It was dark on Great Gull Island and I was in a candlelit room, sitting at a wooden table with about a dozen other volunteers. Donna, a squat woman in her mid-fifties and an avid birdwatcher, was talking to Mike, a barrel-chested freediver, about his research.
Next to me, the few volunteers my age were laughing about a joke I had missed. Several seats away, Helen, who started the Great Gull Island Project in 1969, was explaining the island’s history as a military base.
My gaze flits about, observing but avoiding eye contact. Spontaneous conversation — bringing with it the potential to be ignored, embarrassed, or shut down — terrifies me. Popular culture references go over my head, my pleasantries become jumbled, I’m often accused of being expressionless, and I have trouble telling if one of us is talking too much or too little.
In moments like these, I try to erase all uncertainty, mapping the conversation’s trajectory before it’s begun. Greetings and potential responses; open-ended questions and ensuing topics; follow-up questions and my own anecdotes; multiple failsafes — all forming a diagram of forking conversation paths.
I longed to hear about Mike’s diving, join the adjacent laughter, or learn about the island’s past. It would have been as easy as saying, “Wow, that’s fascinating,” but in the moment, I was overwhelmed by the overlapping conversation-diagrams forming in my mind. I contemplated ways I might jump in, but by the time I thought of something, the various groups had moved on to new topics.; aAfter half an hour, during which I stayed silent, everyone went to bed.
For two weeks in the summer before 11th grade, I lived on the misnamed Great Gull Island, helping the resident ornithologists catch some of the island’s 10,000 common terns in chicken-wire boxes — once before dawn, and then again at dusk. (Common terns are slender and a little over a foot in length; seagulls are plump, range from two to four feet in length, and eat baby and juvenile terns.)
Once a tern was caught, I’d come out of hiding and reach my hand into the trap, gently gripping the fluttering bird and slipping it into a cloth bag.
We’d walk back to “basecamp,” a single-story brick building, hurrying to keep time with the daily rhythm: Hang the bags from an array of hooks; take one bag and extract the tern; record its identification number; measure its beak with a caliper; stick the tern into a paper cone sitting on a scale; measure and record its weight.
Yet there was syncopation. Some terns wouldn’t set off our traps, while others would stand next to the wire boxes, seeming to gloat at having outwitted us. They occasionally squawked and shook while dangling from the hooks, and their nipping turned my index finger raw as I measured their beaks. The cones smelled faintly like the rancid, pale goop of undigested fish that the terns were liable to vomit.
Then the release: clasp the tern’s torso once more, lower your hands to the soil, and throw your arms forward in a sunburst. Launched into the air, the tern is free from measurement and regulation, at least until next summer.
My scenario-planning stretches beyond conversations. I also take comfort in sketching out the contours of my day: what I’ll be doing, when, and with whom. On Great Gull, the constant chaos of trapping and tagging terns made it impossible to maintain a consistent rhythm.
Meals, in particular, were of no importance on the island. Lack of refrigeration constricted our food supply to the size of the boat making the weekly delivery. Breakfast might be pan-fried spam, and lunch something on stale bread. Dinner could be at any time between 9 and 11 p.m.
There was a tradeoff: lack of a communal meal schedule gave volunteers autonomy over their own fare. And with that control came danger.
Body image has weighed on me since middle school. I had always been the unathletic friend; the slightly larger one; the one who ate the last slice of pizza. Casual teasing compounded into shame.
On an island where the only certainty was waking up at 5 a.m. to trap birds, and everyone was a stranger I struggled to connect with, all of my projections failed. I began to think irrationally: life here is chaotic and miserable; I’m miserable because I’m lonely; I’m lonely because other people aren’t talking to me; they aren’t talking to me because of my unseemly physique. Thus, controlling my meals and body would grant me mastery over each day’s events.
With no structured lunch on the island, I chose not to eat. Or maybe I’d have a half-can of Campbell’s Chunky Beef With Country Vegetables Soup (145 calories). I’d refuse seconds at dinner, and I might not even finish my first, tiny portion. I lost 10 pounds in 10 days.
The most chaotic hours on Great Gull were from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when we scoured the island for newly-born chicks — tan fluff balls with umber spots and white underbellies — upon which to clip metal ID bands, which would help track the terns over their decade-long lifespans. Our paths mutated daily, sending us through dense underbrush replete with hidden nests and fleeing juvenile terns.
These were also the most essential hours, allowing the study to tease bits of order from the daily entropy for five decades.
For instance, common terns not only mate for life, but tend to nest in the same location each year. Now the study’s architects want to see, among other things, whether any of a mating pairs’ children return to the same nest — to discover for how many generational cycles the rhythm runs its course.
Burning, tingling, grating sensations spread from my gut to my fingertips. Nearly collapsing in the noon sun, I reveled in knowing that sheer will was keeping my legs moving; my mind had total control over my body.
The worst part of the chick-tagging excursions was the smell — musty, moldy, noxious, like curdled milk and ripening compost — that signalled the presence of a dead chick, a victim of the sun.
Burning, tingling, sagging, I stooped down and dug a small crater in the crumbling soil, transferring a limp frame beneath the earth. The effort of rising sent hunger rippling through my own.
Getting from Great Gull Island to Brooklyn requires one hour of travel by boat and several hours by car. Donna offered to drive me. In return, my parents would provide her with a home-cooked lunch.
I had already planned my homecoming: hug my parents and sister, eat a delicious meal, take my first shower in two weeks, and spend hours recounting my time away. Donna did not feature in these plans, so I tried to reason her away. Maybe I’d misheard and she wouldn’t be eating with us, or maybe my parents would just recommend a nearby restaurant.
I began the morning by refusing breakfast in order to save calories for lunch. After the boat landed in Connecticut, Donna had to drive several boxes brought over from the island to a far-off storage facility. Then I misread a sign and we took I-287 instead of I-278.
Donna tried to talk with me while she drove. Hungry, and irritated because we were several hours late, I hardly responded.
My father had cooked ribs and a variety of vegetables. We arrived around 3 p.m., meaning my parents and sister had already eaten; after two weeks of not seeing my family, my first hour at home would consist of lunch with a fifty-year old woman I would never meet again. Instead, I went to upstairs under the guise of wanting to shower and refused to go back down.
I was not thinking about how generous Donna had been or my disrespectful actions. I just sat on my bed, suppressing wet, briny intransigence and hoping Donna would leave so that I could at least eat in the private, comforting presence of my family.
When my parents called me down to tell Donna goodbye, I shouted no, my voice raspy and grating after crying for 30 minutes. When the front door clicked shut, I crept downstairs. My parents did not look at or speak with me. My father stormed into his office and slammed the door. The food was tepid, and I ate alone.
Only then did I imagine Donna’s indignation: “I offer to drive him and he won’t even talk to me?” I pictured my parents’ embarrassment: “Sorry, he usually isn’t like this. We hope you aren’t offended.”
I realized how counterintuitive my scenario-planning had been: Starving myself made me miserable on the island; fearing conversation kept me from making friends; skipping breakfast made me irritable in the car and is probably why we ended up on the wrong highway; choosing to hide in my room ruined my return.
A few times during each evening on Great Gull, the squawking dissolves into silence. Terns rise from the shore and fly over the water in a simultaneous but unsynchronized motion known as a “dread.” The phenomenon is breathtaking: Hundreds of grey wings, not quite in rhythm, beat against a hazy, pink and yellow sunset; rippling waves below reflect their own, darker version of the scene. And scientists aren’t entirely sure why, nor can they predict when, a dread will occur.
—Magazine writer Matteo N. Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.