Close your eyes here by the edge of the Pacific Ocean, here by the fortress island of basalt cloaked in nesting seabirds. Listen to the squeaks, the wavering whistles, the moans, the croaks, twitters, the wheeps, and the yearning keooows of thousands upon thousands. These are the sounds of common murres, pigeon guillemots, black oystercatchers, pelagic cormorants, western gulls and so many more birds that thrive in vulnerability on the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
Open your eyes as the peregrine falcon whips by the headland on wings built for speed and agility. One peregrine meets another, and then a third and a trio of the world’s fastest animals twirl in aerial greeting and then vanish around the corner. If you could see the aerial trail it might linger like a long bullwhip kelp snaking and winding in the salt air. Below in the ocean swells, the kelp beds are the sea forests dancing with fish. We see only the brown crowns of kelp that croon and sway in this sea that speaks the language of life.
Keep looking down a cliff 450 dizzying feet to the ocean below. There. The spout. One, then another and a third. The gray whales feed close to shore. From this perch, you can see their shadowy oval shapes below the water. There’s a mother with her calf close behind her. As they rise and cleave the waves, you see the patterns of barnacles on the sheen of their backs. These are the leviathans. All else fades away upon their arrival until it’s just you and the whales. You want to bow at their feet, to be humble always, and to swear allegiance to protect and serve them forever.
I have a question. What happens when every sense heightens to wonder all at once? Is it too much? Or do we simply expand our small selves bigger and bigger until we are the salt winds ruffling feathers of the penguin-like murres nestled shoulder to shoulder upon the island of life? And when we are this wind, we can do so much more. Ride the plunge of the peregrine. Soar on the wide plank wing of a bald eagle. Track the flights of brown pelicans low to the waves. Be the wind. Be the salt. Be the breeze upon the ancient Sitka spruce that cradles the nest of the marbled murrelet.
After a week on the Oregon coast dipping in and out of state parks of staggering beauty,my senses are still spinning. I live in gratitude for the opportunity I have to join with a team of creative people dedicated to telling the stories of the vital ecology of almost 2,000 jutting rocks along the coast from the Washington to Oregon.
These rocks are much more than iconic images for photographers to add to collections of lighthouses and spouting waves. Each one rocks with life. Each one is vulnerable to so many forces. The funding for the interpretive project I’m working on (to create wayside exhibit panels on seabirds, marine mammals, and tide pools at 34 locations for the Oregon Islands NWR) comes from the New Carissa oil spill of 1999, a disastrous shipwreck that spilled some 400,000 gallons of oil and diesel and killed more than 2,400 seabirds.
Part of the mitigation money goes to the project we’re working on, with a mission of educating people to the life-filled wonders of the seabird colonies and what we can do to give these birds the best chance to live. We’re coming up with ideas to prevent disturbance–like people climbing on the rocks in low tide, flying drones over the tops of seabird colonies that causes the birds to abandon their nests, and crushing the delicate organisms underfoot in the tide pools.
I am humbled by the immensity of our task, grateful for this creative team of Mike Graybill whose ecological and historical knowledge of the Oregon coast is so vast we jokingly say, “Just google Graybill”; of Ram Papish, whose brilliant artwork would stop anyone in their tracks; of Maja Smith, a graphic designer with a seasoned and aesthetic eye for beauty; of John Peters, sign fabricator extraordinaire; of Seth Lucas our sign installer and solar man by trade; of Sandra Murphy, fellow writer and dear friend who thinks and writes lyrical and riveting prose; and of our incredible, dedicated and inspiring team leaders – Dawn Harris of the Oregon Islands NWR and Brian Fowler of the Oregon State Parks.
Close your eyes wherever you are outdoors at this moment in nature. Listen. Awaken to the calls. They are there for all who slow down to the wonder of even a robin chirruping in a backyard tree. And if you can, go to the Oregon coast for a full on sensory banquet, a feast so bountiful that who would not want to return the gift of abundance?