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11 october 2014

When I was eleven, I saw a huge gull on top of a disused pile stuck into the sands of the Jersey Shore. It was so big that for years I was sure I had seen an albatross. According to Graham Barwell, I was almost certainly wrong about this. But then again, I was eleven.

Almost certainly wrong; but Barwell, in the Reaktion Animal Albatross, notes that "live birds do turn up [in the North Atlantic] occasionally and may stay for many years" (9). Nah, I was wrong. Albatrosses are Southern Hemisphere creatures. As with penguins, it was a long time before Europeans encountered them. But it didn't take long for the big birds to impress themselves upon the European imagination.

When I see the word "albatross" I think of Monty Python first, Samuel Taylor Coleridge second. Barwell briefly mentions John Cleese selling ALBATROSS in the cinema, but spends an entire chapter on Coleridge, and refers to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" frequently thereafter. It seems that Coleridge was not 100% clear on exactly what the heck an albatross was. Barwell reproduces several instances from the history of illustrating the "Rime" that show the problems Coleridge's imagination (or was it his fancy?) gives rise to. An albatross, for instance, is much too big to hang around your neck – so the more scientifically-accurate illustrators find themselves giving the Mariner a pendant bird big enough to hide behind. That scale of things certainly gives the Albatross some gravitas, but it tends to impede the Mariner's shipboard activities far beyond the symbolic register that Coleridge aimed for.

Of course, we are not talking about one of the highly realistic items of English Literature here. Few wedding guests have ever beat their breasts upon hearing the loud bassoon, and I doubt if even Wordsworth used the word "Eftsoons" very often. Shooting the albatross is a figure of speech for perverse drives, irredeemable guilt, and inescapable destiny. But Barwell argues that the "Rime" may have had a literal influence on animal-rights advocacy. Coleridge hadn't studied nautical attitudes toward albatross-shooting, and a good thing, too. Late-18th-century sailors were fairly blasé about shooting the birds – though their preferred method of taking albatross was to fish for them with line and hook. (And then make them into a tasty gumbo.) In fact, it was only after the "Rime" became well-disseminated via the British school system that killing an albatross became a taboo.

The same factors that make the albatross evocative make it, so far, relatively viable – at least as far as endangered seabirds go. The birds range in remote oceans and breed on little rocks where nobody wants to travel. (Though that also means that enterprising hunters have sometimes cleaned out remote populations after stumbling upon them.) At one point in the late 19th century, Western demand for albatross skins and feathers was so high that some locales were depopulated. Albatross eggs were collected by the thousands to feed the photographic industry's appetite for albumen – meaning that many early documentary photographs of albatrosses were printed using the whites of the birds' own eggs. Albatrosses are hardy and adaptable, but they are also long-lived, large predators that breed slowly. Such creatures are always among the most vulnerable in any given ecosystem.

The albatross figures only sparingly in Western art and culture, aside from Coleridge and Cleese. Barwell points to the symbolic importance of the birds for indigenes of the Southern Hemisphere, though, from New Zealand to Tierra del Fuego. The albatross has appeared as a symbol of grace and power, in activities ranging from sculpture to military iconography. But there is an odd threshold beyond which the albatross seems ungainly. One term for the smaller species is "gooney," and the birds' lack of fear of humans (again they are like penguins in this respect) has caused a certain amount of conflation with the dodo and other too-trusting animals in human imaginations.

There are some amazing and hard-to-describe photos in Albatross, such as a group shot of South American Yaghan people playing "the albatross game" (which involves kneeling and flapping your arms, though I'm not sure how you win); and a pre-WW2 image of transpacific air passengers playing with albatrosses at the "Gooneyville Lodge" for stopovers between California and China. I won't clip any of them here. Buy the book and see for yourself :)

In golf, a good score against par is a birdie; better is an eagle, and the best that is typically plausible is called an albatross. And it makes sense, because an albatross is bigger and stronger than an eagle. But there's a point beyond which all that weight and power is just a burden around one's neck. Shoot an albatross once, and you may never live the experience down.

Barwell, Graham. Albatross. London: Reaktion, 2014.