The Shadow of a Pangolin

by Josh Flatman

The torturous drip…drip of water from my roof into one of the plastic tubs on the floor has ceased for the time-being. Peering through my mosquito net and the gap in the curtains I can see the flashes from distant storms. I am not sure the drips will stay away for long. I am in central Namibia, the 5th least populated country on the planet, home to spectacular scenery and wildlife and what is thought to be the oldest desert in the world. I arrived at the end of the rainy season, the heat of the day often culminating in a frantic shower of lightning and a dumping of rain onto the shrubland. Flowers and grasses spring into action, seizing the opportunity before the long dry winter, producing colourful, thick, dewy carpets in contrast to the orange, cracked earth. It was not quite the weather I had expected for fieldwork in Southern Africa.

I was working at the Rare and Endangered Species Trust (REST), a small organisation that has a rehabilitation and education centre 47km south of Otjiwarongo, with the aim to care for, rehabilitate and release wildlife. REST also aims to carry out research and education on some species which are not often in the spotlight, but are thought to be of particular conservation concern, of which it has coined the phrase, Namibia’s forgotten five (more recently the forgotten five plus one). These are the Cape griffon vulture, dwarf python, African wild dog, Temminck’s ground pangolin or Cape pangolin, Damara dik-dik and the spotted rubber frog. These animals are representative of the entire land ecosystem of Namibia. REST is also home to a number of animals that are not deemed fit for release.

Maria Diekmann, REST’s founder, was originally inspired to help Namibia’s wildlife by the plight of the majestic Cape griffon vulture and the majority of the project’s initial conservation work focussed on this species. The largest bird of its kind in Africa, it is threatened by electrocution from power lines, habitat change and by poisonings both directly and indirectly. More so in the last three years than ever before, elephant and rhino poachers are lacing carcasses with poison to directly target vultures, whose aerial presence, above an animal they have slain, is seen as a clear giveaway to the poacher’s whereabouts, potentially alerting and informing officials in the area. Farmers and ranchers also sometimes use poisons in the carcasses of animals, to target predators, which they believe threaten their stock. The outcome of both is the same, the gregarious nature of vultures results in mass die offs, 50-500 can be poisoned from one carcass. The species is listed as vulnerable with the global population thought to stand at around 8000 birds, but despite Maria and REST’s best efforts, which have included releasing birds from South African populations into Namibia, radio tracking and tagging individuals, it is now classed as extinct as a breeding species in the country. Evidence from Maria’s radio tracking of individuals shows flights of up to 400km into neighbouring countries, with just one poisoned carcass enough to prove fatal, it demonstrates just how difficult a problem this is to tackle.

vulture_pangolin_3In the large aviary built into the side of the mountain on which REST lies in shadow, Nesher, one of the three resident, un-releasable, Capes and the only male, lands a few feet away, his two and a half metre wingspan sending dust and spiralling feathers towards me, as he slows down to steady himself on landing. Nesher was captive bred and despite efforts he is too tame to be released back into the wild. It is hoped he will be instrumental in captive breeding programmes. He looks quizzically at me, his long bald neck craning to see if I am carrying any food. A brighter white than the white-backed vultures they can be confused with and bulkier than their nearest rival in size, the lappet-faced vulture. I am aware I will never have the opportunity to be in such close quarters with these birds again, to admire the industrial bill, the long, thick reptilian toes or to be fixed in the yellow eyes of an animal that has evolved so perfectly to cope with the poisons of the natural world such as anthrax and botulism, but not to such rapid and intense human pressure. It is a tragedy that now no one can see this mighty bird, in the wild, in Namibia.

As well as the Cape griffon vultures it is safe to say that Maria’s other passion lies with pangolins. This has much to do with one particular pangolin named Katiti and his mother Roxy. To think of an animal more bizarre would be difficult; it is bipedal, holding its front legs, complete with long claws, close to its body, which is fully covered in scales. It has a tongue that can be longer than its body. The largest species can weigh up to 33kg and measure 140cm long and its closest genetic relation is the carnivora order containing hyenas and wolves. However within these comic complexities and obscurities hides darker facts about this animal; it is particularly vulnerable to electrocution by electric fence, all eight species are threatened with extinction and it is listed by the IUCN as the most illegally trafficked mammal in the world. We might wipe out this curious oddball before we know anything about it.

Roxy was seized from the black market and given to Maria to be rehabilitated and released. Unbeknown to REST staff, Roxy was pregnant and the subsequent birth of a male pup enabled the first footage to be recorded of a Cape pangolin birth. Everything was new at this stage and the first photo in the public domain of a Cape pangolin pup being carried on the back of its mother was also captured by REST. However, after a foraging trip Roxy did not return to her pup and Maria and her staff were forced to raise the animal themselves. That was two and half years ago and on my first meeting with Katiti, it certainly did not look like it had held him back. Almost more surprising than the very nature of a pangolin was the fact that Maria was carrying him around her neck and on her head. Every day Katiti was taken out to forage for up to 5 hours and in order to supply him with enough ants and termites that hadn’t previously been disturbed, it was important to take him to different areas of REST’s land. This required carrying him to and from foraging grounds and the most comfortable way for both pangolin and accomplice is either sat on your shoulder with his muscular tail wrapped around your neck or perched on top of your head. I learned it was a good idea to wear a hat if Katiti chose the latter method of transportation.
Pangolins do not generally fare well in captivity, not being able to cope with the stress and the change in environment. However, Katiti is flourishing. He is measured and weighed twice a day and enjoys sleeping for most for it. Upon waking he is taken out to forage. In this way Katiti forages completely naturally, using his strong front claws to dig into ant nests in the hard ground, fishing out its inhabitants with his long tongue. He can visit between 50-150 nests in one session. The number of times he eats, what he eats and a GPS track is recorded by the observer. Very little is known about pangolin behaviour due to their elusive nature, therefore being able to follow Katiti in this way enables not only important data to be collected but provides an insight into the lives of these poorly understood creatures.

Pangolin_1Katiti trundles along, his armoured tail raised parallel to the ground as well as his front limbs, his elephant-like, stump back legs powering him, constantly alert to the vibrations or sounds of ants underground. He stops and the sharp ends of his long, adapted nails flick at the pea sized entrance hole to the ant nest, attempting to breach the rock hard earth. I flinch, imagining the feeling of losing a fingernail, as his powerful limbs are making no headway. But Katiti is undeterred, his claws much stronger than I imagine. He is in, flicking clods of earth around him, then spraying sand as the ground gets softer. His tongue goes to work and so do the ants, swarming all over him. A protective membrane covers his eyes and being heavily scaled helps protect from the bites, but I wonder about his soft underbelly. Sometimes he spends less than a minute at a nest, other times nearer ten, digging deep into the earth and the heart of the nest. Katiti pushes on through the bush, a small battering ram, over and through thick thorn bushes, dead trees and ditches, unaware of the difficulty for his human follower. He is equipped with a tracking device, screwed onto one of his hard scales, in case the vicious, skin-tearing, shirt-ripping African flora is too thick for me and he is lost. Fortunately, he is quite easy to hear ploughing through the undergrowth, even if lost to sight. Occasionally Katiti will flinch into his protective ball, in response to something unseen, unheard, unfelt by me, but clearly a perceived danger. A more primitive defence mechanism surely does not exist than to become an immobile, impenetrable ball. Sadly this has led to the pangolin’s demise, as this may be enough to fool big cats but it makes them an easy target for humans.

Although foraging in the cooler part of the day, sometimes it is too hot for Katiti and he will rest on his scaly back with his belly exposed and urinate over himself, wiggling, trying to spread the cooling liquid over him with his forelimbs. It is much the same action when he finds a muddy puddle, he will roll around on his back and shake vigorously, stirring the mud up and covering himself the best he can. It is likely that this benefits his scales and skin by providing protection against parasites and the strong African sun.

pangolin_2Katiti’s role at REST is not only as a powerful educational tool, to promote awareness among local people and visitors, but also in helping to rehabilitate other pangolins. Due to an increase in demand for pangolin products in both Africa and Asia, REST have received many that have been seized from the black market. Those in good health are released as quickly as possible into protected areas. More often, however, pangolins are received emaciated, stressed and dehydrated and the extra shock of being admitted to a rehabilitation centre is sometimes enough to kill them. Maria has had more success in rehabilitating these animals using Katiti. She believes that Katiti, as he is comfortable in the surroundings, helps to settle his compatriots so they can begin to behave more naturally and build up the strength to be releasable.

REST is a small organization run by Maria and her only permanent member of staff, Margareth, trying its best to tackle problems of biodiversity loss in Namibia. Perhaps it is too late for the Cape griffon vulture in the country and an appetite for the pangolins’ skin, scales and meat has thrown all eight species across the globe into steep decline. Pangolin skin is used in the manufacture of boots and other leather items, the meat is consumed as a delicacy as well as imparting perceived health benefits, and the scales are dried and used in traditional medicines to treat a variety of ills from asthma to cancers, even to promote lactation. As populations of the four Asian pangolin species are not able to meet current demand, due to over-hunting, there is evidence to suggest that the resultant high prices are driving the smuggling of African pangolins across continents to meet the shortfall. Perhaps this market is the biggest threat to Katiti and his species, currently classed as vulnerable. Will the four African species go the same way as their Asian cousins (two species listed as endangered, two as critically endangered)?

As for REST, the organisation where I have been able to experience such magical moments with animals I am not likely to ever see again, they are learning things about these creatures that no one else in the world knows. Their passionate, labour intensive, all-consuming, conservation and rehabilitation work provides hope for many African creatures, inspires many children and educates farmers and ranchers on how to treat wildlife. Now the very existence of REST, as if some twisted metaphor for the animals it is trying to save, hangs in the balance. Maria is seeing the organisation that she built from scratch in the African bush, threatened with eviction. Wildlife conservation is often a labour of love, a passionate endeavour that puts personal hardship second to the benefit of species that can’t thank you for doing so. It is a struggle and a fight against people and organisations that choose not to care for conservation and wildlife. REST will continue to fight but if organisations like them lose what will Namibia, Africa and the world lose?

REST are in urgent need of support to continue their work in Namibia. For more information, visit their website: http://www.restafrica.org

Josh Flatman is a graduate from Exeter University with a conservation biology and ecology degree and a masters by research in wildlife disease management. He has participated in turtle conservation in Northern Cyprus, cetacean research in Norway and most recently volunteered in Namibia at REST and at a baboon research project run by ZSL. www.joshflatman.com

 

All images by Josh Flatman

Poetry – Issue 3.1

The Kill List

by Ann Cefola

He said his friend worked at the ASPCA or something.
He paused. Actually euthanized dogs,
pit bulls mostly…
Unable to listen, I see them
trot up, eager to please—that trait we bred in:

Puppies—clumsy paws, elders’ salted snoot.
Ears floppy, torn or tacked in royal tips.
Irises startling amber, green, citrine.
Coats tuxedo, brindle or tan-white sheen.

Seized by glazed willingness in wide-set eyes
adrenaline quivering not me-not me-not me,
he understood—limp body after body:
They were the ones who were good.

Bear

by Gordon Meade 
Illustration by Douglas Robertson
bear_ZM

In his minimally decorated cell,
Bear remembers when things were
not so good. Back in the old days,

bear-baiting was not only legal,
it was positively encouraged. Bear
recalls watching some of his

best friends being dragged through
the streets in chains, with iron collars
fastened around their necks, being

barked at, and bitten, by strays

The Dusky Seaside Sparrow

by Daniel C. Bryant

First bird to become extinct since the creation of
The Endangered Species List

At just an ounce
he would have mattered less
had he not been the last,
would not have been remembered by name –
Orange –
like astronauts flown from Canaveral.

Yes, there was something bigger than that death
that day in June, 1987,
bigger than that 8X10 foot cage,
that Florida –
a whole greater than the melody of its parts.

The reeds still bend and rustle in the wind.
The salt marsh fills and empties
in slow systoles
as rockets rise.

Here lies the science of extinction.

Mutual Admiration

by David Lloyd

I salute bats for acrobatics,
their gobbling of mosquitoes,

their faces like my own
in fun-house mirrors.

They, in turn, salute me,
as they do all solids

within their radius, with dives
and silent screams,

sizing me as I trudge along,
grounded in twilight –

with one arm raised.

Drink

by Donna D. Vitucci

Riding an elephant is nothing like riding a horse,

nor like riding any earthly animal. When the elephant

bends her mammoth head to drink, or wash or revel

in a pool, she takes the rider with her.

Her rider expects a bath, but this never happens

since the creature’s tenderness ascends like Asia,

runs right through her ears, those tent flap ears,

sheets of years-worn leather which– look!

They unfurl and rise and wrap the woman,

thighs to hips, and hold her to a lumpy spine.

The rider is wrapped as if she is the stuffing in grape leaves,

as if she is part of the menu. She bows with the head,

for what can she do? She is part of the animal, part now

of what honors water’s scarcity and source, genuflecting

in the aftermath of great thirst, of great denial.

Working through the mouth is harder

by Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

“Inspired by ‘Slaughtering and Butchering’, Dynah Geissal, www.backwardshome.com (1993)”

When the temperature falls
and the pasture is no longer adequate,
it’s time to butcher.
Draw lines from eartip
to opposite eye.
Where the lines cross
is where you shoot.

There is a certain
satisfaction in using everything.
Ears can flavour a pot of beans,
stomachs can hold sausage,
lungs are edible. The heart
is a keeper, the head
can be used to make soup
or headcheese.

Raise the beast when it
becomes difficult to
reach your work.
Remove the skin, eyes, ears, nose, take
out anything that looks
strange, un-meatlike.
You may want
to brush the teeth.

I think I’ve tried saving just
about everything.
I think there’s some
value in that. If no-one wants
to eat it, the value is
in knowing.

Poet and Artist Biographies:

Ann Cefola is the author of Face Painting in the Dark (Dos Madres Press, 2014); St. Agnes, Pink-Slipped (Kattywompus Press, 2011), Sugaring (Dancing Girl Press, 2007), and the translation Hence this cradle (Seismicity Editions, 2007). A Witter Bynner Poetry Translation Residency recipient, she received the Robert Penn Warren Award judged by John Ashbery. For more information, see www.anncefola.com and www.annogram.blogspot.com

Gordon Meade is a Scottish poet who is based in the East Neuk of Fife. In the past, he has been the Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at the University of Dundee. His eighth collection of poems, Les Animots: A Human Bestiary, a collaboration with Doug Robertson, is to be published in Autumn 2015 with Cultured Llama Publishing.

Douglas Robertson was born in Dundee and now lives in Hampshire. An artist and teacher, he has worked on numerous collaboration projects and has exhibited widely throughout the UK. His work is in many public collections, including the Scottish Fisheries Museum, Anstruther, and Comunn Eachdraidh Nis on the Isle of Lewis. His work is included in the BBC’s ‘Your Paintings’. He has had two collaborations with Donald S. Murray published in 2015: SY StorY, by Birlinn in February, and Herring Tales, by Bloomsbury in September. His work can be viewed at www.douglasrobertson.co.uk

Daniel C. Bryant is a physician living in Maine. He has published poetry and short stories in a variety of literary and medical magazines, and has recently published a collection of medically inspired short fiction House Call, as well as a novel about a home-grown jihadist Way We Waken One by One. In 2015 he was a finalist in the short fiction category of the Maine Literary Awards competition.

David Lloyd is the author of nine books, including three poetry collections: Warriors (Salt Publishing, 2012), The Gospel According to Frank (New American Press, 2009), and The Everyday Apocalypse (Three Conditions Press, 2002). His fiction includes a novel, Over the Line (2013) and a fiction collection, Boys: Stories and a Novella (2004), both from Syracuse University Press.  He has edited many books relating to Welsh writing in English, including Imagined Greetings: Poetic Engagements with R. S. Thomas (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch), Other Land: Contemporary Poems on Wales and Welsh-American Experience (Parthian), Writing on the Edge: Interviews with Writers and Editors of Wales (Rodopi), and The Urgency of Identity: Contemporary English-Language Poetry from Wales (Northwestern University Press). In 2000, he received the Poetry Society of America’s Robert H. Winner Memorial Award. His poems have appeared in numerous magazines including Crab Orchard Review, DoubleTake, New Welsh Review, Poetry Wales, and Planet. He directs the Creative Writing Program at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, USA.

Donna D. Vitucci is Development Director of Covington Ladies Home, the only free-standing personal care home exclusively for older adult women in Northern Kentucky. Her stories and poems have appeared in dozens of print and online journals, including PANK, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Front Porch, Watershed Review, Gargoyle, Hinchas de Poesia, Contrary, Corium Magazine, Southern Women’s Review, Change Seven and most recently The Butter. Her novel AT BOBBY TRIVETTE’S GRAVE will be published by Rebel E Press in 2016. Long ago, she started out a poet and her stories even now often trespass into poetry.

Edwin Evans-Thirlwell is a London-based digital arts journalist and PhD student, previously published in Agenda, Antiphon and The Guardian. Current poetry projects include a collection about the opportunities for inter-species mediation represented by NASA’s “Golden Record”.

Header Image by Susan Richardson

Poetry – Issue 3.2

A Hyacinth Macaw

by Eileen Malone

The pet shop
hung with giant black iron coops
holds exotic birds

a hyacinth macaw, newly captured
the only one to survive the smuggling
of ten others in a rubber truck tire
hot dirty air, no water

hangs dazed, upside-down
from a bamboo perch
blinks

eyes black and dead
close and open blankly

I bend to pick up a feather
that floatfalls its escape

a bit of wing
that once cut through dark mists
of rain forest canopies
like a deep cobalt knife

soon they will come to trim his claws
file his beak, hang a price.

Ringling

by Gretchen Primack

Maybe someday you will trick
for me.
Maybe I will find value in you
on one foot.

I will take you from family,
home,
so I can watch you
balance.

Will you bore me? I bore myself
now, reduced
to your conditions, cut off
from my life

and language. None of me
is left; still
you found something
to waste.

Chain

by Gretchen Primack

You are owned, and you are chained.
The chain stretches from a spike in the
yard to your neck. The yard stretches from
a bare spot behind the house to a barren spot
behind the house. The chain wraps itself
around a paw, deft around an ear, a tail.
Two toes, a leg. The chain spins your body
into a cocoon that spins into a ball, monstrous
metal yarn long enough to knit the earth
a cold straitjacket. In the heart of the ball is you.

The above Gretchen Primack poems are part of Kind, a collection that explores the dynamics between humans and (other) animals in our time. Kind was published in 2013 by Post-Traumatic Press.

Invasive Species

by Jen Karetnick

Found in a shed, curled and content,
the mini-van-length reticulated python
did not have a microchip, the news reported.

But he did have several household pets
in his digestive track, perhaps the cause
of his docile drowse. Like most constrictors

headed for the Everglades, he likely had been
released by an owner. The authorities intend
to use him now to train the men who hunt

that which does not belong, or implant in him
transmitters and release him to engage
a broody female. Serial impregnator, unwitting

traitor, this is where he will just follow
his instincts. He doesn’t mean to trap her. Oh,
how familiar all this sounds.

The Maned Owl

by Jeredith Merrin

(Jubula lettii: classified [2013] as “Data Deficient”
by the International Union for Conservation of Nature)

About the maned owl
there is little to tell
because little is known.
It gets its leonine name
from bushy, face-framing
ear tufts. It lives
in Gambon, Cameroon,
Liberia, the Congo
(in what numbers we don’t know),
in closed-canopy rainforest.
Its habits are secretive
and nocturnal. Presumably,
given heavy lumbering,
its survival’s at risk.
About reproduction and diet,
information is scant.
Its call may be
(we’re not sure)
a low, dove-like coo.
As is the case with
the wide coral reefs,
or with each creature’s
closed-canopy mind,
or with almost anyone’s
mother or father,
too little is known about them.
And then they’re gone.

Domestication

by John Willson

The door of the van slides open to musk.
Steel mesh in a diamond pattern
screens a spotted form that paces in straw,
cheetah in a Thriftway parking lot, a stop
on the way to a middle school presentation.
She rubs her cheek against the cage, streaks

of black from eyes to mouth.
She purrs, a rattling from a subterranean drum.
Touching her neck, my fingertip vibrates
from the first purring I’ve heard since purring

died in a small white room last month, our cat
on my shoulder, her neck pressed against my ear,
the vet cooing Nice kitty as he injected
barbiturates. The cheetah, born

C-section in a wild animal park, Looks first
at people on crutches
, her handler says.
The one whose tongue brushes my finger twice
and the tabby buried under mint in our kitchen garden
fuse in the whiteness of noon as the van
door slides shut and locks.

Poet Biographies:

Eileen Malone’s poetry has appeared in over 500 literary journals and anthologies, a significant amount of which have earned citations and prizes, i.e., three were Pushcart nominees. Her award winning collection Letters with Taloned Claws was published by Poets Corner Press (Sacramento) and her book I Should Have Given Them Water0was published by Ragged Sky Press (Princeton). She lives in the coastal fog at the edge of the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, three rescued dogs, two rescued parakeets, and one rescued cat,  where she founded and directs the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition, (is a voting member of the Northern California Book Reviewers Awards, and a local mental health supporter and activist. www.eileenmalone.us

Gretchen Primack is the author of two poetry collections, Kind (Post-Traumatic Press 2013) and Doris’ Red Spaces (Mayapple Press 2014). Her poems are in The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, Poet Lore, The Massachusetts Review, FIELD, Antioch Review, Ploughshares, Best New Poets, and other journals. She coordinates Ulster Literacy Association’s jail program. Also an advocate for non-human animals, she co-wrote The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals (Penguin Avery 2012) with Jenny Brown.

Jen Karetnick is a Miami-based poet and writer with three full-length books of poetry, two forthcoming in 2015-16, and four chapbooks of poetry. Her work has been published widely in journals including Barrow Street, Cimarron Review, december, North American Review, River Styx and Valparaiso Poetry Review. She works as the Creative Writing Director for Miami Arts Charter School and as a freelance food-travel writer and critic.

Jeredith Merrin: Jeredith Merrin–CUP, a special honoree in the Able Muse Press poetry competition, is Merrin’s new poetry collection; her previous books, Shift and Bat Ode, appeared in the University of Chicago Press Phoenix Poets series. She’s authored an influential book of criticism on Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, and her reviews and essays (on Moore, Bishop, Clare, Mew, Amichai, and others) have appeared in The Southern Review and elsewhere. Her poems may be found in Ploughshares, The Southern Poetry Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Yale Review. A retired Professor of English (The Ohio State University), she lives in Chandler, Arizona, teaches the occasional class for the A.S.U. Piper Center, and is currently completing a chapbook having to do with owls.  See: www.amazon.com/Jeredith-Merrin

John Willson is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize and awards from the Academy of American Poets and the Artist Trust of Washington. A two-time finalist in the National Poetry Series, John lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington, where he has been designated an Island Treasure.

Poetry – Issue 3.3

Illustration by Pat Gregory
Illustration by Pat Gregory

Afterworld

by Susan Richardson

Here, all animals are equal,
equal in extinction.

The Moa, long ago
an is-no-more, dozes

with the Golden Toad;
the Aurochs shoulders

the load of the Great Auk.
The Quagga logs

all recent arrivals –
the Western Black Rhino,

shorn of her horn,
Lonesome George crawling

from the island of himself,
the Spix’s Macaw clawing

at reports
of captive survivors.

The Pyrenean Ibex
takes vertiginous bets

on who’s next –
the Caspian Tiger’s

wild striped guess says
the Pygmy Three-Toed Sloth’s

outpacing
himself, racing past

the red edge
of his mangroves,

while dead glaciers wait
for the kiss

of the Snow Leopard’s tread.
And look, here’s

the Common Skate,
swimming against

the tide of her name,
cartilaginous kite

snarled in infinite
promises.

The Elder

by Kathleen McClung

“Merlin is 13 years, 10 months old…He is to become the oldest raccoon ever on record in
California and will break the record for the current oldest raccoon in North America.”
–San Francisco Chronicle, February 21,2014

He sleeps through nights, his prowling over. Wild,
the others seize the dark, die young, by three.
Hunched, hardly masked, Merlin has us beguiled.
How has he weathered his captivity
since losing Lance, his brother, long ago,
since losing any chance to steal away?
His keeper holds him close in this photo
and rubs his bony spine as if to say
You do belong with us. She feeds him grapes,
mice, trout puréed, and maybe Merlin purrs,
a ragged hum, resigned to life with no escapes,
no redwood groves, no toppling garbage cans, neighbors
disturbed from dreams of thieves. Do human hands console,
relieve his aches, return enough of all we stole?

Severe Thunderstorm Warning

by Kristin Stoner

This morning the sky churns to black,
the streetlights come back to life,
and the television is a rainbow of radar.

Beware, the weatherman says.
Unsettled, he says about the sky.

At my feet, the dog sleeps,
a golden, curved back rising
and falling in the rhythm
of content, oblivious
to the stirring storm heads.

0000000Oblivious to warnings.

Or, I think, maybe not oblivious,
but rather indifferent with trust
in the safety of our little house,
her place within it.

The streetlights brighten,
the cascade of rain begins,
and I think about all the dogs
that are not this dog,
designed by us to need only us,
right now cowering
in open-front, plywood, shelters.

Or shaking in the underbellies
of sagging porches,
eyes wide with the doubt
the lack of safety presses
on any living thing
designed to need love
and getting only rain.

Porpoise, Sandeels Bay

by Roselle Angwin

How the darkness must have thrashed
with your refusal of this alien element

its gravity, its tug where you couldn’t be fluid
and how long this must have gone on

with your whistles and hums and none
of your kind coming, nor the tide

while we inland slept easy under our duvets
just short of the sea, its roars and murmurs

– though below, nearer bedrock, in our dreams
darkness scratched a jagged line across our deeps.

Death of a Species

by Suzanne Iuppa

Sharp tang outside a bare-soiled sett;
black lump shoved down a farmer’s boot.

Scape-baited,
crown vector—

war is war.

Snared, gassed
clubbed and bitten

Meles meles
mochyn daear—

dry muzzle,
musky, emptied threats.

Blue bottles flown up in a cloud, thrumming—
angry we’ve disturbed their heaven on earth.

Jaguar Answers Questions about Disappearing

by Suzette Bishop

Who eats you?
You don’t eat me. I am eaten by parasites.

Why do you stop eating?
I starve if my fangs are broken.

How did we divorce?
You used to do everything to show your reverence for me, even file your teeth into
fangs. Now you scare me and take over my land.

What have we forgotten?
How I’ve kissed up to the gods to keep order going for you. How I keep the world
energy cycling as night and day.

What do you remember?
Lost civilizations, a city shaped like me.

Who punished you?
The Creator ordered me to fetch water, and I couldn’t with my paws. So the Creator
made you in the meantime and told me I just had to deal with it. I come back to the trap
to die.

Who will punish us?
The spirit of the jaguar god will punish you for killing our earthly form. It will edge up
on the mud00one0000000000two000000000000000three00000and pounce.

Poet Biographies:

Susan Richardson is a poet, performer and educator, whose third collection, skindancing, themed around human-animal metamorphosis and both our intimacy with, and alienation from, the wild and our animal selves, has just been published by Cinnamon Press. She is Zoomorphic’s poetry editor and poet-in-residence with the global animal welfare initiative World Animal Day. The above poem was written for World Animal Day as part of her residency and this current issue of Zoomorphic, themed around animal welfare and endangered species, is dedicated to the day too.

Pat Gregory is a printmaker, illustrator and crafter, and earns the rest of her living through action research. She has exhibited in Wales and England for over 25 years and produces a range of cards. Her current obsession is with the Roundhouse project, a group of friends who have bought some land near Cardiff to support biodiversity whilst developing an orchard, a forest garden and woodland management skills. Website: patgregory.co.uk Facebook: Pat Gregory Art

Kathleen McClung is the author of Almost the Rowboat. Her poems appear in Mezzo Cammin, Unsplendid, Atlanta Review, A Bird Black as the Sun: California Poets on Crows and Ravens, Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace and elsewhere.  A Pushcart Prize nominee, Kathleen teaches at Skyline College and the Writing Salon. www.kathleenmcclung.com 

Kristin Stoner is an English Lecturer at Iowa State University. Her most recent work can be found in Red Rose Review and Mojave River Review. She resides in Des Moines, Iowa with her patient husband and energetic dog.

Roselle Angwin is a well-published Westcountry poet, author and ecopsychologist. As leader of the popular Fire in the Head holistic writing courses and The Wild Ways ecobardic programme, she offers courses on Dartmoor and Exmoor, in Cornwall, on the Isle of Iona (the setting for this poem) and in France. See www.thewildways.co.uk and www.fire-in-the-head.co.uk

Suzanne Marie Iuppa is a poet, community worker and filmmaker who lives in North Wales. She grew up in America before coming to University of Manchester to study modern British poetry in the 1980s. Suzanne also gained a degree in Countryside Management and worked as a ranger in the Clywdian Mountains, where she has been based for 25 years. Her current work supports rare species conservation (in particular, the pine marten) with The Vincent Wildlife Trust.

Suzette Bishop teaches at Texas A&M International University. Her books include Horse-Minded, She Took Off Her Wings and Shoes, Hive-Mind. Her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies and received Honorable Mention in the Pen 2 Paper Contest and first place in the Spoon River Poetry Review Contest.

Header Artwork by Pat Gregory

Great and Lesser Birds, Great and Lesser Deaths

by Alex Lockwood

On the half hour walk between our cottage and the seabird sanctuary at the far northeast tip of the island, Luis would spontaneously stop and educate us on the flowers growing along the scruff of verge. The torrentil: a tiny yellow thing with five petals around the stamen, which could be chewed as remedy for a poor stomach. And ophrys apifera: the orchid which has evolved bee-like flowers from which it gets its name, drawing in its pollinating mate with the promise of love. Flowering lives among grass awed Luis (said ‘Lewis’) and thus us too. Long-haired and always with a guitar slung over his shoulder like a bandolier, Luis was in exile from a failed love affair back in Andalusia, but was anyway more taken with British shrubby cinque foil and silver weed, and afternoons, once the sanctuary closed, swimming in cold black inland pools overlooking the Irish sea.

Luis came each summer to this seabird sanctuary on Rathlin Island as volunteer coordinator, to shape and arrange us in taking care of the tourists and birders, children and grandparents. He was good with flowers and people, but Luis set his eyes to the birds, too. His gaze sharpened to spot the stars of this stage without the need for telescope or binoculars. He knew when the last puffin had truly gone out to sea, toward the end of August. And he taught me to spot the young peregrine sitting two hundred yards up and away along a selvedge of rock, peering over the inlet. The petrol blue, nervy hunchback cuffed into a hole or sat on a ledge was almost impossible to spot. Luis offered the binoculars and pointed me towards him. Seek, scan, and then: yes! There he sat, the adolescent falcon, looking down on the scallop of seaworn courtyard that was, during the summer months, its main source of hoped-for prey: the guillemots, razorbills, puffins, kittiwakes and fulmars who called this shelter home, in their thousands.

In April 1852, while fishing from the bank of a river, Henry David Thoreau spotted a hawk too, “soaring like a ripple and tumbling like a rod.” It reminded Thoreau of nobleness and poetry. “It appeared to have no companion in the universe—sporting there alone—and to need none but the morning and the ether with which it played. It was not lonely but made all the earth lonely below it.” My peregrine sat in similar fashion. It was a tiercel, not yet one year old, born to a pair who bred in a scrape a few coves over. The peregrines were well known at the sanctuary, which must have provided the falcons and their offspring with plenty of flesh. Despite their migratory nature (the name peregrine comes from ‘to wander’) this family had been on the island for a decade, although many chicks had flown off to the mainland and other islands. (On a clear day you can see the whisky distillery on Islay.) The chicks did not survive every year. The threat was no longer pesticides and DDT—where peregrines would “die on their backs, clutching insanely at the sky in their last convulsions, withered and burnt away by the filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals” as J. A. Baker wrote in his 1967 classic The Peregrine. Now the threat was about learning how to hunt. Its prey—the seabird chicks—were suffering a shortage of food, and falling in numbers. The sanctuary was, to uninitiated visitors like myself, a mesmerising cacophony of feather and guano and hullabaloo. But to those who counted each year, the birds were fewer and fewer.

I’d volunteered that summer in my desire to come closer to birds. I’d grown up an urban child. I had been kept out of the rain, a life spent in flats on suburban streets. I was not a child of nature, did not run free in woods. I knew no names of trees nor, despite studying Latin, the genus of avian worlds. I grew up into an intellectual with publications and a library, but did not know how paper was milled. I’d never got lost in a forest. I knew no origins of myths or fairy tales. As an adult I’d come to understand that my anxious “getting-on” and city-based social habits were not what I wanted nor needed. A catarrh was caked around my senses. It was a grime of comfort, and the only cleanser would be woodland scent and bog and mud, the scrape of screech and wipe of howl. So I hoped. The promise of nature is that it takes a pickaxe to the body cast in that constricting plaster (of London, or Paris…). Yet the soil inside is still fertile. So dig. Grow things: passions, practices, loves.

I’d not grown up understanding my responsibilities to the animate world. But I was not without hope for learning. Baker himself said, “I came late to the love of birds. For years I saw them only as a tremor at the edge of vision.” Birds, I learnt, are unequalled in their ability to bring us swiftly to grace. “They know suffering and joy in simple states not possible for us,” writes Baker. “Their lives quicken and warm to a pulse our hearts can never reach.” I wanted to reach out a hand and feel the feathers as they beat by, hoped the birds could teach me something. And perhaps we are more like them than Baker gives them credit. “They race to oblivion,” he says. Remembering Rachel Carson’s “heedless pace of man,” so do we.

I came for the birds. Many did. The other volunteers were bird watchers and nature lovers, zoology students looking for credits, men in their fifties having found a peculiar way to get some rest from “the family” and who taught us about The Troubles of Northern Ireland, the intricate cabals even in a community as small as this one (a hundred island residents); the cemetery walls set ten foot down to separate factions even after death. Then there were the visitors: day trippers and canoeists, families with fascinated and apathetic children in equal measure. There was the German couple in their mid-twenties, perfect skin and blond hair, despondent until they spotted some late-leaving puffins, who stayed five hours and danced like children watching these most charismatic of birds spin their wide gyres with palpitating wings and streaks of rainbows for beaks. And once, even, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness and entourage, the sea vistas making a bright photo op to the darker backdrop of politics.

The sanctuary was not a fully hands-on experience. We came close to the birds but we did not get our overalls dirty, ringing legs or clearing habitat. That work happened at the other end of the island. There, conservationists took care of a rare family of choughs—blackbird-like corvids with a bright orangey-red beak, who do indeed sing chough, chough, chough as they torpedo by. On this sanctuary, the inhabitants—like all wild birds—were protected by law but not aided by hand. And yet I felt immersed in their lives, and in the quieter moments (before the first minibus of people arrived and the last had left) I had time to stand and watch life happen—which meant also to watch the happenstance of death.

It was not the peregrine who delivered my first moment to witness an act of predation. We were all prepared, with a macabre sense of the inevitable, for the peregrine to dive and catch its prey. But during those weeks either he never quite managed, or I didn’t see it. I caught once his attempt and then abort at a wishful effort—even a fledgling peregrine’s dive is an act of awful vertical specificity. It was, instead, the prosaic but more successful predators that instituted the quick deaths. The gulls.

Lesser and great black-backed laridae flew in and sat in their stately arrogance on the rocks and grassy hillocks. Huge birds in comparison to everything else, bar the gannets further out, following the fishing boats or spotting a shoal of mackerel and folding themselves into bolts of white lightning to spear the water. Angry guillemot parents, if they gathered in gang, could scare off the gulls. But there were too many lapses in the everyday struggle for food, too many hours the nesting pair had to be out fishing for them to keep constant watch on their curious growing chicks.
The timing so happened that I was, one slow afternoon, scanning lazily through bins when a guillemot chick emerged from its nest and a gull caught it by its short neck. The gull shook it around—not enough to kill—and ate it alive and whole. I was transfixed. Alive. It would suffocate sooner than be digested. But that was all I imagined. This verity of hunting left me void of thought—there was nothing poetic or tragic in the chick’s fate, merely a blank, deadpan natural knowledge best, or at least better, accounted for by physics: the conversion of energy from one form into another.

I had helped nurture a gull chick earlier that summer. My writing garret looks over the roof of the ground floor car park of an office block. This corrugated inner sanctum, not so much edgeland as scrapsquare, is home to air conditioning outlets and incongruous metal sheds, outrageously proud buddleia and wild grasses nestled into brickwork, a family of pigeons, and a pair of black-backed gulls and their mottled chick. They nested on a high perch at the very top of the wall. The chick tumbled one day down to the car park roof on its first fledge. There it sat with semi-useless wings, and I did not know if it had been lost or abandoned. Its high pitched sweeee was constant and insatiable, so I fed it scraps: bites of nectarine and slices of banana. I bought a bag of frozen prawns and hurled these out into the arena. I watched the fledgling learn that this was food (I automatically saw him as ‘he’) and, slowly, carefully, looking first around and then above him, edge towards the meal, and swallow chunks whole. I wondered whether gulls could eat bananas—fearing the potassium might explode in his gut like Alka Seltzer—but then realized, with how gulls now survive, this was probably the healthiest eating chick in all of urban Britain.

I need not have worried. After a day of interrupted and woeful writing I saw a parent return. The chick fenced at the beak for food. The parent moved around trying to find space, in which it regurgitated its meal. The chick gobbled up the grey maw, returned to battering its parent’s beak. But the full grown gull was off again, searching for human food waste to guzzle down, and the chick, sweeeeing, flapped its wings and attempted a take off before settling in the centre of the square. The pigeons kept their distance.
When I saw the black-backed gull on Rathlin Island swallow the guillemot chick, I thought back to this young gull I’d nurtured those weeks before. How over the next few days its parents came back with more food; how he learnt to fly; how he left his nest to forage; how he might live for fifteen years; how his parents, mated for life, might return to this spot again to nest, while he would seek out his own mate, spend his life at sea, go to Europe, and raise his own chicks, seeking out a life in some sprawling urban future. The swallowed guillemot chick was simply a more natural diet for this cause: life.

These were the quick deaths. There were also the slow. And of the slow, there were those we knew about but did not see, and those we bore witness to every day.

The invisible deaths were not noted through our binoculars but could still be measured. Puffins, guillemots and razorbills spend most of their year at sea, bobbing on the water and diving for their prey, such as sandeel. But due to a rise in ocean temperatures caused by climate change, and overfishing, food sources have declined or moved on. The birds often starve to death, scrawny puffin bodies washing up on shores in their thousands. The Atlantic puffin is now at threat of disappearing completely from European waters. But what news is this? One in five European birds is at similar threat, including another of the residents on the sanctuary.

The fulmar is a graceful seabird. A member of the procellariidae family, related to petrels and albatrosses, it does not have angled wings like the kittiwake or herring but rather stretches out its stiffened wingspan like the yardstick my granddad kept handy for rapping the table to keep us quiet. The fulmar circles effortlessly along cliff faces like a silent glimmer. It nests on edges and lays one egg. It can live for up to forty years. One pair had nested right by our lookout point, ten or fifteen feet from the guardrail. It was so close we could see it in bright detail, but far enough away for it to be unreachable. We watched the chick—almost ready to fledge—wait for its parents to return. But in all the time we watched they returned only once. Slowly the chick wasted away, and I mistook the curve of its long tube nose for a stoic smile. I wanted to throw it some sandwich, a bite of fruit. But Luis, ever the more experienced steward, knew this would be of no use. Without at least one parent, the chick had no chance of learning what it needed to survive. So we watched it die.

As I move from urban to natural worlds for my own survival, the gull, much more versatile and adaptable than the puffin or fulmar but no less a vulnerable chick or diligent parent, has come the other way. We meet, dance around each other. Yet the gull has trodden on too many toes. It is not a welcome migrant to our cities. This, despite all we have done to encourage it in. The “aggressive” herring gulls of Hastings and St. Ives, the “threatening” black-backeds of Brighton and Hove, have caused public outcry. The gulls are ruining our holidays! (A bit like the migrants ruining British package deals on Kos?) The gulls are stealing our ice creams! (No one seems to be concerned for who we stole that cream from in the first place.) This has led the protector of wild life, Natural England, to offer “death licences” for the culling of lesser black-backed gulls, and the destruction of herring gull nests. Not, they say, simply where gulls cause a nuisance or damage property, but where there is a threat to public health and safety. You do not need to apply for this licence, but simply meet its conditions. Who will police these culls? Who will claim unpoetic licence to define “public safety”?

Our common understanding of the “cull” is very modern. In relation to the destruction of animals “deemed inferior” it goes back only to 1934. Before this, the word meant “to select, pick, gather the best things”—especially literary selections. There is also a meaning of the word that relates to a person as a “dupe, saphead or rogue”—from the old French coillon, meaning “testicle; worthless fellow, dolt,” to some, but also with less pejorative meaning. In other uses, the cull was merely gullible.

In her award-winning memoir that intertwines the death of her father with the training of a goshawk, and the histories of grief and falconry therein, Helen Macdonald has, like J.A Baker before her, written a love letter to one particular animal. Yet Macdonald dismisses out of hand Baker’s The Peregrine as a lesser book, one of no value, rubbish in fact. Perhaps this is because, typical of her book in laying claim to an outdated transcendentalism in the tradition of Walden, Macdonald’s goshawk is the “true” hawk and the peregrine is merely lesser. What would she make of the puffin, the guillemot, the gull, the pigeon? Macdonald treats the pheasants she hunts and the frozen day-old chicks, cast offs of the egg industry, that she feeds “Mabel,” as lesser birds also. Not worth her love, nor protective effort. She channels her industry into breaking the goshawk to human servitude, unwilding the very wild to be of service to her in her grief; a pet. Macdonald’s book claims that this is the only way we will protect nature: that we must come to know it closely, and so love it. But rather than go to nature, she brings it to herself. She claims it, owns it. What use is this when one’s love for nature keeps it tightly drawn to parochial and patriarchal human concerns, a proclamation of the value of what we define: that the hawk is nature; the pheasant raised as game is not nature. The peregrine is lesser nature. The frozen chick is not nature.

And the gull? That lives in the city? Is he nature? Or lesser?
The gullible boy seeking nature outside of the city? Is he?
Love for these “lesser” birds is no less important to how we respond to the crises we face than the peregrine or the gos. Most of us will never train a hawk. But all of us can turn to commoner birds in understanding our responsibilities toward animate life. The peregrine and goshawk capture the imagination of the great naturalists, but how we treat the gull is more likely to determine our future. And the fulmar, the frozen day-old chick? Birds surround us, are they any lesser for that? Did not we invite them in, often with coercion? As Baker knew well in his grail-like quest to know the peregrine, and the world in which it lives: “The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.”

Dr Alex Lockwood is a writer based in the North East of England. He has published widely on environmental issues and animal studies; in 2014 he guest-edited the ‘Men and Nature’ issue of Earthlines. He is a Winston Churchill Travel Fellow, and is writing a book on climate change and animal agriculture.

Demonio

by Jessica Groenendijk

I watched the boat head up the Las Piedras river towards me, the forest behind it hulking black in the gathering dusk. Spray leapt from its bow and the steady hum of the engine grew louder. Above, swifts jinked in a lurid sky already pricked with stars. I wondered if the men were returning with fish for dinner. As the canoe slowed and veered towards the shore I could hear Chachon’s high, querulous voice over the motor. With a gritty hiss, the boat ploughed a furrow up the sloping beach and came to a stop. Wilfredo, the tripulante, jumped off, the painter and tangana in his hands. He pounded a hole in the sand with the long pole and looped the rope around it to secure the boat.

I stood and brushed off my trousers. Frank joined me and together we walked to the canoe.

“Any luck?” I asked.

Smiling in answer, Wilfredo leant over the side of the boat and, arm muscles straining, half-lifted a large zungaro for us to admire. The mottled, olive-green catfish grunted deeply, its small eyes blank.

“Que belleza.” I stroked its glistening flank with regret. But we had already been in the Peruvian rainforest for two weeks and needed the protein to supplement our food supplies. Together, Frank and Wilfredo carried it up the beach to camp.

Chachon began to rinse the floorboards, sloshing water from a rusty tin can. He kept his boat in meticulous order. In his early fifties and a born river man, he was compact and agile, had rheumy, currant eyes and a Sean Connery lisp, and relished a good story.

As he worked, something small and dark caught my eye, moving against the wet wood. It looked like a fluttering leaf but the air was still. I moved closer. Yes, it was definitely alive. I bent forward to touch it and a tiny mouth opened in mute protest.

A bat. I grouped my fingers around its bedraggled body and gently placed it in my other hand. It shivered, and damp, naked wings clung and spread like an ink stain across my palm. I marvelled at the thin film of skin. Its forearms and ears were also hairless and a tiny tail protruded from a membrane attached to its hind legs. There was no sign of any injury.

“Mira, Chachon. Un murcielago.”

Chachon interrupted his bailing to look.

“Pucha! That’s good bait. I should put it on a hook and catch another juicy fish.” His voice was scornful as he turned away. “Those things are demonios. They bring bad luck.”

I cupped the soaked bat and brought my hands to my chest.

“Don’t be ridiculous. Míralo! How can that bring bad luck? I’m going to look after it.”

Inside the tent I shared with Frank, I clamped my torch on my head and rummaged amongst my things until I found a clean t-shirt which I fashioned into a snug nest. I deposited the bat in the middle, where it looked more helpless than ever. Perhaps it was a baby. How on earth did such a scrap manage to find itself in the bottom of the boat? And how was I going to keep it alive?

Manu River
Manu River – Image by  Jessica Groenendijk

 

I decided my first priority was to get the bat warm and dry. We had set up camp an hour earlier and the sand under the tent still radiated the sun’s heat. It wasn’t enough though. A hot water bottle, that was what I needed. I crawled out and headed to the grandly named kitchen. The thermos stood on the folding table and I hefted it in my hand. It was almost full. In our basket of cooking implements, I found an empty plastic bottle and filled it with hot water from the thermos. I had to juggle the bottle as I carried it back to the tent. Gingerly, I balanced the nest against it and folded a sleeve over the whole to keep in the warmth. A drop of sweat fell from the tip of my nose and a dark spot bloomed on the t-shirt fabric below me.

I left the tent and stood at the entrance, enjoying the cool, night air. A mosquito pinged in my ear and a tinamou, the forest’s avian wood instrument, hooted forlornly on the other side of the river. The men had started a fire to cook the fish. Sparks spat around their faces as they took turns to breathe life into the embers. Chachon’s gleeful cackle rang out and I suspected he was telling another of his tall tales. So far, we’d heard about the thirty-kilo, horned, fanged frog that lurked in the jungle, and the time he’d prepared ceviche in his rubber boot for a bunch of high profile visitors because the expedition had neglected to bring cutlery and tableware. It was difficult to know how much was fact and how much imagination. He spoke with such earnest conviction, yet his eyes sparkled with devilry.

I sat next to Frank and stretched my legs towards the fire. “What do bats eat?” I asked.

“Depends on the bat, I think. Some sip nectar and others eat fruits. And vampires, of course, drink blood.”

I nodded.

He looked at me. “Why do you ask?”

“We’ve got a baby bat in the tent.”

“We do? How did it get in?”

“I found it in the bottom of the boat. I’m going to raise it.”

Frank was silent. I knew what he was thinking. But I also knew what he would say.

“Well, you can try, I guess.”

I smiled at him gratefully and pointed at Chachon with my chin. “If it was up to him he’d use it as fish bait.”

“Probably the kindest thing.” Frank wasn’t sentimental about animals either. Then he caught sight of my frown and sighed. “Okay, how and what are you going to feed it?”

“Don’t know, I’ve no idea what this bat species eats. It’s a pity we left our mammal guide behind.” I leaned back and watched a satellite track across the Milky Way.

“The fire seems about ready,” Frank said. “Wilfredo’s almost finished cleaning the zungaro.”

“Mmm. Are we having it fried or in a tomato st— Wait, I’ve got an idea!”

I leapt to my feet and ran to our medical barrel. Flinging off the lid, I scrabbled among the contents until I found what I wanted.

“A syringe.” I brandished it under Frank’s mystified face.

“What are you going to do with that?”

“No time!” I yelled over my shoulder, and ran to where Wilfredo was cutting up the fish.

“Wilfredo,” I panted, as my knees thudded into the sand next to him. “Do you have any blood?”

He sat back on his heels, knife in hand, and looked at me in alarm.

“Esta bien, never mind.” I sifted quickly amongst the ragged pieces of flesh and spotted a small pool of blood. Even as I sucked it up with the syringe it started to congeal.

Thanking Wilfredo, I ran back to the tent, fumbled the zip up, and threw myself in. The bat lay huddled in a fold of the t-shirt, its grizzled fur now dry and fuzzy. Wagging the tip of the syringe under its nose, I allowed a drop of the gloopy blood to touch it. A sliver of tongue emerged. I tried again. Again, the bat licked its sharp nose. But too soon the blood became a sticky, glutinous mess and seemed to exhaust rather than revive it. I gave up. It needed rest. The bottle was still warm so I tucked the bat in, rinsed the syringe carefully with soap, and returned to the fire.

Sitting on a piece of driftwood, Chachon was in full flow, his deeply furrowed face animated, his cheap, shiny green shorts gaping under hairy thighs.

Wait, had I imagined it? Was that… I glanced at Frank to see if he’d noticed.

He had.

“Oye, Chachon! You’re giving your balls an airing!”

I squirmed with embarrassment; trust Frank to be blunt. But Chachon merely looked down, grinned sheepishly, and dropped his legs. The men burst into gales of laughter. Chachon’s eyes glinted at me in the firelight. He loved nothing better than a good joke, whether on him or someone else.
“Speaking of which, let me tell you how Wilfredo and I caught that fine fish you’re about to eat.” He gestured with his fork at the steaming plates of rice and stew Wilfredo was handing out.

“We couldn’t find any good pools along the banks, so when we spotted the trunk of a tree sticking out the middle of the river, we decided to tie the boat to it and fish in the channel. But I didn’t have enough space to cast my line; the tree got in the way.” Chachon paused as he manoeuvred a fish bone in his mouth and spat it out. He sucked air through his teeth, then cleaned his moustache with his lower lip.

I looked around the glowing, friendly faces of the men and heaved a sigh of contentment. Smoke from the fire smudged the indigo sky, the river murmured its secrets nearby, and tomorrow would bring more of the same.

“I thought I’d try climbing onto the tree. It was a bit tricky to get up there, but I found a good spot to sit. As I bent down, there was a ripping sound.” Wilfredo snorted. Chachon’s expression was more impish than ever.

“I checked my shorts; everything seemed normal,” he continued. “So I tried to make myself comfortable because the bark of that tree was corrugating my ass. And then I heard the ripping sound again, followed by a splash. A piece of the bark had come loose and fallen in the water.” Chachon began to giggle.

A large moth blundered into the flames and flailed briefly before shrivelling to a husk. I winced.

“Carajo, next thing I knew, a cloud of bats spurted from under my balls!” Chachon thumped his knee in delight. He was the only person I’d ever known who giggled like a character in a comic book.

“Hundreds of them! Darting between my legs in all directions. I was so surprised I flipped over backwards into the water!” Now Chachon was almost incoherent, tears seeping along the wrinkles on his cheeks.

“Wilfredo had to help me out,” he spluttered. “And that’s where that demonio of yours” –here he looked at me– “must’ve come from. Somehow, it fell off its mother and got stuck in my… my… hee, hee hee… my… sho-oorts!” This last with a loud, wailing gasp. We were all rolling in the sand by now, an island of hilarity in a moonlit sea of rainforest, tickled as much by the image of a startled Chachon with bats flitting around his groin, as by the spectacle of his own mirth.

Later, I mixed some milk powder with lukewarm, boiled water and brought it into the tent with me. I’d decided the bat was male, though it was impossible to tell, and that I’d call him Demonio, just to tease Chachon. I knew babies needed to be fed every few hours so I set my alarm, and re-set it several times during the night. It was difficult to see if any of the milk was ending up inside Demonio but he seemed more alert. In between syringe feeds I curled my body around his nest to help hold in the warmth, and worried about squashing him.

Over the next days I subjected Demonio to a diet of fish blood (when I could get hold of it), milk of various dilutions (was bat milk rich or thin?), sugared water, and essence of crushed insect. I figured varied was best. He not only survived, but thrived. During the day I kept him in my shirt pocket or in a sock hanging from the roof of the boat and at night I hung his sock from a hook inside the tent. Somehow, though his eyes were the size of linseeds, he recognised me, and only me, whenever I came near, and squeaked with excitement. I had no idea bats could be so endearing.

Chachon mocked me relentlessly. “I don’t know why I put up with that bat in my boat. Give it to me now so I can catch a nice fish for dinner,” he’d say. “What a useless animal. Why waste so much time on it? It’s just a pest!”
I ignored him but kept a close eye on my bat. Demonio grew rapidly and became more active. One day, about a week after I found him, he seemed restless, half-spreading his wings and making feeble, flapping motions. Was he in pain?

I called Frank over. After a few moments he rolled his eyes at me. “Call yourself a biologist. Your bat’s getting ready to fly, you nitwit.”

Of course! I grimaced at Frank and focused on Demonio. His attempts at lifting himself into the air were pathetic. How could I help him? He needed somewhere high from which to launch himself. My eye fell on the tangana, jammed into the sand to tie our boat. Slender and two metres tall, it was just what Demonio needed. And the sand would make a soft landing.

I grasped the bat between my fingers and perched him on the top of the pole. Then I stepped back. Demonio clung desperately with his splinter-like nails, teetered, and dropped to the ground like a rotten fruit. I shook my head.

“No, no, no. Come on, Demonio. You’re a bat. Bats fly.” He squeaked plaintively. Hardening my heart, I picked him up and we tried again, with the same result. It was no good. He wasn’t ready. I wondered if mother bats taught their young to fly. If so, we were in trouble. Our journey was drawing to a close. I had ten days left in which to rehabilitate Demonio, ten days before we’d return to civilisation. What if he didn’t learn to fly in time? I couldn’t take him with me to Lima, where we lived, and yet I couldn’t abandon him in his own home, the rainforest, either.

The following morning I tried again. But it was clear his wings were a mystery to Demonio.

Chachon’s voice startled me. “Como esta Demonio esta mañana?”

I turned around, scowling, expecting another jibe about the evils of bats. But Chachon was silent as he looked down at Demonio.

“I’m worried,” I said, smoothing the bat’s velvety forehead with the back of my finger. To my surprise, Chachon nodded in sympathy, then walked away without further comment. I stared after him.

Over the following week I exercised Demonio at every opportunity, turning a deaf ear to his frantic protests, spreading his wings over my palms to show what was expected of him and tossing him lightly into the air, over and over again. The men watched with inscrutable expressions.

Then, one lunchtime, instead of simply allowing himself to fall, Demonio rustled his wings and landed in a tangle of limbs a couple of metres from the bottom of the pole.

“Yes!” I shouted. The men jerked their heads up from their dishes. “Look! He’s trying!” I was bursting with pride.

After that I doubled my efforts and Demonio made rapid progress. He was stronger now, his wings beating with purpose. He finally knew what to do.
The afternoon before we were due to arrive in Puerto Maldonado, it was my turn to cook dinner. All we had left was a bag of pasta, a large onion, two tins of tuna, and a mouldy tomato. I put water on the stove, and began chopping the onion while the men finished setting up the tents. A thin, malicious whine emanated from the forest, and I imagined mosquitoes in their millions, biding their time. It would be sheer bliss to sleep in a proper bed tomorrow, after a cold beer and a pizza.

“Ouch!” Blood welled from my finger. I was distracted and irritable and I knew why. Looking down at my shirt pocket, I saw Demonio’s black eyes shining up at me from its depths. His pointy nose made small questing movements. He still hadn’t flown properly and I was at a loss what to do with him. My dilemma made me grumpy.

Chachon sat next to me, wordlessly sipping his coffee. I put the second half of the onion face down on the chopping board and began to hack at it. My eyes stung. When I’d finished, I rose to drop the knife and board in a bucket of water standing nearby. Bending forwards, a small gust of wind brushed my throat and I glimpsed a movement out of the corner of my eye. Turning, I watched Demonio waft into the air, like a dark flake of ash. He wobbled and lurched sideways, then gained height steadily. We stared after him in wonder and my eyes burned.

Soon he had vanished and I knew he would not be back.

Sensing Chachon’s bright gaze on me, I glanced at him and sniffled.
“Damn, those onions are strong.”

Jessica Groenendijk is a Dutch biologist turned conservationist and writer. She was born in Colombia, have lived in Burkina Faso, Holland, Tanzania and England, crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice on a sailboat between the ages of 6 and 10, worked with black rhinos in Zambia and giant otters in Peru, and now lives in Cusco. She is a keen reader, adventurous traveller, and amateur photographer of people, wildlife and landscapes. She is also a big believer in reconnecting children and their families to nature – www.jessicagroenendijk.com

Forced

by Dorene O’Brien

She was ambling through the woods toward Iceberg Lake when she noticed the hikers and scrambled off the path, her two cubs trailing her dutifully. Moving deep into the woods, the three threaded their way through the dense forest, the smell of salmon spurring them on, but as they rounded the bend at Sable Pass they were started by two people moving toward them. She barked the cubs into a run and attacked. As Paul Crane fell to his knees, she clenched his arm in her massive jaws and jerked her head back and forth, tearing flesh and carving deep gashes. When he stopped flailing, she dropped him and lumbered back into the woods.

The Rands, a retired couple hiking through the western park system, saw the grizzly but told television reporters that it was too late.

“We tried to drop into a fetal position like the ranger told us,” said Lorna Rand. “But the bear already had my husband in her mouth. I could hear its teeth puncturing his skin, the popping sound like air escaping. Then he passed out and the bear dropped him. Just like that.” She snapped her fingers.

“The doctor said it’s a miracle my husband lost only partial use of his left hand. Said the bear came inches from nicking an artery but God was with us. He’s pretty banged up, though,” she added defensively. “We want that bear destroyed. Hunting should be reinstated in high grizzly population areas.”

Jay Lambert stared blankly at the television screen in Moe’s office. “I didn’t know there was such a thing.”

“What?” said Moe.

“A high grizzly population area.”

Lambert was the park ranger assigned to the case, which involved closing the trail where the incident occurred, staring down a slew of angry hikers and tracking the bear.

“They want blood,” said Moe, his supervisor. “We’re going to have to give it to them.”

“The trail was packed that day. Why do you expect the bear to be more patient than the people overrunning its territory?”

“The bears have been pretty gracious, I’ll grant that,” he said. “But this one wasn’t.”

“The bears have been acting a helluva lot more rationally than we have.”

“I’ve got a retired couple on a crusade,” said Moe. “I can assign someone else.”

“No,” said Ryan. “I’ll do it.”

“I’ll meet you out there after the press conference.”

She moved the cubs toward the mountains, crossing the lake under a blanket of darkness. The air pricked her skin, foretold an early hibernation, and instinct told her that she would wean this litter in the spring to protect them from these hunters. Although they could kill from great distances, they were baffled by the whitewater rivers, marshy bogs, and thick forests she crossed with ease. The going would not be easy for the cubs, but they would learn early. She would push them until they scaled the steep, creviced mountain face that ended well above the tree line and in the safety of a den abandoned by an old boar several winters before. The ice sheets and snowdrifts on the rock wall would keep the hunters at bay, at least until after the thaw.

Fresh scat and sharply defined depressions where the bear had last bedded down confirmed Lambert’s suspicion about why she was moving too cautiously: cubs. Damn, he thought. Moe would catch up to him in a day or two and there would be no stalling. He cracked the face of his watch against a birch tree, sent glass splinters into the leaves below, smiling as he placed the broken watch into his pocket. The sun arced westward, fighting through the tangle of leaves and branches, and he knew the grizzly would take advantage of the night. Lambert made camp on a jagged limestone outcrop that overlooked a meadow and sat on the sun-baked stone contemplating his assignment. He wasn’t hungry, but he made a roaring fire and waited for the moon. “I’m here, girl,” he whispered.

The cubs were hungry, but each time they stopped to dig for grubs she nudged them forward with such force they toppled over. They loped through the dense mist, making good time across the vast meadow, three humped silhouettes gliding past the yellow disk of the moon. She dreaded mornings because the sun highlighted the great distance between them and the safety of the long sleep, and it also exposed them to the hunter whose foul smell she’d caught that evening after putting her nose to the wind and wagging her head. The fetid odor and the hunter’s fire provoked her; they would move night and day toward the harbor of the mountain and eat only food that required little harvesting, like willow shoots and flower bulbs.

Lambert broke camp after dawn and picked up a trail of dried prints; they’d made good time in the night. He wondered if they could keep up the pace. There was another meadow and two river crossings between the bears and what rangers called the Wall, a near vertical divide of rock and brush that would end his mission unless he caught up with them before they reached it. After cutting through the forest a little too easily, Lambert broke onto the meadow to see the bears skirting its perimeter. Her caution will kill her, he thought as he lifted his rifle and drew a bead on her head. She was out of range, but wouldn’t be for long. He considered the irony of his assignment; he had taken an oath to protect the endangered grizzly, and now he was on a mission to destroy the animal he had vowed to defend and leave her cubs to fend for themselves. Lambert cut across the meadow and hiked the far woods toward Eagle River, emerging from the thicket just in time to see all three bears on the opposite shore shaking water from their blond coats, their muscles rippling like waves under their fur. It would be an easy shot; he was close and she didn’t know it. He lifted the rifle, maneuvered the scope to just below her left eye and pulled the trigger as he yanked the barrel up, sending the bullet into a pine tree just above her head. The bears bounded into the tangle of woods and Lambert took his morning break.

They were panting hard, the water dead weight in their fur, and for the first time she understood that the cubs were scared. They followed her into the deep forest without complaint, oblivious to the lure of butterflies and beehives, resting briefly before the second river crossing, where the water was much faster and deeper, roiling noise and white foam flecked. The smaller cub, frightened and unsure, tapped its small claws nervously across the bank as the other bears jumped in and struggled with the current. The shore bound cub whimpered frantically, its paws drumming the rocks as it watched the other two pull themselves onto the opposite shore. Even as she bellowed desperately for the small bear to throw itself into the rapids, she understood that she must decide between fleeing with the stronger cub or facing the hunter in an effort to save both.

Lambert crossed Eagle River carefully, prepared for an ambush. Trembling, he stalked the sounds of a flushed starling and a falling leaf, imagined the sudden jolt, the slashing claws, the thick fur like sponge in his fists. He dropped her trail and circled around to avoid a confrontation at the next river and to get a better view of the Wall from an elevated clearing to the east. After picking his way through webbed undergrowth and using exposed roots to climb toward the sound of rushing water, Lambert held his breath as he neared the river with his gun steadied. He searched both shores in either direction, his view limited by sharp curves and overhanging branches, and felt vulnerable as he scanned the Wall with binoculars but saw no movement save the wind through the brush. She was waiting for him, perhaps watching him even now. He sighed, mentally reviewing his fabricated report: I pursued her vigorously, took a shot as she stood on the opposite shore of Eagle River where there’s a bullet six feet up the pine. Times estimated because of that accident with my watch. As Lambert scanned the riverbanks, knowing he would kill the bear when they next met, his binoculars picked up a faint glimmer where the sun touched the grizzly’s ruff as she approached the Wall with one of her cubs. “Damn it,” he said to the sky and the wind and the trees, searching fruitlessly for the smaller cub. He knew that he could cross the river and get off a clean shot before they reached the treacherous cliffs that confounded mere humans, but he realized how thirsty he’d grown and pulled his thermos from the pack before watching the two shapes climb through the rising coffee steam. “It’s hard to be sure without a watch, my girl,” he said, “but I think it’s break time.” He studied the bears for several minutes before glimpsing a shadow below them, a small cub clawing its way up the wall, fighting their rain of gravel.

Dorene O’Brien’s work has appeared in the Connecticut Review, Carve Magazine, New Millennium Writings, The Cimarron Review and others. She has won the Red Rock Review’s Mark Twain Award for Short Fiction, the New Millennium Fiction Award, and the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award. She has also won the international Bridport Prize and has received a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her short story collection, Voices of the Lost and Found, won the USA Best Books Award. Visit her at www.doreneobrien.com

The Song of the Shetland Wren

by Sally Huband

The antidote to a Shetland winter is the song of a Shetland wren. This is my fourth winter on these islands and it has been by far the worst, enough to make me doubt my resilience. Storm followed storm and the lulls were few, the noise of wind was almost constant as was the wind’s silencing of birds. In January, in a relative lull, I watched a family of whoopers grazing on the flooded banks of a loch. Now and then one of the cygnets would lift its head out of the water to let out a single soft call. It lifted my spirits to hear the cygnet but it was all too brief a moment and all too quickly swept away by the next storm.

On the last Sunday in March, a windless and warm day, I picked my way along the strandline of a rocky shore searching for beached birds. Just one intact fulmar, now destined for a research laboratory in the Netherlands where the plastic within its gizzard will be sorted, counted and weighed. For the first time this year I could feel my muscles starting to relax in the warmth but spring still felt a long way off. Fulmars occupy nest sites as early as January but it’s not until May that the first sea swallow (Arctic tern or tirrick) ‘snips the string that holds the world in’ (from April Birthday by Ted Hughes). April is the longest of months in Shetland. Carrying the fulmar back to the car, I was halted by the blistering full song of a Shetland wren, the first I’d heard this year. The wren was perched on a dry stone wall, head tilted up and back, throwing its powerful song out over the voe. All remaining tension drained from me, it was a blissful moment.

Six islands in the north-east Atlantic have Eurasian wren subspecies all of their own, including Shetland and Fair Isle. And each of these island wrens has a different mean song structure and length (Shannon et al., 2014). In 1952 Edward Armstrong wrote of the St Kildan and Hebridean wrens; ‘the songs of these two populations, only about 45 miles apart, are so distinctive that they could not be confused by any attentive listener with sufficient musical discrimination’. He describes the song of the Shetland wren as more ‘twittery’ and different ‘from that of the European wren in being less shrill, mechanical and percussive.’ To me the sound of a Shetland wren is all the more remarkable because other than the ‘blithe chorus of reassurance’ of singing skylarks (Ursula Venables) there is very little birdsong in Shetland, this is a place of seabirds, shorebirds and moorland birds, not songbirds. In our garden, when the wind allows, we commonly hear the chatter of house sparrows and the curious wiry songs of starlings, the caws of the neighbourhood hoodies and the more occasional cronk of a raven flying high overhead. There is no blackbird song, though they breed elsewhere in Shetland, and no dawn chorus as such.

It seems churlish to lament a lack of bird ‘song’ in a place of remarkable bird sounds. The reedy honk of whoopers is soft on the ear and so too is the tender cackle of fulmars on the nest. The noise of some birds can jangle nerves, the loud repetitive squeaking of agitated oystercatchers and the screeching of pissed-off Arctic terns, though I long to hear both during the winter. Shetland is a place where it is often possible to feel bewitched by birds, the urgent ascending scales of displaying curlews and the wobbling moans of snipe tail feathers winnowing the air. The high pitched lowing of rain geese (red-throated divers) is eerie but the strangest call of any bird is that of a storm petrel on its nest, a stuck record played at too high a speed. The wren sounds ‘out of place amongst the cackling and laughing of gulls’ (Kenneth Williamson) because it sings a song, recognisable as such to our human brains.

The musicality of the wren’s song causes us to assign this bird with the human traits of ‘friendliness’ (Ursula Venables) and ‘cheerfulness’ (Henry Saxby). I find myself thinking of this small creature as plucky. Though the Shetland wren, like all the north-east Atlantic island subspecies, is far from small. If a Eurasian wren is a touch bigger than a goldcrest then a Shetland wren is closer in size to a dunnock. In the Aberdeenshire garden that we left behind when we moved to Shetland we would see tiny wrens foraging along the mossy drystone walls on most days and there was an extravagance of nests in a rickety outbuilding. But in the spring of 2011 they were gone. The weather that winter had been exceedingly harsh, icicles over a metre long had encased the cottage in ice for weeks at a time, 40% of Scotland’s wren population perished. Their small size hints at fragility and the complete collapse of our local population compounded this impression.

Shetland wrens may be less dainty than the mainland form but they are still dwarfed by the scale and hostility of many of the habitats in which they eke out an existence. To my skewed to mainland Britain perspective, Shetland wrens have the capacity to survive in astonishing places. One windless winter’s day I walked the narrow length of an uninhabited peninsular. It was an overcast day and the silvery sea met the dark sky at a sharp edged horizon; the sea appeared to be pouring over and off the edge of the world, Ultima Thule. The fins of porpoises broke through the sea’s surface and startled black guillemots into a running flight. A five-strong group of great northern divers bunched tightly together. Steep slopes dropped down to the sea and in places the short sward bristled with the tiny black, hooded cobra heads of earth tongue fungus.

At the end of this peninsular a boulder beach faces the full brunt of the sea. There is little shelter here and even on a calm day there are waves. Though remote it is far from pristine and many forms of plastic litter cover the beach. On this occasion a large block of polystyrene dammed a stream, the source of the synthetic hail that covered much of the ground. Foraging in amidst all the plastic, kelp stems and boulders, a scurrying Shetland wren; ‘[h]e’ll whirr trickle-low as his shadow – Brief as a mouse’s bounce from safety to safety.’ (from Wren by Ted Hughes). One of the Shetland names for the wren is sisti moose, from Norn (a form of Old Norse no longer spoken) meaning relative of the mouse. There is a similar Faroese name for the wren, músabróður (brother of the mouse) and another listed Shetland name, rindill echoes the Icelandic musarrindill. I like to think that these old names hint at a long-standing appreciation of this creature. Edward Armstrong notes that the St Stephen’s Day tradition of hunting the wren is not known in Shetland.

The winged mice of Shetland live around human settlements too, occupied and ruined, but territories are just as typically established on boulder beaches, cliffs and bogs. It is in the bogs in winter that I find their presence the most curious, and pleasing. Here snipe and red grouse scatter in flustered panic. I once disturbed a merlin which flew more calmly away, skimming the heather before dropping to the ground to magically disappear. Wrens, in contrast to all other moorland birds, stick about, companionably, reassuringly you could say. They emerge to assess my intrusion before dropping out of sight under a peaty overhang only to reappear slightly further up or downstream. Here they inhabit the subsurface of the land, the myriad burns that riddle and cut through the bogs, little bog divers.

Edward Armstrong, in 1952, was the first person to provide an account of the Shetland wren; ‘[u]nlike the St Kilda wren T. T. hirtensis, it never aroused the cupidity of collectors, and naturalists have devoted little attention to it.’ His meticulous field work revealed that Shetland wrens are usually monogamous, in contrast to those on mainland Britain. This, he was able to explain, is an adaptation to the Shetland environment. At 60 degrees north there is more daylight in the summer months, almost constant at midsummer, but the breeding season is shorter and the availability of insect prey is less. The full attention of both parents is required to raise just a single brood. Armstrong also deduced that the typical insect prey of wrens, the larvae of Lepidoptera, is less abundant here. Chicks are fed a higher proportion of adult insects which, with their chitinous exoskeletons, are less digestible. You can almost sense his excitement at discovering that juvenile Shetland wrens produce ‘castings’, ‘orally voided’ indigestible material. These were analysed to reveal the wing scales of moths, the bristles of Lepidoptera larvae, the front wings of a chalcid wasp, the spiracles of Coleopterous larvae and the jaws of chilopods, the list continues in beautiful detail.

I first delved into Edward Armstrong’s writing on wrens in the library of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory. By then my fascination with Shetland wrens had grown. When I learnt that a separate subspecies of wren inhabits Fair Isle, and only Fair Isle (a tiny island 5 km long by 3 km wide, only just visible from the southern tip of Shetland’s mainland on a clear day) that was the goal of my trip there, to see one of the rarest wrens of all. I asked a friendly regular visitor, an expert birder, where to seek one out. His eyes lit up at the mention of the Fair Isle wren and he pointed through the window to the impressive dry stone wall by the beach. I spent a long while waiting there but no wren. No wrens down in the south of the island either. I saw many remarkable sights, a juvenile pallid harrier hunting meadow pipits on the common grazings and warblers trying to skulk in the sparse cover of the brittle and blackened husks of hog weed but it wasn’t until I sought out gannets that I found a wren.

Fair-Isle-Wren-habitat
Fair-Isle-Wren habitat. Image by Sally Huband

From Fair Isle’s high northern cliffs there is a very fine view of the gannetry which occupies the roof and steeple of the aptly named Kirk Stack. A low bank of dense mist encircled the island a few miles offshore, intensifying the feeling of remoteness, of being on a small island in a big sea. On Shetland’s mainland I live next to the inter-island airstrip and, even though it was a calm day up on that Fair Isle cliff, I have never been gladder to hear the thrum of an Islander’s engines. A painted lady settled to bask nearby, another improbable migrant and a sight to behold in these, excepting the introduced large white, butterfly-less islands. A second movement caught my attention, a single silent wren working its way along a turf bank. I crept closer and it dropped over the cliff’s edge where it continued to forage on the smallest of ledges. Armstrong comments on the difficulty of estimating a Shetland wren’s territory size ‘because they may extend vertically’ and I wondered if this wren had a nest somewhere down on the cliff face.

It seems remarkable, at a time when humans have shifted from naming to deleting species, that the Fair Isle wren was only recognised as a subspecies in 1950. In this year Kenneth Williamson travelled to the Royal Scottish Museum to examine 20 wren specimens collected from Fair Isle. Williamson was, at this time, the director of the newly established Fair Isle Bird Observatory and was responsible for establishing the scientific work and for the construction of the Heligoland traps. It was the wrens captured in these newly built traps that prompted his visit to the museum collection. Williamson concluded that these ‘more rufescent’ birds are distinct both from the Shetland subspecies (Troglodytes troglodytes zetlandicus) and the mainland form and successfully proposed that wrens on Fair Isle should be recognised as a new subspecies, T. t. fridariensis, after the name Fridarey given to the island in the Orkneyinga Saga. He writes of their feistiness; ‘wrens struggled and squirmed with surprising strength and vigour for such small mites, and no bird was more wily and difficult to secure’. Indeed the measure of a well-built trap was that it could contain a Fair Isle wren. Since this time, the population of this subspecies has fluctuated between ten and 50 singing males, individual wrens may be feisty but the population as a whole, on this small and isolated island, is fragile.

Every once in a while our Shetland garden is visited by a migrant wren, probably birds breeding in Norway, and in a reversal of astonishment I marvel at how small they are. My brain has normalised the Shetland wren, the migrant and more common form is now the more curious. Shetland wrens no longer seem so incongruous in the company of snipe, fulmars or gannets. I’m less inclined now to think of these birds as fragile or dainty, maybe this was always a misplaced impression, but I’m still momentarily taken aback when I have walked for miles through a lonely winter bog or along remote cliffs to hear one singing or to see one skulking along ahead of me. Each time I see one in such a setting it feels a little akin to climbing a mountain only to find a blue tit foraging among the stones of the summit cairn and for that, they are all the more wonderful to see. Most of all I am very glad of their presence for the gift of their song. It made me smile to read the sentence that Mike Toms uses to finish his account of the wren; ‘[t]o me, a description from the very start of the 1900’s sums up the Wren; ‘even on uninhabited island rocks … [the Wren’s] … lively song relieves the awful solitudes.’ That it does.

 

References and thanks:

The Birds of Shetland by Henry Saxby published in 1874 by MacLachlan and Stewart

The Wrens of Fair Isle by Kenneth Williamson published in volume 93 of Ibis in 1951 (pages 599-601)

The Behaviour and Breeding Biology of the Shetland Wren by Edward A. Armstrong published in volume 94 of Ibis in 1952 (pages 220-242)

“Casting” by Shetland wren nestlings by E. A. Armstrong and W. H. Thorpe published in 1952 in volume 45 of British Birds, pages 98-101

Tempestuous Eden by Ursula Venables published in 1952 by Museum Press

Fair Isle and its birds by Kenneth Williamson published in 1965 by Oliver and Boyd

April Birthday by Ted Hughes from Season Songs published in 1976 by Faber and Faber

Wren by Ted Hughes from Collected Poems published in 2003 by Faber and Faber

The British Trust for Ornithology article on wrens by Mike Toms can be accessed here: http://www.bto.org/sites/default/files/shared_documents/gbw/associated_files/bird-table-53-2008-wren-article.pdf

A genetic screen of the island races of Wren Troglodytes troglodytes in the North-east Atlantic by Thomas J. Shannon, Robert Y. McGowan, Bernie Zonfrillo, Stuart Piertney and J. Martin Collinson published in 2014 in Bird Study, volume 61 (2), pages 135-142

Many thanks to the BOU for access to the Ibis papers

 

Sally Huband has a background in nature conservation and a PhD in the butterflies of Carpathian hay meadows. She swapped mountains for islands to live in Shetland, writes a nature diary for BBC Wildlife Magazine http://raingeeseandselkies.blogspot.co.uk/ and blogs about the land, habitats and wildlife due to be impacted by a 103 turbine wind farm http://boglochandhill.blogspot.co.uk/.

In the Eyes of a Bear

by Julian Hoffman

As the sun rose over the mountains I walked a treeless ridge that buckled into the hazy distance. A vast summer sky cradled a few threads of cloud and a warm breeze rolled over my shoulders. Skylark song sparkled like sunlit rain above the meadows. The alpine world was bursting into song, the brief, ecstatic season when the mountain’s granite bones are clothed in wildflowers and butterflies. It was a morning of bird monitoring for me, but as I neared the place where I’d spend the coming hours scanning the skies around a wind farm for raptors, ravens and pelicans a very different kind of creature stepped into sunlight ahead of me.

I’d always imagined that my first real encounter with a European brown bear would unfold in a forest. It’s where our legends and myths tell us they live, deep in the dark and leafy heart of the remnant wild. And over the years, it’s where I’ve most often found their prints, large and looming in the yielding earth, big enough to make my hand resemble a child’s in comparison. Forest raspberry canes are stripped clean of their fruit within days of ripening and high claw marks decorate those trees chosen as scratching posts. Mounds of bear dung mark the woodland floor like native cairns, their varying constituents an inventory of the seasons: plum stones, beetle wings and rosehips; apple pips, wasp heads and fur. Seeing these signs is a reminder: that for all that is solitary about my walks, this world is shared and sentient beyond measure.

bear_tracks
Bear Tracks. Image by Julian Hoffman

So sudden and unexpected was the appearance of the animal in the meadow that for the slenderest of moments I had no idea what I was looking at, whether some giant feral dog or a strange hybrid of creatures more common to me. It didn’t fit with anything I’d ever experienced as it lumbered into view from behind a rocky outcrop, stepping up to settle in sunlight on a boulder in front of me. But that momentary flicker of uncertainty was eclipsed by a swift blaze of clarity, as if the scene had been floodlit and telescoped into focus: only fifteen metres of alpine meadow separated me from a brown bear, the European relative of the American grizzly. My mind suddenly emptied, leaving a clear and continuous space in which all I could hear was my heart, like the quivering thrum of an arrow after hitting its target. From its low saddle of stone the bear eyed me in the meadow, and the wild rushed in like a river.

Although the sun was still low in the sky, it was rising with summer fire. The sunlight reached my back and flared past, illuminating the bear in fine and delicate detail, its eyes magnified to dark, absorbing pools. In his book Becoming Animal, David Abram says that “reciprocity is the very structure of perception.” To look into the eyes of a wild creature is to enter into a relationship, a shared exchange carried out over common ground. For all that we praise and rightfully honour the other senses, sight remains for humans the most elevated of perceptual tools. It’s how we tend to map and render the world. Peering into the reflective gleam of a frog at ease on both land and water, or to look between the ancient, knowing lids of a tortoise sheltered within its shell, is to be offered the possibility of empathy, of imagining a remarkable life and lineage vastly different to our own. But there in that bright meadow, looking back at the bear as it stared at me intently, I felt no tingle of curiosity or inquisitiveness. Awe and fear had filled me in equal measure, leaving no space for anything else.

prespalakes
Image by Julian Hoffman

The light poured over the mountains until the bear was enthroned in summer glow. Its fur was more grizzled than brown, sleek and shimmering, as if each length of hair was tipped by a silver shard. Dark rings encircled its eyes and waves of muscle rolled through its shoulders when it moved. It nodded at the air with its stout black muzzle, picking up whatever traces of adrenaline and fear were seeping through me. Although on all fours it would have stood about waist-height against me, it appeared to be a young bear on the cusp of adulthood, and I was sure its mother was near. I turned slowly in search of her, the space between the bear and me seeming even narrower than before when I considered the consequences of coming between them – all that a threat to a mother’s long labour of blood and nourishing would entail – to see only an empty meadow rippling with wildflowers and wind. Feeling the stare of the bear deepen inside me, I began backing up slowly into sunlight.

For as long as we’ve depicted animals on cave walls and shared language around fires, stories of our relationship to the wild kingdom have helped render this world sensible and meaningful to human consciousness. Those stories have also been practical guides, of vital importance to our survival. But on that ridge of rising summer light, only a short and startling distance from an animal more than equal to myself, I finally understood something of what the philosopher Krishnamurti meant when he wrote that “the description is not the described, the word is not the thing.” No amount of stories about our wild inheritance could prepare me for its actuality, the arising of our animal essence. From the moment the bear appeared my skin was electric, every last hair bristling and alive. My entire body felt charged with a taut pulse, as if no longer flesh but a conductor of pure and necessary energy. I acted with little thought, my mind operating on some ancient, preserving level, the same kind of instinctiveness that our ancestors must have known intimately. That immediate, visceral response to the near presence of the bear was the evolutionary reaction of prey to a predator. I was no longer the dominant species; all the assumptions and riches of human culture had fallen away, exposing some kernel at the core of our animal beginnings, like the stripped-back bones of those mountains before summer bestows its flourish of colour on them. All that was ever wild remains within us.

For whatever reason, the bear suddenly startled. There’d been no sound or sign of a mother in the end, so that only the two of us shared that brimming spring world. It may have finally seen my dark silhouette as it edged out of the blinding glare with the shifting angle of the sun, or picked up an additional scent on the wind, some pungent, primitive smell of mine that resonated with its genetic inheritance, the stories its own species carries in blood, nerve and bone. The bear padded off the rock to hit the meadow in full flight, charged with electric intensity as I retreated with slow steps. It thumped across the unfolding summer flowers, scattering butterflies into the still air. Silence welled up to fill that long, hollow second until the bear sheered away, hurtling down the slope of bilberries and meadow grasses to slip into a pocket of mountain beeches. The echo of its run beat like a drum across the miles, and all I could do was stand still in the sunlight, breathing, breathing, breathing, as skylark song fell about me like rain.

Julian Hoffman lives beside the Prespa Lakes in northern Greece. His book, The Small Heart of Things, was chosen by Terry Tempest Williams as the winner of the 2012 AWP Award Series for Nonfiction and won a 2014 National Outdoor Book Award for natural history writing. You can catch up with him at www.julianhoffman.wordpress.com

Poetry – Issue 2.1

The Ornithologist

by Anita John

So small is your skull, short-eared owl,
so black your beak (that blessed the lives
of mouse and vole); so hollow your eyes
which once funnelled the last of day’s light.
Without your soft-blended feathers you have
none of your former glory; the satellite dish
of your face reduced to calcium and phosphate.
You are stripped to a morsel of your former self;
your territorial cry no longer quartering
the white moor, nor your moth-like flight.
In my hands, you are all and nothing.
Nothing but bone; life compounded.

Roadkill

by Barbara Hickson

Soil-smell home, roots to get round,
out to grass and air sniff.  Safe.
Slug juice sticky, cross grass to hedge.
Squeeze through gap, sharp thorns in fur.
Stick dangling.
Into trees and dead-leaf rustle.
Stench of fox.  Moon bright.
Grunt and forage.
Easy-food run across short grass,
appletang juicy and milk steal.
More grass then claw-tap solid.
White line.  Two moons.  Too bright.
Run!  Screech of thing.

The Clearing

by Chris Powici

hoofprints in the hard, bright snow

you think of a slim-legged hind
stepping delicately out of the trees
into the lit silence
between the wood and the river

the way she stands at the edge
of the clearing – lean, wary
skin the colour of oak bark –
and lifts her head to the low sun

barely seems to breathe

then a slither of hooves
the hind, the river, leaping

Poet Biographies:

Anita John is a poet and short story writer, and teaches creative writing for Edinburgh University’s Lifelong Learning Department. Her work has been widely published in literary magazines including GutterNorthwords Now and MsLexia. Child’s Eye, her debut collection of prize-winning stories and poems, was published in 2013 by Biscuit Publishing. You can find her at: www.anitajohn.co.uk

Barbara Hickson lives and works on the south-eastern edge of Lancaster, overlooking the Bowland Fells which inspire much of her poetry.  She has had several poems published by Indigo Dreams and ‘Stravaig’ the on-line journal of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics and was long-listed in the 2013 Cinnamon Press pamphlet competition.

Chris Powici’s poetry has appeared in various magazines and anthologies including New Writing Scotland and BBC Wildlife. Chris teaches creative writing for The Open University and Stirling University and edits the literary magazine Northwords Now. A new collection of his poems, This Weight of Light, will be published in 2015.