In Edinburgh, the cherry trees have lost their leaves. Golden and carnelian-colored, they carpet the grass and fill the gutters like heaps of slender sunset fish. We will watch the color fade from them, and from other arboreal fish and stars that bejewel the pavements, until winter is undeniably upon us, with the low arc of the northern sun spreading golden light and extended shadows throughout these shortest days.
In Provincetown one recent autumn, we saw hundreds of thousands of little silver fish that had been chased ashore by bigger hungry things. Silver fish, just the shape that a child draws, were strewn like a line of glitter, hemming all the shores, sea and harbor. They filled the rock pools and every salty cranny, and there was no saving them.
I asked Mary. She said, “We call those little guys peanut bunkers.” Or menhaden, from an Algonquin word for “he fertilizes.” It is said that Tisquantum, the Pilgrims’ native guide, told them to plant menhaden along with their crops. They are food for the earth but also for striped bass, bluefish, tuna, sharks, egrets, gannets, herons, dolphins, and whales. They filter feed upstairs of the oysters after they make their way out of the creeks and estuaries where their larvae grow.
We didn’t know any of that then. We just knew that they were an awesome, sad, and beautiful sight. One of many unpredictable wonders the sea heaves up.
On our last day of The Month of the Silver Fish we crossed the marsh and the thin ribbon of dune for a final swim. It was late in the day. We were alone, save for one man standing about 50 yards down the shore, facing seaward stark naked, worshipping in his own way. There was a frenzy of activity on the water in front of him. The lowering sun colored the splashes pink-gold as hundreds of seabirds fed in the shallows right along the beach.
We went in for a swim and suddenly the birds began to take off. One after another, flying low, wingtips skimming the water, they streamed past us on both sides and just overhead. The sun illuminated their white bellies, and they kept coming, hundreds of them. We couldn’t speak and could hardly breathe in the middle of that river of luminous plumage and arcing wings.
They were great shearwaters, migratory masters of the Atlantic, having a good feed of menhaden before heading back across the sea to islands off the west coasts of Britain and Ireland. I have seen them since feeding with the humpbacks, waiting on the weird green bubble for the whales to rise, and plunging into their open mouths to snatch fish.
Later, in October, the shearwaters head from their burrows on the northern isles to the far South Atlantic, each pair laying one egg in November on the Tristan de Cunha cluster of volcanic islands, about midway between South Africa and Argentina. One of them is appropriately called Inaccessible Island. The only town in the whole cluster is called Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, population 266.
When the southern winter arrives, the shearwaters head north with their young. They feed along the coasts from Brazil to Provincetown and points north before flying back again to the British and Irish isles.
It was time for us to fly as well. We were taking the last ferry to Boston. We ran along Commercial Street, pulling our bags, still intoxicated by the unexpected blessing of the shearwaters. It was dark. Two foxes were dancing under the bright light at the Coast Guard Station, but we couldn’t stop to marvel.
I had to get back to Edinburgh. I would be there just in time for the turning of the cherry leaves.
Carey Morning is an American living in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she is a psychotherapist, writer, and painter.