Morning in Santa Monica. For a long time, now, I have been walking Adam to school and then returning home to work, or to read. I’ve been enclosed in a little capsule of winter routine. Today I decided to walk down to the ocean. The beach was largely empty – meaning, really, that there were few people there. I walked across the expanse of sand to where the bank over where the ocean was lapping up on shore, then loped my way down the beach, heading away from the pier, towards Malibu. I encountered birds, lots of seabirds. One colony of very large pelicans, five of them, with those faces, elongated, brightly colored, somehow reminiscent of an African mask, or of Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon. Slightly frightening, the length of beak. As I passed them I actually glanced back, as if they might be following me.
I came upon a curlew. It was on the edge of the watermark left by the ocean, which at this hour was rumpled by low tide. It had the nice curved beak, not the sandpiper’s straight beak. I stopped. The curlew stopped. I began to think about the curlew’s life. We are told that the beasts of the air and those that creep upon the ground are driven primarily by sex and food. There’s some validity to that p.o.v. – it is one in which we have simply the species and the vehicle of the species, the contingent piece of it. However, what the p.o.v. doesn’t indicate is all the down time in between. This curlew, for instance, stopped perhaps because of me, perhaps because he just stopped. He was evidently having as much of a down time moment as I was myself. First, he waggled his tail, then he strutted a bit, then he stopped. He seemed to be contemplating his bill. If he were a character in a Victorian novel, I would say that he was contemplating his bill with enormous satisfaction. He also had his head cocked in a certain way, so that he seemed to be listening to the ocean’s eternal laundering. Of course, I am aware that my ocean and my sounds depend entirely on my sensory equipment, which is at setting different from his. Birds, I have read, commonly hear sounds at a higher frequency than humans. If that makes sense. And of course the whole rods n cones arrangement of the eyes is different. The curlew was seeing or processing different pictures than I was. Probably it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to take what we know about bird physiology and fashion some Virtual Reality helmet so that we see and hear on the settings that they see and hear. Yet I don’t think this would get us too near what the bird – what my bird, the curlew – is like, to use Nagel’s phrase. It would be like reading a bad and misleading translation of a book from a foreign language.
The curlew, at rest, stood first on his two legs, then, after a while, on one leg only. I didn’t catch it when he lifted up the other leg. It happened in an instant. I must say that my concentration on the bird was interupted by glances up the beach, and oceanward. I wondered again when we were ever going to visit the Catalina Islands. I wondered about a few things that I decided were distracting me from the beach, like the news. Fuck the news.
Then the curlew was back in a two legged posture, and then it strutted down to the watermark. It stood there and the ocean came up and foamed around its talons. It was indifferent to the water. When the water receded, it started hunting with its curved beak in the sand, and finding things I couldn’t see. The vehicle was seized by the species urge. I bestirred myself and made off in the direction of the pedestrian bridge that is right after the repairs they are making to the entrance to the PCH at California ave. When I got on the bridge, I saw two men filming a man and a woman. The man, a lanky, older white guy, bald, but with a fringe of somewhat ridiculous long hair, was doing a dance step in synch with a lithe younger black woman. Two steps to one side, two steps to the other side, throw your arms up. I could see the man was the worse dancer. I could tell the dancer from the dance easy enough. I interrupted the session and crossed over the bridge.
Those dancers, I thought. Species or vehicle, vehicle or species.