Letting Life Be

When we returned to the vanpool stop, a.k.a. the Walmart parking lot, one evening this week, two baby and two adult birds—a kind I’d never seen before—appeared to be searching for each other with no success even though they were only a few feet from each other.

The babies were tiny, still fluffy, and looking as if they shouldn’t have been out of the nest. They had somehow gotten onto the pavement while the adults were up on the grass in one of those small islands of partially neglected nature that we interestingly dot our parking lots with. The babies were so small they couldn’t get from the pavement to the grass because the curb was taller than they were, maybe three or four inches, no taller than my shoe.

The adults appeared to be calling and looking for the babies but never in the right direction. It’s possible the adults and babies literally couldn’t hear each other because of the noise from the nearby highway. I wanted to show the adults how to search visually for the babies, how to methodically cross and recross a space the way humans do. I wanted to lift the babies up onto the grass that they kept trying to look over the impossibly high curb to see.

But I know just enough about nature to know there was no way to help. Touching the babies would make them smell like human, and their parents might reject them, never mind the perhaps impossible task of catching them. The parents would probably not interpret my attempts to guide their search as anything other than a threat. In reality, I didn’t even know whether they were really lost or this was just part of how these baby birds grow up, a type of being pushed out of the nest.

I think this is so often true, that there’s nothing we can actually do to change the course of things unfolding in this existence, though we’re trained to think we can. I don’t mean that we never affect each other or that one person’s generosity can’t completely change the course of another’s life. Those things happen all the time, but this helplessness is also true, and perhaps at least as often. Maybe the only thing we can do when we find ourselves next to an impossibly high curb or watching a loved one search for something we are powerless to provide is remember that everything we are looking for is only three feet away.

As William Stafford says in the final stanza of the poem “Afterwards,”

Maybe people have to go in and out of shadows
till they learn that floating, that immensity
waiting to receive whatever arrives with trust.
Maybe somebody has to explore what happens
when one of us wanders over near the edge
and falls for awhile. Maybe it was your turn.

Awed and Amazed

It’s been a cup runneth over kind of summer on the Central Coast.

A couple of weeks ago a friend and I met by the beach to talk about writing and ended up bird watching. A swarm—yes, a swarm, as in way beyond a flock—of sooty shearwaters had turned a large patch of ocean brown. They couldn’t have been more than 100 yards off shore.
thousands of sooty shearwaters on the water
At some point, we figured we’d had our evening’s worth of magnificence and turned away, only to be lured back by the number of birds, their closeness, the constant splashes of pelicans fishing. I felt both the desire to and the impossibility of taking it all in.

At the same time, a few whales took up residence in Avila Bay and were kind enough to let the human world know about it by sticking their heads out of the water to feed, breaching, and jumping. I didn’t see the whales, but I did see some phenomenal pictures. A friend who did see them spoke of trying to leave several times and being pulled back to watch some more, much as we had been with the birds.

There’s a lot in life that’s just too big or too wonderful to absorb. Part of my brain wanted to hold onto and process all of those birds, to sort them or comprehend them. But what kept us watching wasn’t the possibility of comprehension.

Knowing exactly how many birds there were or understanding why the fish they were after had come so close to shore wouldn’t have improved the experience. If you measured every detail and understood every interaction at every moment, all that knowledge would not add up to the sense of sheer magnitude and wonder those birds inspired.

I’m blown away by nature on a fairly regular basis, but occasionally she pulls out the stops and reminds me that, when it comes to awe, she has an almost infinite repertoire.