To write a book is a winding journey leading to many revisions and cuts until the final version is honed like a sharpened knife. What moves the story forward? What’s a tangent? So it was that I came to cut most of the sections related to my stay at or near Mesa Refuge, “a place for writing on the edge,” just above the town of Point Reyes Station, California. As one expression of my gratitude for that gift of early explorations and scribbles on kingfishers, I’m sharing one excerpt that will not appear in my forthcoming book (now at the printer), Halcyon Journey, In Search of the Belted Kingfisher.
In this cut section, I’d driven from Montana across Oregon and south along the coast into California to meet my friend Sandra in November of 2015:
“… finally arriving in Point Reyes Station, I jumped from the truck and into Sandra’s arms. She’d stepped off a bus a few hours earlier for her two-week writer’s residency at Mesa Refuge, where I had first contemplated kingfishers seven years earlier. I would camp and write three miles away. Then, together we would meander south down the California coast and east to the Sonoran desert of Arizona.
Within minutes of setting up camp under the spreading arms of an oak tree, I heard the notes of the incoming kingfisher. The halcyon bird mused upon Olema Creek, pooling and curling toward the Pacific Ocean. She lifted her royal head, and I was smitten all over again.
Her wings fanned the salty air. Too soon, she was off to trace the winding waters spangled in duckweed, low to the sequestered wood ducks, and low past overhanging trees. Her sinuous flight would take her past the confluence of Olema with Lagunitas Creek and into Tomales Bay. Then, this Halcyon of Olema might angle toward the eastern shore below the Thoreauvian shack where Sandra was writing.
At Mesa Refuge, I’d scrawled initial ideas on happiness and kingfishers with the window open to lavender and bee hum. Every day, I’d seek the real birds. Once, two kingfishers chattered in a territorial ricochet of notes by Lagunitas Creek. After the pair clouded off to the bay, I pressed my arms against my sides, with palms out and shoulders back. Leaning forward to study the water, I pictured my nose growing like Pinocchio’s until it became beak-like. A twig-like shadow flitted upstream in the transparent waters glossing over the shallow, sandy bottom. My muscles tensed. The minnow and telltale shadow streaked away. Water striders skittered upon the surface, held up by pockets of trapped air under each slender foot.
Heading back up the hill to Mesa Refuge that day, I’d thought of the words I’d read in the wooden shack, from the Alaskan artist Ray Troll. “It’s not uncommon for me to have dreams of fish floating in the sky. I wondered if a bird like the belted kingfisher, which spends nearly all its’ waking energy tracking the movements of fish, spends its nights dreaming of them as well.”
I have come to know that if you spend enough time tracking kingfishers, you will dream of them. Burrowing under my quilt the first night after meeting Sandra, the constellation Orion was the bold archer in the sky, and beyond shone the Pleiades cluster, where the seven sister stars blinked with Alcyone at the center. Seven. There’s that number again—seven years since the quest started, and seven chicks the kingfishers ought to raise in a burrow.
Even the word Halcyon is seven letters long, something I had to contend with when I decided to personalize my license plate, which allows for six letters. Fortunately, the scientific name for the belted kingfisher species is six. My plate read ALCYON on a Montana Audubon design featuring an American avocet, ruddy duck, Lewis’s woodpecker, and a tiding of magpies.
On my dashboard, I had affixed a porcelain male belted kingfisher ornament. Inside the camper, Halcyon and Ceyx perched on knotty wood. The full-sized, rough-hewn ceramic kingfishers traveled inside the sink, protected by my pillow, and when I popped up, I placed them on a counter and swiveled them so their bills touched, or turned them away in typical courtship mode. These are not snuggly birds, unless inside the burrow with a brood of chicks. Sometimes I took the pair outside like decoys that had yet to attract the notice of a kingfisher, too dignified to give them a second glance.
Within my nomadic refuge, I wrote at a chessboard-sized table and plugged in my laptop to an adapter, powered by the sun. I hung a string of Moroccan-themed, golden orb lights and another bearing cheery sunflowers that gave a soft, intimate beam. A Virgin de Guadelupe pillar candle burned in mornings and evenings, shielding me from harm and encouraging my prose. I built campfires and held my hands over the flames.
At Point Reyes, Sandra and I took breaks from our solitary writing to talk about our books and our lives, by the campfire, on a hike, or sharing a meal. We listened to a kingfisher on Lagunitas Creek while picnicking on a tiny sandy beach.
One night, we joined a guided kayaking tour on Tomales Bay. There, under a bewilderment of stars of the Milky Way, we dipped our paddles into salty wavelets. Every stroke awakened glittery silver sparks illuminating the black sea. Bioluminescence. Swishing my hand into the cold water and twirling constellations, I was a child at play among diatoms, tiny sea creatures emitting light. Suspended in the universe of stars above and below, anything felt possible.”