Friday, 10 July 2015

The North Ron diaries: 24th - 29th May

24th May

George discovered eight-pint hubris ends with him lying on the toilet floor, vomiting. I was a little shaky, my voice an octave lower and brain working a little slower. I hadn't realised but Eurovision is perfect party fuel because you have to drink to make it bearable and once you've started it doesn't really matter anymore that you’re cooped up in a tiny room around a small TV with skittish reception. Mornings and the never defeated pile of dishes to wash up seem like a bad joke. And then the phone rings through the fug. Fleur answers. 'Orcas off the lighthouse? We'll be on our way.'

I run upstairs, find the girls and tell them. I find George and shout at him and he groans like its the worst news he's ever received yet still manages to stagger out in two minutes to the car, lacking socks and other essential items of clothing.

A Killer Whale twitch is an essential hangover cure. The presence of beasts sharpens the mind better than bacon or eggs. The Land Rover shakes us awake.

A nervous wait in a keen cold wind, guests strung out along the lighthouse watchpoint. From here: Fair Isle to the north and Sanday south, hints of Atlantic rollers colliding with the North Sea and the rocks where the seals pup and the Shags stand with wings held out wide. And then the cry. Heads snap right in time to see six foot or so of wet black dorsal fin slowly rise itself out and lower itself back in the glistening grey sea.

Nonchalance. Arrogance? For fifteen cold minutes we watched the pod of five dark dolphins slip their dorsal fins out of the sea and into our world. Never for very long at a time. They swim past the headland, out into the bay and down towards the light house on Sanday. They are effortless grace and murderous intent. The fins just appear and disappear without fluster or fanfare or panicked prey items. They just are.

It’s all I can manage to think about for the rest of the day.

25th May

We caught no birds at the nets this evening and it was absolutely not a surprise. We tried regardless, sitting out from 5:30 until hungry and cold and the sunlight dissipated into the evening clouds. Mark tried because — well if you can then why wouldn't you? I tried because despite being a mere trainee who hates skipping dinner, I love the peace of ringing even more. The peace is this: you sit outside for several hours at either end of the day, watching the gardens. Every 15-20 minutes you walk around and check all of the nets. Sit down again, and repeat. In purposefully sitting down and doing nothing you become part of the scenery and the Swallows that nest in three of the outbuildings near the shed run rings through the sky just feet from my head. A Chiffchaff checks both sides of a leaf in the rose bush for insects. The sycamores have finally got their leaves in the past few days, a surprise because when I last passed I'm certain it was just bare branches and buds still. And we chat about everything because the peace makes reflection not just easy but natural.

It is no hardship to go ringing and not catch a thing.

26th May

There are days when nothing happens. There are days like today when you count 272 Ringed Plovers, find the Glaucous Gull that's been walking about the golf course for the last few days and still feel like nothing has happened. One of those is expected: the Ringed Plover numbers have been building for days and will either explode or disappear, while the Glaucous Gull surprised us a few days ago by turning up as an adult with a head wound and ragged wings. The main surprise is that when you walk towards it, it prefers to walk away from you instead of fly. I doubt that it will last for long on an island with a feral cat problem, with survival skills like that.  It certainly won’t walk the rest of its migration to the Arctic.

On the same beach I find a Puffin skull, the clown's bill fading in the sun like a rictus grin in a posed old photograph. It has three groves running down the bright bulbous sheath, indicating it to be four year old bird, a year or two short of becoming a fully breeding bird. The mystery is what killed it and devoid of a body I guess it was a good meal for a gull or a skua.

The bitter west wind that keeps blowing is pinning birds down in their place. The Rustic Bunting is still being seen, apparently unwilling to carry on until we get a better wind and in the same vein, nothing seems very keen on arriving. Places like this thrive on arrivals: they flicker with life and unexpected birds in unusual places. They should be watched with a sense of the uncertainty of things. Currently you could walk around and I could tell you exactly what you would see and where and that's depressing.

27th May

I woke up to Gannets as brilliant white sparks from an anvil sky. I didn't envy their outsideness for the first time in a long time. It was a morning for watching through a rain-spattered window pane, curled up warm with a coffee as a defence against the shrieks of wind outside. I wasn’t the only one. Through the window I see sparrows and Meadow Pipits still flitting and foraging in the wind. The rain passes but the sky still threatens more.

I chop onions. See three Great Northern Divers in the bay beyond the kitchen window.  Watch as a Sparrowhawk shoots across the compost heap and stirs a hundred or so Starlings into panicked flight. I have tears in my eyes.

29th May

I battle the bike up hill — and pray downhill that the brakes hold. Everything rusts here and the volunteer bikes, taped up and disintegrating, take the brunt of it. I discovered that the brakes didn’t work when I needed them to avoid running over Fleur and the dogs and I’ve never been more grateful for a large flat verge, evasive action and emergency fixes. It doesn’t pay to run over the chef.


It was a sunny day. Not particularly hot and quite windy yet I wore only a shirt in a sort of defiance, imagining the warmth. A good morning: brake failure only twice, the Rustic Bunting seen again and a Bee-eater, as well as two Curlew Sandpipers that coaxed me into the stinking seaweed in search of a good photograph.

Sunny afternoons are best spent outside. I had a shovel under foot, cutting through the matted grass and bringing up rich, dark mud, heaving with worms. In my hands a flax plant, and a flexing pot, easing its matted roots out of the crevices. They sit shallow in the soil and I pile the dark mud up either side to help them take root and to get myself utterly filthy. If there was any doubt as to how well I was settling in again, in a place that changed dramatically over my fortnight holiday, getting soil ingrained into my hands and fingernails helped me forget that.

I was planting the New Zealand flaxes that had spent the winter in the conservatory after the poly-tunnel was shredded by winter storms. These are young plants, a few thin iris-like stems, barely a foot high. But they are ready for the Orkney summer. It is a plant thats becoming a new traditional one here, and can be found in most of the better kept gardens. Kevin had the idea to plant it while travelling on New Zealand’s south island, where he noticed it growing at the edges of beaches battered by southern ocean gales — the sort that propel albatrosses and wreck naive explorers. If its hardy enough there, it would surely be hardy enough here, and so it proved.

It is an ideal plant here because it grows quite densely and forms a natural shelter belt. I was carrying on a line planted by Molly, joining it to a bracket of higher ground. Inside: a pond, and marshy ground, grassland with a spread of violets and the first Northern Marsh Orchid of the year. Future trees. The flax is planned to spend the next five years growing up to create cover, before the inside of the field can be propagated with willow, fuschia and rosa, plants to provide shelter and food for migrating birds.

And I love that too — not just the mucky fingernails that take me back to rooting around the garden as a child, but that the work I’d done is something that we won’t see the fruits of for at least another five years. That’s work to an island timetable, glacial and deeply concerned with the future.

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