by Glenn Reed
(Swans - April 8, 2013) Place.
It's defined by so many things. Climate. Wildlife. Trees and flowers. Land forms.
For nearly five years, I lived in Humboldt County in Northern California. During that period, many things began to define that particular place to me personally. One of the most intense ones was the brown pelican.
Many consider pelicans to be strange or amusing looking birds. With their elongated beaks, huge pouches, wide wingspan, and an almost clownish appearance (from a distance), that is understandable. Some say that they even look prehistoric and that, with their "splat and splash" dives for fish, they look clumsy.
On the contrary.
Many a weekend in Humboldt I spent walking a beach at Dry Lagoon, a few miles south of Orick, California. One of my greatest joys from late spring through the late fall, was spying groups of brown pelicans flying over the unruly Pacific waters there.
Pelicans flying in formation are poetry in motion. With their strange shape, one would think they'd appear awkward, but far from it. They move with total grace, rising, swooping, falling, gliding within inches of cresting, frothy waves that swell ten or more feet high. They follow each other closely and mimic every move of those in front. In groups, they're a lesson in symmetry. Watching a group of pelicans glide by was, for me, always mesmerizing. I'd be in the moment. I'd be one with that place. It was completely spiritual.
Sadly, brown pelicans were once on the verge of being wiped out in the United States back in the 1960s and early 1970s. Pesticides, particularly DDT, were making their egg casings so thin that they could not support the enclosed embryos to hatching.
When living in Humboldt, I tried to imagine the area without the sight of groups, or single, brown pelicans. Economically, I supposed the loss would have been considered minimal, since ecosystems and ripple effects in nature are rarely considered in the economics of short-term, human materialistic gain. Spiritually, the loss would have been devastating. That place would have been negatively transformed.
Luckily, the pesticides directly affecting brown pelicans and other birds were banned in 1972. Brown pelicans made an amazing comeback and are now, once again, a basic part of place on the northern California coastline.
What's the lesson here? A few changes in our society's destructive behavior can make a real difference. A species on the verge of extinction can be brought back. An ecosystem can be restored. We can develop a better balance between our lifestyles and nature and still live quite comfortably.
In my lifetime, I've witnessed such positive changes in many other instances. When I was a child, I used to visit my grandparents on Cape Cod in Massachusetts and, of course, we frequented the beaches on a regular basis. This was, primarily, from 1965 through 1972. I have no memory at all of ever seeing any gray seals there or of any whales breaching the ocean's surface within sight of land. Then came the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.
Two summers ago I spent a few days on the Cape and spent an afternoon on Nauset Beach in Orleans, which is one of the spots I visited as a kid. In that one visit I spied one gray seal after another cruising the waters offshore. Even more exciting, a group of several whales appeared far out to sea, but clearly visible from the beach because they kept on breaching.
Of course, the downside, in terms of swimming, is that white sharks have also made a huge comeback in that area because the huge increase in the seal population means more food for them. I didn't mind the 59 degree water at Nauset, but a recent incident of a white shark tailing a kayaker there certainly made me think twice about entering those waters again!
Now there is also significant controversy over the presence of huge gray seal colonies on Cape Cod beaches and on smaller, outlying islands like Monomoy. Fishermen, among others, are not happy with them for obvious reasons. However, one lesson is pretty clear. When humans decide to make a change to protect wildlife, flora, land forms or ecosystems, the capacity for nature to make a comeback is rather dramatic.
One last example that is less controversial than the gray seal: the bald eagle.
I can't remember the first time I saw a bald eagle in the wild. It certainly was not back where I grew up in New England. I think it was some time after I moved to Washington State in 1994. The iconic bald eagle, symbol of the United States, was near extinction in the 1960s. In fact, in 1963 there were a mere 417 nesting pairs left in the entire lower, 48 states. The importance of this raptor to the national psyche finally motivated people to action.
The banning of DDT was beneficial to the bald eagle in that it increased numbers of that birds' prey. Federal designation of the bald eagle on the endangered species list and other regulations also added protections that slowly, but surely, enabled this impressive bird to make a comeback.
Back in mid-February, my partner and I took a drive in Washington State's Skagit Valley on a typical cool, rainy day. In this area, the Skagit River ends its serpentine journey from the rugged Cascade Range, meandering lazily across the flat farmland that stretches from the foothills to the sea, and empties into Padilla Bay. Its open farmlands and sluggish sloughs provide ample opportunity for easy fishing and picking at occasional road kill for the bald eagles. We drove around hoping to spot a few, since February is a prime time to see them there.
We ended up seeing about two dozen. In fact, they have become so common that no one is surprised to see one perched at the top of a tall cedar in their backyard now, surveying the countryside for a meal. Back in the late 1990s and early 21st century when I lived in Washington State and visited the Skagit Valley, I was happy to see just one or two.
Not only do we see bald eagles in areas where they are known to congregate, but elsewhere. There are spots in Seattle where they are a regular sight. In one of my summer trips back to Vermont a few years back, I was at a small beach at the lake near my parents' house and was stunned when one flew about twenty feet over us. I had never, ever seen a bald eagle before in Vermont!
This gets back to the importance of place and the things that are essential to that sense of place. We're living in a time of historic import for Planet Earth. We have reached the tipping point on a number of fronts. Climate change has accelerated. Species are dying off at record rates. Deforestation is decimating huge tracts of forest. The world's oceans are being choked with plastics and other human detritus while run-off from fertilizer and other pollutants poisons both our fresh waters and those oceans, killing off life and decimating ecosystems. The insane obsession with fossil fuels is destroying groundwater, contributing to global warming, cleaving off mountaintops, gutting landscapes, coating wildlife with spilled oil.
Many feel that we're beyond the point of no return and can only take actions to limit the damage. Far too many don't care at all and are content to suck out maximum profits through further rape of the planet. Many more just sit in dazed denial in front of big screen TVs or staring at iPads and a virtual reality that will keep us hypnotized and drugged as we march towards the inevitable catastrophe from doing nothing.
Hope is a scarce commodity these days and, as an eternal cynic, I'm not one that people turn to in seeking it. But still I think of the bald eagle on top of a spruce, the gray seal's head breaking the surface of the Atlantic and staring back at me with curiosity, the amazing grace of the brown pelican riding currents of air over a turbulent sea.
Still I find solace in these images, in these special places. Still I cling to that modicum of hope that humanity will look again, with humility, at all we have and decide to change course so that we don't lose it forever.
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About the Author
Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. Originally from Vermont he is currently residing in Washington State and working in the non-profit world. (back)