Today’s Blog is a scene (adapted) from the creative nonfiction book I’m in the process of revising–about kingfishers, Greek myth, and sense of place. I chose this scene without at first seeing the connection to the Blog’s date of September 11th. But it does connect—not in sadness for the tragedy, but in the promise of the human spirit to appreciate wonder, and in doing so to embrace what unites us, rather than what divides.
On the early afternoon of July 1st, the gates are open to the small dam on Rattlesnake Creek. A 10-foot-high imposing barbed wire fence encloses the small reservoir, a new log home, and a few old outbuildings. “No Trespassing” signs and all caps warnings of video surveillance make it clear. The public is not welcome.
Three men in orange work shirts lounge at the pond’s edge, eating lunch. I get off my bike, take a big breath, and walk right in to announce:“I’m here to watch birds —kingfishers.”
They don’t seem surprised. In fact, their boss, who tells me his name is Jack, says he’s known about me ever since I called Mountain Water Company in the spring to ask permission to search for a kingfisher nest bank.
“Sure wish I’d brought my BB gun,” Jack jokes in that obligatory Montana guy kind of way. He’s in his 50s, bald and a little imposing.
I grin back. They can say whatever they want as long as I have permission to hang out here. I prepare to leave and hike over to my watch spot behind the fence near the pines when Jack surprises me.
“Hey, I’d really like to see those kingfishers. Think you’d come on in and show me one?”
I jump at the invitation to be inside the empoundment. While the others remain eating their lunch, Jack and I walk over to the juncture of the pond, the creek and the dam. I’m setting up the spotting scope when all three young kingfishers zoom past us over the dam and downstream. They’re a resplendent trio of blue and white jewels on the wing —with a dash of reddish feathery pizzaz. One lands in a leaning fir tree with more accuracy than I’ve seen so far. I zero in on the juvenile female, looking slightly disheveled but still dressed up and ready to show the world that this is the most beautiful bird of all. I gesture to Jack to take a look through the scope. I’m a proud parent, showing off my stunning offspring.
Jack looks for a long time. He’s beaming. No more comments about BB guns. We chat about what his crew is doing here. They have closed the fish ladder that had allowed passage up the creek for bull trout. Then, they opened up the gates of the dam so the creek on the far side against the cliff now rushes by naturally—uncontained. The fish have no need for the ladder, and the pond has enough water to stay full.
Within a half-hour, Jack and the crew leave. Solitude prevails. Five days after fledging day, the young kingfishers are starting to show signs of skittishness, a quality they must learn to avoid predators and to survive a dangerous world.
I think more about my encounter with Jack. If I’d taken a skittish tact I would have avoided all possible conflict and just left to return later. Earlier in my life, timidity might have prevailed, and if I’d heard the BB gun words, I would have definitely fled. Now? I’m learning to be wary and brave.
The result? Jack is no longer that macho guy giving me a hard time about birds. To him, I might not be some hippie birder chick. Instead, he and I are like two kids in wonder watching the young kingfishers. We shed all pretense. Our barriers, like this dam, are so unnecessary. For this moment, we are unencumbered by prejudice and at one with the miracle of birds on this planet.