Scotland, 2005. That’s the trip I always cite as my ‘conversion experience’ as a birder. Perhaps the most memorable element was a boat trip out to the seabird colonies of the Treshnish Isles. Puffins were the draw, but other memories are more vivid. The sudden appearance of a great skua, powering through at low level causing consternation among other birds and excitement among birdwatchers. A minke whale blowing spray near the boat. The dark eye of a shag up close, inscrutably ancient, a pterodactyl that somehow survived to the present.
Captivated by the peace and isolation of Scottish islands and the incredible sights, sounds and smells of seabirds we did it all again the following year, heading farther north. We started on mainland Orkney, travelling overland by train before catching the ferry from Thurso. During a few days on the Westray we experienced a small island community, intriguing to a child of English suburbia, though mostly I remember the rain and superb traybakes in the village café. Finally on to Shetland, making our way up to Hermaness, the very northern end of Britain on the island of Unst. Towering skua-ruled cliffs with the most inquisitive, trusting puffins I have ever known, no land between us and the North Pole. Some four years later we visited Skomer in Pembrokeshire, another famed seabird destination, but since then our visits to Britain’s seabird islands have, alas, largely dried up. I’ve caught up with seabirds on and off since but perhaps let the full wonder of seabirds and the magic of islands drift out of my life.
In that respect The Seafarers was a timely read. It takes the reader, via a series of personal journeys, through the major groups of ocean-going birds that visit Britain while also introducing a significant seabird location in each chapter. It’s an appealing blend of travel, descriptive nature writing, popular science and biography. Author Stephen Rutt balances a highly personal account of what seabirds have meant for him with some solid seabird facts which are well explained, detailed but not at all dense. Rutt is a young birder, naturalist and writer. Since I too am a bearded, balding young (though not nearly so young as he) birder who is not fond of crowds I was probably predisposed to enjoy his voice, and I did, but I also admired its freshness. He successfully avoids the ‘lone white male’ clichés often accused of dominating nature writing, so far as I can tell, though I’m probably susceptible to them myself and not an expert witness. The writing is accomplished throughout and Rutt’s prose is distinctive, concise yet poetic.
It is also a highly persuasive read in places. The life-affirming simple joy of birding shines through. The particularly well-crafted short chapter on vagrant birds may be one of those rare pieces of writing to actually change my mind. Where I have lately been inclined toward the view that twitching exotic vagrants is ‘..a morbid act, a premature wake for a waif that won’t last out the day’, as Rutt puts it, I was won over by his “faith in the wondrous, sense-defying, thrilling capacity that birds have of being lost and making that seem…OK”. Couple that with the pleasure of catching up with old friends (the seabirds themselves), being reminded of favourite places from travels past (or places I’ve been wanting to spend time and I’ll most likely be seeking seabirds again sooner than I would have done if I hadn’t picked up this book.
The Seafarers is an original contribution, despite having elements in common with a number of other recent books. One notable similarity is that it weaves in biographical details of significant literary and scientific figures from the past. R.M.Lockley and James Fisher feature here and both seem good inclusions as perhaps slightly overlooked figures in 20th century ornithology. The biographical passages, together with elements of cultural history, are well-judged and put the authors experience into context rather than distracting from them. The Seafarers also follows on just two years after Adam Nicolson’s The Seabirds Cry. The latter is the more complete (and global) treatment of seabirds, what we know about them and why they matter, but that’s not really a criticism of Rutt’s book. The Seafarers is as much an autobiographical account of the transformative power of birding as it is a compilation of seabird lore. What they have in common is that both books are love letters to this extraordinary group of animals. With The Seafarers Stephen Rutt has added his own unique chapter to the shared history of people and seabirds on these islands, as well as establishing himself as a writer with real promise. I look forward to seeing what he turns his thoughts to next.
Thanks to Elliot and Thompson for providing a copy for review.