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Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Ultima Thule

Autumn and early winter for birdwatchers is a season of relative plenty. We descend on the marshes and coastal fields to have aural and visual blitzkrieg experiences with volumes of flesh normally only associated with the grasslands of Africa. Vast and heaving flocks of wildfowl arrive on our shores with the comforting regularity of the most punctual of colleagues and our friends whose Christmas cards always arrive first. As anyone who’s been there as the sun rises on the marshes and wetlands of north Norfolk will testify, seemingly endless skeins of geese pouring in waves overhead with the added spice of sound, temperature and tricks of watery winter light create an experience not to be passed over lightly. Likewise the vast flocks of knot and dunlin.

One of the most deeply felt aspects of this experience for me is the message that these birds bring with them. They come for the most part, as they have done for countless millenia, from the North. They come from lands that are always slightly beyond imaginative limits.

In mediaeval thought and cartography this place was given a name: Ultima Thule. The very farthest of places. In some references this is a very literal place like Iceland or Greenland. But in most geographies of the dark ages, and for our own purposes, that is too narrow a definition. Ultima Thule is much more than just a tangible place. It signifies what is most distant and what lies beyond the places we can map and codify.

In some cases we can visit the Ultima Thule of the pink footed geese in Iceland but it strangely gets us no closer to understanding the enormous significance of their journey. These migrations stand as testaments to the rhythms of an earth that are by inches being knocked out of true. These beings from the north country arrive, defying us to understand how, why and by what curious clockwork they live and move. They are our connection with Ultima Thule. Furthermore, when we finally reach the point where there is a judgement on whether we’ve been able to correct the mistakes made in our stewardship of our planet, they will prove to be a more meaningful connection than a wire between us and Longyearbyen or Reykjavik.

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