In Other Words
The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of the Planet’s Great Ocean Voyagers by Adam Nicolson
The albatross is a mythic bird in the literary canon, in no small part due to Samuel Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In his absorbing new book, The Seabird’s Cry, Adam Nicolson writes that Coleridge first learned from William Wordsworth of an English sailor who perceived an albatross as an ill omen and shot it with a musket. Coleridge transposed the anecdote into the medieval world, and the setting of his nowiconic poem is haunted by the guilt of the albatross’s murderer. The creative discussion between Coleridge and Wordsworth is just one way in which Nicolson takes us on a wider quest than one might expect to go on while reading a book on seabirds.
The introduction signals the deep waters we will swim in, as Nicolson writes that seabirds “are, if one can use this expression, an invitation to inscendence, a word coined by Thomas Berry (1914-2009), the great modern American philosopher of our relationship to nature. Inscendence does not involve moving beyond the life we know but climbing into it, looking for its kernel ... . ”
Can seabirds possibly draw us nearer to the kernel of life? To begin to answer that intricate question, we must get to know these birds well enough (and science has made ever-smaller GPS trackers for the purpose) to marvel at their wondrous and challenging lives — how, for instance, an albatross thinks nothing of traveling a distance of ten thousand miles on a single foraging trip. It is not until we understand the interdependent relationships between seabirds and other sea creatures, however, and the points of connection between seabirds and humans, that we can approach something like inscendence. And lest we think humans are somewhat superior to seabirds, Nicolson points out that seabirds are “the only animals at home on the sea, in the sea, in the air and on land.”
In 1937, Nicolson’s father used his inheritance to purchase “a little cluster of Hebridean islands,” 500 acres in all. When he took a young Nicolson along on a visit to the Shiant Isles, where some 300,000 seabirds flew freely, the boy was smitten. The islands gave him a raucous illustration of how nature’s food chain works; for instance, as when a black-blacked gull made away with a puffin in midflight, the reality of this particular column of life became a “baseline and a touchstone ... of what the world might be.”
In this book, Nicolson focuses on 10 seabirds, from the fulmar that thrives in rough waters to the delicate kittiwake to the devilish shag. His supple, tactile writing shows in his descriptions. This is what he says about the shag: “As I came over a lip of rock, there was the shag right in front of my face, a foot away, juddering and hissing, its whole head shaking in rage and fear, terrifying as much as it was terrified of me, a fluster of beautiful dark green iridescent feathers in the mayhem of kelp stalk and guano that was its nest.” It’s enough to make you wonder if Nicolson is describing an anti-hero in a Dickens novel. It so happens that the shag, a “near cousin” of the cormorant, is likely the bird Milton immortalized in Book IV of Paradise Lost: Up he flew, and on the Tree of Life, The middle Tree and highest there that grew, Sat like a Cormorant; yet not true Life Thereby regaind, but sat devising Death To them who liv’d.
Since the time Milton wrote those lines, the coin has, by all measures, flipped. We now sit in the seat of the cormorant, seemingly devising death for seabirds. Their decline is staggering: “Over the last 60 years, the world population of seabirds has dropped by over two-thirds. One-third of all seabird species is threatened with extinction . ... Some petrels, terns, and cormorants have been reduced to less than 5 percent of the numbers that were alive in 1950.”
The reasons for the die-off are various, but they all point, chillingly, in our direction. For decades, human development has chipped away at seabirds’ breeding sites, as global warming has heated ocean waters and the fish that seabirds feed on have swum away from the birds’ breeding colonies. As we sip drinks through plastic straws and tote our purchases in plastic bags, we might consider the prediction that “by 2050, about 99.8 percent of all seabird species will have plastic in their stomachs.” During a recent visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a handler said that after an albatross has consumed plastic, it feels it is full to the point that its subsequent food absorption can be blocked and the bird can starve to death.
Though Nicolson holds out some hope that seabirds might adapt to changing conditions, some seabirds are less resilient than others. For instance, puffins are disappearing from the coast of Southern Iceland because for the last few decades, there has not been enough food for puffin chicks to survive. Puffins eat sandeels, but warming waters mean that sandeels have less food to eat and more predators to contend with. In the ocean, the kernel of life is fraying, and whether or not seabirds survive will say much about the rest of us. — Priyanka Kumar