Keeper of the Birds (Oct 2015)
She stands on the cliff’s edge, observing closely one amidst hundreds of thousands of birds. Her eyes thoughtfully stare past the oncoming wind to a grey baby tucked beneath its mother’s breast – a black speck most wouldn’t notice, curled in a nest balancing in perfect precariousness on a slate embedded in the sharp rock, wildly alive.
“That one’s four months old,” she says, “I was here the day it was born.”
This is the eastern edge of the North American world, a land bordered by cliffs that face the open sea. Apart from the capital, St. John’s, and the towns scattered along pot-holed highways, Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula is a vista of earth sculpted by only the wind.
Sophie’s intimately acquainted with the birds here at Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve – she’s observed them for decades, showing guests where the babies are, explaining the four different types that nest here, and pointing out seals camouflaged on the rocks below.
“See it there?” she asks, handing over a pair of binoculars. Though she’s bundled in woolies and has seen these same animals year after year, her eyes shine with excitement. The seal remains invisible to the untrained eye.
With a quick glance, Sophie can immediately tell the age of the birds, and whether they’re developing at the normal rate or slightly behind the flock. According to Sophie, the birds come here to nest. Though the wind bites and rain is a constant, it’s a perfect environment for them to raise their young. In the winter, the birds migrate. Sophie watches them leave day by day as they start their journeys, some as far as South Africa. She’ll welcome them back the following year when the babies become parents themselves.
Migration seems to be a trend for the people of Newfoundland as well. Sophie is an anomaly: she’s lived all her life in Branch, a town of eighty people not far from the birds. In the summertime, Branch is maritime bliss. Modest homes perch on bright green, rolling hills that lead to picturesque cliffs, finally dropping to sandy beaches and deep blue waters. Sheep peacefully graze on the expansive farms, lifting their heads every so often as if taking in the view. The only sounds are nature-made.
But most youngsters aren’t interested in farming, and other job opportunities are hundreds of miles away. One of the most common jobs for young men these days is working on the oil rigs in Alberta, on the other side of the country. The men work a rotation schedule: 2 weeks on the rigs, 2 weeks back home. They make far more than their parents did, bringing their new wealth back to the towns that are increasingly unlivable for those who stayed to farm. Most of these young families intend to move to the city when they’ve saved enough.
Sophie’s young too, but she seems fond of little Branch. “We have a school – I coach the girls basketball team,” she says. “We don’t have tournaments though, the nearest school is one hour away and we wouldn’t be able to transport the girls there anyway.” She smiles softly.
She turns her bright blue eyes to the endless sea. Standing calmly, hands deep in the pockets of her windbreaker and cheeks burnt red by the wind, she radiates an all-too-rare quiet strength.