Ulrich, who I’ve been hanging out with here on Røst told me this story:
Puffins dig tunnels into the turf. On the high cliffs in the deep tunnels they lay their eggs. When the egg hatches they must keep the baby puffin warm for the first week and mother and father take turns to cuddle the newborn. For seven weeks it waits in the darkness as the parents fly back and forth to find its daily fish. Often this means flying far and wide and diving deep until they catch and carry around five small herrings in their beaks back to the chick deep in the burrow. If all goes well after seven weeks the young puffins begin to emerge to the mouth of the tunnel. Then on a certain day he says, all the adult puffins fly out from the high cliff and plunge down to the water.
In the small mouth of the burrow young Puffin has had no chance to flutter and hop and test its wings. But now, at this moment, it must launch itself into the world. If it falls onto firm ground its chances are slim but if it flies or falls to the water it will dive at once, down to safety. Away from Raven and Eagle and Gull. In a large colony there will be thousands of puffins large and small here in the water. And now the young puffin is tested again. From amongst the banter and calls of the thousand it must listen well and find the call of mother or father.
A puffin starts to lay eggs at around the age of four to six years and may lay up to three eggs. And if it survives the dangers of its first years may live to be between 20 and 40 years old.
A man who had worked here in 1969 as a teacher told me he had asked the children if they liked puffins. ‘Yes’, they said, ‘Delicious!’. Well, as it happened I chanced to come at the Puffin festival on Røst. The first speaker was Hans Arne Hansen. He is a fund of stores and whats more a splendid teller. The man who introduced him pointed out that the room was full to bursting, he said yes he was just wondering if people had got lost and ended up in the wrong room. He began with the 4000 year old stone age settlement. These people had their Spirits or Gods he said and needed a cathedral so they found the deepest, darkest cave on 3 tops Island and called it ‘Hell’ (One of the worse swear words in Norwegian.) Three years ago paintings were discovered here from 3600 years ago. Two small people and two large ones. And the two large ones, they have horns on their heads. Hans Arne ran on in this vein. Old teachers he said at last, are like jukeboxes, you put in a coin and they run for 45 minute and then they stop.
Soon afterwards came a story of quite a different kind from Tycho Anker-Nilssen. This handsome man has worked here every summer for the last 30 odd years, researching the birds of Røst. And each year he delivers news of their findings to the local people here. And this is the 6th consecutive year he has had bad news to bring. But this news is of great value not just to Røst but to all people of the world. For the well-being of the sea birds acts as a barometer, an indicator as to the health of the oceans. And Norway is home to a large proportion of the sea birds alive today.
Puffins are faithful birds. This year they began to make nests and lay their eggs around 10th My, and the eggs were hatched at midsummer. He says that this year has seen an 11% decrease in puffins which makes a loss of 24% in the 33 years he has been there. There was worse to come. The kittiwakes who nest on Karis house are even more endangered than the puffin. Peaceful birds, their only strategy for protection of their young is to fly about and call and cry. Is this why they have chosen to live on Kari’s roof? For two days now I’ve listened to their calls and wondered what they mean. They have sounded in my ears like a cry for help, an alert.
That night I sit around the table with the other travellers and they say that Tycho doesn’t reckon any of the chicks of the Kittiwakes will survive. Yes, the two days since we’ve been here the little fluff balls have been less and less and I picked a dead chick from the steps. I’m appalled, it hurts in the chest, the fairy tale house turns to shadow.
Next day I went walking far, far over to the other side on the offchance that a woman I had heard of called Esther was at home. ‘No, I don’t know any stories. ‘ she said as she opened the door. My job on this walk is listening and before she knew what she was doing she was chatting away and stories spilling out like Billyo. Including one of a female relative who always kept one empty stall in the cowshed, for Huldras cow. And how there is a bird outside the window which always calls to its friend when she opens the latch. Esther made me a cheese sandwich which was not local food but being with her and hearing her stories was a comfort. And I saw there were in fact many small birds who have survived who will according to Kari, make it this year.