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Mothers of Nature

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
May 29, 2013

When I arrived at the beach today, the two-week-old monk seal pup was wiggling around its mother's snoozing head at the waterline. Within minutes, it, too, settled in for a nap, as the incoming tide cooled the lower halves of their bodies.

A Swiss couple stopped to chat, delight and wonder bouncing around in their blue eyes. Do they birth on the beach? Yes. Is it always just one pup? Yes. (Well, except for that rare birth of twins years ago.) What do you mean mom doesn't eat for five to seven weeks? And you're saying when she leaves the pup, it's on its own? For good?

I almost forget how much these critters amaze me--until I sit with a mom and her pup. As I wrote in an essay I may submit to the New York Times in response to their recent cover story on some monk seal killings, the mother's commitment to her offspring gets me in a way I cannot explain. 

When it comes to mothers, we understand a human mother's devotion to her children. We get when she finds some inner strength to lift a car off her pinned child. Or when she works three jobs to make sure her kid gets a college education. We expect human mothers to have this kind of devotion. 

Hawaiian monk seals arrived in Hawaii, most likely from the Caribbean through a watery passage that existed between North and South America some 11 to 13 million years ago. Once they found these specks of islands in the middle of the Pacific, they adapted to their new home in some way that made them unique from their now-extinct cousins that used to swim the Caribbean. The Hawaiian Monk Seal quickly got comfortable with their new digs and stopped adapting. Now, they are often called a "living fossil," because their biology hasn't really changed in millions of years.

As I sat with Kauai's newest Hawaiian monk seal pup yesterday, I watched as a man dressed in tribal tattoos from his thigh to his neck snapped a few photos with a point-and-shoot camera. I watched as another man, wearing socks and running shoes on the beach, captured his images with the help of a super telephoto lens. And I started a new book--The View from Lazy Point by Carl Safina.

Why is it life seems to overlap, at times, like the folds of a flaky croissant, the bits and pieces of the various compartments of my day falling in on each other in seemingly random and yet orchestrated ways?

By that I am talking about change. Here I was looking an animal that had changed very little over a great length of time, as I read Carl--may I call him Carl--talk about how little our basic human assumptions/values had changed over time.

I love starting a book and knowing within the first few paragraphs that I am going to treasure it. In this one, Carl opens with:

I slide a fishing rod into my kayak as birds begin gathering over our bay. They know what's coming. So do I. On many summer afternoons, packs of surfacing Bluefish chase up small fish, drawing excited flocks of diving terns. The terns carry those little fish a few miles to hungry youngsters waiting eagerly on small, unpeopled islands. As it has been for millennia, so it is this very moment.

Even though there is current debate about how long Hawaiian monk seals have populated the shores of the main Hawaiian Islands, new science is revealing evidence of the monk seal in the Hawaiian language—in place names, as well as inclusion in the Kumulipo, a Hawaiian creation chant, and Kumu Honua, a genealogy chant. Monk seals are listed in some of the earliest Hawaiian dictionaries. There are families who claim the monk seal as ‘aumakua—family guardians. And there are archaeological remains dating hundreds of years old of monk seals in three locations across the main Hawaiian Islands.

Why this spot? my inquisitive visitors asked. You mean the mother was born here? But spent her last few years on Oahu? It seems some homing device in these female seals sometimes brings them back—from a hundred miles away—to give birth in the same place where they were born. Maybe it has something to do with the geography of the beach—its off-shore reef protects mother and pup from predatory sharks and pounding surf, giving the youngster time to learn to swim and forage.

This is not a new scene I witnessed. Female Hawaiian monk seals have pupped here before. Long before I arrived in Hawaii. Long before humans of any kind. And I wouldn't be surprised if they have done so on this very stretch of coastline.

As it has been for millennia, so it is this very moment.

It was a blue sky and sunny kind of day. Steady trade winds made everything pleasant, for pup and me. Around 4:00, pup woke and got mouthy, exposing a startling pink mouth. Mom lifted her enormous head and turned to look at her offspring—her very first—tucked along her flank. She rolled to the water like a log going downhill. Pup followed and swam circles around mom, never failing to have some part of his body touching hers. After 20 minutes, the two galumphed back on shore. Pup opened his pink mouth again and growled—more of a deep, guttural yawn than a growl—and mom responded by rolling to her side, so pup could nurse. By 4:45, the two were sleeping again, and I went back to reading my book.

I first “met” Carl Safina five years ago, when I was stationed at Midway helping compile census data on Laysan albatross. At night, I read his book, Eye of the Albatross. For those of us fascinated by albatrosses, this is the bible. As a docent at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, where Laysan albatrosses nest, I have recommended his book dozens of times. It won the John Burroughs Medal for the year’s best book about the natural world and was chosen by the National Academics of Science, Engineering and Medicine as the Year’s Best Book for Communicating Science. 

Other books of Carl’s have been chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a Los Angeles Times Best Nonfiction selection. The View from Lazy Point garnered him a Guggenheim Fellowship.

The New York Post calls Carl “a Thoreau for the twenty-first century.” 

So, as you can see, Carl Safina a big-deal, fancy-pants writer.

Here’s where that flaky croissant of life folds in on itself again: Next January, I will attend a writers’ conference with the great Carl Safina. And for a girl (well, a middle-aged one) who frequently writes on the topic of science and nature, this is like meeting a rock star. He’s my Beatle. My Mick Jagger. My Hemingway. 

I’ve already started formulating my questions for Carl: how does a writer communicate the awe and beauty of nature and our need to conserve it like a ferocious mother protects her child without ranting and without sounding righteous?

And when I have this conversation with Carl, I’ll try not to scream.

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