Sometimes incidental observations transport me to unexpected trains of thought. That’s what happened recently as I lay on my favorite Pacific beach watching pelicans flying in single-file trolling for fish. There are several distinct groups – the same ones as on my last visit two years ago. The largest team has 8-9 members, but is often joined by a group of 4 and sometime by a pair that travels in tandem. Their low-flying flight path imitates the motion of the waves – a ribbon gently flowing upwards and then sinking close to the water’s surface.
On two occasions, Lone Pelican came to visit me on the deserted beach. It landed nearby and we both remained motionless for what felt like a long time but probably wasn’t. It waddled incrementally closer until it was three feet away. We stared at each other for a while. Eventually, it waddled toward the shore, extended its broad wings, and departed. I’m not sure what it is about the birds at Playa Lagartillo, but I seem to have a special rapport with them.
The large team is often joined by Lone Pelican, which also occasionally flies with the pair. Lone Pelican often flies alone, and when in groups, exhibits aberrant behavior. It might join the flight line but is impatient and mischievous and almost always breaks formation. Although only an amateur scholar of avian behavior and psychology, I am pretty sure Lone Pelican is motivated by hedonism. It feels those air currents tickling its wings and cannot resist the temptation to soar and float, to air-surf – and really, why should it? It must be an absolutely glorious sensation. I imagined the critical chatter of members of the pelican community in which LP lives: ‘Why does LP have to be different/disruptive/such a showoff’?
Those phrases triggered a cascade of memories because I’ve heard them directed toward me for much of my life. While my patience has grown with age, I have never, admittedly, had much tolerance for organized activities or people I find tedious when more attractive opportunities present themselves. In elementary school, I was bored and (consequently) disruptive. My most empathetic teacher, Mr. Blake, ‘punished’ me for the last 3 weeks of sixth grade by allowing me to sit in the hallway and read. All day long! It was so much less stressful than the principal’s office – my usual spot – which was a flurry of activity. The hall, in contrast, was peaceful, and I immersed myself in the exotic tales of H. Rider Haggard and Jules Verne.
I drove teachers, chaperones, orchestra, band, and program directors crazy with my disappearing act, although I never caused an inconvenience or kept anyone waiting. While I’m now an adult, have run summer programs for teens, and understand the concerns that worry those in charge, I’m a stronger believer in trust. I could always be trusted to show up when and where I should. So, when my charges assure me of their dependability, I lengthen their leashes and am never disappointed.
Like the Lone Pelican, I have frequent moments when the lure of desire trumps the comforting appeal of conformity and I’m tolerant of that tendency in others.
For years, I maintained a harmonious balance between solitude in nature and everyday life by rowing daily for several hours during long, light summer days in my rowboat in a southern Swedish forest. But with that option no longer available, I’ve explored other possibilities. The New Year’s before the pandemic, I spent a week alone at a cabin without electricity or heat in the Quebec wilderness. Reachable only by a two-mile snowmobile trek across a frozen lake and perched on a hill overlooking a lake, it was so far from other habitations that no one would hear me scream. It was a magical winter wonderland.
The caretaker who ferried me there had stacked sufficient wood for the stove, my only source of heat in the -15-degree Fahrenheit temperatures, and stocked two gallons of water, which I had to replenish with melted snow as the week wore on. I had learned on an earlier adventure that it takes many pots of snow to fill one with water, so I got started on that project immediately. I brought sufficient food to survive the week. Gas fixtures provided dim light when darkness fell – around 4 p.m.
In a place as cold as Quebec, keeping the wood stove stocked is a half-time job; it gets very cold very quickly in the absence of heat. It must be checked at least every two hours. Safety is a key consideration. I’d read “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and entertained no plans of ending my days like Sam. Thus, I didn’t stray far from the cabin. I strapped on snowshoes and walked on the lake and made snow angels. I studied animal tracks and listened to the wind howling through the trees. I played myself in chess and Scrabble, downloaded photos from my phone onto a hard drive, and read poetry aloud. I had to be very economical in using devices because I brought only one external battery and my phone, my literal lifeline, had to be functional. It would have been a long and difficult walk to the caretaker’s. But least the bears were hibernating.
The snow sparkled like diamonds in the sunlight and the clear night sky – no clouds can form when it’s that cold – revealed a blanket of stars. Before bed, I’d pull on my boots, walk onto the porch, and watched the sky until I’d seen at least five shooting stars.
When I told people what I had done, most were amazed, some were impressed by my frontierswomanly pluckiness, but no one voiced the wish to do it themselves. The Lone Pelican and I know the habits of our species and, while we do like feeling part of a larger community, the lure of coasting on those air currents, with that singular, exhilarating feeling of freedom while functioning in sublime interdependence with nature, is sometimes just too compelling an enticement.