Gifts Fall from Nature

How the unexpected can be beautiful

When the Earth morphs into living birds

Sometimes Mother Nature rolls over on her back and asks you to scratch her belly, or maybe just gawk at the scene before you. The thrill of small visual gifts is exacerbated if you, like me, generally have low expectations of anything happening. Maybe if I watched more TV and You Tube features of goats on steep cliffs, lions and crocodiles doing a tug-a-war with a buffalo calf, or cats and cucumbers I wouldn’t be as astounded when something remarkable happens. This happened on a boat.

A boat puts me into a new realm of sensory input

Now it is kind of a motorhead thing, and in my experience, more common with guys than gals, but getting a big outboard up on plane, tuning the trim, getting the bow just right for the water and finding the droning sweet spot of a modern 4-stroke engines is flat satisfying. I glided to a halt and cut the engine. The glassy smooth water, wispy fog through the conifer-clad hillsides and the utter absence of other boaters up this wilderness fjord near our Northwest home was magical. The four professional women (and old friends from afar) were focused on the aesthetic of sitting in the quiet, having a glass of wine paired cheese and crackers, and filling that silence with career conversation. Hey, I am just the chauffeur and erstwhile husband to one of them. So we sat in the natural stillness, crunched crackers and gabbed about kids, work gripes, successes . . . and then nature kinda struck.

Sound, sight, surge, and scent enveloped us.

I was gazing aimlessly out the window of the welded aluminum boat cab when the black meter-tall fin sliced the water ½ a boat-length away. I recoiled and unconsciously blurted “Orcas!”. This triggered all sorts of FoFoP (Flight or Flee or Phone) activity. Cell videos were activated, a half dozen “OMG”s were blurted and my wife started hyperventilating. She always does that when surprised by a snake, spider, or her near-death car maneuvers. Apparently, whales trigger her too. Who knew?

Although I am a wildlife biologist, I know less about cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises and Orcas) than many self-educated observers. Those keeners have told me there are two groups of Orcas in our area; the local salmon specialists and the transient seal and otter specialists. Since there is no salmon run up here right now, I had to presume these were the mammal eaters and I was glad my dog wasn’t doing her usual swimming around the boat when they surfaced. it would have been a hell of a fine way to go however!

Voyeurs were we, watching the bloody path of nature unfold.

The pair of black and white submarines ghosted up, took a good look at us, probably determined we were not seals sitting on a silver rock, then continued up the strait at a steady pace. Until they weren’t. The larger of the two blew a big breath, arched high and disappeared for a minute. Then, as if queued by a dinner bell, the gulls began dipping down and picking up errant bits of flesh. Seal flesh. The pair continued on up the shoreline and did this again, with the gulls providing clean-up. We respected the 400 meter observer distance but these marine killers didn’t seem to mind and I don’t think our idling along behind hindered their hunting one bit especially since our resident harbor seals sit tight at 10 meters approach distance.

Maybe the rock fish, salmon and skipjack will get a little break by having the seals cleaned out this year. The day wasn’t over yet though. We headed for home and saw plenty of seals remaining close to shore or up on the rocks and then to our surprise, a large brown sea lion with swooping whiskers took off in front of us at great speed. Another rare siting this far inland. It seems something is going on here. What next? Sea otters? Great White Sharks? Jacques Cousteau?

As we meandered back home, purring along on plane and grooving on the calmness, well, me anyway, I vowed to record this event because it all seemed rather ethereal to the point of wondering if I had actually seen what I saw.

What is the message here? Of course there is the un-gentlemanly one-upmanship that birding, safaris and whale-watching seem to generate as in “We saw this and you didn’t, nah nah boo boo!”. It is almost as if the nature voyeur thinks they can personally be elevated by standing in the presence of natural greatness. However, that is unsatisfying for everyone and diminishes the viewer, so I dug a little deeper.

Maybe my take-home from this was that if we are going to be awed, we have to put a little something into it. As A. H. Glaswo said “Success isn’t a result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire.” There is plenty to see on digital media whether real or digitally enhanced-I am still pissed at being briefly tricked by the fake tiger in Life of Pi- and Anime, or CGI animation can Matrix us or have dragons flying out of our computer in Game of Thrones. However, you must suspend disbelief to be well served by someone else’s creations.

The process of getting there can be filled with unexpected beauty; journey and destinations you know.

As a worshiper of authenticity, I resist. If we are to really own an experience, maybe it is best that it not be secondhand, vicarious, common or cheaply gotten. Scarcity adds value and this is one of the basics of economic thought. It is unfair to expect more than a couple of up-close whale experiences in my life if I am lucky, thus scarcity, thus, valued.

But we do get occasional humpback whales making us feel small around here too.

Now how do we increase the encounter rate with remarkable bits of nature — think hailstones the size of ping pong balls, 20-meter ocean waves, large predators hunting, bighorn sheep bashing heads, the cacophony of the 17-year locusts, or strange sea creature encounters? First off, we have to get out there into the places where such things could possibly happen, and secondly, we need to know they are not predictable, rather, they are occasional gifts of good fortune.

A hummingbird in the snow — an unexpected glistening Christmas adornment. (Hope he made it!)

Many trips to beautiful, vacuous country may be required before anything remotely TV-worthy happens. Maybe stop in at Nebraska’s Platte River during the Sandhill Crane migration; find a salmon stream near some waterfalls, stand at a cave mouth during the 10,000 bat fly-out each evening, hire a jungle nature guide to help place you quickly in the path of bird and insect phenomena. Maybe enter a new world of underwater where almost everything is new and colorful in your snorkeling or scuba path.

Local experts, the heart of mutually beneficial eco-tourism
Without a guide, would we have ever spotted a male Quetzal feeding chicks in the wild? Unlikely.

And while you are at it, think a little bit about what is needed to ensure that your great-great grandchildren can have a crack at the same inspiration and awe-some responses after you are gone. Yeah, there are some messages to us and such gifts don’t come without sacrifice before and costs afterward. Happy to pay. Happy to pay! It is worth it.

Simply being open to experiences, awe, and gratitude allows the natural world to deliver joy in ways we can never completely predict.

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Lee Foote

Southerner by birth, Northerner by choice, Casual person by nature.