Bad Advice Wednesday: Dive Like an Osprey!

categories: Cocktail Hour


This is a pretty good time of year if you live on an academic schedule.  Actually, come to think of it, it’s a pretty good time of year if you live on a human (or animal) schedule: plants blooming, birds nesting, green breaking through.

But back to academics.  The point I want to make is that when I teach, during spring and fall terms, I get used to doing a hundred things at once.  I also, naturally enough, start to long for a simpler schedule.  For instance, this spring, while rushing from thing to thing, I started imagining my life once school ended: I would stop shaving and showering and hole up in some writing cave and never come out again.  Specifically, I would get to spend a couple of weeks on my Cape Cod novel—nothing else—and I would focus all the creative energy that, for most of year, shoots off in some many directions.

And now that time is here.  Sure, it isn’t ever quite as perfect as in imagination.  Sure, there are still irritants and bills and things that get in the way.  But for the most part it is good.  I am back to doing what I like most—writing—and what I think I do best.  There’s a healthy obsessiveness on focusing on one thing in a culture that insists you do a thousand.  Fuck ’em.  Every now and then you need to blow everything else off—to let the room get messy and the recommendations go unwritten—and get back to the business of what you were put on this earth to do.

So how does this translate to Bad Advice?  This way: let yourself get obsessed for a while.  Stop being so responsible.  Or rather, be responsible to the work.  The world won’t fall apart without you.   Do one thing.  Work on one book.  Don’t let the nagging insects of things-to-do (or other projects) get in your way.

Be like the Bolivian hunter who slipped a bone of an osprey under the skin of his arm in “hopes of absorbing hawk-like skills in hunting.”  Better yet be like an osprey itself, diving for fish.  Focus on that one thing that gives you life and dive for it.

Here is what Shakespeare had to say about the conquering  Coriolanus:  I think he’ll be to Rome as is the osprey to the fish, who takes it by sovereignty of nature.”

Get it?  So that’s my advice.  Be to your work as an osprey is to fish.

It may of course be possible that you have never seen an osprey dive.  In which case I offer this:


 The Dive

(From Return of the Osprey)

            Ospreys are the only raptors that dive fully into the water to catch their prey.  Try to imagine the physical sensation.  To skim across the sky, above the ocean, peering down with eyes that can see into the shallows from forty, sixty, even a hundred feet up.  To catch a glint or the shadow of a movement and know it to be a fish, the one thing that keeps you alive.  To hover, adjust, beating your wings so that you stay in place, like a giant kingfisher or hummingbird.  Then to dive, to commit, to tuck with folded wings and plunge downward at over forty miles an hour while still keeping your eyes on the prey, calculating its size and movement.  To adjust in mid-air, re-directing, considering even the refraction of the fish’s image in the water, before pulling in your wings and diving again.  And then, at the last second before hitting the water, to throw your wings back and your talons forward, striking feet first.  To plunge in, splash, immerse, and make contact at the same time, trapping, piercing, clutching a slippery, scaled, cold-blooded creature.

            Now imagine what comes next.  Securing the fish, aided by the sharp, horny scales on the pads beneath your toes.  For a moment being out of your element and in your prey’s, feeling wet, awkward, ungainly.  Then lifting off from the water with a great thrust of exertion, soaked and heavy, hefting an animal that may weigh half of what you do.  Beating your wings furiously and rising, shaking the water off like a wet dog, already using your reversible outer talon to adjust the squirming fish, turning it so that it faces forward to reduce drag as you lift into the air, triumphant (or at the very least successful), shaking off silver flecks of spray.

To even imagine a dive is to get excited.  What a bold way to live!  To find one thing you do well and then to stake your life on it.  It’s as simple and direct as passion.  It is passion.  Peter Matthiessen wrote: “Simplicity is the whole secret of well-being.”  If so, the ospreys have got it figured out.  It isn’t hard to picture a band of primitive osprey tribesmen watching the birds and learning from them.  One thing they might have learned, and one thing that appeals to me, is how the osprey’s dive weds calculated patience to wild aggression.  He who hesitates is smart, at least if when he finally commits he commits fully.  For the ospreys the hesitation is as important as the dive.  The birds have a remarkable success rate, some catching well over fifty percent of what they dive for, (like humans, athleticism varies; a few particularly adept birds catch close to ninety), and this is due in good part to the pre-dive patience, the search for the right target.  This careful adjustment will often carry over into the dive itself.  After the bird has tucked its wings and dropped down thirty feet, it may pause and readjust, and it may continue this a time or two again as if descending imaginary stairs.  But while the pre-dive ritual demands control and calculation, the plunge itself is about the opposite of control.  It is a moment of full commitment, of abandon, and finally, of immersion.

  1. monica wood writes:

    Heeeere, fishy fishy fishy…

  2. Bill writes:

    David, the only time I’m busier than when I’m teaching is when I’m not teaching. I just can’t figure it out. But I’m pretty sure I can’t dive on a fine fish while I’m gazing at the mud…. Once when I was walking naked under the Gay Head cliffs on Martha’s Vineyard I saw an osprey dive, just a couple of hundred feet from shore. It hooked into something it had trouble lifting, but gradually got airborne, a big, plate-shaped fish underneath. But at the cliff it couldn’t get enough air to clear, or maybe just fumbled, but anyway dropped its catch right in front of me: a butterfish, the first I’d ever eaten, and to this day the last, delicious. Thanks, osprey!