The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt (Paperback Release)

It’s the paperback release date for The Seafarers: A Journey among Birds by Stephen Rutt, one of my highlights from last year’s summer reading and ultimately one of my top 5 nonfiction reads of 2019.

I’ve been asked to repost my review, and you get a bonus: I’m also posting part of the review my husband wrote for his blog last year, which opens with memories of seabird-rich trips he and I have taken. (Chris is a lecturer in animal ecology at the University of Reading, a Newbury Town councillor, and an off-and-on nature blogger.)

 

Rebecca’s review:

In 2016 Rutt left his anxiety-inducing life in London in a search for space and silence. He found plenty of both on the Orkney Islands, where he volunteered at the North Ronaldsay bird observatory for seven months. In the few years that followed, the young naturalist travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles – from Skomer to Shetland – courting encounters with seabirds. He’s surrounded by storm petrels one magical night at Mousa Broch; he runs from menacing skuas; he watches eider and terns and kittiwakes along the northeast coast; he returns to Orkney to marvel at gannets and fulmars. Whether it’s their beauty, majesty, resilience, or associations with freedom, such species are for him a particularly life-enhancing segment of nature to spend time around.

Discussion of the environmental threats that hit seabirds hardest, such as plastic pollution, make for a timely tie-in to wider conservation issues. Rutt also sees himself as part of a long line of bird-loving travellers, including James Fisher and especially R. M. Lockley, whose stories he weaves in. This is one of the best nature/travel books I’ve read in a long time, especially enjoyable because I’ve been to a lot of the island locations and the elegantly evocative writing, making particularly effective use of varied sentence lengths, brought back to me just what it’s like to be in the far north of Scotland in the midst of an endless summer twilight, a humbled observer as a whole whirlwind of bird life carries on above you.

A favorite passage:

“Gannets nest on the honeycombs of the cliff, in their thousands. They sit in pairs, pointing to the sky, swaying heads. They stir. The scent of the boat’s herring fills the air. They take off, tessellating in a sky that is suddenly as much bird as light. The great skuas lurk.”

 

Chris’s review

Scotland, 2005. That’s the trip I always cite as my ‘conversion experience’ as a birder. Perhaps the most memorable element was a boat trip out to the seabird colonies of the Treshnish Isles. Puffins were the draw, but other memories are more vivid. The sudden appearance of a great skua, powering through at low level causing consternation among other birds and excitement among birdwatchers. A minke whale blowing spray near the boat. The dark eye of a shag up close, inscrutably ancient, a pterodactyl that somehow survived to the present.

Puffins at Hermaness, Shetland. Photo by Chris Foster.

Captivated by the peace and isolation of Scottish islands and the incredible sights, sounds and smells of seabirds we did it all again the following year, heading farther north. We started on mainland Orkney, travelling overland by train before catching the ferry from Thurso. During a few days on Westray we experienced a small island community, intriguing to a child of English suburbia, though mostly I remember the rain and superb traybakes in the village café. Finally on to Shetland, making our way up to Hermaness, the very northern end of Britain on the island of Unst. Towering skua-ruled cliffs with the most inquisitive, trusting puffins I have ever known, no land between us and the North Pole. Some four years later we visited Skomer in Pembrokeshire, another famed seabird destination, but since then our visits to Britain’s seabird islands have, alas, largely dried up. I’ve caught up with seabirds on and off since but perhaps let the full wonder of seabirds and the magic of islands drift out of my life.

Great skua at Hermaness, Shetland. Photo by Chris Foster.

In that respect The Seafarers was a timely read. It takes the reader, via a series of personal journeys, through the major groups of ocean-going birds that visit Britain while also introducing a significant seabird location in each chapter. It’s an appealing blend of travel, descriptive nature writing, popular science and biography. Author Stephen Rutt balances a highly personal account of what seabirds have meant for him with some solid seabird facts which are well explained, detailed but not at all dense. Rutt is a young birder, naturalist and writer. Since I too am a bearded, balding young (though not nearly so young as he) birder who is not fond of crowds I was probably predisposed to enjoy his voice, and I did, but I also admired its freshness. He successfully avoids the ‘lone white male’ cliché often accused of dominating nature writing. The writing is accomplished throughout and Rutt’s prose is distinctive, concise yet poetic. The life-affirming, simple joy of birding shines through.

Fulmars on Westray, Orkney Islands. Photo by Chris Foster.

The particularly well-crafted short chapter on vagrant birds may be one of those rare pieces of writing to actually change my mind. Where I have lately been inclined toward the view that twitching exotic vagrants is “a morbid act, a premature wake for a waif that won’t last out the day,” as Rutt puts it, I was won over by his “faith in the wondrous, sense-defying, thrilling capacity that birds have of being lost and making that seem … OK.”

The Seafarers follows just two years after Adam Nicolson’s The Seabird’s Cry. The latter is the more complete (and global) treatment of seabirds, what we know about them and why they matter, but that’s not really a criticism of Rutt’s book. The Seafarers is as much an autobiographical account of the transformative power of birding as it is a compilation of seabird lore. What they have in common is that both books are love letters to this extraordinary group of animals.

Guillemots at Sumburgh Head, Shetland. Photo by Chris Foster.

Rutt has added his own unique chapter to the shared history of people and seabirds on these islands, as well as establishing himself as a writer with real promise. I look forward to seeing what he turns his thoughts to next.

[The answer was geese; see my review of Rutt’s second 2019 publication, Wintering.]

 

Note: The Seafarers won the Saltire First Book of the Year award and was longlisted for the Highland Book Prize 2019.

(Order from your local independent bookstore, Hive or Waterstones.)

15 responses

  1. I remember Chris’ review from when he posted it, and mentally marked down this as a must-read. I still haven’t, so thanks for the reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As Damian Barr likes to say, books are patient 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful to have both your reviews – lovely pictures and thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Some of the northern islands are heaven for birdwatchers.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. buriedinprint | Reply

    Ahhh, the puffin love! I’ve been reading Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic A Scots Quair trilogy this year, and there’s not a puffin to be seen. I should issue a complaint!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well that seems like an oversight. (I see Gibbon only lived to 33!)

      Puffins were my favourite bird long before I ever saw them in person. We’ve seen them even closer than in these photos. They are very funny and personable.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. buriedinprint

        He likely had a puffin trilogy all mapped out in his mind.

        Like

  4. Lovely to see these again and I enjoyed revisiting my own review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Did you ever get hold of his second book? Also recommended.

      Like

      1. I think they’re sending me the paperback when it comes out!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Added to the list. Perhaps to be read ahead of Nicolson’s book, which has been on said list far too long.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think that would be a good way round: this is more personal and anecdotal, and then if you are still interested in the particular species and their conservation issues, go deeper with the Nicolson.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I love this duo review! Beautiful pics too. My husband and I enjoy the BBC’s Shetland, for the views as much as the stories. Gorgeous spot I’d love to visit!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! A very special part of the world. We’d love to go back.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. […] (that happen to be from the same publisher): Under the Stars by Matt Gaw and The Seafarers by Stephen […]

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