Muttonbird Skies and Winter Refuge

“Today, I feel stronger, learning to live within the natural cycles of a day and to not expect too much of myself. As women, we hold the moon in our bellies. It is too much to ask to operate on full-moon energy three hundred and sixty-five days a year. I am in a crescent phase.”
― Terry Tempest WilliamsRefuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

I’m not sure when I realized I was migrating against the tide, against the conventional wisdom. It might have had something to do with the book I was reading about a month ago, Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams. Set around Salt Lake, Utah, it flows with the rhythms of migratory birds and seasonal flux. Maybe that’s why, when I began my drive down south to Hobart, I found myself searching the migratory paths of birds that call Tasmania their occasional home.

Pebbly beach, Hobart

Pebbly beach, Hobart

The first bird I came across was the Short Tailed Shearwater, commonly called the muttonbird. The muttonbird’s migratory path takes them from the small islands scattered across the Bass Strait, over the Pacific to Kamchatka and the islands of the Aleutian chain, which form an arc stretching west from Alaska.

Kamchatka, Aleutians . . . these are mysterious places to me. Places of imagined predators that skulk silently through the deep forest, whose pads fall silently on soft mosses. Ancient trees unnoticed, unseen. Grey beaches strewn with polished stones and driftwood, smoothed by the sea.

I’ve dreamed of paddling the Aleutian chain in a kayak*, visiting the windswept wilderness of Kamchatka. So far the closest I’ve been was catching the ferry down the inside passage from Skagway to Port Hardy. I remember sleeping on the open deck under a yellow-tinted plastic roof, lying out on my backpack and waiting for sunrise in the cold.  It rained almost every day. We stopped in Juneau, with it’s pretty wooden doors and flower boxes.  And there was Ketchikan, where rotting salmon swam upriver, almost dead, their skin peeling off their bones, driven by the biological imperative to spawn.  I stayed in an eerie converted church or hospital on a fold-out canvas cot.  There was another woman staying there with bleached blonde hair and a yellow tattoo of the sun on her bicep.

After spending the boreal summer up north, the muttonbirds cruise down the California coast for a summer holiday before crossing the Pacific and making for their austral summer nesting grounds off the coast of Tasmania.

Now the muttonbirds have fled their Bass Strait homes, heading north to warmer winds.  So why am I migrating south towards the unforgiving sleet and snow? Why am I ignoring the collective wisdom of so many birds?

Being not a bird, I am looking for my own refuge. The comfort of steaming tea from the pot as condensation builds on the windows. Pot-bellied stoves glowing orange in mountain huts. The gentle warmth of winter sun.  The fierce spray of wind and ocean on my face. I need this now.

Long Beach, Hobart

Long Beach, Hobart

It’s funny, I’ve always thought muttonbirds were kind of uninteresting. In fact I might have felt something approaching disdain towards them.  I think it’s something about the name, it seems somehow derogatory. Mutton.

But not anymore. Now they epitomise something that matters to me.  Some kind of balance. Harmonious and instinctive, free and settled.  Despite their itinerant lifestyles, despite the fact that their biology requires them to move, they seek and find stability within the flow. They find balance: periods of freedom, adventure, of pursuit and hardship and a return to safe harbour. They move with the natural rhythms of the seasons and find their peace within that flux.

When they return to their nests they generally occupy the same burrow, year after year. Home. When they mate, it tends to be with the same bird again and again. I don’t know why, but I like all that.


* Update 12 June 2015.  I just found out that two women traversed the Aleutian Chain in sea kayaks last summer  – the first people to achieve this remarkable feat this century.  Looks wild and amazing.


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