Author's Note: Every year the short-tailed shearwater, or mutton birds as they are commonly known in Australian, migrate from islands in the Bering Sea to breed in the islands of the Bass Strait and the adjoining mainland. The Bass Strait separates the Australian mainland from the island state of Tasmania. Colquhoun, at sea, sees them on their migration and his mind is filled with memory and meditation, which I have recorded for him in this part of his epic.
I All day I watch short-tailed shearwaters. They fly past in huge flocks. Soon tens of thousands will arrive on our island, on nearby islands or along the coastal mainland. I am filled with sorrowful joy. Each year, on September 22nd, we climb that sandy headland and watch them arrive. Every day, they fly out over the food providing sea and every evening, when an orange swathe separates the indigo night from the shadow filled land, we see the black flecks of their returning bodies and listen in strange awe as the quiet is transformed, by the whirr of thousands of beating wings. I labor in this boat, at the mercy of wind, lost were it not for my instruments of navigation, carefully tending to my store of food and water whilst they, from their northern island home, near Alaska, lift their 500 gram body into the air, open their one meter wingspan and without stores or instruments, fly south, some marvel of navigation guiding them for fifteen thousand kilometres, first hugging the coast of Canada and California then turning southwest, battling headwinds, trekking this vast, blank ocean, unerringly finding the specks of land of their birth, the exact places where they, once deep in their sandy burrow, featherless and helpless, emerged from their egg to breathe the fresh spring southern air. II It is so long since I held you, so long since I walked with you hand in hand, so long since we stood and watched them return to the same mate and same burrow. Their choiceless rhythm never varies. They restore their nesting burrow and then the entire flock flies out into their familiar sea on their “honeymoon” flight, for two weeks feeding and mating, I know not with what affection. I do know that, upon returning, she lays her single egg and they alternately sit, for two weeks or so, while the other ranges across the sea for up to fifteen hundred kilometres, skimming the rolling swell in pure joy of flight, diving deep under water in search of food. How simple their life seems. The sea is their home. They range the globe. They are clothed with the miracle of feathers. There have no hierarchy. They do not oppress or squabble for wealth. A tunnel dug into sand is sufficient for chick raising. They make no mistakes of parenting. They are not cursed with traumas of the mind. They parent without complaint, doing what they must without question whilst we, king of the primates, self-styled lords of the earth, blunder and stumble our way, carrying our heavy weight of our ego and the freedom and burden of choice. III How close I came to changing course and setting sail for home. My arm at the rudder trembled with desire to see you, to walk our familiar paths, to smell the familiar air. Then I thought of Miriam, my vision of her afflicted and abused, and I could not turn back. I thought again of the mutton birds, how, before their chick can fly, they leave it to return to the far north. They are not conflicted. They do what must be done and what all the countless generations before them have done. If they know that many chicks will perish, their hearts do not break with yearning. They return the following year to repeat the same cycle. When they leave, their chick, yet to fly, will wait alone until hunger sends it into the air to follow, without map or instruction, the path its parents flew to islands in the unknown northern sea. That, or they die from exhaustion, or, before they can fly, fall prey to human hands reaching into their burrows, searching for their growing, succulent bodies. They do not think, they merely do, whilst I must learn in difficult ways, through abundant mistakes, juggling the self-centered desires of the body, too often selfish, needy and clinging, growing in that discerner, conscience, loving, grieving and contemplating great and abstract qualities, mercy, justice, law, righteousness, driven by the desires of the heart, compassion and empathy growing with the years, the realization of personal weakness and the vulnerability of others. Those shearwaters, in the time-tested wonder of their repeated pattern, must fly away without regret. I must sail the seas in search of the daughter long since left and grown and who I know must always be free to find her own way but who lies so deep inside my heart that I can never completely let her go, never say You must fly or die, never say, I leave you now to the wind and the waves and without thought, let you find your own way.
©2022 Neil Creighton
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