As part of Nicola Chester’s Clearing takeover, she invited Tim Dee to respond to the ideas of Place, Protest and Belonging.
Place, protest and belonging are the themes of Nicola Chester’s On Gallows Down. I find the same themes running through much of my writing, not so directly perhaps as they have occurred to Nicola, or in her beautifully inhabited memoir, but there, nonetheless. It seems to me that all nature writing must be located and grow from place, while being alive to questions of belonging – how we might feel legitimately and justifiably at home in or alongside nature, without trampling it all down beneath our bigger-than-planet-sized footwear. And protest? We are wreckers of places as much as makers of places, and we must stop riding roughshod (those big boots) over every inch of our shared home, if we are to make it ahead in the good (and necessary) company of the rest of life. I think, also, that to listen to nature, to pay it proper attention with due diligence, is to hear its own protest. Life is a species of protest. Nature has raged against the dying of the light forever, long before we thought it a project for our own species. Yet, you never see a wild thing sorry for itself, as D. H. Lawrence put it in a poem. Protest and Survive said the nuclear disarmament campaign mounted by the great E.P. Thompson and others. I think I’ve heard a gannet say the same. So little of nature has surrendered despite being driven to the brink. I saw this, and I saw place, protest and belonging in the seabirds of a South African seaside town and that is what I have written about here; it’s for Nicola.
The first gulls were at the town dump of Lambert’s Bay: a Christmas present for me coming after a getaway trip to the Cederberg – four days of rust-red rock, dusted in a few places with a scant wild green, odd birds skulking in a mean shade, pinched life slowing and slowed under hot blue skies. After such longue durée scenes, it felt cheeringly contemporary and domestic to get the local news in snapshot headlines, the flap and slash of many scavengers’ wings – two hundred kelp gulls – working at a long barrow of ripened bin-bags.
I’ve done time enough in scuzzy places to be drawn to them, but I think I am not alone in my enthusiasm. Soiled and ugly though our mess-world is, it feels hospitable – warm and companionable as well as a place of abundance – especially in comparison with the austerities of the wild-world (from before us, from beyond us). Clean sheets are monastic, good only for the disembodied, dirty sheets are generative, life lives there. And because we made the mess, it is also, hands-on, knowable. Compare that to the nulled sublimities of all-but untouchable places like the unsullied rock-hard mountains of the Cederberg. Mark, our climber friend there, couldn’t stand on ninety percent of what we surveyed, whereas anyone can bivouac in our filth, knowing it as ours. Since we are bringing about the end of the world, an end of the world can feel our sort of place. The sometime seabirds of Lambert’s Bay bring all this home. I liked it there. Dross-scapes can be hateful and are most likely toxic, but the chances are that if we built the nest ourselves, we’ll know how to sit in it.
Breeding seabirds, gannets’ nests – they shit theirs into being, and live in a dump of their soiled linen – are what took us to Lambert’s Bay. The fishing town on the Atlantic shore, 280 kilometres north of Cape Town, has a pendant gannetry that survives (thrives even) among some various idiocies of our stabs at living. Idiot people – as we all are – at some point had sanctioned and set up the rubbish dump on the urban outskirts, thinking, unthinkingly, to do this on the south bank of the Jakkalsrivier which flows along the north edge of town and into the Atlantic: Lambert’s Bay takes its trash upriver to have it ooze and drool back past where it came from, before fouling the ocean from where the town thinks, unthinking, to haul up much of what keeps it alive today – lobsters known as kreef, snoek, pilchards, anchovies.
Cape gannets at Lambert’s Bay want some of that catch. The breeding colony at Bird Island is just offshore; the three-hectare island is now tethered to the town by a breakwater-causeway. Rats and cats and dogs and jackals might walk up to a gannet’s egg, but the colony persists. It is also a tourist attraction, the only Cape gannetry readily accessible to people. There are just six colonies of the birds, all islanded, three in South Africa, three in Namibia. Nine thousand pairs have bred at Lambert’s Bay in recent years. Elsewhere, especially in Namibia, the gannet is not doing well, their preferred seafood (pilchards mostly) is in decline (overfished by us from warming seas), and the species, overall, is listed as endangered.
It is hard to feel species-endangerment at Bird Island. The place is hectic with life-making. In Europe, every northern gannetry I know is a high-rise affair, but Cape gannets are flat-earthers. There are no cliffs on Bird Island and the gannet township is horizontal. For their breeding busyness, the birds have an oval of patterned ground – gesso of guano, their own shit pounded by their big feet – dressing a sea-rock platform. Most summers since 1912 there have been gannets breeding here. For some years, into the second half of the twentieth century, the birds were farmed for their guano which had a value as an agricultural fertiliser, but the island has been protected since the 1970s. Today, more than fifteen thousand birds crowd into the area about the size of a football pitch.
Many of the human residences in Lambert’s Bay have been erected in the last thirty years. They look designed by people who worked the shore and the sea rather than by anyone who imagined vacationing there. They are utility builds. Many homes hide behind bricks and could pass as telephone exchanges or funeral parlours. Little is made of the sea view, and unwindowed walls dominate, sometimes with just one frosted toilet glass let into a blank face of brick. Sea-going fishing boats are parked out front. A craze for neo-classical columned carports (or domestic boat yards) has swept town; a single beach-front cul de sac could learn-you your Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Apart from these concessions to good taste, the prevailing architectural idiom is workshop–as–living–space and butch industrial décor. Every possible interior appears to be tiled for pressure-hose cleaning. Grace-on-Sea one such house was called, another Wavesong. Like many others in town, the house we stayed in was fenced with a welded palisade of grey metal spears, fortified, like electricity substations are elsewhere. Dustbins were raised off the ground in metal baskets on these fences, perhaps because of the jackals. We saw just two holiday-season gewgaws: a metal-tinsel tree in one tiled living room, a plastic Santa stuck half-way up one sand-brown brick wall.
That said, the brick-caped braais on the brick-floored stoeps were lit early and long. The whole town smells of fish. Big time eating of the sea defines Lambert’s Bay. The human town speaks Afrikaans, it is the first language of its residents (fishers, fish and potato factory workers), and of the bulk of its holidaying tourists (a seasonal crowd of fish and chip consumers). Gulls are therefore meeu in the minds of most, and gannets are malgas. Malgas Island, the next gannetry south of Lambert’s Bay, has twenty thousand breeding gannet pairs and is named for its birds. Malgas sounds like mad goose. Mal means mad in Afrikaans, while goose is gans, but might have eroded over time to gas; some dictionaries, however, suggest the name is a corruption of the Portuguese mangas de velludo meaning velvet sleeves and referencing the black-tipped powder-paint wings of the Cape gannet. That sounds too refined for the stewpot of Bird Island. Solan goose was an old name for the northern gannet. My wife’s family Afrikaans dictionary (the Groot Woordeboek, 1963) gives seegans not malgas for the birds. Gannet itself comes from gander. And they do waddle, when ashore, in ungainly pursuit of their necessary reproductions.
Reproduction: on Bird Island, after forty days of incubation, one chick is hatched on a nest of scuffed up gannet guano. I knelt in some outlying filth at the edge of the colony and watched them at it. The fetid air above some thousands of grounded gannet families (brooding adults, begging young) was chopped and sliced by hundreds of long-winged fisher-birds returning to their family pile. From the flapping maelstrom, each incomer was intent on its exact inch of the colony: in sight of their harbour-homes, an excited fleet of yawls were furling their sails at once. The airspace was choc-a-bloc, but we saw not one crash. On the ground, even with precision landings, there was only collapse, collision, ruckus, fracas, and faces rubbed in it.
Colonial breeding is the gannets’ way, but seems anathema to them, the required circus a gross indignity. At sea they are all perfected wind-water feng shui; at home they are all at sea, made clowns – boobies – to their own lives.
Dinner lands. Waitron pecks its partner’s cheek. Chick snakes up to fisher-parent and gobbles, from their beak, wanted vomit, regurgitated fish-meal. Guarding parent leaves charge’s side, moves off on big-foot waddle-path. Neighbours lunge as it gooses its way. Returned parent, discharged of sardine-supper, gathers itself for time as imprisoned land-bird. Chick sits, shits. Day heats. Colony pants between pecks. Ululations unending.
Adam came to my side, his toddler arms folded behind his back with his two-and-a-quarter years old hands clasped, like a tight-winged gannet at its nest, like Immanuel Kant walking Königsberg in pursuit of his categorical imperative. I wondered what he made of what the birds before us were speaking of: urrah or warrah says the mighty Roberts Birds of Southern Africa; I got a vocalised fishpaste, articulate panting, a vulcanised vamp or rubber-wetsuit gargle; Adam said nothing. But, two hours later, at a beach stop, out of gannet earshot, I re-heard the colony when he martialled various toy vehicles into stock-car pile up: brrm brrm, brrm brrm, o no, brrm brrm, brrm brrm, o no.
There is a sci-fi novel by John Brunner called Stand on Zanzibar built around human overpopulation and how much space anyone might need. My parents had it; my father kept it on their crowded bookshelves, my mother read it, and still cites it at times. Bird Island summons its idea. Written in 1968, the novel guessed, by 2010, the seven billion human inhabitants of the Earth (a good guess) might stand shoulder to shoulder on an island the size of Zanzibar. Earlier in the twentieth century, it had been calculated the world population could have stood on the Isle of Wight; in 1968, when Brunner wrote his book, the Isle of Man would have been needed.
New premises are always calling for new premises. The gannets on Bird Island might tell some of the same: the awkwardness in crowds even of social animals, nurseries that are sick rooms/mosh pits, the discomfort of neighbours, the discomfit of populating any place. In Europe, I last saw breeding gannets on Heligoland, the island at the bottom of the North Sea. They are cliff nesters, but awkward about communal living just like the Bird Island birds. Heligoland was once a British territory. It was swopped with Germany for their, then, island possession of Zanzibar. So goes planet gannet, so goes our shared but unshareable Earth.
At Bird Island, if the wind serves, the relieved adult gannet can open its wings and lift off from its nest, almost vertically, back, airborne, to where – you cannot stop yourself thinking – it belongs. On our watch the wind was down, and the departing birds had to make their way, from their nests and babies and partners, and walk-waddle in a pinioned shuffle around hundreds of their kind, others like them but not them. A kind of rugby-ballet is used to negotiate the exit of departing birds. Those that run the gauntlet (italicised in Roberts as recognised gannet behaviour) without doing any appeasing sky-pointing (holding their head, neck and bill vertically, with their wings raised slightly) are likely to be pecked by all before they reach, at the edge of their earthly domain, the grit-and-guano-trampled runway to the sky.
Six running-jumps then – I counted – it takes them. Brrm brrm. Brrn brrn.
Tim Dee is the author of, most recently, Greenery, a book about the spring, and, before that, of Landfill, a book about gulls and rubbish and organising life and death. He also wrote The Running Sky and Four Fields and edited Ground Work and co-edited The Poetry of Birds. For The Clearing he wrote about his kidney stone. All being well, the gannets of Bird Island should be part of his next book, Home Scars.
Nicola Chester is the author of On Gallows Down, published by Chelsea Green and available from bookshops, including Little Toller’s own in Beaminster, and online here.
Photographs by Tim Dee.