“An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gyrfalcon for a King; a Peregrine for a Prince, and a Saker for a Knight; a Merlin for a lady, a Goshawk for a Yeoman, a Sparrowhawk for a Priest, and a Kestrel for a Knave”
I didn’t see her until she was upon me.
I was sitting – tired and contemplative – deep down beneath a small outcrop of volcanic rock amongst the boulders sloping to a shingle beach into the sea. In the shadow of the rocks at the end of the jaws of the cove I could see the clarity of the low arctic waters and a flurry of terns rolled and dipped along the shoreline. The sea was oil-still in the bright white light peculiar to the northern landscapes. Nearby, the carcass of a juvenile killer whale gave the air a taste and in the bay the head of a grey seal watched the shore as if keeping an eye on the sleeping but still lethal orca, it’s dorsal fin clearly visible as it lay on the beach. Auks were whirring close over the surface of the water and behind me lay the silent hulk of the volcano, capped in snow and ringed in cloud.
And then, from my left, just a few metres away, she came; appearing at the edge of the small cliff where the peaty turf hung in ribbons over the rock. She was not alone. Behind her trailed a ragged streamer of mobbing, desperate birds; wheatear, oystercatcher and a purple sandpiper, at least five of them testing their will and speed against the gyrfalcon. She passed by quickly and touchably close, only just over my head and over the opposing cliff bank before disappearing across the volcanic grassland pitted with sink holes and caves. Electrified by her sudden appearance I had risen to my feet almost before she had passed. In the same instant, in response to my movement the seal had exploded into the water. I rose but was not able to see her, her speed had already taken her behind some upstanding rocks.
Scrambling up the beach to find a place with a better view I pulled myself up using tussocks of grass and looked in the direction she had passed but she was already gone. But looking again, I knew she was there. All I could see was a sign of her presence, a ripple of clamour in the sky where she had passed. She had scythed over the surface of the ground putting waders and other birds up and now, shedding all pretenders, all that was left was a pair of merlin climbing and stooping down to a spot that was invisible to me. She was there.
I walked over the rough ground until I could see her and, thinking that my sudden and intermittent appearances over the tussocks and mounds would scare her, I sat and watched from a distance. But soon I pressed on to get closer, almost crawling at some points. In truth, she knew I was there. She waited for me it seemed and I was a pilgrim, willing to prostrate myself and drag myself over the difficult and sharp terrain to meet her eye.
Soon I was metres from her. She was royally impervious to the screeching of the merlins at the very top of a tall, grass covered stone. The merlins shyed away from my presence long before the falcon who looked at me with cool and quick precision. At that moment the gyrfalcon was absolutely in its landscape, full of tundric beauty; at that moment I was in a place that was more than just a spot on the map of a remote peninsular; at that moment my powers of detached human observation of weather, plumage and botany deserted me. All were replaced, for that short time revolving around the pinnacle created by the bird on its rock. It was the very definition of its place. It was all of nature, a thing of fierce and independent beauty.
The heavy minutes turned before she dropped away, beating her wings powerfully in slow motion. The feeling of muscular and taut control was pervasive, a visceral and tangible presence. She circled around to my right before tacking back towards me and then, meeting the light landward breeze drew herself close over the ground and disappeared behind the cliffs.
While those moments lasted I had briefly – gloriously – been un-human, nothing more than another living thing returned to its proper place in the ecologies of my own species’ history; I was just another animal. Reckless, then, the human who attempts to tame the experience. For all the imagery and words I could lay at its feet I had, ultimately, knelt before the gyrfalcon empty-handed, helpless. The thousand-channel thrill of the encounter passed, I was lying where she’d left me, earth-bound and dejected. Looking up at a white sky, the high and lonely bubble of passing whimbrel was the only sound.
Colin Williams is a writer exploring our relationship with the landscape and its wildlife. His work has been praised as having ‘a deeply personal precision’ and his book Shadows in the Hay has been described as ‘a beautifully precise…elegant homage to the landscapes and places that shape us’ and ‘evocative and unexpected’.
They must be sacred still to some deity, these geese in a holding pattern
over the same pharmaceutical company’s front lawn on which their ancestors were staked till their calls,
we hear, had drawn down more geese flying north, must ache still as their ancestors ached for the chance to fend off a night attack by the Gauls.
— Paul Muldoon, ‘More Geese’
The Ontario Honker lays it on thick for the newcomers at the corn site. Still, their presence makes him edgy. If they’re true they might call out his augured heart. Hunting this spot makes him nervous. Geese falling in two directions, acres of cereal taller than a man so he can’t see both ways, front and behind. No way to mark and a busy highway less than two hundred yards from his deeks, decoyshe spells it out for them, full of country commuters heading to work. His dogs would break at shot, and if a dying honker drifted over the road… No, he won’t direct them to that field until Fred cuts his corn, until he can see how they’re falling. Some way into his direction and he can see they’re rapt, that they haven’t figured out yet what keeps him awake. They await his instruction on the manner of good gunnery in these here parts. He smiles so as he tells them:
This is how you set the decoy. Stake it up in the spread two or two and one-half metres between. Three in a cosy, then two outliers. If you have time decide on a “J” or “W” wedge formation. Either will do. You don’t need to be too creative. Have your deeks face the same general direction, south is good, broadside to the rising sun. You may not get a chance to do anything specific. If time is barely there, just get ‘em in the ground.
Go hide your bulk, your Herculean muscle, your hunting sights and your cross-hatched souls in the standing corn and when the honkers come in for a low pass overhead get your best bitch—what’s her name? Opal? A fine name!—situated. Throw in the decoy bag and unpack your gun. Stay alert. Load up while they’re circling.
Say your first shot smokes two. By the time you figure out who’s coming down and who isn’t you won’t have time for a second shot. If you get in a second then you got lucky. A mile that way is where they be yesterday, today, well, here’s ornery. Half an hour later you’ll have four more, I’ll attest, all pass shots at pairs and singles ready to land. They won’t understand what’s hit! Haul the decoys in when they’re landing around. Run down to the rig in the corn and wait for the big flocks as they come in. Maybe you’ll get a pretty shot in there tonight. It will be fun.
He sends them off. It works every time. ‘Really hard to screw it up’ he says with a slap on one’s green-cottoned back, rounded from deskwork at an insurance firm in Lawrence. Later he will go and do some fine shooting of his own. Eight rounds and five birds. ‘The third honker was almost certainly coming down after one shot but I didn’t want it drifting into the huge field of standing corn behind me so I popped it again. At thirty-five yards I puffed it with the full pattern. Won’t be fun cleaning that one. And forget about how sweet my calling was. It was still wrapped up in my pocket!’
All birds were ‘killed dead,’he tells the newcomers that night, with multiple wounds.
I’m finally getting it together,’ he thinks, but that’s enough thinking. Even he knows it’s not right to dwell on the calling of the half-bereaved once he has pocketed her partner. These geese mate for life. He knows in all its blood-borne truth that he has broken apart a blessed companioning. He shakes away what irritates, the unsweetness of it.‘And just in time,’ he says to himself, fluffing up his chest, brushing away the error. ‘Pheasant season is about to open in Montana.’
A ‘calling’ is the hunter’s sound piece that imitates the honk of the goose to trick the animal into landing
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.
I am back at Bhaltos, a small scattering of houses overlooking Phabaigh Mor on the Isle of Lewis. This is the last week in May. It’s cold by my southern standards and spring feels like it is slow to arrive: primroses are in abundance, but only a few bird’s-foot trefoils, and marsh marigolds hold the promise of a more abundant machair. Wheatears are everywhere, their white rumps flashing across this sparse and rocky terrain.
When I was last here in September 2013, it was on the heels of a Force ten gale. Rough seas, just calmer as they reached Caolas Phabaigh, the narrow stretch of water that we wake to each morning, was a theatre of gannets: wings drawn back ready for the dive, then sudden explosions all around as they hit water. One after another, it rained gannets. This time it is much calmer, and only a hand-ful of these wide-winged birds are coming in, still a spectacle, just a smaller scale.
These are long days, light until 10.30 or so, and there is time for late walks on the beach. It’s a still evening, the wind has dropped and the light stretches right out over the muted greens and greys of Loch Roag towards Bearnaraigh. Tonight I’m watching a couple of sanderlings running in and out with each wave, their speed is extraordinary, comic even. I look across the sand, then I see that there are more: only their movement gives them away, scarcely visible against the white sand, and the mottled browns of the weeds and rocks. Further along towards the end of the cove, a ragged group of ringed plovers suddenly take flight, their high-pitched see-sawing cries carrying on the rising wind.
Yesterday, I narrowly avoided treading on a clutch of ringed plover eggs. Lying in the shallowest of scrapes, encircled by a dried out necklace of stipe and sea wrack, the nest lay stepping distance from the marram grasses at the edge of Traigh na Berie. As we moved quickly on, my daughter’s keen eye had seen the mother return to the scrape and settle in an instant. From a distance now, we could watch the effectiveness of the camouflage working away at what to us seemed the most fragile and exposed site for nesting. We start to calculate how long the nest needs to survive; can it get through these next few days with its half-term visitors in their camper vans? It feels so very precarious.
Later, we are at Losgaintir, a vast tidal expanse on the Isle of Harris, walking against the backdrop of huge dunes. Over towards Mhiabhaig and the mountains to the North the sky is purple with imminent rain. On the beach is a gannet: newly dead, with only a dusting of sand over its crumpled wings. It’s hard to see what has happened to it. Close up, I can see the power it once held in its head and neck, the beauty in that flush of yellow.
Karen Izod is an organisational consultant and academic and the author/editor of several books and articles. Her creative work focuses on attachment, identity and belonging. Long-listed in the 2015 New Welsh Review’s Writing Awards, People, Place and Planet. Karen’s poetry is published in Agenda, the Journal of Attachment, and Karnacology.com
Understanding a Culture to Protect an Iconic Predator
Bounding along the Mongolian steppe in a Soviet Russia era van, it is clear how this vast, virtually uninhabited land came to be known as the “Land of Blue Sky”. In every direction, as far as the eye can see, a bright blue, cloudless sky blends into the horizon. Eagles, buzzards and vultures hover on thermals or rest on the ground, searching for a meal from the countless rodents whose burrows turn the plains into Swiss cheese. As my team from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and Irbis (snow leopard) Mongolia Center traverse this wild environment, the senior biologist, Dr. Bariushaa Munkhtsog, points out various landmarks and sacred places. Ovoo, spiritual monuments made of piled rocks and covered in blue rags, are common. We stop at one of these monuments to pay respect to the gods of the land and to ask for good luck for our expedition by walking three times in a clockwise direction around it and tossing rocks onto the pile as an offering. Being invited to participate in some of the traditional rituals is truly an honor for me. Most importantly, it gives me a more thorough understanding of the culture in which I have immersed myself for the sake of studying one of the planet’s rarest cat species, the snow leopard. To save a species, you must first understand the human culture in which it lives.
Buddhism and Shamanism are dominant beliefs in Mongolia that form unbreakable connections between this resilient wilderness and its people. From the mountains that dominate the horizon to the creatures who thrive in this harsh land, everything is sacred. Snow leopards especially are highly revered in the culture. Evidence of this can be seen outside temples, which are guarded by “snow lion” statues, derived from snow leopards. The snow lion symbolizes strength, fearlessness, happiness, a clear mind, and are the protectors of Buddha.
The gorgeous, endangered snow leopard is an icon of some of the highest and most remote places in the world throughout 12 range countries. Its total wild population is roughly estimated between 4,000-7,000 individuals. Mongolia is home to the second highest population with 1,000-1,500 cats. The presence of snow leopards is a strong indicator of a healthy mountain ecosystem. They are a “keystone species”. However, snow leopards are increasingly threatened, directly and indirectly, by the people who have held the traditional belief that to kill one of these sacred predators is bad luck. The greatest of these threats are habitat degradation, retribution killing after livestock are attacked, and poaching for the traditional medicine trade.
At least half of Mongolia’s population is fully dependent on livestock for meat and wool products. As the population grows, so does that of domestic herds. Overgrazing from millions of free-ranging livestock has become a serious ecological issue. The landscape bares the signs of overgrazing with tracks, dried manure, and sun-bleached remains of domestic animals scattered across the steppe in every direction. Livestock significantly outnumbers wild prey species. Sightings of wild ungulates seem just as difficult to come by as finding signs of the elusive snow leopard. I considered myself lucky to catch a fleeting glimpse of a herd of gazelle, leaping out of sight in the far distance, their tan hides appearing as mere specks on the plain. Ibex, one of the snow leopard’s main prey species, are also hard to encounter. Even the steep, rocky slopes the ibex are adapted for are not safe from the appetites of meandering herds of goats, sheep, yaks and horses.
As a result of too many domestic animals competing with wild prey species for food, herds graze within closer range of snow leopard habitat, making depredation inevitable. Winter camps of nomadic herders are set right against the side of a mountain, offering protection from the extreme freezing weather. Unfortunately, it also offers a convenient route for a snow leopard to climb down to take its pick from an improperly guarded or corralled herd. Often, many animals may be killed within a corral when a snow leopard becomes confused from the confinement. These campsites can be spotted as dark patches at the base of a slope during other parts of the year, acting as a visual reminder that this seemingly wild environment shares its resources with humans at all times. A growing concern is that the retribution killing of snow leopards by angry herders will further threaten the already precarious existence of the “ghost of the mountain”.
In order to evaluate what kind of impact habitat degradation from overgrazing is having on snow leopards, biologists must first locate signs of the cats, obtain genetic data to determine population densities, and determine the range of the cats in an area. This is no easy task considering that snow leopards live at altitudes of 3,000m- 5,400m, can have home ranges of up to 1,000km2, and leave signs of their residence around steep cliffs and rocky outcrops.
Recon Mission: Finding Snow Leopard Signs and Interviewing Herders
“Kate! Snow leopard!” The sound of my teammate’s voice carries over the rapid pounding of my heart as I search for signs of the rare cat while my body adjusts to an elevation 3,000m higher than where I come from. I make a mental note to not force myself to keep up with those who grew up in this habitat as they nimbly ascend the mountainside like ibex. A bit out of breath, I make it to where my teammate is pointing. Sure enough, tucked under a sheltering rock ledge, there is a pile of scat. Snow leopard scat! And based on our reactions, one would think we had won the lottery…
Otgontenger Strictly Protected Area (SPA) is located within the Zavkhan province of Western Mongolia, in the Khangai Mountains. The area encompasses 1,000km2 and is best known for the country’s most sacred mountain, Otgon Tenger Uul, and its diversity of ecosystems. For a nature enthusiast, Otgontenger SPA has it all: mountains, steppe, forests, lakes, rivers, marshes, sand dunes, and even hot springs! With such an array of habitats, it should come as no surprise that this locality is home to a large variety of biodiversity, including several endangered species. It is a biological wonderland!
Similar to other regions, livestock depredation by snow leopards is a concern to nomadic herders. While the populations of these cats and economic impact of livestock losses has been investigated in many other major ranges such as the South Gobi, Trans-Altai Gobi and the Northern Altai Mountains, no data has been collected in Otgontenger or surrounding areas. From mid-June-mid-July of 2014, my team rambled along in our trusty van from site to site, gathering dozens of scat samples, recording scratch marks found on rocks and trees, and places where we found urine spray. We also set up several camera traps in hopes of catching images of our “phantom quarry” and its prey species. This process involves knowledge of snow leopard behavior and habits. To find a snow leopard, you have to think like a snow leopard. That means sometimes crawling on all fours to set up a camera trap at the right level or delicately stalking across a ridge-line wondering where you would relieve yourself if you were a snow leopard.
Another aspect of my team’s project was interviewing local herders to acquire information on livestock losses and attitudes toward snow leopards vs. wolves (the other predatory threat to livestock). How do you find a nomadic settlement? First, find a herd of goats, sheep or yaks. Second, drive around that area until you spot riders watching the herd or until you come across gers, the traditional nomadic housing of the pastoralists. Once you actually locate a ger which has seemed almost as elusive as the cats themselves, make sure to yell “Nokhoi Khoi” (“Hold the dog!”), even if there is no guard dog(s). Not only is this more polite than knocking on a ger flap or door, but it also allows a chance for the host to gain control of any dog(s) present. Finally, after greetings and an explanation of the purpose of your visit, be ready to experience true Mongolian hospitality.
Interviewing these nomadic people is not as simple as asking questions, recording responses, and leaving. With each family we visited we were invited into the home to socialize, sample homemade soup of goat or yak meat in noodles, try yogurt products made from goat or yak milk, and get our fill of biscuits spread with fresh churned goat or yak butter. To wash it all down, we would be given bowls of rich, hot milk tea, also made from, you guessed it, goat or yak milk! More often than not, cups of vodka would be passed around, as well as a snuff bottle. Out of courtesy it is recommended to try it all, or at least pretend to, which ended up being the case for me after visiting several families in one day.
Stomachs full of heavy carbs, dairy and meat, the questionnaire could begin. Having previous experience studying wolves and conducting coyote coexistence outreach in the States, I expected responses toward snow leopards to be negative. Surprisingly, most of the herders acknowledged the importance of these cats in their environment, despite losing livestock to them. Many herders admitted, “The snow leopards have just as much right to the land as the people. It is the people’s responsibility to take better care of their animals.” One herder showed us a goat that actually survived an attack by a snow leopard. It had large scars on its neck and face, and tattered ears. Even this herder, who was annoyed about the incident, did not blame the cat and said, “We must either learn to live with them or move.” However, not everyone shares these positive attitudes toward coexistence, leading to incidences of retribution killing.
Preserving Livelihoods and Protecting Snow Leopards
“True conservation is all about fashioning human attitudes and activities that foster a working relationship with nature.” ~Rene Dubos
The root of any successful conservation effort begins with developing a relationship with the local people. From far across continents or oceans, it is easy for many of us to suggest certain areas should just be suddenly blocked off completely so local people, who have lived off the land for centuries, can no longer utilize resources. However, preserving the culture of these peoples is just as important as collecting information on a threatened species. A crucial aspect toward the development of conservation plans in a community is to obtain public attitudes and values. Wildlife officials need this baseline data in order to work with a community, instead of against it. In instances where public attitudes are considered, such as with the implementation of predator coexistence programs, efforts are most prosperous.
Currently, the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, Irbis Mongolia Center, and Snow Leopard Conservancy are working together to help decrease conflicts between predators and herders. They are doing this, not by preventing them from raising their livestock around snow leopard habitat, but by educating communities on responsible livestock husbandry methods and sustainable land use. One of the main goals of these partner organizations is to persuade local people that snow leopards are worth more alive than dead. To help raise money for communities, handicrafts made from wool are created and sold by herder women. Funds from these products go directly back to the community to assist in predator friendly livestock husbandry and wildlife conservation.
Electronic devices such as Predator Guard, that emit a solar powered flashing light, are also being tested where livestock graze. These devices are mounted on bushes or fence posts, and will flash during the night to scare away predators. In the areas where the predator deterrents were tested within Baga Bogd Mountain, no livestock have been killed by snow leopards. Another electronic predator deterrent that is being successfully used by the Snow Leopard Conservancy in other regions and will be tested more in Mongolia, are FoxLights.
While listening to the stories herders shared about their encounters with snow leopards, I felt a greater connection to them. Were they irritated about losing livestock, their only source of income, to the cats? Yes. Did they have a right to be, especially since there are no government compensation programs where they are? You bet! I originally began my journey into Mongolia with the intent of studying and protecting snow leopards. Yet, the herders’ passion for their traditional way of life, and their willingness to do what is necessary to maintain a harmony with the land, fueled a stronger desire to do whatever I could to help them as well.
By using the information gathered during my team’s recon mission, a movement to work with the local communities to protect their livestock, while studying an unknown population of snow leopards, has been initiated. Actions include: improving corrals by predator proofing them, training park staff and community members on the use of camera traps and electronic predator deterrents, and implementing capacity building for community members. Eco-tours, which will allow tourists to explore select snow leopard sites and help gather data that will help fund future conservation projects, are in development as well.
As I await my return to move onto the next stage of our project, I will continue to long for the endless plains where herds of horses run free. I will cherish the moments of companionable silence with a local ranger as together we watched the sunrise over the mountains, transitioning the purple morning sky to reds and oranges. I will crave being surrounded by the friendliest people I have ever met, and a culture that enriches my soul. A part of me cannot help but wonder just how often the feline guardian of the peaks was watching us. I do not know if I will ever see that majestic cat beyond images from a camera trap, but that is how it should be. For its survival, the snow leopard must remain a specter, keeping watch from a distance, and never becoming comfortable in the company of humans. And so, until next time my dear Mongolia, “Bayartai!” I bid you farewell.
Katey Duffey has a B.A. in Zoo and Wildlife Biology and a minor in Psychology from Malone University. She also earned a M.A. in Zoology from Miami University in collaboration with Project Dragonfly. Her research interests are in carnivore ecology and mitigating human-carnivore conflicts. @UnciaKate
Header image of snow leopard paw prints by Ochir – Otgontenger SPA
The doctor called out to me as I shuffled downhill through the snow, going sideways and slowly, trying not to fall over. We’d met over a dinner of suaasat – seal soup – at a neighbour’s house the previous evening.
‘Did you hear? A polar bear’s been caught!’ He told me the hunter would be bringing it back to Upernavik that afternoon. ‘You should go and take a look.’
The news had come to him through a friend who had a radio connection to the hunters out on the ice. ‘Nothing happens for weeks here,’ the doctor said ruefully, ‘so make the most of this.’ He’d just returned to the island after several months back home in Denmark, bringing his young son with him to attend the local school. Now he seemed eager to share his knowledge with a newcomer. For my part, I was grateful to find someone with whom conversation ran within familiar patterns, someone fluent in my own language, although he made me feel uneasy and I could not fathom why.
Unable to sleep on a full stomach the night before, I’d read a book of Greenlandic folk tales collected by Knud Rasmussen. During the years when Europe was stained by the carnage of WW1, this anthropologist travelled through the Arctic documenting the culture of its inhabitants. Bears featured in many of the stories, and were central to one called ‘The old woman who had a bear for a foster-son’, which begins:
There was once an old woman living in a place where others lived. She lived nearest the shore, and when those who lived in houses up above had been out hunting, they gave her meat. And now and again they caught a bear, so they frequently ate bear’s meat. One day they came home with a whole bear. The old woman received a piece from the ribs as her share, and took it home.
Later the wife of the man who had killed the bear came to her window and said, ‘Dear little old woman in there, would you like to have a bear’s cub?’
And the old woman went to collect the cub and brought it home, and because it was frozen, she shifted her lamp, and placed the cub up on the drying frame to thaw.
I wasn’t sure that I wanted to see the polar bear. For a start, there was no guarantee of the time the boat would arrive, and I hadn’t yet learnt that particular form of patience the Arctic demands, quinuituq, described by the writer Barry Lopez as ‘long waiting, prepared for a sudden event’. (Lopez observes this patience in a hunter’s ‘long wait at a seal hole for prey to surface.’ Nowadays it is often experienced in the wait for weather conditions to become suitable for a plane to take off.) I told myself that I had so much work to do writing about the island itself, that really, I should just go home and get on. Plus I felt self-conscious in public places: my light skin marked me as an outsider and my command of the local language let me down in the island’s small grocery store and the post office, which flew a blue flag with a polar bear rampant, the coat of arms of Greenland’s self-rule government. What reason did I have to attend the gathering at the harbour?
Suddenly the old woman noticed that the bear moved a little, and took it down to warm it. Then she roasted some blubber, and in this way she fed it from that time onwards, and it lay beside her at night.
It grew very fast, and she began to talk to it in human speech, and so it gained the mind of a human being, and when it wished to ask its foster-mother for food, it would sniff. The old woman no longer suffered want, and those living near brought food for the cub.
The children came sometimes to play with it, and the old woman would say, ‘Little bear, remember to sheathe your claws when you play with them.’
In the morning, the children would come to the window and call in, ‘Little bear, come out and play with us.’ It would break the children’s toy harpoons, but when it gave one of the children a push, it would always sheathe its claws. At last it grew so strong that it often made the children cry.
Did I go? Of course I did. I was looking for material everywhere, and as the doctor implied, I would have been a fool to turn the opportunity down. Yet five years on, rereading a poem that I wrote shortly afterwards, I have a moment of doubt. Did I really witness all the things I describe in the (now abandoned) poem, or had I sulked in my little house down by the shore and concocted the details from the books I was reading and my own dreams? Such uncertainty is central to my perception of the event. Human understanding of Arctic mammals has long confounded fact and fiction: the narwhal that existed in the European imagination for so long as a unicorn; the sperm whale which dives to deep regions we know less about than the moon, and communicates across frequencies we can’t hear; and the polar bear, whose fur is not white, as so many people believe, but translucent, and grows out of black skin. It was the hope of discovering the reality behind the legends, as much as material for a poem, which drew me to the harbour in the end.
And now the grown-up people began to play with the bear, and they helped the old woman by making it grow stronger. But after a time not even grown men dared play with it, so great was its strength, and they said to one another, ‘Let us take it with us when we go out hunting. It may help us to find seal.’
And so one day at dawn, they came to the old woman’s window and cried, ‘Little bear, come and earn a share of our catch; come out hunting with us.’
Before the bear went out, it sniffed at the old woman. And then it went with the men.
The hunting habits of bears have more in common with those of humans than any other animal: both hunt seals using similar techniques, both – sometimes – hunt each other. Some of the hunters on Upernavik push the correspondence further, and still wear the bearskin trousers that have always been their best protection against the cold. There is a traditional belief that once a bear enters its den in the winter, it removes its fur and acquires a human appearance. In the past when a bear was killed certain taboos had to observed. One such taboo ruled that the hunter bringing in the bear had to remove his outer clothes before coming into his iglu, just as a bear was thought to remove its skin once safely inside its den.
One day when the men were returning home from a hunt, they called in to the old woman, ‘Your bear was very nearly killed by the hunters from the north today; we hardly managed to save it alive. Give it some mark by which it may be known.’
And so the old foster-mother made a collar of plaited sinews as broad as a harpoon line for the bear to wear around its neck. And after that it never failed to catch seal. It was stronger even than the strongest of hunters, and never stayed at home even in the worst weather.
There are two harbours in Upernavik. One, where the huge Royal Arctic Line ship Vestlandia docks in summer, occupies a disproportionate arc of the island’s coastline when the water is ice-free. In winter empty plastic Carlsberg crates and iron shipping containers clutter the land around it. By February, when I was on the island, there was hardly any food remaining in the store. When the shore ice melted, trade and traffic would resume. The island diet was heavily influenced by European (healthy) and US (sweet) culture: the store sold UHT milk, hot peppers from South Africa, lentils from Turkey, wine and beer and spirits from around the world. Food travels a long way to get here, and it’s expensive. There were frozen berries (a Danish brand). Frozen beans. Fish fingers. In central Europe frozen produce has pejorative associations as a convenience food, but here it is preferable to the ‘fresh’ (in fact often accidentally frozen then thawed) lettuces, alien apples and soft grey onions.
The second harbour is smaller and less exposed to the heavy tides of Baffin Bay. It lies in the lee of the promontory on which the little hospital stands; people moor their dinghies up against the ice foot there. There are just five or six vessels, and perhaps what goes on here is a little bit secretive, if things can be secretive on a small island. My house was not far away and often in the early mornings as I made coffee and settled down to write I heard the hunters cutting their boats out from the ice that had formed overnight, rasping the engines and setting off to sea. I saw their lights reflected in the dark water as they gingerly steered a path between blocks of ice as far as the horizon.
But now the people from beyond Angmagssalik heard that there was a bear which could not be caught, and then one of them said, ‘If ever I see it, I will kill it.’
But the others said, ‘You must not do that; the bear’s foster-mother could ill manage without its help. If you see it, do not harm it, but leave it alone.’
One day when the bear came home as usual from hunting, the old foster-mother said, ‘Whenever you meet with men, treat them as if you were of one kin with them; never seek to harm them unless they attack you first.’
And it heard the foster-mother’s words and did as she had said.
And so the old foster-mother kept the bear with her. In the summer it went out hunting in the sea, and in winter on the ice, and the other hunters now learned to know its ways, and received shares of its catch.
It was to the small harbour the polar bear was to be brought. Just as the hunter’s boats had left the harbour in zigzags, so those who had not been out hunting descended the steep slope, moving side-to-side across the island down the boardwalks and steps that spanned the snowdrifts on the hill. Walking down a steep mountain your journey takes longer than you might expect. In a casual cortège people came from homes where the living rooms had wide windows looking out over the sea, and a radio in the corner crackling live news from relatives far out on the ice. They came hoping for a share of the meat, because although much of the catch is sold these days, traces of the communal distribution system remain.
It was foggy and snowing lightly and we did not see the boat until it was almost upon us.
Once during a storm the bear was away hunting as usual, and did not come home until evening. Then it sniffed at its foster-mother and sprang up on to the bench. She went out of the house, and found the body of a dead man which the bear had hauled home. Without going in again, the old woman hurried to the nearest house, and cried at the window, ‘The bear has come home with a dead man, one whom I do not know.’
When it grew light, they went out and saw that it was the man from the north, and they could see he had been running fast, for he had drawn off his furs, and was in his underclothes. Afterwards they heard that it was his comrades who had urged the bear to resistance, because he would not leave it alone.
The huskies, chained down to plots of urine-soaked ice, shared the islanders’ excitement. They could smell blood, and strained to be free. The little dinghy chugged towards the ice shelf and the hunter, a stout man who appeared even stouter on account of his insulated jacket, waved his gun at the crowd in greeting and in triumph. There were murmurs in return. The boat was moored and then what was inside the boat had to be hoisted ashore. The hunter attached a rope to the animal and threw the loose end to a group of men standing on the ice, who heaved until the carcass leapt ashore as if the boat had given birth to it.
It slithered stiffly across the ice, fur stained from swimming through its own blood, and as they pulled a bullet wound unrolled a red carpet for the hunter to step on. The tongue slumped out over the teeth and froze fast to the ice; this blue muscle had to be chiselled free before the hunter could raise the head, buckle a collar round the neck and strap the carcass to his sled. A woman touched the fur gently, perhaps to gauge its quality. Two small boys wearing rubber boots kicked it in the back, and ran away. I longed to touch it, but I dared not – although I could see that it was dead. The huskies continued to howl, but no one released them.
Then the old foster-mother wept and said to the bear, ‘You had better not stay with me here always; you will be killed if you do. You had better leave me.’
But the bear thrust its muzzle right down to the floor and wept too, so greatly did it grieve to go away from her.
After this, the foster-mother went out every morning as soon as dawn appeared to look at the weather, and if there were but a cloud as big as one’s hand in the sky, she said nothing.
But one morning when she went out, there was not even a cloud as big as a hand, and so she came in and said, ‘Little bear, now you had better go; you have your own kin far away out there.’
The bear would be taken to be flensed and cleaned, the flesh divided according to traditional principles. Once skinned, a bear looks almost human. Ancient sculptures play on this resemblance, such as the tiny ‘Flying Ivory Bear’, an attenuated form which from one angle appears bearlike, and from another, human. A score of geometric lines across its surface could be the skeleton of either beast. The person who carved this fragment of ivory, working in the Arctic during the Middle Dorset period (AD 0–500), looked back to an even more distant past, when there were no boundaries between humans and animals: they could talk to one another and transform themselves at will. This amulet may represent the bears that led shamans on their journeys through the air or the animal spirits that were called upon when a hunter needed particular strength.
The next day I walked all round the island, hoping to learn what had happened to the bear, or even to see its skin hanging outside one of the houses. I’d read that hunters had once paid respect to the bear’s soul (tatkok) by hanging the skin in an honoured place for several days. But everything looked just as it normally did, a little obscure in the stormy winter twilight. The bear had disappeared.
When the bear was ready to set out, the old foster-mother, weeping very much, dipped her hands in oil and smeared them with soot, and stroked the bear’s side as it took leave of her, in such manner that it could not see what she was doing. The bear sniffed at her and went away. The old foster-mother wept all through that day, and her fellows in the place also mourned the loss of their bear.
I left the island a few weeks later. The weather had cleared at last and the twin otter plane achieved a graceful take off from the small airstrip in the direction of the rising sun. The pilot detoured from his direct route to Qaanaaq, and banked the plane sharply to show his passengers where the bear had been killed. Everyone craned their heads to look. He switched on the intercom. And told the story in his own language, for those who could understand it.
But men say that far to the north, when many bears are abroad, there will sometimes come a bear as big as an iceberg, with a black spot on its side.
Note: In 1973, representatives from five arctic countries with polar bear populations (the United States, whose bears are in Alaska; Canada; Denmark, whose bears are in Greenland; Russia, and Norway) signed the International Agreement for the Conservation of Polar Bears and their Habitat. This agreement protects polar bear habitat, as well as limiting what bears can be taken, when and by whom. In short, the agreement restricts polar bear hunting, while still maintaining that people of the region have the right to use polar bears to support their traditional ways of life. The agreement can be read in full here
He sits by the gate’s latch flat against the red bricks
and watches nothing. The cut-glass eyes have no insight
and my breath, on wings filigreed with black veins
and copper, makes no impression. The bunched muscles
on thorax extend into golden stripes twice bisecting
the wing cage. And his abdomen jointed leads
to two evil spikes: these I am told cannot sting.
Under such close scrutiny, he never stirs or
moves the goggled psychedelic head. And will not face me
but flies as soon as my back is turned: leaving an absent
shadow in the place he’d touched and quietly burnt.
Kestrel Versus Crow
by Char March
I am fence-post turned to glide
I follow black line across
hard white ground
my eyes are flicker
I am soar
white ground is hedge-squared
the line where ground and air roost
is pylon-pinned is tilt-tilt-level-tilt-level-tilt
my eyes snag black-flap
I am hunt
black-flap is caw-caw
he is flurry-swerve
I am pursuit
I am hedge tree sky
I steer in scream-wind
I am tension
Black-flap is below
Black-flap is caw-caw
Black-flap is slow flap
I am dive-strain
I am scream-wind
I am stiff talons
I am thump, snatch, roll, neck-nip
Black-flap is ground
My beak, blood
by Earl Livings
Sudden stroke of shadow—
the bird drops
from branch to branch,
inscribes itself as silence
almost completely around
scanning for rivals,
predators, its own prey
Ignores the human below
still as sunlight,
gaze of a watch-maker,
breath the barest comment
Swoop and flurry
it snatches a lime-green grub
from deep within
a summer blockbuster of branches
Returns to its perch,
grub twitching in its beak,
swivels again to spoil
any swoop out of shadow
Cocks its head back
to swallow and shiver,
preens its breast feathers,
glides to another page
by Jean Atkin
Woodpecker tilts its painted head,
chic among the chaffinches.
Its wings are Rothko blocks
of black on white.
It splashes upwards,
climbs the wet sky.
In three loops
of swagged flight,
Bridget Khursheed is a poet and geek based in the Borders; a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award winner for poetry; widely published in publications including Gutter, The Rialto, The London Magazine and New Writing Scotland; her pamphlet Roads to Yair is available from Twinlaw Publishing; editor of poetandgeek.com. @khursheb
Earl Livings has published poetry and fiction in Australia and also Britain, Canada, the USA, and Germany. He has a PhD in Creative Writing and taught professional writing and editing for 17 years. His writing focuses on nature, mythology and the sacred and he is currently working on a Dark Ages novel and his next poetry collection. Earl lives in Melbourne with his wife and the seasonal owls, bats and lorikeets that love the trees around his home.
Jean Atkin is an award-winning poet based in Shropshire. Her first collection Not Lost Since Last Time is published by Oversteps Books. She has also published five poetry pamphlets and a children’s novel, The Crow House. She has held residencies and worked on projects in both Scotland and England. She is currently Poet in Residence for Wenlock Poetry Festival. www.jeanatkin.com
Morning light is softened beneath the trees
and the wind in the sycamore’s high branches
moves the leaves like rain. I stop,
and the whole wood flickers around me,
precipitates the dawn chorus to flowers
of song, of dunnock, chaffinch, wren and thrush.
Cold and damp are nothing now, and I hear
the stealth of feeding and finding prey, the romp
of squirrel, weasel-screech, the scream of hawk.
Moss grows over my knees. Wings make passage
between the tangles of my spreading hair.
Beneath my buried feet, the push and flow
of water draws me inward. I grasp and shatter
rocks between my toes. The filaments of my roots
touch bluebell corm, cached acorns, badger’s sett.
I do not flinch now from the small blows
of squirrel and tree-creeper on my hardened skin;
ant and caterpillar are welcomed to my bark.
I sway with tides of moon and weather.
Sun and wind and rain speak world to me –
I hold it all in my wide-spread boughs.
This White March Woods by Julianne Lutz Warren
This white March woods
is less oestral mare,
than hungry moose,
with cravings slow
to melt into spring.
She waits to drop
her calf, while the
moon half rises
over the backs of
shaggy hill humps,
dark at dawning,
beneath the pink
of sky, sunning
into blue dawn.
And the breaths of
spruce trees warm bread-
sweet patches of ground
beneath their boughs,
into shapes of
yearlings, where these
half-grown beasts might
browse and sleep.
Calf by Gillian Prew
0000000000000000Blood the maker gushes 0000000000000000from the throats of the things of earth. 0000000000000000– Osip Mandelstam
Curled-up and morning, barren and not-loved
from cradle cut, drookit and dry-suckle.
From the womb-machine he spilled/ 0000000000two spun eyes
as if life was000for a moment000too ecstatic.
doubled-up000000where the concrete bites
he dreams contagious shapes/ 000000000000000000a rage of reddening ghosts.
His beautiful cloudy flanks 00000a weld of wounds and wires
00000he feeds from the dark/ 0000000from misery’s underside
the light carmine and open-throated.
Elizabeth Rimmer was born in Liverpool, moving to Scotland in 1977. Her first collection Wherever We Live Now was published in 2011 by Red Squirrel Press. Her second collection The Territory of Rain will be published by Red Squirrel Press in September 2015. She blogs at www.burnedthumb.co.uk.
Julianne Lutz Warren, Fellow with the Center for Humans and Nature, has a Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology. Based now in New York, interior Alaska resonates with her as a home place. Along with creative writings, Julianne has authored the scholarly book, Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey. Currently, her work contemplates extinction and generative renewal in the Anthropocene. She also is active in the climate justice movement.
Gillian Prew was born in Stirling, Scotland in 1966, she studied Philosophy at the University of Glasgow from 1984 to 1988. Her collection, Throats Full of Graves, has been published in 2013 by Lapwing Publications. Her latest collectionA Wound’s Sound, primarily about the ethical status of animals, was published by Oneiros Books in 2014.
“We might be in for a tedious day,” I warned Suzy and Gib. “Motoring in flat calm and very little to see.”
I was on the second stage of my voyage from Cornwall round the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland. Suzy and Gib had joined me on my yacht Coral earlier in the week, both students of outdoor education at Edinburgh University, Suzy from Germany, Gib from Malaysia. Neither had been sailing offshore before, so I was a little concerned in case conditions on the Atlantic coast were too rough for them. I need not have worried: the weather was remarkably quiet, with no wind and a haze low on the surface of the sea.
We left Crookhaven on the south coast of Ireland and crept west along a shoreline completely devoid of any surf. The mist drew closer around us, blurring details and obscuring anything more than half a mile away. I might think it tedious, but all was new to Suzy and Gib, they had never seen the shoreline from a small boat before. Suzy gazed out into the mist, then turned to me, saying, “It reminds me of Michael Ende’s Neverending Story I read as a child, and the ‘Nothing’ within turns everything else into nothingness once it gets touched. It’s neither a hole, nor darkness, just nothingness. How that used to scare me! It’s as if I could see it from here, as if we were sailing straight into it – nothingness – but it doesn’t frighten me this time.”
Gib was the first to spot the splash of a couple of dolphins as they travelled past; and Suzy pointed out how the hazy sun played strange tricks on the cliffs around Mizen Head, reflecting from the sheer surfaces so that the light seemed to be running down the rock face like a waterfall.
From Mizen Head, the most southwesterly point of Ireland, I set a course across the mouths of Dunmanus and Bantry Bays toward Dursey Sound at the tip of the Beara peninsula. As we ventured out to sea the coastline gradually faded. The sea was occasionally decorated in tiny ripples, but most of the time like polished stone. Coral thrust her way forward, the tone of the engine never varying, the Autohelm steering a straight course, her bubbling wake stretching out behind across the flat surface of the sea.
We watched gannets circling high above the sea, flying slowly, heads angled downwards as they looked out for fish. If we were lucky, we would catch sight of one slide sideways into a dive, wings held back in a delta shape, then drawn in close so they struck the water with scarcely a splash. We passed clusters of guillemots, which scurried away from the boat as she approached, their heads jerking anxiously from side to side. Sometimes they dived neatly out of sight one by one; sometimes took flight altogether in a flurry of excited wings. “We won’t see puffins,” I said authoritatively, “They are back out to sea now after the spring breeding season”. But soon Gib pointed one out, then another and another.
Then came the first excitement. Again it was Gib who saw the splash and the dorsal fin of dolphins coming our way. They seemed at first to be passing us by, but then they turned and swam directly toward Coral, passing under the hull in water so clear we could see every detail of their bodies. They played around the bows for a few moments so we could see how their mouths curve in what appears as an enigmatic smile; watch the breathing hole in the top of their heads open and close before they slipped seamlessly under the water again. They didn’t stay with us long but soon turned and were off out to sea in long elegant leaps.
Dolphins and puffins seemed to be as much excitement as one might hope for in a day. Soon Suzy was deep in a philosophy book, Gib was on the foredeck sketching and I was struggling in my notebook, trying to find words to describe the strangeness of the misty seascape.
Then Gib called again, more excitedly this time, struggling to find the English words for what she was seeing, “Something white! Something white! Under boat!” Suzy and I hurried forward to where she was leaning over the pulpit in the bows. We followed her pointing finger over the side, where deep in the water the enormous shape of a whale was passing under the hull. What Gib had spotted was the characteristic white bands on the pectoral fins of a minke whale. It moved, apparently effortlessly, beneath the keel and disappeared into the deep. We looked at each other in amazement. Before we could catch our breaths, the whale surfaced alongside Coral, no more that fifteen yards away, the long slow arc of its back emerging from the water, fountains of spray blowing from its breathing holes before it dived again.
Again it breached, this time surfacing head first so we could see its eye, its long mouth and pale underside, the pleats running back underneath its chin toward its flippers. Coral is a little boat, just 9 metres long – only a little longer than the average minke – with scarcely a metre of freeboard. We were not distanced observers but on the same level, and as the whale’s head rose above the surface we were looking directly eye-to-eye and experienced some strange intimacy in the encounter. It had a curious expression on its face, not seeming to smile like a dolphin, but rather conveying an immense calm.
Then, raising its tail fins clear of the water it dived almost vertically out of sight into the depths below us.
That must be it, we agreed. To expect more than three sightings would be greedy, would it not? But the whale clearly didn’t think so, continuing to breach and dive in Coral’s wake for several minutes before finally disappearing. It left us all with big grins on our faces, Suzy holding her stomach as if it hurt. “It was so close I had to hold onto something.” she said.
What more could we expect? We carried on through Dursey Sound into the Kenmare River, the visibility lifting just enough for us to see the tops of mountains beyond the coast. Then more splashes as a pod of maybe twenty small dolphins raced across our bows with a flock of guillemots hurrying in their wake. Almost exhausted with excitement and stimulus we made our way across the broad river mouth, picked up the leading lines that guided us through the rocks and into Derrynane Harbour, where we found a snug anchorage for the night.
After supper we sat around talking about what we had seen. “The dolphins seemed to just come up and check us out,” said Suzy, “then they travelled on, not knowing how much I was shaken by their appearance.” Gib smiled quietly as we talked, never one for many words. But it was the whale that stayed in our minds. We looked in our reference book and confirmed it was a minke whale or lesser rorqual. We read that the pleats under the chin allow its mouth to expand and take in huge amounts of water that they filter through baleen plates growing from their upper jaws while feeding. But the image remained stronger than the abstract information: we felt we had met, if only briefly, another creature that, while immensely strange, is also an intelligent, air-breathing mammal, just like us.
It might be said that the idea that we ‘met’ the whale in any sense is dangerous anthropomorphic projection. I resist that charge, even as it rings in my own ears. In his book The Dream of the Earth, Thomas Berry, the priest and cultural historian who called himself a geologian or ‘Earth scholar’, offers us the vision of ‘an intimate earth community, a community of all the geological, biological and human components’. Our fulfilment, he writes, is ‘not in our isolated human grandeur but in our intimacy with the earth community’.ii
The mist didn’t take us into the ‘Nothing’ of Suzy’s imagination but into something far more significant. The quiet sea, the diffuse, disorienting qualities of the mist and the sudden appearance of the whale shook us out of our everyday, distanced way of seeing the world. It opened for us a brief encounter that held precious qualities of intimacy. It was a gift and an immense privilege.
Peter Reason has made three ecological pilgrimages around the western seas of Ireland and Scotland, seeking sense of deep participation with the more than human world. He is the author of Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea(Vala Publishing Cooperative, 2014), which weaves an exploration of the human place in the ecology of the planet into the story of a sailing voyage. Prior to his retirement from academia, he made major contributions to the theory and practice of action research in writing, teaching and research about sustainability. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Bath.
i – onthewesternedge.wordpress.com ii – Berry,Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988,p.xiv.
On the banks of the estuary, a ramshackle waterbird sanctuary. Handwritten signs implore ‘Look up!’ ‘Walk Quietly’ – ‘Listen’. Passages from the bible, written in a shaky hand, flutter on posts and downy drifts of feather snag in the mesh of high fences. The rank smell of bird dander infiltrates the air.
Muddy well-trod paths wind through reeds – clumps of swan shit and the footprints of ducks and moorhens emboss the silt. All about us, myriad voices; the screech of native hens, hiss-honk of swans, the coarse whisper of cape barren geese. Haphazard nesting boxes are nailed to mouldering tree trunks and battered tins brim with grain.
The proprietor of the sanctuary is a handsome 92-year-old woman. From the pockets of her apron she throws groats to the birds. Black swans congregate like gangsters. They approach, heads lowered, necks swaying as if independent of the heavy, low-slung belly and red thickset knees. They command the pecking order, drilling grains from our palms, pausing only to rush at the smaller birds that disperse in panicked swathes.
The proprietor speaks of her love of creation, claims it’s no coincidence that Tasmania is the shape of a human heart. “This island”, she says “is the heart of God’s earth”.
Looking out, I see the wind picking up across the estuary. Thin plywood signs flap and shudder, the reeds sway and part, a great green pelt revealing the thin scalp-line of river-flat beneath. Moorhens crouch low in the shallows. This whole shambolic place is an extended love letter to God and the birds; a private refuge, which holds it all – the filth and beauty, the dank and pungent smell of life as it collapses and renews itself. The iridescent wing of the duck is a song of praise, so too the weeping tea tree and the holy cup of weathered nest.
As we walk, I find a solitary chick peeping all alone from a mound of rotted leaves – gently I pick it up and carry it to the woman. She scoops up the hatchling and holds it to the light – “You’ve found a brush turkey!” she exclaims.
Cupping the chick tenderly, she explains that brush turkeys bury their eggs communally in large heaps of leaf litter. It is the fathers who tend to the incubating mounds, regulating the temperature by adding or subtracting twigs and leaves. The warmth of decomposition incubates the eggs. The newly hatched must dig their way out of the mound, and then fend for themselves.
I stare at the perfect, tiny creature astonished that it has emerged from its smouldering pile, blinking and screaming into this bright day.
Rachael Wenona Guy is a multifaceted artist engaged in writing, singing, puppetry and visual art. Growing up in Tasmania has imbued her life with a deep sense of affinity for the natural world. In her personal life and arts practice, animals have featured as metaphors, companions, teachers and colleagues.
The first time I heard it was in the instant after I had first experienced silence.
We came here a few months after our baby was born. I left him and his exhausted mother to sleep and set out up the road to find an open place to walk. Early April, mist feathering. I could hear the chain clank of a tractor getting louder. Its headlights appeared, coming across the moor. The farmer put his thumb up as he passed. I climbed a rise as the clatter quietened, the sound disappearing fast as if the tractor had hit quicksand.
The etymology of the word silence goes back to the Latin word silere “be quiet or still”. It is not possible on this earth to be in a place of total silence, a layer of sound will always unfold from the depths. But quiet and stillness exist, particularly in natural places, though they are hard to find on these crowded islands.
I walked along a track between bracken stubble, over puddled mud and blankets of moss. Every few minutes I stopped. The moor was focused and blurred by the movement of mist. Once or twice rooks called. Then nothing for minutes on end. The low light, scoured landscape and quiet were so disconcerting for a person who had just spent ten years in inner city London that I cut the walk short and turned back. Then, for the first time, I heard a curlew.
Surprise is most powerful when it comes out of silence. To be surprised is to be overtaken. A surprise party was a group of soldiers sent to attack enemies at night, their victims at their most vulnerable and easy to overcome. Surprise breaks through the coral of the familiar. It wakes us up. The call of the curlew has been waking me for years, wrenching me from the thought conversations that suck me in so much that the hills become a background blur. The call comes, it passes straight through me like a ghost through a wall. For a second or two I disappear, replaced by a pure unmediated awareness. In her essay “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise” Jane Hirshfield describes a mountain walk with a friend. On reaching a certain ridge she asks why, although they have been to this place many times before, it always seems so new. Her friend replies: “Because it isn’t me.”
The natural historian Stefan Buczacki writes that “the haunting, glorious call – of the curlew is the most wonderful wild sound in Britain.” In many parts of the world the name we give it is onomatopoeic. The curlew’s name takes us back to our first experiments with the poetry of sound. Many regional names attempt to imitate the bird’s cries: the multi-syllable, Egyptian Arabic Karrawan, French Courlis, Irish Crithane, Sardinian Curruliu or, mimicking its single note call, the Orkney and Shetland Islands’ Waup. In Welsh the name is not onomatopoeic. The modern name Gylfinir describes the shape of its beak, gylfin – down-turned, beak, hir – long. But an older name is steeped in imagery and associations. Here are a few entries from Antiquae Linguae Britannicae Thesaurus by Thomas Richards, published in 1815:
Chwibanu – to whistle Chwibanogl – a pipe or flute Chwibanogl fynydd – A bird called a curlew (fynydd – mountain) Chwibl – sour, sharp Chwibl-oer – sour and cold
A cold and sour mountain flute.
The curlew’s call is often associated with pain and isolation. Though the two birds are unrelated the nocturnal bush stone curlew of Australia has a call very similar to that of the eurasian curlew. There are many aboriginal creation stories about the bush stone curlew but perhaps the most powerful is the creation myth that tells of Ouyan the Curlew who was tasked by his family to go out each night and bring back the meat of an emu. He was a poor hunter and could not approach the swift creature. Being ashamed of his lack of skill he spent the night cutting strips of flesh from his own legs, bringing them back each morning for the meal. Hence the curlew’s wailing cry and stick thin legs.
In the lee of the hill, hidden in a copse, half a mile from the spot where I heard my first curlew, is the Church of Little St David’s. It dates back over a thousand years and was originally a hermitage. There are many such chapels in the Welsh uplands, lonely and abandoned. Its graveyard still holds the bare rocks that were taken from the hill by the poor to be used as their dead children’s headstones. Many of those parents would have held the belief that the curlew’s cry was a herald of death. Its call after dark on winter nights resembled the yelping of a pack of hounds and would have been unnerving to most in this area where the legend of the Black Hound is still prevalent even in the 21st century. In other places and cultures their call represented the coming of storms. Some fishermen would turn their boats back if going out to sea and a curlew called overhead.
I have never heard them in winter and I do not associate their calls with any form of foreboding. To me, the first curlew call represents the end of the long upland winter, the coming back to life of the moor. When the curlew arrives, other birds are on their way. On the small lake locals call the Monk’s Pool, two swans return to breed. Black-headed gulls are coming into their summer plumage, teal and tufted ducks are passing through. Breeding toads appear along with otter spraints.
Those first few weeks of walking on the moor also introduced me to lapwings. There was a flock of about fifty that spring and I spent hours watching their flip-swoops and dives, staring through my binoculars at their emerald to byzantium purple colours, listening to their strange calls like short wave radios tuning to distant signals. The second year the flock was about twenty birds. The year after two pairs returned. Since then, nothing.
When humans abandon a place, their remains can be found for centuries afterwards. A three mile walk across the moor brings you to Pentre Jack, a medieval settlement on an exposed ridge facing west. This is a favourite place for juvenile ravens in October when the westerlies scoop them up in pairs and they ransack the sky above the ruins. For years I walked past the settlement not knowing it was there. Then, on an evening of low sun, I saw the long, parallel shadow lines of field enclosures. A closer look revealed hut circles, doorways, livestock pens. It was easy to picture those people, to understand a little of the difficult lives they lived up here, though they have been gone now for a thousand years. What remains of the lapwings who have been gone for only a few? An image fading in the memory of the upland farmers, most of them in late old age and also about to leave this land. What will the curlews leave behind when the last of the breeding pairs here fail to return?
In a 2009 interview by the BBC World Service, the sound ecologist Dr John Levack Drever was asked which sounds in our environment he would consider endangered. He listed: typewriter, slam door trains, news vendors’ cries, the bells of Routemaster buses, traditional woodcutting and scrap-metal merchant’s trumpet. Only one of these sounds is more than a century old. He goes on to say how the loss of certain sounds in the environment are a source of lament and lists his own sense of loss at the disappearance of a certain gun retort that announced the hour of 1pm over Edinburgh. How long have the curlews been part of our soundscape?
The eurasian curlew is not a threatened species. Its range is huge. Curlews breed as far east as Siberia, down to the Mediterranean and far beyond, being winter visitors to Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. In many areas their numbers are stable and in some they are even increasing. But in the British Isles they are declining rapidly. In this area 110 curlews were recorded in September 1979. In September 2014 there were 29. This correlates with the estimated 80% decline in the species throughout Wales in this period.
How do we visualise declines in species numbers? Most of us see a bar chart in a newspaper or TV report. A 20% decline seems significant but perhaps not too serious. For a 50% decline we see that missing half more clearly, perhaps we visualise a half-empty bottle. What we don’t see is the valleys, moors and woods emptying out, silent spaces reaching towards each other, connecting, growing.
It is mid-April. We have had 2 weeks of warmth and the hills are exploding into life. On the 3rd of the month I heard my first curlews, off to the south, distant. I didn’t see them. Since then I have heard them a few more times, always in the same place, a group of fields that are not being used to graze sheep at the moment. I hope the birds are nesting in good cover away from the eyes of crows and the increasing numbers of red kites that may account for the most recent drop in their numbers. The initial reduction in the 1980‘s was mainly due to changes in farming practices: the introduction of silage which is cut in May instead of hay which is harvested later in the summer when curlew chicks are bigger and mobile enough to evade the machines. Now it is thought that the continuing decline is caused by predation of eggs and chicks as there are no longer enough birds to see off roaming crows and raptors. But if they find a good spot, the nests are hard to find even for corvid and raptor eyes. An old Welsh story about St Beuno tells of how the saint used to cross from the mainland to Anglesey to preach to his congregation. Instead of taking a boat, he simply walked across the water. On one trip home he became wrapped up in thought and dropped his precious book of sermons into the water, which disappeared under the surface. On reaching land he walked up onto the beach to find a curlew standing guard over the book which it had placed to dry out on a stone. The saint then prayed to the creator requesting that its eggs would be difficult to find. For centuries the prayer seemed to retain its power and curlews were prevalent all over Wales. But the prayer seems to have lost its power in the modern age.
I’ve heard them but I’ve yet to see them so I spend three days searching:
At Llangorse Lake there are information signs telling visitors to look for flocks of curlews feeding up on worms for the breeding season. There is a lot of cover here, many acres of unfertilized and undrained fields, traditionally grazed to preserve wild grasses and the wildflower meadows which are just beginning to flood with colour. I cross a stream teaming with red-finned roach and spend hours in a hide over the reed beds which purr and chatter with the sound of water rails, warblers and buntings. On the surrounding pastures there are redstarts and wheatears, a hoard of canada geese. Out on the water there are crested grebes, black-headed gulls, cormorants, coots and moorhens. Herons sail-row above the reeds like viking longships. The whole place is a factory of bird-sound. I cannot hear curlews.
Rhulen Hill is a grouse moor covering thousands of acres stretching from the Herefordshire border to the rocks and caves at Aberedw. The whole area is optimized for ground-nesting. There are short-eared owls breeding here in the heather and bilberry as well as black grouse. It is a depressing place, the land dark and undulating like rows of swells coming in from a cold ocean. Red Kites roam low over the moor. Skylarks and a pair of ravens, a single kestrel suspended and flickering. There is a high escarpment of mudstone stacked like teetering towers of books where a pair of peregrines are nesting. I try to approach them slowly and sit at the foot of the cliff listening to their screes until the tiercel spurts out and circles me. In the single blackthorn tree at the foot of the cliff a crow sits on its eggs, a glistening sloe eye against the dark knot of its nest. I wonder how curlews manage to breed here without being seen by the raptors who seem to have every inch of the place covered with their search glares. Hours later, freezing and heading home I see them, a single pair, calls shivering as they land in the heather and stand for a time profiled against the skyline. One is much bigger than the other, a female and male. They don’t stay, in a few minutes the male leaves, crossing low over the cliffs, beneath the tiercel peregrine which has just reappeared. Thankfully the falcon is not hunting and the female curlew follows, piping loudly after her mate. I go home smiling.
As I walk into the wind blowing out of the east where the curlews are still holding on I imagine the day, one, five or ten years from now: It will be late May and silence will have spread another ribbon across this island. The bracken returns, everywhere the ground opens releasing question marks.