A WILD BIRD AND A CULTURED MAN
The Common Eider and Homo Sapiens:
Fourteen Centuries Together
A REVIEW BY E.N. PANOV
Eugene Nikolayevich Panov is a zoologist specializing in the evolution of animal behaviour, a doctor of biological sciences, a professor and a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences (1991).
He is a recipient of the Russian Federation State Award "For fundamental research in animal communication and biosociality" (1993).
This large bulky volume of 495 pages, printed on coated paper, is almost too heavy to hold. The book consists of five parts that include 21 chapters. The first part is dedicated to the eider biology. It describes, in detail, the entire lifecycle of the species, and its unique features. The section contains the usual zoological information delivered in plain easily comprehensible language. Anyone who opens the book will be able to construct the “image of the species” and to see the eider’s world reconstructed by the author. That alone would seem sufficient for a story about this northern duck. But now something very unusual is about to happen.
From the world of the eider we are transferred to our, human, universe, where the eider plays, it turns out, a role much greater than that of just a supplier of the famous eider down. We learn that these birds have their patron saint. The pictures depicting St. Cuthbert have the eider beside him. These birds probably made the life of the Farne Island hermit much more comfortable, and his relationship with the eider is described in legends. However, as we read on, the legend of St. Cuthbert’s patronage over the eiders falls apart before our very eyes. The author pulls the myth of a special relationship between the saint and the eiders apart, skilfully separating the wheat from the chaff. So this part of the book also reads like a good crime story.
Having figured out the situation with the saints related to the eiders, we move on to earthy matters that include very different types of human activity, such as hunting, eider farms, scientific research, nature protection, fine arts and literature. Each aspect of the relationship between humans and the eider is considered in minute detail, with a detour into the history of the question. We have a bird’s eye view of Man’s relationship with one of the representatives of living nature, and this relationship is shown full of complexity and contradiction. The author has considered the entire imaginable range of the relationship of humans with a specific biological species, from setting up nature reserves to its domestication, from archaeological findings and eider museums to the poem by Henrik Ibsen and the “Flying to the North” story by V. Fedorov.
In a thorough and a fundamental manner A. Goryashko considers the archaeological data related to the relationship of humans with the eider, mentioning of the eider in written sources, or scientific descriptions of the species. The author relies on the most interesting of documents and describes how eider protection laws had originated.
We learn, in detail, all about the eider down and its processing, as well as of using eider meat and eggs for food. The book tells us about the history of eider down harvesting in Russia, and with the establishment, as well as the subsequent dying off of eider farms in our country. Here the difference with eider farms, that stand out with their efficiency, in other in other countries is emphasized.
There is a chapter dedicated to the important place the eider occupies in the traditional nature usage by the indigenous peoples of the North, where is serves as a source of food, a provider of material for making clothes, ornaments, medicines and tools.
We read about the eider as a pet, get acquainted with people who, one may say, spent their lifetimes protecting and studying the eider.
The last chapter is about many legends and misunderstandings around the eider. (The author, however, does it throughout her entire book.) This chapter not only refutes false views but also provides true information about rare or little known peculiarities of this species’ behaviour, e.g. about the fact that eider chicks can travel by sitting on their mother’s back.
The author analyzes how all sorts of untrue stories may have come about. The reasons could have included simple illiteracy, errors that arise during the retelling of the stories, translation difficulties and, finally, human tendency to mythologize everything that does not match the ordinary. That’s how final accords in the overall picture of this in its own way unique species are arranged.
One cannot, in a brief review, list all the issues touched by the author. This is a fundamental work that impresses one with the amount of information, the thoroughness with which the material has been processed, and the width and variety of the issues discussed. At the same time the book uses beautiful literary language that makes it accessible to anyone interested in the connection between humans and nature.
The book is richly illustrated, with lots of unique archive photos and impressive colour pictures. Each chapter concludes with a list of literature and internet sources used. There is nothing of the sort in the present-day popular science literature. The publication of this book is certainly an important event both for the zoologists and nature protection experts, and for a wide circle of nature connoisseurs. It is an invaluable support in the educational work. Lastly, it does make a fascinating and useful reading.
Professor E.N. Panov