Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Seafarers, A Journey Among Birds - Stephen Rutt

I’m not sure now what I expected from ‘The Seafarers’, I was interested it in for the Shetland and Orkney chapters, slightly wary about the links it might draw between nature and mental health. Whatever I expected though, this book far exceeded it.

It starts with Stephen arriving in Orkney, 23, and escaping from London which has not been good for him. Seven months on North Ronaldsay as a volunteer at the bird observatory beckon. It's an obvious, or at least not an odd, choice for a young man with a teenage passion for birding, and an obsession with migratory birds and what they represent to him.

One of the things Rutt does particularly well is make a point without labouring it - he talks candidly enough about how bad London was for him, and to an extent the surprise that is. After all, with a good degree, a good job, no particular responsibilities, and living with friends, it should be the best of times, but it is not. From there any struggles with his mental health are addressed as necessary, but as a background theme. This book is about so much more than one mans personal journey.

The choice of birds he focuses on are interesting too - Storm Petrels, Skuas, Auks, Eiders, Terns, Gulls, Manx Shearwaters, Gannets, and Fulmars (there's also a chapter on vagrants). I read this straight after coming back from Shetland where with a bit of effort I could have seen Storm Petrels (a night time trip to Mousa broch is a long held ambition that I will get round to) where I saw more or less everything but the Manx Shearwaters (and the vagrants) as a matter of course and pretty much from the doorstep.

All of those birds are on endangered lists, and this year the general reduction in numbers (particularly of Terns, Eiders, and Arctic Skuas) of some of these species felt particularly noticeable. Having grown up on the coast these are all birds I've taken for granted, and in the case of both terns and great skuas, cursed (both favour attack as the best form of defence). The thought of their loss is almost incomprehensible, it's also terrifying.

Each chapter is a starting point to discuss a species, a place, the naturalists and birders associated with it, the impact of the Anthropocene. There is further exploration of the history and culture of remote island groups and how they use and live with the birds around them. A lot about how little we know about birds, especially migratory birds and how they function, which in turn means we can't really understand the impact we have on the wildlife around us. There's also some useful thinking on how we package and market wildlife.

Altogether it's a deeply thoughtful book that asks a number of important questions of its reader. Rutt shares his concerns and conclusions in a way that leaves room for debate - though I found I agreed with him on pretty much everything. All of which make it a book worth reading, but the joy of it goes beyond that.

It's in the championing of birds which are not perhaps widely loved. It's rare to read a defence of the Great Skua, or an appreciation of Razorbills. The whole thing is an encouragement to look at what's around us and to properly observe it.

It's an amazingly assured debut that absolutely nails the line between being accessible without feeling dumbed down, and for me one of the best bits of nature writing I've read. I can’t overstate my enthusiasm for this book, or recommend it highly enough.

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