THE SEABIRD’S CRY
Illustrated in black and white, with photographs, diagrams and maps.
Hardback RRP: £16.99
Review by Barry Larking
The otherness of the ocean – making connections through bird flight
Nigel Nicholson, Adam’s father, bought the Shiant Isles, a duo of low islets in the Minch beyond the north tip of Skye, south east of Harris and Lewis, in 1937. When Adam was old enough he travelled there after an arduous journey by rail and road, finally over some tricky waters in a small boat. His life-long love of sea birds came with the territory.
In 10 chapters Nicholson presents portraits of 11 species. Each has something to tell us in about what we experience and what we seek to understand, and hence why it is of significance to ourselves. For this reader, the two most compelling of his subjects, around which he most clearly explores the mystery at the heart of our relationship to nature, are the albatross and the extinct great auk. In a vital way they lie at the core of this fascinating book.
Nicholson describes himself as joined with ‘socio-bio-cultural-oceanic-historians’ in pursuing answers to fundamental questions, not all of them scientific. The lives of seabirds are for him defining of his quest:
“‘ … we see something oceanic in them, the hint and intimation of another scale of existence, not as part of another, spiritual world, but as the most miraculous and in some ways troubling quality of the one we inhabit.”
True sea birds interact at the least intrusive level with our lives. They merely rest upon the fringe of our land-living world and that briefly, before returning to pass day and night on the great waters of the still mythic oceans, finding their way unerringly by innate means with an accuracy only possible for our species in the post Space Age via Global Positioning Systems. We do not engage with them ever entirely; our realms barely overlap. Who are we to them? A young Nicholson posed this impossible question, looking into the eyes of a fulmar as it glided past looking back at him.
Nicholson defines The Sea Bird’s Cry as “a manifesto for the Ecozoic”, an age that has at its heart the belief that all living things have a right to life and to the recognition that they have forms of understanding that “we have never shared and probably never will”.
In a wonderful chapter Nicholson describes the historic encounters of Europeans with the albatross’s of the vast Southern Ocean. Others came upon these huge seabirds in wooden ships long before the poet who never saw them wrote what Nicholson calls “the most famous seabird story in the world”. Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner can be a metaphor for our modern understanding of self and consequential isolation. It is a key theme in the gestation of this book: both the destructiveness of humankind – that Nicholson’s accounts do not swerve away from – and thereby an alienation from nature; divided from, yet still part of, our unique consciousness.
“No one before [Coleridge] had thought it wrong to kill an albatross or any sea bird. … It is an early intimation of [Uexküll’s] recognition a century later that the human Umwelt … was not the only Umwelt there is”.
“An acknowledgement of the subjectivity of other creatures, until the twentieth century the preserve of poets and dreamers, is now at the heart of any modern scientific understanding of nature.”
Underpinning Nicholson’s philosophical preoccupation in The Seabird’s Cry, is the work of Jacob Uexküll (1864-1944), German pioneer of animal behavioral studies and creator of ‘biosemiotics’, particularly UexKüll’s concept of Umwelt – the surrounding context in which any creature experiences its life; its unknowable to us sense of its own world. Nicholson sees the evidence for the breaking out of our own Umwelt to be a revolutionary step for today’s humankind. It just might save us.
Catastrophic declines among the world’s seabird populations are staring us in the face. We may be the last generations to see such sights as Nicholson’s gifted prose brings to life. New tracking methods are ironically, as he writes, themselves a feature of that self same human impact upon the earth’s resources that creates problems for all life. But this tracking technology has revealed the crisis that is unfolding due to dramatic changed patterns in the earth’s climate, and there sea currents upon which these species depend in intimate ways.
“The seabird’s cry comes from the beginning of the world” he writes. It may soon exist as just a recording in the cloud. We can only guess what the Great Auk’s cry was like.