I was going to the United Kingdom and expecting to do a couple of serious hikes that would deliver me by night to a town for food and a bed, and each morning let me loose into the wilds, wilds with nicely worn paths. My guide and companion was The National Trust Book of Long Walks, a volume that has both the specific gravity and value of gold, for its author, Adam Nicolson, gave me new eyes with which to see the countryside (and a new back and legs from lugging the guide’s tonnage).
Nicolson is an old-school geographer/naturalist, one who wants to know the big picture of a place: where it is relative to other places and its relation to them, sure, but also its flora, fauna, and folktales; its architecture and street plans; its political, cultural, and social history; its music, literature, and art; the evolution of its economy and class system; why its air and light are distinctive; why it grows rutabagas instead of turnips. He has brought this Panavision not only to places — the Somerset Levels, Windsor Castle, Britain’s untamed coastlines, his family’s storied gardens at Sissinghurst — but also people and events: the Battle of Trafalgar, the English gentry, the earls of Pembroke, the birth of Arcadianism, the making of the King James Bible. In The Seabird’s Cry, he brings that rangy curiosity to a dozen water-loving birds, providing the lenses with which to see them closely, though not so much that we pretend to know all their secrets. Each bird retains a dark side to its moon.
When he was a boy, in 1971, his father had some extra coin and bought a group of islands, called the Shiants, in the channel known as the Minch, running between the Isle of Lewis and far mainland Scotland. The Shiants are a gathering of small Hebridean islands and sea stacks, just what the doctor ordered for colonies of puffins, gannets, and other seabirds. It is not overmuch to say that the Shiants directed Nicolson’s life: his love of birds and the wild ocean, a fascination with the elements and with the old, elemental way of life in that part of the world. He let his wonderment blossom, not just to the seabirds on his little patch but to others that would take him throughout the world’s oceans: fulmars, kittiwakes, gulls and guillemots, cormorants and shags, shearwaters, gannets, albatross, razorbills — not to mention the extinct great auk.
Tales — stories, anecdotes, yarns — are an important part of this book, for this is a communing with these creatures as much as a marveling at how they live. He brings the outdoors to inside your head. As a youngster, on his first visit to the Shiants: “I had never seen this scale of things before: tall, cliffed, remote, fierce, beautiful, harsh and difficult but, for all that, dazzlingly and almost overwhelmingly thick with the swirl of existence, lichened, the rocks glowing saffron orange on that summer morning, the air and the sea around us filled with 300,000 birds, a pumping, raucous polymorphous multiversity in with everything was alive and nothing refined.” The Seabird’s Cry — “an exploration of the ways in which seabirds exert their hold on the human imagination” — seems to have been inevitable.
He devotes a chapter to each of the birds above, some delicate as china and some ruffians, all bewitching in some fashion — from the, let’s face it, adorable puffins to the real bullies on the block: the gannets, the chapter on which reads like something dreamed up by a feverish Edgar Allan Poe — and all brought close to the reader without losing its wildness.
“This is the first lesson of the seabirds . . . the revelation of the actual, the undressed and naked presence of hidden principle — in this case the profound rivalry between parent and child [here he is referring to “a gull Lear, a gull Pol Pot”] — which the Greeks could allow to surface only in myth and which in our culture is scarcely allowed a presence at all.” The seabird life is rough-and-tumble, with siblings shoving younger brothers and sisters out of the nest, gulls reaching across to munch on a neighbor’s babies. “The whole population of Nazca boobies were destined to suffer cruelty and abuse as nestlings until the end of time.”
But look over here, to this “army of town criers, every puffin dressed in a near-identical herald’s tabard, bright with maquillage and eyeliner, all saying Here I am, look at me . . . On landing, each puffin bows and humbles itself, wings up, head down: no threat, no aggression.” This little puffin has surfaced from a dive from 50 to 220 feet, between 600 and 1,500 times a day, to feed little puffins back at the nest. Then there are the guillemots — “from Gull Island east of Witless Bay in Newfoundland . . . and Funk Island out in the Atlantic” — that dive to 600 feet for their supper, staying underwater for four and a half minutes. (Ha! said the great auk. I could dive 2,000 feet and go breathless for twenty minutes. Alas.) Or the sooty shearwater that flies 40,000 round-trip miles each year in migration, or the extraordinary sense of smell the group of seabirds known as the tubenoses use for navigation (forget the stars; just give me that whiff of phytoplankton).
There is a beautiful image of puffins flying into a wind “almost at the same speed the wind is blowing them back, and they hang in front of you, 10 feet away, busy, looking resolutely forward and then sideways to see what you are.” So it is a stab to read that “over the past sixty years, the world population of seabirds has dropped by over two-thirds . . . The graph trends to zero by about 2060.” Why? Overfishing; caught in fishing gear; introducing rats (“albatross chicks on Gough Island in the South Atlantic are being eaten by giant mice”), cats, and dogs to breeding places; oil, plastic, and other toxins; human development of nesting sites; climate change; acidification. We have met the enemy and it is the usual cast of characters.
Still, seabirds are adaptable and resourceful, and humans could help by simply being bit more careful: protecting breeding places and winter feeding grounds, instituting tighter controls on long-line fishing vessels, and making efforts to avert the human impact of climate change and acidification. Why? Because seabirds are the rarest of creatures, the only animals at home in the sea, on the sea, in the air, and on land — perfectly adapted to flux and change. Given the ecological turmoil to come, we could do worse than emulate such mastery.