We are on Great Duck Island, a 220 acre private island in the Gulf of Maine, ten miles from the mainland. Only one house. We are renting it for the week. No roads, no amenities. We have been dropped off by boat with all of our supplies and will be picked up a week later. We are sharing the island with over seventy species of birds.
Our sixth day here dawns rainy, foggy, and cool. Finally, by late morning, the sun begins to shine through, piercing the fog, drying the grass. We decide to go for a walk. The tide is coming in, but it will be several hours before it is at its highest.
We decide to tramp along the cliff, heading North, beyond the spot we’d explored yesterday and then cut down to the popplestone beach further along the shoreline. The ground beneath our feet is soft, peat, and we sink into it at every step. We’ve already learned that walking on this island takes attention. Whether on the soft ground punctuated by storm petrel burrows or on the rocky shore, we are aware that we must put our feet down with consideration of what is beneath us, with care of our bodies and the nests that pop up unexpectedly everywhere we walk. Our walks are slow as a result. There is no hurrying on this island.
We are supremely aware of the gulls perched on the rocky berm that frames the entire island. Like soldiers standing on a thick castle wall these sentinel gulls watch us intently, sending up trumpeting calls of our approach. There are no quiet walks on this island. This island is alive, the energy of nature unleashed and at its most basic, unadulterated by human interference. We are aware that we are interlopers, unwanted, considered dangerous. We stick to the path until we come to a fork that veers down to the rocky beach. We take it.
Supremely alert now, the gulls croak more loudly. Some of them fly up, attempting to distract us from their scattering of nests in the rocks. We are foe. No matter who we are or what our intent might be, they detect us as intruders and nothing else. We are not to be trusted.
When we’d hiked along the rocks yesterday, at low tide, we’d been closely watched and monitored. The gulls had kept up a constant croaking and mewing, alerting their neighbors along the berm of our approach, punctuated every now and then by a loud shriek, but otherwise they had tolerated us. I’d called back to them, mimicking their staccato calls as we hopped along the rocks, studying the life in the numerous tidal pools, searching for small stones naturally tumbled to soft smoothness by the waves. We’d watched as the more threatening natural predators, the eagles, had come. Swooping down upon the gull’s nesting grounds they’d arrived suddenly, stealthily, large, ominous black shadows momentarily cutting off the light. The largest gulls had flown up just as quickly and like jet fighters they’d attacked, driving the eagles offshore. By comparison we were nothing to worry about.
Today is different. As soon as we step off the path and onto the rocks the gulls go crazy. I assume that after a while they will get used to us, just as their neighbors to the south had done yesterday. But I am wrong. The gulls continue to shriek and fly overhead as we make our way to the water’s edge. The rocks here are smoothed by the tides, popplestones of a variety of sizes, large and small they rise up like shaved monks heads from the incoming tide. It’s tricky walking on them. I center myself and get calm. Taking my attention off the gulls, I concentrate on getting a good hopping pace going, on balancing and sure-footedness, thankful for all my years of yoga training.
Chuck is nearby taking photographs, his eyes picking out the beauty of the surroundings, the uniqueness of the large rounded stones that now sit so calmly exposed. Rolled by the tides for millennia, they have been here for far longer than we will exist in a lifetime. We are quiet, each having our own experience, our gazes downward. I pick up a beautiful stone that fits nicely in the palm of my hand and carry it with me, shifting it back and forth from hand to hand as I balance on the rocks. I pause to sit on a warm pink ledge of granite. I see that Chuck has walked further to the north now while I have been making my way south and east, back the way we came. He is thoroughly engrossed in his own experience of this moment, taking in this day’s delights.
Suddenly I am aware of the gulls shrieking wildly overhead. I look up, wondering if eagles have come again, but I see nothing in the sky except a swirl of gulls. Where yesterday one or two gulls had monitored us from above, today there are twenty. Sea gulls are large, and with their broad wingspans their shadows are as darkly ominous as the eagles’ shadows that I’d experienced yesterday.
I get up from my pink ledge and call out to Chuck. He can barely hear me above the sound of the waves and the cries of the gulls. “They don’t want us here!” I shout. I see him nod, but I know he doesn’t understand. I point upward. “The gulls! They don’t want us here!” He nods again and goes back to his camera. I see that there are only one or two gulls high above his head. They don’t seem to be bothering with him, while I am now inundated, surrounded by shrieking gulls. They don’t want me here!
Suddenly I’m afraid. As if on cue the gulls get more aggressive. They dive at me, screaming in my ear, their wings clipping close to my head. I scream back. I cannot help myself. Fear takes over. Cowering, I creep along the rocks, in a hurry now. Like Golem I slink, guilty of what I know not, but I am the enemy and the gulls want me out of their territory.
Caught, trapped like an animal in the middle of the popplestone quarry, I look at the expanse of rocks ahead of me. This is not easygoing terrain to cross in the best and calmest of circumstances, but it’s the path I am on now. I have no choice but to take it. I hop and jump, going as fast as I can while the gulls swoop lower and lower, so close that I feel the air of their wings brushing the hair on my head, their shrieks deafening. I hunker down even lower, fearful of being struck with their knife-like wings, afraid of being nipped on my ear by their sharp beaks. At the same time I repeat what I have recently read in a manual at the house we are staying in: The gulls will not attack you, but they may poop on you. I use it as a mantra to drive away the fear that has now permeated me.
Suddenly, I am a spider scurrying along the rocks. On all fours I let fear take over. It envelopes me and the gulls maneuver ever closer, intent on driving me from their territory, into the ocean and away from their nests. It’s high tide so the rocky beach is not as wide as it could be, the tide coming in a little higher every moment. The more I hunker down the more the gulls shriek and the closer they fly. Cowering down between two giant rounded stones I look back to see where Chuck is. I want him to come to my rescue, and to take care too, to hurry up and join me in getting out of here as fast as possible, but he is nowhere in sight. I have scurried over a rise and he is far away on the other side, oblivious to my plight. I am in this alone. Trapped, afraid, targeted by the gulls, all I want to do is get out of here!
I look around at my options. Perhaps I can make a run for it back up the slope, to the top of the berm and through the nesting beds, but I know that I will never make it through the thickets of wild roses that grow along the ledge nor get past the loudly trumpeting gulls lined up like a firing squad. There is no possibility of escape. I must face the situation I find myself in. The incoming tide is now lapping at my feet, the cold water sending chills down my sweaty spine. Gripped in fear, the crowd of gulls growing louder and more numerous, I am nothing more than the predatory eagle I saw yesterday and they are intent on driving me off. Finally something clicks.
“Don’t let the fear rule you,” I tell myself. “Take control.”
And then I know I am here in this moment in time to conquer this experience of fear, for we have come to this island aware that its limitations will present us with many confrontations of self and self as part of a unit. We are living within the sealed oven of containment, and in the heat of the closed oven we must confront whatever arises.
In this moment I get it, I am being overwhelmed by fear and the gulls know it. They sense it in me. In the grips of this fear I have become a threat, to both the gulls and myself. I know that I can’t appear so weak and frightened or the gulls will continue to harass me. I stand up quickly, my head grazing the wing of a gull, but, as soon as I do, everything changes. The gulls immediately rise higher, taking their scissor sharp wings and their bloodcurdling cries with them. And in the instance of rising my fear completely disappears, like the jacket I had shed earlier in the heat of the clearing day I feel it slip away into nothing.
Standing at my full height of 5 feet 3 inches, I am suddenly a giant of calmness. No longer acting like a guilty thief caught in the act, I walk slowly and deliberately into the still screaming flock of gulls. But now I notice them acting differently too. No longer do they heckle me. No longer do they come strikingly close but instead fly out over the ocean. Drawing my attention outward, they put on an increasingly curious show. Swooping and circling in the air like clowns, they dance above the waves. Crashing into each other and falling tumbling into the ocean, they put on a mock fight, granting me a most unusual acrobatic display.
Glancing at my feet, ready to take the next step, I suddenly see the reason for all of this, for the whole experience. There, tumbling through the stones, is a small gull chick, a gray-speckled ball of fluff blindly stumbling toward the water. I get it now. The whole thing has been about this, about the gulls protecting this young chick, drawing my attention away from it and perhaps many more that I have not noticed. They have been drawing me, the predator in their midst, away from noticing this most vulnerable member of their colony. I note the chick and quickly move on. Not wanting to cause any more distress, I walk away, tall and steady, in balanced calm, aware that I have just had a most transformative experience.
Finally I stop and look back. Chuck is catching up to me now. With the camera pointing down, he’s still taking photographs, still oblivious. I see that he doesn’t notice the gull chick. I wonder if the gulls will get it back into the nest before the eagles fly over.
As I stand and wait for Chuck, I look back over the popplestones and over the experience I just had as I crossed their vastness. Overcome by fear, I became a fearful being. In the midst of appearing like a predator I became prey. But it was all illusion created by the circumstances. The fear escalated as the gulls detected it, and as I fell for it, fully embracing a sense of impending doom.
Upon realizing that the gulls were treating me like the scared animal that I was indeed portraying, I was able to muster enough energy to enact a shift. Shedding the fear, the illusion that I now saw it as, was a mere physical act. With a shift of my posture, I flung off the fear and regained my equilibrium. In rejecting the fear, I sent the predators away—both the gulls and the fear—and in so doing released myself from being perceived as a predator as well.
While I stand and ponder all of this, the gulls continue their air show. As they circle around I can still look right into their perfectly round beady eyes, but I fully understand the game we’re playing now. I stand without fear, looking back at them in total calm now, aware indeed that they will not attack me, not in this state anyway. Their look is no longer frightening, but almost has a glimmer of humor. “Ha, Ha,” they seem to say, “we really scared you!”
As Chuck draws closer, I see the gulls circling over him too, but he pays them no heed. I see that’s how to do it. He’s done it naturally. Totally focused on his task at hand, intent upon capturing the beauty of this wild, ever-changing landscape we are so privileged to be spending the week in, he hasn’t fallen into the predator’s grip.
“Did you notice what was going on?” I ask.
“I looked up at one point and I couldn’t believe how fast you were going!” he says. “I wondered what the heck you were doing!”
“I was freaking out!” I say and I tell him about my experience.
We laugh and look at the gulls still trying to draw our attention away from their babies. I’m exhausted by my encounter with the nature of fear. I need to get off the sun-drenched rocks and rest in the shade awhile.
“Being on this island is so meaningful. I learned a lot today,” I say, as we sit on a bench and look back over the way we’ve come, over the ocean pounding on the shore, hearing the gulls still calling, some other predator now in their midst. I see that I still carry the small stone in the palm of my hand. I remember at one point along the way, in a moment of intense fear, I’d thought of it as a weapon, something to throw at the gulls, though in reality I could never have done such a thing.
The gulls will not attack you, but they might poop on you. I laugh as I tell Chuck about reading this in the house manual.
“I don’t know about that,” I say. “I sure felt like I was being attacked. Being pooped on would have been nothing compared to what I just experienced. But I see how fear takes over and gains control, so easily really, but in the end I discovered that it was nothing. It didn’t exist as soon as I stood up. It fell away like water rolling off a duck’s back. Once I faced it squarely, however, I saw just how intensely it had held me in its grip.”
As we head back along the cliff, I imagine my fear, lying among the popplestones where I left it, about to be washed out to sea by the incoming tide, and I walk freely once again.
Most humbled by the vastness of it all,