correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly referred to the remains of dead horseshoe crabs. It was their exoskeletons, which are shed by living crabs, that the author witnessed. The reference has been removed from this version.
Bruce Beehler is a naturalist and author of 12 books, including “Birds of Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia” and “North on the Wing.”
Last week, I spent six days alone on an uninhabited island off the coast of New England. Though I had come in pursuit of migrating birds, my visit yielded an unanticipated benefit. Being alone on an island without people, cars, restaurants and grocery stores strips life down to its basics. This state of isolation gave me time to walk the wide beaches, take naps, read and dine simply as the sun went down, and to think in solitude — without the (often pleasant) civilized distractions of newsprint, TV, radio, Facebook, or political or family drama. It was just me and the sea, the sand, the ever-changing weather and the wildlife. It gave me an opportunity to contemplate where life would be leading me from here, and to divine what is important, what is not.
It is rare that one gets to step away from the hurly-burly of daily existence, to examine one’s life in detail. And, in this, I was aided by the examples provided by the abundant nature at my doorstep. Engaging with nature can be instructive.
The professional reason for my being on this island was to monitor the passage of the migratory shorebirds: sandpipers, plovers, curlews and godwits. In late summer and early autumn, the island is famous as a stopover site for these handsome birds as they pass from their breeding habitats in the far north on their way to their winter quarters in Central and South America.
The shorebirds were relocating in response to the annual tilting of the Earth’s Northern Hemisphere away from the sun, which inevitably leads to autumn and then winter. This annual astronomical event is important to nature, as well as to human societies. The transition to early autumn here in the United States sees the shift from the lazy, beachy days of August to the early-morning arrival of school buses and the return to (adult) work with a renewed commitment to increased productivity. Indeed, this is the major seasonal transition in our civilization’s annual cycle. In nature, big changes are afoot, as well.
I watched thousands of tree swallows swarming in the shrubbery of bayberry and beach plum. These aggregations prepare the birds for their flights to their wintering grounds in the southern United States and Mexico. Seeing these swirling masses of life reminded me of the absolute power of seasonal change in nature.
The island also is a seasonal home to thousands of gray seals, which can be seen swimming up and down the shoreline and occasionally hauling out in groups on the beach in the early morning. The growing seal population has attracted great white sharks, which in early autumn ply the waters frequented by the seals. On the beach, I came upon seals with gaping wounds — evidence of shark attacks. For the great white, a gray seal is breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Thus, amid all this burgeoning life, the solitary walker witnesses much evidence of nature’s darker side. One encounters the carcasses and bleached bones of seals, the dried-out bodies of gulls, terns and gannets — individuals small and large that have died in numbers from some unknown cause (natural mortality?).
These are examples of another form of migration, from the land of the living to the realm of the dead — through an active and violent process, or a passive one. They remind us that life is short, and that life and death are parts of the same whole. I think of the perils faced by the shorebirds during their long flights over the ocean. I think of friends and loved ones who are mortally ill or who have recently died. I think of the safety of my family and friends scattered across the planet. I think of my own mortality as I enter the autumn of my existence. I think of the sandy island I am on — continually changing, reforming, shape-shifting — parts dying and parts being reborn.
Two stark points emerge from all of this lonely contemplation. The first and most obvious is that we should make sure, daily, to reach out to those dear to us and express our love. We never know when these loved ones will migrate from our lives. There’s never enough love in our world.
The second is that we should take note of and cherish the riches offered by nature’s changing seasons — the unusual surprises, as well as the benign predictability of the stately annual process. The transition from summer to autumn has close parallels with the passage of our own human lives. We should seize the moment. Live each day with passion. Savor each season’s natural transitions. Make the ephemeral eternal through the richness of preserved and cherished memory.