Bird Island Diary – April 2005

30 April, 2005 Bird Island

Some final thoughts

Some final thoughts before returning home…

After 906 days living on what might equate to some as little more than a wind swept rock in the middle of an illimitable seascape, it is time for me now to head northwards. The last two and half years in isolation has been a phenomenal experience and – believe it or not – passed by in the blink of an eye. The reader must forgive me if I digress somewhat from the traditional layout of the Bird Island newsletter and take this opportunity to write a little more personally.

Understandably, people in the real world ask many questions: Why on earth did you want to go down there? What has it been truly like to live in an enclosed community? Have you gone mad? Having almost completed my tour south I’m now in a better position to answer these sorts of questions. The motivations for undertaking such a venture and the experiences gained are very personal to the individual concerned and I can only speak about my own thoughts and feelings.

Humanity has, and always will have, a desire for knowledge. This attribute, coupled with a sense of adventure, first brought man to the Antarctic. No doubt, had present day infrastructure and resources been available to the early explorers, they would have taken advantage of them just as we do today. Nevertheless there is shift in emphasis nowadays, and although people who work in the Antarctic enjoy the challenge and the unsurpassed aesthetic qualities of the region, except for the likes of few modern day explorers like Ranulph Fiennes, I think few truly revel in conditions of extreme adversity. We are here to do a job, and that is collect scientific data to improve mans understanding of the global environment. We would be unable to perform our function as scientists if pushed to the absolute limits of endurance, and for this reason life is made as comfortable as possible. I for one, have no desire to lose any fingers to frostbite (though hardly likely at this South Georgia’s latitude) or develop hypothermia. My appetite for adventure and overwhelming feelings of satisfaction for living and working here are in no way diminished by this fact. Having said that, over and above the science, the chance to be one of only a select few to work in an unfettered, pristine wilderness had an enormous bearing on my reasons for accepting this job.

‘The thing that takes men on such hazardous trips is really not any thirst for knowledge, but simply a yearning for adventure. But just as an American businessman, having amassed a fortune, always try to make it appear that he never had any desire for money, but only wanted to set up an orphan asylum or get time to study golf, so a polar explorer always talks grandly of sacrificing his fingers and toes to science.’

H.L. Mencken, on reviewing Cherry-Garrards, ‘The Worst Journey in the World’

People’s attitudes and feelings are governed enormously by their surroundings to an extent where an individuals interpretation of what is ‘natural’ can differ markedly depending on their situation. Man is unquestionably the most successful species on the planet to date and until relatively recently, considered the natural world to be immutable and its resources limitless. Affinity with the natural world is undoubtedly augmented when living almost entirely immersed in what is truly natural from one days end to the next as we do here. Man is a sociable animal and thus lives within a society but such an enterprise requires that he be, for the most part, surrounded only by what he himself creates. One must be careful not to generalise, but in such an environment the true nature of things can easily get overlooked, resulting in one losing sight of the more fundamental aspects of life. Many times I have stood alone on this island and been swallowed up in an atmosphere of complete intoxication; a feeling that rarely presents itself when in the midst of purely human constructs.

‘And by animism I do not mean the theory of soul in nature, but the tendency or impulse or instinct, in which all myth originates, to animate all things; the projection of ourselves into nature; the sense and apprehension of an intelligence like our own but more powerful in all visible things. It persists and lives in many of us, I imagine more than we like to think, or more than we know, especially in those born and bred amongst rural surrounding, where there are hills woods and rocks and streams and waterfalls, these being the conditions that are most favourable to it. In large towns and all populous places, where nature has been tamed until it appears part of a man’s work, almost as artificial as the building he inhabits, it withers and dies so early in life that its faint limitations are soon forgotten and we come to believe that we have never experienced them. That such a feeling can survive in any man, or that there was ever a time since his infancy when he could have regarded this visible world as anything but what it actually is – the stage to which he has been summoned to play his brief but important part, with paint blue and green scenery for background – becomes incredible. Nevertheless, I know that in me, old as I am, this same primitive faculty which manifested itself in my early boyhood, still persists, and in those early years was so powerful that I am almost afraid to say how deeply I was moved by it.’

W. H. Hudson, ‘Long Ago and Far Away – A childhood in Argentina.’

When you live in such isolation with only a handful of other people you develop a very close bond with each other. Some may think that it must be quite lonely living through the cold winter months with only three other people to talk to day in, day out. I have never found this to be the case and if anything, I have felt lonelier walking around the centre of London. Despite being surrounded by hundreds of people in every direction there is little, if no communication and people rarely take an interest in what is going on around them. There is an overwhelming urgency to everything and for the most part, people keep their heads down, seldom making eye contact, and hurrying onto the next business meeting, or to catch a train that will rush them to their next engagement. When the mind becomes blinkered with the rapacious desire to consume, altruistic tendencies – which I like to think are inherent in everyone to varying degrees – can get forgotten; that is not the case when living in isolation.

The last two years I have spent emancipated on this island have provided a fascinating insight into man as a social animal. Is life in relative isolation really that inherently different from ‘real world’ living? No, I don’t think so, although perhaps in the absence of the extraneous clutter of the modern world (by that I’m referring to such things as material acquisition, the inexorable onslaught of marketing/ media, the ubiquitous celebrities etc) the picture is plainer and clarity of thought easier to attain. The social stresses and strains that are manifest among a group of personalities will, in many cases, be the same whether they are at work in an office block in the centre of London, or on a small island in the southern ocean. The old adage remains: You take yourself wherever you go. The difference is in how people react to them.

I think I have become a more tolerant person and developed a heightened social awareness. What is particularly interesting is seeing how people react to you with the passing weeks/months and whether your own perceptions of yourself concur. You learn a get deal about yourself and where your boundaries lie, what comes easily and what you may struggle with. Whether you find it easy or difficult to adapt to life in a small community in the absence of many real world frills, I think anyone who lives through the experience takes away a wealth of new understanding. Although, more socially demanding for a sustained period compared with many other environments (after all you can’t shut your own front door at night), it is one of refreshing simplicity and munificence.

It is time for me to wrap this up now and I look forward to returning to the world again (with all my mental faculties still intact I might add!). I’ll leave you with the with the poetic words of W.B. Yeats:

I will rise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin built there, of clay and wattles made:

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

‘Innisfree’, W.B.Yeats (1865 – 1939)

Many months from now when I’m in stuck in a traffic jam on the M25 or negotiating the London underground at rush hour, I will rise – if only in mind and spirit – and return to this wee island: My Innisfree. Unlike Yeats, the sounds will be not be of bees, but seals and penguins; and songs not from crickets, but South Georgia Pippits.

Bird Island newsletter part 2

I’ve made it to my final destination! After a fabulous 6 months on Signy Island, Bird Island will be my new home for the next 2 years and what a place to be – it felt like I was stepping onto the set from Jurassic Park! Strange terry dactyl-like birds (a.k.a. albatross and geeps) soar in the skies and the tussock rustles with growling furry monsters (a.k.a. seals) on a mysterious island shrouded in mist (a.k.a. mank!). Having completed my penguin apprenticeship on Signy with Mike and the Ad’lies, I’m now taking over the reins from Chris. A brief handover was all that our tight jolly-packed schedules would allow (Penguin people don’t normally go to Signy or sail around South Georgia) but I soon felt very much at home with the guys here all being really welcoming. Funnily enough, me made it 3 girls to 2 blokes – that would have been a BAS record but was soon counteracted by the supply of men-in-potatoes!

I met the Macaroni penguins briefly, but they soon all disappeared to sea following their moult so have been busy acquainting myself with the Southern Giant Petrel chicks that are readying themselves for fledging and of course the albatross, who themselves are quite spectacular.

The island has treated me to extremes even in the short time I have been here – glorious sunny days to climb La Roche followed by storm force gales, snow and rain. One evening, the combination of a high tide and extremely low atmospheric pressure left us wondering whether the builders would float away in the night as we rescued cargo from the approaching seas. We should have realised something was awry when over 500 Gentoo penguins hauled out around the base to escape the approaching rough seas.

Having the builders here means lots of birthdays so there have been some great Saturday nights out round at their house. To top the whole month off, a southern right whale visited us, just cruising around the bay in front of the base – wow!

Having been awarded my Junior Tussock Traversing badge I no longer take every step as a leap of faith, wondering how many more boggy bits I’d fall into and I’ve had time to look up and really start to look around this place. The diversity and sheer amount of life here is amazing, and for such a little island there is so much to see – cliffs and meadow, tussock and beaches, hills and rocky shorelines – and something lives just about everywhere.

Anyway, I’m not the new girl anymore – Tommo has arrived to look after us all this winter. He loves it so much that 2 and a half years on the barren white emptiness of Halley and he’s keen to winter on every base, starting here at BI. He also makes a mighty fine Kentucky Fried Chicken – more from The Colonel next month…

See You,