Friday, 2 October 2015

The North Ron Diaries: Reckonings

‘It was a fortunate wind
that blew me here. I leave
half-ready to believe
that a crippled trust might

and the half-true rhyme is

(Seamus Heaney)
Sanderling: from the high Arctic to west Africa
I’ve never experienced seasonal changes so sudden and dramatic as they are here. The diffuse process by which the earth tilts to and from the sun, the growth, death and movement of things seem amplified this far north. Winter lasted through to the end of June — then summer suddenly in July. August baked, then the sky washed the migrating birds out of it and made late summer a humid, bird-filled affair. The first of September was when the warmth went and the Arctic wind brought autumn in. Autumn is not a mellow season here. There is no hint in the wind, no first falling leaves. The wind is cutting and cold. The leaves on the few sheltered sycamores, that have grown for two hundred years to barely twelve foot, are shrivelling, withered at the edges and snatched at by the wind. From the fields Snipe spring up like a jack in the boxes that carry on climbing through the sky. Fieldfares rattle down the walls, earlier than I have ever seen them before.

For birds these seasons are vague and personal. August was the month when we had an arrival, when birds converged on the island en masse as an oasis from the wind and rain. Wrynecks and Icterine Warblers perched beside the locally bred Linnets and Blackbirds — autumn meeting summer. September is the month when it is autumn for all creatures. September is the month when everything begins to move. 

It is clearest out to sea. The Arctic Terns have left, heading for Australia then onto Antarctica, a journey that can take a bird from fledging to arrival a mere three months to complete. Instead Sooty Shearwaters stream past the island for several weeks as a metronomic presence — consistently ten per hour — on their way south for spring. An island bird throughout the world, they breed in the extremes of the Southern Hemisphere, spending their winter sweeping across oceans in the northern summer. The rougher weather of autumn in this end of the Atlantic suits them well. In calm conditions they dawdle, unsuitably stiff-winged. Into a strong wind the long thin wings shear up and down, echoing the crashing waves that threaten to, but never quite, wash them out of the sky.

Sooty Shearwater by George Gay
As the month progresses the change in birds reflects distances travelled and distances left to go. The Willow Warblers of August fade — in numbers and colour — until the last of the paler birds from the far north have passed through. Mid-month is when the Yellow-browed Warblers turn up, having come from the forests of Siberia to flit down dykes, fences and lurk in the weedy corners of the island. It was my privilege to ring one that turned up in our nets, taking it snugly between four fingers, and feeling it's weightlessness, the thrum of its heart and the delicacy of the wings that can take the bird over enormous distances. The scales said 5.9 grams. 

When I see them I see them mostly in thistle fields. Scurrying between the purple heads that are softened and just about turning to seed, feeding on barely perceptible insects. It is typically the dreich days that brings the warblers in and under glowering skies, a bird not much bigger than my index finger and bright vivid green and white with butter yellow stripes seems impossible — too small, too bright, too fragile in a place so harsh. It's a marvel that they make it here at all. The wonder is that they're a relatively modern phenomenon, and turning up in numbers that suggests their occurrence isn't the result of freak errant migrations. Despite being thousands of miles off course, they have been discovered spending the winter in the Canary Islands instead of South East Asia. Not all those that are lost succumb. Some become the pioneers of a new range, a new distribution. The survivors that return to Siberia to breed pass on their new migration routes. We still don't know how birds do it, where the impulse to migrate and the mechanics behind how they navigate lies. We don’t know why distribution changes like this.


I have an interest in lives lived in geographical extremes, whether human or animal, up mountain, island or deep in the country. I read an article recently on life in an Alaskan cabin that rang true to me. The author was living out the Thoreauvian desire to live deliberately but found herself wrestling with the boredom of freedom and the question of how to fill a day, when not swatting insects or walking seven miles to the local shop. What she remembered from amongst the mundane days are the moments of unexpected beauty that punctuate life in remote places. It’s the same on an island like this. The days off are boring, the days on are menial, full of mucking in (or out), and then you’d have a close encounter with a bird, or the first clarity after fog, or still evenings when the setting sun burns up through the salted air. Life on islands fills you with close encounters. Island life is a leveller. It is only the tourists who care that you’re not half Viking with a family tree traceable to St Magnus. Instead — though rife with enough politics to fill a soap opera — I found a place full of the warmth of five minute conversations with everyone you pass up the main road. A mutual agreement that if you’re living on a tiny island with a population of less than fifty, you share a smile and a wave, and it just makes things work better. I was lucky in what I did. Most islanders don’t get a day off and life is hard when your livelihood relies upon cows and the fields are waterlogged and the grass doesn’t grow. They don’t get much time to sit and look but the unexpected beauty of the place still finds its way into their lives.

Like the author in Alaska, I have seen the northern lights. Despite an obsession with checking every clear night, and every cloudy night when my phone pinged an aurora alert at me, I only saw it three times: a green flickering, like lit gas under a hob, but taking up the northern horizon of the night sky. I saw it best at 3 am, ripped from my sleep and hardly awake, an uncomprehending, shivering, staring at the sky. I have a crisis of imagination when confronted by it. No words for it, no language with which to process it. I wonder if in the past it was taken for a supernatural event because when words come to me they come as surreal and technicolour. I almost feel the same way about the night sky. The milky way, the shooting stars, the constellations I don’t know the name of. Growing up under light pollution the reaction is to regard this night sky as somehow fake, as if it were the product of some digital trickery.

Aurora over Lurand by George Gay


There are some other things I have no language for. Grey hairs, a creased face. Crashing waves and a bit lip. A nervous scratch until it bleeds.

I have never been good at goodbyes.

When I arrived on the back of a March gale I was fairly broken. Chewed up by a London life that I didn’t want to live, nerve-endings frayed to the point where I couldn’t be sure if I could last a journey on the tube, the walk to the park, a conversation. I retreated to North Ronaldsay for a different work. I was soft-handed then, now I can shear and worm sheep, care for lambs and dig holes in stony ground to put up gates and bake cheesecakes and bread. In the process I made myself again, until I felt fully human again — and I carried on working until the concept of home meant a small island as much as it did the open fields of East Anglia.

September is the month when it is autumn for all creatures.

Now it is time to leave for another not-yet-home, the other east of Essex. I am not looking forward to leaving here. Over six months I forged a relationship with this place that feels like love, and it is possible in the pain of parting to feel that it was better to have never loved at all than to have loved and left. But it couldn’t be any other way. As Anne Sexton wrote, ‘[to love...] is like a prayer and can’t be planned… you just fall / into its arms because your belief undoes your disbelief’. And I had no idea from my first walk out, along the sea spume covered rocks and across the dykes I would learn to jump, that this wind-raked, salt-harrowed place would undo my disbelief, my culture shock, in the way that it did. And it won't feature in the end of year reckonings: a reasonable year for arctic terns, a record year for tystie nests, a disastrous year for spring migrants. So I shall write it now: I believed in this place.

And September is the month when everything moves.


All that’s left is for me to say thank you: to Kevin and Alison for seeing my CV and asking me to be here until April, then June, then September; to Mark and Fleur for teaching me more than I think they realise; to June for the sheep help and to Molly, Heather, Laura, Gav, George, Pete, Jonny, Sam and Espen for being there — it’s the teamwork that makes the...