Magical thinking

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I’d never felt more like a fairy queen. My slender craft floated on gentle, aquamarine wavelets under a cerulean sky littered with puffy clouds. To either side swam a retinue of sleek, black cormorants — elegant and imposing. Their emerald eyes flashed; their orange faces were stern behind long, fiercely hooked beaks.  Inexplicably, these wild waterbirds had decided to join me and my husband on our leisurely kayak trip in the lee of Anna Maria Island off the Gulf Coast of Florida.

If magic is the explanation for what we do not understand,  the presence of these wild creatures was certainly magical to me when they first splashed down around us. The black, distinctive-looking birds are a common sight all over coastal regions of the United States, known for their habit of drying themselves by perching with wings spread to the sun. Unlike ducks, their feathers do not repel water; this decreases buoyancy, making it easier for them to pursue fish underwater — but necessitating a means of drying themselves. When they landed in the water, they were IN the water, not on it, with mainly their heads and necks above.

I’d never seen one so close. Who knew they had jewel-like green eyes? They darted through the water on either side of the boat — sometimes within arm’s reach — and under it, back and forth, an inexplicable aquatic tango. They eyed us with great serenity, seeming to understand that we were, at least, no danger to them. We were entranced.

After a while, however, we came up with a pragmatic explanation for our dashing escort: fish. We were in very shallow waters, over a thick bed of seagrass. The shadow of our boat startled hidden fish as we passed over. When they darted away, the cormorants closed in.

We had front-row seats at two successful catches — and wondered at the ability of this snaky-necked bird to open its jaws and swallow whole a fish quite significantly larger than its head! It then dove right back down, looking for more, the current occupant of its stomach presumably still wriggling! (I later read that a cormorant needs to eat about twenty-five to thirty fish a day! No time to dawdle!)


Another recent encounter with nature left me with a similar fairyland feeling: my first meeting with the Leafcutter Bee. I didn’t know there were leafcutter bees until I saw a bee carrying a leaf into a crevice in my cedar-log  garden border. The leaf was a bright green, graceful oval about half again the size of the bee. She took her leaf inside and, a short while later, departed and returned with another. It seemed to me that there were at least two different bees going in and out, minding their own, er, beeswax. After a few minutes, I returned to my gardening and forgot all about them. . . .

. . . until an urgent buzzing surrounded me! Swooping anxiously around my head were the leafcutter bees. In the process of putting in a stepping stone, I had unwittingly knocked a pebble into the opening to their nests!

Initially, I reacted like a normal human when surrounded by agitated bees: I ran away, flailing.

But when I realized what had happened, I ventured guiltily back, and moved the pebble aside, peering at the tiny opening. Was it clear? Would they be able to get back in?

Almost immediately, one of the bees flew down and entered the crevice. Crisis averted. I was amazed that neither bee, even under this extreme provocation, had stung me. I later discovered that leafcutter bees are notoriously peaceable. The Honeybee Conservancy calls them “genial, efficient, and tireless.” A bee more genial than a honeybee? It doesn’t get much more fairyland than that!

As Barry Lopez wrote in Of Wolves and Men, “the separate realities enjoyed by other organisms are not only no threat to our own reality, but the root of a fundamental joy.” Yes. That. And also, while we may not understand the “separate realities” of other beings, we are nonetheless enmeshed in a constant interaction with them. Our passage through the world inevitably leaves ripples that affect the countless lives around us, unfamiliar, inexplicable or even invisible to us.


A day or two after I returned from vacation, I saw a sadly not-at-all-unfamiliar sight outside the grocery store: a woman sitting in the blazing sun with a shabby backpack, a small dog and a sign: Just Food. Passing Through. The plight of the homeless can feel overwhelming, but I make it a policy not to look away. To at least give the humanity of an acknowledgement as I pass. This woman smiled and gave me a little wave.

Inside the store, I found myself choosing things I’d want if I were sitting outside with a sign and a dog: a juicy apple; a package of salted peanuts; a cold drink; packets of moist dog food. Outside the store, she was still there. I pressed the gifts into her hands.

She didn’t turn into my fairy godmother and grant me three wishes. But the connection between us, acknowledged, was magic enough.

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