In Other Words

The Se­abird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of the Planet’s Great Ocean Voy­agers by Adam Ni­col­son

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER -

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

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