Practical Dreamers

Reflections at the Ocean

Margaret Parkinson


I wake this morning to the roar of the Pacific Ocean.  Waves rush up the Kalaloch Creek as moon and sun inflict counter pulls on the vast waters.  Enormous, bleached logs bounce in the surf, like tooth picks.  Gulls peck for food at the margins of sea and land but are shooed away by rushing foam and streaming under-towing sand.  A solitary bald eagle stands on a log just fr enough up the beach to be secure.  Unaware of its majesty and interested only in breakfast, the eagle grabs an unsuspecting mammal in its talons and lollops to a nearby evergreen tree just seconds before its chosen log is swept west by an exceptional wave.  A powerful force is moving.

The scene was different yesterday.  Same river, same beach, same ocean but the mood was calm and quiet and bright.  Song and White-Crowned sparrows chipped as they hopped from tiny twig to tiny twig in search of berries and seeds.  High flying lines and Vs of Brandt and Canada Geese honked their migratory ways South.  Northwest Crows cawed out messages to each other and gatherings of Herring and Ring-Billed Gulls strutted with their youth on the sand.  The sky was a contrasting blue to today’s steely grey.  Sun rays reached downward making brilliant spots of warmth on grass and stones.  The waters peacefully swelled and sank while today’s waves crash from extraordinary heights.  Same structure but an environment changed by wind, rain and tide.

I look out on the ocean thinking of the eight thousand miles between where I am now to my Aotearoa homeland—continuous water between here and there.  Occasionally, within this vastness, tiny islands of humanity exist—infinitesimal compared to the width and depth of the ocean.  We might cross the ocean from time to time, we humans, but we do not belong there.  We understand the space only minimally and traverse the expanse at our peril.  Birds, and fish and sea mammals; weeds and coral and unidentified species are comfortable there while we, who call ourselves the masters, are uninvited visitors.

There is rhetoric about our oneness with nature.  We like to feel we belong.  We like to think we understand.  We want to believe we are in control.  I have felt this way myself.  I have stood below thousands of winter roosting crows and felt myself a sister.  I have gasped at breaching orcas and thought myself connected.  I have gazed at a colossal cedar tree and calculated dimensions.  I have felt the wind and the rain, the sunshine and the shade.  I have marveled at mountains and valleys, canyons and plains.  I have assumed a presence, an entitlement.

It feels good to think this way but it is an illusion.  We have no clue.  We measure, we count, we weigh and we map.  We paint images, we record sounds, we sing songs to beauty and we write poems about majesty.  We intrude, we take over, we destroy and we litter.  We make and break laws to protect or exploit.  We do anything we can think of to the natural world around us.  But still we do not understand, not really.  Still we do not belong.

We have no inside knowledge of the life of a bird, a bear, a fish.  We have minimal understanding of the meaning of the trees and the connections between water and air.  We think we know.  We write books and present papers but do we have any idea of why?  Why do Vaux Swifts gather in the thousands in the evening and enter burned out trees trunk or unused chimneys and hang there together through the night, their tiny hook-like claws gripped to the sooty sides?  Do we have the slightest understanding why vast numbers of apparently healthy whales swim onto beaches and die in an apparent group suicide?  Can we predict accurately where a hurricane will strike and when the ice caps will melt?  Do we know what it is to be a squirrel from the inside?  We are the outsiders.

We are outsiders and we ought to have more respect.  We ought to appreciate what we see and hear and not interfere.  We have no idea what we are doing when we cut down a tree or push an oil rig into the Arctic.  We are ignorant of the effects of introducing a micro-organism here or planting a foreign plant there.   The non-human species may be adaptive and resilient to our intrusions but this may not last for ever and we, mindless of our uncontrolled power, destroy without knowing what we do.  We are not one with nature.  We are separate and ignorant.  The natural world lives beside us in independence and we assume a right that is not ours.

I will be gone tomorrow.  I will leave this place and go back to the human-made, nature excluding city.  This place will continue when I am gone, painting its ever changing patterns within the consistency of its presence.  I do not matter to the waves, the sand the trees; the crows, the eagles and the sparrows.  I am irrelevant.  I salute those great nations to whom we have no ambassadors and hope we will assume a position of humility in their sight before it is too late.

October 8, 2004
Margaret H. Parkinson
Kalaloch, Washington Coast



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