“Life out here is more direct.” – Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow. Though the original context of this quote is distant from Kure Atoll, it still resonated with me when I encountered it a few weeks back. The simple, sparse wording struck a chord with yet another reason why the life of a wildlife biologist can seem so unconventional, so far removed, from the lifestyle of your typical American citizen.
The first reason is straightforward and is one I have talked about in previous writings: when in a field camp, we learn to live without. We adjust without typical comforts, whether that be running water, internet connection, fresh produce, or even a reliable power supply on cloudy days (the solar panels are great until we do not see the sun for an entire week). If there is something we wish we had that we did not bring with us, we will just have to wait for it. Our lives seem to become more streamlined and in tune with our immediate surroundings. Our water comes from the sky, our entertainment comes from our island mates, human and non-human, our bodies sync to the ebb and flow of the rising and setting sun without the interference of artificial lights. It is all pretty easy to romanticize if you are into that whole “one with nature” thing. Life is minimalistic, less cluttered, direct.
Then, there is the darker side to this quote’s relevance to Kure and other fieldwork. Life out here makes its needs very well known. We observe them in action daily, even hourly. When these needs go unmet, then life transitions into the absence of life. Easy to grasp in theory, but when surrounded by thousands of creatures striving to exist, you quickly understand that where there is an abundance of life, there will also be an abundance of death.
For most people, death is not an everyday occurrence; it is something we encounter a handful of times and often with great emotion. On Kure? We see a chick starve because it moved too far from its nest bowl and can no longer find it is parents. We see a disease, or a toxin wipe out an alarming percentage of an endangered population. We find the aftermath of an elusive bird of prey’s midnight meal on the runway: a pair of tousled wings, scantly connected by clavicle and keel, heavily gnawed and picked clean. It is unavoidable. It is natural. It is just as important and necessary as life.
I am not trying to belittle any death, nor am I trying to approach it as a jaded individual. Too often, biologists can be “cold-hearted” or “insensitive” when it comes to death. Rather, I would characterize my attitude as one of acceptance. It is sad when you see that one Frigate bird that did not make it because it has its wing pinned in a dead heliotrope tree. I acknowledge that. I feel for all these individuals out here, but, at the same time, I cannot feel bad for the loss of each individual life. It is complicated.
It is about a mental shift, really. It is about not only empathizing with those creatures that are easy to relate to, like the big mammals and seabirds, but also seeing the life needs of other, smaller, less-relatable creatures. That dead chick has been baking in the sun for a day or two: the flies have already swarmed and gone, and now the maggots begin to burst forth in the hundreds. Soon after, it rains, and the kāwelu begins sprouting up through and around the old chick. That one life has given way to hundreds, millions, even, depending on if you count the microscopic organisms. It has given to the needs of other’s as well, a level of empathy that I still have trouble wrapping my head around.
So, in death there is life. And in both there is beauty for those who are observant enough. And it is out here on Kure Atoll that we see this cycle realized without interference. It is not just the superb scenery or creatures that pulls me to places like this. It is the inescapable and awe-inspiring beauty of life and death seen directly. It is the understanding that comes with the acknowledgement of death’s role. And it is the calm, knowing satisfaction that comes from witnessing these cycles every day. The satisfaction of seeing life’s needs played out right in front of one’s own eyes.