Learning to Surf

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We are in the process of converting and re-stocking are other categories, including “Our Best American Essays,” which this is a part of.  To read this essay in its original form as it appeared in Orion magazine (beautiful painting and all), click here.


by David Gessner

           Out just beyond the breaking waves, they sit there bobbing, two groups of animals, avian and human, pelicans and surfers.  As they rise and fall on the humps of water, the pelicans look entirely unperturbed, their foot-long bills pulled like blades into scabbards, fitting like species-wide puzzle pieces into the curves of their throats.  The surfers, mostly kids, look equally casual.  In fact one girl takes this to an almost ostentatious extreme: she lies on her back on the surfboard, looking up at the sky, with one leg crossed over the other in an exaggerated attitude of relaxation.  For the most part the birds and surfers ignore each other, rising up and dropping down together as the whole ocean heaves and then sighs.   

          Pelicans are particularly buoyant birds and they bob high on the water as the surfers paddle and shift in anticipation.  There is no mistaking that this is the relatively tense calm of before, rest before exertion.  Soon the waves pick up and the surfers paddle furiously, gaining enough speed to pop up and ride the crests of breaking surf.  They glide in toward the beach where I stand, the better ones carving the water and ducking under and cutting back up through the waves.

We only moved to this island town a month ago, but I have been here long enough to know that those who pursue this sport are guided by a kind of laid-back monomania.  Each morning I bring my four-month old daughter down to the local coffee shop, and each morning the talk is of one thing.  It isn’t only the southern lilt that is new to me, but the surfing lingo.  The ocean, I’ve learned, is always referred to as “it.”

          “What did it look like this morning?” one surfer asked another a few mornings back.


          Remembering my own early morning glance at the ocean I could understand what he meant, the way the waves came from the northwest, while another group muscled up from the south, and how the two collided and kicked up.  Aesthetically it was beautiful, but practically, at least from a surfer’s point of view, it made for a landscape of chop.

          Another morning I heard this:

          “How does it look today, dude?”



          “You can go out there if you want to build your morale.”

          It’s easy enough to laugh at these kids, but I like the physical nature of their obsession, the way their lives center on being strong animals.  In When Elephants Weep, Jeffrey Masson speculates that animals feel funktionslust, a German word meaning the “pleasure taken in what one can do best.”  The strongest of the surfers, the ones who have grown up on the waves, must certainly feel this animal pleasure as they glide over and weave through the water.

          I watch the surfers for a while, but once the pelicans lift off the water, I turn my focus toward even more impressive athletic feats.  Pelicans are huge and heavy birds, and the initial lift-off, as they turn into the wind and flap hard, is awkward.  But once in the air they are all grace.  They pull in their feet like landing gear and glide low between the troughs of the waves, then lift up to look for fish, flapping several times before coasting.  If you watch them enough, a rhythm reveals itself: effort, glide, effort, glide.  As a sports fan, I love watching birds dive, and the pelicans do not disappoint.  They are looking for small fish–menhaden or mullet most likely–and when they see what they are looking for they gauge the fishes’ depth, and therefore the necessary height of the dive, a gauging guided by both instinct and experience.  Then they pause, lift, measure again, and, finally plunge.  It’s quite a show.  The birds bank and twist and plummet, a few of them turning in the air in a way that looks like pure showing off, but all of them following their divining rod bills toward the water.  If they were awkward in take-off, now they are glorious.

There is something symphonic about the way the group hits the water, one bird after another: thwuck, thwuck, thwuck.  At the last second before contact they become feathery arrows, thrusting their legs and wings backward and flattening their gular pouches.  They are not tidy like terns and have no concern for the Olympian aesthetics of a small splash, hitting the surface with what looks like something close to recklessness.  As soon as they strike the water instinct triggers the opening of the huge pouch, and it umbrellas out, usually catching fish, plural.  While still under water they turn again, often 180 degrees, so that they will emerge facing into the wind for take off.   And when they pop back up, barely a second later, they almost instantly assume a sitting posture on the water, once again bobbing peacefully as they drain their pouches.  It’s a little like watching a man serve a tennis ball who then, after his follow through, hops immediately into a La-Z-Boy.


* * *


           The pelicans calm me, which is good.  I have tried to maintain an attitude of relaxation since moving to this island, but at times I feel as if I’ve lost my balance.  The heat has begun to make me act in questionable ways.  Each morning when I lift my daughter into our un-air conditioned Honda Civic, I feel as if I’m sliding her into a kiln.  This has led me to a place I never thought I’d go.  While I am a creature known as a nature writer, I am on the verge of doing something unspeakable and preposterous: buying an SUV.  It’s a small SUV, but still.  I have raged against these abominations most of my life and when we lived in the West I published an essay called “Big Cars, Little Men.”  But now I find that the cars we want to buy, the cool green enviro-station wagons, are out of our price range, and that thisToyota, which gets the same mileage, is not.  The important thing, I tell myself in a near panic, is to get my daughter out of the kiln.

I am ready to buy the thing, to pull the trigger, when I am saved, at least temporarily, from an unexpected source.  TheToyotaguy himself calls with some news.  Our credit report has come back and our loan has been rejected.

          I ask why.

          “You have weak stability,” he tells me, reading from the report.

            Yes, of course. 

I nod and consider the poetry of his words.


* * *


But there are other moments, moments when–despite my wobbly confidence–I have glimpses that this may not be such a bad place to live.  With summer ending the parking lots have begun to empty: there are fewer beachwalkers and more pelicans.  Each morning I take long walks with Hadley, and have begun to take field notes on my daughter.  Many things have caught me off guard about being a father, but the most startling thing has been the sheer animal pleasure.  “Joy is the symptom by which right conduct is measured,” wrote Jospeh Wood Krutch of Thoreau.  If that’s true then my conduct must be excellent these days.

           Last week our friend Karen, a doctor fromSan Francisco, said to my wife Nina that you never feel so connected to the animal kingdom as when you have a child.  Nina agreed.  She has felt that way many times since the birth, but never so much as yesterday morning when she couldn’t get Hadley’s face clean.  Milk had crusted in our daughter’s ears and above her eyebrows and the wash cloth wasn’t working.  So Nina did what came naturally: she put the wash cloth aside and licked Hadley until she was clean. 

          What hits me daily with consistent impact is the fact of my daughter’s creatureliness.  This squirming little ape-like animal, barely two feet high, somehow has been allowed to live in the same house with us.  Or as another friend of Nina’s put it: “They’re the best pet you’ll ever have.”

          Today I hike down this new beach, carrying Hadley in a papoose-like contraption on my chest, trying to rock her to sleep.  On good days we make it all the way to the south end of the island where we stare out at the channel.  If I feel uprooted having moved here, nothing cuts through doubt quite like this new ritual of walking while observing the birds and surfers.

          This morning we watch two immature, first-year pelicans fly right down over the waves, belly to belly with their shadows.  It’s exhilarating the way they lift up together and sink down again, rollercoastering, their wings nicking the crest of the waves. Eight more adult birds skim right through the valley between the waves, by the surfers, sweeping upward before plopping onto the water.

          Feeling that it’s only polite to get to know my new neighbors, I’ve begun to read about the birds.  I’ve learned that the reason they fly through the troughs between the waves is to cut down on wind resistance, which means they, like the surfers they fly by, are unintentional physicists.  When I first started watching the birds I kept waiting to hear their calls, expecting a kind of loud quack-quork, like a cross between a raven and a duck.  But my books confirm what I have already noticed, that adult pelicans go through their lives as near mutes.  Whether perched atop a piling in classic silhouette or crossing bills with their mates or bobbing in the surf, they remain silent.    

          Another group of adult birds heads out to the west, toward the channel, as Hadley and I head home.  Before moving here I never knew that pelicans flew in formations.  They are not quite as orderly as geese–their Vs always slightly out of whack—and the sight of them is strange and startling to someone from the North.  Each individual takes a turn at the head of the V, since the lead bird exerts the most effort and energy, while the birds that follow draft the leaders like bike racers.  These platoons fly overhead at all hours of day, appearing so obviously prehistoric that it seems odd that people barely glance up, like ignoring a fleet of pterodactyls.

          Yesterday I saw one of the birds point its great bill at the sky and then open its mouth until it seemed to almost invert its pouch.  My reading tells me that these exercises are common, a way to stretch out the distensible gular pouch so that it maintains elasticity.  Even more impressive, the pouch, when filled, can hold up to twenty-one pints–seventeen and a half pounds–of water.

 “I have had a lifelong love affair with terns,” wrote John Hay, my friend back onCape Cod.  I’ve come to pelicans late: our affair can never be lifelong.  But I am developing something of a crush.


* * *


            I’m not a good watcher.  Well, that’s not exactly true.  I’m a pretty good watcher.  It’s just that, sooner or later, I need to do more than watch.  One thing I love about the pelicans is the wild contact of their dives, and contact is something you can’t get from just watching.   So today I am floating awkwardly on my neighbor Matt’s surfboard, paddling with my legs in a frantic eggbeater motion, attempting this new sport in this new place while watching the pelicans fly.  It’s a great way to birdwatch it turns out, though you can’t bring your binoculars.  The pelcians fly close to my board, and for the first time I understand how enormous they are.  I’ve read that they are fifty inches from bill to toe, and have six-and-a-half foot wingspans, but these numbers don’t covey the heft of their presence.  One bird lands next to me and sits on the water, tucking its ancient bill into its throat.  Up close its layered feathers look very unfeather-like, more like strips of petrified wood.  I watch it bob effortlessly in the choppy ocean.  Most birds with webbed feet have three toes, but brown pelicans have four, and their webbing is especially thick.  While this makes for awkward waddling on land, it also explains how comfortable the birds look in the water. 

          I’m not nearly as comfortable.  Two days ago I spent an hour out here with Matt as my teacher, and yesterday we came out again.  Despite his patience and coaching, I didn’t stand up on my board, in fact I never made more than the most spastic of attempts.  Today has been no better.  So far the best things about surfing have been watching the birds and the way my body feels afterward when I am scalding myself in our outdoor shower.  But the basics have eluded me.  So it is with some surprise that I find myself staring back with anticipation as a series of good waves roll in and it is with something close to shock that I find myself suddenly, mysteriously, riding on top of that one perfect (in my case, very small) wave.  Before I have time to think I realize that I am standing, actually standing up and surfing.  The next second I am thrown into the waves and smashed about.

          But that is enough to get a taste for it.


* * *


            I have now been practicing my new art for three days.  The pelicans have been practicing their ancient one, as a species, for thirty million years.  It turns out the reason they look prehistoric is simple: they are.  Fossils indicate that something very close to the same bird we see today were there when the very first birds took flight.  They were performing their rituals—diving, feeding, courting, mating, nesting—while the world froze and thawed, froze and thawed again, and while man, adaptable and relatively frenetic, came down from the trees and started messing with fire and farming and guns.

           Readingabout pelicans has proven an interesting study of anthropomorphism.  While any human would say the birds are slightly funny looking, what struck me first was the grace of their flight.  Not so the early ornithologists.  In 1922, Arthur Cleveland Bent wrote of their “grotesque and quiet dignity” and called them “silent, dignified and stupid birds.”  A contemporary of Bent’s, Stanley Clisby Arthur, went even further, describing the pelicans’ habits with something close to ridicule.  Arthur writes of the pelicans’ “lugubrious expressions” and “ponderous, elephantine tread” and “undemonstrative habits,” and says of their mating rituals that “they are more befitting the solemnity of a funeral than the joyous display attending most nuptials.”  His final insult is calling their precious eggs “a lusterless white.”

            Apparently, when it comes to pelicans, even modern writers feel the need to lay it on thick: as I read I make a list of words that includes “gawky,” “awkward,” “comical,” “solemn,” “reserved,”  and, simply, “ugly.”  I had already assigned the role of shorebird comedian to the oystercatcher, with its orange Jimmy Durante nose, and it never occurred to me that pelicans were preposterous.  But I’ll admit that recently as I kayaked by a sandbar full of birds, I laughed while watching a pelican waddle though a crowd of terns, like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.  But “ugly” seems just mean-spirited.

            More forgivable, perhaps, are those who call the birds “dignified” and “solemn,” since it is natural to project qualities of depth upon those who are quiet, even with human beings.  While we are quick to call raptors “proud,” this is not a word that comes to mind with a pelican.  But if they lack the athletic, cocksure air of hawks and eagles, their flight is every bit as confident and athletic (though they’re not as given to showiness and derring-do.) 

            When not seeing pelicans as comic or grotesque, human beings often describe them as sedate and sage-like.  Perhaps this springs from a dormant human need to see in animals the qualities we wish we had.  If hell is other people, as the saying goes, then heaven is other creatures.  Compared to our own harried, erratic lives, the lives of the pelicans seem consistent, reliable, ritualistic, as befits a bird that has been doing what it’s being doing for thirty million years. 

            And that, I have to admit, is one of the things I see in pelicans, too.  Something, if you will pardon the terrible pun, unflappable.  Sure they flap a little, but they also glide with grace, with none of that desperate duck flapping that makes you worry that cormorants will suddenly crash land or hurtle into a rock.  Calling pelcians unperturbable is not mere projection either.  Researchers at their nests confirm it: they can walk among brown pelican ground nests while barely getting dirty looks, while the same researchers would lose an eye at an eagle eyrie or be endlessly harassed at a tern colony.  Nor is it projection to say that the lives of pelicans are simpler, more filled with ritual and in touch with the elemental world.  Compared to their deep consistent lives, my own feels constantly re-invented, improvised.  But before I get too down on myself, and my species, I need to remember that that’s the kind of animal I am, built for change, for adaptation.  Long before we became dull practioners of agriculture, human beings were nomads, wanderers, capable of surviving in dozens of different environments. 

            Though born barely able to hold their heads up, and though at first fed regurgitated food by their parents, newborn pelicans spend only a short time under their parents’ care and fledge within three months.  The one year olds I watch flying overhead are already almost as capable as their parents, while my daughter will remain relatively helpless for many years to come.  But this too makes evolutionary sense: one reason for our long infancy and childhood is to give the human mind time to adapt creatively to thousands of different circumstances.   Pelicans, on the other hand, are ruled by a few simple laws and behaviors.  Still, at the risk of romanticizing, I like the calm the birds exude, the confidence in doing what they do, the sense of timelessness, of ritual and grace.  

            We humans face a different set of problems.  Our bodies still run on rhythms we only half understand (and often ignore), and we have adapted ourselves beyond ritual.  To a certain extent, all rules are off.  The life of the farmer or hunter, the life that all humans lived until recently, directly connected us to the world of animals and plants, and to the cycles of the seasons.  Without these primal guidelines, we are left facing a kind of uncertainty that, on good days, offers a multifarious delight of options, and on bad days offers chaos.  Ungrounded in this new place, I feel particularly sensitive to both possibilities.  And while it isn’t comfortable building a foundation on uncertainty, at least it has the advantage of being honest.  Maybe in this world the best we can do right now is not to make false claims for certainty, and try to ride as gracefully as we can on the uncertain.

            It’s true I may have weak stability, as theToyotaguy said. In my defense I remind myself of what Montaigne wrote: “Stabilty itself is nothing but a more languid motion.”

     Stability isn’t my species strength.  Adaptation is. 


* * *


The human brain is no match for depression, for the chaos of uncertainty and uprootedness.   To try to turn our brains on ourselves, to think we can solve our own problems within ourselves, is to get lost in a hall of mirrors.   But a world exists beyond the merely human world, and that is a reason for hope.  From a very selfish human perspective, we need more than the human.

My mind may not be a match for depression, but the ocean is.  This morning I paddle out beyond the breakers and lie on my back on the surfboard just like the girl I saw in early fall,.  But while my legs may be crossed casually, I spend most the time as I lie there worrying about falling off.  Even so, as I bob up and down on the waves, the whole ocean lifting and dropping below me, my niggling mind does quiet for a minute.  And then it goes beyond quiet.  I’m thinking of Hadley, sitting up now and holding her own bottle, and I feel my chest fill with the daily joy these small achievements bring. She will be a strong girl I suspect, an athlete.  And, no doubt, she will become a surfer if we stay here, delighting in her own funcktionslust.

In this new place I must try new things, but still cling to old loves.  Birds have always helped me live, have always lifted me, and as I float on my board the pelicans don’t fail to deliver.  As they fly overhead I notice that there is something slightly backward-leaning about their posture, particularly when they are searching for fish, as if they were peering over spectacles.  From this angle, directly below, they look like giant kingfishers, with their pointy heads and hovering manner.  But when they pull in their wings they change entirely: a prehistoric Bat Signal shining overGotham.  Then I notice one bird with tattered feathers whose feet splay out crazily before he tucks to dive.  When he tucks, dignity is regained, and the bird shoots into the water like a spear.

            Inspired by that one bird, I decide to make my own attempt at flight. I catch a few waves, but catch them late and so keep popping wheelies and being thrown off the surfboard.  Then, after a while, I remember Matt telling me that I am putting my weight too far back on the board.  So on the next wave, almost without thinking, I shift my weight forward and pop right up.  What surprises me most is how easy it is.  I had allotted months for this advancement, had assumed that getting up was a goal to be long worked toward.  But here I am, suddenly standing, flying in toward the beach on top of a wave, its energy surging below.  A wild giddiness fills me.  It’s cliché to say that I am completely in the present moment as this happens, and it is also not really true.  Halfway to shore and I’m already creating a narrative, imagining telling Nina about my great success, and near the end of my ride, as the great wave deposits me in knee deep water, I find myself singing the Hawaii 5-0 theme song right out loud.    

         Though no one is around I let out a little hoot, and by the time I jump off the board I’m laughing out loud.  A week ago I watched some kids, who couldn’t have been older than twelve or thirteen, as they ran down the beach on a Friday afternoon.  Happy that school was out, they sprinted into the water before diving onto their boards and gliding into the froth of surf.  I’m not sprinting, but I do turn around and walk the surfboard out until I am hip deep, momentarily happy to be the animal I am, my whole self buzzing fom a ride that has been more the result of grace than effort.  Then, still laughing a little, I climb on top of the board and paddle back into the waves.


* * *


         I could end on that note of grace.  But it wouldn’t be entirely accurate.  The year doesn’t conclude triumphantly with me astride the board, trumpets blaring, as I ride that great wave to shore.  Instead it moves forward in the quotidian way years do, extending deep into winter and then once again opening up into spring.  As the days pass my new place becomes less new, and the sight of the squadrons of pelicans loses some of its thrill.  This, too, is perfectly natural, a process known in biology as habituation.  Among both birds and humans, habituation is, according to my books, the “gradual reduction in the strength of a response due to repetitive stimulation.”  This is a fancy way of saying we get used to things.

         While the pelican brain repeats ancient patterns, the human brain feeds on the new.  On a biological level novelty is vital to the human experience: at birth the human brain is wired so that it is attracted to the unfamiliar.  I see this in my daughter, as she begins to conduct more sophisticated experiments in the physical world.  True, all of these experiments end the same way, with her putting whatever she is experimenting on in her mouth, but soon enough she will move on to more sophisticated interactions with her environment.  Although pelicans of her equivalent age are already diving for fish, she is helpless unless we feed her and only just beginning her attempts at language and locomotion.  But as a homo sapien, she can afford to spot Pelecanus occidentalis a lead, knowing she will gain ground later.  Her long primate infancy will allow her relatively enormous brain to develop in ways that are as foreign to the birds as their simplicity is to us, and will allow that brain to fly to places the birds can never reach.

         While I acknowledge these vast differences between our species, there is something fundamentally unifying in the two experiences of watching the pelicans and watching my daughter.  There is a sense that both experiences help me fulfill Emerson’s still-vital dictum: “First, be a good animal.”  For me fatherhood has intensified the possibility of loss, the sense that we live in a world of weak stability.  But it has alos given me a more direct connection to my animal self, and so, in the face of the world’s chaos, I try to be a good animal.  I get out on the water in an attempt to live closer to what the nature writer Henry Beston called “an elemental life.”

         I keep surfing into late fall, actually getting up a few times.  But then one day I abruptly quit.  On that day “it” is big, much too big for a beginner like me.  I should understand this when I have trouble paddling out, the waves looming up above me before throwing my board and self backward.  And I should understand this as I wait for the waves, the watery world lifting me higher than ever before.  But despite the quiet voice that tells me to go home I give it a try, and before I know it I am racing forward, triumphant and exhilarated, at least until the tip of my board dips under and the wave bullies into me from behind, and I am thrown, rag-doll style, and held under by the wave.  Then I’m tossed forward again and the board, held to my foot by a safety strap, recoils and slams into my head.  I do not black out: I emerge and stagger to the shore and touch my hand to the blood and sand on my face.  The next night I teach my Forms of Creative Nonfiction class with a black eye. 

         So that is enough, you see.  One of the new countries I am entering is that of middle age, and the world doesn’t need too many middle aged surfers.

         I feared fatherhood, but most of the results of procreation have been delightful ones.  One less than delightful result, however, is the way that disaster suddenly looms around every corner–disaster that might befall my daughter, my wife, my self.  No sense adding “death by surfing” to the list. 


* * *


         While I have naturally begun to take the pelicans for granted, they still provide daily pleasures throughout the winter.  What I lose in novelty, I gain in the beginnings of intimacy.  I see them everywhere: as I commute to work they fly low in front of my windshield; they placidly sit atop the pilings while I sip my evening beer on the dock near our house; they bank above as I drive over the drawbridge to town.  My reading tells me that in March they begin their annual ritual of mating: a male offers the female a twig for nest building and then, if she accepts, they bow to each other before embarking on the less elegant aspect of the ritual, the actual sex, which lasts no more than twenty seconds.  It doesn’t sound particularly lugubrious to me, but then I haven’t seen it.  These rituals are taking place in privacy, twenty miles south on a tiny island in the mouth of theCape Fear River.  The eggs are laid in late March or early April and a month-long period of incubation begins.

         Around the mid-point of incubation, my human family achieves its own milestone.  Throughout the spring I have continued to carry my daughter down the beach to watch the pelicans fish, but today is different than the other days.  Today Hadley no longer rests in a pouch on my chest, but walks beside me hand in hand.

         I remind myself that the mushiness I feel at this moment, the sensation that some describe as sentimentality, also serves an evolutionary purpose.  With that softening comes a fierceness, a fierce need to protect and aid and sacrifice.  This is not a theoretical thing, but a biological one, rushing in my blood.  In fact in the transformation borders the savage, and here too the pelicans have long served humans as a myth and symbol.  “I am like a pelican of the wilderness,” reads Psalm 102.  At some point early Christians got it into their heads that pelicans fed their young with the blood from their own breasts, a mistake perhaps based on the red at the tip of some pelican bills, or, less plausibly, on the habit of pelicans of regurgitating their fishy meals for their young.  Whatever the roots of this misapprehension, the birds became a symbol of both parental sacrifice and, on a grander scale, of Christ’s sacrificial death.  The images of pelicans as self-stabbing birds, turning on their own chests with their bills, were carved in stone and wood and still adorn churches all overEurope.  Later, the parental symbol was sometimes flipped on its head, so that Lear, railing against his famous ingrate off-spring, calls them “Those pelican daughters.”



* * *


         The year culminates in a single day. 

         It is a day full of green, each tree and bird defined sharply as if with silver edges.  I kiss my wife and Hadley goodbye while they are still asleep and head out at dawn to the road whereWalkerwill pick me up.  Walker Golder is the deputy director of the North Carolina Audubon Society, a friend of a new friend, and today he takes me in a small outboard down to the barrier islands at the mouth of theCape Fear River.  We bomb through a man-made canal called Snow’s Cut, and I smile stupidly at the clarity of the colors: the blue water, the brown eroding banks, the green above.    

         We stop at four islands.  In the course of three hours we watch Royal terns spiraling in their courtship dance, see week-old Ibises, and inspect the light blue eggs of a tri-colored heron.  The southernmost of these small islands is filled with Ibises, 11,504 nests to be exact, and at one point we stand amid a snowy blizzard of Ibises, the vivid white birds with their flaming bills swirling around us.  The southernmost of these is filled with ibis nests—11,504 to be exact.  Ten percent  ofNorth America’s ibises begin their lives here, and at one point we stand amid a snowy blizzard of birds, vivid white plumage and flaming bills swirling around us.  Next we visit an island of terns, the whole colony seemingly in an irritable mood.  This island, and its nearby twin, were formed when the river was dredged in the ‘70s by the U.S. Army Core of Engineers, which used the sand to consciously aid Audubon in an attempt to create nesting grounds.  Terns, like ibises and pelicans, require isolated breeding areas, preferably islands, and this human experiment, this marriage of birders and engineers, has worked to perfection. 

         The terns are impressive, but the highlight of the day, for me, isNorthPelicanIsland.  Before this tiny island and its sisters were created, there were 100 nesting pairs of pelicans in the state ofNorth Carolina.  Now there are 4,500.  It is here that almost all of the pelicans that I watch back on my beach begin their lives.  Hundreds of pelicans sit on their big ground nests, some of these nests as big as beanbag chairs.  They watch impassively as we approach.  The old naturalists might have called these birds “undemonstrative,” but I’ll go with “calm.”  In fact, while we’re anthropomorphisizing, I might as well put “Buddha-like” in front of calm.  It’s hard not to project this on them after experiencing the wild defensiveness of the tern colony that we visited earlier.  The pelicans barely glance up at us.  Theirs is a much different survival strategy, and a much quieter one, natural for such a big bird with no native predators on these islands.  I crunch up through the marsh elder and phragmites to a spot where two hundred or so pelicans are packed together, sitting on their nests, incubating.  Behind them, in a beaten down red cedar, sit twenty egrets and few glossy Ibises.  But the pelicans, quiet as they are, are the show.  Some still have the rich chestnut patches on the backs of their heads and necks, a delightful chocolate brown: leftover breeding plumage.  They sit in what I now recognize as their characteristic way, the swordlike bills tucked into the fronts of their long necks.

         While the birds remain quiet and calm, there is an intensity to the place.  This marsh island, like most of the islands that pelicans breed on, is too close to sea level to provide any sense of certainty.  One moon-tide storm could wash over it and drown the season out.  This is the year at its peak, at its most dangerous, a time of year marked by both wild hope and wild precariousness, danger and growth going hand in hand.  It is a full season but it is also, of necessity, a defensive season.  Maybe their ancient lineage allows the birds a greater confidence, an overall species confidence, but on the other hand there is an urgency for each individual bird, even if that urgency seems staid to us. 

         I’m not sure exactly what I gain from intertwining my own life with the lives of the animals I live near, but I enjoy it on purely physical level.  Maybe I hope that some of this calm, this sense of ritual, will be contagious.  If the pelicans look lugubrious, there effect on me is anything but.  And so I indulge myself for a moment and let myself lift into a feeling of unity with the ancient birds.  It may sound trite to say that we are all brothers and sisters, all united, but it is also simply and biologically true.  DNA puts the lie to our myth of species’ uniqueness, and you don’t need a science degree to reach this conclusion.  Montaigne, that great leveler of pomposity, said it best four hundred and fifty years ago when he wrote that even on the highest throne in the world we are still sitting on our asses.  It’s obvious really and there for anyone with eyes to see: We are animals, pure and simple.  And when we pretend we are something more we become something worse.

         Having seen these fragile nesting grounds a thousand times before,Walkeris to some extent habituated to them.  He is also more responsible than any other human being for their protection.  “We only visit briefly in the cool of morning,” he explains, “so not to disturb the birds.”  Playing tour guide, he walks in closer to the nests and gestures for me to follow.  He points to some eggs that look anything but lusterless, and then points to another nest where we see two birds, each just a day old.  Though pelicans develop quickly, they are born helpless, featherless, and blind, completely dependent on their parents, their lives a wild gamble.  Heat regulation,Walkerexplains, is a big factor in a nestling’s survival.  Pelican parents must shade their young on hot days, and one dog let loose on this island while the owner got out of his boat to take a leak could drive the parents from the nest, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of nestlings.

         But we are not thinking about death, not right now.  We are instead watching these tiny purple dinosaurs that could fit in the palm of your hand, the beginnings of their extravagant bills already in embryonic evidence.  And then we see it.  In the neighboring nest an egg trembles.  Then a tapping, and a pipping out from within.

         A small blind purple head emerges from the shell.  “Something only a mother could love,”Walkersays, and we laugh.  But we are both in awe.  It is the beginning of something, any idiot can see that.  But what may be harder to see is that it is also a great and epic continuation. 

         While we watch, the almost-pelican cracks through the eggshell, furious for life.  Then it shakes off the bits of shell and steps out into a new and unknown world.









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