Sunday, October 16, 2011

Paddling with Gessner

When you live in Trinity, Texas, there's not a whole lot to do on the weekends. It's 45 minutes to Huntsville, the nearest town with a Wal-Mart, two hours to Houston, three and half to Dallas or Austin. Couple geographic isolation with the inevitable exhaustion that follows a week of teaching and supervising fifth-graders around the clock, and quite often my weekends look like this: sleep, eat, watch football and drink beer with co-workers, repeat. Occasionally I'll muster up the motivation for a three-mile run around the neighborhood adjacent to our center, but otherwise I'm about as lazy as a crusty old armadillo come Saturday and Sunday.

This is not how I imagined it would be. When I took the job down here, I pictured myself hopping in my new 40-mpg Ford Fiesta and zipping everywhere from Albuqerque to Arkansas once the school week was done, my weekends full of bluegrass concerts, backpacking trips, and visits with friends far and wide. Am I upset, disappointed with the somewhat slothful reality? Honestly, I'm not. Receiving more than my share of satisfaction from the work I do Monday through Friday, I feel little of that living-for-the-weekend syndrome that so many possess, the attitude that prompted Thoreau to conclude, “the majority of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Instead, I find myself happy for the opportunity to relax, bond with co-workers, and, of course, watch more sports than I ever had time for in college.

The present weekend is proving to be no exception to the pattern. At one point, I had planned to spend it at a reunion of Philmont friends in Indiana; more recently I was hoping to make a music festival in the Ozarks. Nope. When I couldn't find anyone who'd drive eight hours with me to watch bands with names like Trampled by Turtles and Railroad Earth, I easily conceded to another low-key weekend in Trinity. So last night became an unexpected trip down memory lane thanks to the friends who accompanied me to the local high school football game. (Turns out small-town East Texas ball is even worse than bigger-town Western Mass ball. Same angsty teenagers in the bleachers, though). And this morning, I found myself following an impulse and grabbing one of our center's kayaks for a quick paddle on Lake Livingston.

Okay, I'm romanticizing. My modest excursion was hardly a spontaneous hear-the-voice-of-Mother-Nature-and-go outing. With 90-degree temperatures every day still leaving hiking an unappealing option, I'd been longing to do something that felt remotely outdoorsy for a while now. A larger source of inspiration, however, came from the book I've been reading, David Gessner's Soaring With Fidel. It's a very enjoyable and engaging narrative about osprey migration from a very enjoyable and engaging author who happens to be a fellow Massachusetts native and ultimate frisbee enthusiast. Needless to say, I'd been feeling connected to Mr. Gessner lately, and I thought, what better way to strengthen the bond than by imitating the guy?

I wasn't expecting to see any ospreys on our drought-damaged finger of the 83,000-acre reservoir, but as I pushed my little red vessel into the water, I was reasonably hopeful for some kind of exciting contact with the natural world. In fact, the lake had already provided most of the connection I'd felt to my new home in the Piney Woods. Great egrets, cormorants, and great blue herons have been a daily sighting, and on Monday an army of American White Pelicans, at least a thousand strong, had chosen to stop here near the end of their migration.

As soon as I hit the water, the intensity of the mid-morning sun reminded me that I was in Texas, a whole lot closer to the equator than any place I'd lived before. Not yet 10 o'clock in mid-October, I was already sweaty and longing for the autumn chill of the Adirondack lakes and New England rivers I'd grown up with. But in addition to the heat and lack of fall colors, Lake Livingston provided a vast diversity of avian life to investigate. I've never been much of a birder, but Gessner's book had piqued my curiosity and I watched with rapture from my kayak as gulls soared overhead and sentinel herons scanned for fish from the shallows. 
Of course, I quickly discovered a problem: despite my best efforts to paddle silently, every time I got close enough for a decent look at a bird, it bolted. Fifth-grade vocab words still on my mind, I wished goofily for a sign to wear that somehow told them all, “I'm not a predator! I just want to observe you filling your niche in the ecosystem!” Guess if I'm going to get serious about this birding thing I ought to invest in a pair of binoculars. It didn't take optical aid, however, to notice a tell-tale white head and large body high in a loblolly pine near the shore. I'd seen a bald eagle a few weeks earlier while teaching canoeing to students, and my first thought was that I'd found the same iconic individual. As I paddled delicately closer, however, I could tell the bird, still definitely a raptor, was too small for aquiline status. My Gessner-aided excitement growing, I prayed silently that it would stay put long enough for me to possibly identify it, novice that I am. I'd been reading enough about ospreys, after all, that I thought I ought to be able to pick one out in the flesh. My mind flashed back to a couple years previous when my parents and I had spent a late-August afternoon hanging out near a beautiful member of the species on aptly-named Osprey Island in Blue Mountain Lake, New York.

But could my luck really be that good? In his book, Gessner writes about the inexplicable good fortune he had in seeing ospreys early in his own trip. Was it possible that somehow a drop of it had passed on to me through the same author-reader connection that had led me into the kayak to begin with? I checked my romanticizing. I had been on the water for no more than 15 minutes. I had never seen an osprey on Lake Livingston before. I was getting carried away with myself. Yet it was perfectly conceivable that one of the birds would visit our lake on its migration south. While the ospreys in Soaring with Fidel did their flying further east, we weren't all that far from the Gulf of Mexico, the species is hardly endangered, and Lake Livingston certainly meets the necessary criterion of a plentiful fish stock.

The moment of truth came and went all too quickly. I paddled once and my new, still unidentified friend took off. As he did, my spirits soared with him (here I go, getting all chummy with this bird before I even know what species it is, let alone whether it's actually a “he”). Unmistakably grasped in the talons was a small fish, and I was pretty sure the underside carried the characteristic black-and-white speckling. There was not the same accentuated hitch to the wings as the bird on Gessner's cover, but I thought I noticed a slight bend as it flapped off to enjoy some privacy with breakfast.

Sorry for interrupting,” I wanted to call after the beautiful bird as I vainly took a few paddles in the same direction. I watched until he/she turned to a distant speck, and the longer I followed the stately flight, the more decisively I convinced myself that I had, indeed, seen an osprey.

Whether I actually had or not seems unimportant now. I stayed on the lake for another hour or so, but the day was already won. Meaningful connection with the place had been reached, and it was only sweetened by the added connection I felt toward David Gessner. Once I finish writing this, I have half a mind to email the man, suggesting we meet up for a beer the next time I'm near his home in Wilmington, North Carolina (whenever that will be). Couldn't hurt to try, right?

Hypothetical protege fantasies aside, it was a great way to spend a Saturday morning, and believe it or not, it happened right here in Trinity, Texas. It is powerful to remember that some of the best gifts life has to offer lie right in our back forties, provided we're willing to get off the couch and find them. Or in my case, forgo what might have been a more stimulating weekend elsewhere for the deeper experience of planting a few roots in my new home.

At this point, I've still had my fair share of struggles in finding footing down here. There are little things, like the raised eyebrows from the supermarket cashier when I hand over my Massachusetts driver's license (is buying my Shiner Bock in peace really too much to ask?), or the fact that even working at an outdoor education center, I see as many cowboy boots as trail runners.

But these are the kinds of adjustments everyone encounters when they make a major change of scenery. Hardly insurmountable. What has been more unsettling has been my inability to embrace the natural setting in which I'm teaching. I see place as the combined experience of an area's human and nonhuman influences, and while 21st-century me says I've got a great job with great people and I should stop complaining, an older part of me – perhaps my inner “Eartheist,” to borrow Edward Abbey's self-label – is not yet convinced by its new habitat. While spending my summers in the Rockies, I determined that it was the trifecta of place, people (co-workers), and program that made Philmont such a special, formative part of my life. So far, only the latter two parts of that equation have been consistently present in Texas. Yet experiences like this morning's make it easier to look past the dead trees and dirty shoreline, providing at least brief moments of that deeper contact with Nature that Thoreau found so necessary and about which Gessner has made a living as a writer.

We've all had these moments, whether we've recognized them or not. Perhaps we were on top of a mountain, with our lives below placed in new perspective. Perhaps we were in the woods, watching the careful movements of a deer or a fox. Perhaps it was the first time a thunderstorm truly terrified us. I find a line from Gary Snyder's poem "Piute Creek" provides the most succinct explanation of the phenomenon: All the junk that goes with being human / Drops away. And I believe, paradoxically, that it's during these moments of emptiness that we recognize a deeper, more ancient part of ourselves than the one that goes to work in the morning, struggles to make ends meet, eats, drinks, loves. The experience lends us calm that we can call upon during difficult times, and it teaches us to respect our natural world. It's the beginnings of this contact that I hope to provide for my students.

Let's return briefly to this past Monday's pelican party, because it was another moment of contact worth summarizing. After lunch, the four other guys in my “cabin cluster” group ventured out to explore nearby Burrito Island. I still don't know how the place got its name, but it's easy to see that thanks to the drought, it has swollen well beyond its normal, two-dollar Taco Bell size to legitimate grande status. And little did we know, a grand surprise indeed awaited us.

After tramping through the wooded portion of the island, we emerged into the previously-submerged area, pushing aside 10-foot tall reeds that hadn't been there before this summer (despite killing so many plants, the drought has give new space for others), and soon we stepped out onto the mud flats of what used to be Lake Livingston and now would more aptly be called Lake Dyingston. 

Yet it was a spectacle of life, not death, we beheld from the edge of Burrito Island. As soon as we popped out of the reeds, there was the sun reflecting off countless white wings on the remaining sliver of water still a few hundred yards away. We walked closer and tripped the alarm system. Whum, whum, whum! A thousand American White Pelicans rose into the air, a giant patchwork of white against the trees on shore and thunderheads that had finally arrived overhead. I stood silently as the others walked on, simply listening to the rush of air beneath that mass of wings. It was both a powerful and soothing sound, as beautiful as the sight of the great flock above our pitiful lake. I'd been in Texas for a month and a half, and for the first time the place had left me completely awestruck.

It's migration season for the birds (and for David Gessner too, at least in the book), but this week's experiences have provided me with a blessing in grounding. The moments of contact assure me that I don't always need a concert or a roadtrip to find my thrills, and that more unexpected joys surely await.