Barnacle Geese

We drive slowly down the winding lane that leads across the flat landscape on the northern flank of the Solway Firth in the county of Dumfries & Galloway. As we move onto the farmland of Preston Merse, we are distracted by the red stone ruin of Wreaths Tower. All that remains of the craggy weathered masonry of this shattered house, are a fragment of walling, a window lintel, a flight of stairs and the doorway of an upstairs room. Our eyes turn back to the road and we look down the slope ahead and over fields of bright green grass.

Only they are not green. They are covered in grey white snow. Or is it shingle? No, it is thousands of Barnacle Geese. A seething carpet of birds! We inch down the road, pull in and let down the windows. The morning air is filled with soft honks and squeaks and barks. There is an astounding number of creatures. All around us as we sit in our car. We feel the mass of another species, utterly uninterested in us, blind to us, absorbed in their realm. They are like the Wildebeest migrations on the Serengeti I watched on the TV as a child. They are like cliffs of Kittiwakes and Guillemots, Puffins and Gannets I’ve have gazed at in Shetland or the Faroes. We are trespassers into their land, their space, their stories, their song. This is the humbling phenomena of other beings.

At Mersehead RSPB reserve two miles west, we learn of the Barnacle Geese of Solway. The woman at the desk is full of excitement and quiet pride. She is part of a team of Solway Watchers who each autumn draw information from bird counts across the Firth and thus estimate the numbers arriving from the North.

Location of Svalbard

Forty-two thousand, the entire geese population of the Arctic island of Svalbard, migrate each autumn – 2,000 miles down the coast of Norway, across the North Sea to Northumbria and over the Pennines to the Solway Firth. They fly by night, feed by day, avoiding predators, wary of humans with guns. In 2018 the first arrived on Saturday 22nd September 2018. A full 11,070 birds were counted on the fields of Preston Merse on Friday 12th October. Svalbard is one of a handful of places on Earth that these geese breed, so the population that spends the Autumn and Winter in Solway, and the Spring and Summer on that Arctic island, is the majority of the world population.

How many generations of geese have done this since the Ice Age? The people who lived in the Wreaths Tower in the 16th Century must have looked out upon these same fields and salt marshes and marvelled at the arrival of this winged horde. They must have studied the numbers just as the Solway Watchers do today. The geese have their own their stories, their song lines, that narrate the journey from Svalbard to Solway and back. They store the memory. They act out the memory.

We peer through binoculars and study the delicacy of the plumage of these graceful creatures. Black and white and grey. The edges of each block of colour is so precise, so clean, so perfect. And I am remembering my dear friend Doreen Massey. It is two and a half years since she died, but she is with us here. (An obituary to here is elsewhere on this blog) For how she loved the geese. Often she would go birdwatching with her sister at Ravenglass, just south of here. And once she was among a party who journeyed to Svalbard in the Arctic.

Quite suddenly they take off! 5,000 geese take to the air, exploding off the ground all around us. My mouth drops open. The sky is filled with the sound of their wings, the squeaking, the thrumming of feathers through air. They hum like a swarm of bees.

Barnacle Geese in flight

I am here together with my mother. We have come not only to search out the geese but also to explore the villages, hills and beaches where she lived briefly as a child. She was only three when she arrived here, effectively evacuated away from a home in Essex, east of London, as the German air raids began. This is the place of her first memories, and they are etched into her mind so deeply.

Like the geese we are creatures of memory. My mother recalls the beach, the houses and the lanes of Rockliffe. The apple tree that hung over the road and from which she took fruit to quench her thirst in the heat. There are deeper, distant echoes of our family here in 1800s and before. The dampness, the small fields grazed by Black Cattle, divided by outcrops of rock in the valley of the Urr and Nithsdale. The tightly enclosed farm yards, buildings with their backs to the wind and snow. The woods of Kirkennan filled with Ash, Oak, Rowan, Beech and Hawthorn. The sound of the geese overhead in the autumn. The fabric of memory stretched over the land.

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Graph of Svalbard surface temperature – 1750 to present

 

What if the geese too were to become just a memory? If the sea temperature in the Solway Firth alters then of course it will alter the ecosystem of this region, and impact on the feeding grounds of the geese. More dramatically climate change means the Arctic is warming at an exponential rate. Studies reveal how the mean temperatures of Svalbard have risen steadily since 1960s.

It is indisputable that this shift is impacting upon the ecosystem of Svalbard. Fossil fuel emissions, from the life support system of our industrial society, are eroding the life support system of the geese. If this change continues is it not likely that this population of the Barnacle Geese will collapse? And with that will go the annual migration and the sound of the geese over the fields of Solway? A pattern of birds arriving and departing, that must have been central to the hunter-gatherer families living here in the Mesolithic, will disappear.

Of course we do not not know for sure that this will happen. But unfortunately by the time we do know, by the time the numbers of 42,000 geese dwindle, it will be too late. Inexorably, another species will go under. Rendered extinct. Become only a memory.

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A week after we watched the geese WWF and the Zoological Society of London published their bi-annual Living Planet Report. The research studied more than 4,000 species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians and discovered that their populations had fallen by an average of 60% since 1974. In my lifetime a mass extinction has been taking place. Myriads of creatures are being pushed into memory. Destroyed by an industrial system that has cosseted me from cradle to middle age.

This annihilation does not go unnoticed. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the day after the publication of this report came the first public action of a new movement – Extinction Rebellion. In Parliament Square a declaration was read out built on material from the group’s new website:

We are in an ecological crisis caused by climate change, pollution and habitat destruction; a mass species extinction on a scale much larger than the one which killed the dinosaurs is underway….

Change to avert the worst of the disaster is still technically and economically possible. The changes won’t be simple but there is nothing more important or worthwhile. It involves creating a world which is less frenetic and more beautiful. This is an emergency situation – action is urgent.

The Declaration came together with a set of demands –

  1. That the Government must tell the truth about how deadly our situation is, it must reverse all policies not in alignment with that position and must work alongside the media to communicate the urgency for change including what individuals, communities and businesses need to do.
  2. Good intentions and guidelines won’t save the ice caps. The Government must enact legally-binding policies to reduce carbon emissions in the UK to net zero by 2025 and take further action to remove the excess of atmospheric greenhouse gases. It must cooperate internationally so that the global economy runs on no more than half a planet’s worth of resources per year.

Over a thousand folks gathered in the sunlit square to hear speeches and the prayers of ministers from several different faiths. Many lay down in the road, locking themselves to each other, in order to prevent removal and block the traffic. Fifteen were arrested, following the planned strategy to crowd the courts with resisters. They were all later released.

This movement has its critics. It is certainly no more perfect than others than have gone before. The strategy of forcing change through activists risking arrest and imprisonment seems to wilfully neglect the reality that oppression in the UK is unevenly distributed. That for a person of colour to face the police is an utterly different experience than for a white person. Some of the statements from those who talk for the movement seem to ignore the fact that the impacts of climate change, as they take place across the globe, are experienced disproportionately by the already impoverished and marginalised, and this pattern is racialised.

But there is a sense of something brewing here. A feeling of desperation that is spawning direct action – just as took place against nuclear missiles in the 1980s and the UK government’s intoxication with road building in the 1990s. Something is stirring.

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Extinction Rebellion action to block the bridges of Central London – Westminster Bridge 18th November 2018

I’m standing on Westminster Bridge in sharp Autumn sunlight. There are a few thousand people here. The passage of traffic is blocked by this great gathering. The organic ebb and flow of a peaceful crowd. The constant chatter of voices. The bright colours of clothes. At one place on this wide highway the demonstrators are packed more tightly. Some sit on the tarmac listening to the speakers who rise to use an open mic. Lucy Neal, part of the family of Platform for so many years, takes the stand. She reminds us of the nature of this place, a bridge spanning the great River Thames, its brown mid-tide waters falling towards the North Sea.

I look beyond her. There is the silhouette of Lambeth Bridge, the figures of another group of ‘blockaders’ clearly visible under an array of banners and flags. The Police vans lined up at the northern end, doubtless processing some of the 80 people arrested this day.

Five main bridges in the capital city were blocked for many hours. Pledges were taken that actions will continue and numbers will rise. Despite the bright colours perhaps this body of human beings is responding to a feeling of grief? Perhaps they, like the geese, rise like a swarm? Perhaps they are responding to the memory that it is only through direct action that dramatic changes in the trajectory of society taken place? Perhaps by acting together they are creating memory – ‘Yes, I was there that day too … the day we blocked the bridges.’ These festivals of resistance press the issue into the public mind, they create collective memory, even for those who did not attend.

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I think back to the experience of the Barnacle Geese taking to the air from the fields of Preston Merse. How do I face the reality of their possible destruction? How do I face the melancholy that comes from recognising we are burning the life world of other animals? That we are stoking a great pyre of other beings.

Perhaps this melancholy connects within me to the fear of the annihilation of those I love … of Doreen, of my mother. The inevitability of the loss of those we love. We deal with this loss by the maintenance of memory. With my mother I go searching for evidence of the homes and graves of our ancestors. For ‘The dead only die when the living cease to remember them’.

Perhaps texts such as the Living Planet Report are written so that we do not forget the species we have destroyed? There must be thousands of books on the Dodo. We fear that if other beings are rendered extinct and then they are forgotten, they will be erased. But what if there is no one left to remember the dead?

How difficult it is to imagine our own extinction as a culture, as a people. And yet this process of extinction has been fundamental to the history of Western European ‘civilisation’, especially since the 15th century. In every corner of the globe, entire peoples have been driven to the edge of genocide or beyond – by the Spanish in Central America, by the British in Australia, by the Germans in Southern Africa, and so much more. Are we turning this brutal cultural pattern on ourselves in an act of self-destruction, an act of exterminism that will shatter the house of all other species in the process?

I ask myself, what would Doreen say about the altering of the climate in Svalbard? Would she have been here on this bridge? What was her sense of the mass extinction of other species? Perhaps it was not truly vivid to her? I don’t remember we ever spoke of it. Perhaps it was less pressing for her and her generation. The generation of my mother, for they were born only 7 years apart.

As we talk over the geese, my mother mentions climate change. I am surprised. It is so rare for us to touch on this conversation. Perhaps she too feels the shadow.

Maybe the joyful chaos of actions like the Rebellion on the bridges of London can lift the shadow? I feel compelled to try.

With thanks to Lucy Neal and Rowan Mataram

Extinction Rebellion declaration