Years ago, I posed for a picture on a day trip along the Wakulla River in northern Florida. A juvenile brown pelican bobbed behind me as I aimed my cheesy smile at the camera. I turned back around, greeted the bird with enthusiasm, and delighted as it swam closer to my rocky perch on the river bank. He climbed out of the water and sat so close to me on a neighboring rock that I fell in love.
I spoke to the pelican softly. He inched closer and I observed his fuzzy neck. The brown feathers darkened on his back and wings, but his breast was the color of vanilla ice cream melting in the Florida sun. There was a little hole in the grey webbing between two of his toes.
“What happened to your foot?” I asked, looking into one clear, black eye for an answer. He watched me, holding his long, slender bill so that the fish pouch beneath it remained invisible.
Now, did I really fall in love with a pelican? A skeptic could easily explain away this exchange between woman and web-footed water turkey. Was the bird somehow imprinted on humans? Was I wearing clothes similar to someone else who had recently fed him? Was it chance? Coincidence? A completely one-sided encounter during which I created meaning where there was none and imposed it on another being?
Here’s what I do know: In these encounters with animals, I am a changed person. The day I fell in love with that pelican I felt something in my heart so real and so intense that my chest threatened to burst open and spill love right into the Wakulla River.
If we feel such love for another person we have to tell them so, right? Or demonstrate our love with actions. But we know animals experience the world differently than we do. If I can recognize my own affectionate feelings for a bird, who’s to say the bird didn’t also know it?
What if pelicans can feel our love??? It’s an extraordinary idea. What if that’s why he inched a little closer to me that day on that flat, algae-covered rock? What if he usually inches a little farther away from the person with a scary pole and sharp hook AND a little (or a lot) less love spilling from their heart into the water lapping at the shore of his home-sweet-river-home?
And yet, the encounter felt very ordinary. While I cared intensely for another creature, nothing magical happened. We both mostly just sat there. I talked to him. He didn’t talk back. The sky didn’t open up. A century-long curse wasn’t broken. I am not enlightened because of the pelican. I do not assume the pelican became enlightened because of me.
Like Andrew Schelling said of Chinese Buddhist poets’ experiences in nature, “If it all seems ordinary to you, well, it should. Whoever said poetry, or an abiding companionship with deer and wild cranes, were anything unusual?” (pg. 163 in Wild Form and Savage Grammar: Poetry, Ecology, Asia by Andrew Schelling)
Nothing really happened, but isn’t that the beauty of it? I was changed by my love for a pelican. I am the same.