National Geographic : 1977 May
the puffins are nesting in the new lava!" With their color-striped, chisel-like beaks, red rimmed eyes, and black-and-white formal coats, the stubby birds preening and strutting on the rocky ledges resembled tuxedoed clowns. To the Westmann Islanders, they are a symbol of life. During breeding season the birds swarm like gnats around the cliffs, when they are not diving in the sea to catch small fish. Over centuries after an eruption, the accumulation of their droppings and the moss that grows on the lava form the soil that cloaks these sea hills in thick green grass. Hiding in that grass, men try to net the plump birds. "Tomorrow," Pall had said, "we will go puffin catching." On a rare cloudless day, the dinghy strug gled over mountainous pea-green seas to the island of Hrauney, half a mile off Heimaey's northwestern shore. No landing site awaited us, only two ropes dangling from a sheer Making new terra more firma, a youngster scatters hay over a hot spot of tephra. The heat should cause the hay to decompose and the seeds within to germinate. Although it has enough minerals, tephra alone lacks or ganic matter to hold moisture for grass. One frost-coated shoot gains a foothold (above) new life springing from the ashes of calamity. hundred-foot cliff. As the swells rose, the young islander at the helm rammed against the rock. We took turns grabbing the ropes and climbing them hand over hand as we walked up the cliff face. Halfway up the spongy slope above the cliff, we reached the puffin catcher's hut and were greeted by HjAlmar Gudnason. A ship to-shore radio operator at Vestmannaeyjar 11 months of the year, Hjalmar was one of the first to see the volcano spring from the ground on that fateful night in 1973. Now, in happier times, he led us to a notch on the grassy hill side, a perch for puffin catching. Pall tutored me in the use of the oversize butterfly net with an 11-foot handle. "Those flying with fish in their beaks are coming in to feed their young," he pointed out. "Let them pass. Those we catch are nearly all immature birds. The older ones have been tried for and missed, and they learn to avoid the nets." I ensured countless future generations with my strikeouts. Feelings for Home Run Deep I had heard of Hjalmar's reputation as a trumpeter. Later in his hut, at the urging of his friends, he reached under his bunk and withdrew the gleaming instrument. Leaving the little shelter, he walked a dozen steps and faced the slope that curved before us like an amphitheater. Into the evening stillness he blew an American pop tune that alternated smooth melody with the lilting bounce of rag time. Startled puffins on the slope rose in whirring flight. His second number lifted soft, soothing tones, and the birds circled back to roost, settling onto the sod-and-rock shelves. As a lowering sun turned the sea from jade to pewter, I witnessed a remarkable concert by one island dweller to a host of others. Bell clear tones echoed across the little canyon, and puffins in their formal wear waddled forward to stare with an eerie attentiveness at the man with the trumpet below them. Occasionally one stretched and fluttered its wings, as if in applause. When the last notes had died in the air, Hjalmar lowered his instrument and walked back to the hut. "I recognized the first tune," I told him, "but what was the second?" "It is a Vestmannaeyjar song, 'Heima,'" he answered. "It means 'At Home.'" And they were.