Off-Base

July 4th, Independence Day here in the US, is a week and a bit behind us, but you wouldn’t it know by my neighbors, still shooting off fireworks. Every time I hear one I (wince, and thank the rains for staying late this year, and) get some or other national song stuck in my head. Today, amusingly, it’s O, Canada. A couple of days ago it was The Star Spangled Banner. I mean, of course.

I think about my relationship with ‘America’ pretty often. Now—when quite a lot of that is going on, among rather a greater proportion of Americans than usual—seems like a good time to share some of that reflection.

Off-Base was printed last summer in The Hopper, a fine magazine, and a tactile pleasure, too. You couldn’t read it online at the time.

____________________

Off-Base

This beach is a susurrus of shorebirds. After half a week on this temperate coast in the waning days of winter, the finely grained diversities of wing delight and delude me. They seem vast and billowing, clouds upon the sand. 

Their numbers are small, compared to the massive musters before some of our own species’ worst inventions—habitat theft, massive water pollution—began to show their colors. My shifted baseline lets me see the flocks as great, and I walk among them humbled. It’s an individual blessing as much as a general curse. 

It’s hard to get lost out here: Point Loma to the west, Tijuana south, one long stretch of curving flat sand, several visible sections of which belong to the US military. I rather miss the quickened breath of uncertain direction, the apprehension of mystery that comes with the unmaking of name and landmark, the erasure of empire. 

Yesterday the birds failed to startle as I stepped between two feeding flocks. Close enough to appreciate the overlap of individual feathers, close enough to peer toward dark liquid eyes, I stopped, and meant to settle to the sand. 

Birds in flocks—like fish in schools—respond minutely to the cues of their neighbor, and the results include what happened just then: everyone took off at once. If they had been two flocks, they were one in that moment, and winging so intensely to left and right and above me that I wondered why I had not also flown. Seafoam rushed in, seconds later, sliding the sand out from beneath my soles. I fell to my knees, glad for the direction of dirt. 

***

But mostly the birds allow me to observe from a modest distance. Sometimes they’re throwing multi-family feasts, all you can catch. Sometimes they keep to themselves. I quite understand the desire for both at once. If I don’t yet comprehend the fine distinctions between a whimbrel and a dowitcher and a godwit, fellow-feeling is enough.

The plovers, though! An easy ID, and a special case, for the same reason kittens and babies are universally adored. These tiny gray-and-white puffs sport huge black eyes, inked-on eyestripes, and cartoonishly quick legs. They’re perpetually in motion, striking the wet sand with their small neat beaks like black lightning. Very soon now they’ll start to nest, choosing a shallow scrape in the sand by rules we can’t control. Their internal guidance routinely ignores human habits. Their perfect scrape might be, for example, a day-old footprint on a heavily trafficked beach.

Snowy plover nesting grounds are protected here on the base at Naval Air Station North Island. A section of beach is roped off and signed: no dogs or humans allowed. It’s immediately next to another don’t-tread-on-me zone—this one warns of live rounds firing. 

Burrowing owls claim homes here too, in the sandy tangle of low-slung weeds across the access road. They are also protected, by the dubious virtue of living on a radar range. Humans are advised not to wander here either, so I’ve stood my hopeful watch each day on the tarmac, pacing awhile and then sitting a spell, and finally giving up to try later. The owls are meant to be diurnal, and the few left in San Diego County stay year-round. Though I am here for them, I’m pleased with their indifference. They are not here for me. 

There are no owls in sound or sight again this morning. I walked out to the waves instead, through zipping plovers and the daily 0800-hours strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Which feels . . . complicated. 

I’ve spent my whole life on and off military bases. They’re a comfortable species of home, for nomads like me, raised in regular migration from one to another. And they are one of our cultural blind spots, a fine place to observe our awkward attempts at balance. Our half-truths, too, and our outright lies. This place, for example: what a beautiful landscape, uncluttered by high-rise condos and expensive resorts. And it’s offering legal protection, to particular migrants and natives alike, who share this land.

Note that modifier, though. Because the range of folks, human and non, of which this place approves is not a broad one. Whatever beauties, diversities, and rarities abide, the base’s purpose tolerates theirs, at best. Owls, plovers, the American taxpayer, the echoes of native humans who sing the things I love with different notes: all are subordinate here, to the great and terrible beauty of Our Purpose. Which doesn’t share, not if you expect to be equally regarded. Chances are, “our” doesn’t even include you. The central problem should be as easy as the plovers to pick out: we think we own all this. 

And we rank our right to own and use above all else. We expect the land and sea, and humanity, to treat whatever bargains we’ve imposed as fair. Experience and compassion both teach that our supremacy is a damaging untruth. Meanwhile, my heart swells at the rockets’ red glare. 

Some people pray every morning. I know a few who meditate. I have to be prompted to do anything so mindful on a schedule. So I’m grateful to the distant loudspeaker, for tangling me daily in the messy soul-business of colonial culture. And for gifting this to me as a practice, rather than an ambush. Most of the time, it’s my dubious privilege to forget. The road to hell is paved with such forgettings, with willful blindnesses and righteously offended ears. 

Understand, I do not speak of some imagined eternal fate.

***

Damp sand, recently deserted by breakers, lies strewn with gifts. Thumbnail-sized shells in ice-cream-cone swirls, jet-black scalloped ones, whole sand dollars still furred with recent life. I made my beach offering thinking of nothing but this, as is proper. 

It’s not a picture, exactly, though it involves the visually pleasing arrangement of found elements. It’s a tribute to impermanence, I guess. On every beach I wander, even if it’s the same one every day, I find what I find, and then I give it back, as a piece of human art sourced in the generosity of ocean. It’s possible no one else will see it before the certain reclamation.

I have been walking barefoot here for days—a thing my feet mostly do not tolerate, and I deeply miss. But sand is so forgiving. I’ve let my long hair down to sway in the slight salt breeze. The feeling altogether is near to mythological. I am kin to ancient beings of salt and seaweed, or ripple-haired heroines of nearer-term song and story. Or possibly just myself at an age when such comparisons came without embarrassment. I wasn’t rational then, and it’s a delight to reclaim my wild romanticism now, here in this place that knows, beneath the boots and the patriotism, what it’s always been. 

Back indoors, of course, I need a comb. That’s wind and salt for you. I sit in front of the infinity mirror and imagine those shadows curving away behind my own reflection. 

The ancient one does not need to see herself from the outside. She glances at the comb with interest, lets it lie. Order and shelter are not her elements. She collects a shawl of mist and wanders back to the sea. 

The heroine is briefly surprised at the quality of her reflection. She sets to work grimly picking out the tangles, but the temptation is strong to cut her storied locks right off. She grumbles this to my flax-haired younger self, who stores it thoughtfully for later and takes her comb away, in search of our mother. 

In the body I know, I lay my comb aside, and lie on the bed with the breeze astir through the wooden blinds. I float awhile, on the sound of surf and shorebirds, on the anchoring cry of the buoy in the harbor mouth. On the complex knowledge that I do not own this place, its other creatures. And that, also, this place is mine—through privilege, luck, and temporary sufferance—and I must wrestle all of those things, together with the rest of my species, to find the way forward.

I float, too, on the fear and the hope that nothing beyond this moment can be expected. And in this moment all I am is home.

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