Endless

by Lisa Kemmerer

Activist-philosopher-professor, Dr. Lisa Kemmerer is the author/editor of nine books, including Eating Earth: Dietary Choice and Environmental Health; Animals and World Religions; and Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice.  Known internationally for her work, she has most recently been invited to speak in Europe, Asia, and South America, as well as across the United States.  To learn more about her work, visit lisakemmerer.com.

Mauritius – Paradise Regained

by Danielle Clode

As the plane tilts on its final descent, a sharp gasp is drawn in unison from the passengers as we catch an unexpected glimpse of our destination in the late afternoon sun. Angular volcanic peaks jut almost vertical from a green plateau, ringed by glistening white beaches in a sea of the most astonishing blue. Ripples of reef enclose viridian bays protected from oceanic breakers. In its pristine isolation in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Mauritius presents a picture-postcard image of idyllic tropical beauty.

By the time we land, night has fallen with sudden equatorial surety. The warm darkness gusts through the open-plan airport, redolent with the earthy aromas of fecund humidity and decomposition. Tourists struggle to pile overloaded suitcases into taxis, en route to beachside hotels and villas and trailing the scent of coconut sunscreen and holiday indulgence. I lower the window of the taxi, enjoying the warmth. We slip between rows of thick vegetation and I catch glimpses of the vast sugarcane fields through a tangled regrowth of guava, eucalypt, lantana and privet. Weeds, I think instinctively. I can’t help myself. Tropical paradise or not, Mauritius is famous among conservationists for reasons other than its beauty. It is an island synonymous with extinction.

Dead as a Dodo. Grumpy, fat, stupid, flightless – reality has been subsumed by a wealth of fictional representations in books and movies. When humans first arrived on Mauritius, in the early 1600s, the Dodo was abundant in the lowland coastal forests. The Dodo became an easy source of food for hungry sailors, its eggs favoured by rats and its forests stripped of timber for visiting ships. The last mention of a living Dodo was in 1688. It disappeared before we even learned what it was like.

The Dodo heads a long list of Mauritian extinctions. Isolated for millions of years, the rich endemic plant and animal life of this island diversified and evolved almost without any mammals – without humans. Fruit bats were the only mammalian colonists and bird life flourished – much of it unique to the island. Yet in the 400 years since human settlement, over 100 plant and animal species have disappeared: including two giant tortoise species, a giant skink and two fruit bats, thirteen bird species, and at least thirteen endemic snails. Several of these species went extinct before even being described—probably the early victims of rats from visiting ships and shipwrecks, as well as predation by introduced cats, mongooses, and monkeys. We only know of their existence from cave deposits and subfossil records in the Marre swamp region.

Deforestation has played a major role in the ecological tragedy of Mauritius. In little more than a century, from the 1730s, more than half the island’s native vegetation had been removed. Today less than 2% of Mauritius is covered by native vegetation. The rest is cultivated by agriculture or covered with a mongrel mix of introduced environmental weeds.

It’s hard to even imagine this highly modified landscape covered in the ebony forests for which Mauritius was once famous. I wonder how many visitors even notice the loss. Ebony once provided the highly prized black timber for piano keys, furniture and jewellery. The largest trees were thousands of years old, their stocks soon exhausted by harvesting. Today, the remaining protected forests are dominated by small trees and harvesting is no longer possible. Almost a third of the island’s endemic plant species are critically endangered, some represented by just a handful of known specimens.

I visit the neatly manicured lawns of the Curepipe Botanic Gardens to see some of the survivors. The loneliest palm in the world, Hyophorbe amaricaulis, stands here in splendid isolation, encased in cyclone mesh and scaffolding, subject to increasingly desperate, yet fruitless, efforts at cultivation. No-one knows if it grew here wild or was planted in the garden, but it stands in mute testimony to the untimely extinction of many of the islands unique plants and animals.

This terrible legacy may not appear to bode well for Mauritius. By the 1970s, many of the endemic land birds of Mauritius were critically endangered. The once-widespread population of Mauritius Kestrel had been reduced, largely by pesticide use, to the rarest bird in the world, with just four known individuals in the wild. The Pink Pigeon population had been reduced to just ten individuals. The striking Echo Parakeet numbered a mere twenty-five and rarely bred successfully, while the tiny red-headed Mauritius Fody and exquisite Mauritius White-eye were similarly on the brink of extinction. And yet, despite this dark ecological past, Mauritius today is looking to set a new, and altogether brighter, record in modern conservation biology. Today, Mauritius can boast of having saved more species from near extinction than any other country.

The conservation crisis on Mauritius came to public attention in 1976, when British naturalist Gerald Durrell described the wildlife of Mauritius as ‘hanging on to its existence by its fingernails’ in Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons. He was underwhelmed by his first view of the rare Pink Pigeon, but having captured one to take back to his Jersey Island Zoo for captive breeding, he changed his mind. On closer inspection, he noted the ‘vivid and beautiful’ colours of pale chocolate, rusty red and cyclamen-pink.

‘It was a remarkably handsome bird,’ he later wrote. ‘Gazing at it, feeling its silken feathering against my fingers and sensing the steady tremor of its heart-beat and its breathing, I was filled with a great sadness. This was one of the 33 individuals that survived; the shipwrecked remnants of their species, eking out a precarious existence on their cryptomeria raft.’

Without intervention, many Mauritian species would face the same sad future as the Dodo. Durrell’s Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust took up the task of promoting conservation and captive breeding efforts for Mauritian wildlife which had already begun locally. The establishment of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation in 1984 provided a focus for local and international conservation efforts.

Early work concentrated on saving those species most at risk, even when such efforts seemed in vain. The chances of the Mauritius kestrel recovering from a population of four seemed unlikely and, to some, not worth the effort and cost of trying. Initial efforts to artificially incubate eggs failed. But the conservationists persisted, removing eggs from the nests of wild birds and providing supplementary food to the pairs, encouraging them to lay replacements. Slowly the number of young produced each year increased, both in captivity and in the wild. By 1984, there were 50 kestrels in the wild and today there are estimated to be around 400 in three populations on opposite corners of the island. With bans on the pesticides that precipitated their rapid decline, the Mauritius kestrel is no longer considered to be critically endangered, merely vulnerable.

The story of the last surviving parrot in Mauritius follows a similar path. At the time of human arrival, the Mauritian forests were home to three parrots. The Broad-billed Parrot was a large grey-blue parrot with a heavily crested head and a raucous crow-like cry. Thirioux’s grey parrot was similarly coloured, and described by early visitors as being exceptionally tame and social, with large flocks of birds apparently coming to the call of a single captured individual. By 1764, following widespread forest clearances, both parrots were extinct.
Only the bright green Echo Parakeet has survived on Mauritius—and only just. Despite being extraordinarily abundant, the population was reduced to fewer than 12 individuals by the 1980s. Unlike their introduced cousins, the ring-necked parakeets, Echo parakeets are forest specialists, rarely feeding on the ground or in the open. Having survived intensive hunting by humans, they found themselves in an ever shrinking habitat as forest clearance radically altered the Mauritian landscape.

At the time conservation efforts began, few of the known wild pairs of Echo parakeets were breeding successfully in the wild. Some individuals were taken into captivity as an insurance policy. Eggs were collected and hand-raised and malnourished juveniles were rescued and rehabilitated before re-releasing into the wild. Artificial nest boxes were provided to replace the old-growth cavities, lost to logging, on which parrots depend for breeding. Supplementary feeding near nest and release sites significantly increased the breeding success of the birds and by 2011, more than 500 individuals were recorded in the wild.

The program has not, however, been without its setbacks. In 2004, conservationists attempted to create a new subpopulation. Of the 36 birds released, 32 died in an outbreak of beak and feather disease. This was not due to lack of genetic diversity (often blamed for such problems). Echo Parakeets have retained high genetic diversity despite their population crash. But they do suffer from an excess of males in the wild population, the cause of which remains a mystery.

Like most mainland species, recovery of both the Mauritius kestrel and the Echo parakeet continues to be limited by a lack of suitable habitat and the impact of introduced plants and animals. The birds are vulnerable to mongoose, rat, cat and macaque predation on adults and young, while invasive plants choke the tiny pockets of forests to which they are largely restricted. Greater success, however, seems to be had on some of the offshore islands, where predators can be removed and native vegetation restored.

A glimpse of what Mauritius might have looked like before Europeans first arrived here four centuries ago, can be seen on one such island, Ile aux Aigrette. I took a short boat ride across the clear green waters of the sandy Mahebourg Bay, to the island, perched precariously on the dark pockmarked rocks of coralline limestone, Here, the thin sandy soil supports a regrowth dry coastal forest of spindly ebony trees, spiky dracaenas and elegant palms. It is not so lush, less welcoming, as a holiday-brochure image of a tropical forest, but it has the palpable candour of authenticity about it. It feels real – like all the components belong.

The island has nominally been a nature reserve since 1965, and since 1986 has been the subject of intensive restoration efforts by the Mauritian Wildlife Trust. The nursery on the island produces 6,000 plants a year for revegetation work on the island and in other reserves. After years of work removing invasive weeds, the island began to recover, but it was not until rats were eradicated that the ebony trees began to regenerate. This forest is now home to the only wild population of Pink Pigeons, whose numbers have been restored from just ten individuals in 1990 to over 400 today, although not without some difficulties. In 1994, a newly hatched pigeon chick was taken by a Mauritian kestrel in an improbable case of the imperilled eating the endangered. As we walk through the forest, our guide points out the Mauritius Fody, characterised by their red-headed males in the breeding season, while tiny Mauritius White-eyes flicker and zit with irritation through the bushes and trees around us.

Aldabran Tortoise. Image courtesy of Danielle Clode.

A wrinkled neck emerges from the undergrowth. Smooth polished shell and elephantine legs follow. The giant tortoise turns to watch our approach with equanimity, the remains of a leafy meal slowly masticating in its jaws. The guide motions us around, putting his hand on the animal’s head. Its eyes widen, pushing against the man’s hand like a cat soliciting affection. It moves closer, clearly enjoying the attention as he strokes its shell which, we learn, is sensitive to touch.

Both species of Mauritian giant tortoises, once so important as herbivores and seed dispersers in the lowland forest ecosystems, have been extinct for almost as long as the Dodo. When the Dutch first established a regular stopover point in the harbour now known as Port Louis, they called it Rade de Tortue – Harbour of Tortoises. The large tortoises provided meat, oil and entertainment. One barrel of oil could be obtained by boiling down 500 of these creatures. Their ability to survive without food or water for up to six months meant they were a valuable source of fresh meat on long sea voyages. And their broad backs and sturdy determination lead to tortoise racing, carrying up to four people on their backs. By the early 1700s both the Domed and the Saddleback Tortoise were extinct, along with their cousins on the other Mascarene islands of Rodrigues and Reunion.

Without these giant tortoises, there was little hope of the Mauritian forests being authentically restored to their original ecological balance. And so the last surviving species from the region, the giant Aldabran tortoises now take their place on Ile aux Aigrette and Round Island, providing an additional refuge for this endangered species and providing both the island, and its visitors, with a replacement for the species which have been irreplaceably lost. Since their arrival, the tortoises have brought many non-native weeds under control and significantly increased the germination and dispersal rates of the ebony trees. These gentle natured beasts are the gardeners of the Mauritian forests, slowly and steadily returning the islands to their natural glory.

Other reptiles have also found refuge on predator-free offshore islands. Bright-eyed geckos, in brilliant green or mottled camouflage, scuttle through leaf litter, sunbathe on posts and slip silent into shadows. Several species of night geckos have made their home in the reserves of Ile aux Aigrette and Round Island as well as Guenther’s gecko, Telfair’s skink and the only Mauritian snake, the Round Island boa. Seabirds too, whose breeding colonies on the mainland have been devastated by predation, are also being relocated to Ile aux Aigrette and other protected island locations as fledglings, in the hope that they will one day return here to breed in safety.

Despite a long history of extinction and over-exploitation, and the ongoing economic issues of a small, isolated, resource-poor economy, Mauritius is attempting to build a future in sustainable development and tourism. The hard-learnt experiences of Mauritius have taught us the value of combining captive breeding, hand-rearing and in-situ breeding strategies to bring species back from the brink to which we have pushed them. With further habitat restoration and the continuing conservation efforts of a small band of dedicated researchers and wildlife staff, perhaps one day Mauritius will be better known for the fairytale story of the species it has saved rather than the species it has lost, and its great natural beauty will be reflected, not just in its white beaches and blue seas, but also in its revegetated forests and rich biodiversity.

Danielle Clode is a zoologist and author of several natural history books covering topics as diverse as co-operative killer whales, bushfires, Pacific exploration and prehistoric creatures. She is also an essayist and fiction writer. Details of her work can be found at danielleclode.com.au

Requiem

by Karen Lloyd

In the spring I’ll travel to the valley –
a witness to the sky-dance
of the last Golden Eagle, writing
his own elegy across the clouds.
Riggindale’s cragged bridal nest,
a heathered double bed
in which each year the female laid
another barren egg. Each year
the eggs collected, bequeathed
to the museum; archived, boxed,
retained behind the scenes.
An unproductive cist of eggs,
one, bone-white, an elongated moon,
cratered by its own demise.
Another, brindled gold. A third
the patina of umbered valley earth.
Another splashed with a stain like
rain, mountain-dripped,
slowly seeped beneath the feathered
warmth. One more, marled sienna
as if marked by the sun itself.
A hollow case of promises,
of reasons not to be.

There were rumours of others,
hidden in the west.
Defended day and night
by men in camouflage – but still
the eagles failed.
A box of golden eggs, a fairy-tale;
a curation of what might have been
and what was not. Then this
the sixth, drawn with a looping
calligraphic script; a code
we are unable to read –
forecasting the end?

In the spring I’ll travel to the valley.
I’ll watch our Goldie launch himself
from Eagle Crag or Kidsty,
signalling to a mate that never comes.
The landscape holds the memory of flight.

Note:
In February 2016, The RSPB announced that England’s last Golden Eagle was dead. No corpse has ever been found, and sightings are still reported. But perhaps, fed up of waiting for a partner, the eagle simply moved on. In his compelling book, ‘Call of the Eagle,’ Dave Walker details his own efforts to keep the Riggindale eagles fed; without sufficient trees and scrub cover, there is little infrastructure to support small mammal life. The story is representative of much that is wrong in our uplands.

Karen Lloyd is a Cumbrian writer whose work in both non-fiction and poetry centres on the natural world and our relationship to it. Her prize-winning book, ‘The Gathering Tide; A Journey Around the Edgelands of Morecambe Bay’ is published by Saraband. Her next book, ‘The Blackbird Diaries,’ discusses the loss of England’s last Golden Eagle, and is due to be published in 2017.

The Great Egret

by Karen J. Weyant

This time of year, in the middle of October’s bright colors, anything white in nature seems out of place: a McDonald’s napkin, a plastic straw, a Styrofoam cup, a cigarette that has been carelessly discarded before it has been smoked. All are remnants of human invasion; their stark brightness are reminders of places where we shouldn’t be.

This is why I am struck by the stately bird wading through the shallow pond just off Peck Settlement Road. Its wings, as white as starched bed sheets, stand out against the murky waters and the thickets of cattails that are slowly splitting and dying.

I drive past this pond every day on my way to work, often very early in the morning when night hasn’t quite let go of its grasp. On these Autumn days, my drive is often foggy, so I have to pay extra attention to the road in front of me. White-tailed deer linger in the shadows, as well as wild turkeys, groundhogs, rabbits, foxes, and even the occasional black bear. Children stand at makeshift rural bus stops, often located at the end of dirt roads. Although I am sure they have been told not to wander out onto the highways, they are children afterall, and even a small amount of jostling may send a wayward second grader sprawling in front of traffic.

This white bird fascinates me. I pull over for a better look. Pure white birds are rare in this area. There are gulls and pigeons, but both kinds of birds are marked by subtle shades of gray. Occasionally, a Tundra Swan will get blown off course in migration, and just two years ago, rural Western New York, along with much of the northern United States, was treated with a Snowy Owl irruption, a term that always makes me imagine a volcano that spews feathers and wings, instead of what it really means which is that there’s an unexpected, and many ways, unexplained invasion of white owls from the Arctic tundra.

Still, I readily recognize that the bird in front of me now is not a snowy owl. This bird, I will later find out, is a Great Egret. “They are rare in this area,” says Jan, who is a biologist on the campus where I teach. “But not terribly unusual,” she qualifies, telling me to enjoy the sight because the bird probably won’t stay for long.

Later, I thumb through the pages of my worn field guide, and I find its drawing on page 49. The description notes that the Great Egret is a slender white bird that has a yellow bill and black legs and feet. Yes, this looks like my bird.

The range map, however, is a little confusing. Shading on a small thumbnail map shows that the Great Egret makes its home along the east coast and the states in the far south. The interior is splattered with spots marked with two disclaimers: internal breeding sites very localized and range expanding. In other words, it seems to be rather hard to track the egret away from its normal coast line hangouts.

As I study the map, I notice there is no shading over my part of the world. This egret seems to be far from home. Jan is right. The bird won’t be here for long.

Still, as the days turn into weeks, the bird stays.

****

One morning, when I find myself lingering too long on the side of the road while watching the egret, I think of the stories my father would tell me about the white buck that used to come out in the fields behind the factory where he used to work. Mostly, it was the workers coming off third shift who saw the deer, its white glow bright in the morning mist.

My father admired the buck, talking about it at home. But he cautioned me to never harm a white animal. “Bad luck,” he said. I don’t know where this belief came from, except that it reflects other superstitions about animals that are seemingly out of place. Many of these beliefs have sightings of specific birds as bad omens. A sparrow loose in a house, for instance, means that someone in the home will soon die. A Barn Swallow that settles near a home foretells poverty. And an owl, any kind of owl really, that appears in the day suggests that bad luck is soon to follow.

There is no question that the egret is out of place here. I hope its appearance is not an omen of bad luck or sorrow or grief. I have had enough of sadness.

I am recovering from a particularly hard summer. In early June, I received the news that a colleague of mine had died suddenly during a routine surgery. “She was enjoying retirement,” a friend told me. “It’s a shock.”

The following week I lost a student who had been in my creative writing class just the year before. More devastating news came when I learned that another former colleague and mentor had died after losing her battle with brain cancer. She was only 59 years old.

Then, July came, and Anthony’s father who had been in ill health for many years was placed in hospice care. A week later, he died, leaving my husband with these words, “I don’t know how to feel about my father’s death.”

I lost my mother seven years ago. I don’t say that there is no one right way to feel. I don’t say that the loss will never go away. I don’t say that the world will suddenly look different, although it will be hard to explain why. I don’t say that it’s disorientating to look at a landscape that should be so familiar, but suddenly isn’t.

I don’t describe that landscape out loud. Still, I remember how in the weeks before my mother’s death the weather had been alarmingly warm, especially for the Snow Belt of rural Pennsylvania. Temperatures reached into the eighties, and on a walk through the woods that were located just a few blocks from our apartment, I had been amused that the only white I had seen were leftover milkweed seeds that were floating on parachute fluffy strands through the air.

After my mother died, temperatures plunged and suddenly my world was coated in ice. Roadside guardrails were bent in twisted ways that I never noticed before. Trees stood barren, with a few withered leaves clinging to branches that were shredded and torn. Dried sumac berries that once brightened gray winter afternoons now only looked faded and worn. Wildlife had virtually seemed to have disappeared, with even the few song birds like chickadees shivering miserably in the cold.

Still, life went on, as the often quoted cliché suggests, and that winter broke. Instead, of adding any kind of happiness in my life, I was angry. How dare the world move on as if nothing had happened? How dare the landscape struggle to look the same when nothing in my life would ever be the same again?

Now, as I watch the egret wade through the shallow water, I think of two close friends who are fighting serious illnesses. I don’t know if either will be with me a year from now.

Scientists frown at the concept of anthropomorphizing, or giving human characteristics to animals, but as I watch the egret, I can’t help but wonder if it does feel lost. There is so much here that has to look familiar: shallow water and songbirds that cling to dry weeds. But then there are the muskrats that trail through the dark waves, eagerly building their lodges out of leaves, sticks and mud. Wild turkeys hide in the roadside brush, with the occasional woodcock flying through the weeds. These are animals that would not be found in warmer, coastal waters. Even the texture of the waves has to feel different.

The egret turns towards me, suddenly. I am sure that once it catches sight of me it will fly away, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t seem to care that it’s out of place here, that winter is right around the corner, and that a bird that is used to more tropical weather, will find itself lost in these icy shallow waters. It only continues to wade through the murky waters, gingerly, as if it is so sure that there is reason to stay.

Karen J. Weyant’s poetry and prose has been published in About Place, Barn Owl Review, Briar Cliff Review, Cave Wall, Harpur Palate, The Nassau Review, Spillway, Tahoma Literary Review and Waccamaw. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, and teaches at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, New York. Her website is www.karenjweyant.com

Standing on Stromatolites

by Anja Semanco

Let us think about life at the beginning. Not the false beginning in which we picture some kind of wicked finned fish or terrible trilobite rolling around in the primeval waves of ancient oceans. Not the Devonian period in which we consider the brachiopods and ammonites, the slinking swimmers pushing their way through a burgeoning ocean. No, let us think back further. Only a slim billion years after the earth’s formation, as it hurled through the universe like a pebble of rain in a fierce storm. Just moments after the surface finally firmed a semi-stable crust on which life could begin to take hold.

Imagine then an ocean, stretching down to inky black depths, and filled with a profound emptiness. Barely more than water filling rock, like a great sterile cup holding the potential for eternity. The expansive water world replete with nothing more than the lifeless stones and minerals that have pieced this new creation together. The only deep-sea movement arising from magmatic ocean vents, sending roiling flumes of shimmering, searing water bursting from the ocean floor. Rising through the curls of ocean currents as a ritual. And not a creature paddles through the soup to notice.

Float back now to the surface and follow the hull of this primordial ocean, in all its vastness to a clear, warm continental shelf, where the ecotone of empty rock and empty sea meet. This gently sloping mantle of tepid sea water, filled with piercing sun is where it all begins. It starts where everything starts, on the bottom of the ocean.

Here, the sea is not so empty. Here, rising from the shallow bottom like Grecian pillars, stand the slimy mounds of stromatolites. Wadded into gummy black and green piles that hold firm in the shallow pools as sentinels, watching for the molecules of creation to begin. Geologists believe they are earth’s first life form. And although the stromatolites do not know it, they will serve as the assembled platform, the great heaving crust that will eventually breathe all life into the world.

These columnar mounds of archea and cyanobacteria are weaved together in perfect fibrous stoicism on the new earth, in the shallow shelf of the new ocean. As nothing greater than a collection of single celled organisms, they are stitching together the fabric that will support multicellular life.

By day, the photosynthetic cyanobacteria take in the sunlight, while producing a layer of sticky mucus. As the sediment of this early sea settles over them, they migrate upward, forever upward, toward the sun, leaving behind a mound of calcium carbonate and other minerals they no longer require. Tumbled upward and forming a spongy scalp, they accept new light into their wriggling single-celled bodies.

One expelled puff at a time, these simple bacteria let out a breath of oxygen, like the plants we know today. A super organism hauling the breath of life into an atmosphere filled with carbon dioxide. Each exhalation brings the prehistoric world one step closer to cells with a nucleus, cells that gather together to create skin, and gills, and eyes. An insufflation that eventually leads to a nervous system, a brain. To us.

And it all starts here, beneath the waves, in what has long been referred to as the primordial soup, where these simple creatures know nothing more than the ocean waves and themselves. And over time, over the next few billion years, they continue this slow gentle breathing, until the atmosphere begins to take on a different tone. Suddenly an infantile world awakens one morning to find itself filled with a gas unlike any it has ever known. Oxygen. The DNA floating freely in the liquid bacterial bodies notice too. And so they modulate. A helical double twist churns, turning one base pair to another, mutating one letter here and there, until something inconceivable begins.

Life diversifies, accumulates, multiplies, until the liquid oceans are teeming with it. So much so that they burst forth onto land and overflow over the rocks, rocks that for so long knew nothing more than the wind and the rain. And here they are now, feeling the claws and scales and scuttles of this new life wordlessly plowing onto their shores.

The incredible unraveling mystery begins. And so we can look back to our early oceans as a space where the dregs of life accumulated into a deeply textured biota, and know that this is what we are made of. Our blood is saline, we are pumped full of the early oceans. Our cells turn over the molecular oxygen, this universal currency produced by our photosynthetic hosts billions of years ago in the salty shallows. Some of us still regard it as sacred.

Some of us still stand along the coastlines while the stuff of life washes over the pink soles of our feet and we know that it is all one thing. The tenderness of a milky warm tidal pool, the rapture of gale ripping over the shore, it is all intertwined like rope and we are clinging to it for dear life.

And still the stromatolites breathe on. Changing little over a few billion years, but nothing beyond their wrinkled microbial mats stretching up to the sky. They are still recognizable off the coasts of Australia and Mexico today. And still they breathe and breathe and breathe, letting their oxygen bubble up in the sloshing waves, standing in as living fossils, showing the world as it might have been back at the beginning.

The beginning is what I’m searching for. At the top of a mountain in the Snowy Range in Wyoming, I am looking for that baptismal creature, the invigorating confrontation of what is left from the rush of early life. These mountaintops were once the sea level beaches and shallow ocean shelves, clustered with marine life. But geology is a swift river, scarcely waiting a single second before shifting, adjusting to new intricacies. And all of a sudden, wham, the ocean floor is solidified and sitting atop a mountain, and the stromatolites glued like cement to that floor are 12,000 feet up in the air, mineralized, preserved as altars to the past.

The little fragile bodies of the bacteria are of course long gone, but the mounds of sediment they left behind fill with minerals and remain. The act of fossilization operates much like a treasure map, leaving behind just enough bits and clues that you can begin to piece together what might be truth, but equally could be wild postulation that later collapses under the weight of new information.

The ocean erases, but it also preserves and I am seeking the lone survivors that travelled all this way for all this time. The impulse to see the old world is inexplicable and I am overwhelmed by the thought of these husks of life perched on the mountaintop like fierce gargoyles. I know few who are immune to the thoughts of the light and wild wandering of the cosmos. And these oceanic fossils bring me there, bring me back to the beginning of it all.

I am weightless as I hurry over the dirt trails and past glacial lakes. There is a sense of urgency looming over me, that I might miss it. That somehow these fossils will pick up and dissolve just before I crest the final lip of the mountain. I know right where they are. I was here three years ago on a field study and my feet pass over the rocks like fingers over braille. It is all familiar.

I crash through bushes and tree branches along the banks of a glassy glacial pool, and there in the distance, at the far end of the lake, I see it like a cliff, jutting into the water. From here, from the edge of the trail, it might be nothing more than glacial till, a remnant of the mountains past. But I can see its circular brim, the laminations streaking it, waving to me in incomprehensible gestures.

I descend, through alpine buttercups, sunflowers and lupine. Down the bank, and then it begins. The rocks suddenly change and I notice the wave-like striations, folded into one another. Melting together in a pillowy cluster, these are the footprints of creation. The hillside is strewn with bits of stromatolites. But I am racing towards the largest one, the ‘big daddy,’ resting in the water much like it would have done during its biotic years.

I tumble down the alpine grass and come to rest on the stromatolite’s surface. Lying down with my belly against it, I don’t even come close to stretching all the way across. I trace my fingers through the valleys and ridges and if I close my eyes I can hear the ocean waves from billions of years ago. I am lying on our origination. I am lying on the beginning of time. So much of who we are began right here, in this collection of preserved ocean life.

It is here in this glacial lake, lying on this ancient life that I am reminded just how new we humans are. We are soft lanugo on the head of a baby while the earth grumbles as an old man below us. My hand dips into the chilly lake and I imagine an ocean lapping against my fingertips. I can taste salt in my mouth.

I sit like that on the edge of the stromatolite for a long time, letting the cool water run over my hands. We are born from the mesmerizing ocean, with the power to create or destroy in the same swift wave. This is the very stuff of life. This is our inheritance.

And as our inheritance we must recognize that just as the cyanobacteria of stromatolites changed the atmosphere drastically, so we too are changing our atmosphere in extreme ways. Rachel Carson pondered this sentiment as well in her famous book, The Sea Around Us.

“It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.”

We must believe that if a tiny speck of bacteria can alter the course of the earth, then we can do significantly worse. Carson was referring to the testing of nuclear weapons and dumping of nuclear waste in the 1950s. But now we must look to the carbon dioxide we emit. We must look to the acidification of our mother oceans, our earthly wombs. We must watch shelled creatures dissolve before our eyes, and coral turn white as cotton, while we continue to emit, emit, emit.

Carson’s words hold true more than 60 years later, that regardless of when and how life crumples, the oceans will always be there. And perhaps those oceans, after sitting in perfect silence for billions of years when all other life has been obliterated, will begin the living world again as mounds in a shallow sea. A blob of bacteria gathering to create something new.

We are just one more life form jetting our waste into the world. The difference is that we are cursed by the knowledge of our actions and therefore cursed by responsibility.

The sea is our creation story. The sea is our mythology. We arose from it just as mysteriously as any other miracle.

We can look to stromatolites as the irrevocable truth that no matter how small the life, no matter how seemingly insignificant, as a collection, any organism can change the world. As a collection, we are changing the world in one way, but I believe as a collection we can also change it back.

Like the tides, we flow, but we can also ebb. We can pull back our impact.

Geology speaks in time and through our need for consumption, production, progress, we humans are speaking over it. We are yelling louder than geology by speeding up processes that take thousands and millions of years. We are yelling over geology, we are yelling over nature, and we are yelling over ourselves. We are hoarse with all there is to say.

The oceans hear us. They are harboring our toddler like tantrums in the form of depleted fisheries, ocean acidification, miles of slick spilled oil. Yet they are silent. Or so we believe they’re silent. We never stop shouting long enough to listen.

I thought all these thoughts as I lay belly to stromatolite, breathing my own breath of life. The glacial lake became a silent, waveless ocean. The glacial lake was a stilled mind. I was back at the beginning but I was also at the end. From rise to fall it all cycles through whether we want it to or not. We have the choice to show up for it, or wait crouched in the water with our eyes shut tight.

There is something primordial about the silence. I watch the little fishes peak out from beneath the fossil and wondered how much more it knew than I, if only I could hear it.

We are on the cusp of the beginning. We are on the cusp of the end. We are standing on the edge of the oceanic shelf, peering out over what is held below in black water. We cannot know what it contains. We are stromatolites piling up. If we listen, we might hear the depths calling to us, telling us something new.

The sea is our mother, our womb. I leave the stromatolite believing we are kin.

Rachel Carson said, “Eventually man, too, found his way back to the sea. Standing on its shores, he must have looked out upon it with wonder and curiosity, compounded with an unconscious recognition of his lineage.”

 

Anja Semanco is a Boulder, Colorado based writer. Her graduate student work at the University of Colorado Boulder focuses on environmental journalism and the importance of natural history. Her nonfiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appears in Terrain.org. Keep up with her at anjasemanco.wordpress.com

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Bottom of the Food Chain

by James Michael Dorsey

Sound skims over the water like a flat stone, distorting distance while betraying those who would move silently through the morning fog of the inside passage.

The blow of several Orcas filters through the mist, and I sense they are near.

It is summer in British Columbia, and transient whales are following schools of Salmon heading north to spawn. In my kayak, I am just one more errant log floating through their domain.

One year ago while paddling near this very spot, I watched these animals conducting a funeral. The morning was a dull grey through a perpetual mist that merged water and sky, setting the mood for what I was to witness.

I was powering my way through a raft of bull kelp when the first blow reached my ears. A large bull led the way, cruising through the mist like an apparition, bearing a stillborn calf across his rostrum. The calf, still bright pink, slumped over his snout like a limp rag, its head and flukes trailing under the surface. The bull moved slowly, not blowing, and five smaller whales followed in single order until they reached deep water in the center of the channel. The bull stopped, holding his silent charge, while the other whales drew alongside. The bull slowly lowered his head, and the stillborn whale sank into the depths.

The pain of their loss hung in the air, thicker than the fog.

An old female, most likely the matriarch, lob tailed the water twice, perhaps in silent goodbye, or maybe just a signal that they were finished, but as she did this, all six Orcas sounded in unison. They knew I was there and ignored me.

That moment was a gift; a point of connection between two species that share the planet, but rarely meet. It is the silence of a kayak that allows me to enter their world, and whenever I do, I feel the inferior one.

In these grey northern waters I am so small compared to all that surrounds me, so insignificant. It is easy to lose myself here to thought and memory. It was in these waters that I first felt truly free and it is still to them that I retreat whenever city life threatens to overwhelm me.

I stop paddling and scan the fog bank. Whales are close.

It is cold this morning and calm. The sun has tried to break through twice without success. The silence is broken only by the cry of a lone eagle taking fish from the littoral. Minnows are jumping; a sure sign larger predators are about. My breath hangs visibly white on the air and I zip my fleece up higher.

The silence is broken when a young harbor seal shatters the surface, lunging for my boat and startling me into action. He is clearly terrified, seeking refuge on my bow. In another time and place I might let him rest there, but I know what is coming and he cannot stay. I slap the water hard, and he veers off, only for a second, but this animal is panic driven and will not be easily deterred. He approaches a second time and I fend him off with the flat of my blade, watching his pleading eyes as he arches for a final dive. He disappears behind a trail of bubbles.

A brief silver flash passes under my boat, and a second later I am hit square in my flotation vest by a young Salmon. It flops onto my spray skirt, flailing to get back in the water. Then one fish after another begins to strike the side of my boat.

Suddenly a black dorsal cuts the fog like a periscope, leaving a white wake, bearing down on me. A quick look around tells me I am surrounded.

The first Orca crosses my bow, lunging as it takes a fish in midair.

The pod is herding a school of Salmon, driving them against a rock wall twenty yards to my port. The pod is arrayed in a semi-circle from twelve to six o’clock around my boat and they have the Salmon cornered. Shiny black dorsal fins slice the water all around me, churning it a crimson red as they take their prey. The Salmon, in total panic, are slamming head first into the wall, knocking themselves senseless, unable to flee.

bottomoffc2
Image by James Michael Dorsey

Killer Whales,(Orcinus Orca) have been around my boat on many occasions and have always shown themselves to be curious and friendly. Even though they are the alpha predator of this planet, to the best of my knowledge there has never been a recorded attack by one of them on a man or boat. They are ruthless when it comes to the hunt, raiding in packs, yet gentle when in contact with man. Still, as always in their majestic presence I fight the urge to panic and must brace continuously to keep their wakes from rolling me over. Even in the middle of this blood frenzy, they know exactly where I am and never so much as nudge my boat. Adrenalin is pumping and my body switches to automatic, giving muscle memory its head as there is no time to think logically. Constant reaction is necessary to stay upright with the water so churned. I have become a dancer in the ballet of death that surrounds me.

I know these are resident whales because transients only eat mammals, and then I flash on what a silly thought that is at the moment, since I am a mammal.

A white saddle patch zips under the boat, rolling at the last second to clear my keel while another whale passes parallel, showering me with blow as it moves in for a kill. Glistening dorsals cross left and right, parting the water like torpedoes. I can feel their clicks and squeals echoing through the fiberglass hull of my boat. They are executing a perfectly coordinated hunt, calling to each other, giving orders, and all of it with the knowledge that I am here.

Salmon lunge in all directions, clearing the water with great leaps. Large black heads break the surface taking fish down from midair. One whale is coming hard, broadside, and I instinctively brace for the crash as he breaks hard left, taking a Salmon as he dives, his backwash causing me to brace the other side. I am soaking wet from blow and covered with bloody scales. I carefully push a meaty hunk of Salmon off my deck with my paddle blade, not wishing it to tempt a hungry whale.

For infinite minutes the whales take fish, then gradually, the actions slows. They have eaten their fill and I see Dalls Porpoise moving about, taking the stragglers. Orcas often allow their smaller cousins to join them near the end of a hunt to clean up leftovers, but the final touch is something I have never seen.

Half of the pod forms a single line, parallel to the wall, and turn their flukes toward it. They begin to slowly lob tail, causing waves to break against the rock. They are dislodging the few scared Salmon that have taken refuge in the cracks and crevices while the rest of the whales and the porpoise take them when they break cover. It is the final act.

In a few moments the whales go from a feeding frenzy to total lethargy, logging on the surface, gorged and happy like large black sausages. The sudden calm allows me to take a headcount and I realize they are all females or juvenile males; not one mature bull among them.

While Orcas are a matriarchal society, it is the alpha bull that stands as protector, and this hunt was sanctioned on his watch or it never would have happened. He is nearby. I try to imagine where I would place myself as the bodyguard of a dozen feeding whales, and paddle further into the channel to sit and wait him out.

Within a minute the tip of his tall black dorsal rises slowly; there is a soft blow that the wind carries towards me covering me with the finest mist, and I am sitting by the great whale no more than thirty feet away.

bottomoffc
Image by James Michael Dorsey

 

He has surfaced slowly like an island being born, and his back fin towers over me by five feet. Sunlight dances on his ebony back and his saddle patch reflects light like an alpine glacier. His dorsal has a slight bend to it and a missing chunk tells me he has met at least one great shark. He is half again as long as my boat and outweighs me by nine tons; a flesh eater; the mightiest predator since dinosaurs, and now, I am alone next to him.

He logs on the surface like a great submarine, leisurely, sure of his power, in control of his domain. I am an insignificant interloper, here by his indulgence. He has not surfaced by chance as he is too wise for this to be a random happening. He has chosen the time and place to show himself and is now making a statement. I am not here by accident. My boat sits between him and his pod; a position he would never allow an enemy to reach.

He knew of my presence long before the hunt began and not only tolerated me, but allowed me to bear witness. I feel this as strongly as if he were talking to me.

Perhaps I have been demoted to a curiosity, but I choose to think of it as communication. His black eye, no larger than the tip of my thumb, is fixed on me as I try to fathom the thoughts behind it. Once again, I feel myself the inferior one, lacking the ability to understand what this animal would tell me.

I dip my paddle slowly, not wishing to spook or provoke him in any way and begin to push away. As I do, the bull moves forward, inching ahead in low gear.

I paddle a little harder and he is with me, so I dig in and begin to push the water behind me as my bow rises. The bull starts to pull ahead, then senses my frailty and checks his speed, matching mine, even and steady.

His head rises and falls, eye just under the waterline, watching me, urging me on. In my head, I hear him say, “Stay with me” He is allowing me to paddle with him and I take up the challenge. My heart is racing and emotional tears start to cloud my vision.

Even at his lowest speed it is hard for me to keep pace, but I am now part of his pod, and he is my leader, and this merging of divergent species will never happen again. I pull my paddle now, abandoning technique in an all-out effort to maintain speed. My arms scream with pain but time has stopped. I have entered a different reality and all that matters now is that I stay with this great beast.

orcaleaping
Image by James Michael Dorsey

For a brief time there is nothing but the two of us, moving as one, and if ever an animal gave a gift to man, this is mine. I have no idea how far we have come, but soon I can go no further. I lay my paddle across the cockpit and glide to a halt. I am cold, wet, exhausted, and have never felt more alive.

The great whale sees I have stopped and logs a moment, his black eye fixed on mine, and then he raises his flukes and is gone. For a few seconds I am totally alone and the silence is deafening. I look all around and the immensity of the landscape slams into me. I let out a primal scream whose origin comes from a place inside I have never reached before and listen as it echoes across the flat waters before gradually disappearing into the forest beyond. I am just sitting in my boat, the last man on earth.

In the distance I see the bull surface where the pod is reforming.  He is probably reporting to the matriarch, telling her about the strange creature that swam with him. They turn their flukes toward me and begin to swim.

The fog closes slowly and I watch dorsals fade into it like a movie ending. Tears are streaming down my cheeks and I know it will take a while for the day to seem real.

I hear the cry of an eagle in the distance and turn my bow towards land to paddle home.

 

James Michael Dorsey is an award winning author, explorer, and photographer who has traveled extensively in 47 countries. He has spent the past two decades visiting remote cultures around the world. His latest book, Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails, is available from LULU.COM. He is a 13 time SOLAS AWARD category winner. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club and former director of the Adventurers Club.

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An Island Ecology

by Sarah Thomas

A saloon car pulls up beside us and its spotless body perfectly reflects our anoraked forms. A greying man with a youthful smile hops out.

“You can get in if you don’t have whale blood on your shoes,” he asserts warmly.

It is a fair request. His car is much smarter than one I’d expect to pick up a hitchhiker – especially three hitchhikers, with luggage. But this is the Faroe Islands and it has already been a day of surprises.

He shifts some boxes from the back seat into the boot.

“All three of us?” we chime.

“Ja ja, get in.”

It is an early June evening and the sun is showing no sign of descent. I am in the village of Miðvágar on the western island of Vágar, attempting to reach the capital Tórshavn. I am laden with a backpack, and flanked by a Polish couple I met last night in a spartan and gloomy hostel during a cataclysmic rain storm. How our fortunes have changed in the past twenty four hours.

We were the only guests. Unusually, an international gymnastics competition had filled the limited accommodation in Tórshavn and I found myself in the out-of-town barracks out of necessity. Last night, as the fog licked the mountains and the rain nailed at the windows, we had all wondered what we were doing there.

This morning at breakfast our question was answered. Gazing out at the grey-white threshold of sea and sky a flotilla of small fishing boats moved at speed across the bay. Jakob the Pole noticed it first and began clicking his camera on rapid fire. He leant over to me and zoomed in on the LCD. I looked more closely and saw that the boats were chasing a cluster of dark fins. “It’s… a whale hunt!” I exclaimed, my emotions an unreconcilable commingling of excitement and guilt.

boat-mountain
Image by Sarah Thomas

We quickly gathered our things and strode to the harbour through the drizzling fringes of last night’s storm, ready for whatever the day might hold. The salt smell of shoreline danced in my nostrils with the newly unleashed richness of damp soil, and something else quite new to my senses. We could see from some distance that the water in the bay was steeped an opaque coral red. The kill had been quick. The pod had been driven by that flotilla of boats from the open sea into the nearest bay. Perhaps two hundred men were waist deep in seawater and blood, heaving their roped bounty to the towboats. They were wearing only trousers and woollen jumpers, as if they had dropped whatever they were doing and waded straight in. A few hundred villagers lined the shore, their delight tangible. It had been fifteen years since the last hunt on this island in the archipelago of eighteen islands that make up the Faroes, they told me.

Some onlookers, looking wary, asked if we were from Greenpeace. I responded in Icelandic which seemed to eradicate their need for further questioning. An unspoken brotherhood emerged in the place of fear. “Many people judge us for this,” one older woman said.

“Hi Sarah!” A voice came from behind me.

I turned, surprised that anyone here should know my name. It was the man from tourist information. I had spent more than an hour picking his brains when I had landed at the airport, whilst I decided in which direction to travel first. Tourism is still embryonic, the airport no more than a small former British Army air base. I had asked about luggage storage. There was none, so he had let me keep a bag in his office for a few days.

“We will all get a lot of meat in our chest freezers from this, so everyone is very happy,” he smiled shyly.

The day was waking up and the news was spreading. More onlookers arrived. I noticed the hunters, still wet, lining up at the window of a police car.

“What are they doing?” I asked him.

“Each hunter has to give his name to the police so they can calculate the share of the meat due to him. The people who spotted the whales get one whale plus their share, the hunters and the participating boat owners get a larger share than the villagers, and the rest is shared equally among the community of the village, and then the island. There might even be enough this time to share it with the islands beyond!”

rows
Image by Sarah Thomas

I was glad to have a perspective on this scene from a villager. One who had, as many Faroese do, lived and studied abroad but not resisted the umbilical tug back to his homeland and his traditions.

“They’re going to spend the next few hours getting the whales up to the pier and calculating the shares, so it’s a good time to go for a walk if you feel like it. It’s not raining now. You can leave your backpacks at my house if you want,” he continued graciously. “It’s just up that hill”.

I loved this personal relationship and lack of protocol. We stood there as humans finding ways to meet needs, which can happen when communities remain small, when ecologies and economies remain aware of their connectedness, and the currency is trust and common sense. It reminded me of Iceland when I had first started going there eight years ago, before it became a touristic zeitgeist and the sheer number of visitors made the opportunity for personal gestures to outsiders less tenable, though they were coming exactly for the ‘friendly locals’ and ‘unspoilt landscape’. The powers that be in the Faroes wished to follow Iceland’s lead and I wondered how they would fare. For years the Faroese have been under immense international pressure to cease this whaling tradition, left aghast that their critics are nations who engage in industrial farming. A push for tourism puts it under increased scrutiny.

But it is a tradition that may have to cease for other alarming reasons, for which we are all responsible – least of all the Faroese, who have lived in close connection with their environment for centuries. The pilot whales that they hunt are not endangered, but they are now toxic. Our modern disconnected lives have made these ‘pristine’ seas swim with pollutants which accumulate up the food chain and torture from the inside. Seabirds are dying en masse, their food supplies dwindling and their insides a tangle of plastic. The whales’ bodies have accumulated dangerous levels of mercury and PCBs, which is passed on to those that eat their meat and blubber. This can cause developmental problems in children, cancers and a host of other illnesses, the connections of which we are only beginning to understand. But emotions are more persuasive than facts, and a worldview cannot change overnight.

We returned some hours later to wonder with the villagers among the ranks of black rubbery bodies lined up along the pier, straight and stiffening, their fluid motion forever suspended. One hundred and fifty four pilot whales, most the length of a bus. Five young ones perhaps three metres long. Their bodies flanked the pier and the harbour front, whale after whale after whale. Each had a number and its volume carved into the blubber. 124, 123, 122. We walked the length of this upside down world from the end to the beginning – the subaquatic brought onto land, the swimming stilled. Pink innards spilled out onto the concrete, glistening. This inversion was a stark rupture in the whales’ smooth dark surface, an unintended metaphor for this toxic truth revealed. Thick dark blood pooled beneath them, coagulating with the day’s progress. I touched number 87. It had the properties of skin, an inflated dingy and a sandbag all at once, my fingers leaving a gentle impression where I had pressed. Around the burnished curves of the entrance to its mouth was a constellation of rings, each formed of dots of a lighter coloured grey. It was as delicate as a hand-applied pattern on raku-fired porcelain. I asked a lady in orange rubber dungarees, who looked official holding a clipboard, what caused these marks.

“These whales love squid,” she smiled. “It’s the marks left by the squid’s suckers as they struggle to escape death.”

59,58,57. Around the corner, along the long harbour front. Villagers posed next to the bodies, while their companions took photos on their iPads. They did not appear to assume the pose of domination, I noticed, but of co-existence and pride, despite the unfortunate fact that one was dead and the other was not.

6,5,4. We rounded the last corner into a courtyard lined with baiting sheds. A woman washed blood from her hands in a small waterfall tumbling against a cliff. A young boy stood on a fluke as his father cut out the teeth with a saw.

cutting-teeth
Image by Sarah Thomas

Seeing our curiosity, the father proudly informed us how well regulated this practice is. How the police only give the go ahead for the hunt to proceed if sufficient time has passed since the last one – if it’s felt that the meat is needed. How those who kill must be qualified in humane slaughter and use the correct tools. How the police calculate how the catch will be divided. How each whale is documented, and has been since the sixteenth century.

He pulled out the detached block of jaw and teeth.

“It’s like tree rings,” he explained. “You can see their age from the teeth, and from the ovaries how many young they’ve had.”

I stepped closer to look at them, blood pooling on the ground beside my boots.

“Everyone in the village gets a share,” the woman added, wondering over to join us “whether they are ninety or newborn.”

A sheepdog circled another specimen as its owner wheeled a barrow filled with knives and beer, ready to cut out his share and celebrate, when the police declared what it would be.

 

We all squeeze into the back seat. In the front, there is a passenger already. The car is as full as it can be.

The driver grins in the rear view mirror, pulling away. “I’m Marni and this is Jeff. You are very lucky to see this hunt.”

“I know,” I reply, wondering if there is a more appropriate word than ‘luck’.

“Jeff here is a top chef from London, who thinks he knows everything, and I’m here to show him that he doesn’t.” Marni gestures at his companion who turns to greet us.

Jeff is full bellied with a dark sculpted beard and from his accent, clearly hails from New Zealand.

“Yeah I can’t believe what I’ve eaten in the past 24 hours…guillemot eggs, gannet chicks. And now we’ll be trying the whale.”

Marni had evidently seized the opportunity to impress his client and driven here to partake of the most Faroese of food events.

“Well, we have to run an errand on the way to Tórshavn. I can drop you at the bridge or you can come with us,” Marni offers.

We hitchhikers are united in our curiosity. “We’ll come with you.”

“You are open and curious. In the Faroes this is a good thing!” he sings.

We pull up to an unmarked warehouse on the seafront. Following them inside through a large fringe of rubber it becomes clear that this is Marni’s empire. A system of plastic tanks of gently flowing seawater house an ecology of creatures. Aubergine coloured sea cucumbers stand erect and swaying gently in the current. Mint green and pink sea urchins perch brittle and unwelcoming. The brown whorls of sea snails lurk amongst dancing dulse.

“Marni,” says Jeff, “supplies me with the best and freshest seafood I’ve ever known.”

A white coated teenage boy appears to be the only employee in this bizarre laboratory. Marni issues a brief instruction. The boy returns with several polystyrene boxes. Marni opens one which is partitioned inside and starts filling it with living langoustines.

“Tonight Jeff will be experimenting,” Marni smiles. “Will you be joining us for dinner? We’ll start with the whale.”

Frustrated with the closure of the ferry route between the UK and Iceland in 2008, in 2015 Sarah Thomas attempted to join the dots between her home in Cumbria and her former home in Iceland only by land and sea via Scotland and the Faroe Islands, and failed. This event happened during that journey.

 

Sarah Thomas is a non-fiction writer currently working on a memoir about a period she spent living in remote northwest Iceland. She is particularly interested in how we engender an active and reciprocal relationship with place. She is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Glasgow.

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Poetry – Issue 7.1

Salmo salar

by Char March

She hangs in the autumn water,
a kite in her element
tugged by river-wind.

Her nose searches the currents
for scents of the gravel bed
where she became.

That spring remembered
when she pushed from her redd,
between boulders

as big as her alevin self.
Through the massacre
of frogs, trout, herons

she has transformed:
fry, then parr, then her smolt-self
sucks salt, slips from her natal stream;

grows as an ocean grilse, wary
of cod, skate, seals, sharks
til, belly fat with three thousand lives,

she snouts out that stream,
fans and writhes in a cloud of milt
over this river gravel.

Now kelt, exhausted,
she turns through the bodies
of dying cock fish,

her hunger pulling her
back to the salt,
the salt.

Salmo salar was first published in Extraordinary Forms (Grey Hen Press 2016).

Whale

by Gordon Meade 
Image by Doug Robertson

whalesongdoug

Whale is annoyed at how
almost everything she says is interpreted,
by marine biologists,

as being part of a song.
How she longs to tell them, in plain English,
if she could, that it is not.

Whale knows the difference
between say, Mary Midgley and Pixie Lott.
How, on Earth, don’t they?

 

First published in Les Animots: A Human Bestiary by Gordon Meade and Douglas Robertson (Cultured Llama Publishing 2015).

The Comogues

by Helen Kidd

Lower the glass submarine to the invisible realm.
Shift through shoals of tagiconobelinopsis,
through gargling and whistling fish, soft coral
christmas lit by salinopsis under
the silk sheet ceiling drift. Here swooping
through Noup’s kelp like aerialists, a troupe
of guillemots in a flypast; the aurelia aurata ballet,
and hydromeda’s hot cross bun.
_________________________________It’s all a shuggle,
whizz and glide, a slip-stream silvery bubble-wrapped slide.
Big eyed sillocks, palticks; the Busby Berkeley synchronised
pelagic surge; down through honeyweed, holdfast
and maidenhair; dabberlocks where urchins tentacle and graze
all touchy taste; sea gooseberries, polyps’ tubularia,
fizzy fig sponges, sea squirts, phytoplankton, zooplankton,
scillae fibrillating furiously. This great marine stew teems
the Black Deeps, the Merry Men of May, Duncansby Bore.

Out beyond the land and the Shuggi (up to his shoulders)
go the small, the many, the life soup, life support,
water life of every song, into the Big Wide away offshore.

In the sea life shack

by Jan Dean

the children bring their rockpool finds here
to the small aquarium set back and high
above the cliff bound beach

this week it’s starfish
Asterias rubens peachy pink
each one brought dangling

swinging gently from the pinch
of thumb and finger
dripping salt water on the stones

slowly the tanks fill
it seems a glut of common stars
has washed our way

the splay of starry legs
against the glass of our aquaria
shows cream tube feet

a million whitish suckerings
grip the glass
glide

we shut up shop at six and head for home
night rolls in
moon rise finds the stars in flux

crawling creeping up and up
and up and over lip and edge
out of the pale captivity of shallow tanks

to nook and cranny shelf and drawer
when morning comes and we unlock
they’re in the fabric of the building

in all the spaces in between
the stars have taken over
and occupied the liminal

Herring Gulls, Aldeburgh

by Jane Lovell

(i)
They lift on the breeze, hover to perch
on gunwales of skiffs, lord it over passing dogs,
children in bright coats cowering from the wind.

Light gleams on beaks, rime of paint
upon the hull, droplets on the oilskin, blade
slicking scales of pinched tin, severed heads.

Some brave it out, land and tug at scraps
of grey flesh slipping between shingle,
while the sea unfurls hissing and gasping.

(ii)
Towards Thorpeness, holes punched in metal
hum in offshore winds, words hoo above
the drag and slam of waves.

Ghosts of fish, flickering with scribbled life,
roam the rolling dark, clouds of plankton,
shadows thrown by cliffs, wheeling gulls.

An old man passes with his dog; drizzle
follows him along the strand.
It’s growing dark. We watch the pitching

of a yellow buoy against the grey, listen
to the keening of the gulls, the sigh of steel,
voices calling to the lost and drowned.

Nomads

by Judith Barrington

Halobates (“salt treader”): the only insect to inhabit the open sea.

These old salts are different from the water striders
that pace your summer streams on August days;
they roam like that favorite uncle who disappears

for years on end, then returns one rainy Christmas
with blurry photos—himself on camelback,
his head wrapped up in cotton of startling white.

Just like the uncle, halobates are nomads,
moving around in flocks or packs or clans,
surfing the faces of waves and lifting off

to flutter madly, but never to really fly.
Like the best old sailors, they cannot swim
and diving, like flying, is clearly out of the question.

Renegades of the insect world, these striders
turned their backs on cloddish land, abandoned
tiresome grains of sand for the sea

where they lay their eggs on blades of sea grass
or scummy clumps of algae, and step out bravely.
Even when calm, the slopes of their chosen world

round and flatten, heave, peak and ruffle
like the dunes that form and re-form in the desert
where the uncle pretending he never thinks of home

opens his wind-chapped mouth and laughs,
holding the rein aloft in one wild hand
as cloven hoofs stride across shifting sand.

Poet and Artist Biographies:

As a teenager, Char March watched the coble-netting of salmon off the beach near Berwick-upon-Tweed.  She’s won awards for her poetry; short fiction; radio, stage and screenplays. Her five poetry collections include The Thousand Natural Shocks  www.charmarch.co.uk 

Gordon Meade is a Scottish poet based in the East Neuk of Fife. He has a collection, The Year of the Crab, awaiting publication with Cultured Llama Publishing in Kent. Next year, amongst other things, he will be working on a series of animal poems entitled ENDangeRED.

Doug Robertson was born in Dundee and now lives in Hampshire. An artist and teacher, he has exhibited widely throughout Scotland and the UK and his work is in many public and private collections.  He has collaborated with numerous writers, and his recent collaboration with Donald S.Murray, Herring Tales, was included in The Guardian’s top 25 nature books of 2015. For more information, visit his website at www.douglasrobertson.co.uk and www.lesanimots.gallery

Helen Kidd’s collection Blue Weather won the Cork Literary Prize. ‘The Comogues’ was written in Shetland; her favourite archipelago.  She teaches, is an editor and prose writer. and is working with other artists on the inter-generational Waving Hello project at the Ashmolean,  exploring cultural diversity to promote insights into refugees’ lives.

Jan Dean is better known as a children’s writer than for her adult poetry.  From the North West, she now lives in the South West and works throughout the UK as a poet-in-schools.

Jane Lovell is the Poetry Society Stanza Rep for Warwickshire. She has had work published in a number of anthologies and journals including Agenda, Earthlines, the North, Dark Mountain, Mslexia, and Ink, Sweat and Tears. She won the Flambard Prize in 2015 and was recently shortlisted for the Basil Bunting Prize.

Judith Barrington has published four poetry collections, most recently The Conversation and Horses and the Human Soul, and two chapbooks: Postcard from the Bottom of the Sea and Lost Lands (winner of the Robin Becker Chapbook Award). She was the winner of the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize and teaches in the USA, Britain, and Spain.

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Poetry – Issue 7.2

Albatross-Stair

by Laura M Kaminski

When you decide to leave the beach,
a clumsy burst of speed across
the sand, a leap of faith, a prayer

requesting lift, sufficient upward
pressure to raise you into air, carry
you out to sea to soar in splendid

isolation: the southern breeze arrays
itself in tiers above the water, each
layer blowing faster than the one below,

assembles an invisible shear-staircase.
You fix the firming tendons in your wings,
stretch wide, slide up the bannister.

Once at the top, a leeward turn, glide
twenty feet of distance for each foot
of descent. By the time you’re back

down near the surface, you’ve traversed
so much of the ocean that the globe
has turned, relocated the horizon,

and those winds must rush, gust forty,
fifty knots to catch you, set up another
unseen stair beneath the Southern Cross

for you to climb. As you gently tilt,
slide up against the arc of daylight,
the waves beneath you watch in silence:

white glowing feathers, wandering sliver
of a waxing moon returning home.

Medusozoa

by Pippa Little

Listen, they are singing,
the trailing heads: if you can hear them
that sting is travelling to your heart

but so effortless
are their long loose ringlets,
their gulp, contract and lunge

in inky waters,
their lit-up moons or lanterns
veiled, vanishing

that you want to save them
in their bloom
in their net of nerves

from being lulled too far
beyond the tipping-point
to sag and huddle

among the human

Narwhal

by Sara Wilson

The sea seals.
A slowing in the churn of slush,
the drum of snow turned to firn.

You’ve heard the grind of ice,
the freezing of leads
and clefts crushed shut

so herd the brash
ice, the growlers and bergy bits.
It’s time to drill the Dipper,
prod Polaris from the floe,
sculpt a sky for the sunk.

Your shift begins with the shift
of calving giants, hear:

the cello moans and wails,
the frail whimpers of silver shivered
fish, whispers of glaciers,
and the glazed,
crazed ice and
those who’d go insane
without the stars.

Sea Souvenir

by Sarah James

More alien than five-pointed fish:
an echinoderm now dried of life,
its sandy skin like hardened dunes.

Imagine it once as more than
tourist keepsake: a creature
of natural regeneration,

with breathing marine feet
that have walked ocean floors
deeper than imagination,

lived beyond tidal dreams
and guided wreck-happy divers
to where the sky was last drowned…

Brittle memory of lives
which have flickered past,
this asteroidea reminds me

that we’re all nothing less or more
than strange flesh flowers
shaped by bone and dust.

Thornback Ray
Found on Filey beach

by Wendy Pratt

I

The fear is in the unrecognizable;
how the head is parted from the body
and the body from the wings. The ease
of separation is sickening.

My brain struggles to recognize a thing
in pieces; has learnt that healthy things
are whole, broken things are dangerous.
This dismemberment is a head on a spike,

the gap in train tracks, is running
with scissors, a chain saw being wielded.
It quickens me and draws my eyes back up
to Carr Naze, Filey Brigg, the solid rocks and cliffs.

II

I find the ray’s head the next day.
Now I recognize it.
Even without its body and tail,
the slope of it, the pointed snout
and sand-paper skin are as familiar
as the playful rays I worked with
at the Sea Life Centre.
Now this dead thing has a nose
that could nudge a hand, goat-eyes
in its empty eye holes that might have watched
a girl cleaning an aquarium tank.

III

The sea is an excited dog, bringing me gifts.
The tail washes up to my feet on day three
alongside a perfect piece of white vertebrae.
The spikes, ridging the scrap of wiry skin,
seem pitiful and frail against death. I think
of the crisped edge of fried haddock.
I won’t eat fish for weeks. I take the bone home,
bleach it. I will have it on my desk, a curiosity,
a talking point. I put it in a drawer instead.

Antarctica: as seen on TV

by Wes Lee

A seal pup encrusted with starfish
in the clearest of water,

he is clearly eaten,
clearly being dead

but dead in such clear water
seems like uber death

death in 3D
death in close-up;

the ice shelf above
with its mountainous dark

and all that warm blood that sails beneath
leaving its scratches

as if dangled hooks.
And I always wonder why

the sea is so turquoise, gathered that way:
the swimming pools of icebergs

with their cool opaque clarity
like no colour anywhere else

in nature;
more California than California.

 

First published in Blackmail Press, Issue 41, December 2015.

Poet Biographies:

Laura M Kaminski is Poetry Editor and Editor of the digital chapbook series at Praxis Magazine Online. She is also on the editorial team at Right Hand Pointing. She is the author of several poetry collections and chapbooks, including Anchorhold which is forthcoming at the end of 2016.

Pippa Little is a poet, editor, reviewer and creative writing workshop leader. Twist, her second full collection, is forthcoming from Arc. She lives in Northumberland with her husband, sons and dog and is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newcastle University.

Sara Wilson is a graduate of Vancouver Island University, earning her BA with a major in Creative Writing. Her poems have appeared in Portal, Dinosaur Porn, and Slim Volume, with more poetry slated for publication in a number of literary magazines and anthologies. Stay up to date by visiting sarawilsonpoet.wordpress.com and following her on twitter @SaraWilsonPoet

Sarah James is a prize-winning poet, journalist, short fiction writer and photographer, with collections including plenty-fish (Nine Arches Press) and the Overton Poetry Prize winning sequence Lampshades & Glass Rivers. Her Forward Prize highly commended collection The Magnetic Diaries (KFS) toured as a poetry-play in 2016. She also runs V. Press.

Wendy Pratt lives in Filey, North Yorkshire. She has been widely published in journals and magazines and has a pamphlet and a full collection with Prolebooks. Her latest pamphlet, Lapstrake, is published by Flarestack Poets. She is currently studying towards a PhD with Hull university and is poetry correspondent for Northern Soul.

Wes Lee lives in New Zealand. Her debut poetry collection Shooting Gallery (Steele Roberts) was launched in August 2016. She was the recipient of the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Literary Award, New Zealand’s foremost award for the short story. Her poems have appeared in The London Magazine, Poetry London, Magma, Westerly, New Writing Dundee, Landfall, The Stony Thursday Book, Cordite, Riptide, and many other journals.

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Gary Cook – Painter

Gary Cook is a Dorset-based environmental painter and The Ecologist’s Artist in Residence whose work highlights the damage we are inflicting on our wildlife. His watercolour and oil montages are a fusion of traditional painting and hard-hitting graphics, a style directly influenced by his background in the newspaper industry. Cook was an associate editor and the senior artist at The Sunday Times for 26 years and during that time worked on all the UK’s biggest stories, winning many international awards for his illustrations. Cook confesses: “The newsroom atmosphere was addictive and, even now, I can’t stop myself from imposing ridiculous deadlines to complete projects. Fortunately, I no longer have an editor breathing down my neck, complaining I’m holding up his newspaper.”

Cook’s paintings, or infocanvases as he likes to call them, combine images of endangered wildlife with graphical information about their plight discreetly hidden in the background. The artist says: “I am so often shocked at the environmental danger some of our most-loved animals are under. I feel the urge to flag up the threat to as many people as I can.” He adds: “I want people to look at my work and be drawn in by a beautiful image, such as the polar bear. Then, on closer inspection, discover the shocking statistics subtly painted into the background that demonstrate how we are in danger of losing the very creatures we hold so dear because of how our behaviour affects them and their habitats.”

Cook recently exhibited alongside 40 international artists including Turner Prize-winner Grayson Perry and pioneering sculpturist Gavin Turk in aid of The Green Party.

cookthepainter.com

"<b
Studland seahorse IV – Endangered Spiny seahorses breed in Studland Bay. Unfortunately, during the summer 300 boats per day drop anchor there, inadvertently killing the sea grasses these exotic fish call home. As a consequence seahorse sightings in the bay are becoming rarer.
"<b
High stakes – I’ve seen tuna while diving on holiday and was amazed at their size, sleekness and silky beauty. Southern Bluefin Tuna are critically endangered yet we are still overfishing them, mostly before they are sexually mature. As a result, it is thought that only 9% of these 7ft-long fish remain worldwide.
"<b
I was lucky enough to see six of these sleek mammals in a river close to me in Dorset. Otters vanished from most of the UK in the 1970s due to toxic pesticides, hunting and habitat loss. By banning the chemicals and hunting they have returned to most of the country. Sketching the otters I saw was so difficult. They are constantly moving effortlessly through the water. It’s great to have them return to our rivers.
"<b
Killing whales – In the wild, killer whales swim 100 miles per day. FIfty-seven are kept in tanks at theme parks. These tanks are so small that even if they swim in circles all day they can only manage four miles.
"<b
The elephant in the room – The inspiration for this infocanvas, was the shocking facts of man’s effect on elephants. With 93 a day being killed for their ivory, it really is something we need to talk about. The canvas reveals how elephants have been reduced from a global population of 5m in the 1930s to just 500,000 now.
"<b
Vulnerable III – The killing of Cecil the lion shocked people about the world of big game hunting. This and other man-made dangers mean these 400lb predators are now, according to the IUCN ‘Vulnerable’. In 1940 there were 450,000 wild lions, through our actions there are only 20,000 left.

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