Great and Lesser Birds, Great and Lesser Deaths

by Alex Lockwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demonio

by Jessica Groenendijk

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

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

“Any luck?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Mira, Chachon. Un murcielago.”

Chachon interrupted his bailing to look.

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

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

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

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

Manu River
Manu River – Image by  Jessica Groenendijk

 

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

He looked at me. “Why do you ask?”

“We’ve got a baby bat in the tent.”

“We do? How did it get in?”

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

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

“Well, you can try, I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you going to do with that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forced

by Dorene O’Brien

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” said Moe.

“A high grizzly population area.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” said Ryan. “I’ll do it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Song of the Shetland Wren

by Sally Huband

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and thanks:

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

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

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

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

Tempestuous Eden by Ursula Venables published in 1952 by Museum Press

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

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

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

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

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

Many thanks to the BOU for access to the Ibis papers

 

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

In the Eyes of a Bear

by Julian Hoffman

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

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

bear_tracks
Bear Tracks. Image by Julian Hoffman

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

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

prespalakes
Image by Julian Hoffman

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

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

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

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

Poetry – Issue 2.1

The Ornithologist

by Anita John

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

Roadkill

by Barbara Hickson

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

The Clearing

by Chris Powici

hoofprints in the hard, bright snow

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

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

barely seems to breathe

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

Poet Biographies:

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

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

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

Poetry – Issue 2.2

Horseshoe Crab

by Oonah V Joslin

horseshoe crabs
the sang royal of living fossils are
blue-blooded hemocyanins
copper bottom feeders

under their carapace
like armoured spider-tanks
with many eyes and legs
they invade the beaches of New York
each year generating eggs in
superabundance inviting
summer flocks
that mock their reproductive cycle

it’s the best seafood diner
on the east side

men milk blue crab blood
to test products for toxins
then casually throw them back
to die

there is no copyright
on blue crabs
no blueprint
on endangerment
but in Chesapeake Bay they try

Dust Catcher

by Jane Burn

Spider’s web in the hay barn, sailing its meal of motes
between two bales. Saggy with dust – a hammock
for stalks razed by machine in the thick of a hot September;
delicious with scent. A hermitage for a Charlotte
heavy with eggs.

This one though – deserted. Perhaps her sac was only spun
with fluff, opening to a gasp of empty air.
Tension slack without the pluck of testing claws –
the wind measures a small tear
in this broken home.

wirds

by Morgan Downie

easy to fall in love
with words here
make the leap
from linnaean to local

scarf and hiplin
on the headland
between the leap
and dive of maallie

at the sea’s edge,
ebb-fools and sandilu,
while from the grass
the cry of spooie rising

words of weave
wirds o makkin
words to stitch
the sea and sky

yarn and thread
to keep the past
being unspooled
from the present

Shetlandic words:

scarf – cormorant
hipline – shag
maallie – fulmar
ebb-fool – sanderling
sandilu – ringed plover
spooie – curlew
makkin – knitting, a gathering of women to knit

Poet Biographies:

Ulster born poet and writer Oonah V Joslin has lots of work online including 100 horrors in Microhorror and you can find links to most of it at her blog  Parallel Oonahverse. She is currently poetry Editor at The Linnet’s Wings literary magazine.

Jane Burn is a North East based writer and a member of 52. Her work has appeared in magazines such as Butcher’s Dog and Ink, Sweat & Tears. She has been long-listed in the 2014 Canterbury Poet of the Year and National Poetry Competitions, as well as being commended in the Yorkmix. Her work has also appeared in Emma Press and Kind of a Hurricane Press Anthologies and her first pamphlet will shortly be published by Talking Pen.

Morgan Downie is a poet, short story writer and visual artist with limited bird watching skills. He was Sumburgh lighthouse artist in residence in January this year which is where these poems were written. Further details at: morgandownie.com

A Gyrfalcon for a King

by Colin Williams

“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’.

How Sweet My Calling

by Alex Lockwood

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.

Bhaltos

by Karen Izod

27th May, Bhaltos, Isle of Lewis

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