Category Archives: nature

Of Birds and the Rainbow (and Taxes)

It was one of those summer late afternoons that are as sweet and rich as a rose in full bloom.  The iron heat and glare of a few hours earlier had given way to a more gentle warmth, the slanting late afternoon sun brought every color to a glowing intensity that was tinged with gold.  Green tree, red plastic roadside sign, they were all equally beautiful — their very existence was proof of the magic that underlies this world.  The towering summer clouds were ethereal castles floating above us, swirls of ivory and amethyst in a sky so blue it shook.  In the distance rain fell from several of them in purple streaks.

My son and I were driving down a rural coastal highway.

“Look at the light and color and sky,” I said. “The only thing that would make this moment more perfect would be a rainbow, but that’s being greedy, I suppose.”

“Look,” he said quietly, pointing just behind my head.

I craned around over the steering wheel and there it was — the rainbow — a double rainbow. Abundance, when it appears, is an awesome thing.

We drove a few miles further, in and out of one of the intense local showers.  Just as the sun reappeared, we came to a road that goes out into a salt marsh and dead ends at the ocean.  I drove out there whenever I could.  You never knew what it had to share.  Some days wading birds fed in the creeks, once on a storm high tide a porpoise chased fish up onto the marsh grass, sometimes there was just the open expanse of marsh and sea and sky.  I slowed down and hit the turn signal.

“Why are we going here, I thought you were in a hurry to get home?” my son asked.

“Look at the sky, maybe there’ll be another rainbow,” I answered, not really believing it or even wanting anything more than we had.  I just wanted to do it and couldn’t resist the temptation to mess with his young mind a bit.

We turned, drove past the point where the wall of trees abruptly stopped and out into the vast sea of marsh grass and glittering salt water.  I slowed down to about fifteen or twenty miles per hour and we drifted toward the open Gulf of Mexico at the end of the road.

“Aha, look,” I announced triumphantly.  In a creek the biggest mixed flock of American egrets, golden footed snowy egrets, great blue herons and wood storks I had ever seen were intent on a school of killifish.  There must have been hundreds of birds in that one flock.  As we slowly passed, some swirled up into the air while others held their intense hunters’ mind focus on the life giving water at their feet.

I knew we needed to drive out there and here was the reason why — to see the birds.  We went on to the end of the road and turned around, totally happy.  And as we turned back, there it was — the second rainbow.  It was huge, it stretched across half the sky, the colors intensifying as we watched.

“Look, mom, you were right.” My son looked at me with a slightly awed respect that children almost never have for parents and wouldn’t ever confess to if they did.

I was speechless.  Was something going down here? This was beginning to feel a little weird.

“How ’bout that,” I finally managed, as though I’d really pulled it off. “And we get to see the birds again too on the way back.”

We drove back up the road in the glowing color and light, a little faster than we’d been going.  As we passed the birds the entire flock took wing and in the rear view mirror they were framed in the rainbow.

“Oh, my god, look at that,” I exclaimed, swerving off the road and hitting the brakes.

We jumped out and stared, now truly awestruck.  Hundreds of brilliant white birds swirled above the green marsh, against the deep blue sky, completely encircled by a rainbow.  They hung and circled and rose and fell, all in the rainbow.  It seemed to last forever.

“Never, never forget this moment as long as you live.  When everything is going wrong, just remember this,” I said as they slowly settled back to the ground.

He just shook his head.  We drove on back to the highway and headed home, the rainbow still overhead.

And at home, waiting in the mail, was a bill.  Not just any bill but one that said “Florida Individual and Joint Intangible Tax Return.” They wanted $48 as a tax on my intangible assets.  How they managed to deliver it at that moment, I’ll never know.  These tax collectors must be good at their work, I mean REALLY good! But it was worth a lot more than $48.

Solo Camping

Driving to the campsite where I would stay alone for a week felt like the beginning of a bigger newer adventure than anything that could begin with getting on a plane. Although called Alligator Lake on the map, most of the land was really a wet prairie full of marshes. Cypress and black gum trees fringed the basin with red maples and water loving slash pines in areas that flooded only in rainy months. The majestic huge pines stood on open needle covered ground because the occasional standing water kept undergrowth from surviving. The slanting intense light of early morning and late afternoon created a cathedral like effect.

I was camping in the forest in search of some answers to life’s problems. Daily life is complex and frenetic. We tend to define ourselves by what we do and those affairs intrude incessantly into efforts to focus on larger life goals over a brief period of time. The mind is strongly influenced by the environment in which it is operating and, in routine daily living, tends to stay focused on business and family, personal achievement, status. Since the forest, the desert and the ocean are non-verbal and vastly transcend human ego, they are ideal settings for taking some time out to refocus. Valid insights are more easily found in a wilderness/non- human setting where the demands and desires of the ego cannot change anything. The natural world endlessly presents its truth until we finally notice it and perhaps someday comprehend something.

In the morning mists, the cypresses and cabbage palms formed eerie shapes. The forests and swamps were alive with deer, turkey and bears. The lake shore swarmed with millions of tadpoles in the spring and further out, the deeper parts of the lake were full of brim, crappie and the large mouthed bass that lurked in ambush under the lily pads. The tent was nestled in palmetto on a slight ridge in a groove of water oak.

When I arrived, two wood ducks were foraging in the cypress pond in front of the tent. After sunset, several more swooped in, passing only a few feet overhead. Walking around the backside of the pond in the last light before full darkness, I startled a big flock of robins. Their flight flushed the wood ducks out of the pond, and where I had thought there were ten, at least twenty five or thirty thundered overhead from the pond to the main lake. Swarms of lightning bugs flashed incessantly, as intense as a strobe show, so bright they lit up the ground with each flash. This lasted for about an hour and when it ended there was only the star spangled tree canopy and one bullfrog way off in the distance. As it got darker, the big oaks took on a sharp glittering beauty, with stars on every branch like Christmas trees. It seemed so simple: go outdoors and be still. It was complete and perfect. Nothing else was needed.

But the later it got, the more uneasy I felt, sitting alone on the ground in the dark. No primate had willingly done this in millions of years, ever since humans mastered fire. Sitting there was maybe more than a little dumb given that I had seen a panther near here and panthers would easily attack something no bigger than a seated human. I retreated to the tent. It might be flimsy but it looked big. That was better until ungodly howls came from the lake. Barred owls screech, cackle and howl. Maybe it was an exceptionally maniacal barred owl but it didn’t quite sound like that. The moon was nearly full but the sky was overcast. A thunderhead full of brilliant white and blue heat lightning slowly approached from the south off the Gulf. A single crash of lightning suddenly struck and rain poured for about thirty minutes.

An invisible deer went crashing through the palmetto and waded across the cypress pond. Then a snarl in the dark sounded like a big cat near the camp. Was that a panther? It came again and it was clearly a cat type snarl and too loud to be a bobcat. A rumble of distant thunder from the departing storm rolled overhead. Could the snarl have just been thunder? The thunder came from the west and the snarl was off to the east. If there was a panther nearby, this solo camping in the forest might not be safe but if it was thunder and an overactive imagination, then the situation was just silly. Eventually the night racket in the forest settled into stillness.

Starting with gratitude for that, I began to reflect on and to be grateful for the many positive aspects of life that more than equaled life’s troubles. Soon the issues that had brought me here seemed a little less difficult, a little more manageable. No matter how difficult life may be in any given moment, it is always possible to look more closely at the tiniest details of life and find something for which to be grateful. That in turn creates the possibility of being able to act from a place of well-being, to see life for the gift that it can be if we notice the details and let go of our endless opinions about how things ought to be.

Seasons of the Sea

On land, every spring bears the face of flowers. Right now in March, the first subtle bloom of redbud and red maple flowers in the tree tops a month ago has exploded in a riot of azaleas, wisteria and dogwoods where I live.

But the seasons of the sea, as marine biologists and fishermen all know, are as strongly marked as those on land. Right now in March, the season’s first horseshoe crabs are returning to the breeding beaches they will visit every full and new moon all summer. Manatees are returning to coastal sea grass beds, emerging from the year round warmth of coastal spring fed rivers that sheltered them all winter.

Come the full moon in April everything else will explode back into life again as well.  Pink shrimp that spent the winter buried in the sandy sea floor will emerge by the millions and swarm across the bottom in what shrimpers call the spring hopper run. Fish that moved offshore into deeper warmer water move back into the shallows even as the white pelicans are flying north overhead.

It all reverses in the fall. With the first few cold fronts, the water chills, gets stirred up and choppy.  It’s a signal to all the juvenile crabs and fish and shrimp that grew up in the warm shallow food rich inshore waters of summer that it will soon be too cold for survival. Just like birds headed south for the winter, they head offshore to deeper water, water that will stay relatively warm through the brief chill of a Gulf Coast winter.

Fall is run season for mullet — the year’s crop of fish form schools and run along shore, their bodies ripe with eggs and sperm, to spawn in deep open water.  In a few places fishermen still wait along the shore to catch them as they did 100 years ago. The mullet that complete the migration will spawn their microscopic offspring that will ride the currents back into the bays and marshes a few months later in early spring.  Rare Keep’s ridley sea turtles disappear from their crab rich grass bed feeding grounds in the fall.  Some will move south, some will bury in the mud, hibernating like pond turtles till the water warms up again.  Off Cape Cod, other ridleys are traveling south for hundreds of miles, maybe as far as Cape Hatteras to escape the lethal freezing temperatures of a north Atlantic winter, a real winter.

In the surf zones of northern Gulf Coast barrier islands from Dog Island in Florida west to the Mississippi, mother electric rays who came inshore to birth their young in August and September leave in November, headed back to offshore sand bars in thirty feet of water.  The newborn brown spotted babies will stay on, feeding on tiny worms and burrowing sea anemones until January cold forces them to remain buried and inactive until spring time.

When a fall cold front swept through one year, the November sky looked like a blue porcelain dish above our heads.  My Florida State University students and I walked along the shore, all of us bundled up against the cold north wind that was blowing with bared fangs across the water.  The full moon tide had fallen hard and fast that morning, pushed by both gravity and the wind and the mud flats were dry for a quarter of a mile off the beach.  Dry and covered with shrimp, hundreds of shrimp, big shrimp stranded as the water rushed off the flat.  Unlike the pink shrimp of spring, these were closely related white shrimp trekking to the open ocean from the muddy shallow nearly fresh water in river mouths where they had spent the summer growing from microscopic babies into big edible seafood shrimp, 6 inches long.

Their opalescent white bodies and green and black tail fans gleamed in the bright sun.  Caught by the weather, by the unusually fast fall of the wind driven tide as they moved along the shore toward the open ocean, these shrimp would not complete their fall migration from the marshes at the head of the bay out to the sea.

Their misfortune was our gain.  Scientific theory and learned discussion of marine animal migration was on total hold as the students switched from ecology to applied biology, specifically to fisheries biology, more specifically to harvesting the marine resource at our feet.  Lunches were emptied out of coolers as somebody drove to the nearest store to buy ice. Marine biology was all very well but this was dinner, this was real.

Horseshoe Crabs at Full Moon

Horseshoe Crabs on the Full Moon

Every spring along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, horseshoe crabs come to sandy beaches at high tide  to nest on days near the full or new moons.  Night  tides have more crabs than afternoon tides. Years ago I did a research project on the behavioral ecology of the crabs. Their blood is used test medical supplies for bacterial contamination. The crabs are then released, but the point of the study was to be sure that they were unharmed by the process. It was proactive conservation rather than waiting until a problem arose and then trying to fix it.  The work involved teams of volunteers tagging and releasing ten thousand crabs. Would those that were bled remain as active and likely to be seen again as those that were not bled? I had spent month after month on horseshoe crab breeding beaches hiking for miles looking for tagged crabs. The study showed that the bleeding process was not hurting the crabs and in the intervening years I had moved on to other work and rarely visited the breeding beaches.

Last spring I went to a horseshoe crab breeding beach on the March full moon at the 3 AM high tide to see how many crabs were coming ashore locally after the BP oil spill.  We were east of the main effects but not very far east. Were they ok or had their populations been hammered?

On the first nesting moon of the season, I didn’t expect to see more than a few dozen. It was windy and the crabs were having a tough time, flipping over in the surf, but there were hundreds there in a short stretch of beach, digging into the sand to lay and fertilize eggs, insuring the next generation in a lineage that has survived nearly unchanged for four hundred million years. Hooray! Whether populations further west survived where the oil came ashore was another matter but at least these were still kicking.

And after all these years, there wasn’t a single crab with a tag.  They were as naked as they were before all that tagging work. Ancient creatures that have been around since long before the dinosaurs appeared, their span on earth is incomprehensible to a single finite human mind.  The project that had been so important in my life years before was gone without a trace, as ephemeral and impermanent as a single wave breaking on the shore. For that matter, so was I.  The tags were all gone and in a few years I would be equally gone.

As I walked the silent beach alone in the moonlight for several miles, time and events broke into smaller and smaller pieces, with the mind focusing on each one of them, experiencing each moment with total focus. Now is the time to step over a log. Stepping over the log.  Then is the time to take this step. Moving the leg forward. Then is the time to sit down. Sitting down. Then….. Etc etc. Mindfulness wasn’t an abstract ideal, it was simply how the brain physically shifted into a different way of functioning, measuring the night by time to walk, time to sit, time to rest.

We abstract time by labeling the hours of the day and the days of the week. Dividing our days into hours and minutes, we create an artificial mental scaffolding of schedules to keep and tasks to do. We label the cycle of seasons and number the years, creating a sense of progression and linear time, but each unique named day of the labeled month of the numbered year is only a mental abstraction, a human idea superimposed on the endless cyclic alternation of darkness and light and seasonal weather patterns.

The alternation of daylight and darkness is contiguous and unbroken for billions of years. There is only the still silent passage of the sun and moon overhead over and over again as the earth spins on its axis, only the changing light and colors as sun, moon and stars pass across the sky. There is no new day, only the endless cyclic alternation of light and dark, cold and hot, wet and dry weather, activity and rest. In the morning daylight simply resumes. It is not a new day. This timeless space has existed for millions of years.

All caught up in the world of thinking and personal identity, we mostly don’t even notice that the nonverbal cyclic time that underlies the calendar even exists. Go back through enough sunrises and sunsets and everybody would be wearing different clothes and using different technology, but there would be no gap between then and this very moment.

Horseshoe crabs time their actions to the cyclic waxing and waning of the moon. They’ve been doing it for hundreds of millions of years as humans count time but to the crab perhaps there is only right now.

“The distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion,” said Einstein. This moment, this night was not separate from the moment when the first living thing appeared. Endless time became timeless.

Seminars and Aquariums

As I came into the university seminar room and sat down, a young woman stood up and began her talk about jellyfish and other open-ocean animals that build transparent soft “jelly”-like bodies — who they are, what they eat, how they catch it, their impact on the world around them. The speaker was a graduate student and this was of one of a series of student talks on marine ecology.  The faculty members at the seminar led a discussion, intermingling knowledge from the published literature with their own personal experiences and insights  The professor directing the group had been my major professor years before.   He looked the same as ever, but I didn’t remember looking nearly so young as this group of graduate students.  Be that as it may….

The student ran some video footage of a salp, a creature with a more or less tadpole-shaped body that builds an envelope or house of jelly and then filters water through to capture microscopic food. An alien from space might look something like that, I mused, glittering, flashing, hanging suspended in space. What would it be like to live as one of these mid-water beings? A comb jelly, perhaps, floating, tentacles stretched out, waiting for some small creature to hit and be stuck then reeled in. Or one of the bioluminescent jellyfish in the blackness of the deep oceans. What is this universe that manifests itself in these eerie pulsing life forms anyway? WHAT ON EARTH IS THIS. All of our knowledge suddenly seemed like a tiny raft on a very big ocean indeed.

It was amazing — 18 people enthusiastically discussing the details of how a comb jelly traps its food, how it fits into the intricate web of interactions that make up this living planet. There aren’t very many people who care enough about that sort of thing to devote a career to it. Universities provide a place where they can find each other.

Public aquariums are another place where people like this find each other. I had an appointment early one morning with a scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston. When we finished our business, I walked back out into the huge central display area. The aquarium hadn’t opened for the day but a new exhibit of cow nosed rays had just been completed and the press was there for a sneak preview that would hopefully get some visitor generating publicity.

About 30 people stood quietly around the huge shallow tank, eating bagels and muffins, half preoccupied with their own conversations and half watching the graceful soaring of several dozen rays as they circled and circled, slowly beating the tips of their flattened bodies, looking for all the world like kites come to life. As they passed, almost everybody reached out a hand to gently touch them or call them like a kitten. But they seemed unaware of anything other than their own slow flying reality.

Cutting through the soft murmur of conversation was an occasional shriek from the penguins in the adjacent large pool. Some stood on the artificial rock ledges and islands in their urban ocean while others floated at the surface, looking like ducks except that they paddled with their wings instead of their feet. They looked like birds in a way that evaporates when they stand upright. And when they dove they flew like falcons underwater, swerving and darting at high speed, until flight and swimming were one thing.

Sea turtles and sharks and tarpon and jacks, angelfish and mackerel swam endlessly in the 2 story tall circular center tank, moving forever in a counter clock wise waltz. They didn’t seem to notice how the stillness and the mystery of the place abruptly evaporated when the front doors opened and the first school field trip of the day poured in a flood through the entrance. Outside the big yellow buses were lined up 8 deep, waiting to unload. Where the adults had stood quietly in front of the ray exhibit, the kids squatted and jumped, running back and forth from one vantage point to the next. The air was solid with the loud shrieks and chatter of excited children who knew a good thing when they saw it.

It was easy to understand what these young fellow humans were thinking but the fish were tougher. Do fish think as they amble around? What would a fish think about anyway, what sort of fishy thoughts? What is the internal reality of a fish? Orthodox science emphatically asserts that they don’t, that only a few big brained mammals have even the possibility of awareness but in fact we really haven’t a clue one way or the other so why not wonder?

In smaller aquaria mounted in the walls rainbow colored small fish picked over their coral habitat, some looking for their own version of bagels and muffins, some just cruising about.  One tank had 3000 schooling silver menhaden, each only a few inches long. Their silver fluid movement glittered and flashed. The tank was solid fish, and it was the ultimate abundance, life coalescing out of water with intensity beyond comprehension.

The planet swarms and dances with life, in a multiplicity of forms that are nearly unknown on dry land. The graphic displays on the walls of the aquarium explained what little we know about camouflage and schooling and warning coloration and all that sort of thing but they didn’t come close to answering the real questions these living displays ask. An aquarium lays out the graceful and the bizarre, presents us with the ultimate Zen koan of biological  form and diversity, leaves us to wonder “What is this? What on earth does it really mean? How does it come to be?” and also like a Zen koan, leaves us to find that answer on our own.