I spent the best part of my very late teens hanging on to a mountain rope above the tumultuous and moody Atlantic Ocean, crashing against the cliffs of Cap Sizun, rocky lifeline to a hundred metre drop. Goulien is a small village of the Western Breton peninsula, Penn Ar Bed or Finistère in French, both meaning “The end of the Earth” – even if some linguists might think differently, you get the idea- a region close to my heart. I had left behind the old salt marshes further east; I was growing into a young man and the politics on the bird sanctuary were starting to get to me. An opportunity came along – still with the same charity- so I packed my bags, my binoculars and headed west right after Easter and for the summer. My Dad brought me that time, a father bringing his son for his first “Walk About”, my Right of Passage. As soon as we crossed the county’s border, my heart felt lighter and my muscles started to relax one by one. “This is it” I thought, this is actually happening! The car was speeding towards the sunset and I drifted away from this land, thinking about my new home when Dad decided to break this peaceful moment of communion…
– Did you know I won a race there?
– Bah! In Goulien! I was about your age; nice people, you’ll like it!
– I already do I think, it has been calling me!
– And I know I said I wouldn’t say it, but remember… I am your Father and…
– Don’t say it…
– I know… Be good; be careful and most important…
– Don’t fuck it up!
We both burst into a genuine laugh, his being more sarcastic than mine, I knew what he meant; the last advice wasn’t about others or about him; it was just for me, for my dreams and those that were about to follow.
After spending the night at my Grand Mother’s, Dad drove the last 30 odd miles to the reserve. We said our goodbyes and I was quickly introduced to the main actors; some I knew already from previous visits, from the annual association’s conference or the Bird Sanctuary commission. There was Pierre, the former fisherman turned naturalist now curator of the site; Erik, a mad character and personality, manager of the site and of the wildlife guides; Jean Yves, the scientist from the university of Brest, breaker of the behavioural code of the Kittiwakes, and Fred, the botanist, also from UOB, with a sense of repartee and humour sharper than the granite rocks down below. His mate Bernard was also about sometimes, another scientist specialised in marine life and expert in oil spills consequences and management… We had our fair share in Brittany, our beautiful coast and how the populations of seabirds had seriously declined as a result. Torrey Canyon (1967), Olympic Bravery ( 1976), the Bohelen ( 1976), Amoco Cadiz (1978), the Gino (1979), the Tanio (1980) and the Amazzone (1988)… Yes, we know how to clean that shit in Brittany and Bernard was the “go to guy” to make them pay. They were my heroes and I was about to start working with them…
From April on, there was not a lot of activity on the sanctuary. I mean by that, not a lot of visitors but the site was vibrant with nesting seabirds; we still had to take turns in the van at the entrance to welcome people. There was a couple of other guides on site, volunteers or students wanting to know more, a way for us as a group to reach out to the public, pass on our message and educate, share our knowledge. I befriended two new guys, both wanted like me a bit of adventure but these two felt like runaways. Oliver, who didn’t know much about birds but had firm convictions wanted to learn. He literally escaped from Paris, just for a month or two, leaving parents and girlfriend behind; he just couldn’t stick it anymore. A wonderful guy with a welcoming Parisian sense of humour (yes, yes, it does exists!). Then there was Phil; a more complex character from the very North of France. His moods could be jovial but then he would shut down within his own world, silent; he used to always say:
– “Where I am from, we have a say: when the weather is nice, it means it’s going to rain”
– “We say that here too” I said. “or rather “in Brittany it only rains on fools”
– “And on tourists!” added Oliver, hiding from a light shower.
We enjoyed each other’s company and shared a room together; well, a classroom to be precise as we were accommodated in the local Goulien primary school which had recently closed its doors due to the lack of kids; those left had been dispatched to nearby Audierne and even Dournenez. It was a big room; three mattresses on the floor as you do when you are a teenager, an ashtray and a tape player. After chatting for a while, we would almost always play either “Vangelis” or “Robert Hodgson” to go to sleep; don’t ask me why, that is just the way it was. Anyhow, after going up and down these cliffs several times a day, a glass of beer or a Kir in Yvonne Kerisit’s bar across the street and we were out for the count! And counting was a big part of our job… Well never mind, it’s funny to me!
Since Oliver was only making his debut in Ornithology, Phil and I had been paired to conduct the Kittiwakes survey, supervised by Jean Yves, our mentor. When we weren’t on guide duties, we would start our day early. First port of call, Yvonne Kerisit’s bar for a big bowl of black coffee; well it said Aimé Kerisit’s on the sign, her husband, but she was the boss, the local cctv if you wish and she knew what was going on in the village. Since we were “estrañjour” or strangers, we became quite immune to the gossips of the village and when they wanted to talk about us around the counter, the old folks would switch from French to Breton. Since I had been deprived from learning my own tongue at the French National School, I only recognised a few words and I thought it added to the experience. My Grandparents and their siblings used to do the same and I loved it! We then took our bicycles and headed for the sanctuary only three kilometres away. A fairly flat run, before the descent for Pors Kanape…
Our job was quite technical and physical. We had a folder with a picture of each cliff sheltered from the south western and western winds, the “Suroît” or “Avel Mervent” can be devastating and the clever gulls, guillemots and razorbills knew it. On each picture were a myriad of tiny stickers with numbers on them; cliff “A” and nest “32” for example. There was a total of 8 main cliffs and 4 smaller colonies further west on the territory. Jean Yves had conducted an intensive work for the past 15 years, ringing Kittiwakes and breaking down their language; ethology, the science of behaviours and communication. At the end of a rope, he had ringed hundreds of birds with super light colour coded rings and an aluminium one identifying the “ringer” and the origin of the country. If it was a female, the coloured ring would be placed above the tin one on the left foot, under if it was a male. The right foot would carry another three colours. It was coded in French and English for the colours and 1 or 2 to start if it was a male or a female. So “2 OWWJ” would be “Female, Orange, White, White, Jaune (yellow); we also had to write down the behaviour. “Advertising” (Adv) when a bird would be making an up and down movement of the head, the beak facing down, meaning assurance and territory. “MLA” was “discomfort on the nest”, probably a young bird who took someone else’s nest hoping to get lucky, characterised by a crouched body and squinting eyes etc. It never worked and they had to go “walk about” themselves for another year to Greenland in order to get more maturity… Funny that! We would then enter the data on a prehistoric computer program that would give us the age, where it had been spotted during its migrations and so forth… All that before Internet!
The tricky part was to get to a cliff where you would have the right angle for writing all that down; eight cliffs and sometimes twice a day using ropes at times but mostly by free climbing quite vertically with a telescope and a tripod on your back. We had to manage our fears, the cacophony of the Kittiwakes and the noise of the crashing waves 300 feet below. A few tips were shown to us, useful knots or how not putting your hand too high to a grip as your foot will be there next. I found myself stuck on a ridge once; talk about being stuck between a rock a hard place! The only possible pass from one cliff to another, 20 cm wide 30 metres fall in a sea blender to the right, 90 degree cliff to the left; I did it a hundred times, always left foot first then right, then right hand grab, release left foot and off you go. That day the sea fog was heading for us like a galloping horse and we were anxious to get finished. I went right foot first, got stuck until Phil’s voice told me to go back again. It was a lonely moment for a few minutes; we’ve all been there and Jean Yves fell off the cliff from an unsecured rope a couple of times (saying that to us so casually… I mean who survives a 30 metre fall for God sake!!! Twice!).
It didn’t matter how the day went, we always ended it in Yvonne’s bar afterwards and around a couple of beers, talking about our close calls or sheltering from the storm before heading back to our school for an early night. But as the summer months were in full swing with visitors, it also attracted scientists and summer workers. A botanist arrived, a girl from Paris and a very talented painter. She had redone all the signs for the wild flowers of the sanctuary. She hooked up with another young nerd doing his thesis from the Capital. But he didn’t like to talk too much to us. We weren’t from the academic background and little did he know that none of his and our Breton mentors never really gave a shit about his self serving attitude. Phil had a beef with the girl while we could hear their pathetic affair in the room next door; he couldn’t really stand the bossing around of the new comer.
– “You know Phil, I had to do the dishes again after you today, and you really have to learn on how to live in a community environment”.
– “Well funny that! It worked just fine until you got here.”
And so the energy of the school slowly changed. Phil shut down like people from the North sometimes do and I was never able to fully get him back. Pierre felt sorry for him and he started to spend more time at his house. Oliver had gone home and I found myself quite alone.
Then a scientist from Mexico came along for a few weeks. And we became pals. He had his routine and worked exclusively with Jean Yves. He looked very concentrated in the morning; drank his coffee, took his gear and swallowed a handful of sea salt with a sip of water before heading to the cliffs.
– “Why are you doing that?” I asked naively.
– “ it is to stay hydrated during the long hours on the cliffs”
– “Wow, rather you than me! I thought it was just to take Tequila shots!” I said, wanting to be cool and knowledgeable…
– “We only use salt in our food here, or to ward off evil spirits…” I added.
He looked at me with darker eyes, then cocked them towards the ceiling pointing at the bedrooms and just said:
– “Well, maybe it’s for that too chico!”
I raised my eyebrows and laughed in silence. I was packing my lunch in my bag which consisted of a piece of dry baguette, a lump of cheese, a small tin of tuna in brine and an apple. Ricardo asked me if that’s all I was eating as he noticed that my diet was pretty much the same since he got here. I replied that it is all I could afford and to be franc, come up with. He left the kitchen while laughing waving his hand in the air, more as a sorry for me rather than a “hasta luego”!
The summer came to a close and nearly all were gone. Ricardo was leaving too, returning to Mexico to his wife and children, straight after a couple of days in Brest with Jean Yves. I decided to cook something; got a nice bread and a lettuce from the deli/bar/bakery in the village and a piece of Brebis cheese. I didn’t really know what I was doing and I looked at the press where various visitors had left pastas and jars behind. I found a tin of button mushrooms in brine and decided that it would be a good idea to throw it in the pan with a bit of oil and butter. Ricardo walked in.
– “hola el joven! What are you doing?”
– “Well Ricardo, I am cooking for you for your last day! Also, I haven’t a clue what I am doing, so bear with me, take a glass of wine and be my guest!”
Ricardo peeped over my shoulder and pretended to enjoy the smell while waving his right hand from the steam of my soggy mushrooms towards his nose, before bursting into tears, slapping the table with one hand and pouring a glass of cheap wine with the other.
– “Come on hombre, forget about the mushrooms, I am bringing you for a pizza!”
– “Hey, what’s wrong with my mushrooms? “
– “Oh, nothing, nothing” said the guy was now bent in half while looking at the empty tin and as I was about to join in the giggles I just said:
– “Hey fuck you man! You eat freakin’ salt for breakfast!!!
We drove to Audierne, by the Goyen Valley straight across the Cap. We had a pizza and that day I discovered what a Calzone was. We shared a few beers and a chat and we said our goodbyes the day after with the whole crew. I never saw Ricardo again, or Phil and Oliver. I hanged around my crew of heroes for a little while and from time to time but I know that it had started to fizzle out. Nothing lasts forever but memories like that do. I have enjoyed my “Walk About” on the cliffs of Cap Sizun and I have returned since, with a heart full of tender secrets that made out of me the man I have become today…
A Special thank you to Henri Goardon and the Town Hall of Goulien for the pictures of the school and to Michael from Birdwatch Sligo for the Kittiwakes site I was able to go to. It made this post a bit more special for me.
Keep Well and Eat Happy