Saturday 3 June 2017

The Seabird's Cry

Here's my review of Adam Nicolson's new book, from this month's edition of Literary Review, Britain's finest etc, etc...

The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers
By Adam Nicolson (Collins 400pp £16.99)

Adam Nicolson’s new book is, in his own words, ‘an exploration of the ways in which seabirds exert their hold on the human imagination’. It ranges far and wide – across the world’s oceans, through literature, anthropology, social history and folklore, through the author’s own experiences, and deep into recent scientific discoveries that have transformed our knowledge  of how these still mysterious birds live when they are not, briefly, visiting our world.
  At the centre of it all is Nicolson’s own intense engagement with seabirds, the roots of which lie deep in his childhood experiences of watching the birds on the Shiant Isles, three tiny Hebridean islands that his father, Nigel Nicolson, bought in the 1930s. Adam felt and still feels the awe that seabirds have always inspired in those who have shared some part of their world with them – the awe appropriate to the only creatures that are at home in the air, in and on the sea, and on land (though the least of these, in most seabirds’ lives, is land). The astonishing extent of these birds’ mastery of the skies and oceans is only now becoming apparent, thanks to ever lighter and more efficient tracking devices. An albatross, for example, ranges across six million square miles of ocean and can fly 7,000 or 8,000 miles in a few days, while expending almost no energy, such is its mastery of the ‘windscape’ in which it lives.
  The Seabird’s Cry explores ‘the lives and loves’ of ten birds, or groups of birds, each of which ‘displays a different facet of the central question: how to exist in all three elements’. They range from the deep-diving guillemots and razorbills and the ferocious gannet to the shearwaters that live their lives in a ‘huge and narrow slice of air, a yard or two high, 20,000 miles wide’, from the coast-hugging cormorants and shags to the kittiwakes and albatrosses that have all but abandoned dry land.
  That phrase from the subtitle, ‘the lives and loves’, is significant, for the ruling idea of this book is that of the Umwelt (a notion I first came across in John Bleibtreu’s extraordinary The Parable of the Beast, a title long overdue a reprint). The Umwelt is the animal’s individual subjective world, its sensory universe, its unique ‘meaning world’. The term was first used by a remarkable Estonian biologist, Jacob von
Uexküll, whose work inspired Konrad Lorenz and that great observer of seabird life Niko Tinbergen.
Uexküll is one of a small company of scientists, including the flamboyant Ronald Lockley and the auk’s-egg obsessive Alfred Newton, who people these pages. As you might expect of a book that takes its title from a Seamus Heaney poem, there are literary presiding spirits, too: the chapter on albatrosses, for example, looks beyond the obvious Coleridge to Herman Melville’s vivid account of his first meeting with an albatross and Baudelaire’s ‘vastes oiseaux des mers’. Homer (the subject of Nicolson’s masterpiece, The Mighty Dead) is everywhere, perhaps most eloquently in Nicolson’s account of how once, when he was limping back to land in his storm-battered sailing boat, a kittiwake suddenly appeared, ‘elastic, vibrant, investigative, delicate’, as if sent to guide him home. Just such a seabird appears to the half-dead Odysseus as he battles through stormy seas in flight from Calypso. In Homer the bird is Leucothea, the white goddess, and she saves Odysseus’s life with the gift of a holy veil – but she is still, also, a seabird of the material world, drawn from nature.
  Nicolson, a fine descriptive writer, is drawn to the otherworldly beauty of seabirds, but he is also fascinated by the science, expounding lucidly the dramatic advances of recent years in seabird research. And, unlike some of our more rhapsodic nature writers, he is clear-sighted about the horrors of life in a seabird colony, where, as well as predation from outside, cannibalism is often rife and the struggle for survival ferocious and unrelenting. He tells the grim tale of a species called the Nazca booby, which lives a life of ‘comprehensive dysfunction’, beginning with sibling murder and often graduating to apparently psychotic persecution and lingering murder of vulnerable young birds in the colony. However, there is, happily, another side to seabird life, as best exemplified in the long, blameless lives of albatrosses, perhaps the only truly monogamous birds in nature. (They, however, don’t have to contend with life in an overcrowded colony.) Nicolson traces plenty of examples of what is clearly altruistic behaviour among seabirds, to counteract what often appears to be sheer malice.
  Sadly, Nicolson has to end this celebratory book with a look at the headlong decline in seabird populations overall – down 70 per cent in the past 50 years. Mostly, of course, this is the price of sharing the planet with us humans, but it is also we humans who have the power to save the situation, or at least ameliorate it, and we are finally beginning to do so. There are grounds for hope, at least enough for Nicolson to end this wonderful book on a hopeful note. The Seabird’s Cry (beautifully illustrated by Kate Boxer) will, I think, become a classic of bird literature.


  1. I see that I must wait until next February for Nicolson's book to appear on these shores. Ah, the meantime I've already tracked down a used copy of Parable of the Beast. Your discussion of Umwelt reminds me of a J.B.S. Haldane essay I read years ago, in which he tries to imagine a metaphysics derived from a dog's sensory and social experience of the world. I remember it as one of those incidental readings that permanently tilted my intellectual orbit.

  2. Absolutely - and I guess Wittgenstein had Umwelt in mind when he said that if a lion could speak we could not understand him...

  3. Wittgenstein - the dark matter in my intellectual universe. I guess I should take the plunge before I'm too old to withstand the icy depths. Meanwhile, last evening's events have left me melancholy and longing for the appearance of a 21st-century Avicenna or Averroes, someone to resurrect the medieval Islamic esteem for the practice of ijtihad.

  4. “A neuroscientist says your [umwelt] could be entirely different from the person sitting next to you — and you'll never know how much”--Business Insider, Jun. 2, 2017 .

  5. True enough Dave, I'm sure.
    And you're so right about Itjihad Waldo - if only Islam hadn't pulled down the shutters it might have evolved into a great world religion rather than what it is now...

  6. Interesting, though, that the major advocates of the reinstitution of itjihad in our time are the Salafists, Osama Bin Laden and Ayatollah Khomeini.

  7. I guess it depends what you mean by itjihad...

  8. This according to wiki under the ijtihad (not itjihad as I had it wrongly) entry as opposed to the jihad entry. It suggests that those people listed are in favour of a return to reasoned interpretation of texts as opposed to reliance on established case law.

  9. So, given that such people are in favour of ijtihad, one might ask whether it is the answer to our problems is all.

  10. Guy, in medieval philosophy as practiced in Muslim lands - and this included Jews, Christians, and Muslims writing in Arabic and Greek, unconstrained by theology aside from a shared belief in monotheism - ijtihad meant argument from reason as opposed to argument from authority. It grew out of the legal and textual context you cite, taking on the broader meaning I describe as these scholars resurrected, translated, and wrote commentary on Greek philosophical texts. The influence of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) on Aquinas, for instance, is very significant. It's that spirit that I was referring to in my comment above.

  11. Nige, sorry for initiating the pivot away from your wonderful review of Nicolson's book.

  12. Yes Waldonymous. Thanks for introducing me to a new word and concept. What I was commenting on was the fact that, in the Wiki entry on this word, in the "Modern Era" section, it states that recent advocates of the reinstitution of ijtihad include Osama, Khomeini and the Salafists - not necessarily the most savoury crowd! Perhaps, using reason, they are reaching unfortunate conclusions! Yes and certainly a wonderful review from Nige of a wonderful sounding book.