A friend and I are just back from a magical trip to Eastern Egg Rock in Maine. That’s where a lively colony of puffins now lives, though 40 years ago, almost all the little brightly colored shore birds had essentially vanished from their home. Between using feathers for ladies’ hats and gentlemen’s fishing lures and eating the birds, the population was down to single digits. Meanwhile a young graduate student named Steve Kress was at Cornell working in their famous ornithology program. One of his professors was helping try to restore the peregrine falcon, so young Steve had a dream: if his professor could try with the falcons, maybe he could work to restore puffins to Maine’s coastal region. Now, forty summers later, there are over 150 banded mating pairs on Eastern Egg Rock, located about eight off shore from New Harbor, a quiet fishing village along the coast.
About 30 years ago, my then partner and I began vacationing in Maine most summers, staying at a lovely old lodge built early in the 20th century. Among its brochures of things to do while in Northeast Harbor was an invitation to go see puffins. Attracted to the famous image of an adult puffin holding four or five tiny fish in its bill, I suggested we make the trip. It involved arising about 4:30 and my partner was a late sleeper, so we didn’t pursue the option. But I carried the little picture back to Minneapolis and decided to sign up for a program conducted through the Maine Audubon Society. Called “Adopt a Puffin,” it meant I sent them $100 a year to take care of a puffin assigned to me. She had a number though I called her “Priscilla.” Every summer I received a new photograph of her and it was “my” puffin because I could see the band on her leg. Eventually she died (they life span can easily get into the 30s if nothing happens at sea) and I now am sponsoring a new female. Over the years I’ve learned that they only lay one egg per season, so if the egg doesn’t hatch and survive, they miss a year of reproduction. Both my puffins have been successful except for 2 or 3 times, so I feel happy to have helped carry on two family lines.
About eight years ago I traveled to Iceland, hired a marvelous guide who knew all about puffins and geology. Mike drove me up the western edge of the island to the fjords where there is a large puffin colony with burrows dug under the ground at cliff’s edge. Arriving just at dawn, I saw for well over an hour, alone with my binoculars, watching one after another adult puffin peek out from her/his burrow, preen or flap wings, fly in a wide circle just to stretch before returning to move slowly into another day of going out to get fish for their young safely tucked inside the burrows. That was a soul-feeding experience, so when the Project Puffin staff offered me a chance to be in a blind on Eastern Egg Rock where I could observe individual puffins quite close to home, I accepted. Happily my friend, a serious birder, eagerly agreed to accompany me.
The night before out trip out to the rock, Steve Kress, the graduate student now in his 60s, gave an illustrated talk about the history or the project ending with his deep concerns about the potentially disastrous effect of ocean warming. It seems the tiny fish essential to pufflings (the name for baby puffins) are sinking deeper to get to cooler water and some larger fishes are too big for tiny stomachs to digest. But parents seem intent on finding slightly larger varieties so they can continue to produce new generations, at least into the near future. Time on the rock was like entering another world: there are no human inhabitants on this small island, though from May to late August several students planning to become shore bird scientists or naturalists live in tiny tents and bathe in the Atlantic Ocean while doing the essential and daily charting of life patterns among the puffin pairs. In addition to puffins, there are hundreds of terns and various kinds of gulls, all of whom make a loud racket all the time, with the terns diving for our heads because we were very near their chicks still inside or just outside of their eggs. Once it was our turn in a blind, we nestled into a tiny wooden box, sitting on 2 large overturned plastic buckets softened a little by very old cushions doled out before we set off for our roost. For about half an hour we were shut inside, disturbing terns and gulls just a little, and able to watch adult puffins going about their mid-morning lives, singly or in pairs/triplets or large gatherings.
Puffins are exceptionally social birds it seems, so when Steve Kress first was trying to attract adults from Canada, he figured out to have a Maine – make wooden puffins that he installed strategically around the barren rocks of the island. This worked well and fairly quickly, so he began thinking of it as a possible strategy for restoration efforts for other endangered populations. The term has stuck and become known through the entire world of ornithologists. We heard that just recently Project Puffin was visited by Japanese naturalists eager to restore colonies of birds equally decimated over the years. So this kindly man not only has brought his beloved puffins back to the Maine coast but he has taught others a highly successful way to do the same in their own environments. I was moved by the name he chose: SOCIAL ATTRACTION. It tells me nature depends on what we humans too often refuse to acknowledge, i.e., it really does take a village to sustain individual lives, and none of us makes it “alone,” never mind various myths of individualism foisted upon us by philosophers or politicians. Communities are our safeguards against all sorts of ills–internal and external. We’d be wise to watch the puffins as my friend and I did the other morning. Even if they spent some time in the sun just fluffing their own feathers, eventually they hooked up with others and seemed more active for doing so.
When I was spending time in England almost every year, I realized that many of their television ads were incredibly clever as opposed to most of ours that simply tried to sell you something you probably didn’t need or want. Lately, however, I have seen a few current ads that genuinely amuse me. One of the best is for a product named Chantix, something a person takes who is trying to end an addiction to cigarettes. It focuses on an older Tom Turkey who is either keeping warm in his apartment or hiking in the woods or relaxing at a campfire. The words tell me that it’s too hard to stop smoking “cold turkey”–hence the AC unit’s being turned off or the bird’s draping himself in a shawl. Then we’re told Chantix will help a person stop smoking “slow turkey.” The created Tom then occupies himself while still having the occasional cigarette until the voice over assures us a time will come when Chantix will have lessened the desire enough to make it easy to stop. Our turkey then either throws his last butt into the campfire or into his apartment’s trash can and starts doing constructive and healthy things: he feeds goldfish in his apartment; he makes s’mores over the dwindling coals outdoors; he dusts off his beach shoes so he can go for a brisk swim; he dons a backpack and sets off for a hike with his trusty water bottle. Just before the ad ends as we watch him walking away from the camera, the turkey jumps up and clicks his feet as a final sign of having “kicked” the bad habit. Whereas I usually just go get a glass of water during ads or check my e-mail, I watch these Chantix ads with genuine pleasure. The idea is smart, the images are engaging, and the Tom Turkey seems so sincerely pleased to have stopped hurting himself that I am drawn into the script just as the Madison Avenue gurus want me to be. And, were I an addicted smoker (are there any other kind?), I’d certainly be inclined to try Chantix.
Three days ago, I walked out my front door to see what parts of my front garden needed watering first and was momentarily thrown a little off kilter to see a very tall wild turkey walking slowly in just the part of my side yard where the dry flowers live. I spoke softly to him (coloring suggested this was “Tom”) asking if he lives at the cemetery a half block from my house. I also welcomed him to my yard, stood a moment or two watching his majestic strut before going back inside. Almost as soon as I got inside the phone rang. It was my next door neighbor saying in a rushed voice “Toni, look out your kitchen window–there’s a TURKEY in your back garden. When I first saw it, it scared me, so go look.” I do go look and of course it was the same fellow I’d just seen. He’d jumped over the fence and found my big back yard graced by two large and well-stocked feeding stations. The wild turkey was happily pecking up fallen seeds, perhaps thinking he’s won a small lottery just designed for creatures like him. Again, I stepped quietly out onto my little back stoop and welcomed my new friend to have as much bird food as he liked before finding his way back into what I assume is his home–that cemetery a few stones’ throws away.
Melanie then sent me three wonderful photographs taken with her smart phone. Of course I dont’ know how either to take photographs with a phone or send them to anyone else. But once I had them in an e-mail, I could send them to a couple of friends who were as pleased as I to see them so close to my back door. I thank my blog manager for including one of those here, so those of you reading this can get a better scale of this unexpected visitation. And, while I really do welcome any wild turkey who wanders into my yards to spend some moments there, part of me worries because surely wild turkeys are not entirely safe on residential streets of busy neighborhood full of cars and trucks. But into my little world Tom Turkey came, so hospitality directed me to welcome him. And should he or relatives or friends ever grace me with their presence, similar welcomes will be sent towards their subtly and beautifully colored feathers and necks and underbellies.
Lots is being written these days about just what constitutes “whiteness” and why we might need to figure this out before it’s too late. I’ve recently seen two plays that confront this question in ways that make a white person like me extremely uncomfortable. I’m grateful to the playwrights involved since I grow fastest when I stay in a state of existential discomfort. The plays to which I refer are “Blood Knot” by Athol Fugard and “White Noise” by Susan-Lori Parks. Fugard was a white South African playwright who understood very early on the price paid both by blacks and whites who were living in South Africa under apartheid rule. Parks is an American black playwright who brings that price into sharp focus as she anatomizes what it’s like being black in America these days. I fantasize every now and then about a scene in which the two of them are exchanging knowledge and criticism across time and culture, but all I have are the texts of their plays and my experience in the audience at each performance. I
Fugard’s play is about two half-brothers, one light-skinned and one dark-skinned. After leaving his home to venture into a world in which I assume he tried to pass, the light-skinned character, Martin, returns home to the tiny squalid apartment where his dark-skinned brother, Zacariah, lives. Zacariah works at as a garbage collector and returns home at night almost unable to walk because his feet hurt him so badly. His brother, who suffers from a version of OCD, always has the same basin of hot water laced with a package of foot balm ready. Unable to work himself, he is a house-husband who puts food on their table, makes the beds, and keeps as much order as is possible in such a ramshackle abode. Though Fugard makes Martin more verbal and “educated” than Zacariah, it is Zacariah who turns out to have more capacity to feel and connect than his emotionally damaged brother. The plot thickens because Zacariah answers a listing in a dating service and is immediately “liked” by a woman who wants to come visit. It’s obvious to us that she is white, so Martin tries to explain to his excited brother that there is no way the two of them can possibly be a couple. In a stunning turn, Fugard has Zacariah convince Martin that he can meet the white girl since he “looks” white. Zacariah spends money they don’t really have getting his brother a suit, white shirt, tie, new shoes, hat and even an umbrella because, as Zacariah puts it, “White people with class carry umbrellas–and it might rain.” The moment Martin dons the clothes befitting someone who is not a black of any shading, his entire personality changes. First it’s how he wakes–strutting rather than creeping hunched over and looking down. Eventually, after.demeaning Zacariah verbally, Martin even yells “nigger” at him, bringing tremendous pain to the one person who loves him. Though Fugard ends this powerful play by having the half-brothers agree to return to their original patterns, this play leaves me as a white person in the audience clear enough about what the playwright wants me to carry away from the theater.
Similarly, in her play just recently having closed to a full run in New York City, Susan-Lori Parks shows me what :”whiteness” means. In “White Noise,” Leo, the central character opens the plays by telling us he sleeps very badly because he can’t free himself from the white noise in his head. Though he duplicates for us the sound this s sets up, I know Parks means me to understand that we white people are the white noise plaguing people like Leo. This play has four characters, two white and two black, two men and two women. At the outset they are sorted into two mixed-raced heterosexual couples, though by the end no one is able to be in relationship with anyone. Early on Leo rushes in holding a sheaf of official documents and telling his friends he has an idea of how he can rid himself of the noise keeping him from sleep–he asks his good white friend Ralph to buy and own him for 40 days. Initially Ralph is adamant about not doing any such thing, but within minutes he has been convinced by Leo to sign the document. They need two witnesses and, though the black woman character begins to stalk off stage reminding Leo that they have known each other since childhood, Leo tells her that very closeness is why she must help him. The white female character who is a do-good liberal lawyer has become the third and final signatory and the pact is set up. Ralph all-too quickly begins to enjoy ordering his old friend around doing mundane things like polishing his shoes and making lunch. Though there are moments when they share a beer and some palaver on the sofa, Ralph keeps returning to being “master” as he thinks up new things for Leo to do.
At one excruciating painful moment for me, Ralph enters with a real heavy metal collar used during slavery times and makes Leo put it on. Though all my impulses were to leave the theater, I stayed because Parks needed me to keep witnessing just how easy it is being for a seemingly open-minded white person to give over to a system in which one human body is “owned” by another human body who visits cruelty upon the owned simply because he can. The play’s four-some has always gone bowling as a way to have fun together and Leo is the best of the group, so at one point Ralph reminds him that bowling twelve strikes in a row is championship play. So Ralph orders his “slave” to do that right away. Leo racks up one strike after the other and Ralph becomes more and more excited, until Leo stops at eleven and says “I’m tired.” That simple expression infuriates Ralph, after ordering a couple of more times, pulls out a gun and screams “BOWL!” We have learned before this contest begins that Leo has absented himself for a while to go to a library and look up his African ancestry. With a gun pointed at him, he begins to tell Ralph (and us) about that ancestry, a recital that clearly empowers Leo. Face to face with his slave master and his weapon, Leo refuses to make the final victorious strike in a white man’s game. Ralph is suddenly overcome by what he has done and who he has.become and flings his gun and then himself onto the floor. As he weeps loudly, Leo seems to add inches to his height as he recites a few more facts about the heroism of his ancestors and the play ends.
Even though Ralph has firmly declared to Leo shortly before the end that he will never be free of the white noise and that “I put it there,” making clear to the audience what Parks intends all along, i.e., for whites to come to grasp that we want and even need for blacks not to be able to “sleep,” i.e. rest easy. Rather we need them to remember at every moment that we are the ruling class, so they must obey and stay alert.
I know there are important books being written and speeches being given by critical race theorists and practitioners illustrating this same point. Such books and talks are part of my continuing education project about just how embedded racism and notions of white supremacy are in me and my white neighbors. But seeing these two works of literature where words spoken and actions displayed make it impossible for me to escape this destructive reality rampant in my culture has heightened and brightened my awareness. Great art always prevents our being able to escape in time to protect ourselves from feeling crucial emotions. And it is those emotions that have a chance of breaking through the defenses built up over generations and centuries. So I’m deeply grateful to have been in the two audiences where Fugard and Parks were able to move me a little further along the rocky road to clarity.
On April 10th, I had routine surgery to remove a growth in my neck. My last blog, written almost two months ago, told about how hard it was being for me to eat soup with my right hand, given the nerve damage to my left shoulder that prevents me from being able to use my rotator cuff. Well, now it’s two months later and I’ve learned to eat lots of things with my right hand. I am doing major PT with a very solid therapist and I’m going for several acupuncture treatments a week. I’m growing stronger in my left hand and even now can brush my teeth with my left hand–something that gives me genuine pleasure. But any recovery involving the damaged nerves is many months away, so patience is the order of my days–historically not my strong suit, to which many who know me will attest. I live in hope and work hard at my many pages of exercises every day.
What I have not figured out how to incorporate back into my routine is regular postings here, so I write this to see if saying that I’m not writing the blogs that bounce around in my head may help me put some of them into words. I know writing these blogs lets me be a version of myself that I like enormously, so I believe it will contribute to my recovery if I can return on some regular basis. Meanwhile I am full of gratitude to my team of healers who all want solid recovery for me. And I am even more grateful to all the friends and family who are praying or sending me good thoughts on a regular basis. That support is what keeps me lying down on the floor to execute all the exercises from that position.
As the neurologist whom I visited recently said “A bad thing has happened to you; it doesn’t happed to many people and we don’t really know why it occurs when it does.” He also remarked that “mother nature is helping you because you are getting stronger.” On that enigmatic and then encouraging note, I sign off with a promise to myself to return here with actual content very soon.