The Bird Watcher in the Shetlands/Chapter XIX

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CHAPTER XIX

THE DANCE OF DEATH

ON this first day of August I was awakened early by something about the hut which I could not understand. It kept shaking, and there was a noise as of something in some kind of indirect contact with it. I only thought of man; and what any one should be doing on this solitary hill at such an hour I could not for the life of me imagine. The shaking and straining, however, continued; so I got up, and, on opening the door, away, with startled looks, rushed two sheep—a dam and her big lamb—who had been rubbing themselves against the iron wires that run from each corner of the roof of my little sentry-box to stakes set in the ground, to which they are fastened in order to strengthen the building. How they stared at me through the thin, damp mists of the morning, petrified at first! and then how wildly they plunged away! I remembered then often to have seen sheep's wool hanging to these wires; and one of them is very much loosened. So there is a little harm done, even by these "woolly fools"; and were they wild creatures, the Philistine mind, which is the great controlling power in everything, would have nothing to set against it. Only the pleasure of killing it is thought worthy to be set in competition against the smallest degree of damage that a wild animal, however beautiful and interesting, may do; but this is such a great set-off that the whole country might be ruined by beasts before any true sportsman would wish to have the evil ended together with his daily blood-draught. The same man who would keep up foxes, to the ruin of agriculture and the de-population of poultry-yards, makes a shout against the poor cormorants, because to the million enemies that prevent any one kind of fish from crowding out every other kind, it adds its wholly inappreciable efforts. "This also is vanity and a great evil." But what a picturesque morning call to receive!

The three young guillemots are still where they were, but the fourth, which was the first one I saw, and the largest, seems to be gone. I saw this little bird pretty plainly through the glasses, and often flapping its little wings; and it seemed to me evident that it could not yet fly. But who shall say absolutely that it could not, seeing how soon young pheasants do, and how strange and little fitted for it they look? Still more, who shall say that, though it cannot fly, it may not have been able to flutter down to the sea? Until, therefore, the young guillemot is actually seen to leave the ledge, there can be no certainty as to the manner in which it leaves it. Perhaps it has been seen to. Je n'en sais rien, nor do I want to except through experience. What is a cake to me if I cannot eat it?

I have just seen a curious contrast. A pair of birds, for some reason, began to fight, and fought most vigorously. Suddenly they stopped, both of them in a funny set attitude, and each the counterpart of the other. A moment afterwards they were cossetting with the greatest tenderness—every mark of the strongest affection. It is to be presumed, therefore, that they were bird and wife. Guillemots, in their marital relations, are the most affectionate of birds; but this is compatible with the most violent jars—just as it is amongst ourselves. "Ce sont petites choses qui sont de temps en temps nécessaires dans l'amitié; et cinq ou six coups de bâton entre gens qui s'aiment, ne font que ragaillardir l'affection."

Now a bird flies in with a fish, and one of the two chicks left on this part of the cliffs is fed. It was just the same as in the make-believe yesterday—attitude, etc., and the other parent bustling up—except that as the chick was there to take the fish, and wanted no pressing, the ceremony was much sooner over. It is such a cold, sharp wind, now, though the 2nd of August, that I have to tent myself in my Scotch plaid as though I were a young guillemot, besides having a Shetland shawl round my waist, to keep away the lumbago—which, for all that, still plays light fantasias on this poor "machine that is to me." So "here I and sorrow sit," on a razor-blade between two precipices, the one sheer, the other a horrible slant, and look down at another, on the ledges of which are my guillemots and shrieking kittiwakes. Heavens, on what slopes and inclines some of the former sit and crawl! They can fly, it is true; but I cannot, and cannot but remember this, though I am so altruistic that I keep on imagining myself to be them. Now I see the chick that I thought had gone, making the fourth again, in all. It must have moved some distance, to get to where it is. And now comes the Shetland rain.

This was a sharp shower, and by being driven to take refuge I have found a better place. I now look down upon the same slab of rock, not thirty feet below me, that I watched before across a gulf. Seven grown guillemots are full in view, and, now and then, two of the chicks. In these I notice that the black of the upper surface is beginning to encroach upon the white of the throat, which, a day or two back, extended to the beak, being continuous with the breast and belly. Now a little collar of black is pushing round from both sides under the chin, and trying to meet, thinly and faintly, in the centre. The colouring of the adult bird, therefore, in which the neck and throat are dark like the body, is in process of establishing itself.

Each of these two chicks is guarded by a parent bird, who stands between it and the sea; but one of them more relentlessly so than the other. Another parent, who may pass for the mother, stands a little behind one of them, and stretches out a wing. The little one, snuggling up to her, presses its little head amongst the feathers of her side, just under this wing. The mother immediately clasps him with it, and, with half of him thus concealed, he squats down on the rock and evidently goes to sleep. And so close and tight is the embracement that if the mother moves a little, to one or the other side, the chick, moving its little legs, goes with her, partly pulled and partly waddling, but as though all in one with her. Thus they sit together, mother and child, for half an hour or more at a time; and, at these intervals, the chick wakes up, comes out of his feathery dark-closet, and, standing on the rock, preens himself, like a spruce little gentleman. Then, in a few seconds, he goes in again, and the mother, as ready as ever, covers him up as before. The wing is just like an arm, tenderly pressing the child to the mother's side. But all this while—and I think I must have watched them about two hours—the other little chick stands free on the rock, and most busily preens himself. He is guarded, however, as I said. Had it not been for that other chick that I saw go for quite a little walk by itself, I should have thought that they always were, till they left the ledge. But probably as they get older they become just a trifle more independent, and possibly also the size of the ledge or cranny they are born on makes a difference.

A more marked or prettier picture of maternal love than this mother guillemot sitting thus on the bare, cold ledge above the great sea, and closely clasping her little one to her side, I do not think all bird life has to offer. Her feelings, too, are written in her expression; her looks are full of love, and of peace, which is ever ready to pass into anxious care and solicitude. It is good that sportsmen are not an observant race of men, for sights like this might upset them—however, to speak candidly, I don't think they would; that was only a façon de parler. But are sportsmen unobservant? for I make no doubt that some will demur to this proposition. There are, of course, exceptions to all rules, but my own opinion is that it is the tendency of sportsmen to overlook, or pay slight regard to, anything in an animal which does not lie in the path of its being killed by themselves. With its habits in relation to this, its ruses, wariness, and so forth, they necessarily become acquainted to some extent, generally in a very inappreciative and unsympathetic sort of way—a disgusting way, in fact—"very," as Jingle says—but that, as a rule, is all, or nearly all. The actuating motive is to kill, and the rest—this that I say-follows of necessity. It is easy to deny this, but I appeal to sporting works generally. What a mass of them there are, and, off these special lines, what a little do we know of natural history from the greater number of them! We do not sufficiently appreciate this truth, because the bulk of what we do know in this department comes to us from men who have in some degree been sportsmen. We cannot, of course, expect such knowledge from those whose activities lie in quite different directions—from chemists, astronomers, lawyers, artists, etc.—and the greater part of those who come much in contact with animal life do so—sometimes almost necessarily—as destroyers of it.

It is, I admit, an unhappy truth that the naturalist is generally more or less in combination with the sportsman, but it seems to me that as either element gains ground the other weakens, so that if a man is really and truly a naturalist the passion of killing—and also of collecting—tends to pass into that of observing. When the latter has become very strong in such a man, so that he is interested in the more minute and intricate things in the lives of animals—in their domesticities and affections, their instincts, their intelligence and psychology generally, and with the questions and problems presented by all of these—he is then, I believe, either no more a sportsman or very little of one, though, perhaps, he may not care to admit this to his old sporting friends. In a word, the two things—observation of life and the taking of it—are opposed to each other, though they may be often combined in one and the same man. But whilst the naturalist—by virtue of our savage ancestry—has almost always something of the sportsman in his composition, the sportsman has, for his part, little or nothing of the naturalist. I should never expect the same man to be great in both departments, and I believe that a list of names would support this contention. By "sportsman," however, I understand a man who kills animals primarily on account of the pleasurable sensations which he experiences in so doing. He who really only kills or collects for the purpose of increasing knowledge (so he calls his collection) is no sportsman, in my opinion—though I think he does a great deal more harm than if he were one. The collector I look upon as the most harmfully destructive animal on this earth, and the more scientific the more destructive he is. The other kind wearies, or may weary, but he never does. His whole life, in thought or act, is one long ceaseless crime against every other life. His goal is extermination, and nature, for him, a museum. He is the most disgusting figure, in my estimation, that has ever appeared in the world, nor is there any thought more painful to me than that of the slaughter he is every day perpetrating, and the extermination of species resulting from it. What deaths may he not achieve in a lifetime! Of all Thugs, he has the biggest record. That he is often an agreeable, intelligent, and cultivated man—a very good fellow and otherwise unoffending member of society—is infinitely to be regretted. I would he were a street nuisance, a swindler, tsar or grand duke, to the boot of his much greater enormities, for then he might be put down, whereas now there is little chance of it.

Thank heaven he is not here, to put all these pretty little families under glass cases, and steal every egg on the ness. To get a thing dead, that is what his love of nature amounts to, and he does it for those like himself. I know the kind of people who enjoy those groups in the museum at South Kensington, and I am sick at heart that they should be there for them. Who is there, with a soul in his body, who can see a lot of young stuffed herons, say, in a nest with their parents, without feeling more disgust at the Philistine slaughter which procured them than pleasure in the poor lifeless imitation for the sake of which it is perpetrated, and will be perpetrated, over and over again, for wretched little fusty museums in thousands of provincial towns, who must all take this as their model. Some years ago—three or four, I think—a gentleman, commissioned to supply one of these, visited Iceland in the breeding time. Though, by the laws of the country, the birds and eggs, at this season, are most strictly preserved, yet he persuaded one of the magistrates to override these laws and give him a permit for the procuring of specimens, with over three hundred of which—young and old, nests, eggs, and everything, he returned to England. I commend the account of this matter to the notice of the Society for the Protection of Birds, and earnestly hope that, by communicating with the Icelandic—or Danish—Government they may be able to prevent the threatened repetition—for it was threatened in the account itself—of a thing so horrible. It does not seem altogether impossible that the magistrate in question, by allowing himself to be persuaded into granting such permission, committed an illegal act, for which, had it been known, he would have incurred the just rebuke of those in authority over him. If so, it should not be difficult to nip in its poisonous bud an abuse which, if unchecked, will make Iceland a paradise, not of birds for ever, but of bird shooters and stuffers for a few years only.

I believe that these poor stuffed groupings of bird family life, for each of which a whole live family has to be killed, and which have been so much praised, are really nothing but an evil, or, at least, that there is no good in them at all comparable to the evil. All naturalists "of the right breed" who can see them alive, and not dead, will. Those who cannot will take little consolation in so poor a substitute, and will rather spend their time in seeing what they can than in filling their eyes with mere deadness. It is not for such that these odious slaughters, these revolting barbarities are committed, but for sauntering mechanics, booby children, "Oh my!"-ing servant maids, and a few panel-painting young ladies. These are the beneficiaries; but the real moving motive of it all—the causa causans—is the inextinguishable fire of slaughter that burns for ever in the human breast. It burns for ever, but, as time works his changes, some new imagined motive must be found for the old passion and the old deed; so over them both science now flings her ample, hypocritical cloak. "For the sake of science"—that is the formula of the professor who sends out the naturalist to slay, and of the naturalist who goes and slays. With that charm on their lips both quench the thirst of their hearts, and feel no evil in the draught. To the strong band of slayers they add their strength, nay, supply it, if that were needed, with an added incentive, preaching a crusade of destruction to its very enthusiasts who, though they love nothing better, yet may nod sometimes, like the good Homer, and are then urged and begged to continue with "Kill more, and fill our museums. Forget not us poor old professors wearying amidst empty glass cases. Throw us a specimen or two to mumble, while yet there are specimens left. For the sake of science, gentlemen, for the sake of science!" And so, for the sake of science, they add to the dearth of its living material, and kill, very complacently, the goose with the golden eggs.

Science might use her influence to check the dance of death, instead of making it caper more wildly, but there is something in a museum which brings down the high to the level of the low, and makes the learned biologist and the banging idiot the best of good friends and confederates. That museum must be filled, and when it is full the next thing to do is to fill it again; so the cry is ever for specimens, ever "Kill!" That the creature wanted is rare makes it all the more wanted, and a moment's pause in getting it may lead to another museum getting it first: perhaps—coveted honour!—only just before it becomes extinct. For extinction adds a charm to a specimen when once your own museum has obtained it: the rarer it becomes after that, the more the curators chuckle, and with its ceasing for ever rivals are left out in the cold. So science leagues itself with death, and the museums roar, one against another, "Kill!"

A young shag, now, to take these unpleasant reflections out of my mind, is being fed by one of the parents on a great slab of rock, which has no nest upon it that I can see. Now this young bird is nearly, if not quite, as large as the grown one, and only to be distinguished from it by its unadorned brown plumage and the paleness of the skin where naked. There is no doubt at all, I think, that it must long have been swimming, since I have seen smaller and younger-looking birds doing so. The young shag, therefore, must be fed for some time after leaving the nest, and taking to the sea.