Follow the flight of the blackpoll warbler

Diversity is a mark of richness and environmental health - and birds are its flag-bearers.

Bird variation set both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace on the path to discovering natural selection and its role in evolution. Wallace observed it on the Molucca Islands, Darwin on the Galapagos. Diversity is a mark of richness and environmental health and birds are its flag-bearers. Their disappearance, like the collapse of the canary in the mine, is our warning signal.

Yesterday, wondering where blue tits and great tits have gone this summer (am I providing the wrong kind of peanuts?), I found the Shakespearean phrase “nature’s riches” used for a site explaining the rich geological pickings of the Arctic, now being unlocked by global warming. It could equally refer to the tropical forests being destroyed to make monocultures such as palm oil. Maybe only migrating birds know (though it must be a special kind of “knowing”) the true force of the paradox that areas of greatest biodiversity are also areas of greatest conflict – and how fast biodiversity is being lost in our time.

This is true above all between Arctic and tropic. These words first occur in the late 14th century. In Greek, arktikos means “belonging to bears”. Not polar bears: people knew the night sky and the constellation of the Great Bear. Tropic, from the Latin tropicus and the Greek trope, meaning “turn”, refers to the daytime sky where the sun, after reaching its northernmost or southernmost point, stands still (solstitium) and turns back.

If all birds stayed in the tropics, many would die out through competition for food and nesting sites, so species evolved to migrate. As resources regenerate each spring in the north, millions of birds trade tropic for Arctic: less competition for insects, longer daylight hours to find them. When Arctic food dwindles in autumn, they return to the replenished tropics.

These journeys are risky but better than the alternative. Blackpoll warblers winter in Venezuela, then fly north in spring over the Gulf of Mexico up to Alaska, where they build little cup nests in fir trees. They take a different route back: they fly south-east over the Great Lakes and from the New England coast some follow the shoreline down to Florida, some island-hop to South America, but most fly east to pick up winds hurling them over the Caribbean non-stop, day and night, for 88 hours to Venezuela. Four days over the Atlantic in peak hurricane season, facing spiralling winds, clouds, rain. Many crash exhausted in the sea. Yet it’s worth the risk because this route is 1,500 miles shorter and survivors establish a winter feeding territory earlier.

Nature is prodigal, said Darwin. So much waste. “The face of nature may be compared to a yielding surface, with 10,000 sharp wedges packed closely together and driven inwards by incessant blows, sometimes one wedge being struck, and then another with greater force.”

His understanding of the conflict driving nature’s apparent harmony was triggered by reading “An Essay on the Principle of Population” by Robert Malthus. This led him to the concept of natural selection and also to ideas about the evolution of instincts and human psychology.He was young: after South America, his mind was racing. “The principle of population is strife”; “All forms compete against others”; “You can understand the true conditions of life only if you use your imagination to hold on to a sense of the ruthlessness of the natural forces that could waste the bright surface.”

This side of his work inspired Freud’s insight into psychic conflict and the origins of human aggression. “The human mind is shaped by its animal past,” said Darwin. Nature’s ruthlessness is ours, too: our bodies, our psyches.

Unlike a blackpoll warbler, we can’t fly away when resources are gone. In our time, it seems, Arctic and tropic will change their meanings again. But biodiversity may no longer be part of the equation.

Good migrations: macaws fly over a river in Peru. Photograph: Frans Lanting / Gallery Stock

Ruth is a British poet and author with close connections to conservation, wildlife, Greece and music. She has published a novel, eight works of non-fiction and eight poetry collections, most recently The Mara Crossing, which mixes poems and prose to explore migration. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Council Member for the Zoological Society of London.  See her website for more.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

Vanessa Lubach
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Elmet leaves the metallic taste of blood in the mouth

Fiona Mozley’s debut novel digs deep into the psycho-geology of Yorkshire. 

In the autumn of 616 or 617 AD, one of the last remaining Celtic kingdoms of ancient Britain to withstand Anglo-Saxon settlement was conquered by its Northumbrian neighbours. Elmet, which covered what is now the West Riding of Yorkshire, was referred to by Bede as “silva Elmete” (“forest of Elmet”), with its devastation verified by the Historia Brittonum, which claimed that Edwin, the king of Northumbria, “occupied Elmet and expelled Certic, king of that country”. In 1979, several years before becoming poet laureate, the Celtic obsessive Ted Hughes collaborated with the photographer Fay Godwin on Remains of Elmet: A Pennine Sequence, a book that evoked the “spectacular desolation” of the Calder Valley where he grew up, a landscape saturated with myth and memory.

There is more than a hint of Hughes’s shamanistic unleashing of the power of language in Elmet, Fiona Mozley’s debut novel, a work of troubling beauty that has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. At once spare and ornate, Mozley’s writing digs deep into what could be termed the psycho-geology of Yorkshire, much as Alan Garner’s work does with Cheshire: the intermittent glimpses of vanished lives from centuries earlier alongside those of the present day, the trauma of past upheaval and resettlement echoing along the dark valleys.

Elmet, for all its formality and ritual style, has a modern setting but appears to inhabit a space that is outside time. Opening with a ragged account from a survivor of a savage act of destruction, the narrative moves back to the events leading up to the routing of a smallholding held by the 14-year-old Daniel and his conspicuously small family: his sister, Cathy, and their father, John, always referred to as “Daddy” or “my Daddy”.

Daddy is a giant of a man, worshipped by both children, “more vicious and more kind than any leviathan of the ocean… His music pitched above the hearing of hounds and below the trembling of trees.” Far from being carried away on a crescendo of poetic whimsy, however, the book is firmly rooted in stark realities. Daddy is a violent man, who makes his living from bare-knuckle fighting.

Having removed his children from school, he sets about building a house in a remote copse on land that he does not own. Lawless, but then so is Price, the most powerful and ruthless of the unscrupulous local landlords who dominate this ex-mining area of subsistence-level existence. The battle between Price and John is decades old, with links to the children’s vanished mother, and is as much a battle for the soul of an individual as for a plot of land. It is this agonising constriction, like one of the hunter’s bows John stretches to tautness, that Mozley emphasises.

If John is the “Robyn Hode” of legend, Cathy and Daniel are his “scrawny vagrants”, running wild in the ancient forest that surrounds their home. It is a hard life but, in Mozley’s telling, an enchanted one: rich and gamey with dark cuts of animals hunted for food, cider and roll-ups, singing till dawn and “skylarks on toast, almost whole, with mugs of hot, milky tea”. Daddy has built a fortress and a flawed paradise, in which Cathy – a mixture of Brontë-esque wilfulness (the name is surely no coincidence) and fearless warrior princess, with hair as “black as Whitby jet” and eyes “blue like the North Sea” – strives to protect her younger brother.

However, even as their precarious shelter is under siege, Daniel and Cathy are changing. Cathy is most resistant to adaptation. Like Daddy, she had “an outside sort of head”; like him, she is a loner. Daniel, though, is drawn to the world of learning and culture, as demonstrated by Vivien, an unlikely acquaintance of Daddy who gives the children informal lessons. Vivien influences Daniel in other ways, too, for this is a novel about not conforming to stereotypes, be they gendered or otherwise. Daniel’s long hair and sense of curiosity and delight in his body contrast with Cathy’s awkwardness in hers, her fatalistic awareness that as a woman she is vulnerable, a target: “We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine,” she tells him, just before the book’s violent culmination.

Brutal, bleak, ethereal, Mozley’s novel combines parable with urgent contemporary truths about dispossession and exploitation. Reading Elmet leaves the metallic taste of blood in the mouth: centuries old, yet as fresh as today. 

Elmet
Fiona Mozley
JM Originals, 320pp, £10.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear