Oh Say Can You See? (Kingfisher – Long Island Sound)

Credit: Mark Seth Lender


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Flap-flap glide, flap-flap glide.

Kingfisher powers down the flotsam line headed for the perch he most prefers, that driftwood pole on the end of the breakwater someone’s wedged between the stones. Tied to that pole is an American Flag.

Maybe it is the angle of the pole pitched out from the boulders so he can see, some pocket in the gravely bottom where fish like to hide. Maybe in the breeze the wavy-gravy of the flag so gallantly streaming distracts the fish below. Or that he’s all to himself out there and the high commanding view fifty yards from shore. 

Kingfisher dives! 

An underwater thrust of his wings, he rockets into the glare. Lands, shaking salt water from his feathers. And looks and looks and looks again, all sides, and doesn’t find, a thing. Not a creature of must and should, unlike the tethered ship of state he is a citizen of the air. Where and when the fishing’s good, his only country.

Sometimes from the periwinkle crusted groin down the beach a ways he will rise, and plummet into the brine! A fish then in his bill every time. And this will be his land, till the little shells are covered by the tide. Or instead the last seaward piling with its trailing beard of seaweed, where young tautog and sanddabs weave between the strands.

Hover – Hover – Hover – PLUNGE! 

Until the day’s last gleaming…

By dawn’s early light, Kingfisher will find the flag still there, and take possession (of what belongs to only time and space). Leaping into flight kingfisher barrel rolls on wings of angel blue! That no hawk or falcon can surprise from up, or down, or from the blind side.

Flap-flap glide, flap-flap glide.

Until he disappears from sight…

Cirrus clouds come curling, sweeping color from the sky and the ocean far below its mirror. Winter will come and tear the Stars and Stripes to tatters. When Summer returns, where plankton bloom and silverside and bunker gather, the fishing will be good, and there Kingfisher’s true and only flag will fly.

From which the Cognoscenti derive:

Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria, Piscare!

(Sweet and Proper it is to Fish for One’s Country!)


Field Note:

This story was written on the Fourth of July. Kingfisher had been around for several days, his visits as always brief. Images, sound, the feel of the day percolating in the deep wellspring of the mind. What makes artesian words pour out of that dark pre-verbal place the way they do ?  Can’t explain. Except when you are really lucky that’s the way it is. But of course, consciously or not the writing  is going on all the time. Case in point this story’s last line: 

Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria, Piscare!  

Thinking about flag, patriotism and its inescapable concomitant of war, that Wilfred Owen came to me was almost a given. His justly famous poem is about the incomprehensible horror of men being gassed in the trenches of WWI (in Woodrow Wilson’s hollow phrase, The War to End All Wars). Owen’s last line, Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria, Mori was meant in irony: Sweet and Proper to Die For Ones Country. “To Fish For One’s Country” retains the irony and redacts the bitterness. Or at least, that was my intent. 

Irony, when it comes to the kingfisher, is an intolerance of human presence greater than any bird I know including nesting male bald eagles who object to proximity of less than a tenth of a mile. After the nestlings fledge eagles relax. A little. Kingfisher? Never. All he has to do is see you  and he will chatter in anger, that’s just the way he is. This despite that his territory is only of the moment – literally, fluid. And in its defense no kingfishers ever die. 


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For more on the creatures of Kingfisher’s fluid territory, check out Smeagull’s Guide to Wildlife here

Mark Seth Lender’s book of photography, a work in progress, can be seen here