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White Pelican Migrations: Recalling Seasons of Memory

White Pelican Migrations:  Recalling Seasons of Memory
Author Collage (Stock Images and Personal Photo) 

The following essay is a reflection I first composed several years ago, while working as a park ranger for the City of San Diego. At the time, I was stationed at Chollas Lake Park, engaged in a survey of our migratory birds. Needless to say, that project offered much to consider, from a personal standpoint as well as a professional one.

Always Magnificent

At first it was a rare occurrence, that a majestic white pelican would deign to visit our shores in winter, providing weekend photographers with a thrill. However, after a few seasons of increasing numbers, we found ourselves with upwards of eight birds each year, preening, fishing, and extending their massive wingspans in the sunlight of January. The sight of them is always a joy, and no small mystery, owing to our ideal Southern California climate. Their arrival unfolds like a dream, a choreographed dance of winter, recalling the movements of memory, as well as the persistence of nature.

Interestingly, they breed in the interior regions of the continent, before making their way to coastal enclaves for the winter. The American white pelican (pelecanus erythrorhynchos) is a large aquatic bird, recognizable by its black feathers (which are visible in flight) and the massive beak with which it siphons water, obtaining rich caches of fish and other organisms. We know them not only for their graceful movements on the ocean, but also for the elegant soaring that carries them, tracing their silhouetted formations across the sky. They delight us with a sense of intrigue. Like the passing of years—the way in which decades creep by nearly without notice—these birds have quietly multiplied over a number of winter seasons. Then, just as mysteriously, our white pelicans disappear into the arrival of spring—there and gone, turning like the pages of history. However, there is a dark aspect to their migration, as well. Always dramatic and magnificent, this dance of seasons can quickly become treacherous, even deadly.

Not long ago, distraught park visitors reported seeing a pelican struggle as a fishing line—complete with a recently caught fish—constricted the bird’s beak and throat, keeping it bound with little hope of breaking free. In situations like this, expert bird rescue services are the only option, as white pelicans are far too large for a casual attempt at containment. Sadly, the pelican disappeared from view before we could arrange for its capture. In light of this unfortunate occasion, I began to reflect on the movements of nature and their relationship to the passing events and seasons of life. It was around this time that I thought back on my childhood home.

Memories of the Old House

I had sold the place to a developer some years earlier, a large plot in an ideal location with a house desperately in need of repair, as the years had not been kind to it. Built in the suburbs of Los Angeles in 1957—for a newly prosperous postwar generation—the structure was transformed into a gleaming example of architecture, an upscale “dream house” nestled in the foothills. Indeed, the whole process felt surreal, like a scene from the movie of my peculiar life. However, there was a twist to the whole thing, a sad reality of the times.

After a quick renovation, my old home was ready for its new owner--a wealthy buyer, no less; the place sold for nearly a million dollars. Tragedy. Now, this modest California home will remain out of reach for most families, creating a diminished standard of living in a country still thought to be “wealthy.”

Back in 1969, when my parents purchased it, the place was an ordinary residence for the hardworking upper-middle class, those who had labored to build the postwar economy and reap its benefits. To my mind, the property was no more or less than a modest example of the American Dream, as we once knew it. Little did we realize that it was the twilight of a fascinating age, an era of prosperity which would soon give way, invoking a period of decline. In some ways, the memory of those years, and their departure, strikes me as resembling the discontinuity of a dream—and its hazy interruptions of an otherwise uneventful sleep. These images are interesting to ponder. However, this stroll down memory lane has been rather bumpy and reminds me that it’s time to return to work and the demands of the day. Yet, my curiosity remains. What will the future hold? Will the movements of history always remind me of nature and its unfathomable ways?

Ethereal Migrations

As pelicans glide over the lake, searching for rocks to occupy for the afternoon, I drive the adjacent dirt road and wonder. As one of my colleagues once noted, the days often seem to crawl slowly, in agonizing fashion, while the years sprint by to our amazement. Yes, I will likely always regard history as a mirror of the natural world, at least to some extent. And the birds?

Now that a standing invitation has been extended, and the white pelicans arrive each year en masse, I am reminded of the present moment and its urgency. Maintaining their habitat and educating the public about their needs is the priority of the day. If the past is sweet to the nostalgic, the present and future are demanding. Although the elegant birds seem a bit ethereal as they move before us, mimicking choreographed dances of memory (my own and the collective memory of the post postwar generation) the times ahead insist that the dream must end and give way to awakening.

Concluding Reflections

It’s true that certain interludes pass gently, often without notice, like the afternoon hours our pelicans enjoy on the water. Other expressions of time, however, fall like a blade, severing a long continuum of years in one blow. How strange it is; decades spent in a single location—perhaps a family home or a familiar neighborhood—plod on interminably, only to end with a stroke of the pen when the sale is finalized, and one drives away for the last time. In an instant, the old family home is gone. It’s odd and somewhat comforting, how the years begin and end with their own elegance, much like the movements of nature embrace our memories.