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.


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.


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.


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).

Natalie Sirett – Artist

“The environmental impact of human activity on birdlife suggests that, as a species, we care little for avian survival. Yet our culture and language are crowded with bird symbols that reveal a deep and passionate connection to our ‘feathered friends’. Birds symbolise love, hope, renewal; our hearts soar and flutter, we rise phoenix-like from ashes, while it is the dove who finds the first symbol of peace. The bird in flight symbolises freedom, while a trapped or injured bird represents imprisonment. My Flight Boxed Series is inspired by this tension between constraint and flight. These artworks were made on boxes because they can be locked and unlocked, opened and closed, like wings. The drawings, or ‘nets’ were made as practical diagrams, rather like the nets of 3D shapes we make in school. They were essential to help me wrap the birds around the boxes interior and exterior surfaces.”

Natalie Sirett was born in Heswall, Cheshire and currently lives and works in London. She received a BA in Fine Art from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and studied painting and printmaking at the Royal Academy Schools, London. Her work explores symbols and stories embedded in our culture. “I am in some ways a contemporary symbolist or icon painter. I want to make art where object and meaning, substance and symbol unite.”

Boxed Crane, oil on wood 100 x 20 x 25 cm, 2015/6
Boxed Pelican, oil on wood 70 x 40 x 14cm 2015/16
Boxed Swallow, oil on wood 70 x 40 x 14cm 2015/16
Crane’s Net, Indian ink on Japanese Paper 70 x 50cm, 2015
Pelican’s Net, Indian ink on Japanese Paper 70 x 50cm, 2015
Swallow’s Net, Indian ink on Japanese Paper 70 x 50cm, 2015

Theatre Road at Dusk

by James Walton


there is a vacancy in my house
that cannot be occupied

an emptiness
lost to deer by fading

headlights are her weakness

an urge to perform
a hand painting given rainbow air

the schooled leap of cosine dance
one precise bound only

across dizzy evening margins

where the vacancy in my house
cannot give audience to an elegance

four becomes one momentarily
in a Fonteyn of grace

she vanishes off stage

as night sways
like a bead curtain

after someone has stepped through


James Walton was a librarian, a farm labourer, a cattle breeder, and mostly a public sector union official. He is published in many anthologies, journals, and newspapers. He lives in an isolated farming community in the Strzelecki Mountains is South Gippsland, Australia. He has been short listed twice for the ACU National Literature Prize, and was commended in the Welsh Poetry Competition.