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The Pelican Brief

"It's good to re-learn the lessons of effort and effortlessness and remember them. Even though, like cats, birds remember us not at all."

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Consider the state bird.

No, not the state. The bird. The pelican. The gawky lord, the one who can fill his belly, yes he can. The one who hangs around Louisiana's state seal, right near the slogan "Union, Justice, Confidence," though it never seemed that the pelican had much to do with any of those qualities. Come to think of it, it never seemed that most Louisianians had much to do with any of those qualities either.

It seems as if the pelican -- despite their aversion to and from humans, i.e. Did you ever hear of someone's pet pelican? -- finds work as a symbolic representative of something bigger than itself. I well remember from my boyhood Catholicism the painting in the rear of most churches. Like much of Roman iconography, it had a touch of the lurid about it; a mother pelican with a cluster of open-beaked offspring feeding on her blood dripping from her breast. The story we were told was that the pelican represented Christ and the church, feeding their dependents with their own wounds. Though in later years I don't remember reading that pelicans were any better mothers than, say, river otters, those happiest of all animal creatures. ...

Nevertheless, pelicans are one of modern zoology's success stories and can be seen all along the lakeshore when the weather's good and it's plenty good on this afternoon. An afternoon just as wonderful as the poets imagine springtime to be. An afternoon to gawk at. It's almost as if, post-Katrina, the weather is trying to make it up to us, trying to win back our affection. ...

There's a large flock of pelicans on hand, some in repose and nearby enough for some close-ups. In them, you note that pelicans always look like they're looking down their noses at everything and that's a long way to look. To me they're all old, born that way, like orangutans. Or pelicans. Now I have never over-subscribed to the adage of he's-so-ugly-he's-cut that you often hear ascribed to certain breeds of dogs and Californians, so I won't dare apply it to the pelican. But dogs and Californians can't fly on their own, and it's there where Louisiana's mascot finds his true beauty.

Watch this pair leave their pilings and go up together; pelicans usually travel unflocked but seldom alone. As they climb and circle, I come round to this inquiry: How is it that a pelican in a descending glide can control his rate of fall, check it only inches from the water surface and lift again to make an adjusted landing? There are no visible bodily corrections, the wings don't flap or fold, the feet are invisible. One of life's grand little mysteries; I don't want to know the answers. I'm enjoying the questions too much. ...

A few afternoons after, only a single pair was visible, flying magnificently unperturbed among a hundred gulls, which were wheeling around unfocused while the pelicans cruised with startling focus. There were a number of people sitting along the shore with fishing poles in their hands. The pelicans floated high, swooped, scored. All the while, the human fishermen sat quietly catching nothing.

Quiet. Pelicans seem to appreciate it, too. As I watch them move around quietly, I am reminded how slight are the footprints that birds leave on our world. Yeah, occasionally they splatter our windshields or leave a road-kill carcass. But in the main, they populate our world by the hundreds or thousands and we are no more aware of them than we are of crickets or doodlebugs. Air-conditioners, cars, TV sets, all have sealed off bird voices from our ears so all we can have of them we must have through our eyes. So try to make time to look at them, these lightest of neighbors, those who share our world completely with a minimum of intrusion. How quickly they lift themselves from our troubles! It seems so effortless, too; it's good to sometimes observe how much effort can be involved in the act of flying. It's good, too, to re-learn the lessons of effort and effortlessness and remember them. Even though, like cats, birds remember us not at all. ...

On this morning a half-dozen pelicans are operating near shore in an area about as big as a football field. Usually in pair, they are fishing, rising slightly from the water, skimming a short flight, then striking in a collapsing flop so you can see their bills knife under the water. It's as if a ballerina were going along en pointe, and then finished in a lunging plunge to the point of her chin. It is grace that looks clumsy at some interval. It is a gawky lord. ...

Many moons past, there was a professional baseball team in New Orleans, and their nickname was the Pelicans. Everyone called them that or sometimes "The Pels," which was very popular with those who wrote headlines for the newspaper's sports pages.

I didn't know another team with the pelican mascot then, and I don't know one now. I don't want to know. The New Orleans Pelicans. If you know another team, say the Wes Jacksonville (J.C.) Pels or the Key Largo Pelicans of the Class C Georgia-Florida League, please don't let me know.

Some things are best left undiscovered. This is very likely one of those.

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