Sunday, April 13, 2014

76) Arctic Jaeger


Stercorarius parasiticus

Port Phillip Bay is huge. With an area of nearly 2000 square kilometres and a circumference of around 260 kilometres, it’s large enough to accommodate two sizeable cities on its shore: Melbourne, with a population of four million people, and Geelong, home to nearly one-hundred and eighty thousand.

Yet the size of the Bay is deceptive: despite its breadth it’s never deeper than twenty-four metres; much of it averages only eight metres deep. The Yarra and Werribee Rivers flow into Port Phillip Bay; they flow, too, through the Bay, and the meandering submarine passages of the rivers create shipping channels for vessels coming in and out of the Bay. Around the ancient river beds the Bay is shallow, and that shallowness makes it unusually susceptible to drying out: research suggests that the Bay has dried out and refilled several times in the last ten thousand years.

The most recent of drying these events, which took place perhaps as recently as one-thousand years ago, may have been due to a sandbar blocking the Bay’s sea entrance.  That entrance, between Point Nepean on the eastern Mornington Peninsula and Point Lonsdale on the western Bellarine Peninsula, is only 3.2 kilometres wide; this passage of water is so treacherous that it’s known simply as the Rip.

The same sands that once rose up to block the Rip and seal off the Bay emerge from the waterline about eight kilometres east of Queenscliff to form the Mud Islands.  The islands are poorly named, not just because they’re made of sand and not mud, but because – in the manner of Australian landmarks – the name makes them sound desultory, despairing, tossed off and temporary.  The Mud Islands are ephemeral, they shift and slide in shape and geography as the tides and the winds adjust the sand, but in essence they are permanent: a circle of three islands, with a circumference of five and a half kilometres, enclosing a central lagoon.  Temperate Victoria’s own tropical atoll.

The Mud Islands are invisible until you’re almost alongside them.  They rise only a metre above the waterline; the sea around them is so shallow, sometimes only a foot deep, that no vessel greater than a small-drafted speedboat can come near them.  Landing on the islands means dropping anchor offshore and wading in.  Once on the islands you’re at the mercy of the Bay and its infamously fickle weather: there is no shelter out there, all the vegetation is hardy stunted coastal shrubbery that in most places barely reaches your knees.  The only canopy is the sky.

But the Mud Islands are extraordinary, because what’s out there are birds.  Thousands of them, in ever-changing congregations: Terns (Sternidae) crowding the beaches with nests at the turn of each year; Black Swans (Cygnus atratus) in their hundreds feeding in the seagrass beds off the islands’ northern perimeter, the towers of Melbourne just visible behind them; Swamp Harriers (Circus approximans) quartering the air above the islands; Australian Pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus) and White Ibises (Threskiornis moluccus) thronging the edges of the lagoon; and in the lagoon itself, in enormous numbers every summer, small birds at the edges and their larger, longer-legged cousins in the deeps, the Charadriiformes – the migratory waders.

More than any other group of birds, the names of waders evoke just how deeply ingrained is our fascination with birds: Knots; Godwits; Greenshanks; Stints; Snipes; Sandpipers; Sanderlings; Curlews. They’re ancient names: they speak of ancient people in the bleak landscapes of seabound northern Europe anticipating the annual bounty of these great travellers, which fly in their millions from the southern to the northern hemisphere and back again every year.  The Aboriginal people who lived around Port Phillip Bay must have had names for them, too – and it’s pleasing to imagine these birds, which live dual lives at each end of the planet, moulting from their breeding finery in the northern summer to their drab off-season plumage for their southern hemisphere retreat, passing also from one language into another as they fly.  The Knot gets its English name from Canute, or Cnut, the tenth-century king of northern Europe, who is said to have commanded the tide to stop rising.  The Knot, like all its kin, feeds at the edge of the sea; it parts the tide with its beak as it forages for tiny invertebrates in the mud.

This information was imparted to me by the guide who led me and twenty or so other people on a tour of the Mud Islands in the middle of February.  Sturdy and jovial, she’d been to the islands many times before and displayed an astonishing facility for bird identification that left me embarrassed.  With my cheap pocket-sized binoculars I was by far the least equipped of the whole tour group; whenever our guide set up her telescope, carried on her shoulder all the way around the islands, I was the first to line up for a view.  Truth be told I couldn’t tell one species of wader from another except by size, but I didn’t mind: I was happy just to be told what I was looking at, and to know that after twenty years of yearning for these birds I was finally gazing upon them.

We lunched among them.  Turning inland towards the lagoon we sat upon something like a meadow, what passed for a meadow on that remote sea-shaped landmass, and we unwrapped our sandwiches or rolls or whatever we’d brought along.  Tiny Red-necked Stints (Calidris ruficollis), all red long since vanished from them, pattered along the lagoon’s shore.  Bar-tailed Godwits (Limosa lapponica), huge beside the other birds, probed the deeper water one-hundred metres out.  Right beside our picnic spot Curlew Sandpipers (Calidris ferruginea), long-necked and elegant, dabbled in tiny ponds set amid the heath.  The activity of the birds was endless: no basking in the midday sun for them, no sleeping through the heat.  No more than a month after we visited their islands they’d open their wings again and turn north-east, following the coast and then the open sea all the way back to vast summer swamps of the Arctic, there to breed and raise a new generation of migrants.  It’s an enormous flight and it requires enormous amounts of food to fuel it.

Even when we finished lunch and crossed the lagoon, wading past the waders, they broke at the last possible instant: they watched us warily as birds do but they allowed us to approach more closely than most birds would.  Perhaps every second counts when you’re feeding to fly the length of the world.  In the distance a great cloud of White Ibises lifted into the sky, and beyond them, high above, approaching the island on broad wings spread over the bay, we saw a young White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster), speckled and brown in its juvenile plumage.  The sands around the lagoon were scattered with the remains of long-dead ibises, bones and feathers and briny stink.

We completed our circuit of the island quickly; we arrived back at our starting point half an hour before the boat was due to return.  The company that organises the tours runs them once a month throughout summer; the previous month, our guide told us, the beach upon which we landed had been filled with thousands of Crested Terns (Thalasseus bergii), each pair with a near full-grown chick.  The beach was empty now, with no sign that such a hatchery had so recently existed.  Walking across the sand was quick and easy.

Travelling back across the Bay to Queenscliff was easy, too, when the boat came.  We sat and did nothing and in twenty minutes we were back.  Yet that ease was deceptive: when the boat came we watched from the beach as the men piloting it ran out two anchors to secure it in the undulating water; then we had to wade out to it one by one and clamber up the ladder and into our seats; don our lifejackets, ensuring they were properly fastened; try not to move too much as the small boat rocked from side to side.  Once the anchors were up we turned around sharply and raced back towards Queenscliff, our ears full of the roar of the engine and our faces splashed by the salt-water chopping and sluicing up over the sides of the boat. Travelling the nine kilometres between the Mud Islands and Queenscliff might have been conveniently managed but it was nonetheless a cumbersome affair, an awkward and unnatural movement across an alien environment.  Our small boat smacked the water, jolting us with every wave, tracing a hectic and jerking line across the Bay.  When, midway through our journey, a dark gull-like bird briefly flew parallel to us and just out of reach, its ease of movement, wings beating at the air like oars, brought into relief the absurdity of our quest to be among the birds.

We idolise birds for their flight; it sends us into raptures.  Even as we recognise how unlike us they are, we envy them.  I visited the Mud Islands because I’m earth-bound.  Having become accustomed to travelling overseas every few years I now find myself, after a period of financial uncertainty and employed in a low-paying job, unable to afford to fly anywhere.  I live month to month, paycheque to paycheque.  Migratory birds accumulate fat before their great flights; humans save up money in order to fly, but I cannot do so at this moment in my life.  So instead this year I’m staying closer to home, to see the places I’ve previously ignored for their proximity.  I’ve been living in Victoria for ten years now; I’m finally getting around to visiting it.

From the boat, approaching Queenscliff, our guide immediately and uncannily identified the dark bird at our shoulder, just as she had been doing all day.  It was an Arctic Jaeger, she announced – a small species of Skua, a piratical group of birds who make their living by forcing other seabirds to relinquish their food.  “Arctic Jaeger” is an old name for the bird: nowadays it’s more properly called the Arctic Skua or the Parasitic Jaeger.  But bird people hold sentimentally to the old names: I still call Fairy-wrens (Maluridae) “Blue-wrens”, and our guide named the bird that briefly joined us as an Arctic Jaeger, so an Arctic Jaeger it was.

It had bred in the northern summer, six months before we saw it.  As the early chill of the Arctic autumn had begun to grow, the Jaeger had opened its sharp wings and turned south.  It had crossed the equator some time in September, flying down Australia’s east coast, taking shelter in bays, always looking for other birds returning from a feed.  It had chased and harassed numerous other birds – gulls, terns – until they’d dropped or disgorged the food they were carrying.  It had seen many boats, and on one warm fine day it had, briefly, flown alongside one, paying it no particular heed, at the edge of a great bay, from where it could see through a narrow gap in the land the wild sea beyond.

Like so many of the birds I’d seen that day, the Jaeger would soon be going north again, flying the many thousands of kilometres back to the Arctic.  The journey is not without danger and nor is it without cost; yet millions of birds the world over do it every year, and have been doing so for uncountable generations.  Measured against that scale of life the impression made by one dark bird on one happily wind-blown human is nothing at all; yet it’s the only metric I have by which to measure the experience.  When I saw the Jaeger – and more so, when I heard our guide name its species – a thin, bright line was traced for me half way across the world, from the high Arctic to southern Australia.  I’ve been to the Arctic twice, once ten years ago by myself on money borrowed off a credit card, and once four years ago with my father on a trip he paid for and for which I always intended to reimburse him but have never been able to.  The Arctic is vast and to describe it as a single place is absurd – the Arctic I know, inland, among hills and valleys and fresh water, is radically different from the Arctic known to the Jaeger and its migratory fellows – yet there is a connection, for in our naming we have made it so.  The Arctic is the Arctic, and increasingly I feel its pull on me, as if I need to return to it every few years.

In all likelihood I won’t get to go back there for many years yet.  I’ll have to hold tight to my memories of its silence, its crisp air, its wildlife.  But it’s a comfort to know that it comes on feathers to visit the part of the world I live in, every year; it’s good to know that I can travel only a few hours from home, and by proxy find myself transported to the planet’s highest latitudes.  The birds are strong enough to fly that great distance, there and back, every year – to carry me with them is not so great an ask.

The Jaeger turned with the wind and flew away, out over the Bay, as easily as we might turn a corner on a footpath.  When we returned to Queenscliff, and dry land, having left and then journeyed back, a couple who I’d met on the tour offered to drive me to Geelong; from there I got a train back to Melbourne, and less than two hours after stepping off the boat I was back in my bedroom.  Homebound again, all too soon.  I’m already planning my next trip to the Mud Islands, at the end of the year, on the other side of winter, to meet the birds again upon their return.


Image sourced and adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/

Sunday, March 30, 2014

75) Cricket

Gryllidae

It’s Friday, and I’m shouting at my colleagues. They’re not sure what they’re supposed to be doing and I, having the clearest view, am trying to organise them.  I’m playing goalkeeper in my work’s team in Melbourne City Council’s inter-office lunchtime five-a-side soccer competition; I am trying to organise my team-mates into a defensive formation.

It’s only the third time I’ve played in goal and, to my great surprise, I love it.  But I’m inexperienced and, when I take my eye off the player with the ball, he sees the opportunity and shoots.  I notice the ball too late and though I get a hand to it it hits the back of the net.  I apologise to my team-mates while the other team cheers.  The score is 1-0.

At half-time our captain tells me, kindly, that my only job is to keep my eye on the ball.  By that time the score is 3-2 against us and I’ve made several saves, the most recent of which, just before half-time, bent my right hand back sharply at the wrist, causing immediate pain.  As the second half begins I’m still trying to shake off the pain, but it persists; yet I stay in the game, not thinking too much of it, and unwilling to abandon my team-mates as we gradually get back into the game, drawing level, then going ahead, then going further ahead as we push towards our first win in five weeks.  At full-time the score is 6-3: we’ve held the other team scoreless in the second half, and scored four goals ourselves.

On Saturday, thirty hours later, I’m sitting on a bench overlooking the Yarra River.  It’s getting towards night-time I’m too tired to go out so I’m going for a walk instead.  My right arm is in a sling and is immobilised from the fingertips almost to the elbow by a plaster splint.  I yawn deeply: the day has been physically and mentally exhausting.  I’m right-handed and now my right hand is unusable; my left hand, clumsy and uncertain, is all I have.  Being restricted to the use of only one hand, I’ve realised, is like being in a foreign country: daily tasks and habits are the same, but must be re-thought entirely, their practicality assessed, their execution re-learned.  The signs are familiar but are written in a different language.

After the game on Friday my hand began to swell up.  I put ice on it til the ice-pack melted, and I continued to work.  I didn’t want to let my colleagues down, and I didn’t think my injury was too big a deal.  It hurt, though, a pang, and when I asked my office manager for a panadol one of my colleagues overheard.  Seeing my hand, now fat like a small balloon, she said in a worried voice: “That doesn’t look good.”  Of course it didn’t, and when she said I should go to the doctor I realised that she was right.  I called my GP; he had one appointment slot available, the last of the day at 5:15.  It was 4:15 when I called.  I left the office immediately.

While I’m sitting on the bench, watching the river, a small flock of Red-rumped Parrots (Psephotus haematonotus) bursts from the eucalypts on the far bank and alights upon a grey log almost submerged in the middle of the river.  They are small and dainty, I could hold them in my arms; there are males and females alike, in equal numbers, about ten birds in total, and drinking from the water that surrounds their log they look like they’re taking an island vacation.  I’ve never seen parrots in the middle of a river before.

While I’m watching the parrots my phone begins to ring.  It’s my mother, calling to check up on me.  She’s worried that I’m in pain but I reassure her, truthfully, that there’s very little pain.  If I accidentally turn my arm the wrong way I wince, but other than that I don’t feel anything that can’t be managed some over-the-counter painkillers now and then.  The night before when I’d been waiting in St Vincent’s Hospital, on the edge of Melbourne’s CBD, one of the nurses had given me a couple of panadols; half an hour later, after getting x-rayed, I told the hospital physiotherapist cheerfully that the pain wasn’t as bad as it had been.  Only later did I remember having taken the panadols, and I laughed at myself while also wondering if I should call the physio back to explain my mistaken self-diagnosis to her.

My GP suspects that I’ve fractured the scaphoid, one of the small bones in the palm of the hand.  He refers me to the hospital for x-rays but explains that scaphoid fractures are notoriously hard to see.  As I catch the 96 tram down Nicholson Street from the doctor’s surgery to the hospital I begin to feel almost delirious; I wonder if my brain is soaking itself with endorphins to mitigate the pain in my hand, greater then than in the freshness of the injury it would be later.  By the time I walk into the emergency ward at St Vincent’s I’m almost giddy with the novelty of the experience.

By the river I ask my mum how she is.  My parents are trying to sell their house; it’s not as easy as they’d hoped.  I can’t tell if she’s optimistic or not, but she says she feels better than she did the week before.  I believe her.  We both feel the distance between Melbourne and Canberra more acutely this weekend more than we normally do.

We finish our conversation and I put my phone back in my pocket.  I’m keeping everything in my left pocket now, phone, keys, wallet, coin-pouch, and it bulges with its contents while my right pocket sits flat and empty and inaccessible beneath the elbow of my useless right arm.  I can feel the weight of my right arm pulling against the left side of my neck where the sling is tied.  When I went out earlier to do some shopping I carried a bag on my left shoulder.  The left side of my body is doing more than its fair share of work.

In between consultations with nurses and physios and x-ray technicians on Friday night I listen to the announcements over the hospital PA.  Around a corner in the ward I can hear a woman screaming abuse.  The physio is at her desk just metres away from me and I think how strange this workplace is: I try to imagine myself sitting at my desk, in my office, carrying out the normal tasks of my working day while perfect strangers sit just metres away; while in the background I can hear people fighting for life or sanity.  The hospital staff all wear comfortable shoes.

I’m walking slowly along the river.  A slow walk is all I can manage.  Earlier in the day I’d jogged for a few steps as I tried to get across a road before the lights changed and I’d immediately realised my mistake: jolted and jostled my right arm had flared up in pain.  I slowed again to a scampering walk.  I haven’t gone faster than that since.

It’s just after 6pm when I leave my house and the sun is still high on this second-last Saturday of daylight saving, but by the time I approach Fairfield it’s well past seven and dusk is settling.  It’s been a warm day and it’s a mild evening, and Crickets are singing everywhere, louder than I’ve ever heard them sing before.  They’re bolder, too; they do not stop singing no matter how close to them I get, and at one point walking across a patch of grass I stop and stand for a minute in the metre-wide gap between two Crickets.  The sound of them in stereo is almost deafening, it nearly makes my ears ring.  I’m stunned by how persistent and unwavering they are in their singing.  Perhaps they know, these Crickets, that summer is fading, and with it their last chance to attract a mate.

The x-rays were inconclusive, as my GP had predicted they would be.  The physio puts the splint on my arm and makes the sling as a precautionary measure: I’m to wear it for a week, by which time the swelling will have subsided and my hand can be x-rayed again.  I find as soon as I leave the hospital that having my arm in plaster and a sling garners me automatic sympathy: stopping off at a grocer to buy chocolate on my way home the shopgirl walks me through each of the types of chocolate in stock, one by one, as if I might be unable to read the labels or make a decision.  It’s baffling, but also sweetly amusing: I’m unused to being fussed over.  The next day, exactly twenty-four hours after the soccer match, a waitress at a café where I’m having lunch asks what happened; it transpires that she once also broke the scaphoid in her right hand.  “So that’ll be six weeks, right?” she says, and I quail at the thought; I remember sheepishly my disappointment the night before when the physio had been unable to confirm whether the bone was broken: secretly I’d been hoping for the fracture.  At the age of thirty-four I’ve never broken a bone in my body, and I’d been looking forward to the novelty of the experience.

Now, though, with my hand in plaster, even the thought of six days exhausts me.  Everything takes twice as long to do as it normally would.  Before going to the café, when I’d been shopping at another grocer near my house, I’d noticed a woman who was shopping with her boyfriend.  His right hand, too, was in plaster; how I envied him, having somebody to be an extra pair of hands.  What luxury.

The path along the river rises abruptly, until without quite realising how it’s happened I’m looking out over the crowns of the trees and the river is far below me.  Only moments ago I was at the water’s edge.  This part of the path always confuses and delights me.  This is a favourite walk of mine, across Merri Creek at Yarra Bend then back up the river towards Fairfield, then over the Eastern Freeway to Heidelberg Road and the creek again.  I’ve taken this walk many times and as I walk it again today I’m thinking about a woman I know who I would like to take this walk with one day; but I know she is not interested in walking with me.  I’ve met enough disinterested women in my time to know one when I meet one.  That’s okay, she’s under no obligation, and these things cannot be taken personally.

The physio had told me to put a plastic bag over my plastered arm when I have a shower.  I feel sorry for my GP, having to cut the plaster off on Thursday and get the first whiff of my arm, sweaty and unwashed for a week.  Putting a plastic bag over my arm is harder than I thought it would be: the first bag I select has a hole in it; the second seems to be too short until I manoeuvre it so that my fingers are pushed right into its bottom corner.  I secure and seal the bag with a rubber band, stretching it gingerly over my hand, tugging the ends of the bag beneath it.  It works, and in the shower my arm stays dry, but trying to get a lather up from the soap with one hand is slow and inefficient.  Still, I manage it.  This life can be managed alone, if it has to be.

Opposite the Yarra Bend Golf Course I stop to watch a group of Indian men playing cricket.  They are wearing shorts and t-shirts; it’s far too dark to play cricket and I wonder how long they’ve been there.  They’re revelling in each-other’s company, chatting to each-other in Hindi or some other language, laughing on a beautiful Australian autumn evening.  Three Eastern Rosellas (Platycercus eximius) forage in the grass in between the Indian men and me.  Birds flock so that there is always at least one pair of eyes keeping an eye out for predators: they look out for each-other, literally.

Since I announced my injury on social media I’ve had a handful of offers of help if needed, but not many.  Still, I’ve received many sympathetic words, and commiserations, and kind-hearted jokes, and these too are help of a kind.  I’ve only very recently begun to come around to the idea that people other than my family care about me and think of me when I’m not around.  It seems foolish to have come to such a realisation so late.  My injury has inconvenienced me, but things are not so bad. 

Earlier on Saturday afternoon my Indian houseguest had told me about studies that showed that just twenty minutes’ exposure to natural sounds a day reduced stress levels and prolonged a person’s life.  By the time I get back home the sky above is dark, dark blue, and the Grey-headed Flying Foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus) are making their nightly pilgrimage overhead.  It’s 8pm; a walk that normally takes me one hour has tonight taken me more than two.  And yet when I get home, I feel less tired than I did when I left.


Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org

Sunday, January 26, 2014

74) Housefly




Musca domestica

The forecast unfurls like a fire, day by day.  The week before the heatwave the Bureau of Meteorology reveals each day of the week to come, its seven-day forecast pushing further into the near future to reveal what’s about to hit Melbourne, and the rest of southern Australia.  At first it doesn’t seem as bad as it might: Monday is predicted to be 35 degrees, and though Tuesday will be 41 Wednesday will be 39.  Somehow that 39 seems a comfort, a respite: forty degrees Centigrade is a psychological threshold, and crossing it is daunting.

By Monday the forecast has worsened.  There will be no respite, however small, on Wednesday; we’ll have to wait until the end of the week for the temperature to drop marginally below forty degrees.  Then the forecast worsens again.  By the time the heatwave begins, first thing on Tuesday morning, the predicted temperatures are only getting higher.  Tuesday will be 41 degrees.  Wednesday will be 44.  Thursday, Friday – they’ll eventually, and correctly, be forecast at 44 degrees each, but by now we don’t care.  By now we’re in it.

The heat on Tuesday is wicked but not unusual: Melbourne always suffers one or two days above forty degrees in summer.  We endure them, we wait them out, knowing that a change is coming soon.  On Tuesday morning we know from the forecast that a change won’t be coming any time soon but it still feels like a normal hot summer day.  As normal as a day above forty degrees can feel.  Before I leave for work I shut all the doors and windows at home, and pull the curtains closed.  It’s all I can do and I hope it will do, but I know it won’t: there’s no insulation in the walls and this house breathes with the weather.  The heat leaks in, unstoppably; I’m putting a bandaid on a severed artery.  By the time I come home from work – air-conditioned, comfortable – the house has heated up and my housemates have reopened the curtains and doors and windows: it makes no difference now.

That evening, at dusk, we walk down to Yarra Bend, where we’d once seen the fruitbats, Grey-headed Flying Foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus), skimming the river to drink.  We anticipate that after a hot day they’ll be particularly thirsty.  The previous week there’d been a similar heatwave in Queensland, and I’d read that fruitbats had dropped dead from their roost trees in their thousands.  We watch Melbourne’s bats, almost invisible in the dark, flutter down on their broad wings and dip their chests in the water, mid-flight: the sound of the glancing impact is a cutting noise, and each bat announces itself with a plume of white water and a line of drips on the river that can be seen in the reflection of the bright, almost full moon.  At one point, unexpectedly, rain – such a little rain – begins to fall, and the drops are icy cold; but the air temperature, even after dark, is still thirty degrees.  It won’t drop below thirty until just before dawn, too late to make any difference.  At home the only way I can get to sleep is by stretching a damp towel across my bed and lying on it.  I’ll have to do this for the rest of the week.

On Wednesday morning the heat is apparent from the start: when I walk from my house to the train station; from the train station in the city to the tram stop; from the tram stop to work.  By 10am the temperature is already 35 degrees Centigrade.  The Bureau of Meteorology’s website puts the midday temperature at 40 degrees.  At lunchtime I walk briskly across the road from work to a café, and when I arrive the black plastic of my sunglasses is hot to the touch.  The temperature by now is 42 degrees.  Sitting by the window, inside the café, I see a House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) hopping across the table outside, looking for crumbs; it sees me but it looks almost unrecognisable: its feathers are ragged, and its beak is unnaturally wide as it tries to pant the heat out of its tiny body.  It looks harried.

I stay away from home as much as I can: after work I spend long hours in the State Library, or at the cinema, both blissfully airconditioned.  I don’t return home until after dark, as if that makes much difference.  At home my Cat (Felis catus) is enduring the heat with unreadable silence and I’ve taken to recreating my damp towel arrangement for her benefit, spreading a wet tea-towel on the kitchen floor for her; my housemates report that when they returned from work they found her spreadeagled upon it.  The kitchen is by now full of flies: in the heat they’ve appeared opportunistically, as if from nowhere, and they buzz in clouds like black dust between the bare bulb above and the warm linoleum below.  When my housemates and I walk to and from the laundry, or the bathroom, the flies arrange themselves around our bodies, parting to make way for our passage.  The noise of them sounds as if the heat itself is humming.

On Thursday I go to a gig; on my way there, ascending from Parliament Station, I pass a large Rat (Rattus sp.) drinking from a puddle left by a sprinkler.  Its black eyes are almost popping out of its head in the heat; it looks half-crazed and it doesn’t even notice me as I approach.  I’ve never been so close to a rat before, I can see every fur on its body, I can see the quiver of the tiny pool of water as the rat laps it up with a thirst beyond imagining – but then, when I take a step too close to it, it suddenly notices me and darts back into the bushes, and I feel instantly guilty: this animal, suffering in the heat, is still so scared of me that it would let itself go thirsty before it would allow itself to be in my presence.  I think about the animals, domestic and wild, suffering through the heatwave.  Before the week began I’d expected to see dead birds, but I haven’t seen one yet at all.  The Silver Gulls (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae) that forever circle outside my office window have seemed almost like mirages in the heat.  Welcome Swallows (Hirundo neoxena) have flitted just outside the windows at work all day, pursuing the insects that have been attracted by the building’s radiant heat.  Photos begin to spread across the internet of Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus), a animals that never ordinarily drink because they gains all the water they needs from the leaves they eat, sitting in wading pools and gratefully lapping up water from proffered bowls.  Lightning begins to crack above Melbourne’s northern suburbs, and eating an ice-cream for some respite I watch it arc down behind Parliament House, splitting a darkening sky.  Later rain begins to fall, fat and slow, and I walk through it hoping against hope for a break in the weather but there is none.  Instead the storm-clouds make the heat of the night suffocating.

By now the night-time temperature is 35 degrees.  Heat does not feel the same after dark as it does during the day.  Without the sun’s radiance it’s a strange, unearthly feeling; as if the night has gone wrong.  As if in some great cosmic accountancy the wrong column had been filled.  Heat at night cannot be escaped: there’s no shade to go to.  It can only be endured, and suffered through.  At home my housemates and I leave the doors open, hoping for some cool night-time air to enter the house, but there is none and there’s not even any breeze to refresh the stifling air inside the house.

At around four in the afternoon I go onto the balcony outside my work’s eighth-floor office and the change is here.  The temperature is hot, but bearable – almost pleasant.  The wind is switched direction, from north to south-west, and has increased in strength, and is blowing hot as all the accumulated hot air of the last four days is slowly and inexorably shifted like dust pushed by a broom.  Spontaneous parties are created: after work I join some friends for drinks at an outdoor bar in the city and the crowd there seems almost delirious with relief.  Heat still radiates off the buildings of the city but back home, away from all the concrete and glass, the air is cooler.  My housemates and I throw the house wide open and grin and stand outside drinking gin and tonics, heavy on the gin.  My cat begins to purr for the first time all week.  Every time I feel the cool breeze touch my face endorphins surge through my body, and I feel lighter than air.

On Friday I wake with a sense of excitement: this is it.  This is the day when the heat will finally break.  Knowing that, even the daytime temperature of forty-four degrees feels somehow different: I don’t enjoy it as such but I start to appreciate the strangeness of it, knowing that it will soon be gone.  That afternoon at work is almost a write-off: I’m so excited by the change that I spend all afternoon monitoring the Bureau of Meteorology’s website, watching the change manifest itself on the wind radar and creep up towards Melbourne from the western edge of Port Phillip Bay.  I feel a buzz of excitement as the Bureau updates the temperature at each successive town on the way to Melbourne: as each one drops below forty degrees, even the heat of thirty-five sounds blissful.





Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

73) Brown Falcon


Falco berigora

On the 21st of December, just a week and a half ago, I was a few hours out of Melbourne in the air-conditioned carriage of a V-Line train, travelling through the midst of a 40-degree heatwave that had settled malignantly over Victoria for the day, when I was struck by an unexpected thought: I hope I see a Brown Falcon this weekend.

It seemed a possibility; it seemed, really, as though it should be an inevitability.  I had a lot of travelling ahead of me that weekend in the hectic days before Christmas: from Melbourne to Canberra via a train and then a bus, nine hours in total; the next day, from Canberra to Sydney in a car with my brother – three hours – then back to Canberra the day after; finally, on Monday, another three hours from Canberra to Bermagui, on the far south coast of New South Wales, where my parents had rented a holiday house for the Christmas week.

When you’re on a train or on a bus by yourself, or in the passenger seat of a car, there’s not much to do beside stare out the window at the passing landscape.  More often than not in the inland of south-eastern Australia that landscape is grass: the land has long been cleared for farming, and what trees there are are scattered and often distant.  Still, this grass is home to numerous small animals, and consequently it’s a given that any long trip through that part of Australia will provide the opportunity to observe numerous birds of prey.  So it should have been a given that during my many hours of travelling over the weekend before Christmas I’d see a Brown Falcon.  Why I suddenly hoped so fervently to see one, though, I wasn’t sure.

There’s nothing exciting about a Brown Falcon.  Even its name is dull.  The bird has none of the visceral thrill of its near relative the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus); nor the skill and elegance of the Nankeen Kestrel (Falco cenchroides), though it sometimes attempts its own ungainly version of the Kestrel’s signature hunting technique, hovering in place above a field of grass.  The Brown Falcon doesn’t have the puckish violence of the Australian Hobby, a bird that can send other birds into a panic incommensurate with its small size; nor does the Brown Falcon have the mystique of the Grey Falcon (Falco hypoleucos) or Black Falcon (Falco subniger), which are something like ghosts of the vast Australian inland.  Unlike just about any other falcon the Brown Falcon doesn’t outfly its prey, nor dazzle its human observers with feats of aerial precision.  Its hunting technique is simply to sit in a tree, or on a powerline, above great swathes of unengaging grass, and stare at the ground until something catches its eye.  That this is a hunting technique practiced by many other birds of prey doesn’t let the Brown Falcon off the hook: it’s a falcon, the most revered of all the raptors.  It should be more exciting.

But it’s not, and in a way that’s part of its charm.  I used to see Brown Falcons – in all the shades in which the species manifests, from deep chocolate brown to pale beige – virtually lining the drive from Canberra to the New South Wales far south coast, when I was a child and I’d sit in the back of my parents’ car on our regular weekend trips to their holiday house on the Brogo River near Bega.  The birds were so unobtrusive yet so ubiquitous that their absence from my life, for over a decade now, has passed almost unnoticed by me until relatively recently.

I guess I stopped seeing Brown Falcons when I stopped going to Brogo.  Monthly visits to Brogo were a constant of my childhood; as I grew older and more independent I found other things took my interest.  I no longer had to do something – regardless of how much I enjoyed it – just because my parents suggested it.  Childhood, I suppose, ends when a person’s daily life stops being dependant upon the decisions of his or her parents.

In which case adulthood begins, in part, when a person starts to understand the financial pressures that his or her parents withstood.  Every now and then a memory will come into my head of how, when I was very young, my parents would regularly shop at Franklin’s, a no-frills home-brand supermarket, and how they’d drink cask wine; it seems so many worlds away from how we live now that it’s hard to fathom, yet I think it speaks not only to the upward mobility of middle-class Australia over the last quarter-century but to the trajectory of parenthood, of familyhood.  At the time of my earliest memories of childhood my parents were in their thirties, the age I am now; I moved out of home – and interstate – almost a decade ago but it’s only now that I’m starting to understand how much of a struggle it must have been for my parents, in those early years, to keep their family fed and clothed and housed.

When I return home from Melbourne to spend time with my family I tend to revert a little into childhood.  Suddenly I’m freed, momentarily, from the mundane realities of day-to-day adulthood: I no longer have to cook meals for myself, I no longer have to wash up after myself or make sure the house is kept clean.  There’s someone else who can do that for me.  It’s not something to be proud of, but it feels like a break and I fall into that mindset unconsciously.  Yet returning home also reinforces for me that my life has now become my own, for good and ill: my financial struggles are my own; my attempts to understand the world are my own.  This is what a parent does, I suppose: raise a child until they’re old enough to feel that everything they have or don’t have is a result of their own decisions.

But I’ve lately come to realise, too, that my parents are deeply invested in my life.  It feels foolish to only realise that now, at the age of thirty-four.  When I go home now and hear my parents talk about their friends, the stories inevitably involve weddings; daughters- or sons-in-law; grandchildren.  I become acutely – painfully – aware that I’ve failed, so far, to provide these things – these markers of happiness – for my parents.  In the past, when my mum asked whether I’d found a girlfriend, I took it as nagging; now I realise that it’s much more than that.  She’s raised her children, and sent them out into the world; a great part of her happiness now is dependant upon what her children bring back into her life.  A child must provide for his or her parents, just as he or she was provided for.  A parent expects a family to grow and prosper and become entwined with other families.  I haven’t been able to provide that.  I don’t know why.  It hurts too much to think about.

Driving with my father from Canberra down to Bermagui just before Christmas, staring out the window, I saw a smallish, brownish bird of prey.  It may have been a Brown Falcon, or it may not have been; I took it to be, without much evidence and perhaps too eagerly.  The last time I saw a Brown Falcon, life seemed a lot simpler – when my parents asked me about my private life I assumed they were just being nosy, and I became silently annoyed at them.  My life was my own.  I can’t be entirely sure that my desire to see a Brown Falcon last week wasn’t a yearning, in some way, for that easier childhood mentality, for a time before I fully understood my parents’ humanity, and all the heartache and hope for joy implicit in that.  But the bird I saw probably wasn’t a Brown Falcon, and you’ve begun to understand life you can’t go back to how you saw the world before.

Happy new year.  In the year to come, and in all the years after it, may we all make our loved ones happy.
 

Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

72) Ruddy Turnstone



Arenaria interpres

By the time we got to St Ives my father and I were ready to take a break.  We’d been walking for three days along the coast of Cornwall, twenty kilometres each day.  We were sunburned, we were exhausted from walking into the wind the whole way, we were elated to be at our destination but we didn’t want to go any further. 

We had only a brief time to make the most of St Ives: one afternoon, one night, and one morning – just enough to get a feel for the town.  It was the end of April, not yet the peak season when thousands of summer tourists would flock to this town of only ten thousand people, so we had space to do all the tourist things: visit the Tate Gallery; take in the Barbara Hepworth Museum.  We ate Cornish pasties.  We took photos of the waterfront and of the narrow streets.  We watched Terns (Sternidae) dive just beyond the rocks at the edge of the harbour.  And at lunchtime the day after we arrived, in the lazy hours before our train departed for London, we took our lunch by the sea-wall along with the other early-season tourists.  The sun was out and the shoreline was humming.  We sat down amid the crowd and listened to the surf and to the Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) and admired the slope of the town and its whitewashed buildings.  We were trying not to think of the end of our brief holiday, of our flight back to Australia in only a few days’ time.

Then, as we ate, we noticed scurrying amid the seaweed and sand at the foot of the sea-wall scores of small birds.  They were busy and plump like Quails (Galliformes), and painted like them too, splotched with harlequin make-up in black and white and brown: they ran in loose and shifting congregations over the wet rocks, probing under stones, flipping objects over to reveal what was underneath.  By that behaviour they were unmistakable: they were Turnstones, known in Australia as Ruddy Turnstones.

I’ve long been fascinated by migratory waders.  Whenever I go to the coast in spring or summer I always keep an eye out for them.  They come in their millions to Australia each summer: they gather in great flocks on the continent’s beaches and tidal mudflats, making their way down south, spreading out across the whole long coastline.  Australia is their winter home, or more properly their out-of-season home: for these birds never see winter, but live a life of perpetual summer.  They breed across the Arctic from May through to July, then when the days begin to shorten towards the end of each year they fly en masse to the southern hemisphere to sit out the non-breeding season and avoid the harsh northern winter.

The migratory waders – the Charadriiformes – are a morphologically diverse group of birds.  The largest of them is the Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis), weighing around a kilogram and with a wingspan of over a metre; its appearance is dominated by a curved beak sixty centimetres long which it plunges deep into the sand in search of food.  The Snipes (Scolopacidae) have beaks as long and as straight as swords; the Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica) has a beak which curves ever-so-slightly upwards.  Several species of bird have been observed to use tools; but a bird’s beak is its greatest tool of all, and it is a tool which each species wields dextrously and to a particular end.  The Turnstone uses its sturdy, dagger-like beak to get under rocks along the shoreline and flip them over, revealing the invertebrates living underneath.

The Turnstone is not the smallest of the migratory waders – that title goes to the Red-necked Stint (Calidris ruficollis) – but it is at the smaller end of the spectrum.  It typically weighs around 100 grams.  It has a wingspan of only fifty centimetres – impressively long, nonetheless, for a bird that measures barely more than twenty centimetres from beak to tail.  You could hold a Turnstone in your cupped hands.  Yet twice each year every individual of this species, estimated to be as many as 800,000 animals, undertakes a flight from one end of the world to the other, a flight notable not just for its distance but for its extraordinary speed: a study completed in 2011 of four Turnstones found that on the northward migration, to Siberia, the birds flew the seven and a half thousand kilometres from Australia to Taiwan in just six days – and that was only part of the journey: from Taiwan to Siberia, where the birds breed, is another five thousand kilometres or so, though this leg – up the eastern coast of China, feeding on tidal mudflats as they went – was taken at a comparatively leisurely pace, over the course of a month.  The Turnstones were recorded as leaving their Australian wintering grounds on the 27th of April; they arrived in Yakutia, Siberia, on the 4th of June.  All told, these diminutive birds had completed their migration of twelve-and-a-half thousand kilometres in only 39 days, an average of around 320 kilometres every day.  To put that in human terms: that’s the equivalent of around seven and a half marathons a day, every day, for nearly a month and a half.

As my father and I finished our lunch we turned our attention more fully to the Turnstones.  They were working the mudflat thoroughly, busily investigating every loose rock or strand of seaweed they encountered, devouring everything they could.  They were refuelling: Turnstones don’t breed in Britain, but stop there either on their way to their breeding grounds or on their way back.  That the birds in St Ives were in their heavily patterned breeding plumage suggested that they were on their way north, passing through on their way to Greenland or Canada, to join their fellow migrants in huge congregations, millions strong, along the shorelines of those countries.

Despite all the people just metres from them them, despite all the noise of tourists and sight-seers, the Turnstones seemed barely to notice us.  Flying from country to country, feeding on beaches and in tidal inlets, migratory waders more than most birds must be used to the presence of humans: the East-Asian-Australasian Flyway, which sees the passage of some four million birds twice each year, encompasses twenty-two countries.  Not all of those countries have signed up to the Ramsar Convention protecting wetlands of international importance; yet each country, each stop-over in the Flyway, is a link in a chain.  Migratory birds – and there are many species, not just waders – follow their instinct; what would happen if the Turnstones, or any other species, found one year that one of their feeding grounds had been drained, or built over?  In fact this habitat loss is already happening.  So far the migrations haven’t ceased: the earth is vast, and appears to offer an abundance of habitation options for humans and non-humans alike.

Yet the earth is not infinite.  In 2011 thousands of Black-necked Grebes (Podiceps nigricollis), flying in bad weather, crashed and died in the vast carpark of a Wal-Mart in Utah, which they had apparently mistaken for a lake.  When they landed they found not water but concrete.  In November 2012 fisherman off the coast of England reported the nightmarish sight of thousands of migratory songbirds drowned in the North Sea: having left Scandinavia in clear conditions, the birds had apparently hit a storm of fog and wind and had been unable to make land.  There are photos of some of them perched on boats, or even on the shoulders of fishermen; one captain reported that “On the way home we just saw dead songbirds in the water.”  Migratory birds of all kinds face threats, both old and new, but the waders in particular seem vulnerable.  Climate change is the latest danger to them, bringing with it rising sea-levels and as a consequence further loss of coastal feeding grounds.  It seems all too easy to imagine one year migratory waders falling by their millions from the sky out of sheer exhaustion – though they’d likely die at sea, in which case how long would it take us to notice their absence?  In which country would we notice it first?

The Turnstones in St Ives were working one stretch of the mud below the sea-wall particularly eagerly; looking along it my father and I saw that a man was sitting on the rough concrete steps that led down to the water, scattering seeds for the birds: they flocked to his benevolence, ignoring him but hopping up onto the lower steps beneath where he sat.  In contrast to the birds’ breeding finery the man was dressed in ragged clothes; his face was lined and tanned by the sun; he looked destitute, earthen and heavy.  Soon the diminutive birds he was feeding would open their wings and fly further north, thousands of kilometres beyond this small part of the coast.  Soon, too, my father and I would leave: we finished lunch, and went to catch our train, and not many days afterwards we were back at Heathrow, boarding our aeroplane for a twenty-four hour flight over half the world back home, belching exhaust fumes into the atmosphere the whole way.  Not a migration, not quite; but not so far removed, either.

I’m trying to draw a parallel here, to find a link – but the metaphor collapses: the Turnstones we saw in St Ives would never be seen in Australia, for there are two populations of the species in the world, those that migrate between North America through Europe to Africa, and those that migrate through East Asia from Siberia to Australia.  The world is more complicated than we want it to be.  The Turnstones in St Ives passed through our lives only fleetingly, as we through theirs; yet of the two sides of the encounter, our imprint on their life was heavier by far.
  

Image sourced and adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org

Monday, July 29, 2013

71) Skylark & Fulmar

 Alauda arvensis & Fulmarus glacialis

“Exultation,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “is the going of an inland soul to sea.”  Dickinson lived her whole life in western Massachusetts; she rarely left her family’s house and she kept her poems to herself.  She knew everything there was to know about being an inland soul.

Anybody who is given to inwardness, and who reads those words of Dickinson’s, is sure to feel a surge of familiarity.  For those of us who sometimes choose to take comfort in our own company there’s something about the vastness of a seascape that is mind-expanding.  Australia’s national myth-building might have had its foundations in the bush, but these days it’s towards the sea that the nation is regularly said to turn its imagination – and little wonder: while the vast inland may be too dry and harsh an environment to support a substantial population, the fertile strip of land around the coast provides a relatively comfortable lifestyle, and it’s there that the great majority of Australians live.

Which makes Canberra something of an anachronism, to an even greater extent than most Australians already consider it to be: the capital of a maritime nation, yet a city that is more than a hundred kilometres from the nearest coastline; a city whose constitutionally mandated seaport is connected only by tenuous imagination and a long, long road.  It’s the city I grew up in and since I became aware of the cultural hegemony of the sea in contemporary Australia it’s a city whose very inland-ness – its setting among hills and mountains, its plentiful woodlands and cold, clear nights – is something I’ve embraced as my own.

So for me the sea has always had an otherness, yet it’s an otherness that I’ve found myself drawn to time and again.  Not when I’m far from it, on those rare occasions these days when I’m settled among my hills – but when I get close to it, physically or emotionally, I feel its tightening pull on me, like an outgoing wave sucking at my feet.

When at the start of this year my family began planning a two week holiday to England for April, there was only one event set in stone: my cousin’s wedding in London, at the end of the first week, the sole reason for the trip.  Beyond the wedding there were days to fill, and it was almost immediately that I suggested to my father that we could go for a walk along the coast of Cornwall.  I’ve been visiting the south of England my entire life, but Cornwall’s a place I’d never managed to get to.  I grew up listening to my mother’s stories of summer holidays in Looe, though, on the county’s southern coast, and the idea of Cornwall had long captivated me, much as it captivated the Victorians who extended a great railway line from London all the way to the tip of the Cornish peninsula, several hundred kilometres distant.

It was on that railway line that my father and I travelled to Cornwall, six hours or more from Paddington Station to Newquay, across half a dozen counties.  When we arrived in Newquay, a town of 20,000 people half-way up the northern coast of Cornwall, it was late in the afternoon.  The sun was still bright when we checked into our hotel, though the wind was strong and cold, but even in late April winter’s touch was still lingering, and when the sun began to sink it sank quickly.  When we left the hotel to find some dinner the shadows were already long and icy.  Below the cliffs up which the town rises we caught glimpses of beaches, their sand as golden in the last light of the day as any Australian strand.  The waves were dotted with surfers, and on the road into town we were passed by a tall man, his board under his arm, jogging towards the sea, his whole body save for his hands, his feet, and the circle of his face enclosed in the protection of a fluorescent orange wetsuit.  Otherwise, though, the town seemed nearly empty.  When we stopped for dinner in a large pub perched above the harbour there was only a handful of other people in the long dining room, and my father asked one of the waitresses if there were normally more people than this.  “Yes,” she said, “normally we’re full at this time of year.”

We left Newquay first thing the next morning, eager not only to embark on our walk but also to get out of the town, which was to the liking of neither of us.  We’d come to Cornwall for its wild coasts; for its sea-pounded cliffs and wildflowers and seabirds; not for what we saw as the despoiled, touristic landscape of the town which we’d chosen as a departure point only because of its relative accessibility.  My father and I have walked together many times before, in Tasmania and in the mountains of south-eastern Australia and even in the Scandinavian Arctic, and each time we’ve walked it’s been in pursuit of a fugitive wildness, a depth of isolation from the human world that can only be achieved by slow and patient walking into the heart of nature.  In Tasmania over a decade ago we walked along the South Coast Track, eight days traversing the wildest part of a coastline so remote that you have to be flown in.  Walking west to east and spurred on by the vastness of the Southern Ocean always on our right, gazing south towards an imagined Antarctica three-thousand kilometres distant, we walked because once the light aeroplane had dropped us off at the western end of the track there was no other way out.

It was with such memories in mind that we walked out of Newquay.  Yet Newquay – the imprint it made upon the land – was not so easy to escape.  Strictly following the Coast Path, we walked west and then north-west around Towan Head, a long, narrow finger of land on the edge of the town, and then south for nearly a kilometre down Fistral Beach.  It took us all morning, but still whenever we turned a corner we seemed to walk right back into Newquay and all its unwild humanity.  On Towan Head we passed two buildings: one was the Headland Hotel, an enormous red brick edifice built in 1900 to the most luxurious standards of the day; the other was an ancient hermitage, which in more recent centuries had been a huer’s hut: a low whitewashed mound of a building high on a cliff above the sea, its interior barely protected from the North Atlantic wind.  For hundreds of years men had sat in that hut, warmed by a fire, gazing endlessly out to sea.  Upon sighting a shoal of Pilchard (Clupeidae spp) the huer of the day would rouse the town’s fishing fleet to action with his yells.  A life spent staring at the waves, in service of a town perched on the very edge of the land.

From Fistral Beach we skirted around the Gannel Estuary.  Though the path around the estuary took us right back amid the houses and streets, on the far side of the estuary, climbing up a muddy track towards Crantock, Newquay’s tiny neighbour, we at last left Newquay behind us and found ourselves amid something resembling a natural environment: a narrow beech-wood, the trees growing tall in the shelter of a hill.  Gliding above the treetops by the estuary we caught a glimpse of a Buzzard (Buteo buteo).  Later that day, at lunch in the bright sun outside the thirteenth-century Treguth Inn in Holywell, we saw two more gliding low and keen barely above the tops of the powerlines, and I was reminded of the Wedge-tailed Eagles (Aquila audax) which fly above my parents’ holiday house in New South Wales.  Usually they’re high and distant, but not always: ten or more years ago we became accustomed to seeing them fly low, directly over the house – the largest of the true eagles, larger even than the fabled Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), flying so close that we could see their eyes, and the curve of their beaks, and the colours of each individual feather.  They were looking for food: it was a drought, a terrible drought, and hunger and desperation had overpowered the birds’ instinctive wariness.  In Cornwall, every time I saw a Buzzard flying low over a village, or a Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) hovering right by the path, I wondered if these animals had become accustomed to the presence of humans in this crowded land, or if they were so fearless because the long winter had left them starving and desperate.  Normally we’re full at this time of year.

Around Crantock my father and I found ourselves walking past fields.  Town or farmland; it was difficult to imagine a more built environment than the one we were walking through.  Any wildness in Cornwall seemed to end with the waves crashing into the cliffs, as if those cliffs were a defensive wall.  As we walked down country roads past the fields we found that the farmland went right to the edge of the sea, and it was easy to imagine that if not for the heady cliffs the salt-water would lap at the crops.  Yet there were few crops visible, even so late in spring: the fields were bare and rocky.

There was noise in the fields, though.  Not the noise of the waves, nor the noise of the large and ubiquitous Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) – though those were both continuous and ever-present, our own out-loud ear-worms that would occupy us for the rest of the walk – but something else, something new: clamorous and joyful, hurled across the sky against the North Atlantic wind as if in defiance of the sea itself and all its crashing.

You can get too absorbed in a walk, you can get too locked-in to the rhythm of it: sometimes you need something unexpected to pull you out of the trance, and make you stop, and listen, and look.  When we heard this strange hectoring, clattering birdsong my father and I stopped walking, on the narrow strip demarcated by the Coast Path between the field and the cliff, and we looked for the singer.  We looked inland – for the first time since arriving in Cornwall we turned our full attention inland.  Somewhere beyond that field, beyond the distant trees, beyond the roads and the far buildings and the hedges, there were hills and mountains and rivers and lakes; there were cities and bridges and forests and meadows.  Behind us, forgotten for the moment, was the vast promise of the sea, and ahead of us, beyond our gaze, was all the multitude and variety of our own terrestrial habitat, and for that moment as we stood and listened it almost felt to me as if the sum of it was pouring out of this one bird’s song.  There are many birds that do not sing, and they belong to any number of biological Orders: there are the Gulls and related birds (Charadriiformes); the Raptors (Falconiformes); and on and on.  All songbirds, though, are of a kind: they’re all from the Order Passeriformes – the Passerines – and there are no songbirds at sea.  Sky-loosed, they yet cling to the land: they sing from forests and from meadows and from the banks of rivers; they encircle lakes and they perch on bridges and they share our cities.  They fill our hedges with song, they sing out their territories on mountaintops.  They follow us wherever we go – or we follow them, perhaps.  But they have the better of us: because they can take to the air, and perhaps none do it in quite such a way as the Skylark.

When we saw him he had finished singing, momentarily, but he was still high in the sky, a mere dot against the clouds.  Having finished his song he was falling, to catch his breath, and perhaps it was only this movement that allowed our ancient hunter’s eyes to see him.  Male and female Skylarks look alike, smallish and streaked in brown and buff, their shape unremarkably birdish.  Behaviourally, though, in early spring when mateships are being formed and territories proclaimed, the two sexes could not be more different.  My father and I saw plenty of the females: indiscreet, they ran furtively from almost under our feet along the bare ground.  They were silent and they looked over their shoulders at us as they ran, only occasionally taking to the wing in brief hops and spurts.

The males, though, were nearly invisible to us.  I’d learn about the particulars of Skylark behaviour later, reading about them in our hotel room that night, but when I saw that first male and not yet knowing anything about the bird, all I could think of was how high in the air he was, and how loud his song was.  A Skylark is less than twenty centimetres long from tail to beak and weighs only a few dozen grams; the sea-wind was ever-buffeting, bowing even the few low trees and bushes – and yet there he was, hurling himself up to one-hundred metres into the sky, flapping with all his tiny might just to stay in place, and all the while belting out his song for the whole damn world to hear.  He stayed up there for what seemed like minutes on end – in fact Skylarks can stay airborne and singing for up to a quarter of an hour – and he came down for just a few seconds breather before going back up, fighting gravity and wind and everything but instinct, and doing it all over again.  God knows how long he kept at it, how many times he went up and came down: when my father and I turned back to the path, keeping an even keel with the field on our left and the sea on our right, he was still at it.  Usually when people name an animal, particularly a bird, we do so with utter banality; but sometimes, we get it exactly right.  Skylark!  A jaunt, a joy, a delight, broadcast direct from the open air high above our heads.

But time was pressing.  On a long walk, time is always pressing, and with twenty kilometres due to be covered in the day it felt like we’d still barely left Newquay behind us.  Wearily we left the Skylark singing above his field and we continued down the Coast Path.

The majority of the path was flat, and looking back or ahead along the coast we could see that the clifftops were at an even height, all on a single plane like the mountains of Virginia with their crests blown off.  Occasionally, though, where the sea made inroads into the land, the path would dip and descend before rising steeply again.  In these places we were set amid the seabirds, and as we walked down the path and back up they watched us coolly from their nests on the cliffs.  Only the ones in flight ignored us, at home in the air and perhaps secure in the realisation that we couldn’t reach them there, no matter how close they flew; so as we walked down and back up again the gulls flew all around us, the steadiness of their flight barely betraying the turbulence cutting the trailing edges of their flight-feathers.  We watched them circle and swoop, circle and swoop, as they tried again and again to master the wind and the cliffs and their own delicately balanced bodies and land on the one tiny cliff-ledge that was their own: when one stuck the landing, after three or four unsuccessful approaches, it was exhilarating to watch.

Though he’s nearly forty years older than me my father was walking faster, unencumbered on this walk by anything larger than a day-pack and being a little taller than me – and, probably, more than a little fitter.  So he was walking ahead of me and increasing his distance as we climbed up a steep and narrow stretch of the path between thick tussocks of grass, a great gulch of cliffs to our right and the immensity of the sea behind us.  The gulls were flying thick in the air, rising from below us almost vertically in the updrafts mere metres from the path.  I’d grown weary of them by now – their monotonous presence, their constant cawing, their ceaseless flight – but the simple proximity of them to this part of the path prompted me to turn around and watch them for a few moments.  As I did so some remnant bird-watcher’s instinct in my eye noticed something about one of the fleeting birds: its head was wrong.  It was perhaps not quite as large as some of the other gulls, but I’d noticed amid the ubiquitous Herring Gulls the occasional even larger Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) and I knew also about the tiny Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) so I wasn’t surprised to see some discrepancy in size.  The bird was white, as white as the gulls around it.  But its head – its head was rounder, much rounder, than the heads of the gulls – like a radar-dome – and its beak was thin and knotted like an old tree branch.

I stared in disbelief and mounting excitement, and conscious that my father was getting further away from me I yet waited to get another glimpse, to confirm what I was beginning to think.  Soon enough the bird – or another of its kind – cut past again, banking on its stiff wings in the air pushing up off the vertical rocks.  With a grin I turned again and ran after my father, breathlessly pushing myself up the steep and winding path.

“I saw something!” I yelled when I reached him; though I was panting from the short run uphill, I may have yelled it twice to get his attention.  “Not a gull, I think it was a petrel of some kind” I continued.  Then, recalling a tourist information sign I’d read by the old lifesaver’s shed back on Towan Head in Newquay: “It was a Fulmar, I think.”  I turned around and beckoned my father to follow me back down the slope to where the view opened out into an encompassing V and the Herring Gulls and the Fulmars danced through the air around their cliff-nests.

“There goes one!” I shouted, my finger tracing a crude facsimile of a Fulmar’s flight as one raced past.  “See?”  By now I was seeing the difference between the two birds more clearly; I was picking the Fulmars out from the throng of gulls with greater and greater ease.

My father picked up on them, too, and took as much delight as I did in admiring their easy, forceful flight.  “They’ve got longer wings” he said, and there was some truth to it: their wings were different.  Whether they were actually longer than the Herring Gulls’ wings or not I don’t know, but they looked narrower, and straighter.  They were the wings of a bird more used to the air than to the land, a bird which can ride the waves across the sea without ever touching the surface.  The gulls, sitters and floaters as much as they are flyers, suddenly looked less natural in the air, and while the Fulmars held their wings as flat and as straight as an aeroplane’s wings the gulls held theirs slightly hunched from the shoulders, as if the air was a jacket that didn’t quite fit.

Fulmars spend nearly their whole lives out at sea.  Like other pelagic birds, they fly by gliding mere centimetres above the waves, riding the air currents there just as they ride the wind up the faces of the cliffs that they nest upon.  They can change direction abruptly in mid-glide, even turning around completely, without flapping their wings or appearing to put in any effort at all.  Out at sea they eat what they can find, grabbing food from the surface or diving, propelling themselves under the water with their feet or their wings, to hunt for fish, squid, jellyfish – whatever small animals are available.  Only when they need to breed do they come to land, and then only barely: they establish territories on coastal cliffs or on offshore islands, and they don’t even bother to make a nest – as if even gathering nesting materials would bring them too close to a terrestrial existence.  They lay a single egg directly on the rock or on the earth, and when the egg hatches and the chick is raised, parents and offspring alike return to the sea.  The adult Fulmars will not reproduce again that season.  If misfortune doesn’t befall them, they can live for up to forty years.

Australia’s coast is vast, and its offshore islands innumerable; seabirds can nest far, far away from people, and so they do.  As my father and I walked to Perranporth, our resting place for the night, my head was dizzy with Fulmars: I stopped to watch them whenever I could; learned to pick them out in an instant from the gulls; felt disoriented and delighted when my bird-addled brain became confused and momentarily unable to separate species from species.  After dinner that night while the news chattered from the television in our hotel room I read about Fulmars: how in Old Norse their name means foul gull, because of the vile oil that they vomit on predators as a last-ditch defence.  It’s said that if the oil gets on your clothes, you’ll never get the smell out no matter how many times you wash them.  On the local news the leading story was the mystery surrounding the death of hundreds of sea-birds, Fulmars among them but also Puffins (Fratercula arctica), Gannets (Morus bassanus), Razorbills (Alca torda), and particular Guillemots (Uria aalge), washed up on the beaches of southern Cornwall a few days earlier.  The chemical responsible had been confirmed as polyisobutylene, a fuel additive, thought to have been dumped into the sea from ships emptying their ballast or cleaning out their fuel tanks.  I wondered what the Norsemen would have called that.  As I went to sleep the Fulmars were settling into their cliff-top nests, each couple preparing to raise its single child in the months ahead, before they all flew low and fast back out to their true home.

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The next morning, just out of Perranporth, my father and I walked up Cligga Head.  Alternately looking around us and head-down, doggedly walking, we passed scores of Fulmars, sometimes flying scattered amid the Gulls but often also in discreet colonies, set apart from the Gulls which inhabited their own cliffs, like separate nations.  We were used to the cliffs now, but still they took our breath away: vertiginous edifices, twenty or thirty metres tall and monolithic yet crumbling, too: frequently the path took an abrupt detour around some part of the cliff which had succumbed to the constantly pounding wind and sea, and had slumped into the long fall to the waves below.  A person fell from this location, we read on a sign on a fence still newly pale, and was seriously injured.  The Fulmars wheeled uncaringly on the wind and rode it out over the heaving sea and back, out and back, out and back.

Cligga Head was marked everywhere with signs of human use: the flat plateau of the headland was studded with the shells of buildings, shafts, holes and hollows, the leftovers of the mining industry that defined Cornwall in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  It was our first sight of the remains of this great industry, but the next day we’d see more: at the foot of St Agnes Beacon where the path cut a sudden diagonal line down a steep slope towards the sea and the waves heaved into the land, and with nothing visible but water and the close-cropped vegetation of the hill, we clung to the path as if the earth itself might shrug us off over the cliffs we knew were below us, just out of sight.  As we walked dizzily around the slope we saw in the distance a decrepit building, looming tall and stark against the sky and empty-eyed like Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly.  When we got nearer we saw that there were more buildings below it, lower than the tower we’d first noticed: they were all that remained of the steam engine halls that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had pumped sea-water out of the perilous mines below.

By chance my brother and I had taken a friend’s young son around the Science Museum in London not one week earlier; in the first room of the museum we’d learned about James Watt and Matthew Boulton, and about their steam engines, and about how they’d made their names in the mining industry of Cornwall.  Tin and copper and other metals have been mined in Cornwall for millennia, but it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the industry was at its peak.  Mines dotted the coast, the dark stone buildings that capped them built like implausible castles atop cliffs and crags, within touching distance of the sea’s spray.  So rich was the mineral deposit, so fervent the hunger to excavate it, that the mines sometimes reached below sea-level.  At times only a thin wall of rock separated the miners from disaster, and as they dug they could hear the sea pounding and roaring all around them.  Above their heads the great steam turbines trembled constantly, pumping sea-water out of the mines, doing what they could to keep people safe and the industry alive.  It was the Industrial Revolution; in the countryside the land was being partitioned into private fields and people were losing their livelihoods, while on the coast people were risking their lives for others’ gain.  It’s not hard to imagine the impact all this industry must have had on the environment, and the number of species of plants and animals that must have had to adapt to the fevered activity of Cornwall’s human inhabitants, or perish.

Yet as we walked amid the old mining works there was still some life there.  At those first leftover diggings, just out of Perranporth on the second day of the walk, on open ground midway between the path and the cliffs, we saw three birds.  My father scarcely got a glimpse of them and afterwards was unsure that he’d even seen them at all, but I got a good look, and I knew them right away: they were Choughs (“Chuffs”, Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax).  I’d never seen them before but I’ve long gazed in curiosity at their likeness in my field guide to the birds of Great Britain, a book so old that it still lists as “common” Red Kites (Milvus milvus) and sundry other birds that have stared local extinction full in the face.  There are two species of Chough in Britain: the Yellow-billed Chough, also known as the Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus); and the Red-billed Chough, more commonly known as simply the Chough.  The latter species is a bird particularly connected with Cornwall: historically it appeared on the Cornish coat of arms, alongside a miner and a fisherman; it’s sometimes known as the Cornish Chough.

Choughs are passerines like the Skylark, but more specifically they’re corvids, Family Corvidae, relatives of Crows including the little Jackdaws (Corvus monedula) that played along the clifftops like black-clad acrobats.  The greatest of the Corvids in Britain is the Raven (Corvus corax), and I saw one shortly after I saw the Choughs.  Ravens are birds of the wild but they live most famously in the Tower of London; it’s said that should they ever leave the Tower, the monarchy will fall – so  the Tower’s Ravens have their wings clipped, and are bound to stay where they are generation after generation.  The bird that I saw in Cornwall was intact, though, in its natural state, and as I unwittingly approached it I was startled by the sight of it flying up from a point of the path only  ten metres in front of me; it croaked gutturally and flapped its great black wings against the sky, disappearing from sight.  If my approach hadn’t disturbed it I may not have noticed it, so weary was I from walking against the wind around the unsheltered headland; so weary from trudging through the unlovely mine-scarred scenery.  My head was bowed in tiredness and it’s only because my head was bowed that I noticed – half a footfall before I stepped on it – a Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) lying in the middle of the path.  Its thick grey fur didn’t even move in the wind, and its body was curved against a large grey rock, as if carved from the very same stone.  As I approached it it kicked desperately with its back legs, but it couldn’t get to its feet, much less run away.  I was so startled that I barely even registered what I was seeing, and my heart began thumping in a fight-or-flight response as if the rabbit was something that could harm me.  There was something unnatural about its movements, about the way it flailed helplessly against the gravel of the path, as if its body really had started to fuse with the stone at its back.  There was something awful in its panic and it was with a start that I noticed its face, before I forced myself to look away: where its keen dark rabbit-eye should have been, there was instead an abyss, pink and fleshy and empty like a newborn baby’s mouth.  I stumbled and felt a wave of dread rise within me; I remembered the Raven; I didn’t know what to do about the Rabbit so I left it where it was, and warned my father about it lest he should step on it, and I continued walking through the ghastly despoiled landscape, with the Raven’s barking call ringing in my head.

The sight of the Rabbit left me shaken in a way I couldn’t quite quantify.  Not even the magnificence of the sea and the cliffs could exorcise the haunted feeling within me as I tried not to speculate on the animal’s fate.  I was losing count of the headlands by now, they were endless, so I can’t recall when it happened exactly but at some point beneath a sky threatening rain we came to yet another exposed headland, and upon it the remains of a military installation.  There was nothing marked on our map – just an empty space, the path skirting around the edge of the Ordnance Survey’s uncharacteristic blankness – and we were left to infer what we could, peering over the wire, and from remembering what we’d read online in our preparation for the walk: was that a runway?  Or was it a decoy?  Huts and buildings and concrete blocks looked stricken and long-disused; but elsewhere mysterious constructions hummed with electricity and formed an uneasy harmony with the sounds of the wind and the waves.  What looked like radar installations sat beneath the broad lowering sky, staring out to sea: waiting for disaster from afar.  The path squeezed us between fences into narrow passages like livestock runs; we clambered over stiles and were wary of even taking photographs of anything inland: every time we came to a corner or a confusion in the route there was a sign on the fence, reminding us that we were walking on land that belonged to the Ministry of Defence.  When we photographed the scenery accidental glimpses of military installations worked their way into the edges of the frame, and we continued quickly as if we might be accused of espionage.  As we walked I remembered a truism: that military land, firing ranges and training sites and the like, are often wildlife reserves of unrivalled richness – because the public is never allowed to encroach upon them.  But this military base was foreboding and seemed heavy upon the land.  After the walk, back home in Australia, my father left a message on my voicemail: he’d been going through his photos, and something he’d seen in them had triggered an alarm.  “I knew I had a funny feeling about that airfield” he said.  He’d seen in one of his photos the name Nancekuke: “Put ‘Nancekuke’ into Google”, he told me

In the Second World War Nancekuke, then called RAF Portreath, was an airfield, operating initially upon its opening in 1941 as a Fighter Command Sector Station.  By the end of the War the airfield had largely fallen into disuse, and in 1950 the Royal Air Force returned the land to the British Government.  From then on the Ministry of Defence used the base as an Army research centre, until finally in 1980 its ownership reverted back to the Air Force, which used it as a radar station – which is what it remains to this day.

It was those early years of Army use, though, that are Nancekuke’s most intriguing and most unsettling.  On the 18th of January 2000, the local Member of the House of Commons, Candy Atherton, raised in Parliament questions about Nancekuke’s troubled history and legacy during this period.  Addressing the Minister for the Armed Forces, John Spellar, Ms Atherton recounted the experiences of her constituents: people who had worked on the base in the 1950s reported becoming seriously and mysteriously sick; people who lived in the surrounding area reported similar ailments.  A large number of seals on Cornwall’s north coast had died suddenly.  And 41 people who had worked at Nancekuke, Ms Atherton reported, had died: nine during the term of their employment, and the remaining 32 in the years since.

“Put ‘Nancekuke’ into Google”, my father urged me, his voice sounding almost anxious as he rushed to get the words out, “the second entry will be ‘Nancekuke sarin gas’”.  For an adult human, a lethal dose of sarin is 0.5 milligrams – one half of a thousandth of a gram.  During its time under Army ownership, as Britain built up a stockpile of chemical weapons in the dawn of the Cold War, Nancekuke was home to the manufacture of twenty tonnes of sarin.  When the base was abandoned by the Army, contaminated material – buildings, production equipment – was buried on site.  That was in 1980; clean-up of the land began only in 2001, with five waste dumps at Nancekuke being registered as contaminated land in 2002.  The manager of the Nancekuke Remediation Project reported in issue 34 of the Defence Management Journal that it was “highly unlikely” that chemical weapons themselves were dumped at Nancekuke; but damage doesn’t have to be limited to the end-product: in her long question to the Minister on January 18 2000, Candy Atherton noted that the death of the seals, which occurred between the years of 1966 and 1979 when John Pardoe was the area’s Member of Parliament, corresponded with the flushing of decontaminants into the sea through a cave.

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The poet Alice Oswald ends her epic poem Dart, about the river of that name in Cornwall’s eastern neighbour Devon, with a scene of a seal-watcher entering a sea-cave:

[I] float inwards into the trembling sphere
of one freshwater drip drip drip
where my name disappears and the sea slides in to replace it.

When we search for wildness, those of us with a yearning for it, we can be unprepared for what we find.  We’re inevitably searching for some place in which the human touch is absent: we want pristine forests; unspoiled mountains; unpolluted coastlines.  But in these terms the search for wildness, for true wilderness, is pointless: there’s barely a square metre of the earth that humans haven’t touched in one way or another.  More, though, the search for wilderness misses the point: we learn most not in those few places where humans are absent but in those places – temporal and physical, psychological and concrete – where humans have touched the landscape, or where the landscape has touched them; where the boundaries between human and non-human, more tenuous than we usually care to admit, come closest to dissolving.  I remember from several years ago my shock at visiting Snowdonia National Park, in Wales: the park celebrated not virgin wilderness but the human relationship with nature, the human involvement in nature.  This was most striking in the fact that since the National Park’s establishment farmers had been encouraged to return to the land, to work it as they had for thousands of years.  This seemed utterly alien to my Australian sensibility, obsessed as we are with preserving our shrinking bush, but in fact the Australian landscape is more worked by human hands than those of us of non-indigenous heritage, still to a large extent seeing the land with foreign eyes, have ever acknowledged.

Cornwall has been inhabited by humans since the end of the last Ice Age.  The Cornovii, the people for whom we give the County its name, lived there from the Iron Age until after the Romans had left Britain.  That’s a pittance when compared to the Aboriginal inhabitation of Australia but it’s long enough for people to know how to live with the land.  Such knowledge beds down slowly, like layers of sediment forming into rock; but it may have to be un-learned much more quickly.  Things are changing.  In Portreath where we stayed on the second night of our walk, in the shadow of Nancekuke, my father looked in horror at the houses crowded into the low valley bottom, barely metres above the high-tide mark of the broad beach and in a narrow space between two towering cliff-faces.  They’ll all be rendered uninhabitable, he pointed out, when the seas rise.  “There may also be some potential opportunities for Cornwall as a region as a result of climate change,” the Cornwall Council’s website says hopefully, before admitting: “However, most impacts are potentially negative including the need for significant adaptation in the design and location of buildings and infrastructure.”

Significant adaptation.  For humans and non-humans alike; but the animals of Cornwall – animals everywhere – have long had to adapt to the changes that humans have wrought upon the landscape.    How, I wonder, might the Fulmar adapt?  Ever since people have stared out to sea they’ve put ships in the water; ever since they’ve put ships in the water there have been consequences for the environment, whether from the felling trees or from the dumping petrochemicals.  Whenever the Coast Path took my father and I down onto a beach the high-tide line was marked not with seaweed and strewn shells but with styrofoam, and aluminium cans, and the detritus of human civilisation: in a post from January 2012 the news aggregate website This Is Cornwall states that each kilometre of Cornish beach contains on average 2000 items of rubbish.  Cornish beach – I should say British beaches; I should say the world’s beaches.  We imagine the sea as wild, impervious – but most of all we imagine it as infinite.  We dump our waste in it at will and we do it without thinking, or at best with the pained avoidance of thought.  One imagines the Fulmars will adapt to this choking pollution, if they adapt at all, by going further and further out to sea; one imagines that they might be doing that already.

Animals do adapt, though – some of them.  Whenever my father and I passed some barren ground along the Coast Path we encountered Skylarks: we saw the females skip and flit over the humps of earth; we heard the males proclaim their songs from the sky.  Skylarks are ground-nesters: the reason the males fly so high to announce their territories is so that when they sing, the attention of predators is drawn to them but not to their nests.  They’re birds of the open spaces, and the disturbed soil of old excavations serve them just as well as a valley floor or a hilltop.  So each mine-scarred headland, each steep slope and each ploughed and planted acre that we walked past or through in our few days in Cornwall was in its small way being rewilded by the Skylarks; for as we walked we passed not a single patch of land cleared by human hand that didn’t have a Skylark singing his loud song from high above it.

In the afternoon of the second day, before the ruined steam engine halls, before Nancekuke, in a cafe where we’d stopped in Churchtown in the village of St Agnes, I’d flipped open a book of facts about Cornwall.  Knowing no better I’d assumed that the Choughs I’d seen around the old mine sites the day before must not be unusual, but as I scanned the endless pieces of trivia in the book my eye alighted upon that distinctive word, “Chough”.  The birds, I read, are not common in Cornwall at all, but in fact are recent re-arrivals in the county: their return in 2001 was heralded as a great occasion, and an indication of a true triumph of conservation and environmental restoration.

When they returned it was the first time that Choughs had been seen in Cornwall for nearly thirty years.  After all that time the first astonishing sighting, made by fishermen, was of four birds flying southwards over the sea; one turned back, but the other three made land and remained.  That I’d seen three birds myself – huddled in a silent group, black bodies turned against the wind, their eyes watching me cautiously over their long, decurved red beaks – seemed scarcely credible, and I allowed myself a moment to indulge the thought that just maybe the birds I’d seen were those same three original returnees.

Legend has it that upon his defeat in battle King Arthur, a Cornish king above all else, was transformed into a Chough; and that when all the Choughs leave Cornwall, and then return again, so King Arthur will return.  I can’t speak to that particular restoration but the Choughs have been back in Cornwall for twelve years now and they’ve been breeding that whole time.  That original trio was made up of two females and a male; the male and one of the females were a pair, and in the ten years after their arrival in Cornwall they raised 36 chicks.  Since then more adults have arrived and begun breeding; and the chicks have grown up and have themselves started raising their own broods, so that in only twelve years there are now generations of new Cornish Choughs.  So heralded has been the return of the Choughs that the lives of the three original returnees in particular have been unusually well documented: the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds recounts, for instance, that the male was injured in a battle with a Herring Gull, and was unable to walk for days yet still struggled on to feed his chicks.  The new Cornish Choughs are being closely watched and there’s now a great cohort of them – a clattering of Choughs, in fact, for that, wonderfully, is their collective noun – and among other observations, it’s been noted that some of the birds have taken to making their nests in the security of the long-abandoned mining works.

At its peak nearly a third of Cornwall’s population worked in the mining industry.  When the industry collapsed many Cornish people emigrated to Australia, particularly to South Australia where my father was born.  Many years ago when my father and I had walked along the South Coast Track in Tasmania, our departure point had been Melaleuca, a tiny and long-abandoned settlement.  We’d walked past bothies and Nissen huts that had once supported a tin-mining industry, a pocket industry infinitely smaller than the great endeavours of Cornwall and even more remote, on the edge of an even greater and less gentle sea.  Melaleuca and the valley that surrounds it are also the last stronghold of the Orange-bellied Parrot (Neophema chrysogaster), perhaps Australia’s most endangered bird.  There are only two-hundred of them left in the wild; they flock in numbers around Melaleuca and are seen nowhere else in Tasmania.  There’s nothing to infer from their presence in a valley once so despoiled by human hand; nothing, except that one does not necessarily preclude the other; that whether human or non-human, we make use of the land as we will.  For all the nobility of our increased awareness of the animals around us, and our impact upon them, we still view them as an “other”, a group of creatures collectively unknowable and alien.  Yet the fact that they still, some of them, find ways to make themselves at home among us – whether Sklarks in a field or parrots by an old tin mine in Tasmania or Choughs in the mined landscape of Cornwall – should be instructive: for what could we possibly be to them if not just another creature in a world abundant with them?

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The walk was to end the next day, in Hayle, from where my father and I would catch a bus through the uninspiring streetscape to nearby St Ives, and from there a train back out of Cornwall the day after.  Before we got to Hayle there was one last headland to navigate: Godrevy Point.  As we approached it we could see that beyond the tip of the point, on a small island, was a brilliantly white lighthouse, the very building that’s reputed to have inspired Virginia Woolf, gazing at it across St Ives Bay, to write To the Lighthouse.  Small flocks of birds, pendulous and flapping frantically, were patrolling the waves around the island: Guillemots, too small and distant to be identifiable but written of with every mention of Godrevy Point.

For the last three days and sixty kilometres we’d been walking towards Hayle; but I’d been walking more particularly towards Godrevy Point – for it was there, we’d been told by a friend who knew the area well, that we would see seals.  We’d seen a couple on the first day: following the gaze of a fellow-walker we’d seen two heads, one grey and near and the other dark and distant, upright in the waves, gazing back at us.  Though they were too distant for us to see any details of their faces, I fancied that there was yet something familiar about their attitude: a particular poise that spoke of the kind of curiosity that we often like to claim as our own.  It’s this attitude, this distant inquisitiveness, that gives seals their magic: it makes them seem warmly familiar, even as they remain so utterly alien to us in so many ways.  It’s little surprise that coastal cultures abound with myths about seals changing into humans, and humans into seals: we can imagine them as something not so unlike ourselves, and perhaps we fancy that if we returned to the sea we would with time become like them.

When my father and I reached the cliff above the seal colony on Godrevy Point the location was conspicuous by the crowd of people lining the pine fence that formed a viewing platform.  Laminated signs on the fence instructed us all to be quiet, but there was a kind of reverence among the people gazing down at the seals that rendered such instruction unnecessary.  The seal colony, a beach twenty metres below, was small and inaccessible except by sea; and from the sea it was sheltered by the narrowness and the length of the cove in which it sat, and by large rocks just offshore which broke the force of any waves that managed to approach the sand.

On the beach, some of them in bright warm sun and some of them in deep icy shade, were twenty or thirty Grey Seals (Halichoerus grypus): grey or black or brown, they emerged from the stones scattered along the beach as my eye adjusted to their presence, and to the shapes of their cylindrical bodies, as if adjusting to darkness: the more I stared, the more the seals became apparent, until I saw them scattered up and down the beach and didn’t know where to look, there were so many of them.

We noticed movement in the water and saw there a young seal playing in the waves.  While the adult seals basked in the sun or lay oblivious, motionless, in the deep shade, this solitary pup, dark-furred and wide-eyed, dived in and out of the water.  It made exploratory forays towards the beach before letting the undercurrent carry it out again; perhaps looking for its mother, it made a motion to land at one end of the beach before swimming back out and down to the other end.  Once there a wave swept its small, confused body up hard against a rock at the foot of the beach; yet in its youthful resilience it bounced off the rock with a bleat and an alarmed undulation of its little body before clambering out of the surf and onto the sand.  Some of the adults stretched and looked up from their slumber, but if the youngster’s mother was there she didn’t move towards it, nor make a sound.  Yet it had swum, and it was safe, and it continued along the beach until we decided to avert our eyes, and leave it in peace.

We pressed on to Hayle.  Feeling closed-in by the Hayle Towans, a series of huge sand dunes that run for five kilometres or so from Godrevy Point all the way to the town, we made the decision to descend to the beach instead; a poor decision, for though the heat in the tall dunes had been intense, walking across that flat expanse along the line of the sea was no relief at all.  As soon as we crested the dunes we realised that the wind that had been blowing hard and relentless for the entire walk was here at its peak: it was so strong that we could walk into it only by leaning at a steep angle, as if leaning against a heavy door that yielded only reluctantly; at times we had to turn around and walk backwards down the beach just to seek some respite.  Sand whipped into our legs and the wind knocked the breath out of our mouths and sucked the moisture off our lips so that we became more thirsty than we had been at any time during the previous two days.  The beach went on for kilometres and we walked nearly the whole length of it.  The sheer mechanical simplicity of placing one foot after the other was the only thing that kept us moving, like automatons, and when we paused, to watch the local surf lifesavers practice launching their enormous rescue boat, it was a relief to stop walking and yet also an acute agony, after fifteen minutes of observing, to realise that if we’d kept walking instead we’d be off the beach by now.

Though the men were practicing to save lives, the act of getting the boat into the water was painfully slow: the boat was driven down on an enormous truck whose caterpillar tracks stopped it sinking into the sand; a winch was attached from the back of the truck to the front of the boat; the truck then reversed carefully into the sea to such a depth that the boat, when eventually lowered off the tilting bed of the truck, could float of its own accord.  Only once it was in the water – a slow process of winching and shouted guidance from the men on the sand – could the boat finally be released.  Once in the water it was piloted at speed, out across the breakers and back, up and down in front of the beach, before being brought back to the truck, and the winch, and the whole process being reversed.  Watching the whole slow process I wondered how on earth these men expected to save anybody from drowning – was that even what the boat was for, or had I misunderstood?  It was okay now, before the peak season, when the beach was empty – but soon enough the beach would be crowded with tourists.

Or would it?  Normally we’re full at this time of year.  Perhaps there’s something discomfiting about the sea, after all, and in times of stress we’d rather stay away from it.  Or perhaps it’s too great a luxury, those idle hours on the sand, when money’s tight and work is uncertain.  As awe-struck as I had been by the sea ever since arriving in Cornwall, I was reminded at all times – by my own amazement, as much as by anything – that I was merely a visitor there.  The riches of the sea and of the liminal margins of it are so immense that we seem to create for ourselves a greater history there than in any other environment; and human history is by necessity lived in, and ongoing.  Watching the men lower their boat into the surf and pull it back out again, I thought at first to describe them as battling the elements – a familiar phrase, a knee-jerk response.  But I realise now that that’s wrong: it was not a fight they were waged in, but a negotiation.  They were engaged in an endless call-and-response with the sea, managing themselves around it as perhaps only those with a deep and ingrained culture of sea-life can do.  Like any sea-side province Cornwall has always been a place of boats, whether incoming or outgoing, and the men practicing their surf-lifesaving strategies were of the same stock as the fisherfolk who for millennia have been harvesting the sea; they were in their way of a kind too with the men who’d dug down below the sea searching for tin and copper; and they were of the same lineage as those hermits and huers who’d stared out to sea from the top of Newquay, waiting patiently.

Kathleen Jamie, in her exquisite essay the Gannetry, writes of watching a landscape endlessly, and by doing so learning its familiar shapes and patterns: only with such knowledge can you tell at a glance what’s unfamiliar.  In the essay she’s watching the sea and almost unconsciously notices amid the waves “a vertical pencil line”: the dorsal fin of an Orca (Orcinus orca) rising steep and dark out of the water.  When I’ve walked in Tasmania it’s often been the rainiest days that have been the most rewarding: with the panoramic views of that island’s mountains closed off by clouds and fog I’ve been forced to focus instead on the near-at-hand, and to really look at the forest, and the path, and the rocks – all the things I wouldn’t normally bother looking at.  We tend to think that we know what nature is, and we have expectations of what it should be and what it definitely isn’t – but more often than not we don’t really bother paying attention to it.  If we did perhaps we’d realise that, like Newquay and the coast it’s built upon, our world and the natural world are entangled in one another: they are not discreet; they are perhaps not even contiguous; but rather, they are continuous.


 

Skylark image and Fulmar image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org
Cornwall images taken by the author