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Island of life, island of death

Eve Merrall

The most beautiful things I have seen today

Have been dead things

The peeled purple shell of a sea urchin

Shiny handfuls of sandeels

Dropped by a startled auk

Bleached white limpet shells

A path lined with red admirals’ wings

And the perfect body of a puffin

A metre under the tide

Gently reanimated by the swell.

This June I made the semi traditional pilgrimage of Liverpool Uni CEH co-supervised seabird students to the Isle of May. Not collecting my own data and staying for a very gentle three week dose, the purpose was to gain more field experience, and a break from the monotony of coding and theoretical analysis. And for me, possibly some solitude to process a difficult winter and a somewhat turbulent spring.

It’s an extraordinary place. A bold choice for someone with a nauseating fear of heights; a multitude of cliffs and scrapes and edges reared up to meet me, and to my credit I think I rose to meet them. It’s amazing what you can do when someone tells you to do it without knowing that you might not be able to. And when you know folks will catch you if you fall. Many prior pilgrims will have described the May, including in this blog I’m sure, so I won’t go into too much descriptive detail. Immediately striking to me was just how extraordinarily alive it was. The word teeming feels appropriate. A constant background cacophony to all my voice notes, a sky that is literally filled with puffins, thousands of them, birds I had only seen in ones and twos before, had resolved not to love because they’re everyone’s favourite, but felt entirely wooed by their hilarious cooing and cavorting. You quickly learn the puffin walk, a hip hopping aiming for vegetation and rocks, taking small steps (but rapid ones because you’re trying to keep up with the experienced) and somehow trying to be lighter than you are, hold less impact, waiting for the horrendous moment when your foot might fall through the soil and make contact with something softer, firmer, hungrier, and much more definitely alive.

The first puffling I saw was busy being pounded to death on a rock by a great black-backed gull (known locally as geebs: death on dark undifferentiated wingtips). Hard to say if it was the headspace I took with me, but what kicked out to me from early on was that where you have so much life, you are also surrounded by constant unsanitised death. Every walkway is littered with bleached white feathers and bones. The geeb colony is surrounded by pools of dead puffins, being soaked for an easier swallow. We descend constantly into gullies of shit and the smell of rotting corpses, looking quite spectre-ish ourselves in full apocalyptic PPE. And our feet fall with a crunch on a layer of discarded shells and skulls. I found this surprisingly confronting. Tired eyes from early rises and long days found me sobbing at the sight of a gull struggling with a broken wing, or a chick fallen from a nest. Their lives are relentless trade-offs between their own survival and that of their offspring. How to make space in my mind for them to have complex emotional lives whilst also acknowledging the constant cruelty of competition, conflict and abandonment.

Sometimes we are the bringers of death. Accidents happen. These occurrences are rare. More common probably are the subtler, slight depressions in wellbeing and ‘success’ that come with being disturbed. Handled and needled and afraid. Tagged and ‘affected’.

But when they happen they are important because they remind us that we also have to be constantly trading-off. The value of the work we are doing, to us, to them, to the rest of the world, with the harm we might do with it. It has to be worth it. And it has to keep being worth it.

Sensitively, unhelpfully, I find I’m constantly inserting myself into the birds. The catching, grabbing, stabbing, swabbing, ringing (forever marking) taking measure of. It’s all a bit much. But simultaneously I feel SO LUCKY to be so proximate, cannot believe that my hands can hold something so extraordinary, so soft but also strong and clever and fragile and so unfetteredly alive. ‘I don’t know why, but the touching is just the best bit’, says my colleague (friend?). Of course it is. We’ve all grown up and become scientists, professionals or something, we don’t let it show so much anymore, we’re proficient and effective for the bird’s sake, we don’t hang around, we’re learning, we’re evidence gathering. But the child inside is still beaming. I think in all of us. To be holding, touching, secretly stroking, catching and perhaps most thrillingly of all, releasing these living things.

I swam everyday (almost). Washed off the dust and grime and bird-shit and shag lice and PPE special sweat and nausea and sunburn and realistically pasta sauce. The water stays unrelentingly cold. I so want to know what it’s like for a bird that was born to swim but never has, the first time it hits that freezing cold water. Like the jumpling guillemots that we watch leaving their tiny patch of cliff for the first time to fall 50 metres straight into the sea. The first weeks of their life are entirely dependent on staying on that cliff face. And then there must be a niggling curiosity that starts to build, an itch for something wider, more outward facing, to test these wings and feet and fishing gear. Watching them build themselves up to that moment, ducking towards and away from the edge, searching for parental reassurance, bobbing about and finally taking the plunge. It’s inexpressibly extraordinary. The parent swims quickly to their side with a tactile tuneful greeting. A quick first dive, to wash off the stench of the cliffs, to catch a first glimpse of the underwater world that now belongs to them. And then swimming off together for open water, still denoting, and nibbling each other. Lots more tears from me, obviously. Trying to peer over at the descent whilst the edge dizzyifyingly edges towards me. Such a huge metaphor for such a small bird.

While I’m there we record the hottest sea surface temperature on record for our patch of the sea, three months before it should be anywhere near. I’d felt strangely sheltered from ALL THAT until this point. The heatwaves hitting the mainland aren’t really felt here – it’s warm sure, but the constant sea breeze allows no stagnation, and I’m not really checking the news. We can see the new windfarm being built on the near horizon though. It pulls me back into the thought streams that my PhD asks me to think about: windfarms are probably bad for many seabirds. But climate change is probably worse. Climate change is horrific for people. But renewables aren’t necessarily good if approached using the same cruddy frameworks of profit over people (and nature, which of course includes people). I tried to write a blog about false solutions after COP26, but it was just a rant. The same after listening to ‘natural capital’ talks at BES. I wanted to talk about how the solutions can be as damning as the problems if they are taken from the same handbook. If they are still projects of exploitation and oppression. It makes sense then perhaps that writing has felt much more plausible in this place. The May is somehow both entirely removed from the real world and also an epicentre of relevant anthropogenic activity – I can see the windfarms and the fisheries, the oil rigs are within spitting distance, the currents and the gulls bring all manner of rubbish from the mainland onto the shore. The bodies are starting to wash up as avian flu sets in for the summer.

The other thing that happens while I’m there is that a ship sinks in the Mediterranean and over 500 people are missing, probably dead. Including 100+ children. These things are deeply connected. Climate change creates inhospitable conditions that force people to leave their homes. Our media runs a campaign of dehumanisation and hate. As the time approaches when wealthy nations might have to make reparations for their ‘development’ thus far at the expense of wealth, health, freedom, and now a habitable earth for others, they ensure we will not hold them accountable for these ‘deaths at sea’.

Seabirds don’t have much truck with borders. The arctic tern flies the entire length and back again of the globe each year. The arctic terns didn’t settle on the May this year though, or anywhere really across the UK. They are probably having a break, in too poor a condition after last year’s brutal avian flu outbreak. Or perhaps they don’t feel welcome this year, as long-time travellers from across the world seeking dry land and a home to raise their chicks in relative safety.

My first week on the May I felt quite isolated and miserable, but by the end I was beaming. Internal or external forces and shifts, who knows. I’m a moody bitch. But its importance in many ways was the reminder of why I'm doing what I'm doing, who it’s for, why it matters, why I arrived here in the first place. A love for soft breathing feathered flying things and the belief that their lives matter and they have the right to carry on living them with only the ordinary amount of struggle. And that a world that is good for them can also be good for us. All of us. The cliff edges remind me that I am afraid to die, and that’s good. The carpets of bones remind me that one day I will, and that’s essential. Surely these truths are enough for us all to contend with, without the constant miserable battle for quality of life, equality of life, the right to life, the rights of future lives.

I’m leaving you with an excerpt from ‘Antidotes to Fear of Death’, written by a young astronomer battling with her own mortality as she was dying of Hodgkin’s lymphoma sometime near the end of the last century. The full poem is fab, but the last few lines reminded me of the May, and that peaceful presence of death.

And sometimes it is enough

To lie down here on the earth

Beside our long ancestral bones;

To walk across the cobble fields

Of our discarded skulls

Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis

Thinking: whatever left these husks

Flew off on bright wings

Rebecca Elson

Photo credit. Howard Jackson


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