Saturday, 23 November 2013

Sheer Cliffs and Shearwaters: Interview with Richard Kipling

Rich and a Shearwater chick
It’s my pleasure to introduce guest blogger Richard Kipling, one of my fellow grad students (who now holds a PhD) and a fellow member of the Mature Students Union at Aberystwyth University (Wales) during my sojourn there in 2009-10.

Rich is the author of two recent books, his brand-new Sheer Cliffs and Shearwaters: A Skomer Island Journal, as well as El Caminante: On the Road to Field-of-the-Stars, a travel journal published in summer 2012, co-written with another writer-scientist, Damon Hammond. Damon was president of MSU and illustrator Michael Roberts was also a member of MSU while I studied at Aberystwyth University.

Rich’s scientific work naturally led to his writing about nature – coincidentally, one of my favorite types of creative writing:

For two years I was lucky enough to spend spring and summer on the island of Skomer, an internationally important nature reserve off the west coast of Wales (UK). I worked surveying the spectacular seabird colonies, watching the seasons change and experiencing the strange mixture of communal spirit and separateness that comes with island life. Sheer Cliffs and Shearwaters is the story of my first season on the island; a journal of work and life on this amazing reserve, a record of my reflections and experiences, and a taste of island history, from the mystery of the prehistoric Harold Stone to stories of more recent times.

The charismatic, inquisitive puffins which woo so many visitors are the instantly recognisable face of Skomer, but the island holds a richness of nature and history of which they are just one part. Skomer is a place where the elements retain a power to shape and challenge, and where the cycles of nature are uniquely close to the human community living in their midst. This cannot help but bring a new perspective on modern life and our relationship with the natural world; a perspective I try to describe and explore. I hope that my book captures some of the feel of the island, and a little of the beauty and atmosphere of a place that is special to so many people.

KR: I haven’t yet read Sheer Cliffs and Shearwaters  - I discovered that El Caminante is on Amazon US and just bought a copy! I hope SI will also be available here soon.

There are so many beautiful nooks and crannies in the UK that are fascinating both from an aesthetic as well as a scientific viewpoint. Please tell us a little more about your studies and your work.

RK: Here is a slightly adapted version of the preface to the book, with some info on Skomer and my work there:

I first visited the island of Skomer in the September of 2004, as part of a team undertaking a survey of the unique Skomer Vole. During that week of late summer sunshine I began to get a feel for what a special place the island is. It occupies a position that appears romantically distant even on the map, lying as it does off the southern tip of St Brides Bay, isolated by the turbulent waters of Jack Sound in one of the most far flung and beautiful parts of Wales. In 2011, an opportunity arose for me to return to the island as a Field Assistant with the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales; I jumped at the chance. ‘Sheer Cliffs and Shearwaters’ is an account of my time working on Skomer, of life in the small, transient community that occupies the island through the summer months, and of the natural events that mark the passage from spring to late summer in that part of the world.

Skomer Island is famed for its population of Puffins, but there is far more to the island. It has been an Iron Age settlement, a medieval rabbit warren, a farm and, latterly, an nternationally-important nature reserve. My role in 2011 was to carry out surveys of seabird breeding success, visiting colonies of Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and Fulmars each day, identifying territories, following each pair of birds in a survey plot from egg laying to the fledging of chicks, and recording successes and failures. I hope the following pages will show some of the natural and historical diversity of Skomer, a diversity which continues to make the island a source of fascination for naturalists, historians, archaeologists, and day trippers alike. This diary is also a personal reflection, tracing my own journey through the seasons on this remote and beautiful rock. I hope it passes on a little of the magic of this hidden treasure of the Welsh coast.'

And here's an abstract from the book; a reflection written at the Garland Stone in August:

‘Stepping out into the courtyard this morning, the softness of the air has a new edge, a coolness that is not yet a chill but betrays the changing season. For the first time the shifting colours of the island mark senescence rather than the appearance of new flowers. Crisp brown is gently spreading from leaf tips of Bracken and Bramble, darkening the yellow blooms of the Ragwort. Along the path through North Valley, the volunteers have been scything back the vegetation, and the scatter  of cut Bracken over the path is like a harvest.

At the stream, the Water Dropwort stems are brittle and dead, the carpet of Creeping Forget-me-not reduced to a few pale-flowered plants under the Willow leaves, themselves tarnished and fading. In the rabbit exclosures. the purple haze of heather flowers alone defies the coming autumn, and bees twist and turn between the inflorescences. The air is still, and there is a quietness; the island is peaceful after the frantic race to breed and fledge young, to protect new life.

Here on the north coast, a gentle breeze ruffles the pages of my notepad, the lobster-pot men work below me off the Garland Stone and the sounds of the boat’s engine and various clatters and mechanical noises drift up to me. From half a mile away, the hum of generators on the stationary tankers percolates the silence. Although it is eleven in the morning, the light has the quality of a late afternoon; the warmth of the sun is lessened by high cloud, and in the clear air, the fissures and colours of the rocks are picked out precisely. There is an air of waiting. Even the sea is tranquil, though in the tidal race the smoothness is an illusion that hides turmoil beneath.

Waves lap at the foot of the Garland Stone – hard now to imagine those spring storms, when spray crested its rocky peak. Glancing up, I can see the Irish ferry, my old friend, white against the grey of sea and sky, drifting through the stillness.’

KR: Beautiful. Thank you so much, Rich! I wish you many more natural adventures.

Sheer Cliffs and Shearwaters (Brambleby, 2013) is available [in eleven languages!] to order online from a number of outlets in addition to the publisher, including Amazon UK, and includes illustrations by Michael Roberts, like the illustration of a gannet in flight, below, and the Shearwater on the book cover.

Gannet in flight by Michael Roberts