Book review: Waterfalls of Stars – My Ten Years on the Island of Skomer by Rosanne Alexander
Published in 2017 by Seren, ISBN 978-1-78172-380-7
One of the most curious things about long term involvement with our seabird islands of Skomer and Skokholm is how it influences your perception of time. I have had the privilege of visiting Skomer for thirty years now, and the island has never ceased to impress upon me the relative insignificance of my own existence. Over those thirty years the imposing cliffs, the feel, even the smell of island have remained almost totally unchanged. Some of the individual seabirds have been living there for longer than I have been alive. There is something intimidating and yet wonderful about this sense of the immensity of time.
Yet alongside those constants, over that same period, the human life of the island has changed immeasurably. Wildlife Trust Wardens have been resident on Skomer since 1960. In those early days the job was much more isolated. Communication with the mainland was difficult, conditions could be very harsh, safeguards were fewer. Fast forward thirty years, and our current wardens have internet access, mobile telephones, good communications with the emergency services and provide a constant stream of updates of sightings and monitoring results to the world via the 24/7 machinery of social media.
Waterfalls of Stars is a very personal narrative of Rosanne and Mike Alexander’s life and work on Skomer in the 1970s and 80s. Rosanne paints a heart-wrenchingly honest portrait of her ten years there, at a time when the job was much more isolating than it is today. The book leads the reader through both the joys and despairs of their daily existence; through the life, and death, that is an inescapable part of a small island teeming with wildlife.
Anyone who has been to Skomer and stayed overnight will recognise the sense of wonder and privilege she describes at her first experience of the Manx Shearwaters returning by nightfall, and how life-changing an experience that sudden and unexpected connection with the natural world can be. Less familiar to most readers will be the alternately funny, touching and sometimes devastating descriptions of life as a warden over so many years; the abject helplessness of watching oil pollution devastate the island’s beaches and smother the seal pups that she has been following from birth, the fascination and pleasure of rearing an injured and increasingly tame but incredibly intelligent raven, or the true solitude of being the only person on an island with no immediate contact with the mainland.
For me perhaps the most engaging and thought-provoking element of the book is how every tale of island life reinforces the tiny distance that lies between joy and despair in the natural world. Life on Skomer in the 1970s was far removed from today’s modern mainland life, where so many of us are so disconnected from the natural world, and view wildlife and natural landscapes as an aesthetic or recreational privilege that poses no threat. On Skomer, an unexpected storm, or snowfall, can bring both spectacular beauty but also very real risk to life and limb. Rosanne paints a powerful portrait of how precarious existence on Skomer can be, but also how life persists and thrives in spite of that.
Waterfalls of Stars is at its simplest level a thoroughly enjoyable and informative description of the life of an island warden, and the trials and tribulations of wardening an internationally important nature reserve. Anyone who has been to Skomer or who appreciates wildlife will surely enjoy the book for this reason alone. However, it is most important for its insights into what it means to be so in touch with nature, to become so personally entwined with the fate of the wildlife around you, that it alters your entire outlook on life. Rosanne’s final description of leaving the island, and the absolute pain of being wrenched so terminally from a place to which you feel you belong so wholly, is the culmination of the intimate connection between her and the island that develops throughout her very personal story.
I loved this book. It fired up every emotion that inspired me into a career in conservation: anger at the threats we so carelessly impose on our wildlife, the joy of making a difference, the fascination at the unfolding wonders of the natural world, and the sheer pleasure of reading someone giving voice to emotions that I could never articulate so eloquently myself.
You can buy a copy of Waterfalls of Stars here:
Rosanne is very kindly donating 10% of the royalties from the book to the Trust.