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A homage to Rudyard Kipling

Stories of the hundreds of thousands of northern fur seals killed on St Paul Island for the fur trade deeply affected poet and author Rudyard Kipling. In his famous 1894 work The Jungle Book, he wrote a chapter, The White Seal, about a young seal searching for a home free from hunters and a poem, Lukannon, named after one of St Paul’s beaches (now spelt Lukanin). Better management of the fur harvest allowed the seal population to recover to its natural size of 2 million by the 1950s. Hunting for fur ended in the 1980s and today only a few hundred seals are taken each year during a subsistence hunt by the native Aleut community. However, the population has declined again by two-thirds due to a warming climate and increased fishing activity, factors that have reduced the food supply of the Bering Sea. This may pose a greater threat to the northern fur seal than the fur trade ever was.  I first read Lukannon during a biological research expedition to St Paul Island and found the poem still resonant more than a century after it was published. Photos from the summer of 2009 are used for illustration.

- JG     


Text from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
Images Sealimages 2010

This is the great deep-sea song that all the St. Paul seals sing when they are heading back to their beaches in the summer. It is a sort of very sad seal National Anthem.

I met my mates in the morning (and, oh, but I am old!)

Where roaring on the ledges the summer ground-swell rolled;

I heard them lift the chorus that drowned the breakers’ song–

The Beaches of Lukannon–two million voices strong.

The song of pleasant stations beside the salt lagoons,

The song of blowing squadrons that shuffled down the dunes,

The song of midnight dances that churned the sea to flame–

The Beaches of Lukannon–before the sealers came!

I met my mates in the morning (I’ll never meet them more!);

They came and went in legions that darkened all the shore.

And o’er the foam-flecked offing as far as voice could reach   

We hailed the landing-parties and we sang them up the beach.

The Beaches of Lukannon–the winter wheat so tall–

The dripping, crinkled lichens, and the sea-fog drenching all!

The platforms of our playground, all shining smooth and worn!

The Beaches of Lukannon–the home where we were born!

I met my mates in the morning, a broken, scattered band.
Men shoot us in the water and club us on the land;

Men drive us to the Salt House like silly sheep and tame,
And still we sing Lukannon–before the sealers came.

Wheel down, wheel down to southward; oh, Gooverooska*, go!
And tell the Deep-Sea Viceroys the story of our woe;
*In The Jungle Book, this is the seals' name for a kittiwake

Ere, empty as the shark’s egg the tempest flings ashore,
The Beaches of Lukannon shall know their sons no more!