Am I a poet? No, but this is a subject that I wish I could describe in poetry. Oh, well….. I often bring home an impression of an animal with me from a trip, alive in my imagination for years afterwards. The first time this happened it was a southern humpback whale that I saw breech the water, and heard his singing clearly, although his head was 80’ below the surface. Hank and I were on a day trip off a cruise boat near the island of Moorea near Tahiti. The zoologist who accompanied us that day had identified 180 different humpbacks in the South Pacific through collecting their skin and identifying each and their family members by DNA. That was Hank’s and my last trip together. That whale and his singing accompanied us during the next three months as Hank’s illness progressed.
Several years later I had gone with friends and family to a wedding on the Big Island, Hawaii, traveling with two friends around the island after the festivities. From the volcanic park to the green coral beaches of the south coast to the ranches on the north slopes of the Mauna Kea we saw the incredible variety of landscapes on the Big Island. One morning two of us rose before dawn and drove to a cove where a statue of Captain Cook stands guard to swim with the spinner dolphins. We arrived at the beach at 6:30 a.m. expecting a small cove. What we saw instead was a sizable bay with huge rocks on the beach and a very rough surf. We walked up and down the beach looking for a way through the surf that would not dash us on the rocks, and found none. One woman came who lived nearby and said she had never seen the surf like that. Even though she was a lifeguard it took her a long while to get into the water. We kept hoping for a way in, because we could see the dolphins leaping and spinning out of the water a half mile or so away. After about 30 minutes a couple came along and the man invited us to go in with him. He told us that every seventh wave is a long and gentle one following the biggest one of the set; and that was how he took us into the cove. We swam out ½ mile and found ourselves in a school of spinner dolphins who swam among us, between us, leaping out of the water, spinning and diving back in. Because we were wearing snorkeling gear with its limited vision, all of a sudden there would be none in sight. Then we’d look up and find they were 20 or so yards away from us. We’d join them again, lose them, join them again. This went on for forty-five minutes.
They didn’t seem to have any fear of us, even swam within inches of me. I didn’t reach out to touch them, though I could have. I did not want to bother or startle them in any way. To this day that was an amazing experience of being in another mammal’s environment. I am seldom aware of my own environment—air– but they were so clearly suited to the waters where they live. Only when I am kayaking, sitting inches above the water am I aware of being in an environment where there is only me, the sky, the water and the trees.
Even later on a trip to the upper Amazon in Peru I was drawn to the kingfisher that was guide and sentinel on our excursions up the tributaries and creeks that feed into the mighty Amazon. Flying just ahead of our boat along the shore, he or she accompanied us on every trip up river as we explored the waters. This colorful bird, dressed in grey and orange with crested feathers on his head, is at home in the air flying a few feet above the water, in the water diving for fish and in the mud building his nests along the banks of rivers. A royal bird for all environments! Since I’ve been home I’ve painted him and tried to describe in poetry a number of times in the year and a half since the trip. He lives in me still.
The whale, spinner dolphin and kingfisher have each impressed me. The sheer size of the humpback, singing and breeching right in front of our boat, was awesome. The dolphins swimming, leaping and diving were so joyful and present to us. And the kingfisher, accompanying us on every side trip, was our sentinel, not leaving us alone for a minute until we turned back towards the Ucayali River (which forms the Amazon River in Peru where it joins the Marañon River just south of Iquitos). I will remember these magnificent animals all my life, I carry them not just in my memory, but in my soul as well.
It’s no accident that these three animals live in or along the waters, rivers or seas. Water calls me, still or furious, blue or grey, lives in me and outside of me. I am water’s child. As a child I hated the end of swimming time at our quarry swimming pool. Even now I play in the water at the Y, mimicking a child’s play in water aerobics. I am water’s child, freest in its embrace, cradled, cuddled, immersed, dunked, in pool, lake, river, or ocean. For all that I live on the land, I’m not too bad playing in the water, as long as I have the right equipment: suit, snorkel, goggles, etc. I’m no fish, but in the water I am smooth and sleek like a seal, cutting through the waves, dunking myself through my own stupidity, playing every sort of game. I am not overweight or short or female or have any limitations in the water, except that I need to breathe! So like all mammals in the water I surface often to take care of this need. As I write this a smile curves on my face, I delighted to be thinking about water again.
If I could choose another natural environment, it would be water. I’d just need a few minor adaptations to live there, too. I could be the first human amphibian, living on land and in water. As it is I can return to the waters anytime. Now that I live in Charlotte, NC, I can drive to Lake Norman or Wylie, each about 20 minutes away. This summer I was at Hilton Head beach where the water was warm and welcoming. Riding the waves or jumping over the little ones with my grandsons was sheer delight for me. For years I lived thirty miles from the ocean waters in Northern California, but the waters there average 53 degrees all year long. Not only was there no welcoming warmth, but also the tides were dangerous—rip tides—and sometimes Great White sharks were spotted along the coast. Still I loved being at the beach, unable to walk along the waters without taking off my shoes and socks and dancing among the chilly waves.
The ocean there was also perfect for dumping whatever was on my mind. I could talk to the ocean, that eternal presence with its rhythmic returns, yell at God, release all kinds of toxicity with no one else along the beach any wiser. Like God, the ocean can take whatever you dish out and still not be changed. The noise of the ocean drowned out my shouting, the wind snapped up the words, vanishing before they were out of my mouth.
I especially remember the Atlantic Ocean at Rehobeth Beach, Delaware, where my Aunt Grace had a cottage a block and a half from the Boardwalk. She rented it out during the summer, so my family would go down on Memorial Day and Labor Day. The crowds gone, we pretty much had the beach and ocean to ourselves. Body surfing, swimming, walking the beach, clamming in the nearby Delaware Bay, riding the bumper cars and eating salt water taffy—all these are favorite memories of mine from my teen-age years.
On Memorial Day weekend the water temperature was in the low 50’s, but my Dad had a way of adapting to the cold. He told me to go in get all wet and immediately get out; then you went back into the water and it was comfortable. I guess that the first shock of cold gave way to accommodation to the temperature. At any rate he was right, I use his instructions to this day. And he was from Colorado, never saw an ocean until he had graduated from college and moved to Delaware!
I’ve gone far afield from the whale, spinner dolphin and kingfisher, all favorites of mine. All these memories belong to the same area of my mind where I can escape into an environment that I love and excitedly visit whenever I can. Still waters, roiling waves, I am fascinated by the waters of this earth which, like the ones in my body—around 62% water, form a huge percentage of the surface of our earth—72%.
Water is essential to life. And essential to me.