We were walking towards Fort Ross, admiring its battlements and the distinctive topping of the Russian church at one corner. It was a bright day, full of light from the sky and the sea. Somewhere between us and the Fort was a rectangular collection of dark pointed boards and perched atop them were perfect silhouettes of vultures. How odd, I thought, that I don’t remember this religious monument from the last time I was here—some 19th century woodcarver’s dream of doom perhaps. I stood still to admire it, and something moved—a wing ruffled by a sea breeze, one perfectly designed foot making a gesture, a whole bird shifting in the light. And then another spread its wings to the day, and the birds all came to life because they had always been so.
That’s what struck me at first, that they seemed to be mere silhouettes, and were suddenly alive. But what struck me next was perhaps more important, and that was the terrible otherness of them. How there seemed to be no intersection of our worlds: human being, vulture. They were utterly indifferent to us.
They weren’t the birds at my feeder.
The next day we were near the village where Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds, was set. Bad movie, but scary. In that movie too the birds seemed to belong to a different reality—until they attacked. Black silhouettes on telephone wires. Utterly still. And then….
We were at Bodega Head, where high cliffs plunge down to an ocean that relentlessly tosses, froths, hums, roars, lifts seaweed up in its silvery arms and lets it fall, splashes light all over the rocky ledge and shapes the stone to its own purposes. And there, on the face of a mountain of stone opposite us, were cormorants. Dark silhouettes of long-necked birds, clinging to the sandstone face of the thing, facing away from us. They seemed in touch only with the rock and the sky, and the torrential water below. Sometimes, one flew off to fish; but mostly they just stayed, facing the rock. I theorized that they were looking for insects in the sandstone, but truth to tell, I never believed it. It was just that indifference again, that incredible otherness.
There we were, we humans, hoping to catch sight of whales in migration, hoping to bridge the gap between us and them. And there they were, in another reality we couldn’t hope to enter.
We presume so much in our nature shorts and our horror movies. Sometimes, I think, it would be better to honor the terrible separation between us.