It is not stupid to think that birds might play, and here from the clifftop it has always looked as if that is what the fulmars were doing: the endless, repeated turns, first on one great circle and then another, skaters outlining discs on the ice, stiff-winged, patient, waiting for the long rotation to take its form, a series of geometries, as if the birds were cutting shapes through the paper of the air.
The air doesn’t always comply. Now and then a strange lack of certainty runs through a fulmar, even as it makes these Euclidean digrams beneath you, a whole-body hesitation, coughing in mid-flight, when it shudders and disassembles, all sleekness gone and all purpose paused, as if waiting for the data stream to resume, which it then does, and the long effortless gestures, milking energy from the wind, continue from one end of the ballroom to the other.
This has taken me several months to read, and as I closed it this morning I felt a bit sad. I started it in July, on my way into central London and feeling very anxious, and I took it to the Lake District, and I’ve read it on quiet afternoons, and over breakfast at weekends.
The Seabird’s Cry has a section about each of ten birds – including fulmars (one of my favourites of all birds now, after last summer), gulls and albatrosses – and goes into enough detail to feel informative but not so much that it’s a slog. Each is self-contained rather than connected to those before and after it, which I wasn’t keen on at first, but came to appreciate more the longer it took me to read the book, and I am now perfectly happy about. Occasionally it’s a little too anthropomorphising, referring to birds’ “husbands” in a way that grated a little, but at other times this tendency makes these seemingly unknowable creatures come a little closer, a little easier to understand. Nicolson doesn’t flinch away from the cruelties we have inflicted on seabirds, for food, for sport, as collateral damage in fishing, and in scientists’ attempts to understand them – the tests done on shearwaters, disabling their sense of smell to see if that’s how they navigate, made me cry as I imagined what it must be like to be lost for the first time in their lives. But, too, he’s clear on how having more knowledge means we can protect them from further danger – the lengths to which the fishing industry is now regulated to protect albatrosses, for example.
I’ve learnt so much from it, but the thing that I love most about it isn’t my new knowledge, but my new awareness of seabirds. It wasn’t until last summer, when we went to very northern Scotland and spent a fortnight accompanied by bonxies and fulmars and black guillemots, that I even really thought about seabirds at all – I wasn’t really interested before. Now, after that summer and then reading this, I’m just as happy to see a gull as a wren.
I appreciate these birds so much more, and my interest in and love for birds in general is greater for it.