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Albatross People

Navigating distance and time in the age of uncertainty.

Colin Daileda | Longreads | March 2020 | 7 minutes (2,000 words)

My wife told me she had at last booked a flight back to Bengaluru and so I should relax that evening at our apartment. There I opened a book I was reading about birds, called The Thing With Feathers, by Noah Strycker. I was toward the end, on a chapter about albatrosses.

The wandering albatross looks not much different from a seagull, except it’s enormous. Its wings span 12 feet, twice my height. Wanderers need wings like this because they spend a huge part of their lives floating over the open ocean, plucking fish and squid from the water. They do this away from their mates, because keeping track of each other would cost precious energy needed to stay aloft. Each partner goes about their own life until, once every two years, they flutter back home to the little bits of land in the Southern oceans on which they nest. They greet each other with a dance and quickly go about building that year’s home. Though it takes nine months for an albatross chick to leave its nest, the parents won’t see each other much during that time, either. The baby needs food, and so they fly out in search of it over different parts of the sea. All that time away, and yet albatrosses almost always remain faithful for life.

I texted some of these nuggets to my wife. Six months after we got married, we spent most of the next year apart, me in New York, where we met, and her in Bengaluru, where she grew up. We’re in both cities a good amount now, but often not in sync. Her time in the United States is regimented by the green card process, mine loosely defined by the need to see my mom and dad. Both of our schedules are at the whim of work that can drag us to the airport or the train station. We had planned to fly back to Bengaluru together this time, but the letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was later than expected. I had to go, she had to stay. Weeks had gone by.

She texted back a while later. “We’re albatross people,” she said.

All that time away, and yet albatrosses almost always remain faithful for life.

***

Laysan albatrosses often make their home on Laysan Island or Midway Atoll, sprinklings of land floating in the Pacific Ocean. Like all tiny islands, swelling water threatens to swallow them, though the U.S. Geological Survey says this might happen more suddenly than the gradual submergence that sea level rise usually brings to mind.

When we’re in Brooklyn, my wife and I stay at her brother’s place in Park Slope. We used to live just down the way on 4th Avenue, which at the time seemed to have such an open sky. Looking down the road, I could practically see from Sunset Park to the Barclays Center, a 20-ish minute journey by train even when the subway is running well. By the time we moved out, whole blocks had been cleared for the foundation of new apartment buildings. We knew it was happening, but our first time back we stared up at them like tourists, not quite sure how these fortresses had sprung from the ground. The sky looked different, its vast blue crowded with right angles. Two blocks up the hill, a tall, thin set of apartments appeared across from our favorite pizza place, which closed not long after. The owners of the Polish grocery on 5th Avenue, the one with the massive beer selection, sold the building. Scaffolding went up forever ago and has simply remained.


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In Bengaluru, to walk around or skim snippets of news is to always see or hear about construction of another overpass, the opening of a new apartment complex, the paving over of a pond. A couple decades ago it still made sense to think of the city as almost sleepy, before the state government opened its gates to the silicon economy and its accoutrements. “City of Lakes” was then a literal nickname, not the butt of a joke about how the few that still exist are thick with bottles, bags, and weeds. When my wife left for grad school in Manhattan, there had been no mall down the street, and now the mall dominates a huge block on the walk from our apartment to her parents’ house. I remember stepping out of the airport not long ago and finding a row of restaurants instead of the taxi line. I looked up for a sign, wandered across a lane full of families waiting on arrivals, then drifted to the edge of a parking lot until it was clear I’d missed wherever I was supposed to be.

Perhaps it’s easy, once a change has begun, to assume that it will take a while before the transition is truly felt, that we will have enough time to adjust. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the threat to Laysan Island and Midway Atoll that some models underestimate is that of waves. As the Pacific rises, fierce swells born of storms may smash over the islands in their entirety, blinking them off the map. Imagine an albatross, after perhaps more than a year over the water, circling above the spot where her island once was, wondering if her innate sense of home has finally failed.

Imagine an albatross, after perhaps more than a year over the water, circling above the spot where her island once was, wondering if her innate sense of home has finally failed.

***

Basic stats tell a casual observer that Laysan albatrosses are doing fine, that they are much better off than in the not-so-distant past. Though their population plunged to around 18,000 breeding pairs in the early part of the 20th century, as Japanese hunters pillaged the birds’ island homes to satiate a Western desire for feathered hats, they recovered remarkably — if not fully — after conservationists fought for a series of laws that banned such hunting. Today the birds have rebounded to around 600,000 breeding pairs, according to estimates taken in 2009, and are thought to be hatching enough chicks to keep their population steady, yet the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists them as “near threatened.” The designation is a nod to the myriad, hard to predict, and almost always human-caused threats to their existence — rising seas, yes, but also the bits of plastic that mass in their stomachs, the lead paint that may poison thousands of chicks on Midway Atoll each year.

When my wife and I first set out in search of work as journalists, the number of entry-level jobs was either increasing or we had imbibed enough collegiate optimism to believe so. HuffPost was more or less a growing upstart. Buzzfeed was just beginning. Years later, and we’ve both had jobs as staff reporters, she now works as an editor who has carved out time to freelance, and my own freelancing in Bengaluru has been steady enough — signs that can be read as reasons that our still-young careers could last quite a while. It might be odd, then, to a casual observer, if either of us described working in journalism as something like hiking up a foggy cliff and hoping each extended foot lands on solid ground. I’ve seen thousands of dollars vanish while freelancing for a publication that, during the time it took to report the story, was forced out of existence. We have dozens of friends and acquaintances in journalism who lost their jobs on days they thought would be routine. Both of us narrowly escaped layoffs. I remember hanging up the phone in the middle of an interview at my office in Manhattan, confused about why so many colleagues had been called downstairs. Soon the new bosses were telling us our work mattered while the name tags of former colleagues still rested atop their desks. It was easy to understand why some of our friends had already begun to make a living in other ways, part of the 25 percent decline in United States newsroom employment over just the past decade.

The recovery of Laysan albatrosses can be seen as hopeful in a world where so much wildlife is already gone, and it’s possible that these birds will in time throw off their “near threatened” label, that they are more resilient than we know. It’s difficult, though, to put out of mind the idea that they are only here because humans once decided to spare them, that their recovery has been a small moment of life wedged between forces of eradication. Laysan albatrosses will have to survive the always-encroaching ocean, the bits of plastic they struggle to distinguish from prey, the hungry mice, cats and dogs that follow humans as our species fills the space no longer occupied by other animals. Their numbers are decent, but their population as measured in 1992 is expected to drop by nearly a third well before the close of this century, widening the gaps between the birds still flying over a lonelier Pacific blue.

Soon the new bosses were telling us our work mattered while the name tags of former colleagues still rested atop their desks.

***

In 1972, a black-browed albatross landed on the Shetland Islands, an archipelago north of Scotland, and returned nearly every year until 1995. The bird might’ve seen the islands and thought they looked close enough to home, though black-browed albatrosses are only native to islands in the global South. Albatrosses save energy by extending their wings and letting the wind work for them, which is fine when the wind cooperates. If it doesn’t, or if an albatross mistimes his flight, he may find himself on the wrong side of the world, never able to store enough energy to flap his way home.

My wife and I try to time our trips to coincide with appointments in this government office or that, try to gauge how long we’ll have to wait for a slip of paper that says we are again free to go to one home or the other. We try to make sure all this fits with the comings and leavings of friends and family. Often this works, but in the past couple years the crispness of green card appointments and deadlines has blurred, so that our attempts at planning feel something like trying to stick a pin into flowing water. Little goes as it should. One of us has to move on, obligations crashing into each other.


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In his book Gods of the Morning, the naturalist John Lister-Kaye wrote of a recent delightfully warm March in Scotland that brought with it bugs and blooms not usually seen until much later. Nature went about its spring routines until a ferocious snowstorm dragged the Highlands back to winter. House martins and swallows flew up in April only to find that the insects on which they survive had been decimated. Hungry and worn from the trip, they were forced to flee back south.

It might’ve been a sudden cooling or warming that forced an odd change to the wind in 1972, sailing that black-browed albatross far beyond home. Or maybe that year, for whatever reason, the bird had been forced to take to the air a bit too early, a bit too late. For me and my wife, the consequences of our movement seem similarly defined by things we cannot control and are not as stable as we’d wished to believe. Our lawyer says the wheels of bureaucracy have turned more slowly for the past few years, and the windows of time spent waiting for a document to arrive have widened. We may need to check the mail for a week, a month, or more, before our lives are again free to fall in rhythm. We wait, hoping time will release us from the grip of a force we cannot see but that makes itself known through cable, four-letter slogans, our anxious silences. Maybe the birds, too, are cataloguing the ways in which an unseen force has begun to scatter their lives. Surely they’ve noticed that the chill signaling migration no longer comes when it should, that watering stops along the way have shriveled, that wind whips with an unfamiliar menace. All of us living things, in this era, seem defined by trying to navigate changes in climate.

***

Colin Daileda is a freelance journalist in Bengaluru, India. His work has been published in The Atlantic, Atlas Obscura, Deadspin (RIP), Popula, Hakai Magazine, The Washington Post, and many others. Before Bengaluru, he was a reporter for Mashable based in New York City, from where he often traveled across the United States writing about state violence and social justice.

Find him on Twitter: @ColinDaileda

***

Editor: Krista Stevens

Fact-checker: Matt Giles

Copy editor: Jacob Gross