March 30, 2020by Jon Kramer

Dream Catcher

Dream Catcher

Copyright 3-30-20  /   2,170 words
by Jon Kramer

Nonfiction.  These events took place at Asilomar Beach on the morning of March 30, 2020

 As she handed me the charm, I was instructed by Tempest – a generous, and gentle Ojibwa Native who lived a rugged life among the pristine lakes and tall woods of the Border Country – that a proper Dream Catcher should be hung above the bed by three points, representing the traditional Three Sisters of corn, beans, and squash.   To be sure, the charm had powers enough to work regardless of its orientation.  But if you were seriously intent on screening out bad dreams, you might want to take advantage of the added boost the Three Sisters would lend by deploying it horizontally.

Most folks don’t know that, so you see all manner of tourist Dream Catchers hung vertically in windows and on walls like some velvet Elvis painting or plastic Last Supper from Walmart.  I accepted the wisdom Tempest imparted when she made that gift to me in the mid 1970s and have suspended it by the sacred three points ever since.

For decades it hung above my bed.  Wherever I moved, so too did the Dream Catcher.  From the freezing back room of the Alley Agate Shop floor, through hectic college days sleeping on milk crates, to crash-pad futons in studio apartments, I kept that talisman close.  Eventually I was gone on expeditions so much that I didn’t have a bed, so I chose the next-best place and hung it in my van from the rear-view mirror.  It’s been there ever since.  Five vans have come and gone, yet the Dream Catcher still abides.

A few days ago, after more than a million miles of travel in the front window of my various overland vehicles, one of the three sinew attachments let loose and the Dream Catcher flopped to vertical, suspended by only two points.  Now I didn’t consider that to be an immediate concern because, as I said, the charm works in any position.  But it was certainly disconcerting since it had been horizontal for over forty years and helped me cope with all life would throw at me: from natural disasters and seriously close calls, all the way to death experiences – both my own and others.

So I’ve been driving around the last couple days, during this time of Corona-hysteria, thinking I really should reattach that connection on the Dream Catcher.   But one astounding thing leads to another and before you know it, you’re distracted by breaching whales in the distance, and colorful lizards on the trail before you, and fixing a not-quite-broken art-piece slid down the to-do list a little.  You know the story….  Yet, as I cruised around and pondered upon it, I began to think its disconnect is somehow symbolic of what we are all experiencing right now with this Covid-19 pandemic.   It seems one of our three sacred connections has come undone and the whole world has been flipped nearly upside-down by it.   The Web of Life is unwinding…

But not all of it.

Today I went out at dawn to surf the small waves of a fading south swell.  Now, more than ever, the ocean gives me solace and the experience of being able to go out and swim within its fathoms is sublime.   There wasn’t anything very unusual about the surf this morning – it was about as small as you can get and still ride the waves on a board – but it is a great pleasure for those of us that get out there.  My friends and I traded tall stories and small waves as the sun came up.

When in the ocean I always look around to see what wildlife might be joining me.  Other surfers look around too because they’re afraid of sharks.  I do it because I like watching the native creatures enjoying the ocean. It’s their home,  I’m just a guest.  Even so, I feel intensely connected to the ocean and sometimes think I was born in the wrong phylum.  And while I too watch for sharks,  I’ve never run out of the water by seeing one.  Most sharks are harmless, and of the ones that aren’t, only truly big ones are of real concern from my perspective.

There’s a whole world of exotic animals out there! Often we have sea otters, or sea lions, or harbor seals – or all three!  – joining us in the waves. Other times you’ll see dolphins jumping and surfing – yes, surfing!  Dolphins are natural surfers and they surf for fun, just as we do, only they’re a lot better at it than humans on boards.  Whales sometimes breach just outside the wave zone and birds of all kinds abound.   Pelicans, grebes, cormorants, sea gulls, murres, loons, and shearwaters – to name only a few – play among the waves with us.

So this morning I was not surprised to see a small bird in the lineup as I paddled back out after catching a nice long ride.  At first glance I thought it might be a murre –  they sometimes come in close to shore when they cannot find food in deeper waters and are starving.  Julie and I have rescued several murres in the last few years.  Sadly, by the time they wash ashore, they are usually too far gone to survive long.  But a few of the ones we rescued have made it and been returned to the wild.  I was thus alert to the possibility this might be one such avian in distress.  As I got closer, I noticed she was struggling.  And then I saw why – she was thoroughly entangled in some type of filament.

Abandoned fishing nets and fishing line is the stuff of nightmares. Net’s used in the open ocean sometimes break apart during rough weather allowing sections attached to floats to wander with the currents and winds until, many miles later, they get caught up on rocks near shore, after which they ensnare and kill all kinds of animals.

Monofilament fish line is just as bad:  Fishermen cast from shore and lose line and lures at an astonishing rate.   Miles of the stuff is wrapped around rocks all over the Peninsula.  In the cove at Lovers Point – where fishing is not allowed! –  there is an incredible amount of monofilament lines zig-zagging between the rocks underwater.  It’s such a hazard that I carry a knife while snorkeling there – just in case.  While surfing I desperately try not to wipe out and get pushed underwater, least I get tangled up in fishing line and drown as a result.

As I paddled closer I realized just how dire the situation was.  Suddenly, upon seeing this distressed creature, I forgot about surfing and this little bird became the focus of my life.  I felt a desperate need to help right the wrong that it was enduring.  We, as a species, had invented that filament, yet we had ignored its potential dangers and were not thoughtful enough to safeguard against them.  It was not the bird’s fault that it had literally gotten tangled up in the products of our horrible neglect.

I paddled toward her and got within about six feet before she dove under.  It didn’t stay down long and popped up again nearby.  I paddled close again and thought that perhaps there would be a chance to grab her if I got close enough and lunged off my board into the water.  But each time I went for it, she dove under.

About this time another surfer – Sean – noticed what I was doing and asked me what was up.  I told him why I was trying to catch the bird and he immediately joined me in the task.  We approached from two sides now. The bird went under us.  We tried again – same result.  The water was very clear and we could see it swimming underwater.  It seemed to have a problem and would spin around and around in one direction.  When it dove down again, Sean decided to dive in after it.  He came up empty handed.  We tried again.  And again.  On the third attempt at diving he succeeded! and came up with the bird thrashing in his hands.  I grabbed it and tucked it tight against my chest.  Its whole head was bound up in some kind of stretchy plastic cord which wrapped around his feet and wings as well.

Contrary to popular belief, the problem with plastics in the ocean is not that the animals see it as food.  Research has shown that it’s not what the thing looks like, so much as what it smells like, that fools animals into thinking it’s food.  After all, it’s smell that lures most animals to dinner.  You know this yourself whenever you’ve walked down the block in your neighborhood on a nice evening and your nose picks up that tell-tale Bar-B-Que aroma.  You cannot see it, and you may not even know where it’s coming from, but it sure smells good and you can just imagine that rack of ribs, fresh off the grill, waiting for you to dig in …

Every lost water bottle, discarded candy wrapper, or tossed cigarette butt that ends up in the ocean quickly acquires algae and microbes that cling to the petroleum-based debris as it floats around near the surface.  These microbes emit a chemical signal that is the same signal as many marine food sources.  So it becomes a case of mistaken identity as all kinds of animals ingest the debris because it smells and tastes like food.

It’s a serious wake-up call.  We must stop this insane overuse of plastics that we use for everything.  What we do use needs to be kept out of the atmosphere and water.  It’s killing the ocean and, by proxy, killing us.

During the pursuit and capture of the bird, we had been pushed by the waves closer and closer toward the rocks along the north side of beach.  Although the surf was not big, getting hammered into the rocks is never pleasant, I assure you.  More so, if it happened it would likely mean I’d have to let go of the bird to save my own skin.  So, the first order of business was to get the hell out of there!  But holding the bird meant I couldn’t paddle, and without paddling I was going nowhere.

By this time, fortunately, Sean’s friends – Dennis, Josh, and Stephanie – had come over to help.  They towed and pushed me on my board south away from the rocks until we were outside the danger zone and in front of the sandy part of the beach.  Then the fun really began.  Since I couldn’t actually do anything with my hands to help get us to shore, they all took turns pushing me on my surfboard toward the beach.

Meanwhile Sean swam ashore to get a knife for the upcoming operation.  Inevitably, as we got closer to shore, waves sometimes crashed on top of us and we got tumbled.  But I held onto the little bird and eventually we got close enough to shore for me to touch bottom.  Stephanie took my board and I bodysurfed the rest of the way in.  We stumbled up onto the beach and I sat down in the sand.  The others crowded around and we got down to business.  The Covid-19 social distancing rule was thrown directly out the window during our beach operation.

It was a full team effort.  I held the little guy firmly in my lap while Dennis cut the filaments.  Stephanie and Sean took turns holding his head and beak.  Josh pulled the pieces out as they were cut.   The poor little bird was totally bound up with filamentous cord wrapped and tangled all around its feet, and wings, and head.  Its mouth was basically sewn shut and the lines prevented it from even turning its head – that’s why she was swimming in circles.  When we finally got the filaments on its beak clear, we found a knotted mess wrapped all around her tongue inside.   A lot of delicate cutting was necessary to avoid hurting her.

After about 30 minutes of intense beach surgery, she was finally clean of all the line.  It was done.  But would it be enough?  Did we reach her in time?  I held her close for a few brief moments and said a silent prayer.  I stood up and the others moved back.  This is it!, I said This is the moment of truth…   With that I flung her up into the sky and she took off!  Out over the ocean she flew – straight and strong! – over the waves, and above this Corona-infested world where, for a brief time, a few humans came together, ignored the rules, and saved a life not our own.

Now it’s time, I think, to restring the Dream Catcher…