‘Poetry can repair no loss,’ John Berger writes, ‘but it defies the space which separates.’ This year, The Clearing has commissioned seven writers to mark the Remembrance Day of Lost Species. These pieces are not eulogies. Although they respond to the grief and disorientation of our times, they are also songs of hope and memory, commitment and renewal. They mark the immensity of current and past losses, but defiantly —by bridging the ‘space which separates.’ Our fifth essay, the last for this week, is by Pippa Marland.
In the early hours of a May morning in 1972, just a few days before my eighth birthday, my family and I boarded a flight from Brize Norton in Oxfordshire to the Mediterranean island of Malta, which, courtesy of the British Royal Navy, would be our home for the next two years. My childhood memories up to that point are sporadic and monochrome, but stepping out into the bright sunshine and wave of hot air from the tarmac at Luqa airport, it was as if my world was suddenly rendered into full colour and heightened recall; from that point on my memories run on like a super 8 film. It’s also perhaps from this moment that I can date my profound belief that islands are illuminating, revelatory places. That day fostered an islomania in me – a deep, almost obsessive love of islands – that has stayed with me ever since.
At that time I was largely unaware of Malta’s colonial history and, on a more personal level, blithely oblivious to the mutual unhappiness of my parents in this final overseas posting of my father’s life. I ran wild along the ramparts of Fort St Angelo and passed my weekends aboard the ferry boats Callboy and Scrooge, which were borrowed, when they were not on duty in Valetta Harbour, for banyans – trips of exploration around the Maltese archipelago. For those two years, I was almost more aquatic than terrestrial, spending long sunlit days swimming in the extraordinarily clear Mediterranean waters. I witnessed what seemed to me then a never-ending abundance of marine life – dolphins playfully keeping pace with the boats, flying fish constantly breaking the surface and skimming the waves, and beneath the sea – where we snorkelled and dived – octopus emerging from chasms in the rock, and thick submarine fields of undulating seaweed interwoven with shoals of tiny glittering fish. The freedom I experienced as a child on Malta was followed by seven painful years of attrition of the spirit through the arcane rituals and petty repressions of a British girls’ boarding school, compounded by a less-than inspiring home life in Basingstoke. No wonder, then, that Malta, and its smaller islands Gozo and Comino, loomed ever more vibrant in my desk-and suburb-bound daydreams.
One Tuesday in April this year, drinking tea in my kitchen in Bristol, I found myself listening to the early morning shipping forecast, as issued by the Met Office at 05:20 hours. Unlike the other rare occasions I’d caught this broadcast, when I’d simply relished its musical cadences and meditative repetitions, this time I tried to follow its actual content, tracing the sea areas and coastal stations around a map in my mind and listening out for those on the eastern seaboard of Scotland. I was listening closely for a reason. In a few hours I would be travelling to the Isle of May, five miles off the Scottish coast, where, in the company of friends, I hoped to see the island’s famous puffin colony. Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, east 5 to 7, decreasing 4 at times, rain or showers, fog patches at first, moderate or good, occasionally very poor at first… Leuchars, north east by east 4, one thousand and nine rising slowly. To my uneducated ear this sounded like grounds for cautious optimism. Still, I knew that the ferry from Anstruther had been cancelled the previous day, and I had already been warned that it was looking doubtful for that Tuesday too. Recent reports from the island described the effects of adverse weather in the preceding weeks, and while the worst of the storms had abated, heavy seas and strong winds were still hampering travel. The successive ‘beasts from the east’ had taken their toll on the birds too. The puffins had arrived in late March but then headed back out to sea as a second wave of high winds swept in from Siberia, not returning to the island till the 8th of April. David Steel’s Isle of May blog reported some deaths among the seabird populations, mostly young and older birds, and a delayed start to the breeding season, not only for the puffins but also for the shags, razorbills and guillemots.
Around 10am, on my way northwards, I heard that the ferry would not be running. We had a back-up plan for our afternoon, though, and the boat trip was replaced by a walk along the coast path from Kingsbarns to St Andrews. It was a testing experience in the wind and driving rain, redeemed by many moments of stern, arresting beauty. But in the final few miles we began to come across the bodies of dead birds: guillemots – first one and then another, and another, and another – feathers water-logged and bedraggled. It was a sight that filled us all with a deep sadness, all the more distressing because we didn’t know how to interpret or grieve for these fatalities. Were they isolated deaths or possible markers of even greater loss at species level, freakish accidents or signs of a larger unravelling? For my own part, I also felt an inability to gauge how great a component of my grief was a sense of guilt – a guilt that was itself hard to pin down. It was personal and collective, immediate and dispersed. Of course, extreme weather events have always happened, and under harsh conditions weaker birds perish and the stronger ones go on to breed. But in the blurred distinctions and tangled agencies of the Anthropocene, doubts linger. Were these ‘naturalcultural’ rather than natural deaths, a result of anthropogenically-induced climate breakdown rather than the workings of natural selection? And were they harbingers of worse to come, in the context of already catastrophic species decline? The words of Kent and Edgar, as they watch King Lear howling over Cordelia’s lifeless body, came into my head. Is this the promised end? Or image of that horror?
The next day I was present at a series of workshops in St Andrews for pupils from local schools, which encouraged them to think about how nature is ‘framed’ culturally. Taking her inspiration from Yorkshire artist Ashley Jackson’s ‘Framing the Landscape’ project, the workshop leader asked the students to go out and take photos, experimenting with paper frames, questioning themselves as to why they chose certain subjects and angles, and looking for unusual perspectives. Lastly, she asked them to find ways of ‘destroying the frame’ altogether. The results were astonishing. We saw photo after photo that achieved a novel framing of natural and ‘naturalcultural’ objects: a rusted pipe set back in an alcove between buildings, growing green from the ground upwards with climbing weeds; a shuttered window escaping its own limits, bleeding rust and paint down a pebble-dashed wall; a flight of crumbling steps, each one a mini-forest of lichens and mosses.
But there was one photo that stopped me in my tracks. A group of the students had taken a paper frame and laid it over the body of a dead guillemot they had found on the West beach. ‘Like a shroud’, one of my colleagues whispered. Whether it was a shroud or a frame, it was wholly inadequate. The white belly of the bird protruded through the central gap, its head was obscured, and its feet poked rigidly below the base. The students who had taken the photo were concerned that it might be upsetting to some people, might seem disrespectful to the dead guillemot. Upsetting – yes; disrespectful – no; thought-provoking – absolutely. It was an image that perfectly captured the difficulty of trying to put a frame on nature. And in this it seemed also to encapsulate with brilliant simplicity the problem of the Anthropocene itself, a subject that similarly exceeds the limits of framing. Environmental thinkers such as Timothy Clark have suggested that the conceptual challenges of the Anthropocene move us beyond the reach of the human imagination. At the same time, he writes, ‘the breakdowns of inherited demarcations of thought can still become a means of disclosure and revision’. As I looked at the guillemot and the ‘broken’ frame, and as I remembered the grief, guilt and doubt I’d experienced the previous day, I began to feel that a degree of uncertainty might be a strange blessing. It occurred to me that being unable to contain the natural world within a frame, being unable to determine culpability, or draw solid conclusions as to cause and effect, might undermine some of the anthropocentric hubris implied by the very term ‘Anthropocene’, keeping us on the moral hook but also clearing a space for new disclosures, new understandings.
I’ve never been back to Malta, though my years there remain the most colourful and most powerfully recollected of my childhood, and there are many days when I long to return. Perhaps one day I will. Still, I’m afraid that the enchanted island of my childhood will seem sadly depleted of the natural abundance I remember. Within my lifetime, animals and landscapes have been disappearing from the world with terrifying speed, and I also know that Malta has its own grave conservation issues. Every year thousands of migratory birds are shot as they wing their way over the island to and from their wintering grounds on the African continent. This must already have been the case during the time I spent on Malta, but I was unaware of it. It’s only recently that reports have caught my attention: the failure of an initiative to stop the hunting in 2015 when, in an official referendum, the Maltese population narrowly voted to continue the practice; the British naturalist Chris Packham’s arrest on the island in 2017 while challenging hunters who had illegally trapped goldfinches, moorhens, starlings and turtle doves. An article (also from 2017) in New Scientist, on dead birds found by birdwatchers protesting unsanctioned shooting on the island, is graphically illustrated by photos of tiny feathered corpses laid out on a stark white slab. The same article states that twenty-five million birds are killed or captured illegally around the Mediterranean every year, and on Malta alone, more than seven thousand are slaughtered per square kilometre. The island has become a death-trap for birds, and not just for the quail that can be legally hunted, but also for golden orioles, bee-eaters, common swifts, hoopoes, and many others.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, en route to Malta in May 1804, one hundred and sixty eight years before my own visit to the island, witnessed the sailors on board his ship shoot at an exhausted hawk that was trying to land on the prow to rest: ‘Hawk with ruffled Feathers resting on the Bowsprit—Now shot at & yet did not move—how fatigued—a third time it made a gyre, a short circuit, & returned again / 5 times it was thus shot at / left the Vessel / flew to another/ & I heard firing, now here, now there / & nobody shot it / but it probably perished from fatigue, & the attempt to rest upon the wave!’ ‘Poor hawk!’ he continues in his notebook, ‘Oh Strange Lust of Murder in Man!—It is not cruelty / it is mere un non-feeling from non-thinking’.
Is it a similar non-feeling from non-thinking that drives the practices of the thirteen thousand bird hunters on Malta today? The hunters themselves argue that they are maintaining a long-standing tradition, one that is deeply interwoven with issues of identity – with individual autonomy, cultural inheritance, and masculinity – and at the same time associated with a sense of relationship (albeit a bloody and destructive one) with the natural world. The Maltese word for the taking of the birds through trapping and shooting is namra, which can be translated as ‘courtship’. Ironically the same word is used to describe the mating rituals of the birds themselves. But, as Mark-Anthony Falzon from the University of Malta points out, the Maltese hunters don’t witness the courtship of most of the birds, which are only passing over the island to nest and breed elsewhere. ‘The fact that Maltese hunters rely on migratory birds’, he writes, ‘also means that they are not in a position to experience first-hand the reproductive processes of their quarry […] and that the twin notions of husbandry and harvesting – central to northern European traditions – are alien to Maltese hunters’.
This lack of encounter with breeding birds distinguishes the Maltese bird-slaughter from another island-based ‘cull’ – the ‘guga hunt’ that takes place on the Scottish island of Sula Sgeir, nearly two thousand miles to the north of Malta. Every year, ten men from Ness in Lewis travel to Sula Sgeir and camp on the island for around two weeks, during which time they ‘harvest’ and process two thousand gannet chicks. The chicks are clubbed to death, their wings severed, and the corpses preserved by searing and salting, in preparation for later human consumption. The hunt is sanctioned by the RSPB: gannets are not an endangered species and the hunters never take more than their allocated number of birds. Though it does have its fierce opponents, the practice is generally regarded as expressive of a tradition of relationship – not ‘courtship’ exactly, but a custom that connects human culture with non-human life, played out in rituals of husbandry and harvesting. It represents, for Fraser MacDonald, for example, a ‘living remnant of a world where the lives of its avian and human inhabitants were completely entwined’.
In both cases, though, the actions of the hunters are rendered perplexing by our increasing knowledge of the distinctive richness of the individual lives of birds, the complexities of their social groupings, and their astonishing navigational abilities. More broadly, they are also made strange by the profound disruption of our beliefs about the world and about ourselves that the dawning Anthropocene represents. The nature writer Robert Macfarlane gives an account of the ‘guga hunt’ in The Old Ways, and, while he has expressed his wholehearted personal support for the practice, his literary rendition is unsettling; questions hatch and become airborne in the wake of the uncanniness of his description. He imagines, after the departure of the hunters, that when the next big storm rolls in the severed wings of the chicks will lift from the rocks, giving the impression of ‘an entire island rising into the air like Swift’s Laputa’. Later, he writes about the journey that the chicks that survive the harvest will make as they fly to their winter home off South Africa. In fact, many of these birds will traverse the Mediterranean on their journey, some even passing over Malta, where rings have been recovered from gannets shot during the hunting season.
Of course, the hunting of wild birds is only one example of human impact on bird life. The cruelty that Coleridge described, that ‘Strange Lust of Murder in Man’, has many terrible variations. What might stand behind these impulses? Is it also non-feeling from non-thinking that underpins the myriad ways in which almost all of us (especially those in the more economically wealthy regions of the globe) wreak havoc not just on avian species but on every aspect of the more-than-human world? There are many reasons why we are now witnessing the fraying of the warp and weft of planetary life, all of which implicate the human to at least some degree. But is there also a glimmer of hope in Coleridge’s scored through ‘un’? It’s not that as a species we are incapable of caring, he seems to be saying – not that we are constitutionally un-thinking and un-feeling. But through a lack of thought and consequent lack of feeling about the environment we fail to see what we are doing and therefore moderate our behaviour, and, as is now becoming all the more apparent, through this we ultimately risk the destruction of our own planetary home along with that of our non-human companions.
I still haven’t made it to the Isle of May. But I regularly visit the place in my imagination, and keep abreast of the latest news through the reports written from and about the island. I know that following the hard winter, the breeding season picked up and the first guillemot egg was spotted on the 30th April, with the first chicks appearing in early June. These chicks face an extraordinary challenge early in their lives. After ‘twenty or twenty-one days’, David Steel explains, ‘the male will take the youngster out to the relative safety of the open sea. To do this, they have to call the chick down from the tops of the cliffs (regardless of height) and the father will then lead the chick away where it will grow flight feathers and become independent’. Overall, though, the news was not good. The extensive count of birds carried out on the island this year showed guillemots at their lowest numbers since 2014, and ten percent down on last year. This was probably due to the high levels of winter mortality in those successive, unseasonal blasts from the east – as evidenced by the sodden corpses on the path from Kingsbarns.
The nature writer Tim Dee says in his introduction to Ground Work that ‘a kind of singing in the dark times has begun’, that we are moving towards a position in which, as well as mourning our ecological losses, we also pay reinvigorated attention ‘to what remains and what it means to us’. I’m hopeful that he’s right. For my own part, I found myself noting each marker of the Spring this year with a new fervour. Hearing and seeing a skylark in the field next to Leuchars railway station as I began my journey home from St Andrews caused a lurch of emotion, a rising of the spirit, that brought to mind Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘The Windhover’, and the poet’s deep joy at seeing a ‘dapple-dawn-drawn falcon’ effortlessly riding the air above his head. My heart in hiding, too, ‘stirred for a bird’.
My islomania continues undinted, but my sense of islands as places of revelation now extends to an apprehension of them as barometers of change in these dark times, as sites on the front line of, and sometimes implicated in, the impacts of an altering global climate and the desperate thinning of non-human life. The uncanny juxtapositions of the Anthropocene – which often seem all the more stark when encountered in the wild and windswept landscapes of our coasts and islands – might potentially shake us out of the non-thinking and non-feeling that bedevils our time. Images like the guillemot and the broken frame might spur us on to focused contemplation, might call out our hearts from hiding, as we begin to experience more profoundly the magnitude of the crisis: plastic waste washed up in mounds on shorelines many miles from its point of origin; the seasons out of kilter; seabirds, whose flight paths should trace lines across the globe, lying dead at our feet. But inhabiting the uncomfortable uncertainty that these sights engender – accepting that we lack the means to fully frame our experience – might ultimately be more of a help than a hindrance, goading us to unceasing thought as we begin our song of grief, guilt and renewed ardour.
PIPPA MARLAND is a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, working on the ‘Land Lines: Modern British Nature Writing’ project. She is the author of the forthcoming Ecocriticism and the Island: Readings from the British-Irish Archipelago. This piece was published in an earlier form as ‘The Guillemot and the Broken Frame’ on the Land Lines blog.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The photograph of the guillemot and the broken frame was taken by school pupils on the ‘First Chances’ scheme in Fife, Scotland, and is used here with great admiration and gratitude. Thanks also to David Steel (@SteelySeabirder) for reading an early draft.
The essays in this series were supported by the Centre for Environmental Humanities at the University of Bristol. You can find out more about their work here.