Thursday, August 5, 2021

FLASH IN THE PAN – A Taste for Nature’s Ephemera

My one-hundred-pound Pacific sailfish is finally tiring. It leans away from the pull of my line, its whole being perpendicular to my will. At this point, it’s like trying to reel in a four-by-eight sheet of plywood sideways.

I lug it closer to the side of the panga and the gloved hand of my guide. He grabs the sandpapery bill, and for one magical moment an iridescent, yet improbably deep, indigo blue floods the creature’s unfurled sail. 

By the time the skipper hoists the fish up on the gunwale for a quick picture, the color is gone, as if drained back down into the fish’s body, leaving just flat, dead gray.* Just that fast and the magic has vanished. Even though we’ll release the beautiful creature, I’m sad.

That experience has me thinking about how many other of Nature’s wonders are fleeting. Either you see them at first blush…or you don’t. Or, in some cases you don’t even know where to look.

That’s what it was like when Sally and I sailed aboard the Searcher, a 20-passenger cruise boat that plies the waters around the Baja Peninsula for ten days of high-quality whale encounters. Many times during that cruise, we found ourselves in places where whales were surfacing or breaching all around us.

I’d glimpse motion in my peripheral vision, but by the time I could turn my eyes, the leaping leviathan was back in the water and all I’d see was the splash. Alas, the languid slo-mo we’re used to seeing on Nat Geo’s or Discovery’s glorious whale segments was not an option.

Trying to photograph a breach was even harder. I spent hours fixing my lens on a random patch of ocean, hoping that would be where the next whale would eventually explode out of the water.

       Your odds may be slim, but if you don’t try,
      the odds are zero.

So, is there anything one can do to improve the odds of actually witnessing more of Nature’s ephemeral wonders?

Like any long shot, your odds may be slim, but one thing’s for sure. If you don’t try, the odds are zero. So the first tip is simply to put yourself out there. Go places where amazing stuff is likely to happen.

I’m reading a book, Phenomenal, by Leigh Ann Henion, a travel writer who devoted several years of her life to pursuing some of the world’s most elusive natural phenomena: the aurora borealis in northern Sweden, volcanic eruptions in Hawai’i, the massing of monarch butterflies in Michoacan, Mexico, the annual wildebeest migration in Tanzania, and Catatumbo lightening, whose spectacular show explodes over Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo around 150 nights a year.

Though I find such a quest quite appealing, one needn’t venture to the ends of the earth to find precious, short-lived wonders.

A snowflake alighted on your bare hand, a streaking meteor, the wink of a firefly, a bolt of lightning, or the materialization of a cloud out of clear, blue sky.

Sometimes these wonders surprise you. Or maybe you’re looking for them, but they keep popping up, like a round of whack-a-mole, just out of sight. But you keep trying, and, even though your odds are no better the next time, chances over your lifetime do improve.

The second tip I’d offer makes a subtle distinction. Lifetimes of education and culture have instilled in many of us a kind of tunnel vision. We’re used to looking for specific things in specific places.

But in the realm of wonder spotting, the trick is to broaden that view. While you might not, at first, be able to see the happening or the critter itself, the effect it has on its surroundings just might give it away.

For example, I’m canoeing in a murky, six-inch-deep backwater. I can’t see the hulking, five- to ten-pound carp darting here and there as my canoe disturbs their affairs. But if I open up my focus, what I can see are the fish’s wakes subtly mounding the water’s surface like so many torpedo trails.

Or, let’s say I’m trying to spot a leopard in Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve. If I’m looking just for a large, tawny, dappled cat, I’ll most likely look in vain. But when I take the specifics of color and pattern out of the equation and simply look for a break in the normal pattern of low tree branches, by God, there it is.

The other tip I offer for witnessing more of Nature’s flashes in the pan involves attitude. There’s a big difference between hoping for wonder and expecting it. I love former Nat. Geo. photographer Dewitt Jones’s turn of a phrase: “You gotta believe it to see it.”

 A little humility makes one so much more powerful.

I suppose all of this offers a valuable lesson on the impermanence of just about anything in life. Of life itself.

In fact, if we’re able to step back from our narrow presumptions, diffuse our focus and view things in the context of everything else, of eternal time and fathomless space, the importance of our own existence diminishes. Only then can we experience true wonder. Only then can we see that from the Universe’s perspective we ourselves are the ephemeral curiosities.

A little humility makes one so much more powerful.

And that, in this era pitting political leaders’ outsized egos and wimpy backbones against a global pandemic, troubling threats to democracy and impending climate catastrophe, just might prove the epiphany of our age.

* A sailfish’s color is caused not by contact with the air, but by a reaction to stress by the fish’s nervous system. The sail’s spectacular color returns soon after the fish is released.


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