Table of Contents

The Nomadic Alternative

Text by Bernhard Schirg
with photographs by David Wiggins

A sound unheard-of lured Olof Rudbeck to the window that morning. in April.

On the desk from which he rose lay the printer’s copy for the second volume of his Atlantica. A semicircle of books arched around the manuscript, unfolding illustrations of a tablet that had cast a spell on scholars for centuries.

Eyebrows raised with curiosity, Rudbeck followed the nervous cheep-cheep to the window. And there they were. In zig-zag flights, swallows were diving below the roofs of Uppsala, scouting the city’s garbles for this year’s nests.

Summer is coming, Rudbeck smiled, watching the birds draw their nervous pattern into the crisp morning air.

Back at his desk, Rudbeck’s view wandered once again over the engravings spreading out above his manuscript. The illustrations that showed the complex imageries of an ancient bronze tablet included a galore of bird-like figuresIn the first decades of the sixteenth century, this tablet had appeared in Rome, in the vicinity of where the temple of Isis once had stood. 

In 1527, the city was sacked. Legend has it that around that time, the mysterious object ended up in the hands of a blacksmith. The craftsman eventually sold the artifact, worked with complex inlays in silver and enamel, to a humanist cardinal enamoured with all things antique. 

Passing through the hands of collectors and potentates across Europe and centuries, the so-called Mensa Isiaca ended up in Turin. 

There, at the Egyptian Museum, it is still preserved today,

@Lutz: die Abbildung oben bitte bildschirmbreit machen 

|Monographie|Laurentii Pignorii Patavini Mensa Isiaca|Pignorius, Laurentius|1669|Amstelodami|pignlaur_PPN663324742|

Engraving depicting the centre section of the so-called Mensa Isiaca, published as part of the posthumous edition of Lorenzo Pignoria’s Mensa Isiaca, Amsterdam 1669. Courtesy of Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen [p. 50 in the digital version, click here for high resolution].

The tablet Rudbeck studied that morning was published in an early edition by Lorenzo Pignoria (1571–1631). In his book, this Italian priest also offered tentative interpretations of the complex imageries that his engravings unfolded in three rows. 

In the seventeenth-century, Egyptian art – and the hieroglyphs in particular – were still an area of wild speculation. It was only around 1800 that the Rosetta Stone was discovered, and that Champollion published his groundbreaking studies of the hieroglyphs. 


Before (and after), dozens of scholars had included the Mensa Isiaca among the evidence for their esoteric takes on Egyptian art. In his reading, Pignoria followed the trace of Isis. 

For him, the Egyptian goddess was the key to the tablet’s meaning and function. From ancient texts it was known that the cult of Isis and her husband Osiris had spread all across the Mediterranean. 

On his quest to decipher the tablet’s iconographies, Pignoria began skimming through the ancient sources on the goddess and her worship, and consulted antiquities that were associated with her. 


@Lutz: das Zitat 24.04. oben sollten wir hervorhheben!

Photo by: Bernhard Schirg

Today, the 24th of April 1689, the swallows returned to Uppsala – like every year around this time.

Dr. Bernhard Schirg

The Tern

The Tern

Today, the 24th of April 1689, the swallows returned to Uppsala – like every year around this time.

Dr. Bernhard Schirg

For Rudbeck, however, readings like that of Pignoria were flawed from the beginning. As he wrote during those days in spring, earlier antiquarians had substantially misjudged where the imageries on the tablet had truly originated.  

When preparing the second volume of this Atlantica (1689), he had a new woodcut of the tablet prepared. For this he drew on previous editions. His woodcut however lacked the resolution of their high-quality engravings. As such, it can be seen as n illustrated commentary on Pignoria, for which Rudbeck re-arranged the imagery according to his interpretation. 

Rudbeck related the figures and animated beings to the veneration of the earth and the sun as practiced already millennia ago in pagan Scandinavia. This was where the myths of Isis (the earth) and Osiris (the sun) came from, and where similar iconographies survived on objects such as Sámi drums.

In its primary function, the Mensa Isiaca was a calendar of the Nordic Year. The theme defining the artifact was Isis as a symbol for the changing seasons in the north – the region that, according to his Atlantica, had brought forth all myth and astronomy. 


Woodcut of the Mensa Isiaca in the second volume of Rudbeck’s Atlantica (1689).
See RfA-ID 287.

For the woodcut he included in his Atlantica, Rudbeck had the names of the respective months printed right below the scenes he interpreted. The animals he identified in the context of the figures and the respective behaviours they exhibit over the year provided exact timestamps. 

What Rudbeck had just observed that morning in spring was another piece of evidence in his quest to enlighten what had puzzled scholars for centuries:

Already three days before, he went on, he had spotted the cranes (grus) crowding the fields around the city, together with the greylag geese (anser sylvestris) that stopped over on their journey north.

For Rudbeck, it was the migration of birds that helped solving the riddle of a millennia-old artifact.

'The Migration of Birds to the North' Click to Explore how Rudbeck interpreted the Mensa's spring section!

@Lutz: die tolle Abbildung oben mit Hotspots bitte bildschirmbreit machen. Oben und unten können wir noch etwas weissraum aus der abbildung schneiden.

The god Osiris, in whose headgear
Rudbeck saw the head of a stork (ciconia)
or a crane (grus).

In the corner under Osiris's throne (clearer to see in Pignoria's engraving), Rudbeck spotted a toad, indicating the spawning of quail in April.

The god Horus, son of Isis and Osiris. Rudbeck points to three eyes in the headgear (only visible in the better resolution of Pignoria's engraving). For him they stand for the sun, moon, and earth. By their cycles, he explains, we measure the year, whose Swedish name år Rudbeck sees in the name Horus.

The goddess Isis. In her headgear (a bird visible only in Pignoria's engraving) Rudbeck discovers a turkey presenting itself for mating. For him, this symbolises the earth and and the animals which both at this time of the year are all are ready to receive the seeds.

The swallow (hirundo) that returns to the north in the second half of April, and whose arrival to Uppsala in 1689 Rudbeck described in the second volume of the Atlantica.

Apis standing on an ice floe, with two human figures offering the god water to drink.

For Rudbeck, this scene marks the breaking of the river ice (islossning) in early spring. He refers to Sámi drums featuring similar imageries (drum E and drum L).

Above the scene of Apis on a floe of river ice, the bird phoenix is spreading his wings. For Rudbeck, this myth symbolised the sun rising from below the horizon again after nordic winter.

Two figures of Isis. The flowers on their headgear mark the first blossoms of spring up north that are still weakened by the nightly cold

Etymologically connected with Swedish is ('ice'), the goddess Isis and her tumescent breasts mark the rivers that are about to swell as ice turns to water in spring.

The goddess Isis (described as T in Rudbeck's text, this letter apparent in Pignoria's engraving seems to have been omitted in the woodcut). On her headgear, the sun rises between two dark moons, standing for the sun being reborn from winter darkness. Rudbeck relates the winged dress of Isis to the bird Phoenix (another symbol for the same phenomenon). The colourful feathers of this bird as described by the myth here announce the blossoms of spring.

A sickle in the hand of Isis indicates the earth that lies stripped of all vegetation at this time of the year.

A snake symbolising the year (cf. the iconographic tradition of the Ouroboros). The windings around its central axis amount to a total of twelve. This way, they indicate the sun's course through months of the year. The same imagery, Rudbeck claims, can be found on Sámi drums (drum L).

The alternating pattern on the two outer columns indicate the 25 weeks that the sun ascends over the horizon and descends respectively throughout the year.

Isis at the beginning of May, indicated by her headgear showing an eight-petalled rose (a detail visible only in Pignoria's engraving).

As in the headgear of Isis in Z, Rudbeck sees a turkey ready for mating in this figure, indicating May as month of procreation.

Rudbeck sees the headgear of Osiris composed of three spikes of corn, bundled by the wings of a phoenix (a detail visible only in Pignoria's engraving). Together, these elements symbolise the sun growing stronger. This imagery opposes the headgear of Osiris back in April (X), where a dark disc marked the sun that was still struggling at that time of the year.

The god Osiris. The lion below the throne (a detail clearer in Pignoria) indicates the sun's growing heat and its approaching the sign of Leo.

The falcon commonly associated with Osiris. The soaring flight of this bird of prey marks the strive of the sun towards the highest point above the horizon at midsummer.

Two figures of Isis (EE) marking June. Their headgears point to the corn and grass that now flourish. On the column between them, Rudbeck discovers a lion's head spitting flames (clearer in Pignoria). This marks the heat of the summer sun and its sign in the zodiac.

The god Apis in June. In this month of nightless days, the god shines in brighter light compared to its shadowy representation in March (R). As rainfalls are scarcer in June, his human companions now offer the god drinks of water. As Rudbeck claims, this scene features in greater detail on Sámi drums (see the middle part of drum E).

The inner chamber of Isis. Two phoenix birds (clearer in Pignoria) spread their wings above, indicating the weeks of light that await around midsummer.

An ape-like figure that Rudbeck left uncommented.

Rudbeck’s interpretation of the middle section of the Mensa Isiaca as presented in the second volume of the Atlantica (cap. XI), pp. 667.
Cf. Reaching for Atlantis-ID 287.

'In our dreams we are airborne'

The Migratory Nature we share

A row of hybrid geese holding watch over the Thames.

How did Rudbeck use his observations on the nature of the north to claim ancient myths and antiquities? In hindsight, it is hard to say when this question began defining my studies of the Atlantica

It was after a summer up north when its rich illustrations resurfaced on my desk. That year, I had left Sweden behind for England. 

When I cycled towards the libraries during these first mornings at Oxford, a few narrow boats still chugged up the Thames. Captains clad in down vests rose their hand from the tiller to greet, squinting at the rays of low sun.

Further upstream lay the flat where I had just moved in. A room with a small desk, a shelf above, a bed, my backpack stowed below. The fifth home within two years.

So far, I was still moving lightly.

When I returned from the city in the evenings, the breeze over the river and the canals was carrying a light smell of coal. 

Not too long ago, the boaters had started to heat up their iron stoves. Behind wooden doors painted with flowers and castles of distant lands lived those who had chosen an itinerant life on the water.

Brick walls lined some of the canals where their narrow boats moored. And some of these evenings that I cycled back, they echoed the throaty calls of greylag geese. 

More than once, I then stopped my bike on the last bridge leading to my new home. From its apex, I followed the wedge-shaped flights of birds as they glided towards the horizon, the sound of wing tips grazing the air mixing with the gentle murmur of the water below.

Evening mood over the Sheepwash Channel.

@Lutz: hier wieder Zitatlayout einbauen

Photo by: Bernhard Schirg

Ingrained in the human consciousness is the association of the free flight of birds with the innocence and personal freedom of the first state. In our dreams we are airborne.

Dr. Bernhard Schirg

Ingrained in the human consciousness is the association of the free flight of birds with the innocence and personal freedom of the first state. In our dreams we are airborne.

The One Animal that tells stories

What keeps us sane

All the physical and mental malaise of modern life, Chatwin argued in The Nomadic Alternative, rooted in the fact that humankind was never meant to settle down. 

The drive to wander was biologically hard-wired into the human brain. Yet at a decisive point in history, we have stopped following it. 

As we settled down, Chatwin argued, we began living against our true nature. Not only did we confine ourselves with immobile goods. We stopped telling stories about the world we were meant to wander like the animals whose paths and determination we observe in awe.


When human beings gave up their nomadic life, Chatwin explained, they began passing on our stories solidified through art of writing. It was at this point that we stopped using what he identified as the a foremost capacity of our brain: To devise new meaning ourselves in the ever-changing surroundings as we roam the earth. 

We need to be in movement, Chatwin concluded. We have to apply our biological tools to weave meaning into what we encounter. 

In the narrative Chatwin devised, the stories we create not only defined our mental well-being. They were essential to our survival.

Photo by: Bernhard Schirg

Dr. Bernhard Schirg

the monotony of prolonged settlement weaves patterns in the brain that engender fatigue, boredom and a sense of impotent failure. In confinement we remain in a state of passive anxiety ...

@Lutz: hier wieder Zitatlayout einbauen

I do not remember the exact day during my first spring in England when the birds returned. But I remember their calls resounding from the wedge of wild land that separated our building block from the Thames. 

It must have been in late March – the early weeks of a global pandemic. For most of the day, I now was leaving the door to the garden open. The traffic on the distant motorway across the Thames had fallen silent. 

From my desk, I spotted the odd jogger through the leafless trees on the wedge of land. Making their way upstream on the tow path, they spent their allotted hour of outdoor activity. On the flood plain of Port Meadow, where many of them were headed, the migrating birds were stopping over on their way up north. 

Nature seemed to return all around us. In our narrow garden, a badger began doing a regular evening route. And more than once, muntjacs were drawing closer to my window during the afternoons at the desk.

With all libraries closed, I now was feeding on my notes and the books that I had shelved above my desk. One of them was a biography of Chatwin, in which I revisited to the long years the author had tried taming his Nomadic Alternative. 

What is the mission of man on earth? With awe, Chatwin illustrated the determination with which migratory birds or fish follow their paths across the globe. It was for this purpose, he relates in the Oxford manuscript, that he foraged books in London libraries. 

On one of these occasion, after a long reading session in Bloomsbury, he came across a begging tramp. For Chatwin, the backpacker was – like the vagrant, the gaucho, or the truck driver – one of the few existences in which faint echoes of humankind’s earlier state survived, in the periphery of life organised around cities. 

Sympathetic to the traveller, Chatwin bought the man lunch. What draws you out to a life like this, the he inquired from the bum?

Visitors to the garden.

"It’s like the tides was pulling you along the highway. I’m like the Arctic Tern, guv’nor. That’s a bird. A beautiful white bird what flies from the North Pole to the South Pole and back again."

Bruce Chatwin, The Nomadic Alternative (p. 22)

Arctic Tern (Iceland, summer 2021). Photograph by David Wiggins.

@Lutz: hier wieder Zitatlayout einbauen

Across a lifetime that spans about twenty years, ornithologists have reckoned, the Arctic Tern journeys 1.5 million miles. Going back and forth between the polar north and south year after year, it ranks as the bird with the longest migration route in the animal kingdom.

@Lutz: diesen paragraphen sollten wir umstylen. 

Vorschlag: wie können wir die info zum tern gut einbauen? Info button?

oder alles einfach in eine Spalte?

The Arctic Tern became the bird that Chatwin stylised into an emblem – a powerful image that accompanied his own restless existence.

The same year he handed in the essay for the art catalogue, a painting from an Indian manuscript page came up for sale at Sotheby’s. In late 1967, Chatwin acquired the 7cm by 16cm miniature that showed the bird with its signature black head and red bill. 

Ever since, the painting held a special place at Chatwin’s home at Gloucestershire – a reminder that the quest lending our human life meaning lies in the stories waiting out there.

Birds calling

It must have been a night in late April or early May when falling asleep become more difficult. Lying in bed, I began to wonder about the time when I had last woken up in the same place for so long. 

It was one of these nights, that both my flatmate and I met in the small hallway, long after dark.

„I’ve also heard it,“ Arun said. „What is it?

Through my door to the garden, we followed the sound outside. Somewhere from the no-mans-land towards the river a screeching noise resounded, doubled as if in call and response.

“You think it’s a mammal?,“ Arun whispered.

„Could be also a bird,“ I guessed. „A strange breed though …“



For a while, we kept listening.

From balconies on the upper floors, lustre cones from cell phone lights erratically scanned the canopy. We had not been the only ones wondering about the eery sound. 

I took to the idea of doing some detective work about the latest arrival to the garden. And so, the evening ended with a bet, Arun maintaining that there was a mammalian solution to the noises.

However, after I had transferred the file I had recorded to my computer, I soon gave up research. I simply didn’t know how to start.


Pandemic outdoor desk.

The coming days I spent at a desk in our garden, near the thicket from where the nightly calls had resounded. Through the green walls, an occasional rag of blue shimmered from the nearby Thames. 

In the biography of Chatwin that I had ordered, I picked up the thread of the The Nomadic Alternative again. Three years after the essay, the draft for a book-version of still was far from completion. The text needed shortening and the material substantial re-organising. And the bleak English summers were not conducive to the task, Chatwin felt.

In August 1971, he and and his wife Elizabeth rented a two-roomed house in St Michel l’Observatoire. In the peace of a village in Southern France, secluded in the hilly east of the Luberon, they hoped to finally tame the stroppy manuscript.

Chatwin’s landlord that summer was a migrating bird himself. Armed with microphones, Jean Claude Roché periodically left for journeys all across the world. Along shores and in thick forests he recorded the calls of birds.

The residence in the south of France to which Roché returned was equipped a state-of-the-art audio studio. Under his own label L’oiseau musicien – “The musician bird” – the ornithologist published vinyls of bird songs. 

When Chatwin arrived in France in 1971, Roché asked his British guest for a favour. That summer, Chatwin spoke 406 bird names that Roché intended to use for the multi-lingual introductions to his ‚bird concerts‘. 

What about the Arctic Tern, I immediately wondered?

Fifteen minutes and Euros later, a record was on its way from Lyon to Oxford. In an online discography, I had discovered the polar bird listed among the tracks of one of Roché’s recordings.

The vinyl was still on the way when I elaborated on the latest finds on the Chatwin trail on a Zoom-call with a colleague from the Bodleian Library.

“By the way – there is an ornithologist from Uppsala who regularly comes to the library,” Alex added as I was already about to finish the call. “I think he may even have worked on terns.”

„He comes to Oxford to study birds,” I asked?

“No. Gothic novels.”

“Gothic novels?“

“Yes,” Alex confirmed. “A personal interest.”

A few days later, a man with a white head of hair appeared on my screen. A cheerful smile greeted me with in American accent. Behind, the wooden walls of a Swedish country house.

„So you’re into terns, Alex said,“ David opened the conversation after a first hello? 

He had studied biology decades ago, David later explained. These days, consulting jobs for a health company paid most of the bills. Yet the passion for birds had never left.

„I’m still out in the field a lot,“ David continued. The summers he still returned to the States, to study birds on the Great Plains. Except this year. 

„This was the first summer I couldn’t go,” David pointed out.

„My new passion have been Long-eared Owls,“ David continued. „I’ve found about 20 nests around my house this spring – all due to an outbreak of voles around Uppsala.“

My face must have betrayed an air of ignorance.

“Tiny rodents that live in the open fields,“ David added. „The preferred lunch of owls.”

Long eared owl. Photograph by David Wiggins.

„Normally these owls are very secretive and difficult to study,“ David explained. „But this summer I’ve had lots of time to get to know them. The places where they prefer to hide, how they communicate.“ 

„Owls travel in huge swarms. Nobody can predict where they appear next. Unlike Arctic terns, they are quite erratic nomads, you know.“

“So what’s your story with terns,“ I stuck with the topic? „Alex said you go back a long way.“ 

„Yes indeed,” David replied! „I had a professor in Toronto who did work on a colony on an island in Lake Eerie. Did my MA up there.”

“Any chance to spot Arctic terns near Uppsala,” I inquired?

“Oh they are all around the Baltic coast,“ David replied! „They rest on the skerries as they travel in spring and fall. There are some great bird watching spots on the coast, a one or two-hour drive away.“ 

The same day David sent an email following up on our video conversation. The attachment included a few images from recent owl watching trips. 

Marvelling at David’s excellent photographs, the eerie sound from the nights came to my mind again. It felt a bit of a long shot – but perhaps he had an idea? 

To my mail I attached the sound file I had recorded. An hour later, David’s response came in.

“I suspect those are the begging calls of fledglings Tawny Owls (Strix aluco),” he wrote. „They can be quite insistent when hungry.“

@Lutz: musste das layout ändern da ein bild rausflog. wie machen wir den text hübscher?


It must have been around midsummer when the nightly calls slowly disappeared. On our side of the river, the muntjacs stopped showing up, and the badger was no longer sighted. 

Across the Thames, the hum from the motorway picked up again. At night, the door to the garden now stayed closed. 

There is a period preceding migration in birds in which ornithologists observe a growing unsettledness – a time called Zugunruhe (‚migratory restlessness‘). During this time, the birds start to orient themselves towards the south for a longer and longer period each day. And they do so even when caged in a room without a view of the outside.

The conversation with David had made me recall what had faded out over the past months. The energy of chance encounters. The curiosity of unexpected trails opening up. And the bliss to follow them.


The conversation with David had made me recall what had faded out over the past months. The energy of chance encounters. The curiosity of unexpected trails opening up. And the bliss to follow them.

„Do ring me up the next time you’re in Sweden,“ David had ended our video call. 

Words that didn’t stop to echo in my mind.




@Lutz: könnten wir die karte kombinieren mit dem Zitat oben und auf panorama stellen? Das zitat habe ich noch nicht auf die coole schreibmaschinenschrift bekommen

Making a sandwich … veggie or chicken?

The ping of the incoming text message rang out as a clear note among the muffled noise that reached the apartment from the four-lane road below

A few weeks after the video-call with David, I had returned to Sweden. In an Uppsala apartment, I was getting ready to descend to the bus station where David would pick me up.

Some minutes later, the headlights of a Nissan Micra emerged from the morning fog of August. “Let’s hope it lifts once were up at Fågelsundet,” David said as I buckled up.

At this hour, there were hardly any cars on the road leading up to the coast. The fields began right after the motorway had passed the city limits. Four buzzards, perched on fence poles, held watch over an empty strip of concrete.

“So when does your story with birds begin?“ I asked David.

„Well, my older brother kept a pet owl“, he replied. „He had found it in the forest one day and nurtured it back to health. There was something eerie about it. I thought that was pretty cool.”

„Was that the same time you discovered your passion for Gothic novels?” 

“Oh, that’s a later story,” David smiled. “That was during my studies. There was that bookshop close to university, you know. They had these piles of old books that I loved to browse. One day, I came across a copy of Carmilla.”


“Yeah. A vampire-story from the pre-Draculan period. Woman biting woman. It was a book that took quite off in Victorian time, especially together with the daring illustrations …“

„So Gothic novels are the reason why you return to the Bodleian?“

„Exactly. They have a superb collection at Oxford.”

Illustration from Carmilla. From

Soon the morning fog lifted as the sun grew stronger. After about an hour, we left the motorway behind, continuing towards the Baltic coast.

Occasionally, the steeple of a Protestant church rose over the tree line, announcing the few villages left on the way. Most of the people who live on the Hallnäs Peninsula take to solitude.


Coming to rest

Holding watch at Fågelsundet.

The sky above the trees began to open up as we approached Fågelsundet. The village of mostly consisted of summer houses. Pennants in blue and yellow drooped from the flag poles in front. Only a few cars still parked in the drive ways. For many Swedes, it was already off-season.

Not far from the village, ribs of granite reach towards the sea. Grabbing binoculars from the rear seat, we moved out. 

Fågelsundet translates as ‚Sound of Birds‘ in Swedish. On the horizon, the fog still resisted the August sun, a dark grey line interrupted by a few skerries. Standing on the smooth stone, David began sweeping the horizon, binoculars to his eyes.

After a short while, his head moved slower. He had locked on to some black spots that skimmed the water in the distance.

„Three mergansers,“ he said while I still adjusted my focus.

An occasional breeze rustling the dry panicles of spires around us. Apart from the three water birds, there was hardly any movement on the water.

„It is so calm, the birds are all out on the outer islands,“ David explained. „They spent most of their time on the sea. They usually come in when the storms start.“

Holding watch at Fågelsundet.

Leaving Fågelsundet behind, we moved to another spot further east, a few kilometres closer to the outer islands. From the smooth granite cliffs with their pink veins, a view widened over the Baltic Sea, towards the black-and-white beacon that marked the utmost island of the archipelago.

„Many of the birds migrate all night,“ David explained as we held watch over a bird-less sky. „They come in from Finland in the early mornings and rest on the islands off the coast.“

„Must be spectacular out there, when they arrive in the morning,“ he added.


„We should go out there with kayaks once,“ I suggested.

„Yeah. But I get pretty sea-sick, you know. Didn’t quite like the boat passages when we went on the tern colony in Lake Eerie …“

With no birds in sight, we sat down at a picnic table further up the cliffs. David reached over the sandwich he had prepared for me in the morning.

Growing from cracks in the exposed cliffs, a few pine twigs wavered in the wind that brushed over the granite. Below, waves were gently washing over the smooth slabs.  


View from Rödhäll towards the Baltic Sea.

It was close to noon now, and a late summer sun heated up the exposed cliff. Prepared for a swim, I slid down and took a dive in the crisp sea. A little later, David followed.

David was already towelling himself off again when I saw him moving quickly towards the picnic table. His eyes fixed on a point down the cliff, he reached for his camera. Following his line of sight, I eventually spotted the bird.

Unexpected visitor. Photograph by David Wiggins.

White wings with grey feathertips. A white forehead with a black cap topping the back of the head.

Slowly, David on land and I in the water approached the bird. Its head followed our calm movements, uttering an occasional call.

„It’s a tern,“ David said as we were in talking distance. Though whispering, I could sense the excitement in his voice. 

The bird didn’t show any signs of being scared. At least, it didn’t move away as we drew closer. 

„He must have come in after a full night of flying,“ David went on. 

„Sometimes these birds are so tired that they literally drop out of the sky.”

In slow motion, I moved out of the water, crouching over the smooth slabs. For a while, the tern still monitored its surroundings, moving its black-and-white head in stroboscopic movements. 

Then, when there were only a few meters left between us, it tucked its beak under a wing out of a sudden

The tern was shutting down for a power nap.

Tern taking a nap. Photograph by David Wiggins.

I looked in David’s direction, perplexed.

„They sometimes do that“, he smiled. „He’s completely worn out. He’s resting now.“

Examining the resting bird, I recalled the photographs that I had studied of Artic terns, with their signature black cap and red beak. This one seemed different, with an orange beak and a white forehead.

„It’s definitely a juvenile,“ David pointed out. „Could be a Common tern, too. Pretty hard to distinguish at that early stage, even for an expert.“

„He’ll fly out again soon to fish,“ David added, „and then continue his journey.“ As I watched the resting bird, Chatwin’s lines came to my mind again. On migrating animals that „orient themselves and move of their own volition to predetermined appointments with life or death“ – a state of being to which humanity had to find back for its own sake.

Do we share with migrating animals an interior travel guide of instructions for the road, Chatwin had asked. 

For him, that inner compass was found in our human nature as the one animal that tells stories – a capacity he saw at the core of true human thriving, and that we exert as we wander the world and make sense out new surroundings.

The more I watched the tern, the more I began to feel humbled in the light of the disorientation that assails us as we agonise over our paths. After some fifteen minutes, the bird pulled his beak from the feather blanket again. A wing stretch followed, still on the same spot. Even after its rest, it was not impressed by our presence

After a little while then, the tern took leave. 

Remaining behind of the cliffs, we watched it fly out towards the sea, returning on its annual parabola from pole to pole. And as the bird’s wings disappeared on the horizon, a glimpse of that feeling flared up. Of being a little further in line again with that compass.

Tern preparing for departure. Photograph by David Wiggins.


Image of Cover

A week after the first video-call with David, my copy of Oiseaux Scandinaves et Lapons – „Birds from Scandinavia and Lapland“ – arrived. In the upper-right corner I spotted a bird tweeting into a grammophone horn – the logo of Jean Claude Rochés‘ label ‚The musician bird‘.

“Side 1 presents three different concerts,” the back of the album announced. “In the first, recorded in May, we are travelling in a boat among the innumerable islands near the Baltic coast: there are huge gatherings of Long-tailed Ducks ready to fly north, and their cries mingle with those of Skuas, Terns and Gulls.”

Some weeks later, a colleague at Oxford left her record player at my disposal. With a sense of excitement, I lowered the needle.

From the speakers, the calls of long-tailed ducks resounded in her living room, their cries mingling with those all the other birds that had gathered in the archipelago between Finland and Sweden.

I made a recording of their concert that day, playing it from my cell-phone when David and I met in Uppsala a few weeks later. 

The track had almost reached its end when his eyes lighted up. 

„There it is“, he said. „The typical chatter of terns.“ „That’s them,“ he asserted with a gentle smile, tipping his finger on the table. 

„That’s them,“ he repeated one more time, calmer, as if recalling memories of a dear old friend.

Further Reading // Parklplatz

Object history

an interpretation of the piece that can be considered one of the earliest work of Egyptology. 

Pignoria resisted speculating on the hieroglyphic symbols on the tablet. His focus lay on its figures instead.

Pignoria was one of the earliest in a long row of antiquarians enchanted by the mysterious aura.

piece that can be considered one of the earliest work of Egyptology. 

Long before the Rosetta Stone and Champollion’s deciphering of the hieroglyphs, nobody knew. 

 ‚Bembine Table‘ or ‚Table of Isis‘ (Mensa Isiaca) has inspired the minds of foremost humanists to soaring flights. 


It appeared together with hundreds of other illustrations, also including
 runic staffs or the carvings on Sámi drums.  

and picked up (and quickly dropped) studies of archaeology at Edinburgh. 

In 197#, Chatwin sent the 200 pages to the publisher’s house of Jonathan Cape. They were the result of a process he had started a decade earlier. 

which Chatwin and his wife Elizabeth would tame to manuscript length in the coming years.

Pignoria resisted speculating on the hieroglyphic symbols on the tablet. 

an interpretation of the piece that can be considered one of the earliest work of Egyptology. 




 the object has passed through the hands of collectors and powerful rulers – until it ended up in the Egyptian Museum at Turin, where it it on display now.  

In the second half of   Some of them were symbolical, such as the legendary Phoenix he saw held by Osiris (D) and elsewhere on the tablet; a myth of a bird going up in flames and being born again that Rudbeck traced back to the sun disappearing under the horizon in Arctic winter.


Bronze tablet of the so-called Mensa Isiaca (75,5 x 125,5 x 5,5 cm). Courtesy of the Museo Egiziano di Torino (CC BY 2.0 IT).

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Ingrained in the human consciousness is the association of the free flight of birds with the innocence and personal freedom of the first state. In our dreams we are airborne. 


Historic church and clock tower of Torneå.

part of the papers that Elizabeth Chatwin bequeathed to the Bodleian Libraries. In 1989, her husband had died of AIDS.

Chatwin had entered the trade without a formal academic education. Only his mid-twenties, he picked up studies of archaeology in 1966. The student entered the lecture halls at Edinburgh as a man who had travelled Afghanistan and the Sahara desert.

Much of academia proved a lifeless bore for Chatwin, dominated by the cerebral type of men that lacked earthiness so as he lacked <em>sitzfleisch</em>. After a few semesters, he quit.
The grey paperboard box at Oxford brought together what Chatwin called „cavalier raids on specialised disciplines I have not even begun to master“. In the years to come, he worked his piece for the catalogue to a book draft.


<h2>Materialhalde NOMADIC ALTERNATIVE</h2>

p: 23 „Ingrained in the human consciousness is the association of the free flight of birds with the innocence and personal freedom of the first state. In our dreams we are airborne.“ … The Voguls of Northern Siberia called the Milky Way the Tunk Pox (underlined) or „Path of the Ducks to the South“.“

p. 24 Q: organic basis of mobility?
„Furthermore the electric rhythms of the brain respond vibrantly to changes of surrounding, particularly when the subject is absorbed in the workings of natural phenomena. But the monotony of prolonged settlement weaves patterns in the brain that engender fatigue, boredom and a sense of impotent failure. In confinement we remain in a state of passive anxiety, afflicted by untimely charges of adrenalin, fighting off obesity by the will to eat less. But do we share with migrating animals an interior travel guide of instructions for the road?“

Beispiele dass fast alle Tiere „orient themselves and move of their own volition to predetermined appointments with life of death. Plants slumber in supine drowsiness.“
Beispiele aus dem Tierrreich [Wale, Lachse etc; Sprache: enorm plastisch]
manche Tiewre tun dies automatisch, andere nach Instruktion durch Eltern

25f „Visual memory enables migrant animals to read a landscape – its shape, texture and plant cover.“
+ internal chronometer
+ internal instruments for navigation
und Tiere müssen / wollen das alles nützen, sonst werden sie wahnsinnig; need to perform biological function => so question: „What effect does settlement have on us?“
was haben wir? Chronometer; biologische Uhr, orientiert sich am Himmel

And yet on reflection we discover in man a unique faculty of finding his place in the world – his language.“
Sprache: einzigartig
„No other animal can cross-reference the lessons of the past with the conditions of the present and the hopes of the future.“

29 The gift of tongues rests on a young exploring child. It demands to know the name of its discoveries and the reason for their existence. („What is it called? Why? Why? Why?“) The child devours information, but the brain patterns this information into an ordered logical sequence of associations.“ … grammar, Chomsky …“We merely clothe this inherited structure with the raw material of our experience. By naming all the objects we encounter, we take our bearings on the world and in doing so, solve the problem of our identiy – all at a very early age.“
vgl human mind with art of navigation at sea
Leuchtturm; Navigator kann auf Karte (Arbeit der anderen zurückgreifen)
lange Metapher zu MEssungen, Sterne, Karten, mit dem Punkt:
once he knows this fixed point, he can anticapte the future by referring to the past
„And whatsoever thing Adam named, that was the name thereof …“
Man as born classifier and lexicographer
frightening place because it is unknown

brain siphons off all it cannot assimilate and classify into ordered categories
„The human mind is a metaphor maker.“
nature as encyclopaedia to build up a wealth of associations; using the concrete example as a vehicle to express an abstract idea
objects of experience: nach binären Begriffen; Nahrung / Gift etc
dort wo sameness in disparate things liegt, we feel a momentary shock of recognition that may delight or appal, but cannot leave us unmoved [das kommt zu MANIFESTO: ART OF NOTICING]
32 Leonardo: verschwommene Formen für Metaphernschatz
„Man invents the Universe in his mind and then joyfully recognizes his own creation as a place for him to live. Such is the primal act of human creativity.“
wo Ordnung da ist, dort fühlt er Ruhe; contentment; „if the universe does not change, he does not have to change with it“
„But if he suffers derangement or exp[ul]sion, if the ‚ideal‘ universe in the mind is marred, he is forced to extend his spectrum of knowledge in ever-widening circles, recreating his shattered world to avert mental disintigration. Each of his creations, inventions or advances in knowledge is an anchor dropped in a wild sea to prevent a further dirft onto the rocks of insanity.“


32 primitiveness mistaken as lack of abstract terms to express ideas

33 vitalisierende Kraft des Bildens von „unstereotyped metaphor“; alles andere stirbt ab

coherent sequential messages which surface in the human consciousness as myths. „Myths are human instincts verbalized“
answers to child’s question: where am I; daher creation myths

35 Creation and allied myths relieved men of their obvious anxieties of orientation

For the avid traveller that the author was, <fn label=“the draft was a vessel receiving fragments and observations“>It was in his <em>Songlines</em> that Chatwin much later found a form to use the material he had collected decades earlier in his unpublished <em>The Nomadic Alternative</em>.</fn> for his theory of everything. Much of it were the ravings and idealisations of a young writer unspoilt by arid learning.


For reading, feedback, support, and being a part of this story I have to thank Alex Franklin, David Wiggins, Carolina Reis, Kristine Homoki.

All translations and photographs are my own unless noticed otherwise.

You can find identification aids, audio tracks, and further information on the Arctic and the Common Tern on the homepage of the <a href=““>Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)</a>.

On the sound library of <a href=““>Xeno-Canto</a>, bird watchers from all across the globe upload their recordings of bird calls. HOCHHOLEN

Further Reading

Fussnote 1

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ATL 2 dedicated the final chapter to the mysterious artefact. 

Mensa Isiaca:


(note that Rudbeck here uses stilus vetus, the old style of the calendar)

Fussnote 17