Notes for a historical novel that I know I’ll never write…
An autumnal rush
Of winged migrants
Ascending to a great height over sea;
After many miles, the smell of land.
The birds descend like leaves on a gentle
Breeze through fog and darkness
(Those poor birds with any strength left, that is,
Those not chased and eaten by the gulls).
Dazzled and bewildered by the lantern beam,
They fly towards a distant lighthouse,
Exhausted. Yet attracted, like
Moths – or magnets? – to the candle flame.
The power of the lights is an equation, where
One unit equals a thousand candles
(Intensities to the nearest tenth of a unit).
The birds are equations too:
Velocity plus weight plus gravity’s pull.
And so one equation smashes into the other.
The birds slam against the thick glass with
Immense force – smash and fall,
Smash and fail, wave upon wave, again and again,
The keel of the breast bone
Flattened beyond recognition.
In just one night the lighthouse keeper
Counts three thousand birds killed this way.
He wonders about the nature of such an
Unnatural event. Is it a crime? Why here,
Why now, in this isolated spot of light,
At Lucifer Shoals or Coninbeg
Or Inishtrahull or Barrels Rock?
What species – redwing, thrush or rook?
When? Where? How and why? And
Why is a fixed light more fatal than a revolving one?
White light more destructive than red?
An autumn night more deadly than the spring?
Within such terrifying disarray
There must be rules, laws, meaning
In all this mess and blood and questions.
* * *
To follow these bird migrations will require
A visual network around the coast,
A fine mesh in which to capture facts.
For facts alone are what’s needed here,
Sightings and casualties, measurements
And calculations, not unfounded
Theories and fanciful imaginings.
To unlock the code, spread out a necklace
Of fifty-eight lighthouses and
Far-flung lightships, from
Howth Baily to Codling Bank,
Arklow South and Tuskar Rock.
Instruct the keepers in what to measure,
What to describe, what physical evidence
To collect, collate, corroborate.
…chaffinch, meadow pipit, water rail…
Note the species, hour, date and weather,
Wind force, direction and duration,
The candle power of each light.
Forward specimens for identification:
A leg and wing of any bird
Killed or disabled while striking glass.
Rare birds should be sent entire.
Cut leg off others.
If no boat comes, steep the birds
In methylated spirit – it will not harm them now.
Do not put more than one leg
And wing in each envelope, and
Forward the lot by post in larger package.
* * *
And so they arrive, the evidential envelopes
Of goldcrest, auk and blackbird,
Skylark, song and mistle thrush
As they brush the Atlantic shore.
For eighteen years the light-keepers
Go about their task, voluntarily,
With no payment (apart from postage
Costs of course). They send
Two thousand specimens, and
Thirty thousand observations.
Then from this accumulation of
Apparently useless facts and stats
(Or so these chaotic patterns first appear)
PROCEED WITH SCIENTIFIC CAUTION:
Distil the data, grapple with the
Evidence, ask questions, like any good
Scientist or journalist or detective sergeant.
What effect if any does the
Elevation of the lantern have
Upon numbers killed? What about the
Locality, species, the character of the light,
Spring versus autumn, dawn versus dusk?
Are the entries only at particular hours,
When the men just happen to be
In the lighthouse tower (or passing by)?
From the chaotic mass of information
A picture will eventually emerge.
On one axis: “Arrivals”.
On the other: “Departures”.
In one diagram: “Number of bird strikes”.
In another: “Lunar phases”.
Effect and cause, cause and effect,
The facts are finally brought to book.
(The book in question turned out to be “The Migration Of Birds, As Observed At Irish Lighthouses And Lightships” by Richard M. Barrington, published in 1900; only 350 copies were ever printed. I can’t say I’ve read every page.)