Headwinds

The adult world underappreciates delight. It goes hand in hand with discovery—and gratitude. Field notes from the Sea of Cortez.

Seaofcortez
A joyful sight: Sea lions playing / Image by Franco Banfi

BY JOHN SEIBERT FARNSWORTH
April 15 2019

WE STRUGGLED WITH headwinds today, kayaking into a northerly breeze, slogging windward one cove at a time. The group wasn’t staying together as well as I’d hoped. Headwinds are where physical aptitude counts, and a few of my duckies have yet to develop windward muscle. Those out front would have to stop and wait in the lee of every successive point, hiding from El Norte behind another outcropping of wind-sculpted basalt. The lead students noticed that every time they pulled into a lee, there would be a great blue heron foraging, tall and stately, inevitably fleeing as we encroached.

Herons make an impression. These intense birds have never been happy about sharing a planet with humans, and they articulate a series of resonant hrawnks whenever they curse our species, swearing expertly with a Pleistocene accent. When we talked about the herons later, finally encamped on a friendly beach, the pattern of finding one in the lee of each point made sense, given this organism’s style of stalk-hunting. During windy days they would logically be more successful on the side of an outcropping where the water was less disturbed, than on the windward side, where wind chop and spume would diminish visibility.

These are the things you can’t learn from field guides.

Each student has been assigned five organisms on which they must become experts. A fish, a bird, a variety of cactus, a lizard perhaps, maybe even a marine mammal. They are to study these organisms before the trip, teaching each other about them, and then they’re to find them once we get to Baja. When my budding naturalists observe their designated amigos for the first time in the field, they’re to watch for the sort of things that didn’t show up in field guides.

Natural history is one part patience, augmented by equal parts attentiveness and stubbornness. We have to tune up the senses.

One of the students, a junior anthropology major on the verge of becoming a type-A naturalist, had found four of her five assigned organisms prior to our current encampment, and it seemed that she wanted to be the first to befriend all five.

In the part of my brain I keep to myself, I call this “Amigo Bingo.” There is always someone, or perhaps some two, who wants to win the undeclared competition. This student has been frustrated, however, in her pursuit of the blue-gray gnatcatcher. So, after paddling twelve kilometers into a moderate headwind, and then setting up camp, she prevailed on me and two classmates to accompany her back into the buttonwood mangroves to search for the missing bird.

A small perching songbird that seems to move incessantly, the blue-gray gnatcatcher flits from branch to branch in thick underbrush, making it a tough bird for the uninitiated to identify. In the shadows of the foliage, it can be difficult to distinguish a blue so pale, at least for my color-blind eyes, if you’ve only seen this bird in field guides where the blue-gray plumage is so easy to see.

Our mission becomes all the more complex when we discover, the moment we leave the coarse sand at the back of the beach, Crotalus enyo, the Baja California rattlesnake.

Thicker than my thumb but slightly less stout than my big toe, it was not a particularly large snake, maybe 75 centimeters long. For this species, that’s a full-grown specimen. Perfectly coiled on a knee-high rock, perched there like the scitalis from a medieval bestiary, it blocked our path without paying us the courtesy of a warning rattle. When we shooed it away into the brush I counted eight rattles, neatly stacked one on top of the other, but my count may have been hasty.

It would be difficult enough to pursue a blue-gray gnat-catcher were your eyes not constantly downcast, sweeping the trail for snakes—not that there’s much of a trail here in the first place, just a few narrow paths where you can squeeze between the thorns if you’re careful. I search for our quarry with ears only. The field guide claims that it makes a thin, wheezy zeewt. Our lead student had played a recording of this vocalization to the class a month ago, and I remind her now to hunt with her ears.

We listen, duly, and nature plays with us. Instead of a gnatcatcher, we hear the evenly spaced toots of the northern pygmy owl. It sounds like a toy, something you may have played within the bathtub as a kid. We didn’t study this bird in class, so with a low voice I tell my companions that the pygmy owl is the only diurnal strigiform commonly found in this neighborhood. It’s likely to fly off if we come close, so watch for false eyespots in its nape as it flies away.

I want them to see this—a tiny daytime owl with eyes in the back of its head.

We cannot find the owl even though we are close. The terrain is too steep, our path is too brambly, and memories of the rattlesnake are too fresh. When the call for vegetable choppers goes out, my companion, a member of tonight’s dinner crew, turns back to camp compliantly, accompanied by her classmates.

I remain on station, summoning the patience required to attend to a landscape where things proceed at south-of-the-border gait. I’ve long understood that natural history is only one part patience, augmented by equal parts attentiveness and stubbornness. This is where the casual observer need not apply.

A friend of mine, a colleague, insists that natural history is a verb. He may be right, but language somehow fails us in this endeavor. Where botanists can botanize, naturalists cannot … naturalize. Naturecate? Instead, we have to tune up the senses, consciously, one by one, in a process that parallels mindfulness.

I smell the creosote, and the sand on the beach upwind of me. I taste low tide, even this far from the water. I watch how light distorts in the heat, especially near the canyon walls above me. I see how it reflects off the mantle of a perched raven. I hear how wind resonates differently through cactus spines as it does through the mouse-ear leaves of a green-barked palo verde. I feel the sun on my shoulders, feeling it through my shirt, knowing that the owl feels this same energy through its feathers.

There’s a conscious decision to attend to this landscape in ways that force it to give up its secrets. Where is that owl?

The owl has vanished, the desert replies.

I continue to listen anyway.

Finally, I hear the gnatcatcher’s wheezy zeewt.

I do not look for the bird itself, searching instead for movement of any sort. This is what I should have done from the beginning. I pick up the movement almost instantly. Indeed, I know it to be a gnatcatcher just from this movement, and I realized that I’d found it even before I was able to discriminate the blue-gray coloration, or the bird’s erect tail, or such field marks as the black forehead that tells me it’s an adult male in breeding plumage.

I call down to the camp that I’ve got one and then I use my binoculars to track it from tree to tree until the student returns. The gnatcatcher never stays on any one branch for more than a few seconds, a behavior typical of small insectivores.

When my type-A naturalist finally arrives, I point out the appropriate tree, a tall, slender, white-trunked palo blanco up a steep side canyon, and instruct her to look for movement rather than for the bird itself. Using this technique, she finds it almost as quickly as I had, although with considerably more delight in the discovery.

The adult world underappreciates delight. Lacking the celebratory religiosity of joy, it tends to be a more fleeting phenomenon, somehow less trustworthy. In defense of delight I argue that it goes hand-in-hand with discovery, and I observe it often folds appreciation and gratitude into the discovery process. I’ve searched my thesaurus for a better word for discovery-delight, something less sentimental, perhaps less twee, but I don’t think the word I want exists in English. Spanish lets me down almost equally, adding little more than a syllable: deleite.

I came up short of delight when discovering the gnat-catcher. What appreciation I experienced almost entirely derived from being able to apply my knowledge of this organism’s voice and foraging behavior to the practical task of locating it. Actually observing the bird, however, was not as delightful as it should have been, it being a widespread bird I have identified numerous times in the past, both in its summer and winter ranges. For my part, I was less invested in observing the gnatcatcher, and more concerned about not losing it before the student returned on site. The student’s discovery of this bird rated much higher on the discovery-delight scale, not only because locating this particular organism completed an assigned task, but also because it was the first time she’d ever been introduced formally to Polioptila caerulea.

 

Sunset With Wispy Clouds At Agua Verde Bay.

Deep search: sunset off the coast of Baja, California. Explore more of the land and water and sky in the book from which this essay is excerpted—John Seibert Farnsworth’s Coves of Departure: Field Notes from the Sea of Cortez. / Photo by James Forte via Getty Images

I am enough of a romantic that I don’t want my world to be one where familiarity breeds contempt, mollifies delight, or for that matter curtails appreciation.

A few days ago we identified our first black-headed grosbeak. To the best of my recollection, this was the first member of its tribe that I’ve seen in Baja. I cracked open a field guide to check its winter range, and the first word in the range section was “common.”

Should we allow our discoveries to be spoiled by such words? If a bird is common, should we be any less appreciative of its bicolored bill, its orange rump and breast, or the white patches glowing on its wings?

I observe the transitory nature of delight with my students. They are clearly elated when spotting their first magnificent frigatebird when adding Fregata magnificens to their species list, and they take appropriate pride in being able to differentiate between adult and juvenile plumage, as well as being able to describe the sexual dimorphism of adults. After a few days on the island, however, the magnificent frigatebird is no longer magnificent, it’s just another frigging bird that they can no longer add to their frigging field notes. Rapture takes a hit when the magnificent becomes mundane.

This is not just about birds, of course. The first time my students witness a mobula ray leaping clear of the water they hurrah as with a single voice. For the next few days they sing out each time they observe the aerobatic spectacle. After the better part of a week, however, they just keep paddling, unwilling to interrupt the progress of the voyage for a single mobula. Unless a dozen are jumping at once, as they so often do, why bother attending to a single?

This morning, while I was writing about a hermit crab one of the students had befriended, two large falcons, Falco mexicanus, came screeching over the ridge, the pursuer making its staccato chi-chi-chi-chi-chi threat, the pursued screaming bloody murder, wings beating furiously. Almost directly overhead they locked talons, each falcon shrieking at this point as they plummeted toward our beach, no longer flying, but falling instead.

Spiraling clumsily around each other, feathers askew, the combatants fell from the harsh sunlight above the ridge into the canyon’s early-morning shade, losing about two-thirds of their altitude before releasing each other. The chi-chi-chi-chi-chi threat resumed immediately, each bird laboring to regain altitude and speed, the pursuer never more than a meter behind. When they disappeared over the ridge, it appeared the chase would continue for miles.

Two paragraphs ago, I made the conscious decision to reference these falcons by the scientific name, Falco mexicanus, rather than by their common name, “prairie falcon.” Is it possible that enjoyment of this narrative has been augmented for some readers by supposing that these were exotic creatures? Would critical appreciation have been diminished by knowing that these were the common falcons that spend the summer months escaping the Baja heat by perching on the telephone lines that border Kansas wheat fields?

How do we preserve our delight if we presume that the common is less appreciable than the exotic?

That question seemed to answer itself a few hours after I penned it, when we went diving at the sea lion colony at Los Islotes, a site too famous for its own good. I’ve snorkeled here at least a dozen times, and was therefore not expecting the momentary bliss that accompanies a novel experience. This was fine, of course, since teachers experience bliss vicariously whenever their students make discoveries. This holds true even when anthropology majors are involved.

Even though it was Tuesday, Los Islotes was crowded. Spring break in Baja. I led our group to an end of the rocky islets less frequented by the tour boats, but before we could get there I spotted a shiny-new snorkel that had been dropped in ten meters of water, a depth beyond the range of most novice snorkelers. Intent on the snorkel’s rescue, I took a breath, jackknifed, and had nearly reached it when a juvenile sea lion zoomed past, beating me to the snorkel and grasping it in its mouth the way a dog grasps a bone. The pup swam away a few meters, just beyond my reach, spat the snorkel out, and then regripped it by the end—in other words it now held the snorkel’s mouthpiece in its mouth. Mimicking me thus, it swam off.

I suppose I will never know for certain whether the sea lion was consciously trying to mimic human practice or was just haphazardly playing “Snatch the Snorkel.” I prefer believing the first alternative, perhaps because it appeals to my sense of whimsy, a sense that would have been all the more delighted had I been resting at the surface the moment a sea lion popped its head out of the water with a snorkel held properly in its mouth. Regardless, the novelty of the experience added to my pleasure, this having been the first time I’d seen a sea lion snorkel.

I trace my recent travels thus: perturbed herons >>> nonrattling rattlesnake >>> elusive gnatcatcher >>> fierce falcon fight >>> snorkeling sea lion. But for every organ-ism/event to which I pay attention, there are many others I fail to note. One of my favorite writing exercises, back in the classroom, is to ask students to spend five minutes writing about the things they failed to observe on their way to class that morning. I probably get more detail from this question than had I asked them to take notes while they walked toward our seminar room.

It is possible, I suppose, that my students and I would enjoy these trips immensely were we simply to paddle our way around this archipelago rather than attempting to study our way around it as well. What would suffer, I fear, is the quality of attention we pay to the various elements of natural history we encounter. Had the blue-gray gnat-catcher not been assigned, it would most likely not have been seen. We would still notice the charismatic mega-fauna, like the humpbacks that sometimes breach directly in front of our kayaks, and we would delight in that, but how deep would such appreciation run?

I don’t like the word “seaweed” because “weed” seems judgmental, and because college professors are allowed to be snippy about such things. A better term would be “macroalgae,” were it not so pretentious. The locals here in the Sea of Cortez call their free-floating macroalgae “sargasso,” as do I, my organismal vocabulary in Spanish far exceeding my mastery of Spanish verbs.

I suppose I will never know for certain whether the sea lion was trying to mimic human practice or was just haphazardly playing ‘Snatch the Snorkel.’

My students prefer to use the genus name, Sargassum, intentionally mispronouncing it so that it rhymes with “orgasm.” The student who has been assigned to study sargassum can undoubtedly tell you that it’s holopelagic, which means that it can reproduce without ever needing to attach to the sea floor. In the past, I’ve had an entire class claim to be holopelagic.

For some naturalists, understanding the physiology of vegetative holopelagic reproduction might be the cool thing. For me, however, the cool thing about sargasso is that patches of it, floating on the surface, often hide juvenile Pacific seahorses, Hippocampus ingens, with their horse-like heads, their monkey-like prehensile tails, and their kangaroo-like pouches. You’ll never find them, however, unless you’re actively looking for them. Masters of camouflage, they are able to match their color perfectly with the sargasso’s greenish brown. They blend in so well that thousands of sea kayakers have paddled through sargasso down here in Baja without ever spotting one. For most of these people, sargassum is just a seaweed, a weed floating in saltwater, something that wraps around your paddle when you’re not paying attention.

What my students and I are trying to learn is to pay attention in an ecosystem where heightened attention becomes its own reward.

JOHN SEIBERT FARNSWORTH is senior lecturer in environmental studies and sciences emeritus at Santa Clara University and the author of  Coves of Departure: Field Notes from the Sea of Cortez. For more than a decade, he taught a course that included expeditions to Baja, California Sur, a program that continues at SCU. His current research concerns long-term ecological projects, with a book forthcoming from Cornell University Press in 2020.

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