Puffin Day

Today I went to see the work of a Portland artist who spent 3 months in Antarctica drawing birds. She was actually researching a bird I’ve never heard of, the Snowy sheathbill. But I was captured by her depictions of a single Arctic tern – a forceful little seabird with which my only direct encounter has been negative. (There was shrieking, I remember, and dive-bombing.) I lingered in the cafe where the work was hung, juggling too-hot tea from hand to hand, standing quiet and distantly puzzled. I felt something, looking at that painting, that I could not name for trying.  

Certainly, it conjured a memory of ducking and retreating – laughing, but also afraid – from the real things, magnificently fierce in defense of their ground-slung nests. And it pulled me into creating a sort of backstory for the piece: this tern seemed either just about to settle, or just about to fly. She was undecided, perhaps anticipatory. I wondered why, and I wanted to know what she would do. Engaging, but not what troubled my mind.

I’ve never been good at “intuition.” This seems so wrong to say that for years I didn’t know it. I’ve always loved the idea of understanding a thing – especially one’s own self – deeply and immediately, without needing to reason it out. I admire the ability to just know: that a course of action is right, that a new acquaintance may be trusted as a friend, that you dislike a new thing you’ve just encountered. People in books do this all the time; so do many of my friends. I knew from childhood that I must have this ability. I had the right personality – curious, emotionally attuned, introspective.

And it turns out that I have no intuition at all. I utterly lack quick insight into people, landscapes, my own emotions. I react to most non-urgent situations simply by taking them in, speaking the words and performing the actions logic or protocol dictate. Only time and distance allow me to process how I feel about them. My emotional reactions are on a time delay.

It occurs to me, having recently read this article about aphantasia, that maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about it. Maybe intuition, like visualization – a thing I can do – is so obvious a part of most people’s daily lives that not using it is unthinkable. Here’s what that looks like, in the instance of the arctic tern: I paid for my tea. I took the artist’s business card. I waved at the barista and walked back down Fremont street to my office, aware that I was having strong feelings, serenely unable to grasp them.

Two hours later, I was driving down Terwilliger Boulevard – the pretty part, between Lewis & Clark College and Lake Oswego, where it’s all green leafy abundance and smooth, pleasant road. And I realized that painting had made me want to cry. I’d been anxious and afraid and pleased and excited in the space of a few minutes, ocean waves of emotion I couldn’t feel soaking me to the skin until that moment. That minimalist painting of a tern had taken me back to the April day I went looking – desperately – for puffins.

***

I needed puffins because I’d gone from loving my life to holding it together with off-brand duct tape. I was exhausted and working too much, perpetually about to explode. My professional future shimmered in place, unresolved into mirage or oasis. (To be clear: all of this was my own doing.)

I could have fixed on any bird; it could have been terns. But April is when the Tufted puffins return to raise their babies on Haystack Rock. I’d put the second weekend in April on my calendar weeks before, and I was living for puffins and the Oregon Coast the way my tiny brown tabby cat lurks in the kitchen, wide-eyed and on-edge like she’s starving and sad.

Jeremiah and I drove out to the Coast at dawn, and we came back long after dark. Leaving Portland, and then drawing back closer to the city’s limits, I talked in the same old circles. Work, the future, is-this-the-right-move, where-is-the-contract, I’m-so-tired, writing, work, what-is-wrong-with-me. In between, though. Was it my partner’s contented calm, his patience? Or just getting physically away from the site of my ongoing trauma? In between, I had the best day of my spring.

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The idea was to begin birdwatching near Tillamook, and end, at afternoon’s low tide, by visiting the puffins. I had an itinerary, of course. (I always have an itinerary.) And we followed it, more or less. Certainly I kept enthusiastic bulleted lists of stops made and birds seen, at what times. But that is not how I remember the day.

Bayocean Spit is flat, fronting Tillamook Bay. Free of development (nowadays), it’s quiet and calm in the early morning. Calm, that is, if you’re a human, walking slowly, hand in hand with your mate. If you’re an American crow, the shallow sandbars are full of small dead things to pick at and half-swallow, and brag about to your friends. If you’re a Great blue heron, the water’s ruffled edge is covertly competitive, a place to hunch in a tense cluster with four of your normally solitary kind, eyes on the fishy prize. If you’re a White-crowned sparrow, the drier reaches are populated with smallish fir trees, just the right height for you to throw back your black-and-white striped head and sing your jealous heart out: this place is mine!

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Near the town of Nehalem, we met unexpected sand dunes in the State Park. They ripple in the wind with sharp-edged grasses; wild strawberries flower on the margins. Climbing, the Coast Range and the long rolling shore both hide from sight until you’ve reached the saddle. Then: behind hills of sand, mountains gray as rain, and to the west, endless ocean that only seems flat from here. A single harrier – my first – slid along a length of air, as a human hand caresses softest silk.

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In Cannon Beach, the sewage ponds attract scaups and buffleheads and mallards and Canada geese. There’s a labeled nature trail, tightroped between blackbird-filled wetlands waving with wild yellow flags, and the wire-topped fence that separates you from the sludge. I thought of the city acknowledging nature as not merely ‘wild,’ or only beautiful, and human use as part of that, potentially compatible with the needs of ducks and geese and cattails.

At Haystack Rock, the puffins had been frightened out to sea mere moments before by a couple of peregrine falcons. We hung around, asking questions and looking hopeful. Scanning the waves, I spotted a raft of surf scoters, marine ducks with hilarious orange and white bills. The puffins remained pelagic.

My disappointment barely registers in memory. I recall the joy of children sliding down the sand, the warm hand of a springtime sun, the feel of Jeremiah’s fingers laced with mine. Over dinner, long and unhurried in the corner of our favorite Astoria bar, I got pleasantly drunk and we talked of everything but work.

***

You could say that I’m only understanding the depth of my feeling for this sorely-needed day of rest – nearly three weeks ago as I write this – right now. At the time, I needed only the act itself. My limited access to immediate emotions lifted me as the thermal does the harrier, so that I floated on the day, accepting it as a gift.

A particularly interesting painting of an arctic tern has brought it all back around. Now that I have weathered this brutal band of storms, I can unfold my memory of Puffin Day in the quiet space granted by time and distance, and I can feel it.

Emotional mission accomplished, my mind is troubled only by how to get a print of that gorgeous, unsettling tern. This solution will be simpler.

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***

Spoiler alert: It couldn’t be easier. You can visit Terri Nelson’s Etsy store to view or purchase her lovely work. It’s not all from-life paintings: there’s a pretty cool one of a kraken getting feisty with the Steel Bridge…

Bayocean Spit is highly recommended as an Oregon Coast walk. Find it outside Tillamook, about 2 hours from Portland. It’s easy, and it can be as long or short as you like. I also love the beachwalking further north, at Nehalem Bay State Park.

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