Spectacled Cormorant

wordplay-invite-a5In November 2011, lovely Rebecca of Wordplay fame asked me to write about a piece of art,  as part of a spoken word event at an exhibition called Ghosts of Gone Birds.

There must have been hundreds of pieces in that exhibition. Paintings, sculptures, drawings. A Great Auk knitted by Margaret Atwood. I could have chosen anything to write about.

Luckily for me, Rebecca chose for me. She sent me these images of a table turned artwork:

Anna Kirk Smith_Spectacled Cormorant
c. Anna Kirk-Smith

Anna Kirk Smith_Spectacled Cormorant_Vitus Detail










I wrote back, not quite understanding – am I meant to write about Vitus Bering? She replied – no, that’s just a detail from the table. Up to you what it inspires you to write…

The artist, Anna Kirk-Smith, had created a piece based around her chosen bird, the Spectacled Cormorant. I looked it up, and found it had been first described by a naturalist called Georg Steller in 1741, whilst taking part in an expedition led by Vitus Bering.

Bering Island from space, where Vitus Bering's crew spent 10 months.
Bering Island from space, where Vitus Bering’s crew spent 10 months.

I did some more digging. The bird was found and described by Steller on a tiny, uninhabited island, where Bering and his crew had been shipwrecked on their journey home. They spent nearly a year there, fighting scurvy and a brutal winter, while Steller tried to balance keeping them alive with doing his own research.

What struck me most was the image of Vitus Bering, burying himself in sand in an effort to keep warm, slowly dying, the climax of an expedition which seemed as breathtaking for its ineptitude as its scale. He had left his wife and two young children in Siberia. As Bering lay there, they were making their way back to St Petersburg, a journey of thousands of miles, without him.

I wrote an 650 word piece in the voice of Vitus Bering, writing a letter to his wife, Anna.

Reading at the Ghosts exhibition, next to Anna Kirk Smith’s table.











After the reading, I kept thinking about that story. It seemed incredible I had never heard anything about before. It would make such a great novel, I kept thinking. Surely someone’s going to write it some day.

I didn’t want to do it myself. At first, I didn’t even consider it. I’d never intended to write historical fiction, or fiction based on true events. I knew nothing about boats, the eighteenth century, the history of navigation. I had never been to Russia, let alone Kamchatka. But gradually, that feeling that someone should write the book turned into anxiety that someone else would do it first.

the Spectacled Cormorant
the Spectacled Cormorant

I remember the exact moment I decided to do it.  I was on the phone to my mum, feeling down about various crappy things which had happened that year. I could tell she was tiring of my sadness, wondering what else she could say to help. It popped into my head, that idea, and I felt instantly lighter as I said it. ‘I think I’ll turn that Bering thing into a novel.’ I could hear the excitement, the relief, in her voice as well as mine.

Since then, I’ve spent two years researching Vitus Bering’s story, and those of his crew. Everything about that first piece has changed. (It was a bit of a blow, for example, to find out that the spectacled cormorant didn’t fly, and then a relief to read Steller’s opinion that this was probably more from disinclination than physical impossibility).

At the anthology launch do, a bit pink cheeked with free wine.
At the anthology launch do, a bit pink cheeked with free wine.

It’s now found a home in a lovely anthology of the project Bloomsbury published last year.

It’s strange to read it again, knowing how much has changed. But it’s nice to remember where my book started – and I’m so grateful to Rebecca and Anna for, however unintentionally, giving me my story.


 Spectacled Cormorant

We have found land. After dreaming of your feet next to mine when I stand on dry rock again, there was no joy as our broken vessel brought us safely in.

This is a lifeless place. The twenty nine of us left feel always that we are intruding on its silence. Even the birds are quiet; they circle above our heads, wings to the sun, and I envy their view. They cannot know what it is, to be unmapped in this great sea. All we know is that we came from the west, and we must return that way.

Some of the men are trying to rebuild our ship, dragging pillars of rotting wood along the sand and piling them high as if they could make a raft to heaven. Always, as they work, the cormorants are circling.

A few weeks ago, the first shot was fired. A sound this place has never heard before, and the bird came spinning through the air towards us, its wings arched out behind it.

It landed far along the beach. We went to meet it; some of the men were cheering, they have not tasted meat for days. It lay on its side in a hollow of sand, one black wing still moving, as if to feel the air through its feathers again. Its belly was rising and falling like a fish on land. I could see into its unlidded eye, black and glassy.

Then a great wind came – the weather here is filthy – and lifted its feathers into the air, and I thought of you on the shore as we said goodbye, and whether you found somewhere warm to spend the winter.

One of the men stepped forward and prodded it with the butt of a rifle, and then it was just meat, its feathers ripe for plucking, and our mouths hung dryly open at the thought of a fresh meal.

We wrap them in clay and bury them, a sombre rite; then they are baked in the hollow of the earth and resurrected, each one feeding three men with ease. I wish I could describe to you their sour flesh, but we have tasted nothing but salt meat and biscuits for so long, our tongues have lost their senses.

We brought down many more that day, and in the weeks which followed, and still the skies are full, and we can eat without rations.

I have begun to dream of them at night, in my wooded shelter, as the storms break through the timber. Their shadows crossing ours, their lidless eyes which see everything I want to see; the places where the continents meet, or fail to meet, how far we are from home, the unmapped parts of you.

I dream of your hand anchored in mine, then letting go, raised above your head as I diminish into the east, the green land shrinks into an envelope of sea and sky, and you are taking off, rushing into air and clouds.

They brought me cormorant meat today and I could not eat it. I cannot even watch them fall. Steller is already talking of the notes he will send back to the Academy, the papers he will read. He has been cataloguing every creature he can find, sketching its anatomy, observing its behaviour, then storing the carcasses and skeletons for more research – which the crew are reluctant to allow. They are more than meat, then; they are a piece of nature to be mapped and understood, to be brought down. Steller’s cormorant, he would have them be called.

You told me on the shore that you were mine,that you would wait. I hope that you will not. I hope the cormorants will stay in the sky, that the two continents do not and will not ever meet, and that every trace of us, the shadows we have brought here, will diminish.

‘You can hear him? Sarah, I’ve started seeing him.’

Georg Steller, protagonists, fact and fiction

In late 2011, after a series of odd coincidences, I came across the story of Vitus Bering’s final voyage, the eight months between 1741-2 his crew spend deserted on a tiny island in the North Pacific, and thought there might be a story in it.

Vitus Bering (although, this probably isn't actually him..)
Vitus Bering (although, this probably isn’t actually him..)

Bering was the protagonist, of course, surrounded by a supporting cast. His Leuitenants, Waxell and Khitrov, who seemed always to be conspiring against him. Hessleburg, the aged sailor who should never have had to go through that final, terrible winter, and boys who would now be called children, but then were boatswains, mates and trumpeters. And a scientist, the Darwin figure, the ship’s doctor, naturalist and token landlubber, Georg Steller.

From the very start, Steller was the most vivid of the secondary characters. He was the fish out of water to identify with, the guy whose priorities seemed the most human; keep everyone alive, find out where they were. Explore.

A lot of what he wrote has survived, which helps, and all of it so infused with his character, his stubborn, vain, impatient, hopeful energy, you instantly feel you know him.

Gradually, his voice grew louder, until I let him share the narrative. For a while, Bering and Steller told their stories alongside each other, until Bering could no longer compete. The book became Steller’s, completely, its structure shaped by the course of his life.

The Bering Bookshelf
The Bering Bookshelf

For two years, he was a near constant presence in my life. I read his diaries, plotted out his life on the walls of my room, followed him to St Petersburg, imagined following him much further than that. I dreamed up conversations with him, what he would have eaten, the tone of his voice, his expressions and mannerisms.

I learned from him – about a period of history I didn’t know, a journey I couldn’t imagine, a disease I’d never considered. How to survive on your own, how to live through cold, illness, suffering, loneliness, fed by nothing but ambition, hope, and the odd sea cow steak. I felt slightly sick as I read the bare facts of his death, the grim details of his burial.

It got to a point where friends would casually ask how he was doing, what he was up to, if he was with us on nights out (writers are very accepting of each other’s oddities.) When I wondered if it was all getting a bit weird, if I was cracking up, a friend replied  ‘You can hear him? Sarah, I’ve started seeing him.’

Of course, it was never really him. The Georg Steller who lived between 1709 and 1746, the George Steller who was really there with Bering, who really made that journey, isn’t my Steller. Characters, however based on truth, are always fiction in the end.

But at some point during the writing of his life, my own imagined version became more real. Maybe that has to happen, to fictionalise the truth. How else do you edit what really happened into a plot which makes its own, internal sense? How else do you convince yourself you have the right to stories which were never yours to tell? For those two years of writing and researching and rewriting, Steller was entirely mine.

Now my book is, for now, out of my hands, and he’s real again, suddenly very far away. I’m left with the facts of his life, which anyone could read about. His own words. Maybe they account for why I fell so hard for him, why he insinuated his way into a book that was never meant for him.

Here are some of them:

1. When Georg Steller was born, on 10 March, 1709, he showed no signs of life. A friend of the family spent ‘several hours’ wrapping him in hot blankets, changing them when they cooled, until ‘to the utmost astonishment of all present, the apparently inanimate baby gave out a loud cry and thereupon recovered completely.’

An attempt to sum up the scale of Steller's journey.
An attempt to sum up the scale of Steller’s journey.

2. He left his German home at 20, and never returned. I’m not sure anyone has ever done the maths, but during the course of his life, he travelled well over 7,000 miles, across three continents, most of it on foot, dogsled, horseback or by boat.

3. ‘My wife is much too brazen, and recently demanded perforce 400 rubbles at once because she fancies that in Siberia straw is cheap and snow melts on the tongue….I have quite forgotten her, and fallen in love with Nature.’ (Letter to Gmelin, 1739)

4. In 1740, whilst hanging around in Kamchatka after Vitus Bering had refused to give him a job on his ship (Bering later reconsidered) Steller founded a school for the native people. I would have loved to find a way to include this in the book, but there wasn’t space. And, to be honest, I still can’t understand how he found the time.

5. He is the first non native to have stood on Alaskan soil.

Bering Island from space, where Vitus Bering's crew spent 10 months.
Bering Island from space, where Vitus Bering’s crew spent 10 months.

6. He seems to have had scurvy figured, six years before James Lind’s controlled dietetic experiments showed citrus fruits were an effective cure. Steller did his best to convince Bering and his crew to let him gather and store antiscorbutic plants, but they weren’t having it. In the end, he saved what he was able to collect for his closest friends. He is probably the first ship’s physician to have successfully treated scurvy.

7. ‘[I am] strong, healthy, and driven by an overpowering desire, like a rushing torrent.’ (Petition to the Governing Senate, requesting permission to continue his journey, 1740.)

8. In June 1742, after eight months of hardship, near starvation and surviving one of the world’s harshest winters in holes dug into the ground, Steller, with the help of the surviving crew, caught a sea cow and carried out a detailed dissection of it.

Steller's Sea Cow
Steller’s Sea Cow

The sea cow was up to 30 feet long, weighing more than 3 tons. He carried out the dissection on the beach, in constant rain, with one or two unwilling assistants. His is the first, and only full scientific description of a creature which was extinct less than thirty years later.

9. ‘I desire nothing more than that, after I have explored Siberia, the authorities may think well to intrust to me the exploration of the deserts — provided no one else undertakes it; and I hope that if my efforts prove acceptable I may be sent into exile for several years on their account, that I may spend there a long time, which I prophesy will prove but too brief.’ (‘The Beasts of the Sea’ 1751)

Memorial to Steller in Tyumen, Siberia.
Memorial to Steller in Tyumen, Siberia.

10. The Universe seems to have wanted to erase Steller completely. He died alone aged 37 in Tyumen, Siberia, on his way home. A clergyman buried him in a red cloak, and his body was subsequently dug up by thieves, who took the cloak. Left in the open, his body was prey to wolves and dogs until found and reburied. A disciple of his, Pallas, visited the grave some years later and said ‘it will be seen until the Tura River has eaten away…the spot on which it stands, when Steller’s bones will be mingled with the mammoth bones on its farther shores.’ This prophecy has since been fulfilled.

Every account by those who knew Georg Steller says the same thing: he just wouldn’t shut up. I experienced the same. At the end of my first draft, a few competing voices still remained alongside his, but with every edit they have been stripped away. He has drowned out every last one of them. I think he’d be pleased with that.

He could never be silent, just fade into the background.

Now, finally, he has.

There are still echoes. With every edit, I meet him again. But whatever happens to my book, we’ll have to say goodbye eventually. Laugh at me if you want, but it’s like losing a friend.

am I meant to write about Vitus Bering?

I recently rediscovered an email exchange, which was the first time I ever heard the name Vitus Bering. Two years later, it’s a novel…

Vitus Bering (although, this probably isn't actually him..)
Vitus Bering (although, this probably isn’t actually him..)

From: sarahday
To: wordplaylondon
Subject: RE: Performing at A Flock Of Poets 17th Nov 2011
Date: Tue, 1 Nov 2011 15:01:14 +0000

Thanks – am I meant to write about Vitus Bering? Just wondered if there’s a reason you sent me his pic as a close up. Enjoying reading up on the discovery of the Bering Straight now! x