The first thing I heard was a plousssh too big to be a fish and too small to be a floundering human. I was going to ignore it – there were, after all, no calls for help or signs of distress – but then as I returned to my book the sound came back.
There’s a bunch of bizarre life forms around here. At any rate, bizarre from the point of view of someone who was raised in freakishly clean suburban houses and who’s come of age in a grimy city. Bizarre bipeds I’m good with. Wild animals in their natural habitat I’m still getting used to.
Oh, now what. A beaver? They make a lot of noise when they hit the water. I know that much, even if I’m a failure, as a naturalist. Earlier that afternoon as we were about to swim I spotted what I thought might be a turtle headed for shore. The kids set me straight right away. No, Mom, a turtle does not swim with its head above water (true, I guess, what was I thinking? [facepalm]). This is definitely a snake.
They are young, and have a certain confidence in their knowledge that – usually – only youth and stupidity provide. My kids are aged 10 and under, but they are not stupid. How could they be? They’re mine, right? You know exactly what I mean, since you’re in the same boat and have brilliant offspring yourself. (“Brilliant” here is not a word necessarily synonymous with “well-behaved”. But you knew that.)
Anyway, here are my kids being able to ID at a glance the minuscule triangle of flesh poking out of the water 30-odd feet away as I squint like a fool, desperately hoping to see more of its body emerge. Like it would make me feel better somehow.
But no. As it got within four feet of shore it disappeared under water, never to be seen again.
I should be pleased that my kids show so much confidence in their knowledge. And that they are right to do so. They have been homeschooled all their lives, and I’ve always encouraged them to look things up by themselves. Because I know that’s how I remember things. When I have to look them up. I can only guess where they got their turtle-vs-snake dataset. You already know it wasn’t from me. I’m going to assume they looked it up.
That’s cool. One kid in particular is super awful keen on all things animals, and when left to her own devices she’ll sit at her desk watching one animal documentary after another, or reading National Geographic Kids, or some animal-related book(s) (usually in the plural) she borrowed from the library. She knows everything about animals. And I mean everything. She’ll tell you all of it, too, if you give her half a chance. (Pro tip: Do not let this kid start talking about animals if you have anything to do later in life.)
Re-ploussssh again, but this time the sound was accompanied by birds squawking so loud they almost drowned out the plousssh.
“What the hell?” I’d been sitting on the steps going to the cottage, reading a book in the shade and attempting to steal a few quiet moments just me and my inspiration and my thoughts. This doesn’t happen very often in my life (see “three homeschooled kids aged 10 and under,” supra) unless I stay up past their bed time (hahahazzzz) or get up well before they do. I tend to shrivel up past 10 pm so I aim to be up by six in the morning instead. When I’m at home I go for a run with the dog, but we don’t run at the lake since we have no roads or paths on this small rocky island. I usually let myself sleep in until 6:30 or 7:00, then I’m up to get some writing done and whatever other grown-up things I have to do that morning. Such as laundry or lunch prep. My life is real glamorous that way.
But that aside, we all have our limits, and mine – I decided right there on the spot – is four ploussshes.
I got up.
It’s not a long walk from where I was to where I needed to be to see what the ruckus was about. Fifteen feet, maybe. It looked like those WWII movies with kamikazes flying into the good guys’ planes, except those were birds. Seagulls performing an angry version of an aerial ballet. They would fly past each other, squawking and spitting at the loons below, then would plunge head-first into the lake for a brief moment before flying back out of there and up towards the trees.
Except the loons weren’t flying out of the water. Loons can’t do that. Did you know they need a huge aqua-runway to get airborne? If you’ve never seen a loon taking off, google it. You’ll see something very slow and almost painful to watch, as the bird’s butt skips along the surface like a polished rock until its wings manage to lift off its soggy rear end. I don’t know why loons have so much trouble taking off. I mean, they are birds, are they not? It’s one of those things that give a creature away as a bird, that it can fly. And loons are not even that big or heavy, for their wingspan. They’re not chickens, for crying out loud. But they sure are plodding.
Plus I know these particular loons, and they ain’t going nowhere on account of the new addition to their family. Yes, we got ourselves a local family of loons (try to use that in a conversation today). Mama, Papa, and Fuzzy-Butt. I’m guessing Fuzzy-Butt hasn’t yet learned the intricate art of loon-flying, since I never see this family anywhere other than the channel between my island and the one next door.
I observed the high-speed feeding operation with a mixture of amusement and wonder. Nature is so simple in its awesomeness – unless it’s the other way around? I suppose it could be both.
I was about to turn around and go back to my book when something caught my eye. One of the adult loons (Papa?) had a small silver fish in its beak. It was such an insignificant little thing – maybe three inches long. But Papa Loon swam away with it looking taller and prouder than I’d ever seen him.
And it struck me: What a metaphor!
(Yes, I’m regularly struck by metaphors. It comes with the territory.)
That loon was bursting with pride not because he had caught a massive pike. No, he was bursting with pride because he had done his job and done it well. Nothing more, but also nothing less than his job. And he was proud of that.
Sort of like me and my kids knowing the difference between a turtle and a snake swimming – accurately. To other people they look and sound like small, insignificant silver fishies. But to me they’re much bigger than that. They make me swim straighter not because I’ve done something unusual, but because I’ve done my job; no more, no less.
I smiled and went back to my book.