One day, on a steeply sloping grass shelf on the Shiant Isles in the Hebrides, two or three hundred feet above the surface of the Minch, the wide sleeve of sea between the mainland of Scotland and the Outer Isles, I was sitting with Emily Scragg, a young ornithologist who was spending her summer tracking guillemots and razorbills on their fishing trips out from the islands. The sea below us was alight with mid-morning, midsummer sunshine as if polished by it, and we were in shirt sleeves, watching the guillemots on the cliff, dark, handsome birds gathered and jostling there in their thousands. Emily had been putting a GPS tag on one of them, meticulously taped to the feathers on its back, hoping to track it as it foraged in the sea lochs of Lewis and Harris. She had done her work and the bird was back on the rock shelf from which she had picked it ten minutes before. She now had to wait twenty-four hours and the guillemot’s data would return.
As we sat there, watching the big roughened crozier-arms of the tide swirling a mile or more out from the headlands below us, a black-backed gull arrived, cruising, easy, sliding low and slow over the guillemot colony, looking for what it might find, and as its shadow crossed them the guillemots in a sudden scare-flight broke away from the cliff, hundreds of them in one dropping, momentous movement, shearing away and down towards the sea. From above, it looked like the rippling of a single wing, a feathered eruption, a dark and magnificent beating of life itself.
Why do you love birds? I asked Emily. Because they fly, she said. That act of release is what is marvellous about them, not as a single done thing but as something that happens again and again, every year, every day, every new life.
The Atlantic seabirds come to breed in places of unremitting hardness. Much of the coastline is a sort of quarry, brutal and intractable, but above it the birds float like beings from the otherworld. They are gravity-free creatures in a place where gravity seems to rule. That, essentially, is what this book is about. Its governing thought is a pair of phrases I read years ago, quoted by Seamus Heaney in one of his lectures as professor of poetry at Oxford. They had been written by the French philoso-
pher and mystic Simone Weil in her collection of aphorisms on grace and transcendence, published after she had died. Weil was exploring the idea that possibility and openness were necessary parts of what was good – the generosity of risk – when she wrote these mind-changing words: ‘Obéissance à la pesanteur. Le plus grand péché.’ Obedience to gravity. The greatest sin.
Seabirds never commit it and intuitively, pre-scientifically, 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. The poets have always understood this. ‘I’ll be the Bonxie,’ Hugh MacDiarmid wrote of the great skua, ‘that noble scua,/That infects a’other birds wi’ its qualms,’ as if one only had to look at a skua to feel the subtlety and edginess of the life it leads.
Seabirds somehow cross the boundary between the matter-of-fact and the imagined. Theirs is the realm both of enlargement and of uncertainty, in which the nature of things is unreliable and in doubt. After both his parents had died within two years of each other in the mid-1980s, Seamus Heaney for a while left behind the poetry of rich and tangible substance and from ‘the earth earthy’, as Helen Vendler the Harvard critic has called it, quoting St Paul’s description of the nature of the first Adam, turned towards a poetry of half-presences and near-absences. Right at the centre of his 1991 collection, which he called Seeing Things, are some ‘set questions for the ghost of W.B.’ – his challenge to Yeats’s austere presence over his shoulder.
What came first, the seabird’s cry or the soul
Imagined in the dawn cold when it cried?
How habitable is perfected form?
And how inhabited the windy light?
There are no answers, only questions and suggestions, but in that Platonic vision Heaney’s imagined soul-seabird is not only the great boundary-crosser, but linked to the emergence and genesis of things. The seabird’s cry comes from the beginning of the world.
When any kind of seabirds first materialize in written English, in two eighth-century poems called by later scholars ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘The Seafarer’, they are not on the shore but out at sea, referred to by the Anglo-Saxons as ‘lone-fliers’, inhabiting a strange and ambivalent, half-actual world: half material, half ghostly, half part of our life, half from another realm.
When the friendless man wakes again,
he sees before him the fruitless waves,
sea-birds bathing, wings outspread,
frost and snow half as hail.
Then the heart’s wounds deepen, thicken,
sore after sweet – sorrow renewed –
memory of love recurs in the mind;
he greets with open heart, longingly looks
at dead companions. Again they swim away!
Spirits of seamen do not bring
Words you know or songs you love.
Where and what are these seabirds? Are they truly seen by the grieving and lonely sailor? Has he imagined them? Are they present on the sea around him? Or hallucinated, figments of the past now drifting into view? They may be the spirits of his dead friends but they seem to spread their wings on the cold of the sea.
I, care-wretched, ice-cold sea,
dwelt in winter on the exile-tracks,
bereaved of friend and without kin,
hung with crystal frost. Hail drove onwards.
I heard only the sea’s long moaning,
ice-cold wave. Then the swan’s cry
served me for happiness, the call of the gannet
and curlew’s weeping, none of our laughter,
sea-gull’s mewing, no mead-drink.
The birds’ gothic beauty is beyond touching distance. Their status has long troubled the scholars of these fragmentary poems, but the point is surely their ambiguity. These are creatures of high latitudes and distant oceans. They thrive in the sub-polar seas. The farther from home we might feel ourselves to be, the more at home they are. That is their world and they are part of what we long for: beauty on the margins of understanding. ‘The hiding-places of my power’, Wordsworth wrote in The Prelude, ‘Seem open, I approach, and then they close.’ But these birds are more alive than ever in the hiding-places of the north. They are as good imagined – or remembered – as seen, souls and yet not souls, otherness as a dimension of the real. Half-presences, rock-ricochets in their calling. Creatures of the spirit, drenched in ambiguity, half us, half not us, bodies crying in the world.
That, instinctively and subliminally, is what these birds mean to us, voices from the interior of self and ocean, bringing to consciousness those unseen worlds, making apparent what would otherwise be hidden. They are not about transcendence – although they have often been seen as the souls of the
dead – but they are, if one can use this expression, an invitation to inscendence, a word coined by Thomas Berry (1914–2009), the great modern American philosopher of our relationship to nature. Inscendence does not involve moving beyond the life we know but climbing into it, looking for its kernel, just as MacDiarmid adopts the mad ferocity of the skua. Science, for all that non-scientists disparage it, is dedicated to that urge towards the inward, and the astonishing findings of modern seabird scientists mean that a sense of wonder now emerges not from ignorance of the birds but from understanding them.
In the last couple of decades I have pursued the seabirds across the Atlantic. I have sailed up the west coast of Ireland, to St Kilda, Orkney, Shetland, the Faeroes, Iceland and Norway. I have been to the eastern seaboard of Maine and to Newfoundland, to Ascension, the Falklands, South Georgia, the Canaries and the Azores. The source of this sometimes obsessive fascination with the ways and lives of the birds comes from an experience my father gave me when I was a boy: he first took me when I was eight to the big seabird colony on the Shiant Isles. They are a little cluster of Hebridean islands to which he had been going since he was a student in the 1930s. When he was twenty in 1937, his grandmother had left him some money and, entranced by the idea of remoteness and wildness, he had bought the islands, three small specks of grass and rock, each about a mile long, a total of 500 uninhabited acres, with one rat-ridden bothy, for £1,300.
He loved it there more than anywhere on earth. That was where he went, repeatedly and alone, when on leave from the war in North Africa and Italy. For years he had promised to take me. When at last the day came, after a long journey by train and bus through England and Scotland and then with Gaelic-speaking fishermen and shepherds on a rolling herring-boat across the Minch, I watched carefully as the islands slowly acquired form and contour in front of me. Their grey whale-backed outlines grew and ballooned into something substantial. Dark rocks, grassy slopes, a sheltered bay, the little white house, stony beaches. I had never seen this scale of things before: tall, cliffed, remote, fierce, beautiful, harsh and difficult but, for all that, dazzlingly and almost overwhelmingly thick with the swirl of existence, lichened, the rocks glowing saffron orange on that summer morning, the air and the sea around us filled with 300,000 birds, a pumping, raucous polymorphous multiversity in which everything was alive and nothing refined.
It was a vision of another world. We landed and picked our way among the colonies. Birds swept over us. We could sit by them and look them in the eye a yard away. Chicks peeped from among the boulders. Puffins growled deep in their burrows. As giant wheels of them turned in the air, their flight feathers rustled and hushed above us. A great black-backed gull swept down and grabbed one in mid-flight. Older victims, stripped of their meat, washed to and fro in the edges of the sea. Beauty and perfection, death, dissolution and life, suffering and triumph: it was all here.
Some people, confronted with a seabird colony like this, turn away from its irreducible presence with a kind of distaste. The multi-layered grab is too much, nightmarish in its half-hidden crevices and suddenness, the shrieking and hawking, the reek of existence. But that inelegance, that dazzling, green-eyed crudity, was the point for me. This was unlike the quiet and careful places I knew at home. It was a section through creation, the column of life itself, drawn down from the eagles a thousand feet above, distant and mesmeric, on through the life and struggle on the cliffs themselves, the stink of ammonia, the chaos of broken shell and kelp stalk, to the lobster rocks and the seal colony below them. Beyond that stretched the open sea from which this life was drawing its sustenance, covered in birds as if paved in them. I saw it as a kind of reality, full-depth, full-intensity, no compromise, the world as it was usually hidden from us. It became a baseline and touchstone for me of what the world might be.
This book, which is an exploration of the ways in which seabirds exert their hold on the human imagination, travels far beyond the Shiants but has its origins there. I have chosen to describe the lives, habits and destinies of ten birds, or groups of birds. In part they are the ones I know best from the Hebrides, in part the ones I wish were there. These ten divide the sea between them: in their life-habits and body-shapes, their various forms of adaptation, their ways of conquest and triumph. They are the birds which have magnetized my mind, drawn me to them year after year, partly in amazement at the nakedness of their lives, its cruelties and beauties, the undressed nature of their existence, partly in envy, in longing to be what they are.
Each displays a different facet of the central question: how to exist in all three elements. They are the rarest form of cre-
ation, the only animals at home on the sea, in the sea, in the air and on land. There are no flying sea mammals, no sea bats, no sea insects, no flying crabs or aerial lobsters. But these birds somehow accommodate – and in fact make glorious – radically differing demands. As flying animals that must breed on land because eggs need to be laid in air if the chick is not to suffocate, seabirds somehow both find the riches and escape the dangers of the sea. How do they do that? And how is it that such grace and power, ingenuity and cleverness, emerge from meeting those demands?
Each has a different answer. The shags and cormorants are, largely, creatures of the coast, rarely adventuring into the depths or the ocean wilds but beautiful, slightly alien, dark-souled and supremely efficient scavengers and divers. They are mostly to be found down near the shore where the gulls, with another set of intriguingly various and often canny solutions to the problem, sit alongside them.
The puffins, guillemots, razorbills and the now extinct great auk – all cousins – are (or were) deep pursuit-divers, plunging in long, hard, wing-driven dives after fast and nutritious prey. These auks mostly occupy the mid-range of the colonies, up from the sea but not in the highest corners, and they fill the ecological niches occupied by penguins in the southern hemisphere. Almost no penguin penetrates north of the Equator and no auk has ever lived south of it, perhaps, as the Canadian bird scientist Anthony Gaston has suggested, because the tropical waters are patrolled by sharks and these birds have never been able to get past that armed and hungry line. Instead, both auks and penguins are confined to the rich cold waters of high latitudes where the sharks could never swim fast enough to catch them.
If the heart of the short-winged auks’ lives is under water, the other birds here are the great fliers. The kittiwake is a gull that has abandoned the life of the coast – except when forced to lay its egg there – and taken to the ocean, from whose surface it plucks its food. The gannet is the ferocious domin-
ator of the North Atlantic, an astonishingly powerful plunge-diver and the only bird in that ocean whose numbers and range are expanding under the pressures of modernity. Their nest places also reflect their lives: the kittiwakes’ protected on tiny ledges away from any predator, the gannets’ in giant and terrifying gatherings of unrivalled ferocity which all other birds and creatures can enter only at the risk of destruction.
The remaining three, the fulmar, the shearwater and the albatross – all related as members of the Procellariiformes, or the Order of the Storm Birds – are the heroes of the story, superbly adapted to life on the ocean, capable of astonishing voyages, long lived, magnificent, thriving on the wind, at home in the turmoil of storm and wave, equipped with all the ease that evolution and their own ability to learn and adapt has given them.
Only 350 out of 11,000-odd species of bird have taken to the sea. For all their differences, a certain way of life unites them, different from most birds: not living a year or two but, in the very oldest albatrosses, up to eighty or ninety years; not raising chicks the season after they are born, but slow to mature, waiting many years before laying an egg; not hoping against hope with eight or nine eggs in each clutch, but often raising a single chick, long incubated in the egg, long fed in the nest; rarely moving on from one partner to the next but often faithful for many years, each parent relying on the other to raise the next generation. These life-histories are shared, significantly, only by the vultures, which must also look for rare concentrations of prey in the wide and hostile sterilities of the world, not at sea but in the desert. These are the edge-choosers, creatures whose lives have stepped beyond the ordinary into environments of such difficulty that they can respond only with a slow, cumulative mastery which amounts in the end to genius.
The writer Arthur Koestler thought our relationship to reality was conducted on three equivalent levels: one informed by the senses; one by the thinking mind; and one by the spirit, the faculty of grasping ‘the oceanic’, a realm which the senses or the thinking mind couldn’t understand, ‘just as one could not feel the pull of a magnet with one’s skin’. This book is about seabirds, as people have known and are coming to know them, in all three of those dimensions, none given primacy. Each feeds the others and each illuminates the great central fact about them.
No creature’s made so mean,
But that, some way, it boasts, could we investigate,
Its supreme worth: fulfils, by ordinance of fate,
Its momentary task, gets glory all its own,
Tastes triumph in the world, pre-eminent, alone.
I think of them strung and beaded around the cliffs and crevices of the Atlantic coastlines, from the Skelligs in south-west Ireland to the out-islands in Shetland, the great bird cliffs of the Faeroes, Iceland and Norway, the uncountable thousands on the edge of the Arctic, as the living skin of our ocean shores. They are the florid, rowdy summer clothing of what would otherwise be barren rock. Nearly all of them are in remote places, chosen by the birds for their own protection – or perhaps driven there by man’s predatory damage over thousands of years – but they are not a minor presence. They are one of the enormous facts of life from which most of us, most of the time, are kept away. Around the coast of Newfoundland about 35 million seabirds arrive each summer to nest and breed in more than 700 colonies. On tiny Funk Island out in the Atlantic, just over a third of a square mile in extent and one of the last refuges of the great auk, there are, according to the Canadian archaeologist Todd Kristensen, ‘more kilograms of edible egg than edible meat in a pod of 100 beluga whales, in a herd of 800 caribou or in 400 harp seals’. It has been calculated that each summer, around the shores of the British Isles, 70,000 tons of seabird are on the wing. It is a figure that makes me laugh, as if they were all one giant bird, weighing half as much again as Salisbury Cathedral, its feathered wings stretched across those Atlantic shores like the great bird of dreams.
But they are fragile too, spread thinly across the ocean world. Seabirds can seem, when you look at them close to and individually, like victims in the world, almost like refugees, hopelessly dependent on what life can offer them, subject to weather and dearth, with failure stalking them at every turn. But they also have an intriguing doubleness in them: individuated but profoundly collective, individually weak but in their giant colonies and networks of colonies, a trans-ocean system of existence, a cumulative assertion of life. That is why they are one of our imaginative reservoirs, summer ambassadors from the winter ocean, come to visit us in our mundane existence, creatures from the otherworld temporarily and for a moment afloat in ours, and for all their vulnerability a reminder of the beauty and mystery of existence.
‘It is like what we imagine knowledge to be,’ Elizabeth Bishop wrote of the seawater at Lockeport Beach south of Halifax in Nova Scotia,
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
That fluency and hardness, the cauterizing cold, the oceanic extent, the taunting inaccessibility, the freedom, the evasiveness, the otherness: these are the ingredients of the seabird’s world. And as Bishop wrote in a letter to Robert Lowell, ‘Since we do float on an unknown sea I think we should examine the other floating things that come our way carefully; who knows what might depend on it?’
I love the seabirds, partly because I have always met them in the places I love most, the hard and wind-stripped islands and headlands of high latitudes, both north and south, and out at sea in storm and in fair weather. And I have loved them because in those places they have always seemed at home, indifferent to harshness, relishing the conditions, happy to display their beauty in the most demanding moments life can offer. Once in the Faeroes, when I was out with Bjørn Patursson collecting his sheep from the fulmar cliffs on the northern end of Koltur, he asked me what my favourite seabird was. A Manx shear-
water, I said, thinking of their effortless flick and cruise, the wafer-thin mastery of air and ocean, the one wingtip feather of the turning bird cutting the sea surface like a knife in the skin.
Ah, yes, Bjørn agreed, savouring the moment, they’re delicious roast aren’t they? But this is not a book for gourmets, at least of the flesh. It is more about their astonishing lives than about their dead bodies, and draws more from being with the birds and the dogged and persistent observations of the scientists out for year after year in the yowling, stinking colonies than from the kitchen. Carl Safina, the American ecologist, once wrote that the albatross was its own longbow, held taut, and the breeze was its bowstring. That comes near the heart of their beauty: the mutual enveloping of what they are and where they are, with no boundary between organism and envir-
onment. Each enfolds the other so that they become the acrobats of ocean and wind, their liquid, floating, commanding presence one aspect of the natural world which requires nothing but a pair of eyes and a readiness to look.
Until now, they have always disappeared over the horizon. People have watched them on their breeding cliffs, glimpsed them from headlands and the decks of ships; but no one knew what they did when they were not there, out at sea. Recoveries of rings from dead birds – and some impressive detective work – began through the twentieth century to establish patterns of migration and dispersal. The information age, largely fuelled by the mobile phone and our hunger for electronics we can carry in our pockets, has changed all that and created a new way of seeing. The satellite loggers, miniaturized heart-monitors, depth-gauges, wetness-detectors and accelerometers, which are all now small enough to attach to living birds, are providing a kind of access to seabird life that we only ever dreamed of before.
Individual life-stories have been pursued for season after season. Journeys are tracked from one pole to the other, from one side of the ocean to the other. Entire seabird lives can now be imagined. The new technology has also begun to reveal idiosyncrasies in seabird behaviour, the differences between individual birds, the choices and inheritances of each of them, the reality of individual family and colony cultures. There is now clear evidence in seabirds of unguessed-at sensitivities to the opportunities and dangers of sea and atmosphere. The seabird body has become the barometer of whole oceans. The levels of stress hormone in individual kittiwakes has been used to measure the abundance of fish in the sea: fewer fish, more stress. Gannets in New Zealand, out foraging for their chicks, fish not only for calories but for specific nutrients to give those chicks a balanced diet. Guillemots can dive to over 600 feet. Shearwaters can smell their way home and fly through a richly scented seascape which guides them to their fishing grounds and back again.
Perhaps only the poets in the past would have thought of seabirds riding the ripples and currents of the world, attuned to how the ocean is, a place of interfolded gifts and threats, but that is what the scientists are seeing now too. Only now have we learned that a wandering albatross flies 5 million miles in its lifetime, only now understood that a kittiwake will leave to breed elsewhere if its close relatives are having difficulty in raising a chick, only now recognize that each puffin holds within its mind a conceptual map of the North Atlantic. The aim of this book, using tradition and science as a kind of twin-pronged tuning fork, is to bring together some of those modern revelations with the older understanding that seabirds are somehow symbolic of the state of ocean and world.
But the owl of Minerva flies at dusk: science is coming to understand the seabirds just as they are dying. By one measure, in the last sixty years they have declined across the world ocean by about two-thirds. The damage threatened by climate change, warmer seas, more acid seas, changing oceanographic patterns, pollution, the effects of industrialized fishing, the loss of habitat and the appetites of the rats and cats we have distributed around the world all ripple through the seabird community like songs to be sung at the apocalypse. The seabirds may have been spirits in the house of myth and legend for as long as human beings have been conscious; they may have lived for 100 million years in their palace of ocean and air, but it looks as though we are now destroying them.
There are counter-trends. Some seabird families are actually expanding in number and in range. There is plenty of evidence of adaptability and resilience in the birds and it would be a mistake to think that, in the light of this grievous damage, we must simply hold our heads in our hands. ‘The shape of the creature is the pressure of life against the limit of death,’ the art critic Tom Lubbock wrote in his journal in October 2008 as he learned he was dying of a brain tumour. That might be the motto to set over this story. The seabirds push out against the negative. They are pregnant with meaning and are assertions in a world of denials. They concentrate beauty and coherence. They embody genius. They are the opposite of entropy and emblems of hope.
At the opening of the Enlightenment, in the mid-seventeenth century, and in the wake of everything about the separation of body and soul promulgated by René Descartes, the idea gained currency that the cries of an animal were no more than the noises of a machine that was not properly oiled. When in the 1650s a visitor came to Port-Royal, the Jansenist school outside Paris, at which Pascal was a master and Racine a pupil, he found the teacher-intellectuals, all of whom were entranced by Descartes, reflecting on nature.
There was hardly one of them who wasn’t discussing automata … Quite unfeelingly they used to hit [their dogs] with sticks and ridicule anyone who complained on behalf of these animals as if they actually felt any pain. They said they were clocks; and the cries they made, when they were hit, were only the sound of a little spring which had been stretched … They nailed some poor animals on boards by their four feet, and opened them up while they were still alive to see the circulation of the blood, an opportunity for much conversation.
Descartes himself wanted to know what a beating heart felt like and cut into a living dog so that he could put his thumb into the heart muscle as it opened and closed around him. No one before the seventeenth century thought like that and only a few think like it now. It is an issue I have found troubling when researching this book. Several of the most illuminating experiments and research programmes into the behaviour, habits and life-structures of the seabirds have involved cruelty. Birds have had the nerves cut between their brains and their eyes, or between their brains and the organs with which they can detect smells. Others have had different parts of their brains cut away. They have had magnets attached to their heads to see if that confuses their sense of direction. They have been blinded to see if they can still sense the coming of spring and exposed to unnatural regimes of light and dark. Others have had extra eggs put into their nests to see how they cope with the burden. Or extra doses of stress hormone injected into their bloodstream to observe the effects. In laboratory experi-
ments, mercury injected into laying birds has resulted in small and shell-less eggs, malformed embryos, stunted growth in the chicks, shrinking of nerves, strange behaviour and early death. The language used is nearly always euphemistic, never blinded but ‘desensitized’, never a cut but a ‘lesion’, never killed but ‘sacrificed’, as if euphemism could ever make anything better.
These things are rarely mentioned outside the scientific journals in which the results are published and I am aware of my own hypocrisy. The discovery of many of the wonders of seabird behaviour discussed in this book has involved these or equivalent unkindnesses. I am their beneficiary. Nevertheless, large parts of the modern scientific establishment have left behind that Cartesian indifference to the lives and sensibilities of others. For most researchers now, the bird’s consciousness and well-being is not an irrelevance, and it is not Descartes but a fascinating and largely neglected figure who now presides over our understandings of nature. Almost no one has heard of him, but Jakob von Uexküll is the Prospero and hidden mage of all modern seabird studies. He was, of all things, a member of the ancient German Baltic nobility, born in his ancestral manor house in Estonia in 1864. His father, a figure out of Tolstoy, was a geologist, deeply loyal to the Tsar, and became in the end the honorary Mayor of Tallin. As a boy, Jakob spent many hours carefully observing beetles, caterpillars and frogs on his father’s estate.
When a young man, Uexküll read Kant and became an expert in the body-structures of marine animals, octopuses and sea urchins, making expeditions to the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, investigating the ways in which each organism met, accommodated and understood the world around it. Kant’s governing idea, that our minds shape the world we perceive, led Uexküll to his main focus as a biologist: understanding the sensory and cognitive structures that shape the perceived environment for each animal species. That idea became central to his world view. He recognized that each organism had what he called its Umwelt. The German means ‘surrounding world’, but more largely, as the primatologist Frans de Waal has described it, Uexküll had in mind a vision of the animal’s ‘self-centred subjective world, which represents only a small tranche of all available worlds’. Each species lives in its own unique sensory universe, to which we may be partially or wholly blind, and so we must not speak of animal ‘cognition’ or animal ‘intelligence’, but in the plural of ‘cognitions’ and ‘intelligences’. Each animal’s ‘meaning-world’ cannot be understood on any terms except its own.
In 1917, the Russian Revolution took Uexküll’s estates from him and destroyed any wealth that was tied up in Russian state bonds, which became worthless. The family was now exiled and poor, and Uexküll spent much of his life moving across Europe from one house and one job to another. Adrift in the world, he taught biology to his friend Rainer Maria Rilke and ended up in the 1930s, deeply disapproved of by the Nazis, teaching, among other things, at an institute attached to the aquarium of Hamburg zoo that trained guide-dogs for the blind. Uexküll based his methods on the Umwelt concept and devised a way of teaching the dogs that is still in use today.
As the blind man and the dog have two different Umwelten, the trainer has to understand the perceptual and cognitive differences between them. A guide-dog, for example, will not mind if a door is only 3 feet high, but the blind man will. The dog’s perceptual world has to be extended upwards. They made the trainee dogs walk around a building pulling a cart in which a life-size model of man stood 6 feet tall. The dog soon learned that he had to understand the building in the way a man would understand it. Only by grasping the Umwelt of the other species would the dog not be bedeutungsblind, ‘blind to its significance’.
We are that dog and the rest of creation is the man in the cart. We have to stretch our understanding to accommodate the understanding of others. Konrad Lorenz knew, visited and admired Uexküll. Through Lorenz and later through his follower, admirer and joint recipient of the Nobel prize Niko Tinbergen, Uexküll’s legacy has shaped us. The autonomous organism, the creature with an independent and unique meaning-world around it ‘like a soap-bubble’ as Uexküll said, has become the subject and focus of modern life-sciences. 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. It is a recognition that has yet to spread into other areas of human enterprise. If the claims of nature are considered at all, they are almost always calculated in terms of human benefit. What kind of world, it is often asked, would we be living in if other creatures were absent from it?
The rest of us need to make this switch. Unless we accept the multiplicity of Umwelten, with which every creature perceives the world in ways that are unique to it, we will inevitably end up ranking everything on a single scale, and that scale will be measured by our own human standards. If you are stuck in that anthropocentric vision of nature, you will inevitably think that the more like humans any animal seems to be and the more linguistic and even technological skills they seem to have, the cleverer they are. But as Frans de Waal says, ‘There are lots of wonderful cognitive adaptations out there that we don’t have or need … Cognitive evolution is marked by many peaks of specialization.’ We have no monopoly on intelligence. We would not know how to plunge-dive for herring or locate the Mid-Atlantic Ridge by smell. We could not hang in the updraughts by a cliff or find our way alone all winter across the Atlantic. We would not know how to exist in a form that is not our own. The seabirds are intelligent in ways that are different from ours.
The irony is that Umwelt may be integral to all living things. I have watched a golden eagle for an evening displaying to its mate above a kittiwake colony. The kittiwakes were swirling around their cliffs while the eagle was making a series of astonishing folded tuck dives above them, each a plunge through air as driven as a horse displaying to its mares, an arrowhead hunched into the wind, possessing his cube of air, 2 miles wide in each direction, a vast box of wind.
The kittiwakes paid no attention. The eagle was communicating only with another eagle. Its power-ballet, even as it was being hammered again and again by the skuas, the great black-backs, the ravens and the peregrines, nibbling and nabbing at it as it tried to maintain its dignity, very occasionally rolling over through 180 degrees and showing to its persecutors the talons that can grab a fulmar mid-flight as if it were rubbish or shopping – all of that was quite irrelevant to the kittiwakes, which were untroubled, skirling to and fro above the rocks, shouting at each other, embedded in their world.
It was like two different principles of life in action: the great predator owning the air, the seabirds inhabiting it; one demonstrating its own vastness, the others absorbed in their lives as if nothing existed outside it. I have seen the same thing in among the boulders of an auk colony: thousands of razorbills hawking and juddering around the rocks, big power-birds when you get close to them, equipped with ferocious, striped machete-bills, and between them, in another universe of consciousness, three dark little wrens hopping and peeping in the screes, arguing and shouting over some political or legal question in wren-world, a cockpit 2 feet by 3, indifferent to the armies of black and white giants looming over them.
Why should one be surprised that the eagle and the kittiwake, the razorbill or the wren, live in different life-spheres? Each bird is wrapped in its unique Umwelt, separated from the others by evolution, seeing nothing but the world it sees for itself. If we have through our history been shut into our perceptions, that is probably because enclosure in one’s Umwelt is a guiding principle of life on earth. And the fact that, led by figures such as Uexküll, Lorenz and Tinbergen, we now seem to be stepping outside that enclosure is a moment of revolutionary significance. If Umwelt is the product of close and extreme attention to the things that matter in your life, and indifference to those that don’t, then we have probably reached the moment when what matters to us has expanded beyond our own narrowly and historically defined interests. For all the vertigo this thought might induce, the human Umwelt now is and needs to be global. We have, of necessity, entered the age of empathy.
The airwaves are awash with talk of the Anthropocene, the geological epoch in which the single dominant factor is man. It is a literal truth that every albatross and fulmar has eaten plastic and it is reliably predicted that by 2050, about 99.8 per cent of all seabird species will have plastic in their stomachs. Nevertheless, some foundations have been laid, or at least seedlings planted, for a successor age. The Anthropocene will have brought one geological moment to an end; it could now usher in the Ecozoic, another of Thomas Berry’s formulations, a time in which life-forms are understood systematically, when human beings will engage with them not merely as an irrelevance or ingredients for dinner but as co-actors with us in the oikos – the Greek word at the root of ecology and economy – the house of earth. The Ecozoic is life lived in the oikos, powered by empathy and enabled by understanding, and this book is, in its way, a manifesto for the Ecozoic, an age which has at its heart the belief that all living beings have a right to life and to the recognition that they have forms of understanding we have never shared and probably never will.
Copyright © 2018 by Adam Nicolson