A Sahara Camp

by Elizabeth Bernays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, a mixture – Oedaleus, mostly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oxen

by Sarah Brown Weitzman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Outnumbered by an Albatross

by Kim Steutermann Rogers

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

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

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

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

These are the gymnastics of my imagination.

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

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

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

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

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

Vixen

by Jane Lovell

 

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

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

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

behind her swim timorous worlds
we can never enter

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

 

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

What Remains

by Thomas Lloyd

It had been a dry year.

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

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

The ground shifted beneath their every step.

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

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

It would not be ignored.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But to go there would mean passing her.

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

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

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

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

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

Grandmother stopped and smelled the air.

This was the place.

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

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

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

That year, the rains had not come.

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

They had left them behind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they would, in time.

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

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

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

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

Flyby

by Bonnie Riedinger

 

He’s a whirligig on a sugar high,

A tuning fork come to dine,

A vertiginous blur

Spiked in his drink

Like a Mai Tai parasol.

 

He may hover and sip

As his wings beat a brisk bombination,

But soon he’ll take off

With a cartoon zoom

For my neighbor’s more alluring

Red bed.

 

Bonnie Riedinger is a poet and fiction writer from Connecticut. Her most recent poetry publication, Aubades Were Inconceivable, is in the February edition of the Southern Florida Poetry Journal.

The Pull Of The River: Escape Routes – an extract

by Matt Gaw

We head out straight, the canoe’s nose pointing towards the river’s first bend. The wind, the first taste of a storm that is forecast to hit tomorrow, funnels down the seaward stretch of the Alde and forces lumps of water under the Pipe. They hit hard, like speed bumps.

The Alde is comparatively short, with less than 20 miles separating its source in Laxfield (close to where Suffolk’s Blyth also bubbles into life) and its mouth near Orford, where it becomes known as the Ore. Yet in some ways it feels like the biggest river we have explored so far. As we paddle into the winter sun, the whole horizon shimmers. The water, the acres of mud, the beaches and soggy spits all gleam, all ripple with light. It’s hard to tell where the river stops and the land begins.

With the tide still not completely with us we decide to take a break and allow the water to gather. We get the Pipe up to what James calls ‘ramming speed’ and beach ourselves on a shingle spit that spears out into the water. But these are no stones. It is a mass of shellfish and crab, a great, grey beach of shells, clam and carapace; a huge graveyard of mussels, spattered with barnacles and mud. It’s impossible to stand in any one place for long without sinking down to the ankles, so we drink our tea on the move, taking crunching steps round tiny blue lagoons of trapped water. James, stomping theatrically over a pile of broken shell, says it reminds him of a grisly scene from Terminator 2 in which robotic feet smash through the burnt remains of human skulls.

‘It’s like,’ he says, waving a disembodied crab claw at me, ‘we’re at the end of the world.’ I know what he means; there is a sense of loneliness here, that we’ve escaped to a place where both land and time are running out.

We collect shells to avoid thinking about the bone-chilling cold, arranging them on the nose of the Pipe as the water begins to rise around us, the shallow pools widening into each other. A gull, disturbed by our presence, reluctantly throws itself into the wind. The shell spit is now less solid than ever, a wavering hazy line between land and water. Within minutes we can actually see the tide. While the river flows seaward, the current piles against it and over it, leaving the surface of the water taut, occasionally breaking into an angry swirl, or rising into sharp spikes like the black dorsal fins of hundreds of fish jostling to get upstream. It is also a clear sign for us to get going. I clamber back in and James pushes off, jumping onto the Pipe as she glides away from the mussel island and back into the river.

There are plenty of boats here, but no one to sail them. We try to guess the names painted on their sides before we reach their mooring buoys, disappointed that close up ‘Witches Spank’ becomes ‘Vital Spark’, the ‘Onion’ the slightly more cosmic ‘Orion’. I think of my five-year-old daughter’s announcement a couple of months ago while taking a river taxi in Beccles: ‘If I had a boat I’d call it the Idi-yacht.’

As the boats thin out, the number of birds increases and we find ourselves relying on them to navigate the narrow channels through the mud: the throngs of feeding waders mark the waterline, galloping away in startled herds when the canoe gets too close.

Even with the tide’s help it takes more than an hour to reach Iken, but we couldn’t have asked for a better day. The sky is a cold blue, fading to milk at the edges; clear apart from a single vapour trail, stretched and pulled by the wind into a ragged backbone of fluffy vertebrae. There are clouds of a different sort too. Dunlin. Only visible when the sun hits their white chests and the underside of their whirring wings, they pulse and rush above the water. Their feathers glint like the flashing scales of silver fish with each dip and turn. We stop paddling to watch, but their murmuration finishes as quickly as it began, the birds dropping like beautiful pebbles onto a curve of mud near the right bank, rooting their bills in the mud.

Alde Mudflats stretch for almost three miles around the church that overlooks the estuary, emerging with each low tide. An Atlantis of nutritious, invertebrate-filled mud. Leased from the Crown Estate by Suffolk Wildlife Trust, it is a nature reserve, a refuge for a huge number of birds. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many in one place. Curlew stilt-walk across the mud, their bills a needle-thin shoehorn of bone-hard keratin, prodding and searching. Others take off as we near, like feathered Concordes with skinny nose cones lowered. Further away there are avocet, oystercatchers, redshank and many others I cannot name. I feel a slight sense of frustration at not knowing them, at not being able to separate and identify the mass of whimpering, mournful cries that wobble out over the estuary.

But in some ways it doesn’t matter. Part of what I find amazing about experiencing nature are those moments of wild chaos, the pure clamour of life when nature and self are suddenly wrapped up together in one song. The boundlessness of the natural world doesn’t just surround me or impress me; it assimilates me, claims me as its own. The experience is often fleeting, but it is undeniably precious. Soul-nourishingly so. What’s more, I can feel it here on this estuary. For haunting seconds, in the thrum of beating wings, the creeping water and the power of the rushing tide, I become gloriously, precariously, part of it.

The tide is hurrying ahead of us now. We’re on a Nantucket sleigh ride powered by the great brown flukes of water rushing inland. The paddling is so easy that we shoot past the point where we planned to turn round, gliding on towards the reedlined banks that lead to Snape Maltings, which appears like a great ship ghosting above the water.

Matt Gaw is a writer, journalist and naturalist who lives in Bury St Edmunds. His work has been published in the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Times. He works with the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, edits Suffolk Wildlife and writes a monthly country diary for the Suffolk Magazine. The Pull of the River is his first book. See also www.MattGaw.com.

around the circumference of exactly here in 7000 miles & 6 species

by Dave Borthwick

 

1. & 2. —Always Now

the Jackdaws talk from dark to dark, voices chimpish in the low
conversations of pre-dawn: intimate and confiding
before the yelling at the sun & in the sun, time of the whirling wings & bickering
they will repeat to yell at the sun going & in the going sun,
their daily migrations around trees & cattlesheds,
the burn & the river that cut across
Crown land, & Cooper’s land, the Temple Woods
& the quarry flitted by Peregrines

3. & 4. — September to April

there are Whooper swans in the fields along the village road
& they bugle Iceland’s summersound as the light comes
& as it goes
& startle drivers with low glidings to land
on Mackenzie’s land
over which the pink-footed geese travel longwinter habit: out
from the coast first thing & inland,
a thousand on Doyle’s land, then Dryfe’s land, & Tulloch’s land
as the months wear on, whiffling to land, buzzing to rise: in
towards the sea again come night, later each night,
the earth tilting the season slowly back to light
to the sound of Greenland’s summer

5. & 6. — April to August

we make there early to avoid tourists
just after their return
& find one perched on the tree struck by lightning
years ago & it wheeps, reedy & high,
sound of a Senegalese river with sun recasting the water
& the Osprey bears off downriver then,
away from land held in trust for the nation
because of a warlord’s ruin
sometime before the extinction,
before the return with a Flounder from the coast

 

Dave Borthwick is a tramper of fields and stander in the rain, who also runs the MLitt Environment, Culture and Communication at the University of Glasgow’s satellite campus in Dumfries

White Bears

by Eloise Shepherd

You see your first polar bear thousands of miles away from any actual bears. Going north, Oslo to Tromsø, they spring out at you in ever-increasing densities on jumpers, postcard stands and advertising hoardings. I noticed all of these because the bears are why I was here.

I get on a series of three planes – London – Oslo, Oslo – Tromsø, Tromsø – Longyearbyen. I expect the planes to get smaller but they don’t. It is April; every plane north taking me further into lingering winter.

In the departure lounge for the flight to Longyearbyen there is a vividly realized picture instructing passengers to ‘Take Polar Bear DANGER seriously’. In it, the illustrated bears worry over something that looks suspiciously like a tourist’s remains. Several people take toothy, grinning selfies with it.

Longyearbyen sits at 78.2° north. With 2,144 permanent residents, it is the northernmost settlement in the world with a population reaching four figures. It is, for Europeans, the most accessible part of the high Arctic, and tourism is growing. 39% of the jobs now done on Svalbard are now in the tourism and culture industry, which is worth around NOK 630m (just short of £58m). Yearly nights in hotels on the islands have gone up from around 40,000 in 1996 to 130,000 in 2015 .

For my sins, I am one of these tourists. Other than the ever-present hope of bears, key thrills include the genuine possibility of being, at any moment, the northernmost person, say, hopping, or listening to Nick Cave. I am an armchair Arctic enthusiast. You probably cannot name a book on Svalbard or on polar bears that I haven’t devoured, but this was my first actual trip north of the Arctic Circle. It required the purchasing of thermals, serious trousers, and the dusting off of a ski jacket I hadn’t used in a number of years.

Even in April, even being one of the fastest warming places on the planet temperatures can still drop into the -20°Cs. Like many of the tourists visiting Svalbard, I am, to put it mildly, not used to these kinds of temperatures. Expecting an onslaught of cold I removed my ski jacket from my check baggage and huddled its bulk under the chair in front of me.

In other words, like many Svalbard tourists, I have no knowledge of the Arctic climate, no experience of the challenges, and no ability whatsoever to be independent in this environment. However this is OK. Like thousands of others, I can be shepherded from place to place, to the point even of being driven up a mountain in a belt wagon.

There is a level on which I know this is problematic.

The first view of Svalbard is sublime. I mean that both in the visceral and intellectual sense of the word. I hadn’t even seen mountains like this. Let alone the ice floes, the glaciers. After years of pouring over pictures and watching documentaries the reality of the place, of descending down the Isfjorden, makes me actually cry. I was surprised and embarrassed by this level of emotion. Glad to be sat alone, by the window, with no one next to me.

For centuries, now our lives are safe, we have been asking why it is that wild places inspire these feelings in us, why we are drawn to these inhospitable places. Why they obsess us.

It is the same with the bears. There are, indisputably, more images of polar bears just in advertising than there are polar bears in the world. How can I be obsessed with polar bears when I have never seen one in the wild? How can they occupy such a huge element of my imaginative space? There are really two distinct things. The bears themselves, and what they have come to mean and represent to us.

Scientists estimate that the total circumpolar population of polar bears is around 25,000. These are divided into several subpopulations, although there is considerable traffic between these groups. The Barents Sea population, including Svalbard, is commonly cited as consisting of around 3,000 bears, although this figure is from a 2004 helicopter survey, and there will undoubtedly have been change since then. A 2015 tally from the Norwegian polar institute put the amount of bears on the islands themselves at 975 (this is broadly in keeping with a 3,000 figure for the whole subpopulation).

Before 1973, the Svalbard bears were hunted extensively. Now, thankfully (although potentially futilely, given climate change) they are strictly protected in all parts of the islands . Since these new laws came in, an average of two bears per year have been killed through (alleged) self-defence, or because the animal was sick or injured.

There are years that as many as nine bears have been killed (1987). In the same period in Svalbard, there have been only five fatal bear attacks. The details of these (unlike the yearly destruction of the bears in self-defence) are easy to find.

We are fascinated by these accounts. Polar bears are the largest land carnivore, they have notoriously been known to stalk humans as if hunting (unlike most other bears, which generally attack only if threatened). Male polar bears reach weights of between 300-700kgs, with females considerably smaller (150-300kgs unless pregnant). This is a huge powerful animal. Without guns, humans are simply not a match for the bears. So it is the law on Svalbard that outside of the main settlements you must carry a gun or be with someone who is carrying a gun.

As we landed the air steward donned a woolen scarf to open the plane door. We descended straight to the tarmac and yes it was cold, but not like I imagined. I pulled on my ski jacket and joined the rest of the passengers in taking picture after picture.

Around the period of solar eclipse in March 2015, a group of tourists around 30km outside of Longyearbyen were attacked by a bear while they slept. One member of the group awoke to find it ‘standing over him’ in his tent and received minor injuries. Other members of the group shot the bear with revolvers, which scared it away and injured it, but didn’t immediately kill it. It was later shot by local hunters. The tourist in question, when interviewed in hospital, commented that he hoped to be out in time for the eclipse, which took place the following day. After a four-month investigation, the leader of the group was fined 10,000 NOK (nearly £800) as “They had not put in place the necessary safeguards. There was only one tripwire that was set too high and the bear went under it. Nor did they have a polar bear watch at the time, ”. A trivial amount, for the bear’s life.

It is easy to be angry about this. Less easy to conceptualise or to acknowledge emotionally is the devastating impact of climate change on the bears. It would be criminal not to also acknowledge my own role in that (for instance in having taken a total of six flights to get to and come back from Svalbard).

The bears need sea ice. The female bears, in majority, also need access to land to den and produce cubs . So, to sustain the current populations the ice not only needs to remain, but it needs to be in contact with denning areas. It is also not just any ice that the bears rely on. Prime hunting ground is seasonal sea ice with many ‘leads’ or areas that seals use to breathe. The polar bear is classified as a marine mammal, but despite considerable swimming abilities, it is not aquatic and therefore reliant on the sea ice to access the seals. Over the past 25 years, the summer sea ice melt period has lengthened, and summer sea ice cover has declined by over half a million square miles. There is less ice, for less time.

At the moment this is being most keenly felt in the southern reaches of the bears’ range (e.g. the Western Hudson bay population, which declined by 22% between 1987 and 2004). However, if there were to be an ice-free Arctic by or around 2040, as some predict, extinction or near extinction of the bears would be, surely, likely to follow. Ian Stirling, the much-lauded polar bear biologist, predicts extinction for most of the subpopulations, without intervention, in 30-40 years, primarily because of climate change.

I dream about polar bears, often. I cannot quite define what they represent to me. My love of them started, I think, with Iorek Byrnison, the formidable bear who befriends Lyra in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I read these books as a child. Since then, I don’t think I have ever been without them imaginatively. I was in Svalbard in the first place to research a book that starts and ends here, with the bears.

Although I kept my eyes peeled I didn’t see one. Well. There was the stuffed bear overlooking the baggage belt in the airport. The bear in the museum, lifesize and still. The soft toy at my hotel that sat while I and the other tourists ate food flown in from the mainland. The endless, endless pictures and drawings on shopping bags, on postcards, on vehicles. The image alone is economic lifeblood. In Svalbard, as it is in Churchill.

I took a daylong boat trip along the Isfjorden. The mercury that day plummeted to -20°C. Even inside gloves my fingers were painful. I tried to stay out on deck as long as possible, scouring the shore for any sign of a bear. Inside the cabin of the boat, after some hours, there was a sick feeling. Passengers leaned on each other and slept. The smell of the lunch cooked for us (minke whale, salmon, beef) was indelible and queasy.

I put up with the cold as long as I could. Making small trips into the cabin to rub feeling back into fingers and toes. Outside things were clear. The sea was black and not as calm as I expected for essentially a fjord. The birds were coming back. Little Auks. Northern Fulmars. Kittiwakes, who nest also near my parents’ home by the Tyne. They skimmed the surface of the cold black water, soon to burst into spring life.

It was the day before the midnight sun returned, the next four months here would be without night. But no bears. I watched a bearded seal, its whiskers like split ribbons, look at us pass, safe on the sea ice. 100,000 potential calories for any bear.

My being there was selfish. I am not scientist. I wanted to see a bear, I wanted to see their home. Yes I felt dwarfed by the scale of the place – the cold, the mountains, the warming sea. But what value does that have, other than for me. Again, in reverence I am putting my need for sublimity ahead of the aching need to reduce emissions. This is what we do, humans, we put ourselves first and the impact now is terrifying, it pushes me into despair. In his excellent book, Tracking Gobi Grizzlies, scientist and nature writer Douglas Chadwick states that humans and their livestock in 1900 made up 2% of the total land mammal biomass. Now, in 2017, we (and our livestock) make up 90%. The speed and scale of this is terrifying.

In His Dark Materials, Svalbard is the kingdom of the bears. There is a profound truth in this. Polar bears may not talk, wear armour, or make friends with small but adventurous children. But it is their world. Or it was.

At the end of my week in Svalbard my eyes ached from pressing them again and again against binoculars, scanning a white horizon. The bears stayed away and so, stay in my head.

 

Eloise Shepherd writes fiction, poetry and nature non fiction. She is the co-founder of www.liminalresidency.co.uk, an alternative writer’s retreat which takes place in a range of neglected and unusual spaces. You can read her work in New Writing 13 and the Fiction Desk’s New Ghost Stories anthology. She spends a disproportionate amount of time thinking about bears for someone who lives in Crystal Palace and maintains a surprisingly successful sideline in boxing.

Americana

by Anna Kisby

raton, es-see-ban, culu, suk-suk
Edge of the freeway, weaving like a drunk man, someone is lost
on two legs stumbling into paths of cars, veering away, in again —

wee-chah, icat, mapache, a-rough-cun
The one who took everything in his hands is empty-handed, catching
only at onrush of air, gasoline vapour

suk-suk, icat, raton, wee-chah
Truck-horn howls return to his mind coyotes
of childhood, great horned owls, taste of corn in its milk-state

way-atcha, tou-aru, ny-mas, arath-kone
His bandit’s mask has slipped, he makes no mischief anymore,
there are no locks to pick here

__________________________*

The night before, in fir forest above road-verge
he heard earthworms pushing their way to surface,
put him in mind of arriving at sea-mouth after freezing river
way-atcha, tou-aru, icat, ahrah-koon-em

He has kept to his den all winter, he is over the wonder
of snow, will leave no more tracks for you to follow
on highway, sidewalk, forest path. His glorious tail
arath-kone, mapache, culu, suk-suk

is the trophy you seek or the curse — now swerve
for him, save your tears, grip the wheel and speed on
until he’s a speck in your wing mirror, in the stories you’ll tell
ahrah-koon-em, arath-kone, a-rough-cun, raccoon

 

‘Americana’ was previously published in ‘Nature & Sentience’ (Corbel Stone Press, 2017).

Anna Kisby is a poet living in rural Devon (UK). She is widely published in magazines and anthologies, won the BBC Proms Poetry competition 2016 and was commended in the Faber New Poets Scheme 2015-16. Her debut poetry pamphlet All the Naked Daughters is published by Against the Grain Press (2017).