Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Consider the female shorebird, a bar-tailed godwit, who in nine days completed its transit from Alaska to New Zealand, flying 7,145 miles across the Pacific Ocean without a single stop for rest, food, or fresh batteries for its GPS. Every September, more than 70,000 godwits take flight from their arctic breeding grounds, flying at the average speed of 35 miles an hour in a trek equivalent to a human running ceaselessly at 45 miles an hour for more than a week.

How does she sleep? The godwit simply turns off one half of her brain in mid-flight, letting the gray matter rejuvenate while the other half runs the show, navigating by the sun at day, and the stars by night. Researchers imagine that she learns both the northern and southern constellations, since she traverses both ends of the globe. I'm damn good with a road atlas, but the half-functioning brain of the bar-tailed godwit outstrips my navigational capabilities by 120,000 years of evolution.

In my first fall in Fairbanks, we drove to Denali National Park to watch the migration. The tundra had already turned, and so had the birch trees, so that the entire landscape celebrated its abbreviated autumn all at once as burnished gold under bright blue skies. Denali spreads from the interstate toward Mount McKinley with more than 9,000 square miles of forest, canyons, glaciers, and rivers. It takes the balance of an entire day to drive to the McKinley overlook. Cars are controlled by a lottery system to keep the number of smog-belching vehicles to a minimum.

We were lucky. We camped at Teklanika the first night, planning to strike out at dawn for Wonder Lake, some 89 miles from the park entrance. By sunset, we stood at the edge of the lake where, across miles of glacial valley Mount McKinley rose into a dense white cloud of its own making. We sat on the warm hood of the car, training our binoculars at the black ribbons of birds that entered the valley to the north, sequenced en masse to an ancient choreography to the base of the mountain, rose in the vast lift of warm air, then southwards toward...New Zealand.

The was no way to prepare yourself for the sheer volume of birds. To the north, they entered the canyon as a spray of scattered black forms, like a puff of gunshot in the vast blue skies. But as they approached the mountain, they took the shape of the air, tracing the columns of heat, creating a whirling black bird tornado, rising in turn to the top floor, where they segued their way into the higher altitude, fanning out in spacious arcs across the south end of the valley.

Oh, the immensity of the plan, the native intelligence to find nature's express elevator to launch your campaign to warmer climes, the uncanny patience of disparate tribes among evolved dinosaurs in flight as they spun circles in front of grandfather mountain to await their turn, bent to the mad flapping of purpose to the celestial clock nested in genetic memory.

On the ground, the humans gathered in their tented enclaves, burning marshmallows, bundling up their provisions in bear-proof containers for the night before they crept into their sleeping bags to dream of flight, above the din of passing motorists, the growling of the mad earth, the insanity of full-brained living.


tangobaby said...

Native intelligence. I love the ability to get a little kick in the head (often via your writing) and remember how amazingly perfect and powerful Nature really is, and all of us little people burning our marshmallows and thinking we're the Ultimate in Whatever--that we really aren't. I think that a good thing to see yourself in the context of all Life and not just human life.

In my next life, I want to be a bar-tailed godwit. Escaping a growling earth sounds like a good thing today.

Char said...

gorgeous details and yearning inside me to be free, soaring high

dutchbaby said...

Wouldn't it be nice if we could turn off half our brain and still fly?

Once when we were in Pajaro Dunes, we saw what looked like hundreds of thousands of birds circle around Monterey Bay. It started with a few dozen brown pelicans fishing near shore then others joined them. Before we knew it, the sky was dark from all the birds. Everyone was pouring out of their condos to see and hear the spectacle. After twenty minutes, they all dispersed. It was one of the most spectacular things I've ever witnessed.

Gabby said...

I am wondering, dutchbaby, that it may be the only way we can fly if we turn off half our brains. =)