Driving across town yesterday, I looked up and saw a small flock of white pelicans, probably ten or twelve of them, doing big slow turns as they rode a thermal. The white pelicans come back every year about this time, and the thrill never diminishes. For one thing, they’re enormous — watching a white pelican come in for a landing is like watching a big bomber plane come in — one is always astonished that something that big, and that body-heavy can be as graceful as it is.
Years before I moved here, when I was doing my PhD work, I relied on Jack Turner’s terrific book The Abstract Wild. And every year, when the pelicans return, I reread “The Song of the White Pelican,” an essay that begins with Turner … lounging on the summit of the Grand Teton surrounded by blocks of quartz and a cobalt sky. It is mid-morning in July — warm, still, and so clear the distant ranges seem etched into the horizon. … … I rest and enjoy the clarity and count shades of blue as the sky pales into the mountains. then I hear a faint noise above me, and my heart says, “Pelicans.”
The sounds are faint, so faint they are sometimes lost — a trace of clacking in the sky. It is even harder to see them. Tiny glints, like slivers of ice, are occasionaly visible, then invisible, then visible again as the sheen of their feathers strikes just the right angle to the sun. With binoculars, we see them clearly: seventeen white pelicans soaring in a tight circle …
The white pelican (Pelacanus erythrorhynchos), one of seven species in the world, is a large bird often weighing twenty pounds, with some individuals reaching thirty pounds. The only other pelican in North America, the brown pelican, is smaller and restricted to the coasts. The white pelican’s wing span reaches nine and a half feet, equal to the California condor’s. Of North American birds, only the trumpeter swan is consistently larger.
Some people fear that extending a human vocabulary to wild animals erodes their Otherness. But what is not Other? Are we not all, from one perspective, Other to each and every being in the universe? And at the same time, and from another perspective, do we not all share an elemental wildness that burns forth in each life?
When I see white pelicans riding mountain thermals, I feel their exhaltation, their love of open sky and big clouds. Their fear of lightning is my fear, and I extend to them the sadness of descent. I believe the reasons they are soaring over the Grand Teton are not so different from the reasons we climb mountains, sail gliders into great storms, and stand in rivers with tiny pieces of feathers from a French duck’s butt attached to a barbless hook at the end of sixty feet of sixty-dollar string thrown by a thousand-dollar-wand. Indeed, in love and ecstasy we are closest to the Other, for passion is at the root of all life and shared by all life. In passion, all beings are at their wildest; in passion, we — like pelicans– make strange noises that defy scientific explanation.
One of the things I love most about living here is that while driving down Clark Street, at eleven o’clock on a Wednesday morning I can look up and see something as wild as a flock of white pelicans, wheeling their way upward into the dead-clear blue sky. In the middle of town, in the middle of a weekday, there it is, an eruption of wildness in the sky above me.