from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Monday, 27 August 2012

where have all the seabirds gone...

The last three days I've been aware of a slight tonal shift in the quality of air, of light, of the scent carried on the breeze: it's as much an emotional tone as it is a physical one, and it's coloured with a kind of plangent wistfulness. If I had to find a colour for it, I'd say it was a kind of translucent apricot-rose with a hint of lavender-blue.

Yes, autumn is already sliding over the hills towards us.

You will have to imagine here a photo of several fallen bird-cherry leaves: russet, ochre, barley-gold, fox-red, in which are nestled some plump fallen hazelnuts. (The saga of my mobile phone problems is simply too boring to go into; suffice it to say that the photos stored on 3 different devices are refusing to be be transferred via bluetooth to the new computer.)

It's been an abysmal summer here in Devon, with scarcely any sun, or at least not for any prolonged length of time. Our neighbours in Cornwall seem to have had more sun than we have; the southeast has experienced extreme heat, and my relatives and friends in Scotland have reported almost consistent sunshine. The USA has a severe drought.

I think that even climate change deniers are beginning to recognise that our greedy human ways have some bearing on weather conditions and their effects. It's no longer possible to bury our heads and think that more extreme weather conditions – icecaps melting, severe drought, torrential rainfall and flooding, extraordinarily severe winters in some places and almost no winter in others – are not anthropogenic; the more so now that a majority of the scientific community is acknowledging that too.

A couple of days ago there were maybe 25 young swallows lined up on a wire; I didn't know whether to be delighted to see them in a summer in which I've felt increasingly distressed at the absence of migratory birdlife (as well as bees and butterflies), or to be sad that they'll so soon be off. Both, of course; and there is a also a kind of wild joy in the transience of things – this is part of the appeal of autumn, of course, to the heart. Sadly, it's not that simple though.

Springwatch on BBC2 the other night – a rare treat to watch TV – focused on seabirds. I'm delighted by the fluency of waterbirds in their three spheres: it seems quite magical that a being should be so at home on land, in the air and on/in water.

The Arctic tern (the 'swallow of the sea') flies – did you know? – 20,000 miles in its migration from Antarctica to the north of Scotland every year. In its lifetime it flies the equivalent of 3 journeys to the moon and back. Isn't that phenomenal?

The presenters of the programme spoke of the devastating decline of seabirds on the Orkney Isles: the population of kittiwakes and guillemot has decreased by about 90% in the last 20-odd years.

When I first started to co-lead my annual retreat on the Isle of Iona in 2000, my friend and co-tutor Ken Steven took me to Sandeels Bay (Traigh Mor). He's been going to Iona since he was a child, and remembers the waters seething with sandeels. Now, you scarcely see them (although, on a more optimistic note, Davy Kirkpatrick who is the boatman who takes us to Staffa puffin-watching each year, says that there are still sandeels around off the coast of Iona).

One reason, though, for the decline of some seabirds in Scotland is this loss of sandeels. Kittiwakes* in particular are specialised in that they rely entirely upon the sandeel population, which appears to be migrating further north as warming waters of Scotland send the plankton, their food, further towards Arctic waters. Springwatch tagged a kittiwake to observe its habits and learn more about feeding grounds: that one kittiwake in less than a day had to cover 3-400 kms to catch one sandeel to take back to its chick.

How may we live, knowing how many species, and how fast, are being affected by human industrial activity and our greed for ever more consumables? How may we live without our hearts breaking for this?

*In Cornwall, kittiwakes are never deliberately killed as it's believed that the souls of dead fishermen take kittiwake form.

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