snow, which are revealed in the thaw to expose “thirty kills” in a small area (115). From December through to February death haunts the entire landscape, where even the sun is “shrivelling, dying” (109) as two killers circling it; one causing “feeble and dying” birds (108) and the other profiting from them.

In their books Baker and Carson were writing about killers. One who is precise and patient and another whose scatter-gun approach is symbolic of the lack of consideration people often give to future consequences. But they are both perfectly constructed for murder and can both be traced by the remains of their victims. Baker details, down to almost every feature, how the peregrine is a perfect predator: “Everything he is has been evolved to link the targeting eye to the striking talon” (28).

While the peregrine has evolved over centuries to this specialised form the creation of chemicals took place over only a few years, and via human manipulation of the complex world of hydrocarbons. The chemical design of modern insecticides is built around carbon, turning the basic matter for life into a creator of death. They use their ability to penetrate “all available portals to enter the body” (38) and, depending on quantities, may remain stored in the body destroying “the very enzymes whose function is to protect the body from harm” (32). They weren’t initially intended for the genocide of insects; they were the products of “chemical warfare”, tested on insects to judge their effects on humans (31).

Both the peregrines and pesticides often remain invisible to the naked eye apart from the dead or dying birds they leave behind. But while the birds that the peregrines killed always return, the same cannot be said for the indiscriminate attacks of pesticides. In The Peregrine the only time we directly see the pesticides work their invisible potency on Baker’s prize birds is in the Cotswolds, away from Baker’s Essex home. On the chalk cliffs he finds nests but with no eggs or young, whose inhabitants are “sterile” and have “no meaning” (97). He notes a poison that burns within them, making their life a “lonely death” (97). The pre-natal murderous tendencies of the poisons arise in Silent Spring as well. Carson discusses Charles Broley, who studied the nests of bald eagles which, despite their place as the symbol of America, were in dangerous decline. Scouring a stretch of the American west coast he found shocking declines, with 80 percent of nests failing to produce young. In this case the effects were due to poison entering the embryo of the egg thus producing stillborn hatchlings or ones with a “death warrant” (116). For Baker’s peregrines a serious problem was eggshell thinning causing breakage; through extensive study Derek Ratcliffe deduced new organochlorine insecticides, specifically DDT, to be the cause. 8 By 1969 this was “conclusively” revealed to be through disruption of “hormones involved in the production of calcium for eggshells” (Jameson, 54). This curse of sterility is what causes Baker to lament: “They were the last of their race” (97).

Baker was immensely pessimistic about the future of the peregrine, there is even a sense that he did not believe it had a place in the present of 1967; once even saying “Now it [the peregrine] has gone” (11). While the peregrines often seem to be the only healthy birds in the text, especially in a bitterly cold winter of “feeble and dying” birds (108), its numbers were actually tumbling and crashing along with the other birds inhabiting the Essex countryside. Just like the tremendously powerful stoops used to catch their prey, the fall in numbers seemed out of control. In Baker’s text the birds, both predator and prey, merge in the act of the stoop, as two birds fall together and silhouettes merge into “one dark bird”. The merger foreshadows how this meal could lead to the peregrine’s death as Carson describes: “One of the most sinister features of [pesticides]… is the way they are passed on from one organism to another through all the links of the food chain” (37).

The merger also shows how the creatures and landscape are fading together. The Peregrine is an elegy to all the aspects of his home county he thought to be becoming lost, not only the birds. The transitory nature of everything is encapsulated by gulls with sun shining on them appearing “almost transparent, ethereal with the glowing and holy illumination that hallowed out their slender bones” (109).

While this description implies a delicate passing it is the passion of fiery imagery that primarily permeates these creatures with the stain of inevitable destruction. The predators are “Evanescent as flame” with an elemental power, stressed through the use of fire to relate to their stoops: “a heart in flame”, “the fiery maelstrom” (112). These are images of passion and violence, as well as bringing an element of chaos. However, the inevitable conclusion of a flame is it being extinguished and this too is emphasised in the language of the text, when the hawk “flared out” (119).

Not just the birds burn; in a surreal scene Baker depicts the land on fire and the elements clashing, like a turbulence of the land where “water and fire were rejoicing together” (41). The spraying of chemicals was like a flame over the landscapes across the Atlantic. In Baker’s diaries it is quiet but threatening, “what looked like a wisp of smoke… thin and misty – moving very fast – not fire”, but Carson describes the resulting destruction vividly, causing places which once lifted the spirit to appear “scorched as by fire, the shrubs brown and brittle” (76). 9

The Peregrine is an elegy to both a disappearing bird and a disappearing world with the loss of one interwoven with that of the other, as shown when Baker watches his peregrine finally depart from the Essex landscape. It leaves behind a place that is now dead, “beyond desolation” (159). Through his writing Baker is preserving his memory of the bird and the landscape, and, perhaps, making a step towards saving it. The act of writing as activism is, however, far more evident in Silent Spring. Although she uses tropes of fairy tale and a certain sense of mythologizing the landscape, as Baker does as well, Carson is forceful and fierce in establishing her standpoint on the environmental destruction of pesticides. She sets up a dichotomy of ‘us and them’, with herself alongside the general public against the chemical industry and those that support them. Her prose is based in facts but she uses them to create a narrative which is engaging and gripping rather than dull and distancing the reader from the issues.

Jonathan Bate has said that scientific language “is itself part of the problem” but poetic language can hold the key to saving ecosystems. 10 Through poetic language readers become better connected to the subjects of the prose; both Carson and Baker achieve this, mingling scientific study and observation with comprehensible and beautiful language. Both use this technique to transmit their passion for an on-going environmental crisis and create texts that continue to be influential over fifty years later.

It is the powerful prose describing the prowess of the peregrines’ attacks that dominants Baker’s text, but it is the lurking threat of pesticides that spurs on his writing. As he concludes at the end of the ‘Beginnings’: “Before it is too late, I have tried to recapture the extraordinary beauty of this bird and to convey the wonder of the land he lived in” (12). His elegy is present in Carson’s Silent Spring, a text that achieved its purpose in changing public conceptions and legislation on pesticides. Thanks to these advancements in understanding, peregrines are now thriving across the British Isles. This victory owes some thanks to these writers’ magnificent prose, which demonstrates that it is often necessary to strip away scientific jargon in these kinds of work to make them reach their full public impact, thus influencing not only future nature writers but the environment itself.

1 Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 25 Subsequent page references in text
2 Robert Macfarlane, “Introduction” In The Peregrine, J.A. Baker (New York: New York Review of Books, 2005), vii
3 J.A. Baker, The Peregrine (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), 12 Subsequent page references in text
4 Lord Shackleton, “Introduction” In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 12
5 John Fanshawe, “Notes on J.A. Baker” In The Peregrine, J.A. Baker (London: Collins, 2011), 18
6 Derek Ratcliffe, The Peregrine Falcon (London: T. & A. D. Poyser, 1993), 68 and 335
7 Lord Shackleton, “Introduction” In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 12
8 Derek Ratcliffe, The Peregrine Falcon (London: T. & A. D. Poyser, 1993), 330-33
9 J.A. Baker, “The Diaries” In The Peregrine, J.A. Baker (London: Collins, 2011), 422-423
10 Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth (London: Picador, 2001), 230-231

Elizabeth Lee Reynolds is an environmental writer and editor. She recently received a Master’s degree from Essex University in the unique course Wild Writing: Literature and the Environment. She edits for The Missing Slate and has been published in various places, primarily on topics concerning literature and the natural world, including a piece in The Migrant Waders, a book on wading birds published by Dunlin Press. She blogs sporadically at

In Taman Negara, Malaysia’s Rain Forest

by Gill McEvoy


The forest smells sappy and moist and fungal. And it is dark, so dark. I am dazzled by the darkness. The jungle looms up abruptly, a great dense black-green wall of leaf, branch, trunk and choking creepers. It offers no easy way in. The way I am following is the path of a watercourse. Above the water the tree canopy thins a little, letting in a mottled green light that slides over these deep pools and thundering jets that hurtle down the slippery rocks.

If I hug the waterfall there is less risk of leeches. I have seen these horrible creatures on the dead leaves of the forest floor, small sinuous tubes weaving and swaying like sea anemones on a rock; once they sense body heat they converge unerringly on the victim, looping over and over in a series of rapid cartwheels. You do not hear them, you do not feel them, but later you find them, swollen, white and puffy, dug deep into your skin.

I have slipped, clung and scrabbled my way up this water shoot, forcing my body through muscular spouts of water plummeting downwards, squeezing between narrow clefts in the great rocks. I’m wet, my boots are swimming with water, my shirt is torn, and my elbow is grazed. But I am where I want to be, high up in Malaysian jungle, sitting very still and waiting, eager for a sighting of wild pig, macaque monkeys, tapir, mouse deer, snake: something to take my breath away. I have seen pretty brown and white bracket fungus, thorny shrubs densely berried with deep blue fruit, pale damselflies ashen in the thin jungle light, shadowy spiders, small butterflies one in colour with the earth. And an endless, dizzyingly tall density of pale trunks vanishing upward, their bases flared out wide like propellor blades.

Long minutes pass. I’m actually cold now and moulded to the rock by the cramp in my legs. Beyond the clamorous roar of the waterfall I can hear the introspective silence of the daytime jungle. Nothing moves, nothing is going about its business. I am an intruder, watched, smelled and avoided. Prickles creep down my spine. What is out there watching me? I am quite alone up here. I hear my heart like drum beats above the water’s rush, loud in the hushed quiet. What is listening to it?

I stare round, searching the dark canopy for movement. Anything will satisfy me now for I have an increasing, panicky feeling of wanting to be gone, safely out of here. My mind goes over a news story I came across: a huge python, said to be almost twelve feet in length, crushed and killed a man. Every newspaper, magazine, radio and T.V station in Malaysia was obsessed with the story. There were gruesome pictures of the man’s body being crushed, half swallowed by the massive creature. They said it took three days for him to die. Such a thing is rare, very rare. The man lived on the edge of the jungle and he had stepped behind his house, as he did every day, to start up his generator and Crack!: his ribs were encircled and fractured by this monster. The phrase “Nature red in tooth and claw” has a terrifying reality up here. The Malays believe the jungle to be full of “hantu” – ghosts. Is there some coiled, malevolent reptilian power out there in the jungle blackness biding its time, studying me…? The silence is so solid now, it’s choking me, pressing on me. I am losing my nerve, think about bolting blindly back to safety down the waterfall.

So at first it doesn’t register, then slowly I notice it: high up on a grey-flecked trunk there is a little tremor. But I ignore it, still straining my eyes for bigger creatures. The tremor shifts, there is a sudden scurry.. I focus hard on the spot now and discern a long stick-like thing, wedded hard to the trunk, almost indistinguishable from it. It darts upwards briefly, a lizard of some sort. Then all at once the stick explodes, there is a stunning flash of orange and green and in a swift second my lizard metamorphoses from stick to fabulous prehistoric butterfly, and is gorgeous as it spreads its membranous wings of bright green and orange and lifts and sails down the air from one tree to another. It lands and folds away into a stick again, melting into the trunk it has settled on. I follow its fretting runs upwards and see where it stops and is absorbed again into the tree with absolute concealment. I am enthralled.

When I sit later picking the leeches off my ankles, for they did find me, I think only of that glorious flying lizard, its wings vibrant and  glowing in that brown, silent jungle air as it sailed brilliant into the filtering patches of light.


Gill McEvoy: has two poetry collections The Plucking Shed (2010), and Rise (2013) from Cinnamon Press. She runs regular poetry events in Chester and was formerly Artistic Director for the spoken word section of Chester Literature Festival. She is a Hawthornden Fellow, and the winner of the 2015 Michael Marks Awards for her poetry pamphlet The First Telling (Happenstance Press 2014). She was Highly Commended several times in the BBC Wildlife Magazine’s essay writing competition.