Invisible Web, Crossings, Trusting
Those wiley long-beaked
sleeks, a dim lassoed image on the horizon, unfolding and then a quick
reweaving, almost like watching a game of ‘crack the whip’ but
These cocky black and white
birds are called ‘skimmers.’ Their wings, set further back on their
lean bodies, form a zig-zag pattern. Their flight like pelicans,
hovering, gliding along the smoothed sea just beyond the first breakers.
Unlike the pelican they do not dive, they skim the waters with their
lower jaw, small fish flushed into their gullet without any change of
Today these twenty black and
white flashes are whipping and cascading along the Santa Barbara harbour
at twenty miles per hour. Together they form a finely choreographed
display. No bird leaves the patterned flight. They tilt up and over
followed by their famous long skim at water tip. Feeding looks like fun.
They remind me of the Blue Angels, aeriobatic, dare-devil jets skeeting
over the San Francisco Bay during ‘fleet week.’
I took the train down to Santa
Barbara from Oakland because I heard her harbour was becoming a favorite
roost for the Brown Pelican. These pelicans are on the endangered
Never in my life have I seen so
many skimmers and this is my first sighting on the west coast. I’m
kayaking out the harbor, stopping first at a new island, piled up muck
and sand from a dredging operation. This tiny island has been ‘found.’
Proudly perched near the end of the lengthy pipe bringing up the
treasures of the deep are 70 Brown Pelicans. Imagine that! They wait
there, eyes peeled for unsuspecting fish sucked up and spit out, right
at their feet. Room service.
Next in line, 36 cormorants busy
preening as they lift their oily wings up and down, creating a little
flutter, a drying out time. In and around these flocks, waddle mallards,
coots, and egrets as if looking for a lost friend at an outdoor rock
concert. Except none of these birds seems to be in conversation with her
neighbor. A great silence has befallen this spit of land. My kayak
flowing out with outbound current moves toward these diverse flocks.
"Am I invisible," I
wonder. Just before my kayak touches shore, like a hundred violinists
tuning their instruments in unison, wings start flapping, quite
tentatively, then magically the great brown pelican is airlifted and
those wide and long wings carry her off, at no more than five miles an
hour. The rest of the birds follow. So much for my snooping operation, I
even forgot to bring my camera.
So I head out to sea and then
notice the hundred birds are in a holding pattern above my head,
circling me and the dredge, waiting for my exit. Soon they will resume
their position in the sun, some rows closer to the ‘golden pipe.’
In the last couple of years I
have sensed myself as an island, yet amidst a bunch of like minded souls
who live on their boats in Grand Marina, Alameda, California on the San
Francisco Bay. I write in the mornings, hovering in my galley, seeing no
one for hours, then I come out in the afternoons. I might hop on my bike
and do shopping, head off to the library for some research, maybe walk
the dogs at the animal shelter or go for a sail. If there wasn’t any
wind, I’d throw my canoe into the estuary and circle Coast Guard
Island, expectant for new arrivals, saddened by departures of the
plentiful bird life that has settled into the lee side.
The older I get, the more
reclusive I have become. Yet I know that no one is an island. But a
question persists. Who do I belong to? Some days I listen to the joys
and woes of my dockmates, other days it’s saying a forlorn goodbye to
the migrating terns. Every now and then I gather with my writer’s
group and on special occasions I meet with my tutor to work on poetry.
In the evenings I welcome back my sweetheart who has labored in the city
Last night I walked down to the
docks of Santa Barbara harbor and bought a live brown crab from the
fishing co-op on the docks. Small fisherman, up against the strong
competition of big ‘company’ boats who go and stay further off
shore, have rented a little shack and brought their fish there to have
control over the price and distribution. They hired a couple of
teenagers to do the selling while they are doing the fishing.
"Oh yep, Herb caught those
browns, brought them in early this morning." The blond haired,
perpetually tanned teenager, darts his arm into the fish tank for the
crab I pointed at. A personalized crab, caught by Herb. This is a web of
humans, formed out of mutual need, empassioned by fishing.
I wonder about my solitude, how
it creates a web, or does it? Do my companions ‘on the fly’ count
themselves in? Me? I count myself into their web, curious, I want to
know more and more about them. Maybe that is the shift that I am
experiencing. Me becoming a non-verbal partner in their web. Me not
creating my own. Distanced, different, I watch, gaze and delight, they
do all the work.
Belonging. I use to prefer a
membership list. I liked dues, I liked to know who is in and who isn’t.
Most of my days were spent interacting with people. Doing good work,
getting positive responses to workshops, consultations, sermons. I could
count on more work than I could handle. I took pleasure in saying ‘no.’
Being needed provided the context and web of life. Although I loved
being out of doors, exploring rivers and trails, that seemed like a
sideline. Not at all as important as working with people.
That’s not how it works out in
Santa Barbara harbor nor on the Alameda estuary. Seals, a rare whale,
and plenty of birds welcome and befriend me but at a distance and our
contact is always in flux. Me, waiting expectantly, they showing up in
their own time.
A long time ago I would go on
retreat to a pinewoods rustic monastery in North Carolina. One of the
monks, Matthew Kelty, became a mentor for me until he left the
monastery. When he turned 60 he told me "I need more time to
myself. Even living with four others seems to be a strain." Matthew
moved to New Guinea, built a permanent wood floor, added a tent and
became a hermit. Facing out through long and graceful green felted
trees, he could see the sea in the far distance. From there he wrote a
popular book on spirituality, ‘One Flute Solo.’
Matthew’s brother monks live
in Spenser, Massachussets, enjoying the splendor of a huge gothic church
and refrectory, living space. A couple hundred of them. Do they feel
connected to Matthew, he to them? Do they form a larger communal web
including one another as well as you and I? The black and white skimmer?
The brown pelican? Who gets to call it?
Last night after sunset on the
Santa Barbara harbor I strolled back to a favorite snooping place. A
bridge over Mission Creek, headwaters up in the mountains eight miles
away. Here the fresh water that has cascaded downhill to meet the steady
pressurized salt water tide, forming brakish water with many types of
little fish scurrying. Two night herons have already taken up their
perch along the banks, one great blue heron further upstream, two
mallards on a 3 foot by 3 foot mid-stream island. A fishing community of
five, each paying no attention to the other, duck beaks scullying the
quiet water, the other three, waiting, necks in tension, ready to
strike. I creep along tall weeds, along the riverbank, for a better
view. I know they know I’m there, weeds are moving, but they make no
movement. They stand their ground. The solitude of community being
played out. Somehow I am in the middle of it. I relish this calm.
Yesterday as I paddled out past
the harbor into the Pacific Ocean, I saw a dolphin playing along the
crest of the first breaker, surfers sitting on their boards, waiting.
Further on I was surprised by a ‘swoosh,’ then the upturned head of
curiosity. A sea lion, who circled me, twice. Like making a sacred
circle, keeping me safe. I turned around and headed back, a smile on my
face, I told her, "Thanks for checking up on me."
For much of my life, I have
resisted the gravational pull of water, strong as a full moon tide.
Three years ago my partner, Karen, and I made the break. Like a salmon
successfully traversing, dam after dam to get to the Columbia, I scouted
for a way to get to the water. We lucked out, a sailboat and a berth
became available and I have sighed deeply, daily, for three years, as if
deprived of sea air, I have finally made it back to my birthplace.
My phone rings infrequently
these days. Maybe once a month I receive a personal letter. I write for
an audience I have never met. I walk dogs, abandoned and lost who are
given new names on their arrival in the shelter. A time for them of
forming a new identity, strange home, no master. When I said, "Sit
Brownie." She gave me a quizzical gaze, cut short by a lunge at a
wildflower. Hours go by and I haven’t talked to a single human being.
I love it! I chuckle at the trio
of mallards endlessly fighting and quacking. I praise the silent, swift
dive of the least tern, usually successful in bringing a minnow for
lunch. The wisdom of the harbor seal surfacing, spying, descending. My
interactions are in solitude, not needing words, nor introductions nor
I pointed out a bevy of least
terns yesterday to a friend on the dock and said, "Man did I miss
them this winter. I used to look longingly for the first crocus, now I’m
on my tiptoes about least terns." He turned and looked at me, then
turned back and looked beyond the dock as if he remembered something
from long ago. Looked back at me and said, "Don’t you think it’s
time you got a haircut?"
Maybe the work of solitude is
sly. Comes to each of us, like a billowly sheet of wind, twirls us
around and around until we don’t recognize ourselves, our
surroundings. Solitude does her work while we are elsewhere, reading,
watching, writing, sitting. Soul work, beneath the gabby
self-consciousness of the mind. I didn’t get it, though for a long
time. I thought it was me. That I didn’t know how to make friends,
hunched that I needed a different line of work. Reaching backwards to my
old way of being, by doing. I was unused to the pleasure of being quiet,
observing, writing. The phone doesn’t ring, few people stop by. Now,
that’s just fine by me. Now that I have been embraced by sea and bird,
mammal and boat.
Unlike Matthew Kelty, I didn’t
need to go to an island of New Guinea, but just to this land’s end,
the island of Alameda. There has been a crossing. I don’t want all
those phone messages to return, endless meetings, out of town
consultations. Put me at the edge of the sea, give me a vessel.
Those whom I count as
companions, as part of my web, are beings living on the edge of shore
and sea. Humans are included, just not exclusively. My companions live
their lives apart from me. But I know I am a part of them. On this
island they are not alone, I fight for them, write about them, count
them as my friends. And in that solitude there is no lonliness, and
especially no wishing for more of what I used to have.