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Barnacle Geese

March 30, 2013

Barnacle Geese

At a (fairly) recent Tuesday lunchtime seminar, the speaker was David Cabot, I had heard David speak before at last autumn’s BTO conference but this was the first time I’d heard him speak to a purely academic audience. His talk was a treat. David is not a stereotyped one-dimensional academic and his experience of the wider environmental work lent his presentation an eclecticism and singularity that was stimulating and refreshing.

Before David got going however, I spotted a vaguely familiar profile in the audience. I knew I knew him but I just couldn’t place him. Then, as David made his opening remarks, he welcomed “Professor …” and the name came as a gasp from my own mouth. Michael Longley! One of our major poets, a distinguished guest indeed. I have some several connections with Michael Longley. We both read at the Poetry Now,, Festival in Dun Laoghaire ten years ago. Michael, was of course one of the stars, whereas I was a new kid on the block, a nominee for a Young Guns award (a title I was more than a little mortified by, being neither young nor remotely interested in firearms. It smelled rather too much of smoke and testosterone than I was comfortable with) for my first collection, Black Wolf on a White Plain. Then, two years ago, I was invited to write a poem celebrating the townlands of the Glendarragh Valley by the festival committee of Ederney, the village where I grew up. Through that event, I learned of an upcoming reading in Ederney by, guess who, Michael Longley. He had a connection to the village also, in that as a child in Belfast he was looked after by a young woman from Ederney. Although I didn’t make it to that reading, those chance abutments, those meetings at a distance, were enough to have a tenuous connection to the man beyond the marvel of his poetry. Thus to recognise the man, the poet, in that audience of scientists, gave me again that pleasing sense of a convergence of my twin passions, poetry and science.

David Cabot and Michael Longley are clearly friends, no doubt as a result of their long sharing of the habitat of the Mayo west coast, a magical territory of rain-glazed sunsets and eye-loping expanse of barren beauty, the land tawny, umbral, with its pelt of bogland. While Michael may only summer there, David resides, and for the length of his long life he has conducted an intensely faithful watch on the Barnacle geese, , which flock to the West’s empty spaces for its poor grazing which is nonetheless sufficient to sustain their overwintering, their hardy lives.

The epithet “long-term” hardly conveys the continuance of the surveillance that David (with help from colleagues and comrades) has sustained. Since his youth in the late fifties, like the migrants themselves, David has been drawn back to Iniskea , a place of mist and storm-swell, of famine-abandoned lazy-beds, of early Christian hermitage and heritage, to attend to these birds, these ambassadors of the arctic.

Barnacle geese derive their name from old legends, when their seasonal arrival and departure, the nature of where they might vanish to and spawn from, was a complete mystery; a time when hirondelles buried themselves in mud for the winter, the voice of the cuckoo caused, rather heralded, spring, and barnacle geese, named for their shellfish sponsors, either grew out of the barnacles as they were, clung to the rocky shores; or, rather more elegantly, if bizarrely, fruited from the uniquely medieval Barnacle Tree, forests of which sprout in monkish manuscripts, opening their hissy shelly mouths to divulge their feathery secrets in spring, swallow them up again in autumn.

The facts are almost as strange. There are three populations of barnacle geese that have been living their intimate and epic lives well beyond the traditional scope of human knowledge: Irish; Scottish; and west-European. In the last century, human travel and technology has harvested the information that these wintering populations summer in different places also: Greenland for the “Irish”; Spitsbergen for the “Scottish”; Russia for the “west-European” (it is difficult to apply such prescriptive identifiers for these nomads).

A previous seminar had pointed out that we simply don’t know the cues that migrant geese use to decide when to lift off and go. Barnacle geese spend their summers and winters essentially puttering about in flight terms, skimming from sleeping to feeding, or in summer, to nesting grounds, in short hops of 15-20 mins in the air at the most. They don’t train. Then suddenly, with no apparent definite signal, other than the gradual stretch or diminishment of light, the gathering or dissipation of ambient warmth, these slow continuous changes suddenly clinch into definite decision. Suddenly, one day, the flocks just lift off and go, almost without stragglers. And those daily jaunts, those short hops, are mutated, transformed, under the strive and surge of muscular wings, the fuel of fat stored out of the dedicated grazing that consumes most of their daily hours, the reach of those extended necks, those runabout flights are expanded into questing odysseys of 12, 15, 20 hours non-stop, and for the Irish birds, most of it, bar a brief stopover in Iceland, across the turmoil of the equinoctial Atlantic. Of course, this capacity must be rooted in their biology. All birds, even the most grounded, the ratites,, are aerial creatures, their morphology, physiology, inherently tied to their favoured, even if only ancestrally, medium of locomotion. Birds are riddled with air, their hollow strutted bones, the shafts and filaments of their feathers, the astonishing air sacs that augment the lungs to render their ventilation an efficiency that outstrips that of any comparable mammal; and the other adaptations that lighten their load, the keratinous bills, the absence of teeth, the substitution of the gizzard with its collection of stones that may be collected or abandoned as required. Whatever the details, the result is astonishing. These small dark geese, modestly sustaining the domestic, the familial, of summer and winter, can suddenly power into a night sky and traverse a threatening ocean to swap one world for another. And they do it twice a year.

Unlike the small passerine migrants which undertake their own uniquely epic biannual journeys across the line of the planet’s navel, geese don’t do it simply by instinct alone. Whatever assistance geese gain from the patterns of stars, the pull of oceans, or the gradient of the earth’s magnetic field, they also rely on the same senses as we do. They copy their parents. They learn landscape features and they follow them. They travel in family-groups, calling to each other as they go, and that family cohesiveness ensures intergenerational site-fidelity. They have their traditional routes to link their traditional their summering and wintering grounds. The “Irish” population includes those of western Scotland, who all migrate to Greenland; but in Scotland, there is obviously also the “Scottish” population, who are in fact the population of eastern Scotland who summer in Spitsbergen. In winter, these groups are separated by only a few hundred kms, peanuts to these birds, but they rarely intermingle and apparently never permanently.

Perhaps the migrant geese are so embedded in the Irish imagination because of their identification with the emigration of  the  old Gaelic nobility after the inevitable, internecine, treacherous, attritional, guerrilla-type wars that have typified Irish history (;; ). The flight of the earls occurred from another wintering barnacle goose stronghold, Rathmullan in Co Donegal, not far from where I did some of fieldwork over the last two springs at Inch Wildfowl Reserve. Cries of wild geese, of wild swans, are an intrinsic part of the soundscape there in winter, remain so now, in this unseasonally long winter: haunting bugles of sadness, mourning what is lost, never to be regained.

Not for the geese themselves of course. For them, those plaintive cries are simply a part of the  social glue that holds the family group together, helps guide the adolescent goslings across the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, learning the skymarks, the landmarks, the desert of sea that is still somehow featured by the rhythm of tides, the pulse of magnetism below its bleak threatening depths. Year on year, winter after winter, the geese return to Inishkea, and their return draws David back too, winter after winter, year on year. Much of the information he has garnered over half a century of observations, shows that the geese are doing fine, holding their own. They haven’t shown some of the spectacular population increases that some of their Scottish counterparts have shown, largely, it is thought, due to the Scots provision of legal protection for their wintering grounds there. The “Irish” birds continue to rely on the stern remoteness, human-depopulatedness, of Ireland’s northern and western coasts and islands. The Iniskea islands are, in human terms, long abandoned, but the barnacles graze on their imprint, the overgrown lazy-beds. David and colleagues have a detailed ringing system, its low-tech long-term reliability and viability reminding me of Jenny Gills’s works on the black-tailed godwit (; ) They’ve also used traps and cannon-netting to trap the birds.

For a science seminar this was a heady mix, and I suspect that not a few of my colleagues were a little discomfited as we were regaled with the details of early Irish Christianity, the whaling station, and the final flight of the island’s human populace in the 1930s after most of their young men were wiped out at sea. However, for me, much of this stuff was not out of place. We have finally achieved what Genesis exhorted and promised us: stewardship of the earth, and we’re really not making such a good job of it. Our ubiquitous, often downright malevolent control, means that our co-denizens of the planet, require our care, our awareness, our respect, more than ever. The ancient Irish migrated to the remotest parts of this country for a host of reasons; fresh territory; religious or political persecution; escape. But the type of escape exemplified by the old Christian hermitages, the likes of the monastic sites on another western Irish island ( ) are what give us the history of the barnacle geese, at least as seen through human eyes, and illustrate that there is essentially no separation of the scientist, the artist, the contemplative. They all watch, attend, and may lose themselves in something greater than their own ordinary individuality.

The culmination, the cresting, of David’s study was an expedition he organised and sourced funding for in 1987, a quest the likes of St Brendan,, could only dream of. He followed the Barnacles to their other home. Traversing glacial moraines and arctic rivers, the group found the “Irish” birds, now securely fastened in their Greenland identity to the sides of sheer cliff faces, tiny ledges lined with their own down, precarious nests for these small, but stocky geese. The advantage for the geese is that the arctic foxes can’t reach them there; the only real threat to the goslings’ is that of the disdainfully glamorous gyrfalcons. However, once fledged they must, like the young gull in Liam O’Flaherty’s His First Flight,’Flaherty, literally leap into the air and let themselves parachute down to the barren plains below, where, shepherded by their parents, they make their way to small lakes, again to evade the ever-present arctic foxes. There they remain until they, and their parents, during the fortnight-long summer moult, gain the capacity of flight. It must have been a stunning adventure, as confirmed when David subsequently sent me a copy of the monograph of the entire trip; all the more when David was not funded by a traditional academic institution.

I went for coffee with David and Michael after the seminar. Michael told lovely stories of poetry and awards. He quoted a line from one of his own poems regarding that caught my breath at its exactitude at so many levels, the wren’s “brain-rattling bramble song”, , a line I would kill for. It made me think of how to get a poem for the song – the song mind, not simply the bird – of each of my nine study species. That will require a more research of a different kind. Has anyone written a poem about the song of the willow warbler for instance? Or will I just have to write it myself?

It was a wonderful encounter with both men. Their meeting of minds and hearts across the fields of art and science, the boglands and sea of Mayo, could almost feel almost like an invitation to the future.


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  1. I continue to find your twin passions fascinating. Poetry and science, not typically paired, make perfect sense the way you convey your thoughts. I knew you wrote poetry, but it was new information for me to hear more about your early successes. I can understand your excitement at meeting Michael Longley again. David Cabot’s work is fascinating, and the friendship does embody your interests in remarkable ways. You must have been in your glory at this seminar! I’m sure you make your own contribution to both poetry and science! 🙂

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