The ritual: When science feels like elegy in advance

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Each morning, when the fog was thin enough to see, I went to the cliffs.

I’d park the white pickup down a grassy ATV trail. Or off the main dirt road on a pullout. Or in the turnaround at the island’s southwesternmost point, where, when the wind was up at sea, waves coming from the south and west slapped together in explosions of spray and sound that I could feel like thunder in my chest.

At most of the sites, I walked below the cliffs, tracing the strip of cobbles between their toes and the surf, watching carefully for fur seals. When asleep, the giant pinnipeds look just like wet, sea-rounded stones; it would not be hard to step on one. More than once I nearly did. The startled seal would heave its fat-rolled body up on its improbably long flippers, arc its improbably small hedgehog head forward, and roar. Startled me would levitate backwards, moving faster than I thought possible across rocks slick with algae.

At a place called High Bluffs, I walked the cliff tops, staring 600 feet down their faces. Hills rolled inland from the island’s steep margins, like their own slow ocean swell, and my pants soaked as I pushed through the waist-high grass that covered them.

Arctic foxes, dark brown with summer, sometimes watched my progress. Their ears poked above the flowers and seedheads, and they coughed out an eerie metronome of barks if I got too close to pups concealed nearby in a den. I loved them best of all, but I didn’t come for the foxes. I didn’t come for the seals, either. I came to Saint Paul for the birds.

Saint Paul is one of the two Pribilof Islands, about 300 miles west of the coast of mainland Alaska. During the last Ice Age, the Pribilofs were mountains overlooking the mostly flat plains of the Bering Land Bridge. Now, they are cut off at the shoulders by the Bering Sea, lonely in the pitch and jostle of its waves.

The cliffs aren’t lonely in summer, though, when millions of seabirds arrive to breed and raise chicks on their sheltered ledges. When I arrived in early July, there were small gulls called kittiwakes, red-legged and black, that tamped down mudbuilt nests in a strange little dance. There were murres, common and thick-billed, that pressed their deep chests into the rocks and each other, and laughed like old men. There were puffins, tufted and horned, that found the most improbable cubbies to tuck into. There were cormorants, red-faced and pelagic, that swiveled their long necks in vaguely disturbing ways. There were northern fulmars, that spontaneously vomited when alarmed.

And there was me, peering at them through binoculars, counting one species at a time in each of my assigned plots with a pair of metal devices called tallywhackers that dangled awkwardly from my neck on a shoelace. Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge had brought me on as a volunteer to help with a population count that’s been conducted every three years since the 1970s. The other bird field techs, Ryan and Brady, tooled around on ATVs, roped into rebar at the top of some cliffs and occasionally set up mistnets—monitoring the seabirds’ breeding success, what they were eating, whether banded individuals had survived another year.

It was an enviable gig, staring at the Bering Sea every day. The birds were as thick in the air as mosquitoes, or pasted to the cliffs in a great, chattering mass. Occasionally, one of the two eagles that had taken up residence on the island would fly overhead, flushing them all at once and ruining my count. I hated the eagles then, but I was grateful too, for when the seabirds flushed, hundreds of them plummeted simultaneously from the cliffs, then arced upward again, transcribing a great, flapping parabola that screamed and squawked and cackled and then dissolved over the ocean. It was like seeing the air itself assume living form before your eyes — the soul of the world laid bare in a moment of movement.

But the beauty couldn’t mask another thing the three of us watched slowly unfold: Most of the birds were failing. The kittiwakes never laid, and their nests disintegrated and oozed down the cliff walls, littering the rocks with clumps of mud and grass. The murres crouched on the ledges lost their eggs or never laid them. Last year it was the same, but there were die-offs too – starved puffins washing up in the surf. Murres by the thousands turning up dead on beaches across the Alaskan coastline and all the way down into the Pacific Northwest.

This was hard for Brady and me, but we’d been here only one season. Ryan was in his fourth, and he is one of those people who loves birds so much that he sometimes seems like one of them. He’d curse the foxes for eating them. He’d linger at his plots to watch long after he’d finished collecting data, laid out in the grass as if it weren’t a pants-soaking sea. He’d cook up reasons to be in the field in the late-night still-daylight, or when the weather was bad. And as July wore on, you could see the nesting failures accumulate in him like sediment. He would come to my room at staff quarters sometimes in the evening to check in about the next day’s work or just to talk, but he never rested long on the lack of eggs. He’d change the subject, turn it into a joke that didn’t feel like a joke to either of us. Once, his voice cracked, and he looked away.

The Bering Sea has been warmer than usual these last two years. Perhaps food was thin. Perhaps this hinted at what the future will look like, on these islands, as humans ratchet Earth’s temperature ever higher. But seabirds are long-lived and some species are prone to booms and busts. It’s hard to know what two bad breeding years in the Pribilofs mean for murres and kittiwakes, or what story they tell about the North Pacific.

That was one reason why we were here. To gather pieces that, added together with countless others assembled over time and space, would help someone arrive at answers. This is the slow, unromantic part of science: Not the eureka of discovery, but the ritual of observance, practiced across decades.

And so, to me, going to the cliffs each day came to feel something like attending church. We each went alone and were still. We listened and watched — bearing witness to these lives so different from our own, noting details, counting birds, counting nests, counting days. We tried to imagine what the small things we were collecting revealed about this place, and our relationship with it.

When I left, finally, in August, I didn’t feel closer to understanding. But I was glad to go. For both my hands were heavy with the boundless space, with the flash-underside of a thousand pairs of wings, with the sea-stone backs of seals, with the remembered taste of grass stems, with the muffle of fog and the burnt-match smell of guano and the weird claws and lobes of seabird feet. And my heart sank beneath the weight of portent, and all this that could be lost.

Red kittiwake drawing by the author.

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “The ritual: When science feels like elegy in advance

  1. Googled tallywhackers, couldn’t find links nor images of counting devices.
    Are those the round clickety-click things with a counter in the middle?

  2. Oh, Sarah. What reverence. The heart of a poet beats in the soul of your science. The willingness to simply observe and count and record, knowing so much more than the not-knowing.

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