Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Pelican and Sardine Mandala

Perhaps I’ll start a personal tradition where I conjure up a new mandala each summer. Last August it came out of a cave in Mendocino. This July 3 it arrived off Pismo Beach pier. Coming down from Berkeley, where we visited our daughter, we were susceptible to suggestive elements, at least I was. Berekely is such a suggestive place anyway, where one minute you’ll be stunned by a giant redwood lurching up from someone’s tiny front yard and the next brought up short by a mad woman’s eyes. Berkeley is what Frank Lloyd Wright meant when he said L.A. is what you’d get if you tipped the nation to the left and all the loose pieces fell to the West Coast. I'd add that the pieces that couldn’t fit in L.A. would gravitate to Berkeley. So, to continue, once we were past San Jose on the drive south down the 101, the radio became dominated by rural California, with ads for “big” events in small cities, often involving cars. The biggest event, mentioned by the most stations, was the Fourth of July Fireworks at the Pismo Beach Pier, the following night. By the time we had dragged ourselves through the hot and featureless Salinas Valley (apologies to Steinbeck- our view was limited to the 101) the promise of sea breezes was irresistible, so we headed into Pismo.

Many blocks of motels surround the central city, some old, some new. The two short blocks of “downtown” had retained the charm I recalled from college days, with old two-story brick buildings and a carney atmosphere, though the old roller rink had been carved up into trendy shops. In a wink we were at the pier, and wonderful cool ocean air pummeled us. As we sauntered forth, we saw two novel sights: An evangelical group giving out free water bottles (which we gratefully drank)while proclaiming the end, and thousands of brown pelicans, wheeling in the sky, diving in groups, sitting placidly on the soft waves, and squabbling with sea gulls. The pelican crowd extended for hundreds of yards on either side of the pier. There was a variety of comment from the fishers as we walked. One woman said, “ They’ve got the whole ocean and they have to mess around here!” One was telling his partner how his fishing line had got caught around a pelican’s neck, and he had to cut the line. I found a spot next to an ol’ timer, who told me he had never seen so many pelicans together before. I searched my mind for references, perhaps in the Book of Revelations, to giant flocks of pelicans (“…and they shall fill their pouches with the fish of the sea and the sea shall become bereft therof…”?) but nothing came to mind. Then the ol’timer pointed out a cylindrical dark mass in the water, about three or four feet below the surface: sardines! I had to squint, but the dark mass slowly resolved itself into myraid black pencils, seemingly frozen in place, not even revolving slowly as they do in aquariums. I began a serious study of the hunting habits of pelicans. They like to dive in groups of three or more. Pelicans are known to herd fish into position for feeding, and they seemed to have done this, with the sardines backed up against the pilings. After most dives the pelicans surfaced with distended pouches which shimmered and vibrated from the death throes within. One bird had holes in its pouch, and sardine tails wiggled furiously out of them. The pelicans waited patiently for the fish to drown in the air, then gulped them down whole. Seagulls, unable to dive, grabbed sardines from the mouths of pelicans and darted furiously about to rob each other. The ol’timer told me that the fishermen on the pier were after "smackle"- mackerel- who swam beneath the layer of sardines. He showed me a few of his smackle, about a pound each. They looked tasty.

Then it hit me, my mandala. The pelicans whirling in formation above, diving for the sardines, snatching the life from them, as people reached through the pattern to snatch the life from the smackle on the other side. The hand of the universe feeding itself, eating itself. The picture of predation. Familiar thoughts and questions arose from the unfamiliar mandala. We call the predatory arrangement of our world a “food chain.” Why, in this chain, are the predators considered to be at the top? It’s all about energy transfer- molecules held together in unsteady formations, ready at the proper nudge to erupt in life giving rays. Would not the creatures at the top of the chain be those with the most direct access to this energy? That would be the plants, who merely bathe in manna pouring down endlessley from the sun. Herbivores come next, unable to absorb the photonic manna, but priveledged to munch it second hand from quiescent plants. The predators are the outcasts, the lowest: latecomers who can’t get any manna from light or plants, forced to steal it violently from herbivores who yield it most unwillingly. Yes, the predators are clever, for they have to steal and get away with it, but they were not clever to be predators in the first place.

As the mandala massaged my thoughts another old question surfaced: Why is there predation? It doesn’t seem particularly efficient, and it fills our world with vast amounts of terror and pain. Why didn't the biosphere evolve a system of peaceful energy transfers, where photosynthesizing plankton recombine and morph into sardines, which blossom into pelicans, while the smackle jump for joy onto the beach to become men and women. Of course, without the predatory tradition so prominent in human evolution, the smackle people would not say things like “Let's barbecue us some hippies!” but would rather gaze around, amazed at the turning of the world and the stars overhead.

Lest I should ever again be possessed of the urge to run for office, let me emphasize that I do not think the human race is in a postion, either philosophically or practically, to engineer an end to predation- just the mention of the idea here has no doubt already limited my options to Dogcatcher of Berkeley, if that. But can we at least stop this charade that those creatures who work the hardest for the energy, and face the most dire scarcity, are somehow at the “top”?