Since giving one of my leaving-home children the excellent picture book “Puffling” by that hero of children’s literature, Margaret Wild, I have been enamoured of the birds. I became a little too attached to the idea of seeing them – not obsessed, just certain that my three months away would not be complete without it.
So, upon arriving in Flamborough, close to the cliffs of the North Sea, I was keen to get a start on the business of finding them. It was a bit of a haul to the cliffs. (Leave by the gate opposite the Rose and Crown then head diagonally towards the fields. Ooh, I do like using that word and, better still, ‘meadow’). On the way we passed a bizarre holiday area. I took heaps of photos to get a full bead on the situation. I don’t know if people want to be this close together or if they accept it because the situation has some of what they want eg beautiful scenery – for that one can put up with a lot.
1. There must be few, if any, trees. 2. The houses must be identical and have the same orientation. 3. The houses must be very close together. 4. There must be a lot of houses; a lot of houses. 5. The area must be bounded by privately owned open fields as far as the eye can see so that this space surrounding the houses, and the space available within the area to each holiday maker, are at maximum contrast.
But thoughts of monotonous, sardine-tin accommodation disappear when one stands on the cliffs and looks towards the sea at birds hovering above unseen nests, cruising further off-shore in long, loose formations or clustering around fishing boats made tiny by distance.
Something happens in the brain when the sea, the wind and a darkening sky are thrown together. Suddenly it’s remote. It’s wild. And, if you’re there, you must be too, even if the place is full of people – which the promontory at the parking area and café were, though the paths in both directions were almost deserted. With eyes drawn to the sea and the sky, the brain can easily construct a sense of aloneness. One can revel in the primitive feeling of being pitted against the elements and rejoice in nature, even as one stands on the bitumen, metres from the car.
One becomes Elemental Human.
Do we crave these places because of how they make us feel about ourselves, as well as for how we feel about the actual places?
The scenery and, for me, The Quest, drew us onwards. Below us, people dived from great heights into, or dabbled in, the ocean. Swirling, milky waters dashed against the northern-most chalk cliffs in the UK and shot into caves. Seabirds in their nests stared at the wall, backs turned to the wind.
White birds everywhere. No little black and white ones though. I fell further and further behind the striding BB as I scanned every cliff face. They nest in the ground as well, so I entertained the ridiculous hope that one might emerge from its burrow in front of me. How thoughtful of it. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. But finally, I saw a little black, not-quite-identifiable, shape on a cliff ledge. Quite possibly a puffin. Probably was actually. In fact, it almost certainly was. So I had my puffin at last. (With only a small contortion to alleviate disappointment).
But the next day… The next day on the more northerly Bempton Cliffs amongst the reek and screech of birds, chiefly the majestic gannet, there were puffins galore. Too small to catch on my piddling, point-and-shoot, give-it-your-best-shot-with-a-struggling-zoom camera. But that was not the point of seeing them; the point of seeing them was to see them. (Sometimes, my photographing for posterity gets in the way of creating the memory in the first place through actually seeing the subject. When I notice that, I remind myself to simply look for a while as well.)
The puffins hurtle towards the cliffs like little jets and disappear from view before applying whatever braking mechanism they employ – maybe they just stop beating their wings so rapidly (up to 400 times a minute). Their wings are so stubby they actually swim underwater to catch prey. Even though they were just ragged specks in flight, I watched them for ages. Some non-flying individuals were conveniently positioned on a closer section of the cliff and easier to see.
To some extent, it didn’t matter how distinct they were. It was the being with them that mattered, not as a substitute for the fledged child but as part of the totem of our relationship. I enjoy the relationship. This was an unexpected way of being in it.
PS Gorgeous puffin pictures available at http://puffin-passion.deviantart.com/
Further thought How would our lives be subtly altered if we created or acknowledged a physical totem for each of our important relationships?