Small and Vastness

The sand dunes north of Fort Bragg in Mendocino County, one of Stephen’s and my favorite places, is a goldmine of small. Which is ironic, since one of the area’s attractions is its spaciousness, its vast expanses of sand, and the huge white drifts that rise and disappear from season to season. To say nothing of the ocean, whose song you can hear when you first arrive, though to actually see the water requires a half-hour’s walk up and down the swells of sand.

Yet, hidden in all the vastness, are moment after moment of small, visible once you set your mind to it. And perhaps it is this irony that pleases me: while most visitors seek out the dunes for their scale and the seemingly endless white of the sand, I am always on the lookout for treasures of a different size.

Yesterday, once we had climbed up and over the dunes, and arrived at the ocean, I stood listening to the surf and gazing at the waves swelling and breaking near shore. It’s quite an impressive sight, the ocean as far as you can see, the surface constantly broken by waves, first smooth, then capped with white foam, and rolling onto the shore. But for someone like me, who prefers small beauty, the ocean can capture me for only so long, before my eyes start to seek something more my size. After gazing afar for a while, I looked about for any small bit of vegetation I could marvel at, and as I did, I saw a small flock of tiny brown birds by the water’s edge. No sooner did they catch my eye, then all the birds rose as one, flew a short way down the beach, and landed, again as one.

The first time I saw a murmuration of starlings, it seemed I was watching a celestial dance, a show put on just for me, to demonstrate, once again, just how much beauty nature is capable of. Yesterday, as I watched the tiny birds, I realized I was watching the same dance, but on a smaller and lower scale. Instead of thousands of starlings, I was watching perhaps 150 smaller birds (I haven’t yet been able to discover what birds they were), closer to the ground, but in a no less marvelous dance.

As the pyramid of tiny birds rose, flew and landed, I couldn’t imagine more graceful movement. Gliding through the air about 20 feet above the beach, then descending and landing just where water met sand, as if one, and from time to time, forming a single line heading south, the birds—or the flock—appeared to be movement pure and simple. Movement that transcended physical bodies to become part of the air around me, like the breeze.

As I watched, I wondered how all those bodies of all those tiny birds, each one a separate and wholly formed individual creature, could move as one. Separate and at the same time, part of something much, much larger than any individual.

I’ve often wished I were more gifted voice-wise. I’d love to know how it feels for my single voice to join a chorus of other voices—to become as one—and produce music. To feel both individual and merged in harmony with others would for me be both an affirmation of who I am and a way of leaving myself behind. To be both an individual and a community at the same time!

Yesterday, against the large backdrop of sand dunes and ocean, one small flock of tiny unknown birds gave me a visual taste of just what being part of a chorus would feel like.

At the Dunes

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