Great Auk

Pinguinus impennis

 

Once, flocks of great auks nested on the rocks

off the coast of the North Atlantic. The first bird

 

to be called a penguin, they were built to swim,

but slow, defenseless on land. Pairs mated for life,

 

nesting shoulder to shoulder in dense rookeries,

laying one egg on bare rock, taking turns tending

 

the egg until it hatched. Devoted parents, they cared

for their young even after they’d fledged;

 

adults were seen swimming, chicks perched

on their backs. In those days, a sighting of great auks

 

quickened a sailor’s heart, signaled landfall ahead.

Their end came when the Europeans’ love for featherbeds

 

brought hunters in search of down (after every eider

had been plucked, gone). To loosen their plumage,

 

auks were boiled in cauldrons over fires fed with the oil

of auks killed before them, since there was little wood to be found.

 

In 1830, a volcano erupted off the tip of Iceland, submerging

the last nesting colony on Geirfuglasker, great auk rock.

 

Refugees, the auks moved to the island of Eldey. There,

on July 3, 1844, the last pair was killed by hunters

 

gathering specimens for a museum. Here’s how one hunter

described the scene: I took him by the neck and he flapped his wings.

 

He made no cry. I strangled him.

 

 

Note: Great auk specialist John Wolley interviewed the two men who killed the last birds, and Sigurour Ísleifsson described the act; the words in italics are his.

 

“Great Auk” originally appeared in Passings, first published by Expedition Press in 2016 and reprinted by Wandering Aengus Press in 2019.

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Holly J. Hughes

Holly J. Hughes is the author of Hold Fast, Sailing by Ravens, coauthor of The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World, and editor of the award-winning anthology, Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease. Her fine art chapbook Passings received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 2017. Her poems and essays have been nominated for Pushcart prizes and have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including Poetry of Presence and Dancing with Joy. She’s a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University’s low-residency MFA program, where she served on the staff for 13 years. She also spent over thirty summers working on the water in Alaska commercial fishing for salmon, skippering a 65-foot schooner and working as a naturalist on ships. She currently leads writing and mindfulness workshops in Alaska and the northwest and consults as a writing coach.

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