Cullivoe Harbour, Isle of Yell, Shetland – I watched a large flock of seabirds approaching. At first they were just a white cloud on the horizon, but as they came nearer I could see the outline of the fishing trawler they were pursuing, gorging on discards.
Recently I was reminded of that holiday memory when I saw a flock of gulls following a tractor which was ploughing the field opposite my house. The birds were constantly on the move, swooping and wheeling in flight, their tails white vanes against the sun. Often I see one or two or at most half a dozen flying over but where had all the extras come from? How did they know to come here? Where would they commute back to in the evening?
I thought of Philip Gross’s “Betweenland VI” poem in The Water Table where he describes “The gulls going home from the city, / from a day’s work at the landfill”. The word gull also means to trick and the poem has its own trick at the end – a pun on home and holm.
Gulls are not the most poetic of birds. It’s the smaller birds that vie for the top of the lyrical charts – skylarks, nightingales, blackbirds. Norman MacCaig, an enthusiastic author of bird poems, wrote “Gulls on a hill loch” in which he describes disturbing a colony which reacts in mad, defiant “Gothic scritches and yells”. Kathleen Jamie’s “sea maws” are Scottish too: in “The Whale-Watcher” the poet envisages spending a cold summer holed up in a battered caravan at the end of the road where there is nothing but “harsh grass, sea-maws, / lichen encrusted bedrock”. Then there is the solitary bird trying to fly against the gale in Ted Hughes’ early masterpiece “Wind”:
“ ... a black-
back gull bent like an iron bar slowly”.
A perfect line break re-inforces the sense of the words.
But none of these gulls are linked with ploughing. I thought of two famous plough poems, Edward Thomas’s “As the Team’s Head-Brass” and Paul Muldoon’s “Why Brownlee Left”. No gulls - but neither of these is really about ploughing. Thomas’s is about war, time, loss and love. Muldoon’s is a mystery but you would expect that Mrs Brownlee (assuming there was one) might have noticed the absence of gulls a few hours after Brownlee abandoned the rig.
It’s R S Thomas who captures the combination of birds and plough with a beautiful economy of words in “The Dark Well”. He describes
“A poor farmer with no name,
Ploughing cloudward, sowing the wind
With squalls of gulls at the day’s end”.