I Think of Camus
tonight, our spoonful of uplift
is red-crowned cranes, wings up,
legs down, floating into the dMZ
on the feel-good spot of the news.
It’s almost a sanctuary, the reporter says,
this open, empty land that runs along
the 38th parallel between North
and South Korea for 160 miles. it’s true,
the cranes have found refuge here,
the land, people-less, littered with mines
and surrounded by troops, left behind
to the birds for the time being.
it’s almost comical how the news report
thinks it needs to shuffle between
an opportunistic nature rushing in
to fill an emptiness, and the vague sense
of some power larger than us
fixing once again what we’ve broken.
i’m no better. i’m dragging up camus,
who wondered how we could ever be
miserable, so much beauty in the world,
but, also, how we could ever be happy,
so much shit in the world. yes, camus
is there, uninvited, in the final montage—
a new day, the morning sun oranging
the snow-dusted marsh, the camera closing in
on a pair of cranes, their necks dipping,
rising, one head bowing to the other until
the pair lift into air as if they are levitating,
then fall, their wings opened like parachutes
as they touch down ever so lightly on the earth
where all that poised firepower waits.
but 170 miles northeast of there, on the island of Yell.
Yell—I knew that place. It’s one of the northernmost of the
Shetland Islands. Only the summer before, I’d been there with my
friend Tim; we’d seen killer whales o= the cli=s at Noss, and made
a road trip north via the chain of ferries, passing farms and small
towns and the oil terminal at Sullom Voe. We’d traversed Yell, then
taken another ferry to the farther island of Unst and made our way
to see the gannetry at Muckle Flugga. That was all one place, stored
in one corner in my mind, but Rona was wholly di=erent. Di=erent
direction, di=erent culture: uninhabited, remote, and Hebridean.
As soon as I read the letter, though, a connection shot between
them. Suddenly they were linked by a flight path, straight as an
arrow. I knew maps, but not as the storm petrel does.
Perhaps if you were some sort of purist, if you carried a torch
for “the wild” and believed in a pristine natural world over and
beyond us, you might consider it an intrusion to catch a bird and
make it wear a ring or a tag. Perhaps you’d consider that their
man-made burden violates them in a way. I admit there was something uncomfortable about the metal ring soldiering on while the
bird’s corpse withered, but when I got the chart out, traced the
route, measured the distance, and understood that yes, of course,
on a southwest bearing, you could swoop along certain channels
from the North Sea through to the Atlantic, it was because this
one ringed bird had extended my imagination. The ring showed
only that it was wedded to the sea, and, if anything, the scale of its
journeying made it seem even wilder than before.
it Was Ringing that proved that swallows indeed flew south
and did not stupefy in the bottom of ponds, and ringing too that
showed that storm petrels do the same. They migrate from Shetland or Rona, or their many other breeding places, down to the
vast pelagic hybernaculum o= Namibia and South Africa. A few
come to grief; become small, washed-up bodies on a faraway
shore, some bearing a return address. An address! Ludicrous
thing for a storm petrel to carry. “The Ocean” would be their
address, save for those weeks when they’re obliged to creep between stones to breed.
So that’s why I keep the bird’s remains here in this room, my
own hybernaculum—if only for a while. It’s just a tuft of feathers
in a polyethylene bag, a tiny skull, and that silvery ring above its
shrunken, black, webbed foot. I keep it for the intimacy, and for the
petrel smell: fusty, musky, suggestive of a distant island in summer.
And I keep it out of sheer respect, because in life, this ounce of a bird
made twenty-four return trips the length of the Atlantic. Twenty-four
at least — which is not bad at all, for a waif, wambling. A
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