Musings from Mexico I
My sister and I and our children just spent a week in Mexico for spring break. Not Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, all-you-eat-cruise-ship-Mexico with palm trees. More bring-your-own solar panels and generator and bottled water, and we'll supply the tortillas. Mexico not-so-grande. But, in return for the fifteen-hour drive on roads and through places I didn't know existed (and still wonder why they do; take Vidal, California, for example), we got the Sea of Cortez, thirty kilometers south of San Felipe on the Mexico side of the Baja Peninsula. On a still morning, it is literally Katherine Bates's "shining sea" as the sun rises out of the ocean in a ribbon of pink and orange. It's strange to see the sun rising out of the ocean on the west coast; wonderfully disorienting, as we're used to seeing it set off the California coast.
The Sea of Cortez is a shallow, fertile oceanic nursery formed by a 700-mile finger of land stretching along the western edge of mainland Mexico. From the second-story deck of our home on a little bay, I could see flocks of pelicans, gulls, sea terns, ducks and geese, and solitary herons stalking the shallows. From the sea, I could see fish jumping at manic intervals throughout the day. From the rock pools, which were uncovered in a stunning, hundreds of feet, retreat of the sea from the high tide mark, Adam and his cousins pulled octopus, crab, urchins, anemones, clams, mussels, shrimp, and "silver fish"(their technical term for the miniature sardine-like fish that swarm in thousands on the surface of the ocean).
Underneath the ocean, well, apparently, there are stingrays, that hang in the sandy benches behind the tidal rocks that are exposed at low tide. Mostly they just float with the tide, but, National Geographic says that "when they are inclined to move," they undulate their flat bodies like a wave. We were told to do the Baja shuffle when walking in the ocean, which attempts to alert any stingrays in the sand that a large creature is coming at them from the side. Footsteps from above aiming for the head of a stingray are almost certain to get stung.
Christian says he was standing still when he was stung, although stung is a euphemism really. Imagine a bone trident wielded by an irate, Smurf-size, basketball referee with little man syndrome. That's about what it felt like to him when the stingray hit him in the bone of his heel. The poison spread so rapidly that by the time he got up to the house, I could see lines of red stretching up both sides of his ankle into his calf muscle, with blood trailing out of the hole in the back of his heel. Laura, who had been bitten two years earlier but waited for a few hours until the pain got "worse than childbirth" before she went to the local doctor for a Novocain shot, bundled him into the car and we took off. The pain of the poison was so fiery Christian didn't know that the doctor's wife (el doctor was out) plunged a wide needle up to the hilt into his heel, and he was still waiting to feel the bite of the needle while she manipulated said thick needle in and out of his heel at various angles (seemingly the same motion the dentist uses during a root canal to reach all three roots). When she was done, he was still waiting for it all to start.
That put a damper on Christian's day. He retired to the sun chair on the deck, and his twelve-year-old cousin Jenny and her friend Brit, played nursemaid to him for the rest of the evening, including making up one-act plays reinventing new endings for Christian's social life and dilemmas with Star Wars Galactic Heroes figures.
On the ocean the next morning, kayaking across our own personal sea of glass, I wondered "Why a stingray?" Why, at a very simple level of necessity, does a sting ray exist? Laura offered a biological developmental theory: these creatures were put into play and evolution over the centuries has created mechanisms in them that allow them to survive in their environment. I wasn't looking for a Darwinian explanation. On other days, it might have worked, but I was on a more "Why did God start this?" train of thought. I didn't know then that ancient Greek dentists used to use the poison in the spine of the ray as an anesthetic—which perhaps slightly justifies a stingray's existence on a usefulness level.
But, I couldn't find an initial reason for the stingray. None of the criteria for justifying an existence really came into play: wasn't useful, wasn't necessary, wasn't beautiful, wasn't kind (like drowning sailor rescuing dolphins), wasn't comic relief, wasn't redemptive, wasn't a foil for some larger creature, wasn't an integral part of the food chain, wasn't a symbol of larger meaning (like the sand dollar husk). Stingrays just are. They are.
I felt a truth knock in me as I watched the pelicans with their clumsy heads sweep low over the blue surface. They were watched by a heron, standing so elegant in his knock-kneed slim silhouette, at the shore. "Each in its own sphere," came to mind. I thought about the human tendency to rank and to assign a value to a thing's existence based on criteria of need, beauty, power, and conformity or whatever comparison-based scale gives the ranker more power, rather than allowing each creature to stand unassailed in its own sphere. I thought of the uselessness of comparison in the natural kingdom. After all, how does one compare a lion with a sea cucumber? Better to just let them both be.
I thought about the word "variety." When the gods created (using whatever creative mechanism you prefer—six days, six creative periods, geologic eras, shifting planets, whatever) the life on this earth, a stated goal was "to give variety" to the earth. The variety standard necessarily denotes that difference and discrepancy will always exist. Designing for variety means that "sameness," variety's antonym, is and will remain, despite our best effort's to induce conformity, an impossibility. Variety means there will always be multiple ways of being, of moving, of looking, of making noise, of thinking, of eating, of protecting. At its heart, variety means that existing is justification enough for being.
That morning, as I contemplated the stingray, I came to see its purpose: to be a stingray. To float with the tide, to burrow into the sand, to move "when they are inclined" in sinuous waves of its wings across the ocean floor, and to sting, when threatened, with a spiny, poisonous tail. Because the stingray is, I cannot say that land and forward-looking eyes and a warning voice are the only, or even a better way of existing. When I look at nature's variety, I must conclude that water, land and air are equally suitable spheres in which to live, and that wings, bellies, legs, and suction cups are all effective methods of moving from place to place. I must allow for hide, skin, scales, jelly and shell as coverings. Orange, black, blue, brown, grey and green become equally suitable colors in which to live out one's life.
As I paddled through that Mexican morning, I found thinking these things and praying for the same equanimity of gaze that I saw in the solitary heron as it watched the flocks of bulbous, brown pelicans fly across its horizon.
Title: from "All Things Bright and Beautiful" by Cecil F. Alexander (1848).