Natives of air and sea

It may be my imagination that says the ordinary seagull has gradually been going out of favor among New Englanders. Or it may just be that I have been too infrequent a visitor to the coast. Country and city folk alike are forever sharing news of chickadees and sparrows arriving and departing at yard feeders and the shelf outside the kitchen window. Someone writes a friend about the bluejays that have been bombarding smaller birds, and the reply comes back that a cardinal has been dropping by to bring a flash of rich red against the receding snow. But I suspect that gulls are in danger of being written off by inlanders. Some towns within flying distance of the ocean, say, 50 miles, have banned them from dumps with threats backed by shooting forays.

Whenever I can manage a trip to a favorite coastal neighborhood I am pleased to hear the gulls shrieking from the roof of the old ferry service building or sailing impartially over a shiny new highrise banking complex. White, gray and white, mosty gray, sometimes brown spotted, these cousin kin give a certain verification to a place, and if I could be sure they were in fashion and better suspected, I'd even suggest they lend ambience. But except in the literal meaning, ambience is much too classy a term to describe anything about these take- a-break-anytime sailors of the sea-air.

If gulls fail to get much upbeat publicity written about them, they still continue to be sought after as subjects for art. Ten miles from shore where we spend altogether too few days spring and fall, their wingspan has been rendered onto many a canvas or watercolor paper and given framed permanence between sea facing windows, over the mantle or next to the abstract acrylic. Whenever a summer artist, whose signature is expensively acquired in Chicago or New York, makes a gift of such a work to the lobsterman and his family, it is displayed like a newly discovered species.

When we walk along the path from the postoffice without our unopened mail after the mailboat has pulled away from the wharf, we may take a route that leads by the edge of a little freshwater pond. There we find the gulls nuzzling and dipping in continuing states of landing and takeoff. We sort out bills and read our letters to the soft music of their splashing. Curiously, we seldom hear them cry when they are taking these desalting baths, but once airborne they emit at close range a little throaty affirmation, circling a couple of times over the pond to check their wing and tail assemblies. Then they pull up their Donald Duck legs close to their bellies like any sophisticated flying craft, and off they go with a hunter's call to the populated part of the island where the remains of a good lobster feast might be available.

Nor is the usual strategy of flight managed in leisure. What inspires the artist or excites the photographer is the extraordinary singlesness of purpose when numbers compete. If something takes their congregate attention, like the evening trash pickup being loaded onto the scow, gulls become at once urgently selfish. The drama of their clamor and disorganization can resemble a sky full of parachutes moving in toward the beach. The first to arrive offers threats to newcomers, but no newcomer pays any attention.

Studied later on the easel, the gulls present to us the angularity of hidden bone, softened by the gray undershape of scooping wing, simplified and essential. In thinking back we remember, yes, it was like that when we watched them hovering over the shore last winter. We need the fixed moment of the picture and the interpreting brush to tell us what we half guessed to be so. But the best recorded image should keep the sense of continuing motion for every time we see those wings unfurled against a gray sky, the patterns are uniquely altered.

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