Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Pelican Lessons

Everybody's got "the story."
For some folks--most famously Oprah these days--it's the "aha moment," that wonderful instant in the cosmos when a vital, incredibly important, life-changing realization strikes and the heavens part and the world divides into "before" and "after" and the path ahead becomes suddenly clear.
Before the "aha moment" entered the modern lexicon, it was the "Eureka moment," inextricably linked to Archimedes jumping out of his bathtub a couple of millenia ago and running naked down the street with excitement at the recognition of the concept of water displacement, which was a very big deal.
Well, "aha" and "Eureka" moments are great and all, but there's something beatific and divine and let's face it, bland and rather undramatic about them in the long run. I think "aha" and I think celestial energy and light flowing down from the heavens to shed enlightenment without irritation or effort or sweat or rueful discovery.
The story I'm sure everyone has lurking in their past and marking another important fork in the road has a bit more of an edge and a definite learning curve to it.
I think of it as the "I knew it!!" moment. It's that flash of genius when you realize that you've been listening to the wrong voices (sometimes your own), ignoring your own insight and intuition, turning a blind eye to the truth. It's that moment when a wife's discovered her husband was in fact cheating and the lipstick on his collar really wasn't hers; the good advice of friends wasn't nearly as good as it seemed; and that little old lady who lived down the lane really was running the drug ring you suspected but just couldn't put your finger on why, or get past the smell of her gingerbread cookies wafting into the street as you passed.
The "I knew it!!" moment sometimes come with a tinge of regret, often comes with a "once bitten, twice shy" moral, and always comes with the conviction that listening to your inner voice is the most important counsel you'll keep from now on. It can appear while you're laughing out loud, crying with disappointment, or having coffee with a tart-tongued buddy. And despite our best intentions, if we're slow learners, we can even get more than just one.
In my own case, I'll admit to being denser than a gourmet cheesecake at times and I have several of these road markers along the way. The most portentious, serious, highest stakes incident involved ignoring that "inner voice" in favor of taking one more run at a wood fence on a tall horse against my better judgment, and ended up with an ambulance, lights and sirens, a backboard, a whole lotta pain, and the words "you have a broken back" to ponder for the following three months in a body cast.
But I'd rather not use that reference point most of the way, when all I really need to think of are...pelicans.

The road to revelation was a two-lane ribbon of asphalt that ran through the Horicon Marsh. I was passing through on a long drive from the courthouse where I work to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where my daughter was receiving an award of some sort that came with a very nice dinner. With no time to spare, no binoculars or field guide in the car, and no hiking clothes either, I still stole ten whole minutes to explore a three mile driving loop through the marsh that caught my attention as I drove the scenic route recommended by a cop I work with. So I'd rather watch birds than people. Sue me!
I drove deep into the marsh and far from passing traffic, and parked the car by a boardwalk that ran directly into the marsh. I stepped into a world of water and nature and trilling sounds and wonder. As the late afternoon sun shimmered on the water and illuminated the tall vegetation beyond, there were myriad takeoffs and landings occurring around me, splashings and wingbeats and fluttering sounds. Something white caught my eye, and I stared in wonder as three huge white birds soared in from the periphery and came in for a landing past where the glimmering plane of water was interrupted by rushes and cattails and an air of mystery.
I stood, transfixed and mesmerized until they disappeared. The golden sunlight shown on gleaming white feathers with wingtips tipped in inky black. From my far-off vantage point, there was a joy and and an ease and a lilt to their flight as they circled and floated and finally landed gracefully in the reeds, well protected from prying eyes. These birds were huge. They seemed the size of hang-gliders, easily the biggest birds I'd ever seen.
And there was a flash of something familiar to them. For just an instant, I thought "pelicans!!" And then reason and rationality set in and I shut that thought down. "Nah," I thought. "Couldn't be." Too big by far, entirely wrong in color, a thousand miles from the Georgia shoreline where I was used to seeing them skimming the waves and the palm trees overhead like prehistoric throwbacks before alighting by the dozens on a sandbar in the Atlantic.
I got back in the car, drove the rest of the way to the awards dinner, and wondered all night and for days after what exactly I had seen. Could they possibly be whooping cranes? I knew that a few of these rare birds had been sighted recently somewhere in the marsh, and that seeing them was like finding the birdwatcher's Holy Grail. Could I have been among the chosen few?
I pondered the mystery for the next few weeks. Called a Department of Natural Resources warden I worked with on occasion and asked his advice. Where had I seen this trio, he asked. We weren't entirely sure that the area of vegetation was a customary place for whooping cranes to nest. Had I thought about the possibilities of trumpeter swans, he wondered. What about herons?
I stewed over the puzzle for weeks, reaching out to other birdwatchers with little satisfaction. The optimist in me really hoped that I'd seen a trio of whooping cranes. What an accomplishment!! What bragging rights!! But as I thumbed through my well-worn bird guides, I realized that this couldn't be the answer. Whooping cranes would have the same silhouette in flight as the slightly smaller sandhill cranes I could identify in my sleep--a vaguely alien form, as though you took a goose and added an element of elastic to it, neck strangely thin and elongated, long legs trailing out behind like twigs. I'd caught just a fragmentary glimpse, but there was an elegance of movement that could not be denied. Just like a few bars of Beethoven's Fur Elise can be mistaken for nothing else.
Likewise for herons--the size was off by a lot. What I'd seen was enormous. And the more I looked at the descriptions and listing for trumpeter swans, the more I recognized that the flight pattern was wrong. The birds I'd seen soared and glided and flew with a playfulness that swans and geese, I knew, just didn't have. If you've ever paid attention to a goose in flight, you know that it's a big-ass bird. There's a lot of meat to haul from one point to the next, and there's no room in that equation for burning fuel to have fun. A goose reminds me of a C-130 transport plane--it moves a lot of weight, and flies in a no-frills straight line.
I had reached a dead end. The mystery was still alive and well, but I was all out of leads. I tried to push it out of my mind.
A few weeks later, though, I was back at the marsh, this time for a leisurely morning of hiking and bird watching, a sanity break in a busy life, a battery recharge at the font of nature. Sneakers on and binoculars looped around my neck, I walked, and I sat, and I kept an eye out for another glimpse of those white visitors. No luck. As I finally heading home I took a different route, one that ran past the wildlife refuge's main visitor center. I stopped in, looked around, stepped out on the deck and looked out at the marsh spread out before me. A ranger was working in the office, and I put the puzzle to her. Explained the inspiring thrill of the sighting, the inquiries, the ponderings, the frustration.
"I'll bet they're white pelicans," she said.
Unbeknownst to my local expert fifty miles away, the Horicon Marsh is a summer breeding ground for thousands of white pelicans. I hadn't even known they existed. I'd simply asked the wrong person for advice. The ranger showed me a postcard in the gift shop. Sure 'nuf, they looked right. I ripped through my bird guides to the section on pelicans I'd never thought to open, and there it was, in black and white and full color. With a wingspread of nine feet, no wonder I'd thought they were the biggest damn birds I'd ever seen.
And with that, I smiled, even laughed a little. "I knew it!!" I thought in triumph.
And now as I blunder through every day since then full of judgment calls and leaps of faith and decisions big and small, if I need a little validation for the idea of trusting my gut, I just look back at a warm spring afternoon on a Wisconsin marsh, and think...

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