Nobody likes to talk about death. I avoid it like you would a cavernous sink hole. It’s uncomfortable to navigate and frightening to think about. No one knows for sure what to expect when you close your eyes for the last time; we have boundless theories and beliefs with nothing but coincidences to bring us comfort.
Out here, we are surrounded by death. There are dead albatross chicks killed by starvation and exhaustion in every field and bush we come across. Bundles of down cascade through the air and blow like tumbleweeds across the open ground.
I picture the feathery clumps as the chicks’ playful spirits running and flying like they were once intended to. Sometimes on a hot day you can step outside and smell it, permeating the air and the ground. The carpet of lobularia that covers the open areas is spotted with small depressions that hold whatever bones, feathers and usually plastic, that has not been desiccated by the crabs and insects. The plants underneath have browned and shrivelled as though a hole has been burned into the ground, like somebody has been snubbing out their cigarettes on the graves of young chicks as they wandered through the plains.
I was warned about the amount of die off. The survival rate is usually between 45-70% but last year it was just 3%. On the beaches back home, I will spend hours scouring for a washed up bird or sea creature. It always fascinates me to see their bills and feathers inches from my face, the intricacies of each interlocking strand and vein. I consider it a privilege to find a dead bird, to hold such a wild and secretive creature so close. To be provided with the opportunity to learn and bring new purpose to such wonderful animals is a true treasure.
There is tentative beauty in the way that death comes and goes as often as life does. You can snap your fingers and know that in that moment, life has been created and life has been lost. Whether you are an animal or a plant, life and death is much the same depending on how you look at it. As one creature leaves this world, it returns to the earth and brings life to another. For every chick that does not survive, the life that it once had is passed on to all those surrounding it. Native plants are fertilised and grow to provide cover and nesting material for the chicks around it, the bugs that break the body down are food for ducks and our local Cattle Egret, Ingrid and when there is nothing left but a pile of bones in the grass, I am given my own lesson on the intricacies of avian anatomy and given insight as to what has been filling the bird’s stomach for the last few months.
Nature has a beautiful way of saying thank you to every creature she takes back. To see the nohu flowering in the remains of an albatross is her way of saying aloha, kia ora, thank you and see you next time. She is laying a bouquet at the base of its gravestone.
Wallowing in the grief that death brings upon this island would take away from the beauty that it also bares. There is no doubt that it is heart breaking, that these chicks shouldn’t be starving and full of plastic. The loss of any animal is truly depressing, but when you focus on the big picture you witness the life that becomes of it, you begin to see the beauty.
I have found beauty in the strangest places here, the most wonderful is when the albatross rear their heads, clack their bills and begin to dance. Life flows in abounds from the tips of their ruffled feathers, it drips as water from the hook of their beaks. It rings in my ears with every trill, excited whistle and in the hallowed moos that echo throughout the island. They touch bills and bump breasts with wings bent at all angles, their bodies held high above the ground on tippiest of toes. Even in the occasional silence that is held between a pair, there is much being conveyed in their deep gaze that we couldn’t even begin to understand. Every head bob and bill clack is sheer joy at its finest, though it is a joy dissimilar to ours. The complex emotions of animals is something I may never understand, but here I feel I am very close to sharing in it with them. They feel joy and excitement without even knowing what it is, it is just a sensation that life offers them, and they live every moment of it with an unbridled passion that is comparable to nothing.
Sometimes I feel like my own spirit dances with the young albatross chicks. It’s as though I am a part of life’s cycle in every stage. I am living, thriving and growing from the parts of me that I have witnessed slowly shrivel away over the last few weeks. The things that no longer matter to me give way to new connections and deepened understanding of what I may have once believed was important, and what I now know truly is.
So far, Kure has taught me that life is about teaching, growing flowers, dancing with your friends, singing towards the sky, and giving back to those around you at every possible moment. Life and death become one in the same in this way, and it is truly beautiful.