Caught by the River

The Seabird's Cry

Sue Brooks | 1st September 2017

The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets, and Other Ocean Voyagers by Adam Nicolson

(Harper Collins, hardback, 228 pages. Out now and available here.)

Review by Sue Brooks

I was enthralled by Sea Room (2001) when I first came across it twelve or more years ago. The day is dark and the gannet is lit like a crucifixion against it. I could never tire of this, never think of anything I would rather watch, nor of any other place I would rather be than here, in front of the endless renewing of the seabird’s genius, again and again carving its path inside the wind. Adam Nicolson in the fullness of his love affair with the Shiant Islands, given to him by his father when he was 21, and due to be passed on to his son Tom in 2005. Passages of heartfelt intensity fly up from every page. There is no end to them, as vivid and magical now as on the first reading.

Its sequel, The Seabird’s Cry, came to me by chance. Serendipity in my local bookshop. The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers, the brilliant blue cover, the quotation from Seamus Heaney –

What came first, the seabird’s cry or its soul
Imagined in the dawn light when it cried?

– the sense that the colour fitted the cry and I was looking through the slightly demented eye of the puffin, into its very soul. It seemed, standing there in the shop reading the introduction, to be an older, wiser, more travelled incarnation of that moment in the presence of the gannet. Sixteen years have passed and the skill with words remains as breathtaking as ever. In one paragraph I found myself on a short walk in the Shiants – a vision of another world – at the end of which, ten lines later, I had witnessed Beauty and perfection, death, dissolution and life, suffering and triumph. The choice and arrangement of the words – death isolated between two commas, suffering and triumph. The triumphant ending. As exquisitely tuned as a piece of baroque music.

And it continues that way. Ten species of birds more at home in the deep ocean than on land, some of them with lifetimes longer than our own, faithful to their partners, dedicated as parents – birds such as the fulmar, so attuned to the ways of the planet and the ocean…that it is possible to see in its whole being an intelligence different from but scarcely less than our own.

Changes in technology have enabled such a widening of understanding. Geolocators and GPS loggers track fishing patterns during the breeding season, and the movements of young and adult birds for the rest of the year. We can build up a picture for each species and even each individual bird, and create graphs which both illustrate reality and create more questions as the complexity deepens. In a poetic mind such as Adam Nicolson’s, science does not destroy mystery but enhances it. The wonder grows: it seems that seabirds can make decisions based on learned experience – about tidal changes, for example, or about the availability of food in a poor year, forcing a choice between chicks or parents surviving the winter. Each species is uniquely adapted to its own Umwelt – translated from the German as the product of close and extreme attention to the things that matter in your life and indifference to those that don’t. An intelligence so finely focussed that it enables gannet colonies in close proximity to each other to divide up the fishing areas. Seven out of the ten birds are in decline – leaving us with the bitter legacy that the technology providing the information about the brilliance and mastery of their lives is also the source of the changes in the ocean that are killing them.

At the end of each chapter I would find myself wondering – could he do it again? Could there be another to match the sound of the fulmar close overhead as if steam were venting from a chimney far away down in the valley, or air was somehow being blown through the layers of a mattress, every edge of the sound softened and feathered? There was no need for doubt. The thrilling drama of the writing, the laying out of the scientific quest, the vivid personal details of courtship, rivalry, tragedy, fidelity — the pitch and elegance and total mastery of detail — never fails.

From the puffin — what looks like calm is rigidified stress and the sweetness is enmity stiffened into poise — to the shearwater — the master voyager…vividly alive in that huge and narrow slice of air, a yard or two high, 20,000 miles wide — to the death of a razorbill chick — of all the razorbill eggs ever laid, something like twelve or thirteen in every hundred will produce a breeding adult — extinction is never far away. This is one of Adam Nicolson’s great gifts: he brings an individual bird into close focus and then draws back, slowly, slowly, as in a movie, until we are witnessing the passing of millennia, the birth of the Gulf Stream, the beginning of the Ice Ages. Like the best storytellers, he twists the heart strings and delivers the message.

Don’t fall for anthropomorphism; don’t get cuddly and sentimental about chicks and puffins. This is a life and death struggle against unimaginable odds.

I have to admit, though, when it came to the chapter on the shag, my defences were completely overwhelmed. Look at him on his springtime nest…His body is his blazon. His head wears his tall forward arching breeding-season quiff. He ripples in the snakeskin robe of his plumage…Watch a pair of these ferocious, glamorous birds together on the nest and you will witness a slow and careful ballet of tenderness and sweetness unfolding between them. Adam Nicolson thinks of John Donne — Licence my roving hands, and let them go, Before, behind, between, above, below. Ah. And so will I when I see these birds, or their close relatives, the cormorants, in future. They will never be as they were before I read The Seabird’s Cry – not only the shags and cormorants, but each of the other nine in this wonderful book. It is life-changing in this respect, and also a call to arms. We can all do something. Adam Nicolson has exterminated the entire rat population of the Shiants in recent years. A tall challenge, but even a thought makes a difference, and a word can lead to action.


Sue Brooks on Caught by the River