by Lynne Shapiro
Every so often my thoughts turn to Foula, strange Foula, where St. Francis—patron saint of birds—visited me, though I didn’t recognize him at the time. During news of recent storms in Europe, a film ran in my head of a single cow blowing over the darkening island, like a balloon on a string tugged every which way by whipping wind and sheets of rain. The most remote of British Islands, Foula sits twenty miles west of Walls in Shetland. In winter it is often cut off from the main island for weeks.
My interest in St. Francis, and then birds, began as two separate avocations. After moving to Manhattan, I made frequent visits to the Frick Collection, always stopping to see Giovanni Bellini’s magnificent painting, “St. Francis.” At the same time I rescued several fledgling sparrows, one of which lived free in my home for eight years. I named him Francis after both the saint of Assisi and the crooner Francis Albert Sinatra. Because of this bird, a friend thought I might like binoculars, and gave me a pair for Valentine’s Day. In Central Park, looking through them for the first time, I was awed by details previously unseen. I expressed my surprise aloud—”What’s that bird?”—and was answered by dozens who popped their heads from the bushes to answer, “Catbird.” From then on, I was an urban birder receiving whispered 5:00 a.m. phone calls: “Owl in the Shakespeare Garden” or “Red-tailed hawk in the Ramble.” I’d dress in the dark, find a taxi, and arrive to find dozens like me staring up at preening bird in a pine. Central Park, I learned, was a birder’s haven—an almost secret society that coexisted parallel to the rowers, joggers, and lovers. I frequently slipped into the Boathouse to pull a birder’s log from behind a niche in the wall to check out the recent sightings.
Birds led me to adventure. They got me out of the house and off concrete. Finally, they lured me to travel. I had no idea what would be expected of me on Foula, or of what the landscape itself would require. Newly married, my freedom to take on this solitary endeavor symbolized the strength of our marriage and vision for a life together, as individuals. Foula was also important because I wondered if I’d rather be an ornithologist than the high-heeled Madison Avenue art historian I was.
Like an athlete in training, I walked Manhattan in hiking boots and with a heavy backpack, repeating the mantra, “Adventure means being open—beyond what one prepares for.” I prepared for my adventure, nonetheless, by studying Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe, shopping for gear, and plotting ways to travel light. I was leaving behind one island for another. Goodbye New York, with its energy, style, and culture emanating out in concentric waves to the world beyond. Hello Foula, land of no amenities or hotels or restaurants or stores—but spectacular scenery and the unrivalled opportunity to be close to enormous numbers of pelagic birds.
I flew to London, then Edinburgh, where I was stuck for a night due to weather. I flew north to Lerwick, Shetland, where I boarded a small “budgie” plane at Tingwall Airport for the 15-minute flight over open water to Foula’s airstrip. When I landed, I felt I had arrived at the end of the earth.
On board were other researchers. We were welcomed by a gentleman who told us simply to walk to the end of the island, north. As we bent to gather our packs, the plane revved its engine and lurched into the air behind us. Instead of heading toward the mainland, however, the pilot banked the plane toward us, flying so low that we instinctively dropped to the ground, hearts palpitating. “Welcome to Foula!” he laughed, and was gone.
Four miles later, we arrived at “Ristie,” a 300-year-old croft house, having passed the only vehicle on the island, a mail van. Communal cooking and living: no private rooms, no hot water. An inscrutable peat stove for cooking and warming shoes and socks. I was relieved to get a bottom bunk, where I deposited my belongings and stepped outside. The house was near a sea cliff. Below was a spectacular arch, the Gaada Stack, rising 126 feet from the water like a fabulous letter A. There were no trees. No shrubs. Birds were everywhere—on the land, on the cliff edge, hovering, diving, floating; a litany of bird calls carried on the wind. The land, clothed on all sides by sea and sky, seemed boundless and freeing. Joy filled me as I heard the “vociferous welcome of the birds,” which St. Francis called his “brethren.”
But the days were not easy. Walking the island’s uneven terrain was exhausting—yet Dr. Robert Furness, “the professor” who led the research, was tireless. After dinner it would have been lovely to stay inside, warm, but the neverending daylight meant we could conduct field research at any hour. Foula is so far north (just shy of the 60th parallel which passes through Cape Farewell, Greenland, and Oslo, Norway) that in summer the sun never entirely sets; instead of darkness there is an eerie twilight. While some found it difficult to sleep, the light reminded me of the city at night, out my window back home.
Most evenings, we’d tramp heavy cannon nets over the rough terrain and set them off at the “club” site where we would capture a good number of great skuas (Stercorarius skua) or bonxies as they are called locally. We would weigh, measure, and then ring or band them. If they were already banded, we’d update information on individual birds. The club was where the teenage birds hung out, mated indiscriminately, laid eggs—all while awaiting the prime sea ledge real estate where they would establish permanent nest sites.
Pelagic birds, what a cast of characters! Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) spew a vile liquid that strips competing birds of their waterproof protection, often leading to death. The liquid’s foul odor can’t be scrubbed off a birder’s flesh. It may stink for months. Bonxies are thick with fat for buoyancy and will knock out anyone who comes too close to their nests; I stuffed a small towel into my hood so any blows would miss my head. We witnessed the trimmer Arctic skua’s (Stercorarius parasiticus) “piratical, aerobatic chase of gulls and terns” (as noted in the field guide) daily. As well, these hawk-like seabirds regularly feigned broken wings to lure us from their nests.
Thankful to be there in the early summer when the birds thrived, I was spared witnessing the bird deaths that would overtake the island in late summer. There were simply not enough sand eels to feed the colonies’ fledglings. Birds that fed close to the water’s surface suffered most. Deep-diving birds fared better. But many of the colonies were utter failures. None of the Arctic tern chicks, I later learned, survived that year. Regardless, the birds return to the place of their birth to breed. And that’s why we’re here. It is estimated that at least ten percent of the world’s seabirds are endangered; seabirds are indicators of the abundance of fish and the health of the ocean. The data our teams collect help scientists and local conservationists to understand what steps might be taken to ensure future breeding success of Foula’s bird colonies.
After a few days on Foula, Professor Furness announced we would descend a crevice in the earth known as the Sneck o’ da Smallie (The Smallie being a Norse word for a mystical beast who lived in the Sneck), giving us access to the sea ledge and different colonies of birds. He also received word that a colleague had recently died climbing similar sea cliffs. I was apprehensive. I’d already taken my turn as cook for a day, so this wouldn’t provide an excuse to stay back at the croft house. Then again, I didn’t want to miss seeing puffins up close, or the chance to hold them. The team surmised that, as a result of his friend’s death, the professor would take fewer risks with his volunteers.
To get to the Sneck we walked a good two-thirds of the island, almost back to the airstrip, veering toward the western coast. We would have passed the Sneck without ever noticing it. You had to know where it was to find it. Only when we were right on top of the cleft, the 200-foot opening in the earth, could we see it. As one team member after another disappeared into the Sneck, a panic arose in me. My fear came not from any anticipation of what I might actually face in there. What I feared most was not being able to contain myself among people I hardly knew. Alone with the professor, I told him I wouldn’t descend. “Nonsense,” he replied—he’d be at my side the entire way. When I’m frozen with fear I often latch onto someone I’d never trust under different circumstances. Here was the professor, a handsome Englishman, not particularly warm, without any noticeable sense of humor; but I took his arm because I was too scared to do otherwise.
I found myself within a windless, strangely vertical, architectural jewel. Lined with moss, the Sneck was lit by a green magnificence. Ferns grew within this bifurcated heart and nowhere else. Wrens darted about, tiny compared with the bulky birds above. Here, in the middle of the earth, I felt safe, ecstatic. Never having rock climbed before, I easily pushed off the sheer walls and shimmied through the narrowest part of the Sneck—a claustrophobic’s nightmare. A dead cow, snagged on debris, was suspended above; I thought about the slippery sea ledge and my anxiety returned. I vowed that if I would only make it back up alive, I’d refrain from any complaining the rest of the trip.
The Sneck opened onto the sea ledge; the ocean was at eye level. If anyone fell, the current would carry her; it would be impossible to climb onto the boulders from the icy water. My dry Swiss boots gripped the wet rock. Everyone else had wet shoes and cold feet; Gore-tex gear, we learned, doesn’t repel saltwater and, on Foula, saltwater accompanies every gust of wind.
My legs were shaking from the climb, and I was happy to stop for lunch. Though my sardine sandwich was wet, I ate it without complaint, thankful for the calories. Over the next few hours, the team weighed, measured, and banded breeding razorbills (Alca torda), their distinctive thick black bills marked with white streaks; guillemots (Uria aalge) with elegant white eye spectacles during breeding season; noisy and smelly shags (Phalacrocorax aristolelis), easily confused with cormorants; and puffins (Fratercula arctica) with their colorful parrot-like beaks and decorated eyes.
Our work done, we re-entered the Sneck. It became apparent that it’s not as easy to climb up what one jumps down. The professor had led many research teams into the Sneck, but perhaps never with someone under five feet tall. At first, all I needed was a simple push off the professor’s knee. I was distressed by having to put my full body weight on him. By the end of the ascent, I found myself standing, literally, on his head. No longer embarrassed, if ever I was going to get out of the Sneck, this was how I’d do it.
By the time my hand reached the land above and I pulled myself out, I was exhausted yet thrilled. My muscles ached with the memory of the climb for days. As a result of our contact with shag nests on the sea ledge, almost everyone picked up ticks, crawling or embedded. Everyone except me, apparently.
Other than the field guide, I’d brought one book to read: a biography of Saint Francis by Henry Green titled God’s Fool. I had resisted the temptation to read it before I arrived. The problem now, however, was that the book was unimaginably boring. Every night I settled in to bed and read Saint Francis renounces his wealth, Saint Francis gives away his clothes, Saint Francis kisses a leper and another leper and another. Danielle Steele it wasn’t. After several nights, I admitted I didn’t like the book and would probably never finish it. I was done with Saint Francis for now, or so I thought.
One evening Isobel Houlborn came to dinner. Isobel was the island’s unofficial cultural historian. We were fascinated as she spoke about Foula’s music, language, and mysterious currency. She told us about Michael Powell’s The Edge of the World, filmed on Foula in 1931. She told us about plantigrubs—the round recessed gardens surrounded by stone walls. She explained that her husband was the island’s weatherman and took readings from his instruments several times a day, which he phoned into the mainland. The Houlborns raised a rare variety of coulored Foula Shetland sheep. Isobel knitted navy blue Foula sweaters unique to our croft house. The ancient pattern had been created to help identify anyone who might have drowned at sea. Each family on Foula had a different pattern. Then Isobel said, “Where you’re staying, right here on this part of the island, there was once a leper colony.” The words I had read the night before came back to me: “Saint Francis dismounted and embraced the leper... the crowning moment of his conversion!” What I had deemed irrelevant and dull yesterday, had become instantaneously significant.
Bonnie Fancher was a fellow researcher. A high school science teacher from Rising Sun, Indiana, she was plain, with a comfortable drawl. The first day, we both drew straws to cook for the team. We laughed when we realized the peat stove had a single unmarked dial that spun round and round. We managed to make dinner anyway. Bonnie showed me how to make pineapple upside-down-cake. We talked for hours and became instant friends.
It was with Bonnie that I counted the puffin colony while leaning over the Kame’s 1,200-foot drop. I can’t get close to a subway’s ledge, but here I inched closer, over several days, until I could finally look over. It helped that the earth curved up at the highest spot, gently, so I could rely on gravity to keep me on land. We measured distances between nests and stayed up counting how often a pair of Arctic skuas fed sand eels to nestlings over a 24-hour period.
I noticed Bonnie hardly slept, and was concerned for her. She told me she wanted to wander the moors at night looking for wild Shetland ponies, and that I shouldn’t worry. Then she took me aside—not to make me sad, she said, but because she wanted me to know that good things do happen. Five years earlier, she had been diagnosed with cancer and was told she had but a year to live. Tonight, on Foula, it was her 35th birthday.
Leaving Foula was no less adventurous than our arrival. About to give up my seat to a local, the professor suggested I rethink my altruism. The weather was changing; this might be the last flight for some time, even weeks. I climbed onto the plane beside the pilot and strapped myself in before closing the door. We took off in heavy fog, flying only feet above open ocean to the mainland.
The day before we departed, two new research assistants arrived on Foula and left to spend the day on their own. Toward evening they returned to our wee housie with a winter wren (Troglodytes troglodytes). I snapped a photograph of the tiny reddish-brown bird just before they released it.
Back in New York, under the amber lights of a friend’s darkroom, I shuffled through the contact sheets of my hundreds of Foula photographs, and selected one to print. I watched as the contents of the photograph emerged in the developer tray. I saw the wren in the foreground, eager to see how it looked enlarged, but I was unprepared for the man in Franciscan robes who appeared beside the wren. Saint Francis—who lived with animals, worked with his hands, and cared for lepers—had somehow appeared in my photograph. He’d stood directly in front of me on the island but, focused on the bird , I hadn’t seen him there.
Why was this photo, the last I’d taken on Foula, the one I chose to print? The unseen was an integral part of my experience on Foula. Bonnie’s cancer, the one-time leper colony, the deaths of birds I was spared seeing—even the Smallie, unseen but present. In The First Life of St. Francis, written four years after Francis died in 1226, Thomas of Celano wrote, “Finally, he called all creatures brother, and in a most extraordinary manner… he discerned the hidden things of nature with his sensitive heart.” My murky photograph of a bird and a man became a representation of the enigmatic island. Memory is compartmentalized, like an island, and Foula has transformed over the years from a real place I actually walked, end to end, into a mystical memory. This photograph captured a spirit of place we are only sometimes lucky enough to see. Strange, primordial Foula, eternal landscape of intense hope.
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