About the Author

Graeme Gibson

Graeme Gibson is the acclaimed author of Five Legs, Communion, Perpetual Motion, and Gentleman Death. He is a long-time cultural activist, and co-founder of the Writer's Union of Canada and the Writers' Trust. He is a past president of PEN Canada and the recipient of both the Harbourfront Festival Prize and the Toronto Arts Award, and is a Member of the Order of Canada. He lives in Toronto.

Books by this Author
Communion

Communion

edition:eBook
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Five Legs

Five Legs

by Graeme Gibson
introduction by Sean Kane
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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Graeme Gibson Interviews Alice Munro

Graeme Gibson Interviews Alice Munro

From Eleven Canadian Novelists Interviewed by Graeme Gibson
edition:eBook
tagged : canadian
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Perpetual Motion

Perpetual Motion

by Graeme Gibson
afterword by Ramsay Cook
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged : literary
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Excerpt

One
“. . . and let me not be ashamed of my hope.”
– Psalm 119
 
I
With the rushing of wings, darkness gathered in the forest behind him. Robert Fraser stretched, rubbed his head with both hands, and cautiously arched his back to ease the pain.
 
Late that morning when his ploughshare had caught and held fast, he’d cursed the bloody rocks, the tree stumps, the roots and the land. Ned and Smoke had paused, then soothed by his voice leaned back into their harness with the uncertain excitement of animals remembering previous defeats. He’d strained against the handles, coaxing, driving with his legs and bearing down until he felt the obstruction lifting. He watched incredulously as it broke the surface, an enormous yellow bone rising to meet him. It was as long and thicker than his leg and for an instant he heard it like breath escaping the body. “Whoa,” he shouted at the horses, recoiling as the bone shuddered against the mouldboard. Smoke was trembling, prancing as if the earth had begun to scorch her feet. Even Ned was agitated. Feeding them strands of tobacco, massaging and pulling their ears, he whispered a confidence he scarcely felt.
 
After scraping mud in strips from along its length, crouching beside it at last, he cleaned both ends. He worked methodically. Poking at it with his belt knife, he decided it was the leg bone of an elephant, it had to be! He knew about elephants, astonishing creatures with small dark men riding on their heads. Once in Toronto he’d discovered that an elephant had left the previous day for Montreal. After dinner the men had recounted how a handsome young woman in costume had permitted herself to be encircled by the animal’s sinuous trunk and then, to the astonishment of the crowd, she’d been lifted high in the air where she gracefully waved her arms and arched her back. Patting his waistcoat smooth with both hands, one had described how the young woman, now supine upon a Moorish carpet, had commanded the beast to rest its foot directly on her face. Nobody had ever seen anything like it and from time to time she comes to Fraser in dreams, a slim and pretty woman, neat in her brilliant costume, a simple tension in her arching back and loins – she postures elegantly, her arms beating the air like wings.
 
His pipe lit, he’d contemplated the bone for the better part of half an hour, in a welcome drying wind that burst from the treetops, gathered momentum across his field and whipped the smoke away from his mouth almost before he exhaled. With strands of dirty hair slapping his forehead and cheek, his trousers trembling the length of his calves, he crouched in concentration, his body folded down upon a rock. The bone rested across three furrows, with the shadows of clouds rushing on the land. He didn’t see the straggle of wild pigeons shoot low over his field, nor hear the querulous shriek of a hawk somewhere in the forest beyond his fence. Fearing an evil omen, as if with spring the earth had cast up a warning, he tried to understand if he should bury it again. . . .
 
Lifting the bone impulsively, cradling it like an infant or a corpse, he heard it again: a telluric sigh, an infinitely resigned and mournful breath that resisted him as he straightened, weighed him down as he struggled onto the unworked ground at the edge of the bush. Releasing the bone, stepping back as it fell, he waited; nothing more happened. Fetching his shovel he drove it into the earth, to uncover another bone almost immediately. And then a third. One after the other he placed them on the ground by the first, meticulously reconstructing what he’d begun to disinter.
 
And so the day had progressed with the growing certainty an elephant could not have come to die here beneath his land. The bones he found were too old, too porous; he could have crushed the smaller vertebrae in his hands. Whatever the beast, it had been waiting long before that day six years earlier when Joshua Willow, the half- breed, had stopped and said, “She starts here and runs to the stream.” Robert Fraser would never forget that moment. Just twenty-four years old, he’d stood on his land for the first time, and it had been indistinguishable from everything else on the route. The monotony of the bush was overwhelming; it more than diminished, it threatened to absorb him, transform him into a thing, an object like the birds. He’d left Mad River with Joshua just after dawn and for five hours they had walked in the silence of a heart beating without movement or sound: each tree and tangle of bush was like the next, each turn in the path endlessly repeated what he had just seen; it was as if a dark cloth was being dragged across his eyes. Vegetation caught at his clothes, brushed his hands and face as if to hold him, to enclose him with tendrils and take root. While air had moved in sunlight among the treetops, the forest floor was damp and still.
 
Flat- faced and silent, almost disapproving, Joshua Willow had watched Fraser stand appalled, barely able to hear the water he could not see; and somewhere to the north and west, less than a hundred paces from them, this intricate and marvellous cage of bones had been lying even then just below the surface of a small clearing in the forest.
 
With the rushing of wings, darkness gathered in the forest behind him. The wind subsided, leaving the earth unnaturally still. The noise of his breath, the fatigue of the body inside his clothes, the sudden rasp of his shovel against another immense bone – these now familiar sounds thundered in his ears like blood. High above him, torn and ragged clouds streamed northward as he dropped once more to his knees on the wet earth. Clearing carefully with his hands and belt knife, following the hard plunging curve of bone, he encountered a ridge that must have been the brow and then the first of two gaping sockets; both of them, indeed the entire skull, were clogged with dirt. After excavating the interior, he rolled it out of the shallow pit and manoeuvred it into place among the disinterred and reconstructed maze of bones spread out on the tangle of last year’s growth.
 
Another clutch of pigeons circled rapidly over the forest, to alight in some beech trees at the other end of his fence. This time he heard the urgent wings and as he turned to watch them land he saw a larger flock away to the south. The birds in the wood had begun to call plaintively; half a dozen flew down to perch on the fence, their voices trilling, echoing curiously in his head.
 
With the distant sound of a gun from Casey’s, he returned to the pit. Dragging an ochre tusk to the skull, he imagined a great beast moving irresistibly, bulling its way in the forest, the angular ribs, each separate vertebra in a line, the empty sockets, those grinding teeth bigger than his fist, all of it clothed again, rising on massive legs. . . .
 
Finally, climbing to sit on his fence, filling his pipe and immensely weary, feeling the silent flight of bats about his head, he faced the grotesque jumble of yellowed bones. Light convulsed beyond the forest; yellow and orange it swelled to a sombre green, a shaft stabbed brightly up, throwing the tops of trees into relief before vanishing like lightning. Pausing to relight his pipe he heard the winnowing of wings falling above him; and the night wind, setting leaves in random motion, breathed on his face. Reaching for the ground with his foot, gingerly climbing down, pressing both hands into the small of his back, carefully he twisted and stretched, chewing the stem of his pipe until his muscles relaxed, the pain subsided.
 
“That’s it,” he said. By Jesus, it can be done. “I’ll do it!”

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The Bedside Book of Beasts

The Bedside Book of Beasts

A Wildlife Miscellany
edition:Hardcover
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Echoes of a Working Eden
Language without Words
A typical four square mile patch of rainforest will contain the following species (not individuals)–1,500 flowering plants, 750 trees, 125 mammals, 400 birds, 100 reptiles, 60 amphibians, 150 butterflies and probably over 50,000 of insects.
Clive Ponting

A big cat runs down an antelope in what has become television nature-programming’s equivalent of a car chase: with atavistic emotions we watch the beast charge past apparently luckier members of the herd, who trot skittishly about until their companion is killed in a convulsion of dust. Whereupon they resume grazing. Why didn’t the cat turn on one of these others, who were closer than the victim and hadn’t yet broken into full flight? And why did the survivors seem so unconcerned?

True predators have at best an uncertain time of it. Because even top carnivores only make a kill in about one of ten attempts, they cannot afford to be injured, for a weakened hunter is at a critical disadvantage. Most predators, therefore, try to find prey that is old or young, sick or injured. In short, they look for animals that are afraid. In return, prey that is vulnerable knows it is a likely target. Understandably this makes the weakened individual more nervous than its fellows when a predator appears. Nervous behaviour identifies the suitable prey. Here I am, it says. Over here . . .
In The Hunting Animal Franklin Russell describes a cheetah’s strategy: it begins with the cat resting on a slight rise, contemplating a herd of hartebeest. She scarcely moves, except perhaps for a lazy twitching at the end of her tail. Although the hartebeest bunch together, with the large males in front, they don’t seem to pay much attention until the cat takes a loping run around the herd and returns to stare at them more intently from her vantage point. This manoeuvre unsettles some, but most continue to graze until she does it again. Perhaps, after another of these leisurely runs, there’s a stirring among the hartebeest, and one of them loses its nerve. Because it is old or young, injured or ill, it knows the cheetah’s performance has been intended to flush it out–and has succeeded.

The hard logic of such encounters emerged during what George Santayana called the long “even flow and luscious monotony of organic life.” As a result, all players in the drama know the script and their roles. It isn’t just the weakened animal or the predator
that understands; the healthy ones do as well, and rest in the faith that one of their number will offer itself as scapegoat.

The biological implication of these encounters highlights one of the key elements in animal evolution. By taking the least vital and effective individual, predators relentlessly strengthen the prey’s genetic pool. Faster, smarter prey, in their turn, cause the failure and ultimate death of weakened predators. As George Schaller says in The Marvels of Animal Behavior, “There is a continual evolutionary race between predator and prey, a race with no winner. Constant predation, weeding out the stolid and the slow, produces alert and fleet prey.”

In contrast, from the time we humans learned to kill from a distance–with relative imputiny–we have almost invariably focused on the most impressive individuals. Instead of weeding out “the stolid and slow,” we choose the healthiest animals, those with the greatest amount of fat or biggest antlers. In doing so we are routinely selecting out the most genetically valuable members of the group, thus compromising a whole population’s vitality.

Sometimes, of course, the prey fights back. There’s a remarkable video on the Internet of a buffalo herd challenging a pride of lions that has seized one of its calves in Kruger National Park. Soon after one of the lions is hurled high in the air by a big male buffalo, the others are driven off by the rest of the herd.

In an ornithological park in the Camargue in south-western France I saw a more modest but equally stirring example of group defence. A Black kite (Milvus migrans), which is a medium-sized bird of prey, drifted low over a wet sand islet where Black-winged stilts, Mediterranean gulls, Avocets and Common terns were feeding and resting. Led by the terns, and then the stilts, they rose up in an explosion of noisy avian adrenalin and collectively mobbed the intruder. Most pursuers only buzzed the retreating raptor, but some of the stilts appeared to hit its wings and back with considerable force, and they didn’t cease in their pestering until the kite had been driven off.

Despite Social Darwinist assumptions about “survival of the fittest” and “nature red in tooth and claw,” it seems clear that evolution is not driven by competition; nor are wild animals intentionally cruel. Instead, as John A. Livingston–along with a good many others–insists, the factor (in nature) “that appears to . . . be more important than any other is compliance. I can very comfortably interpret ecologic interdependence as co-operation.”

For most social animals the “will to comply” stabilizes a group and prevents its internal disintegration. An excellent and well-studied example can be found amongst wolves. If a young wolf precipitously challenges the alpha male and discovers he isn’t up to the challenge, that he’s going to lose, he ritually capitulates by offering the most vulnerable part of his throat–or else sprawls on his back like a puppy. And that’s an end to it. Obviously compliance must go both ways: the young pretender abjectly submits, and the alpha wolf must spare him.

Had the will to comply not governed this exchange, one or both of the pack’s strongest males would have been seriously injured and the group’s authority deeply compromised.

Compliance also seems to inform relations between species. Working among the people of the Kalahari in the 1950s, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas discovered that an ancient truce existed between lions and the Bushmen; each basically left the other alone. After some puzzlement, she arrived at the following explanation:

. . . the people, who were not combative with each other, were also not combative with animals. People hunted, of course, but hunting isn’t a form of combat–or at least it wasn’t to the hunter-gatherers. Hunting was merely a method of obtaining food and clothing. Most animals, as a rule, avoid conflict when they can because conflicts cause injuries, and injuries impair survival. For most of our time on earth, our kind, too, had to abide by the practical considerations that govern other animals. And the Bushmen in the 1950s lived in the old way, by the old rules.

In their Spirit of the Wild Dog, Lesley J. Rogers and Gisela Kaplan describe a startling partnership that involves coyotes and badgers hunting co-operatively. The coyote’s acute sense of smell detects a rabbit, and the badger digs with its formidable claws into the unfortunate creature’s burrow: when the panicked rodent finally emerges, it is killed by the waiting coyote, whereupon the two hunters share the meal.

In common with all living things, we humans emerged within the leisurely passage of evolutionary time. But then bipedalism freed our hands, and our opposable thumbs encouraged sophisticated tool-making. This, coupled with the remarkable complexity of our growing language skills, led to the development of our remarkable brains, which–unfortunately, given the reality of our animal origins–live inside us like alien beings. Astonishingly, it has almost persuaded us that we have no debt to nature, that we owe it neither allegiance nor respect, let alone reverence.

The artificiality of our civilization is causing great damage not only to the earth, but to us as well. As George Grant says in Technology and Empire, “When one contemplates the conquest of nature by technology one must remember that that conquest had to include our own bodies. Calvinism provided the determined and organized men and women who could rule the mastered world. The punishment they inflicted on nonhuman nature they had first inflicted on themselves.”

Thomas Mann’s protagonist in Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, believes that “He who really loves the world shapes himself to please it . . .” Although the operative word here is love, the key principle of adaptation is also present. Living forms that have survived and prospered have done so because they adapted; in other words, they shaped themselves to nature–and in doing so perhaps even pleased it.

However, in The Failure of Technology–which he wrote during Hitler’s rise to power–Friedrich Georg Jünger warns that our “intellect is a tool for the exploitation of nature.” If so, if our vaunted reason is one of our technologies, then it will surely undermine any attempt to “please nature.”

The resultant conflict between Krull’s love and Jünger’s intellect–or heart and brain–explains why virtually all nature-based religions–Shinto, for example–tend to avoid dogma, and have various emotional and/or spiritual strategies for subduing the intellect.

“The heart has its reasons,” wrote Pascal, “that reason cannot know.” While Reason may help us develop strategies for mending the earth and ourselves, it will not open us to the process and possibilities that will help us reconnect with the animal inside us, which is to say with our biological reality. Until we do that, the mind will continue to spin its wheels.

G.G.

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The Bedside Book of Birds
Excerpt

Introduction

I came to the birds relatively late in life. For almost thirty-seven years I didn’t understand birdwatching. I remember how eccentric, how curious – even mysterious – I found the activity. Who were these tens of thousands of people with sensible shoes, a predilection for paramilitary raingear, and an almost risible devotion to birds?

Some collect species for their “life list” (that compilation of all the birds one has seen in a lifetime); they are chasers, for whom birding is a competitive sport. Some are scientists, and others work on nesting maps, migration monitoring or bird banding. For the majority of enthusiasts, however, birdwatching simply provides a personal and very special entrée into the natural world.

Years ago I found myself sheltering by the wheelhouse on the Cachalote, a 52-foot motorsailer cruising in the Galapagos. A metallic sea was rising beneath sullen clouds that shredded themselves against the hills of Isabella Island. Everything was grey and black, and the ship was pitching uncomfortably.

I hadn’t been expecting to see my first albatross until later, on Hood Island, where they nest. But in an abrupt clearing of the mist and driving rain, there it was, drifting low over the ragged sea. Enormous and powerful, effortless as sleep, it crossed our wake and then was gone in another squall. While some would say this sighting was merely luck, others might call it grace.

Suddenly any memory of whatever I might have learned about the albatross seemed irrelevant. It was enough to have seen it at that moment, and I was left with an enchanted sense that I had received a gift.
At its heightened moments, birdwatching can encourage a state of being close to rapture. It is an ecstasy that is said to accompany the writing of poetry; sometimes it comes when we’re listening to music.

I suspect that, if I am fortunate enough to await death naturally, dreaming in a chair by some open window, the image of that Waved Albatross, with its great pale head and eight-foot wingspan, will still be a source of gratitude and wonder to me.

When I first wrote about the Waved Albatross, the idea of compiling a selection of writing that explored the ways in which humans have engaged themselves with birds began to grow in my mind. With the zeal of a convert, I started taking note of, then collecting, and finally obsessively searching out texts that illustrated something – almost anything – about our shared response to birds.

This book is the result. It isn’t so much about birds themselves as it is about the richly varied and sometimes very intimate relationships that we have established with them during the hundreds of thousands of years that we and they have shared life on earth. It is also about the often grimmer ways in which birds have been forced to relate to us.

Humans developed as a species in a world full of birds. Despite seeing images of the great flocks of waders and marsh birds in African wetlands, or the millions of nesting Black Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Common Murres, Puffins, and various species of Gulls on northern sea-cliffs, it remains hard for us to conceive just how omnipresent birds must have been in the lives of our forebears.

Somewhere along the way we identified ourselves with them, and came to associate birds with the realm of spirits, as opposed to that of bodies and their carnal appetites.

Perhaps for this reason there’s an abundance of intriguing material about birds, from all times and all cultures. Not only do they feature in creation myths, in sagas and parables, in liturgies and in fairy tales, but poets, writers, story-tellers and artists in all ages have found them a fertile source of imagery and symbol.

In the end I decided to divide the book into nine sections – nine different habitats, if you like, where certain species are naturally gathered together.

Material within the sections is more instinctively arranged. I’d like the reader, in exploring my “habitats,” to encounter the unexpected, just as one might when exploring a richly varied but unfamiliar woodland: because the trail is unpredictable and you can’t see beyond the surrounding foliage, you never know quite what to expect.

You might even discover some unanticipated aspect of self; for birds, in dream theory, are symbols for the personality of the dreamer.

Graeme Gibson

1: "Oh, the Birds..."
Birds Observed and Recorded

Swallows certainly sleep all winter. A number of them
conglobulate together, by flying round and round, and then all in a heap
throw themselves under water, and lye in the bed of a river.
—Samuel Johnson

I was coming to the end of a week scouting for a series of birding trips in Cuba’s Zapata swamp, the vast area of marshland, reed-beds and low mixed forest that surrounds the Bay of Pigs. My companions were Orlando Garrido, Cuba’s senior ornithologist, and Rogelio, an excellent forest warden and a wonderful man. At our last breakfast, with the Bay a limpid turquoise beyond a crescent beach and the air resounding with the gargling of Cuban crows, Garrido told me that Rogelio had a special surprise for us. They both grinned knowingly but neither would elaborate.

Later that morning, just off an old logging road, Garrido pointed to a tangle of sticks about twelve metres up in a nondescript tree. It was the nest of a Gundlach’s Hawk, with the white and woolly shape of a nestling on its edge. Discovered just two days earlier, it was only the fourth official nesting site found in the twentieth century.

As we circled to the other side we saw the adult’s rounded tail, then the whole bird. Watching us out of a cautious red eye, she’d frozen completely. Although her throat trembled, she didn’t even blink.
The Gundlach’s is a fine, strong bird, very much like our Cooper’s Hawk. It is an endangered species endemic to Cuba, and only a handful of other people had ever seen one on the nest. All of us, I think, were sobered; certainly we were quiet.

On the way back it occurred to me that there were undoubtedly more skins of Gundlach’s Hawk in museums around the world than there were live birds in the whole of Cuba. In the nineteenth century, most people treated birds as if they were stamps waiting to be included in a prize collection. As a result, countless thousands of birds and their eggs were collected. Considered a ­necessary part of scientific behaviour, this kind of killing was done by men as important as Audubon, who once wrote that he felt incomplete if he didn’t kill a hundred birds a day.

As one of the first bird artists to use fresh models – which he meticulously posed after threading thin wires into their bodies – Audubon would sometimes kill a dozen individuals before finding the one he wanted. Most of us are defined by the age we live in – Audubon included – and in the nineteenth century birds were routinely slaughtered in astonishing numbers. Audubon reports that in a single day forty-eight thousand Golden Plovers were gunned down near New Orleans.

On May 28, 1854, William David Thoreau, who earned some of his keep by collecting specimens for science, wrote in his diary: “The inhumanity of science concerns me, as when I am tempted to kill a rare snake that I may ascertain its species. I feel that this is not the means of acquiring true knowledge.”
But now, in the twenty-first century, I suspect that most birdwatchers would find it harder to identify a dead bird in the hand than a living one in flight.

When I think of the Gundlach’s Hawk, it’s the red eye I remember best, and that fluffy ball of a nestling. Despite being delighted and moved, I couldn’t help feeling we shouldn’t be there. We meant trouble for the mother and her young, and that brilliant red eye seemed to acknowledge it. We weren’t the first to alarm her, and I feared we wouldn’t be the last.

Sadly I was right: the following year I learned that her nestling had been captured, and after appropriate training in the disciplines of falconry, was being used to scare other birds away from the runways of Havana’s international airport. I felt somehow culpable, and I still do when I remember.

One of the rewards of birdwatching is the brief escape it affords from our ancient and compelling need to make Nature useful. There may even be something of Thoreau’s “true knowledge” in that evanescent taste of freedom.

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Last of the Curlews

Last of the Curlews

edition:Paperback
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tagged : literary
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Chapter 1
 
By June the Arctic night has dwindled to a brief interval of grey dusk and throughout the long days mosquitoes swarm up like clouds of smoke from the potholes of the thawing tundra. It was then that the Eskimos once waited for the soft, tremulous, far-carrying chatter of the Eskimo curlew flocks and the promise of tender flesh that chatter brought to the Arctic land. But the great flocks no longer come. Even the memory of them is gone and only the legends remain. For the eskimo curlew, originally one of the continent’s most abundant game birds, flew a gantlet of shot each spring and fall, and, flying it, learned too slowly the fear of the hunter’s gun that was the essential of survival. now the species lingers on precariously at extinction’s lip.
 
The odd survivor still flies the long and perilous migration from the wintering grounds of Argentine’s Patagonia, to seek a mate of its kind on the sodden tundra plains which slope to the arctic sea. But the arctic is vast. Usually they seek in vain. The last of a dying race, they now fly alone.
 
As the Arctic half-night dissolved suddenly in the pink and then the glaring yellow of the onrushing June day, the Eskimo curlew recognized at last the familiar S-twist of the icehemmed river half a mile below. In the five hundred miles of flat and featureless tundra he had flown over that night, there had been many rivers with many twists identical to this one, yet the curlew knew that now he was home. He was tired. The brown barbs of his wing feathers were frayed and ragged from the migration flight that had started in easy stages below the tropics and had ended now in a frantic, non-stop dash across the treeless barren grounds as the full frenzy of the mating madness gripped him.
 
The curlew set his wings and dropped stone-like in a series of zigzagging side-slips. The rosy-pink reflections of ice pans on the brown river rushed up towards him. Then he leveled off into a long glide that brought him to earth on the oozy shore of a snow-water puddle well back from the river bank.
 
Here for millenniums the Eskimo curlew males had come with the Junetime spring to claim their individual nesting plots. Here on the stark Arctic tundra they waited feverishly for the females to come seeking their mates of the year. As they waited, each male vented the febrile passion of the breeding time by fighting savagely with neighboring males in defense of the territory he had chosen. In the ecstasy of home-coming, the curlew now hardly remembered that for three summers past he had been mysteriously alone and the mating fire within him had burned itself out unquenched each time as the lonely weeks passed and, inexplicably, no female had come.
 
The curlew’s instinct-dominated brain didn’t know or didn’t ask why.
 
He had been flying ten hours without stop but now his body craved food more than rest, for the rapid heartbeat and metabolism that had kept his powerful wing muscles flexing rhythmically hour after hour had taken a heavy toll of body fuel. He began probing into the mud with his long bill. It was a strange bill, curiously adapted for this manner of feeding, two-and-a-half inches long, strikingly down-curved, almost sickle-like. At each probe the curlew opened his bill slightly and moved the sensitive tip in tiny circular motions through the mud as he felt for the soft-bodied larvae of water insects and crustaceans. The bill jabbed in and out of the ooze with a rapid sewing-machine action.
 
There were still dirty grey snowdrifts in the tundra hollows but the sun was hot and the flat Arctic world already teemed with life. Feeding was good, and the curlew fed without stopping for over an hour until his distended crop at the base of his throat bulged grotesquely. Then he dozed fitfully in a half-sleep, standing on one leg, the other leg folded up close to his belly, his neck twisted so that the bill was tucked deeply into the feathers of his back. It was rest, but it wasn’t sleep, for the curlew’s ears and his one outside eye maintained an unrelaxing vigil for Arctic foxes or the phantom-like approach of a snowy owl. His body processes were rapid and in half an hour the energy loss of his ten-hour flight was replenished. He was fully rested.
 
The Arctic summer would be short and there would be much to do when the female came. The curlew flew to a rocky ridge that rose about three feet above the surrounding tundra, alighted and looked about him. It was a harsh, bare land to have flown nine thousand miles to reach. Its harshness lay in its emptiness, for above all else it was an empty land. The trees which survived the gales and cold of the long winters were creeping deformities of birch and willow which, after decades of snail-paced growth, had struggled no more than a foot or two high. The timberline where the trees of the sub-arctic spruce forests petered out and the tundra Barren Grounds began was five hundred miles south. It was mostly a flat and undrained land laced with muskeg ponds so close-packed that now, with the spring, it was half hidden by water. The low gravel humps and rock ridges which kept the potholes of water from merging into a vast, shallow sea were covered with dense mats of grey reindeer moss and lichen, now rapidly turning to green. A few inches below lay frost as rigid as battleship steel, the land’s foundation that never melted.
 
The curlew took off, climbed slowly, and methodically circled and re-circled the two-acre patchwork of water and moss that he intended to claim as his exclusive territory. Occasionally, sailing slowly on set, motionless wings, he would utter the soft, rolling whistle of his mating song. There was nothing of joy in the song. It was a warcry, a warning to all who could hear that the territory had an owner now, an owner flushed with the heat of the mating time who would defend it unflinchingly for the female that would come.
 
The curlew knew every rock, gravel bar, puddle and bush of his territory, despite the fact that in its harsh emptiness there wasn’t a thing that stood out sufficiently to be called a landmark. The territory’s western and northern boundaries were the top of the river’s S-twist which the curlew had spotted from the air. There was nothing of prominence to mark the other boundaries, only a few scattered granite boulders which sparkled with specks of pyrite and mica, a half dozen birch and willow shrubs and a few twisting necks of brown water. But the curlew knew within a few feet where his territory ended. Well in towards the centre was a low ridge of cobblestone so well drained and dry that, in the ten thousand years since the ice age glaciers had passed, the mosses and lichens had never been able to establish themselves. At the foot of this parched stony bar where drainage water from above collected, the moss and lichen mat was thick and luxuriant. Here the female would select her nesting site. In the top of a moss hummock she would fashion out a shallow, saucer-like depression, line it haphazardly with a few crisp leaves and grasses and lay her four olive-brown eggs.
 
The curlew circled higher and higher, his mating song becoming sharper and more frequent. Suddenly the phrases of the song were tumbled together into a loud, excited, whistling rattle. Far upriver, a brown speck against the mottled grey and blue sky, another bird was winging northward, and the curlew had recognized it already as another curlew.
 
He waited within the borders of his territory, flying in tightening circles and calling excitedly as the other bird came nearer. The female was coming. The three empty summers that the male had waited vainly and alone on his breeding territory were a vague, tormenting memory, now almost lost in a brain so keenly keyed to instinctive responses that there was little capacity for conscious thought or memory. Instinct took full control now as the curlew spiraled high into the air in his courtship flight, his wings fluttering moth-like instead of sweeping the air with the deep strokes of normal flight. At the zenith of the spiral his wings closed and the bird plunged earthwards in a whistling dive, leveled off a few feet above the tundra and spiraled upward again.
 
The other bird heard the male’s frenzied calling, changed flight direction and came swiftly toward him. But instinctively obeying the territorial law that all birds recognize, she came to earth and perched on a moss-crowned boulder well outside the male’s territory.
 
The male was seething now with passion and excitement. He performed several more courtship flights in rapid succession, spiraling noisily upward each time until almost out of sight, then plunging earthward in a dive that barely missed the ground. For several minutes the female nonchalantly preened her wing feathers, oblivious to the love display. Then, alternately flying and running across the tundra a few quick wing-beats or steps at a time, she moved into the mating territory and crouched submissively, close to where the male was performing.
 
The male whistled shrilly and zoomed up in a final nuptial flight, hovered in mid-air high above the crouching female, then dropped like a falling meteorite to a spot about six feet from where she waited. He stood for a moment, feathers fluffled out and neck out-stretched, then walked stiff-legged toward her.
 
When still a yard away, the male abruptly stopped. The whispering courtship twitter that had been coming from deep in his throat suddenly silenced, and a quick series of alarm notes came instead. The female’s behavior also suddenly changed. No longer meekly submissive, she was on her feet and stepping quickly away.
 
The male abandoned his courtship stance, lowered his head like a fighting cock and dashed at the female. She dodged sideways, and took wing. The male flew in pursuit, calling noisily and striking repeatedly at her retreating back.
 
The curlew’s mating passion had suddenly turned into an aggressive call to battle. The female was a trespasser on his territory, not a prospective mate, for at close range he had recognized the darker plumage and eccentric posture of a species other than his own. The other bird was a female of the closely related Hudsonian species, but the Eskimo curlew knew only, through the instinctive intuition set up by nature to prevent infertile matings between different species, that this bird was not the mate he awaited.
 
He chased her a quarter of a mile with a fury as passionate as his love had been a few seconds before. Then he returned to the territory and resumed the wait for the female of his own kind that must soon come.
 
Two curlew species, among the longest legged and longest billed in the big shorebird family of snipes, sandpipers and plovers to which they belong, nest on the Arctic tundra—the Eskimo curlew and the commoner and slightly larger Hudsonian. Though distinct species, they are almost indistinguishable in appearance.
 
The Arctic day was long, and despite the tundra gales which whistled endlessly across the unobstructed land the day was hot and humid. The curlew alternately probed the mudflats for food and patrolled his territory, and all the time he watched the land’s flat horizons with eyes that never relaxed. Near mid-day a rough-legged hawk appeared far to the north, methodically circling back and forth across the river and diving earthward now and then on a lemming that incautiously showed itself among the reindeer moss. The curlew eyed the hawk apprehensively as the big hunter’s circling brought it slowly upriver towards the curlew’s territory. Finally the roughleg crossed the territory boundary unmarked on the ground but sharply defined in the curlew’s brain. The curlew took off in rapid pursuit, his long wings stroking the air deeply and his larynx shrieking a sharp piping alarm as he closed in on the intruder with a body weight ten times his own. For a few seconds the hawk ignored the threatened attack, then turned back northward without an attempt at battle. It could have killed the curlew with one grasp of its talons, but it was a killer only when it needed food, and it gave ground willingly before a bird so maddened with the fire of the mating time.
 
The sun dipped low, barely passing from view, and the curlew’s first Arctic night dropped like a grey mist around him. The tundra cooled quickly, and as it cooled the gale that had howled all day suddenly died. Dusk, but not darkness, followed.
 
The curlew was drawn by an instinctive urge he felt but didn’t understand to the dry ridge of cobblestone with the thick mat of reindeer moss at its base where the nest would be. In his fifth summer now, he had never seen a nest or even a female of his kind except the nest and mother he had briefly known in his own nestling stage, yet the know-how of courtship and nesting was there, unlearned, like a carry-over from another life he had lived. And he dozed now on one leg, bill tucked under the feathers of his back, beside the gravel bar which awaited the nest that the bird’s instinct said there had to be.
 
Tomorrow or the next day the female would come, for the brief annual cycle of life in the Arctic left time for no delays.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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