Excerpt from the plastic book I’m writing about two wildlife photographers on Kure Atoll in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. The plastic cassette technology failed me, but I had the transcription of our conversation.
Matter is pitiful; form is terrible[i]
The photographers returned to Kure in May 2004. They found albatross chicks sitting in nest bowls on every inch of ground, waiting for their parents to come back with food from the ocean. The chicks had advanced to that odd, in-between state called adolescence — fluffy grey down erupting in awkward bits from sleek, adult feathers.
The photographers set up shop in an old Coast Guard shed, a small square of shade in the blinding white. The chicks viewed the humans as objects of curiosity, not a threat. They behaved like human toddlers, Susan wrote, putting everything in their mouths, tugging on tent lines, biting shoes and snatching bits of clothing left out to dry.[ii]
One chick nested just outside the shed. “We passed it everyday when we came out to photograph,” says Susan. She uses “it.” As far I know no one ever determined this bird’s sex. She has told this story many times, in places all over the world. “I named it Shed Bird,” she tells me. “We said hello and talked to it — you do that kind of thing when you’re out there for eight weeks. We watched it get bigger and bigger.”
Shed Bird started to spread its dark wings, preparing for a life in air. “When the winds come in, the fledglings start to sense it. You can tell they are realizing they have wings and what they might be for,” says Susan. “They jump and hover for a just a few moments. When we saw that, we knew pretty soon Shed Bird would be gone.”
One day David found the bird panting in the hot sun. It fell over and didn’t have the strength to get up. He moved the bird into the shade, sprinkled it with water and cooled it with a fan. Shed Bird seemed to revive. But the next day when they came, it had died.
The manager of the Kure Wildlife Sanctuary decided to cut Shed Bird open. Susan watched her make the incision. It revealed a stomach stretched tight and perforated in two places. “Then she took the knife and actually opened the stomach. It was completely impacted, full of plastic: disposable cigarette lighters, several bottle caps, an aerosol pump top, shotgun shells, broken clothes pins, a little toy like a spinning top.”
Susan wanted to know exactly what killed Shed Bird. She put on gloves and began to pick out every piece of debris. The shards got so small she needed tweezers. Three hours, flies swarming, the stench of rotting.
Susan removed half a pound of junk from the albatross chick, mostly plastic. “That bird was sturdy to have survived as long as it did,” she tells me. She is talking to me over the phone. I am at home in Portland, and she in San Francisco. I have her voice recorded on a tape that I played back, typing the words as she spoke. Somehow the tape — old cassette technology, not digital — got tangled in its plastic case and broke, so now I can’t go back and hear her voice. This is what I typed:
A. Why did you pull the plastic out of the bird?
S. It wasn’t as though I planned on making a portrait. It was pretty emotionally driven, but it was also task driven. The primary impulse was curiosity. I wanted to know what was in there. I could see when she opened the stomach, I could see that it was mostly plastic, but I thought “I want to see every single thing that was in the stomach, everything. Every last thing.”
S. I wanted it to be seen. That bird was stuffed with plastic, which had led to dehydration, malnutrition and ultimately starvation. Obviously it suffered. It couldn’t pass its stomach contents because it was so severely impacted, it couldn’t regurgitate and it couldn’t accept food. That must have been a horrific experience for that animal. All the time it was spreading its wings, testing the wind, it was suffering, those sharp bits of plastic had perforated its stomach.
S. We got to know to this bird, we saw it every day for two months. I felt this responsibility to document it so that people would see it. That, I thought, was the least we could do for it.
Susan spread all the pieces out, more than 500. Then she took a photograph.