Up, Up, on Implausible Wings
Anyone who ever sets foot in Iceland can’t help but notice the puffin. Over my ten years living there, I watched this bird transform from a humble member of the Icelandic fauna to the cute and quirky creature that now symbolises the country: downtown Reykjavík has been overrun by its effigies, and tourists can’t seem to get enough. Meanwhile, numbers of actual Atlantic puffins have been dwindling, an uncomfortable irony not lost on the environmentally conscious.
Why was the puffin – relatively absent from Icelandic poetry and prose – such an easy receptacle for contemporary nationalistic ideas, and can this newfound status help the plight of the species? To explore these questions, my essay “Up, Up, on Implausible Wings” ties together seemingly unrelated threads of the bird’s symbolic value, interwoven with personal anecdotes, interviews, and natural history observations.
Awarded an honourable mention in the 2018 Carve Magazine Poetry and Prose Contest, the essay was published in Carve’s Spring 2019 issue. An interview about the writing of this piece can be found on the Carve blog. The essay appears in full below.
Up, Up, on Implausible Wings:
The Chance Ascent of the Iconic Puffin
Carve Magazine, Spring 2019, pp. 78–83
I. Odd bird out
Flatey Island, Breiðafjörður Bay, of a grey midsummer’s morning. I closed the cottage door and walked along the winding little track towards the shore, slowly, slowly, for a pair of Arctic terns had had the audacity to build their scratch of a nest right there in the path. The chick, hardly a few days old, sat in quiet camouflage on the gravel until one of her parents returned in a flourish with a crawful of breakfast, and then she was all beak, melon-red mouth agape in ready receipt. As much as I longed to stay there with the terns – after all, they were amongst my favorite birds – I had heard enough stories of their dive-bombing ways to persuade me otherwise. In any case, the coastline beckoned.
I lowered myself over the edge of the land and found a spot to sit on the rocky cliff along the water. The birds, unruffled by my presence, swarmed in dizzying arrays above and around me: fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots and gulls careened in the near to far distance and back again on agile wings, guided by their unwritten air traffic rules that kept them, miraculously, from colliding with one another.
It wasn’t their displays, however, that made the most lasting impression on me. Rather, it was the puffins, the odd birds out, with their stout bodies and undersized wings, that struck me. Almost literally! – they passed over my head with what seemed like inches to spare, the wind from their frantic wing-flapping tousling my hair and electrifying my senses. No poetry in this flight: when Leonardo dreamed of taking to the air, the last bird he would have imagined imitating would have been the puffin, the awkward mechanics of its wings defying both logic and lyricism. Still, for me, the dogged earnestness with which these puffins propelled themselves through the unforgiving Icelandic sky was even more endearing and distinctive than their colorful bills. The nickname “clown of the sea” does the puffin an injustice; who are we to mock such effort?
Effort, great effort, keeps the puffin aloft. Yet for all that effort, it seems never to have launched into verse, for of what use to a poet is a bird endowed with neither nimble flight nor dulcet song? Both in English and Icelandic, the puffin remains a literary blank page. But where metaphor fails, iconography sometimes succeeds. Move over, emblematic gyrfalcons; step aside, ravens of lore: the puffin, quirky, comical, and edging towards endangered, is here to represent.
II. From the “wild, high seas” to the Puffin Club badge
Far from the cliffsides of the North Atlantic and beyond their flights through the pages of many a book, seabirds have assumed prominent perches over the years on covers and spines as publishers’ logos. First, in 1932, came the albatross, the logo of the eponymous German press that modernized mass-produced paperbacks. While Albatross Books was short-lived, both the format and the mascot inspired British publisher Allen Lane to found Penguin Books in 1935 as a means of making quality literature accessible to wider audiences. As legend has it, the penguin was suggested to Lane by his secretary as a “dignified, but flippant” logo, and designer Edward Young was soon sent off to the London Zoo to capture the bird in every pose imaginable. With the immediate success of Penguin, Lane’s company then launched the non-fiction imprint Pelican Books in 1937, educating lay readers on topics ranging from art history to economics.
When it came time to introduce a line of children’s books, the puffin naturally followed the penguin and the pelican as a suitable logo; the first Puffin storybooks were published in 1940. Now, nearly eighty years later, Puffin Books continue to lure young readers into the literary worlds of humans and nonhumans alike, from hungry caterpillars to fantastic foxes and boys and girls both remarkable and ordinary.
Puffin’s mission was not simply to sell books, but to encourage children to cultivate a lifelong love of reading. To this end, editor Kaye Webb founded the Puffin Club in 1967 and, collaborating with illustrator Jill McDonald, released the Puffin Post magazine. Filled with stories and jokes, author interviews, interactive activities, and secret codes, the newsletter became the nexus for a community of children across the UK connected by their appreciation of books and McDonald’s charming puffin doodles.
And then there was the role of the puffin badge. The entire club membership package, but in particular that enamel membership badge, had a sort of gravitas to it, as artist and bird-lover Catherine Clover recalled to me: “I remember receiving the package in the post and finding the forms and officialdom captivating, my name in print, my first membership. I found the badge and loved it. I can still see it in my mind’s eye, and it made me feel important; it felt quite heavy and significant.” The bird on the badge gave six-year-old Catherine a sense of belonging, but it also stirred in her a curiosity about the species it represented. What was so special about puffins – besides that they “seemed adorable” – that a club would be formed with them at the center? What distinguished them from penguins? And where exactly in the British Isles could they be found? “I assumed they lived in the north somewhere,” said Catherine; “it seemed they lived on or near cliffs that were dangerous, wild with high seas, precarious for nesting. Those wild seas stayed in my mind.”
Hardy little birds, indeed, that can weather such seas as they do. Nesting on rocky ocean cliffs or in burrows on grassy seaside slopes, the Atlantic puffin, Fratercula arctica, is otherwise a bird of the open ocean, diving up to 60 meters below the surface to pursue prey such as sand eel and herring. Distributed across the North Atlantic, some 60% of the population nests in Iceland, with around half of those nesting pairs concentrated in the Westman Islands off Iceland’s south shore. Although they breed in large colonies and are faithful to their nesting sites, during their pelagic winters they are solitary. Imagine one alone, bobbing on the high waves of the open sea, far from its colony, far from its mate, flightless – for during their annual molt, they lose all their primary feathers at once – with only the poetry of water and winds to occupy its senses. It’s an image of endurance.
I was never a member of the Puffin Club, but I was a reader, and as a child I trusted the worlds in books much more than the so-called real world around me. I loved throwing myself into the vast immersive experience that books could provide, as invigorating as the cold northern seas. One such refreshing book – refreshing because it was so relatable – from my childhood is a vintage Picture Puffin, Edna Mitchell Preston and Rainey Bennett’s The Temper Tantrum Book (1969), which remains now on my daughter’s bookshelf. (I say it “remains” there because it’s not a popular title with her; my spirited child identifies so much with the subject that she interprets its mere existence as an oblique form of punishment.) Thomas Q. Tiger snarls in fury on the cover, drops of perspiration like fireworks erupting from his body with its four flailing limbs and twisted tail. It is a masterful illustration that captures the all-consuming intensity of a Category 5 Tantrum, the kind of hurricane that flattens houses and sends parents ducking hopelessly for cover. One diminutive seabird, however, is able to withstand this cyclone, and that is the stylized puffin at upper left. The corner of her beak is upturned in a smile, her wings outspread as if offering a hug. Or perhaps her open wings are open pages, her promise of embrace the promise of the comfort of a book, with its simultaneous means of escape and delivery. The whiteness of her breast is not that of the tabula rasa but the pure white light of knowledge, insight, inner sight that comes with losing oneself in poetry or prose or – best yet – a well-penned picture book.
III. Made in Iceland?
On my own bookshelf sits a puffin of a different sort. A few days after I received a letter in the mail certifying that my application for Icelandic citizenship had been approved, two of my best friends turned up at my door for a naturalization ceremony of their own design. They brought with them a box of American-as-can-be Dunkin’ Donuts, each of which was frosted with an Icelandic flag and one of which sported a small puffin fashioned from glass. Her wings are raised, two jet-black arcs on either side of her body which, along with her beady eyes, lend her an air of enthusiastic urgency.
Urgency – to do what? To fly, to land, to fish? To become a naturalized citizen like me? Without the context of her doughnut perch, the little glass tchotchke is perfect as the souvenir trinket she was intended to be: visually appealing but fairly empty of substance, a vessel for tourist desire, material proof of a traveler’s presence but not participation in a foreign culture. But it’s the latter, the participation, that I believe my glass puffin is eager to embrace. “Ég er hér og til,” she says, “I’m here and I’m ready!” And so I kept her, citizen and participant that I had finally become, and then, a little over a year later, I left. Here she sits, a naturalized Icelander at home now on her British bookshelf, in a state of suspended readiness.
Perhaps this Icelandic symbol truly has come home. “I’ve been looking into this recently,” the Icelandic publisher Kristján B. Jónasson told me, “and it seems like this puffin culture has been completely imported.” That the puffin was newly minted currency in the tourist shops was not news to me, as I watched it emerge out of nowhere and go on to absolutely dominate downtown Reykjavík over the course of my decade in the country.
Katrín Anna Lund and her colleagues at the University of Iceland have traced this development of the puffin as coming to represent authentic experience by visitors to Arctic landscapes, whether rural or urban. Writing in the journal Tourist Studies (June 2018), they state that “just why Reykjavík City Center is covered with puffins remains a mystery for most Icelandic inhabitants, the majority of whom… have never considered it to be a potent symbol for the country.” Other birds, they continue, like ravens or golden plovers, feature much more prominently in the national folklore, mythology, and even language – puffins are absent from the Icelandic proverbial and aphoristic imaginary. Apparently the rise of the puffin can be attributed to a certain Icelandic shopkeeper who, in 2005, manufactured a puffin souvenir in China and began a thus far ongoing craze for the birds amongst tourists because they’re simply so “cute.” In the assessment of Lund and her colleagues, it is the awkwardness of the puffin that makes it charismatic, and that the Atlantic puffins nesting around the coasts of Iceland are migratory means that the species “entangles the movements of the traveler through the Arctic’s landscapes, spatial and temporal, real and imagined.”
But it wasn’t clear where the puffin as an image-object came from. “The iconography is mostly from the British Isles,” Jónasson the publisher explained to me based on his own investigations, “where the puffin had already been photographed, drawn, and glorified for a while before coming to occupy so much space in Iceland. The first photography book dedicated to the puffin on the Icelandic book market,” he continued, “was based on images from Colin Baxter, a Scottish photographer.” A few days after my exchange with Jónasson, I happened to find myself walking along the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. Sure enough, in the tourist shop windows, nestled amongst the tartans and thistles, puffins peered out at me from postcards and tea towels, perhaps not as prominently featured as their Icelandic counterparts but certainly cast in supporting roles.
To my naturalized Icelandic mind’s eye, the idea of a Scottish puffin – clad in plaid, with a bagpipe slung over one wing – was as foreign as the idea of a French puffin to the British author Linda Grant. Reading an article on the threat that climate change poses to puffins across their range, she found herself caught by a reference to French puffins, whose population was devastated by an oil spill in 1967. “It was early in the morning,” she writes, “and my dozy mind conjured up an image of a puffin in a beret, smoking a Gauloise with a copy of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness tucked under its wing. The article was full of fascinating information about climate change, but I couldn’t get away from the French puffin and its existential crisis.… I am all for the puffin now… I am in empathy with puffins.” Ultimately, the point of Grant’s op-ed Guardian piece (2015) was not to serve as a battle-cry for puffins, but to promote the reading of novels; for fiction, she says, has a unique capacity to allow us to develop our empathic abilities for those we might not ordinarily encounter or ponder.
The puffins in the Icelandic tourist shops, made perhaps in China of iconographic materials from Scotland, are their own form of fiction: national symbols fabricated for outsiders’ eyes. For today’s Icelanders, puffins have come to represent the tourist boom, or marketing hype, or even irony itself, for while the birds flourish in store windows, the numbers of actual puffins that tourists long to see are dwindling. Atlantic puffins can fly at 80 km per hour, wings beating an extraordinary 400 times per minute, but this is neither fast nor furious enough to outfly climate change, what with the warming of the seas and the shifting of prey availability that it brings. The other predictable threats apply too, from pollution and habitat loss to invasive species and behavioral disruption.
Is there a chance of developing empathy for those vulnerable birds through the puffins of tourism fiction? I surveyed friends and acquaintances who have visited Iceland to attempt to find out. Several of my dozen or so respondents had bought puffin souvenirs despite not seeing the actual birds, while several others enjoyed watching puffins on cliffs and boat tours, and one friend even went to an off-the-beaten-track birdwatcher’s paradise because “once we were in the country we really started to learn that puffins were a thing and that we should check them out.” Two others each recalled encountering the birds on the dinner table, with one reporting, “All I learned about puffin was that it is quite stringy and very salty.” But none was aware that the puffin’s numbers are declining.
As my straw poll proved inconclusive, I turned to Vera Wonder Sölvadóttir, a filmmaker who doubles as a puffin guide. “The tourists are much more interested in puffins than the locals, who hardly know anything about them,” she tells me, underscoring the successful marketing of the bird for international consumers. Despite their interest, most of the tourists Sölvadóttir has met on her boat tours know very little about the birds’ natural history, but she commits herself to raising both awareness and concern. “After finding out how hard their life is, that they are monogamous and that they have a very long life expectancy, usually after a puffin trip people will not order puffin from the menu again.”
Respect for the puffin is likely to follow from a brush with the living, breathing thing rather with its souvenir effigy. In her book On Longing (1984), Susan Stewart claims of the souvenir that it “seeks distance (the exotic in time and space)… in order to transform and collapse distance into proximity to, or approximation with, the self. The souvenir therefore contracts the world in order to expand the personal.” It is imbued with narrative, but one which doesn’t work the way narrative fiction does because at its heart is a story of the collector and her nostalgic “longing for its place of origin” rather than a story about the thing it ostensibly represents. Iconic animal souvenirs have, I reckon, a negligible capacity to serve animals themselves. And yet, as much as ecotourism promises to save species around the globe by raising concern through first-hand encounters with wildlife, the contribution of air travel to climate change and thereby to conservation threats begs the question of how much those encounters are really worth.
IV. Puffins in and out of print
As far as I am aware, Linda Grant’s angst-ridden French puffin, her macareux, has yet to become the protagonist of an environmental thriller. But I’d love to share with Grant my copy of Kristín Marti’s Lúlli litli lundi (1996), an epic (if obscure) Bildungsroman about a puffling named Lúlli whose beak fails to become brightly colored like those of the other birds in his colony. Ostracized and distraught, drab little Lúlli sets off into the world only to be tormented by birds of other species as well. Just when things can’t get any worse, a miracle occurs: the Elf Queen unfurls a rainbow across the sky and right onto Lúlli’s bill. He returns to his family and is recognized that summer as the most beautiful puffin in the colony. It’s not simply because of the brightness of his beak but, more importantly, because he glows with a sense of luminous self-worth, for the Elf Queen has bestowed upon him a rainbow heart.
Lúlli litli lundi is a sweet little children’s story, one of several out there (in Icelandic and/or English) with puffin protagonists. But for various cultural reasons, it’s hard to imagine puffins as featuring significantly in poetry or prose for adult audiences because of the meanings we’ve affixed to them. In her celebrated memoir H Is for Hawk (2014), we watch as author Helen Macdonald works hard to untangle her goshawk Mabel from the human stories that have shaped our notions about birds of prey. “All the things that crawl and run and fly,” she writes, “are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world.” Animals are made of human histories.
We can add to that that animals are also made of human transliterations, from our interpretations of their sounds (“ribbit,” “bow-wow,” “cock-a-doodle-doo”) to the names we assign them. Is there any wonder that the lyrically named nightingale would feature in the English imagination? We might not have many poems about the awkwardly labeled plover, but call her lóa and she makes it into every Icelandic poem about spring. Was the puffin done an injustice by virtue of a silly name that rhymes with almost nothin’ but muffin? Perhaps that’s part of the problem: strapped with a moniker that sounds childish and cutesy, who can take the thing seriously?
In Icelandic, the linguistic problem is born of a more recent turn. When I asked writer and translator Rúnar Helgi Vignisson about his associations with the Icelandic word for puffin, lundi, he replied that for him it used to carry positive connotations of “a colorful bird that people liked to watch and some used to catch. It was always a nice moment to see a lundi.” But now, he says, that the bird has “become associated with the clichés of tourism, it has lost its brilliance and innocence. The word lundabúð” – literally, puffin store, a neologism for a tourist shop in general – “is a rather negative word nowadays. In a way, the bird has become contaminated.”
It may be hard to undo such contamination in Icelandic, or to reimagine the puffin as a serious bird in English. But at least puffins have a place in children’s books. In the epilogue to Lúlli litli lundi, the author suggests that Lúlli should serve as an example to us all, for through a suspension of disbelief we too might let our dreams come true and flourish as the individuals we are.
The example I find in Lúlli, however, is that of the non-human children’s book character whose fictional interests are grounded in aspects of natural history. And that is a unique capacity of children’s literature: to feature animals in ways that, though anthropomorphized, allow children and the adults who read to them to understand and even empathize with the actual concerns of other creatures. That is the literature that touched me most as a child, books like E. B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan and Charlotte’s Web that afforded me passages into the lives and minds of other animals, even though I knew their stories could never be real.
But there was something else I read between the lines. The process of becoming a grown-up with a serious outlook on the world requires casting aside juvenile notions of our furred and feathered brethren as such; we’re supposed to come to view animals as creatures whose realities are entirely divorced from our own and whose inner lives are nonexistent. We are supposed to engage in the metaphorical distancing that Jacques Derrida has described as a violent disavowal of the lives of non-human creatures, a separation of ourselves from other animals that has slowly unfolded over the course of history but that is reproduced time and again over the course of an individual human childhood as a sort of rite of passage.
Like Lúlli the puffling, I have benefited from a suspension of disbelief. Mine was cultivated through the enjoyment of books as a child, sustained through delight in the natural world, and rejuvenated through the act of reading to my daughter. As a result, I never severed those bonds I felt with other animals, however real or imagined they might be. It is encouraging to see more and more authors and scholars taking animals seriously as subjects in their work. I hereby nominate Fratercula arctica for their topical consideration.