Wandering Star ; Two Hundred Years Ago, Samuel Taylor Coleridge Turned the Albatross into an Icon. Today It Is Threatened with Extinction by Fishermen Who No Longer Fear the Ancient Curse. but the Giant Bird Whose Heroic Travels Span the World Still Exerts a Fascination for Those on Land and Sea
Hart-Davis, Duff, The Independent (London, England)
It is dire news that albatrosses are threatened with extinction by long-line fishermen, who trail thousands of baited hooks behind their boats and inadvertently catch the long-range wanderers of the Southern Ocean. More power to the campaigners who yesterday, at the British Birdwatching Fair on Rutland Water, launched a drive to give them better protection.
There is no doubt that these are magical birds. Like the wind, their journeys seem to have no beginning and no end. They are thought to live for 80 years or more. They go ashore only to breed, and, once airborne, touch down on the water only to feed or sleep. The biggest species, Diomedia exulans, the Wandering Albatross, has the widest wing-span of any bird on earth - 12 feet. Superstition clusters round it: that every bird harbours the soul of a departed seaman, and that to kill one brings bad luck. Nevertheless, sailors once caught them for meat, used their hollow wing bones for pipe- stems, and made tobacco pouches from the webs on their feet.
But how is it that a bird that most of us will never see can so capture our imagination? How can we feel haunted by a creature that never comes within even a thousand miles of our own shores?
Much of the answer must lie in a single poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in which the grizzled seaman, with his "long grey beard and glittering eye", tells of the horrors that beset his voyage to the far south. The whole enterprise is damned when, with his cross-bow, he shoots the albatross which has been guiding his ship - and who can ever forget the scenes as the boat is becalmed, and its crew are stricken and die?
"Ah! well a-day! What evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung...
Four times fifty living men
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump
They dropped down one by one.
The souls did from their bodies fly -
They fled to bliss or woe!
And every soul, it passed me by
Like the whizz of my cross-bow!"
In the first volume of his magisterial biography, Early Visions, Richard Holmes describes how ideas for the poem began to take shape in Coleridge's mind during 1797, when he was living at Nether Stowey, in the shadow of the Quantocks. Central to the ballad is the notion of hospitality, "of making the pilgrim or stranger welcome and at home", and Coleridge himself wrote that "the Ancient Mariner cruelly and in contempt of the laws of hospitality killed a Sea- bird". Yet, strangely enough, it was a fellow-poet, William Wordsworth, who, as they were walking along the Somerset coast, suggested the central theme: that the Mariner should kill an albatross, and that the "tutelary spirits" of the South Seas should "take upon them to revenge the crime".
Coleridge immediately incorporated the idea - and even though his own sole experience of the sea had been one crossing of the Severn estuary at Chepstow, the hallucinatory images he created were so intense and horrific that they have fixed the albatross in the national imagination, and will fire the minds of generations to come.
Glorious though they may seem to us, the great birds have problems of their own. On the ground, with their short, heavy bodies, they are ungainly and ill-equipped for getting about. They nest in colonies, generally set back from cliffs to protect them from the wind, but although they can fly in and land by their nests, in order to take off they have to walk along tracks to launch- points on the cliff edge. In Desolation Island, one of the Jack Aubrey novels, Patrick O'Brian has his ever-curious Stephen Maturin visit a colony in the South Seas:
"The top of the dome was occupied by the great albatrosses, and here it was easier to walk; the grass was not so long, and the nests were well spaced out. …