Six Questions: Stephen Rutt about Seabirds and Islands

My interview with British writer Stephen Rutt. His debut book The Seafarers: A Journey Among Birds is available in the Sea Library.

Photo above: Guillemots on the Farnes. Photo by Stephen Rutt.

“I stopped going outside. I stopped answering my phone. I resented speaking, resented breathing fumes and dust instead of air – a fuel rekindling the asthma in my lungs.” Twenty-two-year-old Stephen Rutt feels beaten up by his debilitating anxiety. He decides to leave London and to volunteer at a bird observatory on a far away island in the middle of the sea. Stephen Rutt spends seven months at North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory in Orkney. That’s where his first book is born: The Seafarers: A Journey Among Birds, published this Spring.

In The Seafarers author travels to many islands and different places of the United Kingdom in search for nine types of seabird, that breed there: Storm petrels, skuas, auks, eiders, terns, gulls, Manx shearwaters, gannets and fulmars. One of ten chapters is dedicated to vagrants, disoriented and lost birds. Stephen Rutt cannot help identifying with them, at least for a moment, and learning a lot too. “I’ll never abandon that hope or my faith in the wondrous, sense-defying, thrilling capacity that birds have of being lost and making that seem… OK.” Stephen Rutt cannot swim and he dreams of being able to fly like a bird. But being grounded and out there is what sets him free.

The Seafarers become a wonderful journey that kindles all senses. Birds are flapping out of the pages. As a true birder, as Stephen Rutt is, he doesn’t rely on his eyes and ears alone. He asks for a chance to sniff the Manx shearwater’s neck when on Skomer island, and he writes that it smells “faintly like damp stale fabric”. He touches birds he rings. Chapter about a night spent among Storm petrels is most poetic. “To have grown up and mostly lived in parts of the country affected by light pollution, I struggle to comprehend the infinity of a true night sky.” He wanders around with a red torch light on Skomer island, path is covered with toads.

The Seafarers starts with London and ends with returning to a new home, where Stephen Rutt’s second book takes shape. In the autumn of 2018 Rutt and his partner moved to a house near the Solway Firth in Dumfries, Scotland. As they settled into their new home thousands of pink-footed geese were arriving on the Firth from the Arctic Circle to make it their winter home. The arrival of huge flocks of geese in the United Kingdom is one of the most evocative and powerful harbingers of winter; a vast natural phenomenon to capture the imagination. From his new home in the north to further afield in wide open spaces of the south, Stephen traces the lives and habits of five of the most common species of goose in England. Wintering: A Season with Geese will be published this September. Stephen Rutt’s journey among birds continues.

The Seafarers: A Journey Among Birds. Photo by Beach Books Blog.

When did you fall in love with seabirds? What inspired you to write a love letter to them, your first book?

I am obsessed with birds and have been ever since I was fourteen. Growing up with this obsession – and being a shy, solitary sort of kid – meant when I wasn’t birding, I was flicking through the field guides, dreaming of birds. It started there: inland, indoors, dreaming of distant islands and coastlines. I remember when I saw my first skuas, auks and gannets, on a freezing autumn day in Norfolk. It was the field guide come to life, wondrously. Birds have a charisma that images can’t convey. To me, in that moment, nothing could have been better. Experiences like that tend to stick with you.

The inspiration for the book came from my time spent at the bird observatory in North Ronaldsay, Orkney. Before then I had lived in Stirling and London, both places that aren’t blessed with a coastline and where seabirds are only transient lost things. I hadn’t seen a seabird for a long time before Orkney. My relationship with them changed there. I was no longer just watching but monitoring: counting them, ringing them, willing them on in their breeding efforts against the cats and the cold, stormy spring. I was no longer just watching, but I felt I had become their midwife, champion and cheerleader. The book was born with those seabirds.

Arctic Tern on the Farnes. Photo by Stephen Rutt.

Your journey takes you to many islands in Britain. You love islands, you write. You even imagine being stranded on one. What an island means to you?

It’s hard to generalise about islands. They are all so different and unique, and while writing The Seafarers I felt it was important to visit as many different archipelagos as was feasible (juggling job, money, time, cat, partner). The Pembrokeshire Islands are completely different to those off the coast of Northumberland. You can see Shetland from Orkney and yet they are completely different.

Islands mean possibility to me. Not just ornithological – Britain’s wilder islands are all amazing for birding – but personal as well. I write this as someone who is not an islander, but my time on them has made me focus on the important things in life: the bare matter of existence and a life more closely in tune with the ebb and flow of nature, which isn’t necessarily a simpler or easier life. Some people might call this spiritual – I wouldn’t but then I’ve never really understood what that word means. I appreciate this is the perspective of a non-islander, of someone who only spent seven months living on one before circumstances dragged me back. If they hadn’t, I think I might never have left. To be stranded would be an expensive inconvenience. But being stranded feels like it does the way the U.K. grinds to a halt when it snows: a necessary reminder that we can’t completely shut ourselves away from the power of nature.

Storm petrel on North Ronaldsay island at night. Photo by Stephen Rutt.

Book starts with anxiety attacks in London. You ran away from the city and volunteered at North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory. How did your mind and body change during the seven months on Orkney’s most northerly island?

I got fit again – I can be pretty sedentary when given a desk. Instead I was walking or cycling every day (whatever the weather), fixing drystone dykes, painting walls, fixing bird traps, baking and bar work, as well as scrambling across rocky shorelines to find nests, ringing migrating birds, counting thousands of terns. My asthma improved for being active in the cleaner air again as well. But my mind changed the most. I was twenty-two but I felt beaten up by the world. Retreating to North Ronaldsay, I did a lot of growing up. I felt connected to the world again. I found a place that suited me, my introversion and my shyness. I touch on this in the book but just because it was this way for me, doesn’t mean it will be this way to all people.

What would you highlight as your most unforgettable encounter with a seabird during your journey among them?

The most thrilling seabirds are the most interesting. This means the most elusive, which are the ones in the most evocative surroundings. They are usually nocturnal as well. The night sky is amazing and it wasn’t until North Ronaldsay that I ever properly saw it: the milky way, the shooting stars, aurora borealis, a moon bright enough to walk without a torch. There is a humbling hugeness to a clear night sky when we don’t diminish it with our light. Or if it’s cloudy, the absolute blanket of darkness is special as well. Two nocturnal encounters particularly stand out in my mind. One, on Skomer Island, when I was sat by a standing stone, surrounded by toads, listening to the weird yodeling of Manx shearwaters and occasionally glimpsing them in flight or shuffling awkwardly down the path on legs designed for swimming, not walking. The other was at Mousa Broch, a 2,000 year old drystone building, built for a not-fully-understood purpose, on an uninhabited island off the coast of Mainland Shetland. The walls of the broch hum with the sound and scent of the storm petrels that nest within the gaps. The history of the broch can feel remote, but for me that distance vanished there.

Kittiwakes nesting on ledges at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Newcastle. Photo by Stephen Rutt.

You write “we need, more than ever, another Rachel Carson and a new Silent Spring for the Anthropocene, for the sea, for the birds that are filling their stomachs with plastics”. What does it mean to be a nature writer in times when nature is collapsing in front of our eyes?

I feel a responsibility to the species and places that I am representing. I feel we have an obligation to be accurate about the state of nature as we understand it, both scientifically and politically. This isn’t a modern opinion: in a country diary for the Guardian in 1968 William Condry wrote that to not write like this would be “grossly falsifying the picture”. I don’t want to do that. Bound up with this is being accurate about the threats that nature faces: exaggerating this and being unnecessarily pessimistic doesn’t help anything.

I also feel that beside this we shouldn’t forget the joy and beauty that nature gives us. Endless bad news doesn’t help anyone. Pessimism never converted anyone. Making people care and making people aware – that’s the thing.

Gannet colony in Shetland. Photo Stephen Rutt.

What voices have shaped you as a writer? And what advice would you give to anyone who is writing her first book?

Mark Cocker’s Crow Country was my introduction to nature writing. I bought and read it as a 16 year old being pulled in different directions by my interest in birds and books. Reading it I realised you could write beautiful sentences about an absolute obsession with birds. I wanted to do that. But Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac is the work of nature writing that I keep returning to above all others. Written in 1940s Wisconsin, his style and subject seems simple but it works alchemically on me. The book burns with a passion for the outdoors and an ecological awareness that was well ahead of its time. It is the one book above all others that makes me want to go outside, which is the ultimate accolade for any work of nature writing, I think. I find this question hard, actually. I read a lot – nature writing and not – and I also listen to a lot of music, watch sports, reality TV and serious TV. Things sink in. Influence doesn’t have to be conscious or come in the right medium to be important. I think this is a good thing.

As for writing a first book: don’t over think it. It’s hard enough without over thinking it, particularly with adjusting to the required length, and sustaining a narrative over that length. So think of it as a marathon: have a rough plan, pace yourself and just keep going. There will be crises of confidence (I had plenty of those) but you will survive them. You may feel like an imposter, a pseud or an idiot – I did all of these – but keep going. And when you’re done, your editor will become your best friend.

Stephen Rutt. Photo by Chris Rutt.