Lessons Learned From Loons on a Lake

THE other evening I took the old green canoe out on the lake to visit a pair of neighboring loons. Like my family, they've summered here for years. They nest on a marshy island until their chicks are hatched, and then they paddle about for several months until the kids are old enough to fly. We've gotten used to them, and they've gotten used to the canoe. Watching them, I thought about the lessons nature has for man - and how, these days, man seems somehow more open to those lessons. That's not always been the case. Time was that nature, ``red in tooth and claw,'' as Tennyson said, was a dark and dangerous force to be conquered, dominated, and exploited by humanity's superior intelligence.

Now, as the century winds toward its restive conclusion, that picture seems to be changing. Love Canal, Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, Bhopal, the Exxon Valdez - all too often, man's darkened intelligence has made him not only a controller of his environment but a ravager of it. More and more, it seems, there's a real cri de coeur for a different view of nature - for a world where the lessons of progress arise not from subjugation of, but in harmony with, the natural world.

That evening, looking for harmony, I was especially glad to see that the two adult loons had their two chicks with them. I'd been worried. We'd had a curious spring - dry early on, and then with torrential rains that lifted the lake at least a foot. That can be a problem for loons. They build their nests within inches of the water because they are so hopelessly clumsy on land that they can barely scramble up to sit on the eggs after they come back from a feed. I'd wondered how this pair had avoided being flooded out when the rains came.

Later, as dusk settled, I set out for their now-abandoned nest, which I'd spotted from a distance earlier in the season. A small mound of earth topped with a concave depression and littered with bits of eggshell, it sat on a tiny island no longer than the canoe, in a tangle of roots and low bushes, well hidden in the marsh grasses. I'd never gotten close to it, not wanting to disturb the loons. Now, drifting alongside it, I saw how those chicks had survived. As I pushed at it with my paddle, it bobbed slightly and then returned to its equilibrium. It was a floating island. It was buoyed up by its mass of plant life. But it was firmly rooted to the marsh floor. So, through high water and low, it had remained dry and in easy reach for the parent loons.

I guess I was ready for that lesson. Somebody recently asked me how, contemplating a future fraught with turbulence, one keeps one's poise. I sympathize. There are days when the flood of global problems seems ready to roar in like a spring tide - and other days when all the world's goodness seems about to drain away and leave us stranded. It's then I think about those loons. When it comes time for them to build for their own future - their offspring - this pair is not stubborn at all. Not for them the fierce planting of the feet, the ardent staking out of an inflexible position. They build to ride the current of their environment. But they don't merely drift. They've found an island firmly tethered in place - always secure in its camouflage, always safe from predators.

Rooted, but buoyant. If nature has a lesson for humanity as it enters the 21st century, that may well be it. Learn to float, but don't cast loose your moorings. Keep your chicks warm and hidden, and stay with them until they learn to fly. Let the floods rise and fall. And when the time comes, be ready to use your wings.

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