Haunted by a Grebe

· Articles & Essays · ,

by David James Duncan

I am haunted by a grebe. A grebe encountered, in the mid-1980s, at the height of the Reagan-Watt-Crowell-Bush-Luhan-Hodell-Hatfield-Packwood rape and pillage of my homeland, the Oregon Cascades and Coast Range; height of the destruction of the world I had grown up in and loved and given my writing life to; height of an eight-year spate of Pacific Northwest deforestation that outpaced the rate in Brazil; height of the war on rivers, birds, wildlife, small towns, biological diversity, tolerance, mercy, beauty; height of my personal rage; depth of my despair; height of my need for light.

Far from aware of this need, I took a long walk, on the first clear afternoon following a tremendous November storm, on a deserted Pacific beach. A beach beautifully wed, in the entire 360-degree surround, to my mood. The storm surf and swell were enormous. The air was a constant, crushing roar. Spindrift was everywhere. So were sand dollars, washed up by the storm, as if even the ocean, in that self-absorbed era, were liquidating its inventory in the name of quick currency. The hills to the east were logged bald. The sun, as it sank, grew enormous and red. The stumps and my skin turned the same angry orange. My shadow grew a hundred feet long, fell clear to the high tideline, which, to my half-crazed King Learian satisfaction, was a graveyard. Storm-killed murres. Oil-killed puffins. Carcasses of gulls tangled in washed-up shreds of net. The carcass of a sea lion shot, mostly likely, by a fisherman who blamed it for the salmon no longer returning from a drift-netted, trawler-raked ocean to rivers mud-choked by logging…

As a lifelong Oregon Coast fisherman, I had a few beautiful secrets. I could, right up until that autumn, still sneak into one stream in a virgin cedar- and hemlock-lined canyon, find big, wild steelhead and salmon in a place that felt primordial, and have them all to myself. That year, however, the elk from the surrounding clearcuts—hundreds of cuts, hence hundreds of elk—had been squeezed from their once-vast range into that last intact canyon. And, having nowhere else to go, they’d begun crossing and recrossing the stream every day, right in the gravel tail-outs where the salmon and steelhead all spawn. Till they’d obliterated the redds. Pulverized eggs and alevin. Turned my secret stream’s banks into an elk-made quagmire reminiscent of the worst riparian cattle damage I’d ever seen. A quagmire that sloughed into the little river with every rain, suffocating the salmon fry that had escaped the countless hooves.

When wild elk, to remain alive, are forced to wipe out wild salmon, it is time, in my book, to get sad. I quit fishing, exercised my rights as a citizen, wrote “my” Republican senators the usual letters of distress. They answered with more rafts of four- and five-hundred-year-old logs shipped away to Japan as if they were nosegays the senators had grown in their D.C. flower boxes. Meanwhile, robbed of food and habitat by the same vast clearcuts, the black bears came down out of my home forest, moved into a marsh near town, lived by raiding garbage cans and dogfood bowls at night—a danger to humans—so the Fish and Wildlife people came in and shot them. Six in a week. And the owl that used to sing to me mornings, attracted by the lights after I’d written all night—the owl that scared me worse than winnowing snipes, actually, because it happened to be a Northern Spotted, which has an insane guffaw of a predawn cry—was now a silence, a nonexistent pawn, a hated cartoon on some poor lied-to logger’s cap. And in its stead, as if even the Pentagon grieved its passing, we’d built a forest-funded graphite bomber whose stealth in flight was as perfect as an owl’s …

So down the storm-smashed beach I strolled that bleak November, kicking at dead birds and drowned logging dreck, wondering what reason I still had to be grateful to live on the “scenic” Oregon Coast, wondering what possible definition of “democracy” I represented through my freedom to write, without persecution or incarceration, such words as

Dear Senator Packwood, I know you’ve got huge personal problems, but please! Our home here is dying, the only home we have, and we’re bound by a political system in which none of the forces killing us can be stopped except through you, so please don’t get mad, don’t think this is political or personal, please know I’m only begging for our lives when I say that our last few trees are still falling and our mills have all closed and our people are so sad and broke and lied to, and our schools are in ruins, our totem owl dead, and our elk jammed in a last few canyons, pulverizing our last spawning beds with hooves they’ve no other place to set down, so that the salmon we cherish, salmon our whole Chain of Being needs to remain unbroken, salmon that have forever climbed these rivers like the heroes of some beautiful Sunday sermon, nailing their shining bodies to lonely beds of gravel that tiny silver offspring may live, they no longer come, no more sermon! And our bears, old honey-paws, the joy their tracks alone gave our children, them too, gone, and skinned, their bodies, so human! And our kids, our voteless kids, their large clear eyes, now squinting at stumps and at slash burns and at sunlight that shouldn’t be there, squinting at Game Boys and TVs and anti-queer ads, squinting at anything rather than turn open-eyed to windows and see places so ancient and so recently loved, huge groves and holy salmon, clouds of birds and dream-sized animals, a whole green world so utterly gone that already they begin to believe that they only dreamed, they never really knew, any such blessings…

What I knew, there on the beach, was that I’d be writing no such letter. My politics had become raw pleas for mercy. Prayers, really. And I pray to God, thank you, not to men like Bob Packwood.

I turned, tired, back to the dunes, to my car, and to the road through the clearcuts to a cold house I’d once wept with joy to call home. But just shy of the first dune—its eyes as red as fury, as red as my feelings, as red as the fast-sinking sun—sat a solitary male western grebe.

And I was back in the mysterious sphere.

The grebe was sitting in a curl of kelp weed at the storm’s highwater mark. His eyes, in the evening sunlight, were fire. In the center of each blaze, a black point. Punctuation. Hot lava spinning round a period. A stillness, deep contact, was instantaneous. A life-and-death contract should have been, too. But—sick of humans, sick of my own impotence, sick with the knowledge of how much had been destroyed—I gazed out at the grebe through my sickness. That its body was beautiful I saw as tragedy. That it seemed uninjured I saw as irony. From studying wildlife care books, visiting wildlife care centers, from firsthand experience with scaups and gulls and murres, I knew that seldom do humans make a difference once a seabird washes ashore. God knew what had brought this bird to this beach—hidden damage from a net; spilled oil; hidden disease; weakness from lack of food in a dying sea. But it wouldn’t be here at all, I thought, if it wasn’t too late already.

Yet, in perfect contradiction to this pessimism, I felt fear. The molten eyes, the bird’s very health and size, intimidated me. Its beak was a dagger. When I’d move close, its neck would draw the dagger back, ready to stab. To even capture the grebe, I’d have to take off my coat and smother it. The beach was cold, the walk back long. Once I got it in my car, it might fight its way free. Once I got it home, then what?

Light is a form of energy that flows in waves. When a healthy wave strikes an object, we see that object in what we call its “true colors.” When a lesser wave strikes the same object, we see even the truest colors as shades of gray. The sun striking that November beach was brilliant. The grebe’s eyes were two brilliances. The world was doing its part. It was a wave, a light that failed to come from me, which allowed me to leave that beautiful bird where it lay.


A Premonition—or maybe a criminal’s desire to return to “the scene”—brought me to the same beach three days later. I found the grebe in the same curl of kelp, very recently dead, its body, wings, and plumage still perfect, its burning eyes plucked out by gulls. This was bad enough. But months later, when I dredged up my sad tale for a bird-loving friend, he hit the ceiling. When a grebe, he said, any grebe, is washed up on a beach like that, all it needs is to be set back in the water. Grebes require a runway of flat water to take off flying, but they don’t need to fly in order to live: even in storm surf they can swim like seals and hunt like little sharks. The grebe I’d found was a fisherman, same as me. Just as I can’t walk on water, he couldn’t walk on land. “He was a hitchhiker,” my friend told me. “Needed a lift of a hundred yards or so. And you refused to pick him up.”

Years passed, storms came and went, I walked mile upon penitent mile on those same beaches. I never saw another grebe. I only added two molten eyes to my sphere.


Yet Once Those crimson eyes became part of me, something changed. Perception, that grebe taught me, is a blood sport. Life itself sometimes hangs by a thread made of nothing but the spirit in which we see. And with life itself at stake, I grew suspicious of my eyes’ many easy, dark conclusions. Even the most warranted pessimism began to feel unwarranted. I began to see that hope, however feeble its apparent foundation, bespeaks allegiance to every unlikely beauty that remains intact on Earth. And with this inward change, outward things began to change, too.

Hurrying home in my pickup, late (as usual) from a fishing trip, I rounded a blind curve on an Oregon Coast byway, noticed a scatter of loose gravel on the asphalt in front of me, and felt an impulse. There was a steep, logged-off slope above this curve. A solitary elk could have kicked such gravel onto the road while crossing. I’m a hellbent driver when I’m late; I go barreling through mud and gravel, even dodge fallen trees without thinking twice. But this time, though I saw nothing, I had that sudden sense of something good or bad impending, slammed on the brakes, and as my truck slowed from fifty to thirty to ten I was amazed, then elated, to see the gravel turn into birds.

Pine siskins—a whole flock, parked right on the two-laned asphalt. I crept my bumper up next to them. They didn’t fly. Maybe thirty siskins, refusing to budge from the road. Reminded me of late-sixties college students. I got out of my truck, walked up and joined them. I liked the late sixties. Such easy excitement! Now I too could be killed by the next vehicle to come barreling round the curve!

All but one siskin flew as I sat down next to them. The flock then circled back overhead, chirping vehemently, begging the flightless bird to join them. The siskin in the road, a little male, had been nicked by a previous car, had a small wound above his eye, was in shock. Were it not for my strange impulse, I would have massacred an entire flock of avian altruists as they huddled in sympathy around a helpless comrade. Something inside me, I realized, was wildly more aware of things than I am—two imperceptible points of molten red, perhaps. I took the wounded siskin home, kept him in my bird box overnight, drove him the following morning back to the curve where I’d found him, released him in perfect health. I was a happy man.

That was just the beginning. I remain haunted by a grebe, but it’s been a wondrous haunting, for with the accompanying refusal to despair, a new energy began to flow. Not dependably. It’s something to pray for, not something to be smug about. But I began, especially when driving, to feel a simple alertness, and an occasional intuition: thousands of road miles, thousands of glimpsed roadside movements, thousands of half- glimpsed roadside eyes began to work in concert to help me avoid killing, and occasionally even to save, a few animals and birds. I am not laying claim to supernatural skills. The intuitions that save lives are almost all purchased, like so many mercies, with an earlier being’s innocent blood. But this is not to say that, upon descending, these visual intuitions are not a joy…

Photo by Sam Wolff

Photo by Sam Wolff

Exactly A Year after I abandoned the grebe, I was driving home down Oregon Coast Highway 101 in torrential November rain. It was a Sunday night. A steady line of weekend storm-watchers was returning to Portland. Pitch dark. The road looked like a narrow black river topped by two endless rows of insanely speeding boats. Because of the terrible visibility, I was watching the road lit not just by my own headlights but by those of the pickup in front of me. It was in the pickup’s lights that I happened to glimpse a brown ball rolling along the streaming road.

I hit my brakes instantly, certain of what I’d seen. I was also certain, because it was rolling when I glimpsed it, that it had already been run over at least once, and that the pickup would run it over again. There was time, before the truck did so, for a one-syllable prayer: I shouted, “Please!” terrifying my two passengers. But as I braked and pulled hard toward the highway’s right shoulder, the ball rolled out, unscathed, in the pickup’s tailwind and tailwater, then righted itself on the road as I shot past. It was an adult pygmy owl.

I knew by its ability to regain its feet that the owl was not hopelessly injured. Just too disoriented to escape the road. But in my rearview mirror, approaching at fifty or so miles an hour, I saw its doom in the form of at least ten cars. Though I braked as fast as I could, momentum carried me perhaps two hundred feet past the owl. I pulled on the parking brake before my truck stopped rolling, jumped out without a word to my stunned companions, and took off running.

The approaching line of headlights was maybe two-hundred yards away. I couldn’t see the tiny owl in the dark and distance. Ten cars doing fifty, me on foot doing maybe sixteen, a living bird somewhere between. I didn’t do the math. I just ran. And how right it felt, no matter what! How good it felt to tear eyes—first into another November gale, straight down the lane in which a helpless bird huddled, straight into the headlights of ten city-bound cars—for in this running I’d found a penance that might let me again meet, without shame, the crimson gaze of a grebe.

I’ve played enough ball to have a ballplayer’s sense of trajectories and distances. I knew, the instant I spotted the fist-sized silhouette in the lead car’s high beams, that my hands would never reach it in time. I also knew that the lead car’s driver wouldn’t see me or the tiny owl till he or she was upon us, and so wouldn’t slow for either of us. I still couldn’t stop running. It still felt wonderful. To be an American, a lifelong motorist and a bird and animal lover is to carry a piano’s worth of guilt on your back. I was outrunning my piano.

The owl had been staring, stupefied, at the approaching cars. When it heard my pounding feet, it swiveled its gaze at me. Instant sphere. Great good or ill impending. I heard cars in the opposite lane, coming up behind me, and realized the cars in my lane, if they saw me, could be frightened into swerving. I was risking lives besides my own. I had succumbed to a kind of madness. Yet as I sprinted toward the cars I had an unaccountably calm vision of a conceivable, beautiful outcome.

The lead car saw me and hit its horn just as I reached the owl. I swung my right foot in the gentlest possible kick, chipping the bird like a soccer ball toward the road’s shoulder. I followed instantly, not quite needing to dive as the lead car shot past, outraged horn blaring. All ten cars shot past. I ignored them, searching the rain gusts and night air. And at the edge of the many headlight beams I suddenly saw my tiny owl in uninjured, earnest flight, circling straight back toward the traffic-filled highway…

I don’t know what my body did in that moment: whether my heart stopped or my eyes sent out energy; whether my lips and lungs actually uttered the “Please!” When your whole being yearns for one simple thing, it may not be necessary to add the words. All I know is that a gust of sideways rain blasted my owl, its wings twisted in response, and it rose inches over the crisscrossing headlights and car roofs, crossed both lanes, left the highway, and vanished, without looking back, into the forest and the night.


Our Eyes, It Has Been Said, are the windows of our souls. Since the soul is not a literal object but a spiritual one, eyes cannot be the soul’s literal windows. But they are, literally, openings into and out of living human beings. When our eyes are open, they become not one of our many walls but one of our very few doors. The mouth is another such door. Through it we inhale air that is not ownable, air that we share with every being on Earth. And out of our mouths we send words—our personal reshaping of that same communal air.

Seeing, I have come to feel, is the same kind of process as speaking. Through our eyes we inhale light and images we cannot own—light and images shared with every being on earth. And out of our eyes we exhale a light or a darkness that is the spirit in which we perceive. This visual exhalation, this personal energizing and aiming of perception, is the eyes’ speech. It is a shaping, it is something we make, as surely as words are a shaping of air. I feel responsible for my vision. My eyespeech changes the world. Seeing is a blood sport.

I’m still in way over my head. I believe this is my Maker’s intention. I’m in so far over my head I believe I’ll need wings to get out. But even over my head I sense that if all souls are one and the eyes are its windows, then those siskin, owl, snipe, and grebe eyes must all, in a realm outside of time, be my very own. So in killing or saving them, in abandoning or loving them, I kill, save, abandon, or love what is outside of time—that is, what is eternal— in myself. This is Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic platitude, Native American platitude, too, and platitudes don’t make very good literature. But they make excellent aids to memory. And in a world in which one’s living eyes and body must fly into split-second meetings with the eyes and bodies of others on wet night roads, storm-smashed beaches, in treetops or on blind curves, one needs all the aids to memory one can get.

The God of the Bible commences creation with an exhalation of light from spirit. The great god Shiva is capable of destroying creation by simply opening an eye that rests above his two. Through a life spent looking, or refusing to look, at an endless stream of other creatures, I’ve learned that by merely opening my eyes, I too partially create, and partially destroy, the world. By abandoning a grebe that entered my sphere of vision, I closed two beautiful molten windows through which I might have gazed upon a real salvation. By kicking a twice-run-over owl skyward, I opened two wondrous dark windows upon the same.

One of the terrors of being human, and one of the joys, is that for all our limitations and confusions we have been given power. The life that terrifies me and the life that I adore are one life.


David James Duncan is a novelist and essayist based in Montana, best known for his writings on fly fishing including The River Why.

From My Story as Told by Water. Copyright 2001 by David James Duncan. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.

NextMall Mindfulness