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An Underwater Fire

Saturday, March 3, 2018

View from my hotel room at The Dana on Mission Bay. Dee-luxe.

I’d never been to San Diego. That needed fixing. I was delighted to finally be able to say yes to the wonderful San Diego Bird Festival the last week of February 2018, where I gave the banquet talk, co-led two Big Days, a lovely hike and bike ride. I'd been asked, but I've always been in Costa Rica that week. This year I went to Ecuador in November instead, so I could go to San Diego in February. 

Sunset over Kansas. Hooo boy. Window seat. Never gets old.

Looking down on Point Loma and the Naval Supply Center. That blue channel at the top of Point Loma on the left is where the rest of this post takes place. That's Mission Bay just above the channel.
  I knew it would be cool, but I wasn’t prepared for just how many birds, both resident and migrant, call coastal SoCal home. 

A female bushtit asks me what I think I'm doing.

Ducks, gulls, terns, grebes,shorebirds, warblers, sparrows—all the groups that seem to bedevil birders—were everywhere. As someone who loves to puzzle out mysteries, it was heaven for me. I understood why California birders are legendary for their identification chops. They’re always looking straight into the light at backlit masses of shorebirds and gulls on shining mud flats. They develop superpowers we mortals from the flyover states can only dream of. Well. There are things we are good at, too. Sheet desserts. Casseroles with cream of mushroom soup.

Bill and I traveled separately to the San Diego Bird Festival, and as is typical of festivals, we were scheduled to lead different trips throughout. We did get together to perform some original Rain Crows songs set to slides on Sunday afternoon. What a blast!  Our Sonny and Cher dynamic was right out front. Neither of us cared because it added entertainment value, so we went with it, parrying and jabbing as we worked it into the show.

We found two hours to visit Scripps Oceanographic Institution, where Phoebe spent a deliriously fun summer. Facetiming with our baby girl in Maine so we could watch the sunset on the beach she was sweet.

On Monday morning, Bill and I met to do a little birding, and see the ocean one last time. We don’t get to spend much time together any more. He’s been living in an old farmhouse just down our road since early autumn 2017. He’s started a whole new life and I suppose I have, too, though I’ll confess mine doesn’t look much different from the old one. I've been laying low, processing the change, working it all out in my head and heart.  We’ve spent the last six months adjusting to the new paradigm as a family, helping each other through the transition, and I’m happy to say that the love between us is steadfast, and it reigns. It always has. And everybody’s happier and better off for the change, kids especially. 

We drove along the lower end of Mission Bay, the thoroughly tamed and channelized San Diego River split up the middle with a long rock jetty. Despite it all, the good river was clean and teeming with ducks, birds of passage; redhead, pintail, bufflehead, lesser scaup, ruddies, three species of teal, flotillas of laughing wigeon. 

 Sea chickadees!
A brackish channel was to our left as we walked the jetty toward the Pacific, and Dog Beach. To our right was deep blue salt water, the mouth of Mission Bay. Oh, what we humans do to estuaries! We clobber them up with homes and condos, hotels and marinas; we tame them with riprap and concrete. Rivers and tides respond by dumping sand and silt where it will be least convenient; by robbing it from where we need it most. It all serves us right.

On we walked, into a fresh breeze coming off the sea. Beneath the ever-changing surface of the saltwater, we began seeing big flashes of brilliant orange materializing and vanishing, materializing and vanishing. What are THOSE???

 They were certainly alive, as they would come out from under boulders in the jetty, waver for a moment, and just as quickly disappear. Squid? Octopus? Fish? We stared and shouted as we spotted each one, dozens in all. They were present only in the salt water, around the rocks on the Mission Bay side of the jetty. We couldn’t get over the brilliance of their color—it was as if someone were waving neon lights underwater.

 The surface of the channel was so roiled by wind that there was no hope of discerning clearly what we were looking at, for they stayed several feet under.  They seemed to be watching us, reacting to our movements as if we were a pair of great blue herons. I took photo after photo, hoping one might give me a detail—an eye, a fin, a tail, a tentacle-- that would at least guide me to the right phylum for classification. C'mon. Do you have a spine?? They remained mysterious serpentine blobs of evanescing color. THIS was a Science Chimp’s DREAM.

Brightly colored organisms of unknown taxonomic affiliation! 

Needing classification, STAT!

My mind flopped and turned and circled. They were oblong and big—over a foot in some cases, and they were pretty fast. They moved through open water like fish, in straight lines with sudden changes of direction. They seemed to come out from under the riprap and then disappear back into it. OK. Fish. Let’s go with fish. Fish. Data in, data out.

I opened my mouth and slowly, as if I were channeling something very ancient, I said to Bill,
 “I think they’re Garibaldi.”
 I had no idea from what memory bank I had dredged the name. I just knew that’s what they were. Again, I spoke, describing the picture that had sprung into my head.
“Like a big angelfish.”
Still in a trance, I added, “Named for some Italian historic figure who wore orange.”

Aaand that would be Giuseppe Garibaldi, ca. 1860. Italian soldier of fortune and leader of the Redshirts, "A million men with a million guns," resisting King Francis II's obeisance to France. Enough to make your eyes roll back at
from whence came this image

And then, with the naming, the whole scene, if not the fish themselves, sprang into perfect focus.

I had my iPhone in my pocket, but there was no way I was going to ruin this beautiful pure mental recall with Google-fu. I stood, mumbling, laughing, smiling and breathing, watching the searing underwater fire of the Garibaldi as they plucked and foraged food off the boulders. 

It wasn’t long before a bicyclist came riding out the jetty. He seemed friendly, and he was on a touring bike. I’d noticed that Californians, especially when astride bicycles, could be either quite friendly or quite not, and there didn’t seem to be much gradation between the two extremes. They were either smiling at you, a helmetless Ohio dumbcicle daddling along on your borrowed weekend bike, or they were flat out snarling. When this man smiled, I went for it. “Would you happen to know what these brilliant orange fish might be?”

“I think they’re called Garibaldi,” he replied. My inner Science Chimp came hooting out.

photo from Garibaldi range from Monterey Bay to Baja California, in kelp forests and rocky coastal reefs. A big adult like this can be 17"! It's the largest of all the damselfish. Garibaldi are protected by law, being California's state fish, and, as MNbowfinangler put it on, "mostly because they are a charismatic and easy-to-see species that is important to the glass bottom boat tours and SCUBA/snorkeling tourism industries there."
LOOK AT THAT FISH. Look at its TAIL. It's like a cartoon fishie!!
If that nice bicyclist had handed me a Publishers Clearinghouse envelope with $2,000,000 in it, I couldn’t have been more ecstatic. Double high fives with Bill! Much crowing! Even jumping around! “It’s California’s state fish,” he added. Wooo! Lifer! State fish! Mystery solved! And somehow, incredibly, through the ever-denser mist of forgetfulness, I had been given its name, like a gift.

photo of a young adult Garibaldi perhaps 5-6 years of age by MNbowfinangler from Garibaldi forage by picking invertebrates and crustaceans off rocks and kelp. Males are highly territorial and aggressive, warning divers with loud thumping noises when they approach too close to the saucer-shaped nests where they guard their eggs. They sometimes even charge and bite people to drive their point home. Go Garibaldi! 

Identifying the mysterious shapes, getting them up out of the dark water so we could look at them, without ever hooking or hurting them. Putting a name (Hypsipops rubicundus! Say it out loud!)  to featureless swatches of fluid color, being able to proceed from that simple name to an enlightened place. Knowing that there was a picture of California’s gaudy state fish hiding deep under the riprap of my subconscious; that, given time,  I could hook it and bring it up. Knowing that those underwater flames were great big, locally abundant, globally rare damselfish that are protected by California law. Discovering all that with someone who means so much to me, with whom I've shared everything for 27 years. That’s what made me so happy about the Garibaldi encounter.

Selfie with Garibaldi. There are about six in this photo, believe us.

I trust that some long-standing mysteries have been solved in this story. There have been enough supremely awkward moments in the last six months and years to finally prod me out from under my rock. It hit me, with the building energy of this full moon in Virgo, that there will never be a perfect time to take control of the narrative, to bring it out into the light, and I'm tired of living in a self-made bunker. I realized that, while the split has been the central focus of our lives, that it's not nearly as big a deal to anyone else. Happens every day.  I love you all a lot, and I'm continually surprised by the insight and wisdom you give me.  But for this particular post, I've turned off commenting, because I would like to relieve us all of the burden of trying to find something to say about it. 

Forward motion: that's the ticket. I won’t be satisfying anyone’s curiosity about our private lives going forward. That’s why they’re called private lives. I will be reporting back, as usual, from the woods and fields, as I have since December 2005, because that’s where healing lives: in the mad twirl of the woodcock, in the whiff of skunk on balmy night air.

Special thanks to J.T., S.W., D.B., K.M., C, D.Q. and T. R. for holding up the light.


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