I was on a deserted beach at Point Reyes. I hiked in two miles from the road and had just emerged from the dunes. I stood before the roaring ocean and a fierce onshore wind. I looked to my left and saw some interesting flotsam, mostly washed up trees. I looked to my right and saw nothing but blowing sand. Which way would I go? I didnít know.
Then something caught my eye to my right. I could see it as a blaze of glaring white, a glowing spot on the sand. There were ravens circling above it. Thatís how I discovered it, I followed the ravens. I saw the ravens long before I saw what they were after. They flew right past me, just above me, and flying into a terrific headwind. If I had wanted I could have reached up and plucked them out of the air, they were that low. Where there are ravens going I almost always follow.
I wanted to know what the ravens had found because they are keen-eyed birds drawn to the curious; as humans are. The wind was blowing a good 20 knots off the ocean and the air was a storm of flying sand. I could hardly see without my arm there before my eyes to shield them.
I could see the ravens now as black specs, wheeling above a spot on the sand a thousand yards away where it seemed a star had fallen, an object of great brilliance. I saw there were vultures too. This was awhile back. I spotted the vultures before I spotted the ravens so I knew there was a carcass somewhere, and on such a lonely beach as this one I knew it had to be a seal. But now there was a white thing on the beach and beside the white thing was a black thing and I knew what that was. I didnít know what the white thing might be but as I drew closer I understood it was a bird, but I had never seen a bird like this before. There was something strange about it. The shape. of it. And it was so white it hurt my eyes to see.
The ravens were pecking at the bird; which I took for dead but when I got close I could see it wasnít so. The bird lived. I shooed the ravens off but they did not yield right away so I spoke to them in that voice you take on when you talk seriously to a dog who forgets his place and has to be reminded whoís boss. The ravens heeded that tone and they flew off but not too far, for like I said theyíre curious creatures and they wanted to see what I would do.
When I turned I saw the whiteness for what it was, a herring gull, and about the whitest Iíve ever seen. It was on its back and both of its wings were bent back and folded under it in a manner that was almost funny. The wind was incredibly strong off the sea and I figured the bird got knocked down by it and flipped over somehow. He was all tangled up in himself and about as flummoxed as an upside-down tortoise. I didnít understand why he couldnít right himself but I waited to see what he would do now that the ravens were gone. He flapped around pathetically. Broken wing for sure. So I went up to the high water line and found myself a long stick. When I got close I could smell the seal carcass, it was a big one, and it had been picked almost clean to the bones by the birds. The gull panicked when I got near him and it tried to scurry but it was no use, it could hardly move but in a circle, using its one good wing as sort of an oar in the soft sand. It was doomed. I donít know why I didnít take out my camera. It would have been an interesting shot. But I didnít. Instead, I soothed the bird with another kind of voice I used to use on the dog. I whispered to him and told him I wouldnít hurt him and I approached real slow and got down beside him and flipped him over neatly with the end of my stick. He popped up and waddled off and then he tried to fly but the wind was too strong and he was grounded. He kept leaping into the air, as was his right, but the wind and his wing would not give him his privilege. The bird could not fly.
Later on I found him in the dunes. He was hunkered in the lee of a small mound of grass. One of his wings hung down oddly at his side. I wondered if he would live through the night. I had seen plenty of coyote sign on the long hike in to Abbottís Lagoon and I figured they hunted the high water line of the beach at night for carrion. Maybe this big white bird would make it. I donít know. For the moment it was safe from the terrible beaks of the ravens. As much as I love and respect those black birds it is the free-wheeling gull I think I admire even more. I came of age in the 1970ís when a certain little book about a seagull sat on my motherís coffee table and captured my imagination. I can still see the cover in my mindís eye. I see a bird in flight, soaring, with its wings outstretched. The silhouette is glaring white. I never did read it but I know what itís all about. That book, and that image is tattooed on my mindís eye.
I believe that there are no such things as accidents. I arrived on that beach last Sunday morning as if borne by a magic carpet. Call me a fool, but I believe in signs and omens and the spirits of the dead. I believe that animals can talk to men and that trees have souls and that the earth can grow a certain flower for the pleasure of my eyes alone. What I find on my path was placed there by forces I donít need to understand. This life can be a wonder and a terror both, but mostly it is a wonder.
One thing I did that morning was to crawl around on my hands and knees on that beach, to pick out the tiny polished stones exposed by the blowing sand. They were shiny like the eyes of a bird and and I found them in all varieties of color, most of them no larger than the nail of my thumb. I filled my pockets with pebbles, as smooth as if they came right out of a rock tumbler. I like to think about the age of rocks and how far theyíve travelled. I like the way certain stones feel in the palm of my hand. I like that no two are alike. But I think what I like most about finding buried stones is that most likely I am the only human being to have ever held them and then, if I hurl them into a pond or take them back home for my collections, the only one who ever will.
The herring gull whose life intersected with my own that morning was watching me as I did this. He kept his distance as I picked through the stones, and I found myself talking to him, telling him heíd be alright if he just rested awhile and that I wasnít going to hurt him - the kinds of things a child might say to a stray dog. I donít know why Iím telling you all this. I donít know what it means. Probably nothing at all. Probably we look for meaning in personal incidents and unexplained events because we need to feel like thereís a reason for our confusion, for our living and for our being. Maybe I am the most primitive kind of man. The older I get the more childlike I become. I want to believe there are no coincidences. I have to. I know from first hand experience that there are forces at work beyond what we experience with our senses and with our rational minds.
Every time I go to the beach I arrive home with a pocket full of shells and stones. Little shards of glass polished by the action of sand and wave. Small pieces of wood worn smooth and streamlined. Bone, bleached by sun and rain. Why do I take these things? Why do I treasure them? Why does the seagull matter?
A truly singular, individual experience is rare in 2010. Today, everything is shared. But to be alone and to touch the universe is something that cannot be Facebooked, text messaged or Twittered. A connection with the infinite just does not convey. And I want that again. I yearn to see and think and feel what *I* feel and to derive meaning and affirmation in my own way and on my own time. I no longer want instant anything. My mind has been neutered and my soul cheated. Of true experience. In real time. In no time. And alone, or with one good friend whose face I can see off the page of some remote electronic book.
The seagull was real. The carcass of the sea lion was real. The ravens were real. The blowing sand was real. This is magic. Sand, wind, life, death, tides. This is magic. Now I know why I left Facebook. And if youíre reading this, so do you.
Thank you Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
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