Iceland in late winter at any saltwater shore there will be eider. The drakes, gorgeous. Their bills yellow ochre at the tip then raw sienna then the cap, jet black; and behind that cap, back of the head and along the neck, chrome green. The breast is a peach blush. Flight feathers of the softest white. And they are big, these ducks. And because of their size and their legendary down that captures tiny pockets of air, buoyant, it takes effort when they dive.
They gather at Kirkjufellsfoss off the black sand shore where the outflow of the falls joins the Arctic Sea, fresh water like a magnet drawing them in to bathe, splashing, thrashing, flexing their wings. They hunt at the chute at Jökulsárlón where the ice melt flows out, among the grey seals who frequent there. At Kolgrafarfjördur when the herring are running and Icelandic gulls and black-backs and glaucus gulls are in a frenzy, eider in a white-out squall lay in the lee off the pediment of the bridge that crosses the fjord. In Grundarfjörður Harbor at end of day, eider coast among the barely perceptible waves that cross, and recross making pockets of shade, and brightness, and color.
Reviewing this now I realize what I had not noticed before: Every instance cited here is the same.
At Kirkjufellsfoss the outflow of the waterfall jets through a culvert pushing the salt water aside and this is why the eider come. And of course, we made the culvert, and the road that goes over it. The chute at Jökulsárlón where eider hunt is the product not of glaciers but of engineers. Those boulders crusted with lichen that fortify the opening did not get there on their own. Eider on the placid waters of Grundarfjörður Harbor at end of day are fabulous by an accident of utilitarian structure and reflection, from piers and posts and other things manmade for the purposes of commerce.
Beautiful, though not by our intention, which makes me wonder… What if… what if from now on… what if it was?
Oklahoma! (Rodgers and Hammerstein, not the state) sports the line, “the farmer and the cowman should be friends.” How did that really turn out? See Michael Cimino’s 1980 masterpiece, Heaven’s Gate. Hint: Not well. Though at base it is neither cowmen nor ploughmen but how we treat the natural world and in this both are equally guilty.
It does not have to be this way.
In my seventeen winters here on the bight, there have been eider only once. The blue muscles were packed in tight the way they have not been for decades. That’s what drew them to the boulders close to shore. This, and that duck hunters cannot fire their shotguns near houses unless they want to leave in handcuffs. Winged and four-legged predators likewise tend to steer clear of us making (unarmed) humans and their habitations a zone of safety. Compounded by an all-important transaction. Particularly in Iceland, and elsewhere too, people guard eider so that, when nesting season is done they can collect the precious down nests the ducks abandon. Safety and survival in trade for something of value, considerable value, to their human hosts. A transaction that has been in effect for hundreds if not thousands of years. Eider that could tolerate the close presence of us had a selective advantage. Now, they are tolerant in their genes.
I would like to think the genetic modification could be or might become, mutual. If so is it only money that has the requisite motive force? That we can be equally arrested by light in stunning reflection as in Grundarfjörður Harbor argues for a wider and deeper possibility: The pursuit of beauty as the catalyst of fundamental change.