Monday, January 30, 2012

Now thin the membrane between himself and the world

After almost twenty years on the island, it is not often than we see something new. You will have heard about many of our regulars here. The hummingbirds. The geckoes. The boas. The bat moths. The free-toed frogs. The ospreys that patrol the beach each afternoon. The termites. And you will have heard too about a few one-time visitors. The giant stick insect. The hummingbird nest. The pod of dolphins.

It helps to go walking with my neighbor Dwight, who has almost preternatural powers of observation. There's not much, if anything, he misses.

And so it was that he was the first to see the pelican, cruising low off shore, settling onto the swell, cocking its head, flashing its cocky grin.

Then, rising, effortlessly, it swings our way, graciously nods, that tote-bag beak, that streamlined neck of white and chestnut brown.

And off he goes.

Yes, I know, brown pelicans are not uncommon. They teem in Florida, and surely in places in the Bahamas too. But here, on our beach, this was a first. A gift. One of those epiphanies that lift each day out of the rolling swell of time.

I always admired Audubon's brown pelican. (My spouse gave me the big two-volume collection from the New York Historical Society for our tenth anniversary.) Painted in the Florida Keys in 1832. Sitting on a mangrove branch. Its beak as big as its belly (as every rhymester knows). Blue-vested. Yellow-crowned. Pterodactylian.

Audubon no doubt shot the bird to paint it, as was his practice.
Their footless dance
Is the beautiful liability of their nature.

Their eyes are round, boldly convex, bright as a jewel,
And merciless. They do not know

Compassion, and if they did,
We should not be worthy of it. They fly
In air that glitters like fluent crystal
And is hard as perfectly transparent iron, they cleave it
With no effort. they cry
In a tongue mulititudinous, often like music.

He slew them, at surprising distances, with his gun.

Over a body held in his hand, his head bowed low,
But not in grief.

He put them where they are, and there we see them:

In our imagination.

What is love?

One name for it is knowledge.

From Robert Penn Warren's wonderful extended poem Audubon: A Vision, as is the title of this post.