Tortoises with Zips

David Craig

  • The Snow Geese by William Fiennes
    Picador, 250 pp, £14.99, March 2002, ISBN 0 330 37578 4

William Fiennes has a deep-seated sense of home and what it means to be distant from it. Birth-house, parents, migrant birds: these fuse in his passage on swifts, for example, which ‘come back each year, in the last week of May’ to his old home somewhere in the south country – a fact which interested me, because I have recorded their arrival since the 1950s in Aberdeen on 11 May and in Cumbria on 6 May. His paragraph on their flight is beautifully eloquent and physical, and his general account of them is thorough, although his assertion that these non-stop flyers mate on the wing is something for which, according to the chief authorities (David Lack and Derek Bromhall), there is no firm evidence. I have watched them for nearly sixty years, at home in North-East Scotland and Westmorland, in the Dolomites and on Gibraltar, and from high up on the Blouberg in Transvaal, and their closest intimacy was the click of their beaks when they raced towards each other and kissed momentarily in midair.

Fiennes’s ‘interlude’ about the swifts is part of a plan that knits together his quest for the breeding ground of snow geese in North-East Canada and his alternation between dependence on home and an urge to hive off. Having Paul Gallico’s Snow Goose read to him at prep school, rediscovering the novella in a hotel when he was convalescing from a major operation in his mid-twenties: these experiences inspired him to follow the snow geese as they made their flight north-eastwards in the spring, from the Gulf of Mexico to Foxe Land on Baffin Island. He quickens to the birds, as his father had always done with the swifts: he ‘delighted in these aeronautics. “There’s joy in it,” he said. To him, the return of the swifts was cordial and fortifying, a sign that the centre was holding, that orbits were regular and true . . . Seasons were respecting their sequence. Time could be relied on.’ For young Fiennes there was the peculiar and nervy other factor that serious illness had destabilised him, making him hungrier for the enclosing warmth of home and also avid to ‘celebrate my return from the state of being ill’ by lighting out ‘for the new, for uncharted country’.

Although he is enthralled by the great circuits of the migrant animals, he doesn’t think of himself as peregrine. He nowhere takes up Bruce Chatwin’s suggestion in The Songlines that the human race is essentially nomadic. His own vision of the animals in their cyclical journeys is grounded in the Earth’s rotation and the physical programmes it instils in them. The globe tilts, the sun nears and recedes. Circadian rhythms (the Earth spinning on its axis) and circannual rhythms (the yearly orbit round the sun) govern the seasons: ‘Climates turn welcoming and inhospitable in regular sequence. Food supplies dwindle in one place even as they burgeon in another.’ The genes of migratory birds are implanted with ‘a calendar, an endogenous programme for fattening, departure, breeding and moult’. In experiments, caged garden warblers hop south-west while their free fellows are flying south-west across France and Spain, then hop south and south-east just when the free birds turn south and east over Gibraltar. Further caging and experimenting has shown how birds navigate by the stars. I’m glad to know these things, and glad that Fiennes relates them so exactly, even as I blench at the cruelty such experiments entail. Gratifyingly, they don’t always go according to plan. During the Second World War, Fiennes tells us, the US Air Force fitted Mexican free-tailed bats with incendiary bombs on strings. Cages of them were to be parachuted over enemy territory, then released. The animals would disperse to strategic sites, chew through the strings, and let go the bombs. It never worked. The bats flocked together instead of making for the targets and on one occasion ‘escaped their test range in the south-western desert and blew up several military buildings and an elevated gas tank in a nearby town’.

The Snow Geese is dense with facts. They come at us in swarms and blizzards and drifts. Sometimes you can feel that their function is to brace up the author as he grapples with new and alien surroundings. The Sportsman’s Restaurant in Eagle Lake, Texas, with ducks dangling from the ceiling fans and a stained-glass angel carrying a lamb. The horde of model tortoises collected by Eleanor, his hostess, made from wood and glass and brass and steel and bean-bags, tortoises with zips and tortoise jelly-moulds. The complete titles of many books about how to build your own cabin which he finds in a cabin west of Winnipeg. The seemingly exhaustive transcript of the reminiscences of Marshall the railroad hobo, who talked at him continuously for the thousand miles from Winnipeg to Churchill via Thompson. The furnishings, food and remarkable happenings in Dally’s Diner on Logan Street, Aberdeen, South Dakota, as our hero waits for the snow geese to leave the prairie sloughs and sail northwards on a following wind. Fiennes is an observant traveller, and the fruits of his journey are freshly flavoured, even when I wish that he had been more selective in writing up the contents of his notebooks. Alexander Frater’s Chasing the Monsoon (1990) is like Fiennes’s book in that it chronicles a journey corresponding to one of the Earth’s great sequential events. Frater never makes me impatient with an overload of quirky detail or a detour from the essential quest. As Fiennes waits and waits, for the birds to arrive and feed or to carry on northwards encouraged by spring thaw, lulls set in. He fills them with researched material on homesickness or nostalgia, or recollected material on the home from which he is migrating. This is relevant and carefully written, if rather flavourless. From an early stage I knew well enough why Fiennes was on the move while still harking back to home. To revert to it so often, while being vague on detail (what was his illness? how well did his health stand up to the stress of travel?), tends to blunt the special and original thrust of the book, that 3000-mile voyage of the great white birds.

Fiennes often meets them en route, of course. He arrives at Sand Lake in northern South Dakota on the same day as 340,000 snow geese. He sees them flying in from the south ‘in long skeins and echelons that crossed and undulated, or appeared, by a trick of angle and distance, to twirl in ropes and double helixes . . . or in interlocking chevrons like the insignia on officers’ epaulettes’, while their ‘high raillery’ made ‘a descant to the deeper, rougher honking of Canada geese roosting in the phragmites and cattail’. Then he has to stay put, from mid-March to the first week in April, hanging out with Michael, the Fish and Wildlife Warden, and Rollin the 82-year-old twitcher, just watching, feeling homesick, writing down Rollin’s reminiscences, leafing through the Gideon Bible in his motel room. If that is what some phases of the journey were like, well then, that is what must be told. Such passages, and there are many of them, don’t compare for me with the climactic 32 pages when he arrives at last on Baffin Island and caromes for many miles across the sastrugi, the snow ridges on the headlands and frozen bays, on the back of a skidoo driven by Natsiq and Paula, an Inuit hunter and his mother, to hunt the geese before the thaw makes the journey impossible.

A terrible irony enters the narrative at this point. I don’t want to defuse it for others by making it explicit here, although it creates an intriguing disturbance in the author’s relation to the geese and could have been dwelt on and evoked more intimately. At this stage the quest must either peak or peter out. The ideas and sensations inherent in the three-month trek are about to concentrate in an intense point. Fiennes walks up a granite hill to an inuksuk, an Inuit landmark made of piled stones. The only one I have seen was outside the craft shop in Churchill. The authentic ones are made to mark ‘the sites of deaths, murders, betrayals and acts of bravery . . . places where one should never sleep, places where human beings had been eaten, places of confusion and disorientation, and fearful places where travellers got lost. Some made whistling sounds when wind blew through them; some were healing arches where shamans effected cures.’ You might call them the furthest-north sculptures in the world – since Andy Goldsworthy’s ice carvings near the North Pole no doubt blew over some time ago. Fiennes’s description at this point is memorable.

Wind blew into my ear as if into a shell, making a sea sound. A pair of tundra swans flew north, at eye level, their long lancing necks tipped with black bills . . . Exhilarated, light-headed, I stood on the summit, next to the inuksuk, breathing deeply. Apart from the wind, all I could hear was geese: the faint halliard tinkle of distant flocks, the sharp yaps of nearby birds, the low electric thrum of beating wings.

At last the writer has put me in close touch with the nerve-centre of these epic migrants. Perhaps we should respect him for recording so honestly the longeurs and shortcomings as well as the epiphanies of his journey.