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The Beauty-Death Transaction

Crazy gorgeousness, check. At Duxbury Reef in Bolinas early yesterday morning, a super low tide pulled back the covers not only on all those squirmers and clingers making colorful hay in the kelp, but revealed the geological formation that makes this reef the biggest rocky intertidal in the West. Duxbury is right at the conjunction of two major plates, the Pacific and the North American. You can visibly see where one big time-frame era is laid against another. The reef parallels crumbling cliffs like a double hem stitching the edge of the landscape.

But my mind wasn’t blown until about midday, on my way home. My friend Diane had alerted me that “the egrets are back” at Audubon Canyon Ranch, and I stopped by to look at two species of these prehistoric white birds building nests in trees, some of them already sitting on eggs that will hatch around Mother’s Day. On my way up the short loop to the main observing spot, I stopped at a lookout over Bolinas Lagoon. The low tide made it a mud flat. The docent offered me a telescope and a look at an unusual grebe. “But what’s that there?” I said. It looked like two deer were mucking about at the shore, but something was not quite right. I picked up a pair of binoculars. A small female deer was wobbling around with a bloody haunch. Her companion was not another deer.

It took a few minutes to register what I was seeing. The doe – no antlers or antler buds on the head — was clearly injured but didn’t otherwise look discomfited. The other animal was a few feet away, worrying something in the grass, or eating. Ah yes, eating. The doe took a few steps to the left. And a fluffy coyote lifted its head and took a lunge at her – straight at her bloody wound. The deer seemed tolerant. I began to obsessively anthropomorphize — any way to try to grasp the situation. The coyote was like a fussy art director, or a mother herding kids in a parking lot, or a police officer keeping a crowd in line, taking a moment here or there to keep the doe within its control but then with seeming nonchalance, stepping away to chew more thoroughly.

The docent was soon transfixed as well. “I’m a writer,” I told him. “I just spent a couple of years in all these wild places in the Rockies and never once saw a big predator take down a big prey. It’s so weird that I’m seeing this right here on the lagoon!” In the not too far distance, a big sand bar was ringed with sunning black ellipses – seals – punctuated regularly by little black commas – their young. The way they curved and the way the sand bar curved was just like the way the reef and the cliffs curved. Nature has its patterns and its processes — and predation is one of the prime-movers of all that we see.

I continued on the trail to watch the egrets. There were plenty of them, snowy egrets and great egrets, doing their plumage showing, rearranging the twigs in their nests. Another docent said, “the males and the females spend equal time sitting on the eggs. They share all the household duties.” The egrets are so pure white, their feathers so soft and luminous against the dark redwood branches, it cooled my mind to watch them. Until I remembered that when the chicks hatch, mom and dad will look on while the two biggest siblings kick the smallest hatchling out of the nest. Family systems theory, anyone?

I swung by to check on the doe-coyote drama below. The doe was dead, a turkey vulture having at it. “A man got out of a car to see what was going on,” the docent told me. “The coyote scooted away.” The docent then went on to tell me the deer had gotten stuck out in the mud flats earlier in the day and a sheriff and humane officer had lifted her out on a canvas tarp, depositing her safely on land, so they thought. He told me it was likely the coyote had chased her into the mud to begin with, but the officers hadn’t known about that. He shook his head at nature red in tooth and claw and remarked that even the benign looking seals herd fish up onto the mud where they can’t get away. All very interesting but this docent’s powers of observation soon came into question. “There was a writer here today,” he told me. “She’s been all over the Rockies and never seen anything like this.” “Is that so?” I said. One last look before I got into my car and back to San Francisco – the coyote had returned to the scene. Evidently better than the docent at paying attention.

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