Semidi Islands

We lived amongst the birds, the biologist said, of field seasons spent on the Semidi Islands as a newlywed in the 1970s. He studied northern fulmars, she inventoried flora. For five months they’d go without news or resupplies, without seeing another person. Living in a wall tent, cooking with a two burner Coleman—salty bacon from a can, most things from a can, or fresh black rockfish they caught by the basket load—It was a good way to cement a marriage. Or to destroy it, he laughs. It worked out. We’d take everything we needed, and if we didn’t have it, we just did without. 

There are 2.4 million birds in the Semidis, give or take. Three times Alaska’s human population crowded onto less than 12 square miles of land, the smallest island little more than a sea stack. Murres hung like necklaces about the cliffs, wrote one ornithologist. Imagine the birdness of such a place. The diving and wheeling and preening and flapping, the plumage, the beaks and bills, the downy white feathers blizzarding into the water. Gulls lifting together as a single shape, seabirds bobbing on waves beneath cliffs piled with nests. Imagine the noise. The constant calling, courting, begging, duetting, sounding alarms. How many languages is that, filling the air at once. Sparrows, warblers, ancient murrelets, loons, Lapland longspurs, snow buntings, water pipits, geese, kittiwakes, puffins, parakeet auklets, cormorants, falcons. On and on goes the list, but where to stop, who to leave off this astonishing inventory?

Someday we’d like to go back in our later years and camp, he said. A kind of coming home. Northern fulmars are long-lived. It’s not impossible that the same birds the biologist once diligently, obsessively studied from egg to fledgling are there still. I picture fulmars rising on the wind, and below them a greying couple rambling across the island, the sea and sky and valleys around them all winged and singing.