Gloucester Author Writes about an Endangered Bird

A Review by JoeAnn Hart

The Narrow Edge, by Deborah Cramer, Yale University Press, 2015. $28, 288 pages.  

The Narrow Edge

 “When an extinction occurs, there is no way to know which species will be the next to cling to the hands of time.”

The “narrow edge” in the title of this engaging book by Gloucester resident, Deborah Cramer, evokes the image of comedian Harold Lloyd, in the 1923 film Safety Last!, teetering on a skyscraper ledge, clinging for dear life to the hands of a clock. It is an apt metaphor for the uncertain future of the red knot (“a small sandpiper about the size of a robin and weighing about as much as a coffee cup”), which roams the sliver of sand between land and sea, a precarious place to be these days. This indefatigable bird lives for five months on desolate tidal flats at the tip of South America, then, as if possessed, travels 9,500 miles north, following the coasts of two continents, to breed in the Arctic.,

In The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey, Cramer explores this flyway by plane, kayak, helicopter, and foot, feeding on history and science as she goes, wrestling with the consequences of human interaction with the natural world. Her journey ends at a scientists’ field camp in the most northern of Canada’s territories, where the red knot lays its eggs. The birds arrive with just the feathers on their backs, while Cramer is weighted down with supplies, bulky clothes, a GPS, and the requisite twelve-gauge shotgun to ward off polar bears. It was the worst summer for shorebirds in the field camp’s history.

In her travels, Cramer often sustains herself on pilot biscuits, but the red knot needs high protein fuel and lots of it, preferably the eggs of the homely horseshoe crab. Yet this living fossil, which has survived on Earth for half a billion years, is running out of breeding grounds. The beaches on which it lays its eggs are being destroyed from over-development, rising waters, oil spills, and industrial run-off. As if the crab didn’t have enough to worry about, it is also of considerable value to humans: Aside from its historical use as fertilizer and bait, the crab’s blue blood is used to ensure the safety of intravenous medical procedures. In theory, the blood harvest should not kill the crab, or at least not many, but Cramer’s research suggests another story—and so the red knot’s fortunes rise and fall with the crab’s.

Cramer walks and talks with a wide band of scientists and naturalists who are working against the clock to save the red knot, because if this shorebird disappears, it won’t be the only one, and we cannot predict the consequences. “The foundation of food webs may not be apparent until they fray,” she writes, citing the disappearance of the passenger pigeon with the rise of Lyme disease. (Read the book to discover the connection.) When an extinction occurs, there is no way to know which species will be the next to cling to the hands of time.

—JoeAnn Hart

Orion Magazine, Sept./Oct. 2015

JoeAnn Hart

 JoeAnn Hart, a long time Gloucester resident, is the author of the novels Float and Addled.  Her review first appeared in Orion, September/October, 2015.   

Photo by Brendan Pike, Gloucester.

2 thoughts on “Gloucester Author Writes about an Endangered Bird

  1. sad story,,,one more of our friends,,in danger ,of going away and never returning, did not know the horseshoe crab is getting in trouble too,,i remember playing with them in the mill river as a kid, when they showed up every year,,,and in wonder at how they looked like a monster from another age,,nice story, but sad too


  2. I am really worried about all the wildlife, I’ve noticed how we have hardly any pigeons as well as seagulls, I started feeding chicks and what started out as a few is now hundreds along with blue jays, cardinals,songbirds,doves,squirrels my heart breaks.I spend fifty dollars a week, yes a week, and I ask that all start taking an interest in feeding, or as you put it you don’t know the effects, this earth is not supplying the food for them to live healthy or their life span. If we don’t really wake up to this problem, i’s going to be tragic. I look forward to reading your book and thank you blessings Kelly


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