The Kingfisher, or the Defining Moment

A few months ago, I moved from downtown Victoria to View Royal. It’s about twenty minutes from downtown. The new place is a condo unit on the Esquimalt Harbour, high bank waterfront. It’s set back about 50′ from the water’s edge and 30′ up. There’s a trail along the harbour complete with tsunami warning signs of a walker being swept out into sea. I call this place the “global warming villa” because, soon, instead of high bank, it’s going to be low bank waterfront. But there’s some time. The City of Victoria is projecting water levels to rise just over a centimetre each year. So at 1.5 cm/year, it’s going to be six centuries before it’s low bank waterfront. I don’t know if I’ll be around that long. But, while I’m around, it’s interesting to watch all the natural patterns that happen around here.

The most interesting thing about this place is watching nature’s cycles. The Esquimalt Harbour, towards the end, is a big mud flat. And, since the global warming villa is right at the end of the harbour, you really notice the tides. At full flood, the water comes, well, within 50′ of the building. At it’s ebb, it goes out a hundred feet and all that’s left of the harbour is a ten foot stream. As you can gather, the water’s not very deep. In fact, there’s an island maybe a thousand feet out: Cole Island. When this area used to be an artillery fortress (Fort Rodd Hill is close by), the munitions would be stored on Cole Island. The local residents say that the water’s shallow enough that they’ve seen intrepid individuals walk out there. Past Cole Island the water gets much deeper. So the first of nature’s cycles you see is the ebb and flow of the tides: at any given time, you never know if you’ll see the sparkling sheen on the water or the brown flats of mud.

Now there’s also the action of the tide coming in and out itself. Sometimes the tide comes in and its hungry. If the wind’s blowing, you can get up to 6″ waves. It actually looks quite aggressive. And then there’s the wildlife. In March, when I was first out here, it was the herons. What a patient bird! The water’s shallow enough that they can walk around. And then they wait. For a long time. For fish perhaps? They’re an awkward flier, which also makes them an interesting specimen for observation. Big wing span. Not very gracious. But their patience has won me over. It’s August now, and they’ve all left, which has bummed me out. Maybe they’ll be back next year? There’s eagles, hawks, turkey vultures, and a bevy of other animals. I see raccoons venturing out into the mud flats by day, which is strange: aren’t they supposed to be nocturnal? And the swans, I am told, when their haunts around Royal Roads University (a couple of kilometres away) become overcrowded, will come up my way. But of all the creatures, nothing has captured my imagination like the herons. Until now.

The other day, I saw this bird dart out of the trees. A smallish bird, maybe a bit bigger than my fist. It hovered for about five seconds maybe twenty-five or thirty feet above the water. It didn’t hover stationary like a hummingbird, but it hovered in these five seconds within a one cubic foot space. As it zigged and zagged within this cube, you could tell from the beating of its wings that it was going all out. And then it dove headfirst, vertically into the water where it plucked out something out. And then it beelined back into the trees. What a sight, especially the precipitous vertical dive! It turns out that this fascinating little bird is a kingfisher.

It strikes me that when this kingfisher hovers and dives headlong, it fulfils its purpose. The moment must be perfect as it strives with every nerve and every muscle to plunge into the bullseye on the water’s surface. This is its defining moment where all of its powers are concentrated on one aim and goal. This is its apotheosis, if such a thing can be said. And then an interesting and important question occurred to me: what is our equivalent of the kingfisher’s moment?

What is our defining moment? Is it a feeling like the one the Pixies describe in their cover of Head On?

As soon as I get my head around you

I come around catching sparks off you

I get an electric shock from you

This secondhand living just won’t do

And the way I feel tonight

I could die and I wouldn’t mind

And there’s something going on inside

Makes you want to feel

Makes you want to try

Makes you want to blow the stars from the sky.

Have you ever felt like blowing the stars out of the sky? That’s a great great line. Even better is the supporting line: “I could die and I wouldn’t mind.” Is this what the kingfisher feels?

Or is the kingfisher’s moment lecturing before a great crowd? They’ve come to hear you, what you have to say. Their attention’s rapt and you are nervous. But as you start talking, you can feel your initial smallness grow into a larger room filling presence. That’s a sort of triumph.

Or is the kingfisher’s moment like the moment when the master sleuth Hercule Poirot exposes the murderer?

Or is the kingfisher’s moment the same as when a prize-fighter drops an adversary onto the hard canvas?

But it seems there’s one big difference between ourselves and the kingfisher. For us to define ourselves, for us to reach that culminating moment where all of our powers are concentrated on one aim, we have to pay the price. In “Death on the Nile,” Poirot sums it up well as he converses with Jacqueline on a listless evening aboard the steamer:

Jacqueline: Ah, well, one must follow one’s star.

Poirot: Love is not everything.

Jacqueline: Oh, but it is. It is. You must know that Monsieur Poirot. Surely you understand?

Poirot: It is terrible, Mademoiselle, all that I have missed in life.

But is the opposite not true of the kingfisher?–to make the dive involves no sacrifice. Rather, not to make the dive incurs a sacrifice, as perhaps a meal is lost. That’s the difference between us and the kingfisher, and thereby hangs a tale.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

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