Column: Birds in flight raise human envy

MARQUETTE — When I watch the graceful flight of birds, especially large birds, like cranes and egrets or hawks and eagles, it’s like getting a view into the mind of creation.

I don’t see all the moving parts backstage, the things pulling, pushing, moving and lifting – rarely do I ever consider that, it’s all so technical, mathematical, scientific.

Instead, I see the exquisite art, detail and poetry in the movement – the grace, wonder and precision, all in full and final demonstration, exposing within the spark of those moments the soul of the universe before my eyes.

I don’t see the mixing, containment and packing of the powders or the entwining of the fuse cord, I see the fireworks – dazzling, bright and magnificent – those images, complete and unforgettable, like shimmering, fading starfish against an ebony sea floor.

For humankind, flight in its purest sense remains elusive.

From doomed Icarus and the genius DaVinci to Amelia Earhart, the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes, D.B. Cooper and even Leslie Nielsen and Evel Knievel, all have experimented in some sense – and to varying degrees of success – with flight.

Our human brains have enabled us to mechanically adapt and develop capsules and fuselages, jet packs and parakites to mimic the birds, but we remain jealous imitators.

Be that as it may, I don’t fly so much that I don’t enjoy it or lose my fascination with being “way, way up in the sky,” as we used to say as little kids.

And like those who love trains often like train songs, those who like to fly often love plane songs. I realized this was true of myself a few days ago as I sat leaning back in my chair, with a window on the world, at 37,000 feet above the New Mexican desert.

I was flying back from joining other family to see my youngest son hooded for his doctoral degree in earth and environmental science. There were plenty of lyrics popping in and out of my head. I didn’t need earbuds or a headset to hear them.

On the way the paper bag was on my knee, man, I had a dreadful flight…

I snapped pictures down toward the ground from my thick, little airplane window, while those aeronautical-themed tunes kept playing in my mind.

A stewardess in a miniskirt, hippie in a leather shirt; started on the way to Naples Row…

New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearned for you; Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge…

During my short stay, with lots to do, there hadn’t been all that much time to enjoy watching wildlife. But when we temporarily took a wrong turn down a dusty dirt road, the desert exploded in birds – so many old, dear friends I hadn’t seen in such a long time flew up to say hello.

In the span of just a few seconds, I saw gorgeous Bullock’s orioles, a brightly marked Gambel’s quail sitting on a fence rail and a graceful Cassin’s kingbird, with its lemony yellow breast. Later in the day, I’d see black-billed magpies, flying across a field, a Say’s phoebe, with its cinnamon-colored breast, northern mockingbirds and white-winged doves.

My son sat in the front row at graduation, while his girlfriend – a native New Mexican – neared the stage to get her master’s degree in environmental engineering. There was a sweet stolen moment I got to see when she blew him a kiss before her name was called.

I was stunned to realize how the years had flown by.

I clearly remember those old days when the graduate and his older brother – a fine success and father of my beautiful, little granddaughter – would come from California and play horseshoes or football with me and my brother in the backyard at the lake house.

Dad was alive back then.

Of course, there were also those now almost prehistoric times when the boys were so young, but old enough to play “Shawl of Death” or “Football on Our Knees” – the latter a game my brother and I had mastered on the hardwood floors of our dining room at home when we were that age.

We’d tackle each other into the sharp-cornered secretariat, the wooden chair or the colonial-styled dining table and chairs.

I must have learned something. When I taught my kids to play it, we instead lined up on the big, soft bed or the carpeted floor in the living room.

“Shawl of Death” amounted to a pillow fight with the combatants taking turns wearing a blanket over their head to be pummeled by the other participants.

It sounds bizarre, but kids love this game.

Both boys were at the commencement with their mother, grandmother, aunt and more relations from Texas, California, Illinois and Michigan. I think it felt good for all of us to be together again to celebrate the graduation and, in a greater sense – life.

I saw the consolation in my boys’ eyes seeing mom and dad smiling and talking again.

The commencement speaker was Harrison Hagen Schmitt, who is a geologist, the first scientist in space, and one of only a dozen men to walk on the moon. His reflections on collecting rocks from the lunar surface, in a canyon with walls thousands of feet high, sparked my imagination.

He was Apollo 17’s Lunar Module pilot, landing in the moon’s Valley of Taurus-Littrow in December 1972. He said the constant black sky up there is difficult to adjust to. His words were likely one of the big reasons I was preoccupied with flying on the trip home.

Back in the skies, above the clouds, I watched a rainstorm dump onto the brown earth below me, the big caldron of white clouds spun and swirled around like blueberry juice stirred into vanilla ice cream.

The music in my head played on.

Workin’ on a T-bone steak a la carte flying over to the Golden State, when the pilot told us in thirteen minutes, we’d be headin’ in the terminal gate…

At one point, I looked down to see cul-de-sacs looped at the end of thin, gray graveled roads, looking like eyes and narrow-boned arms carved into the olive-green landscape, like the geoglyphs on the Nazca Desert of Peru – a la Erich von Danikan’s Chariots of the Gods?

Chicago looked gray, even with the sun shining. It wasn’t too much longer, and I was coasting over Lake Michigan, following the shoreline north toward home. The music was still playing on my 8-track mind, stuck on Susan Raye – L.A. International Airport.

With silver wings across the sky, vapor trails that wave goodbye to those below who’ve got to stay at home; captain’s voice so loud and clear amplifies into my ear

assuring me I’m flying friendly skies…

Down below were the familiar Upper Peninsula pine forests, cold black streams, sundew cranberry bogs, yellow fields, the old mining towns and the day’s fading sunlight bathing the rugged landscape in a soft amber glow. The sky was blue, the air was crisp.

I stepped off the airplane one rung higher on the ladder – still soaring on a real good feeling I’d welcome to hang around for a long time to come.

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John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.


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