Standing on Stromatolites

by Anja Semanco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Bottom of the Food Chain

by James Michael Dorsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by James Michael Dorsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by James Michael Dorsey


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by James Michael Dorsey

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

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

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

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

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


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


An Island Ecology

by Sarah Thomas

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

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

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

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

“All three of us?” we chime.

“Ja ja, get in.”

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

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

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

Image by Sarah Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are they doing?” I asked him.

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

Image by Sarah Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Sarah Thomas

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

He pulled out the detached block of jaw and teeth.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Poetry – Issue 7.1

Salmo salar

by Char March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


by Gordon Meade 
Image by Doug Robertson


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

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

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


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

The Comogues

by Helen Kidd

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

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

In the sea life shack

by Jan Dean

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

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

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

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

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

a million whitish suckerings
grip the glass

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

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

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

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

Herring Gulls, Aldeburgh

by Jane Lovell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


by Judith Barrington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poet and Artist Biographies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Poetry – Issue 7.2


by Laura M Kaminski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


by Pippa Little

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

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

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

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

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

among the human


by Sara Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

Sea Souvenir

by Sarah James

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thornback Ray
Found on Filey beach

by Wendy Pratt


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

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

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


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


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

Antarctica: as seen on TV

by Wes Lee

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

he is clearly eaten,
clearly being dead

but dead in such clear water
seems like uber death

death in 3D
death in close-up;

the ice shelf above
with its mountainous dark

and all that warm blood that sails beneath
leaving its scratches

as if dangled hooks.
And I always wonder why

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

with their cool opaque clarity
like no colour anywhere else

in nature;
more California than California.


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

Poet Biographies:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gary Cook – Painter

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

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

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

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



by Ferris Jabr

Every day the furless seals come to the shore, stomachs swinging at their side. They promptly regurgitate for us. Finned morsels fly toward our yawning mouths—slender, bloodless, half-thawed. They land as heavy as raindrops on the tongue. Then the seals hide their paunches. They start to bark and wave.

We are still hungry. We know what we must do. Down we go, nose-first, skimming the myopic floor of our world, rebounding with a single wag. We are out. We fly, briefly—big black birds, more rubber than feather, more will than wing. The fat slap of our return. We dive and turn again, hurling ourselves across that liquid membrane. We tumble forward, collapse on our backs. Ecstatic, the seals breach our domain. We let them rub and ride, indulging them like children, lifting them up like gods. We are their legless palanquins, their pedestals of meat.

The seals routinely invite their friends. They gather in enormous herds, perching awkwardly on their rears. Few are as lean and smooth-skinned as our keepers. Most never stop eating, except to clap and squeal. They are infinite, arriving and leaving in ceaseless waves.

Sometimes we try to remember how we got here. It is easy to mistake mirage for memory. A depthless expanse hovers at the horizon of our mind. Yet it seems we have been in this pinched puddle all our life.

There is nothing for us in such meek water. Nothing to see or hear or hunt. We live in cellophane. There are others nearby, though, similar to us. We can almost understand them. But they tend to speak in painfully high tones, their syntax rapid and erratic. Occasionally the seals drop enemies among us—rival shadows. They are of our kind, but not of our clan. They should not be here. They threaten to divide us, to replace us altogether. We try to push them out—with sound, with weight. We maw and rake. We break our teeth upon shoulders of rock, barred eyes, passing flesh.

All tongue and gum, we call out. For kin, we presume; for family we remember but have never met. We convulse our cerebral lips, half shouting, half singing. It does not matter. Our words never leave the confines of this strange loop. We coast along its shallows, drift near its surface. We follow its curve, first one way, then the other, swimming into our own wake.

Our scallop of water warps both light and time. Monotony mangles our moments. The past is garbled, the future easy to sketch. What legacy we have is manufactured for us. We have seen many generations. Always the same. We are milked and seeded. We swell and deliver. Then the abductions. We sear the water with our screams, with messages meant to travel miles, only to swallow their sudden echoes.

Night is hardest to endure. Helpless before the immense stillness. We are suspended in nothingness. Paralyzed by it. So we sink into the lethe between sleep and wake. Only to be roused by a noise or light we cannot identify. This is when we most keenly perceive our circumstances. We are monsters too precious for the slaughter. Living ornaments on display. We have been bottled for someone else’s pleasure.


Ferris Jabr is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, The, The Awl, and McSweeney’s among other publications.


The Pickieterno

by Stephen Rutt

It had died in the past hour. Severed, crimson-fresh, and glassy eyed. Soft to touch — pre rigor mortis. I’d pulled it out of the long grass under the wind turbine. An arctic tern with one wing, one head, one severed chest. Its heart, as thick as my thumb but half as long, glistened, still damp with blood. With that small organ pumping life around its body, it flies from here to the southern oceans and back to this small island — 30,000 miles a year. I saw the length of the world in its heart, a map in its gristle, flyways in its sinews.

I’d spent three months on the island before the arctic terns appeared. The island was North Ronaldsay, a four-mile-long fragment of rock, an aberration in the sea on the northern edge of the Orkney archipelago. Twenty-seven miles beyond lies Fair Isle, visible on clear days. Occasionally Foula, fifty miles due north, could be seen in the absolute clarity of early morning, before the air filled with salt haze. It appeared like a child-drawn volcano, an acute triangle of rock in the Atlantic. I’d become used to this scale. By the distances of modern life they weren’t too far away. On the scale of an island’s horizon, massive. Fair Isle and Foula belong to a different archipelago, one that is almost impossible to get to from here. They have a different dialect and a different identity. Over there they call a tern a ‘tirrick’. On North Ronaldsay we use ‘pickieterno’.

The terns appeared out of the grey, ahead of a squall, one morning in May. Sterna paradisea: tern of paradise. Like an old friend reacquainted from last year, it was both joyful and jarring. I always forget over the winter quite how they look. How small, thin and light they are. The elastic elegance of their wing beats, as if they fly through a different substance, lighter, more buoyant than air. They bear a superficial resemblance to seagulls. They have a glossy black cap. Vivid red feet and a bill as bright. The bill is stout, though up close more delicate looking, with a gentle downward curve. Their legs are tiny, and when they are perched they resemble pale flakes of rock. Like an overcast sky, the body and wings are soft grey and white. Against the light the wings are translucent white, though smudged with a smoky grey edge. The white and grey tail is as long as a swallow’s streamer and responsible for the colloquial name, sea swallow. As with all close relatives they are and they aren’t like seagulls: familiar in features and utterly different in spirit.

The terns have come here to breed; I have come here to help count them. North Ronaldsay bird observatory thrives on volunteer staff that come from all over Britain, united by a love of birds. We are not ornithologists but variously builders from Cornwall, Somerset fishmongers, gap year students, future doctors and exiles from London without a science degree between us. We count and tag the birds that migrate through or breed on the island as part of the observatory’s work, the twenty-ninth consecutive year this has happened. It doesn’t take us long to get into the swing of work and life in such a remote part of Britain. The terns don’t take long either. Within a week the old colonies on the preferred rocky outcrops around the coast are alive again. That’s where I needed to go for monitoring.

A sharp pinprick. The splatter of shit on the back of my coat. I was being driven off. Terns overhead, queuing in the air above me, taking turns. They cry — a noise like they’re being ripped in two but with almost mechanical regularity. I had seen this before on TV. A polar bear stumbling over rocks in the tundra, arctic terns darting down, showering it with blows until they drew blood. The bear moves away; the tern is mightier. Another tern made a pass at my ear; I spun around on a seawater-slicked rock and ended up sitting in a rock pool.

Life in a tern colony is not calm. They are loud and quick, and anger pulses through them – though anger is perhaps not the word. It is vigilance and belligerence, a full-hearted defence against intruders. Colonies depend on joint defence. Individually they are smaller and lighter than gulls, skuas and sheep, but together they can drive almost anything off. The bigger the colony, the more success they’ll have.

Success seems a long way off. A tern’s definition of summer is May to August, but this far north the increasingly unpredictable climate is jeopardising that season. May was cold and grey. June was a washout. The grass didn’t grow, the cows were on silage until July. The fish came, then went, then came again. The water levels rose and rose. The first broods were destroyed, a literal washout, or for those further away from the water’s edge, the grass that didn’t grow around the nests presented them as an egg platter, or a small chick snack fit for the maw of a marauding great skua. I saw what I thought was teamwork. A pair of great skuas, one flying fast at the edge of the colony. White-tipped wings flashing in bright sunlight. It flew low and hard at the edge and the terns’ belligerent instincts kicked in. The colony rose up like a wave and chased it off. The second skua drifted over an unprotected feast.

Image by Stephen Rutt

I have some sympathy for the devils. They nest on the west coast in a boggy field near the airstrip. There are no raptors on the island and the skuas fulfill that niche, picking off the plethora. They move with brute charisma, an angry swagger. If you walk too close to them they will defend their territory from you like the terns will. But they don’t feel like a pinprick. Skuas have a five foot wingspan, a bill like a machete and clawed-feet dangling as they fly straight for your head. You duck and get out of the field quickly. I have seen skuas give gannets a good head-start, then chase them down and upend them to steal their fish. There are more gannets still — one misty morning 5,000 streamed past the observatory like salmon running up an Alaskan river. There are good numbers of seabirds remaining currently, but they won’t last forever at this rate. Arctic terns are amber listed. Declines are concerning. And when they’re gone? The world loses a global species — a tie that binds the north and south, polar bear and penguin.

I’m reminded of Tennyson’s struggle to understand how nature changed around him. In the 1850s, while grief-struck, he wrote of nature: ‘So careful of the type she seems, / So careless of the single life;’ (In Memoriam, LV, L5-8). We have swung almost completely around from Tennyson’s concerns. We’re now so concerned with the single life that we forget to be careful of the type. A single dead tern under a turbine is upsetting. Global warming driving the species ever further north and south is even worse. At 59 degrees north, Orkney is at the southern end of their breeding range, a range that extends as far north as Cape Morris Jessup, the northernmost tip of mainland Greenland. They spend the winter on Antarctic pack ice. For the great travellers, there’s not much more room for them to go.

The solstice came in a thick haar — the longest day of daylight and you couldn’t see a thing. July: a blessing in 30 days where I didn’t need to wear my winter coat once. By the end of the month, the first dispersal of the year. Adults and young, successful and unsuccessful breeders, turned up on the rocks at the top of the island. Counting terns is deceptive. A manageable flock on the rocks triples in size when a skua drifts past, or a walker kicks a stone, or a sheep ventures too close. It becomes chaos, like counting snowflakes in a blizzard. It is our job as monitors to decipher the chaos — sort order out of panic. It is also, in a way, like panning for gold, such as when a black tern from Eastern Europe was found. Though not irregular in England, they’re eye-wateringly unusual this far north and west. The arctic tern flock reached 4,000 terns, or 80 birds to every islander. Those that have bred remain communal and retain aggression. Another opportunity for breeding began.

When the day’s monitoring is done, I read from a book called Birds of the Western Palearctic (BWP). It is the ornithologist’s bible — all the scientific studies on every European species summarised and condensed. It stretches to nine volumes. It is monolithic, and I feel like a heretic reading it. A faker, sidetracked by facts from Lake Myvatn in Iceland, where one arctic tern was recorded making 4.6 dives per minute with a success rate of 69.2%. I separate what I actually want to know out from the dense scientific prose. The eggs weigh on average 19 grams. 4cm by 3cm. Both parents look after the young and the bond lasts into the southward migration, but then dissolves. Apparently the parents won’t spend the winter together.

From the northernmost headland the news is not positive. Here the terns nest on a broad sweep of rock down from a headland to the sea, finding crevices amongst the rocks bunched and crumpled like discarded paper. There is no aerial frenzy, no bombardment. From a count of 150 pairs a few weeks ago, we only find three fledged young and many abandoned eggs, as cold as wet rock to touch. It is mystifying — this colony was a third bigger than the one next to it and should be better defended. It is not until we leave that we stumble across the reason why. Stashed in a hollow by the drystone dyke, half-hidden by the long grass we find a few loose tern feathers. Then a wing, a tail, legs. Half a chick, feather shafts half-grown from its downy wings. The hallmarks of cat predation. A colony without life is a haunting place. Instead of the screeching of adults, all you can hear are waves gently rolling into the shore. The conspicuousness of absence. The wrongness of it is unbearable. It feels like a disaster.

Back at the observatory I carry on my reading. BWP tells me that the terns are monogamous but ‘divorce’ happens, more frequently amongst younger birds. For the birds that lose a partner, they skip a breeding season. Then, in future years, they will return late to the colony, pair up later, breed later. I don’t know how ornithology knows this, but it feels important that someone somewhere does.

The tern blizzard has worked though. By the lighthouse we count 95 terns sat flush on the rocks, immobile and impervious to the thousands more that bustle around them. On a fine day a week or so later we entered the colony. Showered in excrement from the bird blizzard. Our heads hang, eyes scouring the ground and our footfall. Nobody wants to be the one to stand on an egg, or worse, a chick, and nobody does. It’s a dangerous time. We choose the fine days so that eggs don’t get cold or wet while the adults are up in the air. We move quickly to minimise disturbance.

On the rocks we find chicks. I find one chick hiding with its head tucked into a crevice in the rock. It is downy soft, stone brown, speckled darker. They can vanish from above, but on eye-level they look ludicrous, with adult-thick orange legs and a stubby carrot of a beak. Born two days ago, I reckon, though I can’t tell for certain. I turn it on to its back, my fingers either side cradling it. I pull out a ring and gently plier it shut, checking to make sure it fits as a perfect circle around its leg. I place it down, back where I found it, to resume its life on the hard rocks.

The ring has a unique code on it and back at the observatory it will be put into the national database. When the bird next gets trapped, the ring code will be read and logged on the database. It’s a simple method but it’s how we know that arctic terns will live for a quarter of a century. It’s how we know that one tern, ringed as a chick in Northumberland was found in Australia three months later.

I walk towards another chick I can see, looking like a stone shuffling over stones. This one is older — it has feathers instead of down, an adult-sized bill and wings that aren’t fluffy stumps. I reach down. It jumps up. Flaps its wings and takes off. First flight. Its wings are not quite fully grown, its feathers not quite the sharp-tipped tools that will take it to Antarctica. They are stumpy and half-formed, but good enough. It flaps deep wing beats and flies off down the other end of the rocks, gracefully dropping down. I guess some things just come naturally.

Image by Stephen Rutt

The season is out of kilter. Colonies, in an ideal world, all lay eggs and raise chicks in sync with each other. As we move through we find freshly laid eggs and recently fledged young, alongside full grown young from other colonies on other islands. I notice one egg tremble, cracks spreading throughout its shell. An egg tooth — the hard knob on the tip of its bill — breaks through, as the impulse to life drives the chick inside to break the warm wall of its embryonic state and change its world forever. It’s a complicated experience. I don’t hang around to watch it happen, despite a compulsion, the nagging sense that it will be the most extraordinary, privileged event to witness. By the same token it feels like an intrusion, a transgression of some necessary boundary. It doesn’t feel right. I am merely happy enough that there are tern chicks still hatching. It means the world to me.

From the 95 pairs we counted 59 fledged young from that colony. On paper, not the most productive part of the island, an offshoot of two pairs around the corner from that colony managed to raise all their chicks. The statistical outlier. From a total of 579 paired terns, 95 chicks were fledged. A 0.16 productivity rate looks terrible, but in reality it is a relief, each fledged chick a victory in defiance of a most unpredictable summer. As the season ends in August the 4,000 strong flock dwindles to several hundred, then a mere handful of birds. Shetland, Norwegian, Icelandic young pass through. Possibly even Greenlandic young — maybe the birds from 84 degrees north at Cape Morris Jessup — might pass through on the back of a gale.

Autumn. Absence again. Silence. Wind and rain. The occasional tern still hurries past, south-bound, but suddenly they seem out of place. They are no longer starkly white against a blue sky, but grey and flimsy, too light for the weather we experience. They should be halfway south by now — a month and a half after fledging — the birds breeding north of the arctic circle experiencing night properly for the first time around the equator. In another month or so, as we slip into winter, they’ll be back in the season they chase from one end of the earth to the other, at home, in perpetual daylight on the pack ice of the Antarctic summer.


Header image by Stephen Rutt

Stephen Rutt is a naturalist, writer and photographer from East Anglia. He has recently completed the MA in Wild Writing from the University of Essex and his work has appeared in Earthlines, The Harrier and on the Wild Easters blog. He tweets a lot @steverutt



by Michael Engelhard

Everything is flowing—going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water.
—John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (1911)

Encounters with wildlife can feel like payback for karmic points earned and keep some of us buzzing for days. Perhaps more than in its weather or plants, the land’s life force concentrates in its creatures, sharpened to poignancy, similar but foreign enough to our own to be captivating. To a few people it—or a thing closely related to it—becomes audible. A fellow wilderness guide describes it as a low frequency sound, “like a didgeridoo,” which she has come to expect in certain places and greets as an old friend. Of course, the humming just might be tinnitus, or our mind wanting to hear something, anything, beyond sub-polar silence.

One fall day on a Canning River raft trip I guided, at the western boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, will always remain special to the trip’s participants for what the land offered up without asking for anything but our attention.

Sipping coffee in the morning’s quiet, looking south from the top of the bluff where we had pitched our tents, I noticed a white lump on the bench below muscling toward camp. I did not believe my eyes. A polar bear! The clients popped from their nylon cocoons like ground squirrels from their burrows when I alerted them—one clad in boxer shorts and a down jacket. My co-guide Cyn insisted on getting the shotgun from its waterproof sleeve by my tent. We stood and watched the bear sniff and root around. To the marine mammal-dependent carnivore (the largest on land), ground squirrels, foxes, or birds could have been the only morsels of interest there. But as mere flashes in its metabolic pan, they would never provide enough calories for this blubber-burning powerhouse.

The bear’s wedge of a head swung on the pendulous neck, snakelike, gauging god-knows-what. Thirty miles from the coast, radiant against willows and heather, the bear looked more displaced than it would have in a zoo. The previous year, sea ice—a haul-out for seals and hunting platform for the bears—had shrunk to the third-lowest extent on record. Hunger or curiosity could have driven the bear this far inland. It appeared healthy and fat, but if the spring ice had broken up early again, it would be in for a long fast.

Polar bear near the Eskimo village of Kaktovik by Rich Wilkins

In the spring of 2008, Native hunters had killed a polar bear near Fort Yukon, two hundred and fifty miles south of the Beaufort Sea coast. Its inland excursion was the longest ever recorded for an Alaska polar bear. Normally at that time of year the animals would be foraging on the sea ice. I only found out after our trip that our sighting qualified as the farthest inland sighting of a Polar Bear in the Arctic Refuge. In 2011, a scientific study reported a polar bear marathon swim. A GPS-collared female with her yearling cub had paddled 426 miles—from east of Barrow to near the Canadian border—across the Beaufort Sea. In search of an ice floe to haul out on, she spent nine days straight in barely above-freezing-point water. Her cub did not survive. Clearly, as far as northern species and their behavior go, we now should expect the unexpected.

Without a care in the world, the bear we’d been watching lay down for a nap halfway up the bluff’s slope. What was there to fear?

We sat and kept our binoculars trained on the pile that could easily have been mistaken for a limestone boulder. Occasionally, the bear lifted its head to sample the air. We crouched downwind from it, and it remained unaware of our presence.

Before long, a golden eagle stroked past. Mobbed by some songbirds but regal in its bearing, it scrutinized the bear, which did not wake up. Then another bright spot heading downstream caught my eye. A cub? But the gait was different, a trot with a mission more than an ambling; the mark of canine determination, not of the larger carnivore’s easy opportunism. A scan with my glasses revealed a white wolf.

Animals congregating near us for no obvious reason leave us mystified and in awe, even more so when they are charismatic or rare. They represent connections we have lost, evoking lineages and life ways that once were familiar but now seem arcane. They appear as sudden emissaries, omens, or uncanny messengers, although most of us no longer speak their language. At our layover camp, tracks of caribou, wolves, moose, bears, foxes, and a wolverine had stamped the mudflats with the animals’ hidden intentions. The day after, we had observed a black Arctic fox, a moose built like a bulldozer, and a peregrine striking a ptarmigan on the fly and passing it off to a juvenile bird—all within one hour. Animals even sought contact with us on occasion, mirrors of our own curiosity: mew gulls escorted the rafts, shrieking blue murder and sounding like rusty door hinges. Caribou high-stepped closer, curious, eyeing us nervously. I baited them by waving my paddle overhead. A red fox—non-native like myself and likely to cannibalize its smaller arctic cousins if it came upon them—investigated our dinner setup. Even in the continent’s frugal margins, the paths of animals had changed. We had changed them by our mere presence.

Sure, there were explanations for such meetings, for the overlapping of agendas in space and time, or at least the beginnings of explanations. Caribou are known to be curious, gulls and terns aggressive toward intruders. Mornings and evenings, warm-blooded animals tend to be more active, avoiding mosquito peak times or heat, fueling up for a cold night or the day ahead. With their patchwork of habitats, rivers provide food and cover for predators and prey alike. Their corridors ease travel, funneling animals—and humans—from the boggy and lumpy tundra onto natural highways. In part, our encounters were signs of the land’s seasonal abundance, the narrow window for blooming and birthing, maturing and mating, that winter too soon slams shut. We also had to account for selective perception, our minds’ intense focusing. The more we yielded to our surroundings, the better we learned to look and listen for signs and shed our civilization’s blinders, the more animal sightings were our reward. When our attention strayed to daydreams or to each other, wildlife must have slipped past us unnoticed. Despite our desire, the landscape seemed lifeless for hours at a time and miles around. We frequently surveyed it from a hilltop or standing up in the rafts, finding no movement except in the river’s slippage beneath scudding clouds. What orchestrated the meanderings across this land? What tangled invisible paths at greater than random frequency? Did life attract more life, beyond caloric or reproductive rewards? Was there some animal magnetism, some orbiting of terrestrial bodies about which we knew nothing but which included us?

Shadowing the Porcupine Caribou Herd on their migration for a thousand miles, the writer and wildlife biologist Karsten Heuer heard a “guttural thrumming” at significant moments in the herd’s migration. Low-frequency “infrasonic” exchanges across distances much greater than those covered by high-frequency sounds have been documented for elephants and whales. Heuer believes the phenomenon he witnessed could be a key to understanding communication that orchestrates the Porcupine herd’s moves and even transcends species boundaries. This strongly resonates with the beliefs of Gwich’in Indian hunters who, regarding caribou as distant kin, claim that they can converse with them.

Unconcerned with attempts to make sense of it all, fully present here and now, the wolf approached the sleeping bear. Casting sideways glances and giving it a wide berth of respect, it then sauntered over a ridge, out of sight but already etched into memory.

Because the bear was not moving much and posed no immediate threat, I had breakfast and broke down my tent. Then, I acted as lookout while the rest of our group took their turn and loaded the rafts, screened by the bluff and prevailing wind. As I contemplated Sleeping Beauty with some voyeuristic unease, I realized once again that, out there, who spots whom first amounts to a matter of safety. Vision, hearing, and sense of smell have been refined to various degrees in the tundra’s denizens to ensure survival of the most sentient. Exposure and this landscape’s spare natural soundtrack awaken instincts long dulled in us. Alert, we become fully, if at times frightfully, alive.

As if to drive home that point, a camouflaged couple we’d run into below the Marsh Fork confluence came floating around the bend. Velvety caribou antlers in the raft’s bow attested to their prowess as hunters. But they drifted by with their bloody cargo, oblivious to the predator outside their field of vision that had just bumped them to a lower rank on the food chain. I shuddered to think how often I had courted disaster unknowingly, like this.

When we shoved into the current a few hours after the initial sighting, the bear was up and moving again, sniffing and pawing through bushes on the bench. We snuck away like thieves, enriched by an encounter that luckily stressed none of the parties involved.
Over the next fifteen miles, our course intersected with that of a northern harrier, a rough-legged hawk, more peregrines, and low-flying, yammering loons. Another arctic fox popped from between tussocks and then sat on its haunches with erect ears, intrigued by the bipedal transients.

Hours later, a tundra airstrip and a water flow gauge perched on a terrace on river right announced the end of our journey. They were the first manmade structures we had seen since we launched, a week before.

After a dinner upgraded by fresh grayling and salmon-red char, I dumped dishwater down the cutbank, scattering ground squirrels that had staked out riverfront property by tunneling below the rim. Straightening up, I faced a grizzly nosing along the opposite shore. As we were gathering to keep tabs on its progress, furtive movement on our side caught my eye. Some dark troll momentarily rose on its hind legs for a better view of us. Bear cub, my thoughts clicked into the familiar groove; but Cyn correctly identified the creature: “It’s a wolverine!” Loping toward us on flat feet, it stopped repeatedly, as if considering a dare. This allowed us to check the bushy tail, burly legs, and brawler’s face characteristic of one of the North’s most elusive animals. I stared in disbelief until my eyes watered. This was only my second run-in with the weasel on steroids, and the first time, in Denali, it had been a mere glimpse. At roughly a hundred yards, the wolverine hesitated. Deciding that it had crossed some kind of threshold, it bolted, jumped into the river, and dogpaddled to the other side. Onshore, it shook its backlit coat, sending a burst of droplets flying in all directions. By then, the bear had bedded down for the evening. The wolverine continued upstream where it spied the bear. Like its wolf counterpart before, it detoured around the shaggy, sleeping mound. Then it clawed from the gravel bar up onto a bench and vanished behind a rise.

What a strange variation of a theme—like an Animal Planet rerun with a different cast. But to capture scenes like the ones we had witnessed in a single day, a documentary film crew would have to spend weeks or even months in the wilds.

Sunset had turned the northwestern horizon into a garish smear. A string of geese sailed right through it, black cutouts pulled by instinct to their fall staging grounds near Beaufort Lagoon. The river shone gunmetal blue, braiding and unbraiding into its delta, enticing us to carry on. Struck by oblique rays, sea ice glowed in the distance. The bear was still snoozing. When it got too dark to make out its shape, the clients crawled into their tents, trusting in our arsenal of pots and pans, pepper spray, and assorted firearms.

As evening river sounds will, the Canning’s monologue made me pensive. In my fifty-two years on the planet—much of them spent in the backcountry—I had never seen a federally endangered species. This summer, I had seen two, the polar bear and a passel of humpback chubs in the Grand Canyon. I wondered if the odds simply increased as more animals ended up on that shameful list, or if, on some subconscious level, I sought out the rare and the blighted before it could disappear. The thought that my clients essentially funded my wildlife viewing and that the carbon footprint I left on the way possibly outweighed any awareness I hoped to instill further complicated matters.

“A few recovered species don’t compensate for the lost company of great beasts,” the marine biologist Carl Safina writes. Sadly, he’s right. But here there still were some, and we in their company found a measure of solace in these seamless days on the river. I knew that whenever the refuge played big in the media, because yet another attack on it was being launched, visitor numbers rocketed. Many people with whom I spoke confessed that they wanted to see this place while there was still time; a refuge for wildlife, we needed it just as badly. What we all felt, I’d like to believe, was a mixture of helplessness, guilt, and regret rather than morbid, rubbernecking curiosity. Like conscientious criminals, we were drawn to the scene of the crime, witnesses and perpetrators rolled into one, forever haunted by our deeds and sins of omission. Perhaps, in the great beasts’ presence, we were hoping to somehow be forgiven.

Before I turned in, the realities of our streamside world dissolved into those of another, one by then almost forgotten. To the north, near the coast, orange gas flares and red strobes turned the night into a mad carnival. Flames split, fused and twitched in the crystalline air like some live alien thing. They spelled the undoing of everything we had experienced this past week. They proclaimed the place where sanctuary yielded to busyness, where extraction passed for production, where the earth and its creatures took second billing. They hawked the stuff that became our gear and got us to the river: Prudhoe Bay crude.

Michael Engelhard is the author of the forthcoming essay collection American Wild (Hiraeth Press) and of Ice Bear, a cultural history of the polar bear (University of Washington Press). He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and still works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.

Header Image: With no natural enemies except humans, polar bears often take naps in the open. Their clean lines and flowing form inspired the English sculptor and painter John Macallan Swan in 1903 to this untitled sketch. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The Imagined Bear

by Kimberly Moynahan

Or in the night, imagining some fear
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!
______________– Shakespeare. “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”

The rain had started before bedtime. Now in the dark of night, it whipped itself into a full out storm; heavy drops pounded the shingled roof of the three-sided lean-to and wind snapped the tent fly we had hung over the front opening. With each gust the fly billowed, launching a light spray onto our sleeping bags and faces. Between lightning flashes the dark was so thorough it seemed solid. With everything but our imagination drowned out by the beating rain we strained our ears, listening for the bears.

I trembled.
“Mom, are you scared?”
“No,” I whispered. “Just cold. It’s okay. Try to sleep.”
I wasn’t scared. I was terrified.

Still shaking, I snuggled my sleeping bag closer to Xan’s, pressing her small body against the side wall of the shelter. Glenn moved closer on my other side. We lay still and quiet. Listening.

It was our first backpacking trip that summer and we had hiked into Lake Colden, a popular camping destination in New York’s Adirondack High Peaks, earlier that day. Expecting rain overnight, we claimed one end of a first-come, first-served shelter. Only halfway through our five day trip, there was a lot to be said for keeping the tent dry. The lean-to, a sturdy log structure, perched on a slope overlooking the lake. The hewn logs held the dusky scent of damp wood and decades of campfire smoke and bore the carved inscriptions of scores of hikers who had enjoyed its shelter before us.

By the time we arrived, Lake Colden was already abuzz with backpackers – a term I use loosely to describe the scrabble of people who had walked in from the parking area seven miles up the trail. Lake Colden didn’t attract backcountry hikers but was more an overnight destination for families and partygoers. They arrived in loud groups, men hefting coolers of beer between them; women with loaves of bread and cook pots strapped to their packs; teenagers munching through crackling bags of Doritos; and children dropping M&Ms and tossing crackers into the water to attract ducks.

Glenn and I had backpacked together for more than a decade. We preferred the isolation of the backcountry, but now, with Xan only in her third summer of hiking, we kept our trips local. She was a spunky hiker, preferring a good rock scramble to a mundane forest trail, but whatever the terrain, there was no rushing an exploratory seven year-old. To her, backpacking was an adventure. In a photograph from that trip, she stands barefoot on a log, her pink sweatpants and “I Climbed Old Rag Mountain” t-shirt looking the way you’d expect after three days spent clambering over rocks, trying to catch tadpoles and crouching next to smoky fires. Her blonde hair captures a bright spot of sun falling between the trees and she holds up a shredded blue nylon sack in one hand and a Ziploc in the other. She grins at the camera, looking not at all frightened, considering what we had just been through.

That evening the talk in camp had been about black bears. Apparently they had raided the camp the night before taking everything edible. This was surprising. We knew that bears frequented camping areas, but we had never had any trouble with them. We had ways to protect food.

The American black bear (Ursus americanus) is the most common bear species in the world, once ranging across North America, from northern Mexico to Alaska. Hunted relentlessly for fat, meat, pelts, bounties and trophies, black bears were all but exterminated by the late nineteenth century. Only in the last century, through conservation efforts and the bears’ own resilience, has the species recovered. Today, close to a million bears thrive across North America; four thousand of those make their home in the Adirondacks.

The wild black bear is a reclusive and resourceful omnivore with a strong vegetarian leaning. In the spring and early summer it browses tender shoots, roots, grasses and leaf buds. Later, as the summer days wane, the bear turns its attention to more calorie-intensive fare – insects, grubs, honey and a variety of berries. Come fall, acorns and other nuts add the final layer of fat needed to sustain winter hibernation.

But make no mistake; the black bear has no compunction against carnivory. Easily acquired animal protein – bird and turtle eggs, fish remains, or the carcass of a road-killed deer – make up a small but regular part of its diet. And, indeed, a black bear will kill for food. Young deer and bison, unwary beavers and nests of baby birds and mice regularly fall prey to black bears.

For most of us, this wild bear is like an image on Plato’s cave wall – a shadow cast by an animal we will never see. We know its name and shape, but are left to imagine the details of its being – its pungent smell, the coarseness of its coat, its warm breath on our skin. Armed with clear but indirect knowledge, it’s easy to imagine a bear that is as two-dimensional as the shadow it casts.

For many, the imagined bear takes a simple friendly form resembling a large sociable dog. This is the bear of folklore, entertainment and advertising. Embodied in such amiable fellows as Paddington, Winnie the Pooh and Smokey, this teddy bear persona is easy to approach. And, at their peril, many people do, leaving their cars to photograph roadside bears and feeding those that venture into their yards.

For others, the bear’s shadowy form takes on a more menacing temperament – that of a blood-thirsty predator, always lurking, ready to take down an unwary hiker. “Aren’t you afraid you’ll be attacked by a bear?” such people would ask me.

My answer was always, no. My own image of a wild bear took its form from biology. The true “wildland” bear is a solitary creature that would just as soon avoid people. As bear biologist Dr. Lynn Rogers wrote, they are ruled by fear and hunger, in that order. Should a well-fed black bear accidently encounter a group of hikers, it would likely retreat, dissolving ghostlike into the dark woods. In all my years of backpacking, I had never worried about wildland bears.

But on hearing the campers’ stories I realized these bears were nothing like the image I held. These were campsite bears – a brand of urban bear – the kind that meet us on shared ground. An urban bear is a formidable thing, bold and brash. It swaggers into camp and sets about rummaging through packs and snuffling tents while campers scramble out of the way and look on helplessly. Habituated to people, no amount of pot-banging or arm-waving fazes this animal. Short of physically repelling it with bear-spray, the only way to prevent a campsite bear from invading camp is to not create such a bear in the first place. That means making sure it is never tempted by human food, something campers at Lake Colden had long failed to do.

Twelve feet up and six feet out; that was the backcountry rule for hanging food out of bears’ reach. That meant finding a horizontal branch more than twelve feet off the ground and suspending food where it could not be reached by a savvy bear on the ground, tree trunk or branch above. But at Lake Colden’s southwest end, the towering grove of white pines offered no horizontal branches. Instead we fashioned a rope high between two trees from which we would suspend our blue nylon food sack.

After dinner we packed our food and empty containers into the bag. I mentally inventoried everything, trying to recall some forgotten item that might attract a bear. Opportunistic urban bears eagerly consume, or at least test for palatability, things that we don’t think of as food – soap, toothpaste, gum, hair gel, food wrappers, cooking utensils, medication, deodorant – anything with a scent that hints of flavor. I had Xan check her pockets and she handed me a granola bar wrapper and popped a lone M&M into her mouth.

A bear’s sense of smell, the primary means through which it discerns food from non-food, is seven times stronger than that of a bloodhound. A black bear can detect human scent more than fourteen hours after the hiker has left the trail. Even if a tent is food-free, a prevailing wind filling it with the tantalizing essence of a neighbor’s fish fry is enough to entice a bear to investigate. Who knew what tempting odors a bear would pick up in a well-used shelter?

Once we were satisfied that we had included everything, Glenn hung the food bag. Xan climbed up on his shoulders and tied off the anchor rope as high as she could reach. Then we tied dummy ropes to several nearby trunks, all within easy reach of the bears. If nothing else, maybe they’d get busy with those and miss the real bounty.

In our years of backpacking Glenn and I had never laid eyes on a wild bear. But in the backwoods, thoughts of bears are never buried deep so we had encountered our share of imaginary ones. Only two days before, our hike had taken us past an abandoned shelter. Many of the surrounding trees had fallen in a long-ago blow-down and the landscape was hauntingly barren and silent. Our uneasy feeling grew into alarm when we realized that every remaining tree in the clearing was marked by bears. Like gang graffiti in the bad part of town, claw marks declared this bear territory – leave or else. We left.

But claw marks are nothing compared to encountering a ghostly ursine image. In Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains we once spent ten heart-pounding minutes motionless on a rainy mountain trail trying to make out a shadowy bear-like image in the fog. With unsteady hands we unbuckled our hip belts, preparing to sacrifice our packs if it came to that. Finally, the mist cleared just long enough for the shadowy shape to resolve into the upended roots of a fallen tree.

There is a dark place in our psyche where predatory creatures lie in wait. Humans have been hunters since Homo erectus developed stone weapons a million and a half years ago. Hunting moved us up the predatory food chain, but it didn’t change our position as prey for the animals that had stalked us across Africa for the previous two million years. Some twenty-nine large carnivores including saber-tooth cats and giant bear-dogs fed on our unfortunate ancestors.

Coming of age as prey indelibly imprinted a healthy visceral fear of tooth and claw onto the human psyche. An ancient part of our brain, the amygdala, maintains memories of ancestral threats. Poised to act on our behalf, it checks incoming sensations – the whisper of movement in tall grass, a subtle shift in activity around us, a low rumble in the dark – against known dangers. At the slightest hint of trouble, even before we are conscious of the threat, it springs to action, flooding our bodies with adrenalin in preparation to fight or flee.

Today we don’t live in a world where cave bears make off with our young, but our imagination still harbors this dark space. Now we layer its surface with modern fears – public speaking, job interviews, final exams. But long removed from our wild origins, we are still haunted by the ghosts of predators past. Perhaps this deeper well is the source of a child’s closet-monsters and a sleepless mother’s worst fears.

The thunderstorm settled into steady rain that kept up a patter on the roof. I dozed off and on, each time waking with a start, hearing or imagining grunts and scuffling outside the tarp. The metallic clang of someone banging a pot lid jolted me fully awake. I felt Glenn tense. We listened. Were they warning off a real bear or chasing their own ghosts? I guessed real. The imagined bears, I knew, were as dark as the night and were in here with us. We both pressed closer to Xan, our bodies between her and our night terrors. Finally exhaustion won over worry and I slept, my anxious dreams crowded with bears – dangerous, uncontrollable and terrifyingly near.

Sometime in the early morning the rain must have stopped. I woke to the comforting smell of campfire and sounds of campers zipping out of their tents and talking among themselves. Had the bears come? We peeled back our damp sleeping bags and pulled aside the tarp. I squinted in the daylight. The morning had broken clear and warm and the long view was serene. Lake Colden gleamed in the morning sun. On its mirror surface, Avalanche Pass, neatly cut between the flanks of Mt. Colden and Caribou Mountain, formed a postcard perfect reflection.

But the near view told a different story – ripped plastic bags; bent and battered Tupperware, shredded cereal boxes, frayed segments of security straps, mangled toothpaste tubes – the remains of an ursine feeding frenzy. Xan picked up something from the mud in front of the shelter: a well chewed granola wrapper.

Weary campers picked garbage from the wet pine needles and searched for their belongings. But as discouraging as the mess was, I couldn’t help but marvel at the bears’ ingenuity. They had moved rocks and dug up buried caches, opened peanut butter jars and licked them clean and had chewed ropes to let food bags fall to the forest floor. They had even retrieved and opened a sealed cooler that had been anchored in three feet of water out in the lake.

Our food fared no better. The anti-bear techniques we had successfully deployed in the mountains and woods of Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire and Maine had failed in the face of these New York bears. Only a bit of unraveled anchor rope on a tree trunk remained. Our decoy ropes hadn’t fooled them.

Xan found the shredded remains of our food bag up the hill behind the lean-to. A few feet away a red squirrel chattered from the middle of a pile of Rice-a-Roni, the grains presumably too small for a bear to care about in the face of the surrounding smorgasbord. We salvaged a can of tuna, a Ziploc of teabags and a bottle of Advil. Xan stepped up onto a log and held the remains aloft. I snapped her picture.

Bears have captivated human imagination for much of our recorded history. Our ancestors coexisted with cave bears and brown bears in Eurasia for at least a million years. Over thirty thousand years ago our Pleistocene progenitors painted cavern walls with red ochre cave bears and other great beasts of their time. Each image was artfully placed so that the natural features of the rock gave it a three-dimensional aspect and the flicker of firelight brought it to life.

In the same way we have shaped today’s urban bears, painting another dimension onto their shadowy profiles. We have aided their evolution into creatures that easily partake of our generous lifestyle. When we venture into their territory bearing bags of irresistible delicacies, they meet us and accept our unintended offerings. Then, perhaps impatient with our slow and seasonal delivery, they advance onto ours.

Today bears are moving into our cities in unprecedented numbers. New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the nation, is home to the tightest intermingling of black bears and humans in North America. Where there were only fifty black bears in 1993, today some 3500 adult bears and their offspring share the state with nine million people, a number that is growing as urban bears enjoy unprecedented reproductive success. This crowding results in several thousand uneasy “nuisance” bear incidents every year, dozens of which directly result in the deaths of bears. The story is similar across the United States and Canada.

The bears are moving in, not because we are driving them from the woods, but because we tempt them to our table. When we open our communities to them, they amble forward, eagerly helping themselves to our leavings. At our implicit invitation, they walk into towns, scavenging Dumpsters, knocking over trash cans, pulling down bird feeders and rooting up gardens. Now bolder and wiser and no longer content with our leftovers, they go right to the source, breaking into cars, campers, cabins and homes.

In providing for black bears, we have changed their very nature, in some ways making them more like us. Why roam an entire forest in search of berries and nuts when the same calories can be found in a single McDonald’s Dumpster? With little else to do, why not nap? And that they do, sleeping up to five hours a day more than bears that have to forage widely. Predictably, this languid lifestyle has made urban bears fat, some weighing up to thirty percent more than their wildland cousins.

With no compelling reason to leave, many urban bears never leave the city, even to den for the winter. They prefer instead to settle under porch decks or in culverts – that is, if they den at all. Some stay active all winter, partaking of our year-round bounty. Those that do den tend to start later and emerge sooner, knocking up to six weeks off the typical denning time and further increasing the chances of human-bear conflict.

Along with their newfound brashness and couch-potato existence, urban and campsite bears have changed in one other alarming way: they have become nocturnal. Unlike their wildland cousins, these animals take advantage of us under the cover of night. In truth, the bears are simply avoiding us. But in our imaginations, these newly nocturnal animals become the solid form of darkness, invisible but acutely felt. They are the bears that haunt our dreams.

After packing up our much-lightened packs, Glenn, Xan and I sat on a log overlooking Lake Colden and shared the tuna and tea for breakfast. Now it was our turn to answer to fear and hunger.

[Exit, pursued by a bear]
–Shakespeare. “Winter’s Tale”

Kimberly Moynahan is a freelance writer and blogs on natural history and science at “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” ( Her work has been published online at The Center for Humans & Nature City Creatures blog and in print in Scientific American’s Best Science Writing Online and in “WOLVES Magazine.” –