ISSRM 2019: Literal and figurative reflections of a pelican

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The OI partnered with the International Symposium on Society and Resource Management for their 2019 conference held at UW Oshkosh this past June. Participants were invited to submit writings based upon their experiences. This is one of those writings.

Dr. Jonathan Hicks, Assistant Professor, Department of Recreation, Parks, and Leisure Services at Minnesota State University, Mankato

A number of years ago, during travels to coastal Texas, I came across a boardwalk that led out over the water. It was a frequent stop for birders looking to see something exciting.

On the boardwalk was a chalkboard, I assume intended to encouraged birders to keep a log of the birds they had seen. Only one thing was written on the chalkboard. In big, almost scripted letters, it read: For God So Loved The World He Gave Us Pelicans.

Many years later, I am not sure how much I agree with that sentiment, but I do know it came to mind as I sat alone tonight next to the Fox River. I only intended to sit for a few minutes, but instead stayed quite a bit longer.

Overhead was the unmistakable flight pattern of the American White Pelican. The modern day equivalent of the pterodactyl, they are a few teeth away from being the things of nightmares. Instead, they are often seen as big and lumbering; perhaps even silly.

For me, they are quite different. To be in a place with pelicans, is to be in a place that does not suck. Admittedly, far from profound, but I have found it to be true. Pelicans do not spend time in places without value. They are unparalleled judges of character.

For God So Loved The World He Gave Us Pelicans.

Earlier today, I gave a presentation at the ISSRM Conference to an audience that had literally gathered from around the globe. To be sure, they were not there for me, but they were there nonetheless.

During my presentation I talked about my research; something I call Wildlife-Inspired Awe. I often joke that what I study is stuff that everyone already knows. When I speak, I share stories that were shared with me of people who connected with a wild animal.

The thing I have found over the years is that when pressed, virtually everyone has a story about a duck or a squirrel or a whale or a moose that they spent just a little bit of time with but ultimately never forgot.

Think back to a time when a bear walked into your campsite; when a deer ran out in front of your car; when a raccoon raided your bird feeder. You may have felt many things, but if you still remember that story – perhaps can still even picture it – chances are you felt Wildlife-Inspired Awe.

And so I looked up at the lone pelican overhead. I wondered about its story. It was alone, and I was alone… and while I wanted that to hold some deeper meaning, the parallels seemed to end there.

The sun was slowly losing its ambition, settling into sleep behind the Oshkosh Avenue Bridge. Hues of pink and purple splashed steadily across the river, brightly coating the mallards floating past and paying me very little mind. In the background I heard the distress call of a killdeer, doing its best to make a home on the pavement of the old manufacturing district. I can see no intruders from my vantage, so I am left to wonder what phantoms might haunt that old space.

It is not long before the pelican is out of sight. Despite our shared solitude, it seems the pelican has places to be. Perhaps it seeks to join its kin at Terrell’s Island. Who says you can’t go home?

I allow myself to sink as much as one can into the rock. I am still and quiet, perhaps for the first time since arriving in Oshkosh four days earlier. It is a place that reminds me of my hometown, Rockford, Illinois.

It is my first visit to Oshkosh, but it feels familiar… and not just because I grew up in my own version of Winnebago County. The old factories with countless stories to tell; the downtown area seeking to give itself new life; the people at the bar who I sit next to that tell stories hinting at hope but not optimism. Even the river flowing through the center of town reminds me of home; filled to the brim and yet somehow still spread too thin. I know and love that spirit. I grew up enveloped in one very similar.

The wildlife here seems to share the same attitude; they are not necessarily comfortable, but they are Home. Many of the international scholars who are in town this week would call this feeling a ‘Sense of Place.’ I wonder if, like me sitting on this rock, perhaps Home is not just the place we intended to rest but ended up staying awhile.

Regardless, there is value to having a place to call home, even if it has imperfections. The kind folks at the bar seemed to know that, and so too does the frog that leaps out from beneath my rock to settle in the middle of Wiouwash Trail. It is unimpressed by my presence, and instead seems content to try to harness the last few rays of sun.

Meanwhile, cormorants fly low to the water, a kingbird perches proudly from atop the tallest tree, and gulls scream at each other as though they had just watched Aaron Rodgers throw a touchdown. Never before has it seemed so positive to suggest that a place was “for the birds.” I am simply part of the background, and it feels good.

As I sit, I am reminded of why I started doing research. I have been fortunate to feel an incredible amount of awe, and I wanted to give others a platform to share their stories. I am reminded of the countless tales of wildlife burned into my brain on evenings not unlike this one.

I get lost for a moment thinking of the first opossum I ever saw in my backyard as a kid and the first moose I saw as an adult while wandering through Colorado. I am reminded of brilliant white whooping cranes in Necedah and of a shadow-like bear near Ashland. But mostly, I breathe deeply and try to relish the moment.

Soon the land and water are blanketed in dark. I stand up and take one more look at the rainbow-colored lights of the bridge twinkling in the water. Perhaps we do not appreciate Home until after we leave it. Perhaps that is true of the pelican as well. Perhaps someday, inspired by awe-filled memories, we will all find Home. Until then, I am content to trust the pelicans. After all, they never spend time in places that suck.

Thank you for letting me call Oshkosh home this week.

Dr. Jonathan Hicks is a former F.I.B. who grew up in Rockford and studied at the University of Illinois before moving with his wife to Mankato, Minnesota.

Banner image by Justin Mitchell for the Oshkosh Independent.

Read ISSRM 2019: Together and Listening by Dr. Alexis F. Piper.

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Justin R. Mitchell

Justin is the founding editor of the Oshkosh Independent.

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