Up close and personal – an Island reflection

By Jeannie Kokes (first published in the Washington Island Observer)

I always feel light and airy when I drive north on the last part of Range Line Road. I remember as kids with Herbie Gibson’s guidance, racing in his blue convertible over that second hill and for a precious few seconds, taking flight.

Today the presence of a gull interrupted that memory— not in flight but lying on asphalt at the intersection with Jackson Harbor Road. Looking untouched and pristine, it was totally still. With no visible marks of auto collision, the gull, nonetheless, was dead.

My heart sped up and primitive fear of touching another being, dead or alive —with my bare hands so intimate, personal, and timeless.

I remembered taking time to take leave of my husband’s dead body 14 years ago.

I know time slows down during these encounters with the mystical realm of life.

I know it is a privilege to be this present with the edge of life and death.

I know there is a stillness and silence that accompanies these moments.

I lifted the gull — still warm and flexible. Placing it on a piece of cardboard, I put the body into my car. I drove back up the hill to Steve and Laura Waldron’s home.

Steve was outside working on a bench for the Art & Nature Center.

With him by my side, I let myself explore how the Herring Gull’s wings moved.

The beauty of wing movement entered my body.

How graceful, how mystical, how ancient.

Up close, I saw the black spotted wings at the tip of the body, the yellow eyes now mostly closed, and the red spot on the gull’s beak that baby chicks peck in order to be fed.

I stroked pure white feathers of the body and again moved wings in its mechanical elegance.

Later I reflected on my years in Naperville watching as a small farming community grew into the third largest city in the state of Illinois. Among other changes, growth accompanied a progression of roadkill; first squirrels, followed by raccoons, opossums and an occasional duck. Near the end of my time there, several human accidents and deaths were added as more of us - animals and humans - shared a common territory.

Yesterday NPR announced the 70th anniversary of Aldo Leopold’ classic, Sand County Almanac. Leopold, a Wisconsinite, was an ecologist, forester, environmentalist who believed there is no such thing as vacant land. All land has community on it — as does the sky above and the waters surrounding us.

The next day, Steve sent me a picture of a gull in flight, one of many, following Kenny Koyen’s fishing boat. The picture remaining indelibly in my mind, however, is the slow motion of still flight as my hand moved the bones of the herring gull’s wing one last time.