Bailey Anderson, Central College, Nature Writing and Environmental Literature service-learning student, with Marla Mertz, Marion County Conservation
Bailey Anderson spent some time in the Fall Semester of 2015 logging her service learning hours for her Nature Writing and Environmental Literature class with Marion County Conservation naturalist. Below is her final essay for her class, interspersed with more detail of Bailey's majestic and almost mythical pelican.
“Let a squadron of southbound pelicans but feel a lift of prairie breeze...and they sense at once that here is a landing in the geological past, a refuge from that most relentless aggressors, the future. With queer antediluvian grunts, they set wing, descending in majestic spirals to the welcoming wastes of a bygone age.” ~Aldo Leopold
My worn copy of Life of Pi flies from my hands and onto the floor of my parents’ Hyundai. For a minute the inertia of my father’s unexpected brake on US 218 pulls my whole body forward. I hold onto the passenger’s seat in front of me to keep from being flung and jabbing my mother in the back with my knees. My father exclaims, “Look over there!”
As I pick up my book and grumble a little about losing my page, my eyes follow Dad’s forearm, tanned to the point where I imagined his skin to be bulletproof, down to his index finger pointing out the window toward a family of deer dashing from the road back to their wooded home. Fascinated, my father watches them as they flee from the burden of human civilization, noting aloud two fawns, a doe, and a buck. When they disappear beneath the trees leaving only their tracks and a memory, my father begins to accelerate again.
Ever since I was little, my father has fearlessly slowed down on the highway to gesture toward deer escaping into a cornfield or wood, his eyes wide but completely focused on the creatures. I’ve never been quite sure where his intense love for deer came from, but I always assumed it was a byproduct of his love for hunting.
My father’s love for hunting was impossible to ignore: mounted deer heads above the stairwell with cold marble eyes; displays of antlers lining the walls of the basement; picture frames holding numerous photos of my father kneeling with his hair in various stages of age, grinning from underneath a blaze orange stocking cap behind a deer with captions like “Muzzle-loader 2002” and “Bow season 2004”. On Saturday mornings, it was natural to turn on Hannah Montana and find my father absent. “Did he go hunting today?” I’d ask my mother between bites of Fruity Pebbles, although I knew the answer already. Still, she didn’t even look up from her book as she shrugged and said “Yep. Won’t be back ‘til dark.”
His passion for hunting was the clearest explanation for a fascination with deer so strong it blinded him to everything else and made him slow from 70 to 45 mph, just to take in as much of it as he could.
I treated walking through the woods like a treasure hunt, my eyes always pointed toward the ground searching for the tracks of a deer. If I could have crawled through the mud to look for them, I would have, but Mom wouldn’t be happy if I came back with mud all over my pants. Instead I squinted toward the ground, searching for what looked like two raindrops resting together, and if the deer was in a hurry, two droplets trailing behind them.
I learned what deer tracks looked like in day-camp, and dreamed of seeing a deer up close ever since. With a yellow raincoat swishing with every step I took and blue sneakers squishing into the thick mud, I ventured out to explore. Maybe today could be the day I would see one of those elusive creatures Dad loved so much.
When I finally found a hoof-print, I knelt down, careful not to get dirty, and put my face as close to the mud as I could without toppling over. “Deer tracks!” I called over my shoulder to my older sister, trailing behind me for once.
Enchanted with knowing the deer could be close, even watching me right now, I found the next print, and the next, following them until Chelsea grabbed my arm in an act of supervision. She smiled at me from beneath her dark brown hair, grown almost down to her waist and swallowed in a teal jacket from her junior high softball league. “You’ll get itchy if you go in there.” She pointed into the thick woods where the tracks led away from the neatly mown trail, woods which also happened to be crawling with poison ivy. “Three leaves, let it be. Remember?”
I remembered. I was itchy just thinking about it. I nodded up at my sister and let her lead me away from the tracks, the woods, and the deer I imagined lay within them, with coarse fur the color of a paper lunch sack and muddy hooves, ears cocked to the sound of my rustling, the sound of Chelsea’s voice.
Maybe deer aren’t meant to be seen in any other circumstance than through a car window, or in a picture mounted on the wall.
Iowa is defined by destroyed landscapes, but for me Marion County is defined by restored ones. Before Highway G28 became dotted with county parks, a lake, and restored prairies, it was dotted with small railroad towns, bearing the same names as the parks that now take their place (Rural History Buffs of Marion County). A fair trade, if you ask me. Cordova Park, which once held a small town whose population in the 50s totaled 17 people and which disappeared completely in the 60s, is now 1100 acres of woods, water, cliffs, and seasonally at least, the American white pelican (Heusinkveld).
The first time I met with the Marion County’s naturalist, Marla Mertz, she told me some vagrant pelicans stay in Marion County all winter, while others stop on the way to the coast. Although it’s unusual for pelicans to stray from their flocks, it isn’t unheard of, and it’s not like we don’t love to have them. “They didn’t always pay us a visit,” Marla explained, “but now that they have trees and the lake provides them with enough food for the winter, some of them just stay here until spring. They haven’t migrated here yet this year, but they will soon.”
Gladys Black often commented that the pelican is “one of the oddest and one of the oldest birds on earth, a bird of great antiquity.” Fossil records indicate that the pelican is approximately 30 million years. Many of our past authors, who were forward thinking pioneers, referenced the pelicans. Roger Tory Peterson used the white pelican on the cover of Audubon’s greatest bird drawings and Aldo Leopold referenced pelicans in his writings of “A Sand County Almanac.” It has been evident that certain individuals have had a strong connection to this once scarce bird.
The last time they’d nested in the area was in the 1880s, and even though most of the human inhabitants had forgotten that fact, the pelicans hadn’t (Schlarbaum). As soon as the land could provide for them again, thanks to Marion County Conservation, they came right back as if they had never left. Instincts are irresistible, timeless.
What is it about these birds? Has literature taught me to revel in the purity of their whiteness, or has Finding Nemo taught me that pelicans are loveable and goofy, tropical and unattainable? Whatever it was, I itched to see them in person.
These water loving birds are one of the largest birds in North America boasting a 9-foot wingspan, with a long orange bill, legs, and feet. American white pelicans are related to the ocean loving brown pelicans, similar in looks, but quite different in their habits. The spring and fall migration brings a “white bird celebration” here at Lake Red Rock, as well as other reservoirs and wetlands within the state. Gizzard shad is a favorite food and if you have the grand opportunity of watching these birds in their feeding groups floating atop the water, they simply dip their head below the surface trolling for schools of fish using their feet and wings to corral their quarry, herding them by eliminating an escape route. In comparison, their brown cousins dive for fish from as high as sixty feet in the air providing acrobatic displays.
Every Friday at 3, I pulled my danger-red Pontiac Vibe into Cordova Park, hoping for Marla to tell me the pelicans had finally arrived.
The anticipation ate at me and hope fluttered in my chest. Every day my car and I puttered into the park, I got the same feeling I always got when I ventured outside to hunt for deer tracks in my plastic coat and canvas shoes: Maybe today is the day.
I pulled into the driveway of our neatly sided house with a brick porch, the headlights of my little Pontiac swinging out in front of me as I parked it outside, cutting the engine and the lights and walking toward the front door. I was coming home from work at the public library in town, 10 miles from where I lived, and was still singing “All I Do is Dream of You” softly to myself as my grey Converse sneakers padded through the lawn. Darkness settled into every spare corner, but the security light blared above my head, cutting through the cloudiness of night.
Suddenly, I stopped as a herd of deer dashed into the yard toward me, veering sharply as one unit. One deer broke away from the group, stopping to stare into my eyes. My breath caught in my throat and I held it there, convinced that any noise would startle her. Her tawny coat glistened underneath the LED security light and she stared at me intently, her eyes cold but alive, so unlike the eyes of the stuffed deer above the stairwell. Her lean body, skinny legs, and slender neck stiffened as she stared, frozen just like I was, both of us filled with a healthy fear of the other. Time stood still. Crickets trilled and bullfrogs grunted in the distance, but all I could hear was the desperate pounding of my heart and the blood rushing through my ears. My brain didn’t believe what my eyes were validating.
Turning her ears toward the rest of the herd and then cocking her head toward them, she scampered across the road leaving me to stare after her, still frozen, until my parents pulled into the driveway.
I still didn’t quite understand where my dad’s love of deer came from, even though I was exhilarated in seeing one up close, but as I recounted the story to them, I could have sworn I heard the swish of a plastic raincoat, the squish of my blue sneakers in the mud.
Chlorophyll had just begun to drain out of the leaves of the trees lining Highway G28 on the way to Cordova Park, my drive splashed with the beginnings of fall yellows and reds. But it wasn’t the colors that made me brake while passing through Marina Cove, another roadside park centered around Lake Red Rock. It was the pelicans.
Fall brings first-year pelicans and non-breeding birds on their migration to the winter feeding grounds in the latter part of September. The young begin their migratory journey on their own, as the adults will follow in October and early November. Spring migration brings breeding adults back to Iowa in their fanciful plumes, nuptial tubercles (the bump on the upper portion of the bill), and even more vivid oranges and yellow eye rings. Adults begin their migration to their northern breeding grounds where they will nest in colonies on sandbars, islands, and peninsulas. White pelicans have not nested in Iowa since the late 1800s, until a recent nesting colony produced young upriver from Clinton, Iowa and continued to return to the area for breeding.
Even if I hadn’t already been looking for them every time I passed the lake, they would have been impossible to miss as they shimmered in harmony with the water, glimmering under the smoky sunlight of autumn. Their white bodies huddled together, their wings tipped black, gliding as one across the water, pushing the fish under the surface to help their hunting. The clever birds weren’t nicknamed “The Herding Pelican” for nothing (Pete Dunne). Some members of the flock clustered together, dunking their heads under the water, their webbed feet kicking the air as they dove for food. Their bright orange bills had the signature pocket and their slender necks were pushed back against their bodies, folded into a neat little package on the water. From my vantage point, it was hard to believe their wingspan as adults was approximately 8 feet, maybe even 9 (Birds of North America).
Although I knew they were tremendous birds, I had an idiotic urge to pick one up and cradle it against my chest like a squalling baby. But I knew better than that. Wild animals, especially an animal so beautifully powerful, are to be observed, not touched, and certainly not cradled.
A perfect combination of grace and dominance, they flew over the roof of my car, and I threw open the sunroof, unwilling to let them out of my sight for a moment. As they rested on the gentle waves of the lake, their pocketed throats rested against their lean necks in demure modesty. In the air, however, their head was held high, their bill parallel to the ground, their necks curled against their back. They rode the currents of the wind and flexed their immense wings expertly, an instinct they owed to their antiquity. They flew with gentle dignity. Yet, when they travelled on foot, with short legs, heavy webbed feet that smacked the ground with each step, and a protruding breast, I couldn’t help but sense confidence from them. Prehistoric in appearance, if I hadn’t known before, I knew now: these birds had defied time itself. They emanated experience.
I’d never seen so many birds in one place. They moved on the water and with the water, melding with it. At first glance it was impossible to set the pelicans apart from the water on the lake and the lake from the icy blue sky. With the stunning singularity of nature, I found myself slowing to a crawl on the highway to watch them for as long as I could, hoping Marla and I would make a trip to see them because at last they were here. Even as I kept driving, accelerating once more toward Cordova Park, I knew: I could have watched them forever. I finally understood the gleam in my father’s eye on the interstate.
It was the same gleam I had when Marla handed me the binoculars so I could see the birds without disturbing them, and every time I saw the pelicans after that. Whenever I saw them, whether they were corralling fish, turning upside-down to scoop them up, or soaring silently above the water, showing off the trailing edge of their wings, I felt the same: in awe of nature, but at the same time deeply rooted in nature myself. It was a lightness in my chest, a spring to my step, and a twinkle in my eye.
It was the very thing Dad felt the first time he saw a deer in the wild, and what he felt every time he glimpsed one springing up from a swaying cornfield on the side of the road. It was an appreciation that came from a completely different place in his heart, one I’d never realized until now. I saw it necessary to split my father’s relationship with nature into two distinctive categories: Dad the Hunter and Dad the Disciple of Nature. The admiration from the latter was the reason he slowed down on the interstate, the reason I lost my page in Life of Pi, the reason I spent all those years searching for hoof prints in the mud.
I couldn’t understand my father’s love for nature by stealing and contorting his love for deer. My admiration for nature had to come from myself, not from my father or day camp, or even from Marla Mertz. They all wanted to foster an appreciation for the majesty of nature, but it’s not something anyone can do for me. All it took was a pair of open eyes, and a few thousand pelicans.
Here are photos of pelicans in Google Photos that helped helped open Bailey's eyes to the majesty of nature!
The realization, the reverence: it was worth the wait. Majesty!
Learn more about pelicans here:
Works Cited, B. Anderson
“American White Pelican.” Birds of North America: The Complete Photographic Guide to Every Species. 1st edition. 2009. Print.
“American White Pelican.” Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds. 1st edition. 2006. Print.
Heusinkveld, Harriet, ed. The Best of Grace Karr’s Cordova News. Pella: Pella Printing Co, 1991. Print.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949. Print.
Rural History Buffs of Marion County. The Lost Towns under Lake Red Rock. Knoxville: Marion County Conservation. Web.
Schlarbaum, Pat. “Pelicans.” Message to non-game wildlife technician, IDNR. 9 Nov 2015. E-mail.