A Lesson from Morro Rock: We Are Not So Different

Falcao Peregrino.
Dai Bang.
Pilgrimstalk.
Wanderfalke.
Hyabusa.
Hmong-nong

That would be peregrine falcon should your Portuguese, Vietnamese, Swedish, German, Japanese, and Lao be a trifle rusty. If you actually are a linguist, please don't take me to task. These are simply the phrases I copied from the notebook Bob Isenberg hands me, scrawled there by visitors from afar -- men with turbans, women with veils, folks with skin of different pales -- all of them come to see Morro Rock, and then are surprised by Isenberg sitting beside the monolithic volcanic plug in his chair.

By Isenberg's count, as of this bright Thursday morning, the notebook contains the term for peregrine falcon in 71 languages.

"Pages and pages," he says, leafing through the notebook. "Here's one from the other day. Alap-alap kawah. Bahasa Indonesian."

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It's just a fun thing, this United Nations guest book, though I do notice, oddly, that virtually every term rolls off the tongue as lightly as a peregrine falcon makes its looping rises into the air, which, in falconer's terms (pretty much another foreign language) is called "ringing up." You see, peregrine falcons nest here at Morro Rock, which is why folks from around the globe stop beside the laconic Isenberg, sitting in his chair, and, if they are lucky, peer through his tripod mounted spotting scope to view one of the animal kingdom's most magnificent creatures.

"They are the fastest living thing," says Isenberg, who takes justifiable pride in the peregrine. "They clocked one at 243 miles an hour. Electronically. But that may not be as fast as they can go."

Should you travel to Morro Rock (and you should), you are apt to meet Isenberg. He's been there, off and on, since 1969. He's easy to find. In his words, "Look for the guy with the tripod." Isenberg is an observer and a tabulator. By his reckoning, he has logged over 17,000 hours observing peregrine falcons at Morro Rock (and other locales along the Central Coast). Just writing that is enough to make my eyeballs bleed. Looking at the falcon derivations in the notebook doesn't help any either. Mankind may be an amalgam of diverse cultures, but we share sloppy writing in common. Isenberg's notebook could be filled with words for peregrine, but it might also be a collection of doctor's prescriptions.

You'll find Isenberg in the south parking lot at Morro Rock which, for the directionally impaired, is on the side of Morro Rock where the wind whops the least. Isenberg is a member of the Pacific Coast Peregrine Watch which has their own natty website and facebook page with lots of photos and stories about the impressive bird. Their motto is "Education through Observation," a credo which shouldn't apply to just falconers.

Fervently adopting this motto, Isenberg has garnered quite an education. He has watched peregrines fight. He has seen them hatch, fledge, hunt, and mate. These observations are not a result of luck. Isenberg has employed some serious boots to the ground.

"I've been here every day for the past four years," he says. "Before that, I came as often as I could."

When it comes to observation, Isenberg makes Thoreau look like Snooky with even more ADD.

Not that Isenberg will tell you this. He is far more interested in falcons.

You won't always see peregrines at Morro Rock, but my good luck, on the day I visit a peregrine is perched high up on the stony south wall.

"Right there," says Isenberg.

I peer at the rock face. In my defense Morro Rock is 573 feet high.

Ah, yes. I see it. Right there, on that ledge.

"That's a bush. To the right."

I scrunch up my face. I can feel Isenberg's eyes on me. I know he is studying me, too.
I am getting ready to lie when Isenberg says, "Never mind. You'll have better luck with the scope."

I looked through the spotting scope, which Isenberg has trained so that the falcon stands smack dab in the crosshairs. The falcon looks right back at me.

I actually feel goose bumps rising. A single word comes to mind. Regal.

"He's soaking wet," says Isenberg, since he knows I can't tell. "He just took a bath."

I am no birder. I am interested in birds only when I am holding a donut in my hand or standing beneath a cloud of gulls, or both. I am transfixed by the falcon. I do not move.

Isenberg watches me.

When I finally pull away from the scope and look at him, he laughs softly.

"They have that effect on people," he says.

Isenberg is full of peregrine stories and he tells me a few. There are lots more stories on the Pacific Coast Peregrine Watch website and facebook page. Many of the Morro Rock falcons, past and present, have been given names: Millie, Rudy, and, my personal favorite, Surfer, so named for his pale bleached blond hairdo, and his propensity to not play well with others.

"He was very precocious and very much a loner," Isenberg tells me. "He was part of a cast of three falcons and he was so much farther ahead of the others in every respect, really agile and incredibly coordinated. As they got older and ready to fledge, the other two would flap their wings to strengthen their muscles. Surfer just flew straight off the ledge and across the bay to the power plant and landed on the roof. We were astonished. First time out, they might fly fifty feet and crash in a bush."

Isenberg pauses for a moment to savor this memory, in much the same way an oenophile thinks back on a particularly divine wine.

But even for a novitiate like me, there is something hypnotic and mesmerizing about the falcon simply at rest. It's true, the bird I am watching hasn't ruffled a feather, but it doesn't matter. Maybe it's the stories Isenberg tells me as I peer through the spotting scope, eyes glued to the bird. Maybe it's the way the peregrine stares back at me as if it rules the world. Maybe it's the bird's perfect form, compact, with nothing out of place, like a missile with feathers. It is poetry, with wings.

Other people are beginning to gather around the scope. I wish them away but to no avail. Soon they are scuffing the ground with their feet and making polite coughs.

Isenberg has stepped into an adjacent trailer. Finally the boldest of the interlopers speaks.

"I can't see it," he says deferentially. "It must have been really hard for you to spot it at first on all that rock."

Clearly he has mistaken me for a falcon aficionado, possibly because I am still clutching the notebook in my hand, possibly because I am staring at the falcon as if I might take it home.

Rising reluctantly from the scope, I glance to the trailer to make sure Isenberg is still inside.

"No," I say. "I found him easily, just to the right of that bush."

Isenberg comes out of the trailer. I realize I am still standing proprietarily beside the scope. There are even more people now, their faces, black, white, and brown, twitching with anxiety.

Isenberg nods to me.

"He's a beautiful bird, isn't he?" he says, smiling a smile I recognize from kindergarten. Give someone else a turn.

With regal munificence, I relinquish my place. I walk away, but I continued to observe. More people gather. I watch Isenberg point toward the sheer rock face and then gesture to the scope, his newest disciples bending to look. I see how each of them goes still, and how they remain stooped to the scope for far longer than Miss Manners would allow, and how, when they finally step away, they continue to stare up at the cliff as if the bush has just burst into flame. One man wears a long robe -- Middle Eastern, perhaps, or African -- and I wonder if Isenberg will notch a 72nd phrase. When the robed man spies the peregrine, he raises his hands over his head and they do a little jig in the air.

I walk to the other side of Morro Rock and sit on a bench and watch the sea. Along the vast sweep of bay, white breakers ran away into the rolling hill distance. The wind sings and across Morro Rock's vertiginous face gulls ride the wind's swift currents. There are places in this world that make you glad you're alive, and California has its unfair share of them. How lucky we are to live here.

I think of the notebook and the scrawlings; from India, from Italy, from Kazakhstan, and Peru. I think of the robed man, hands dancing, the light in Isenberg's eyes and my own goose bump rise.

We are not so different.

Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine is the author of eight books and lives in Ventura. His most recent novel, “Juncture,” is a cerebral “Jaws”; a suspense-filled thriller, a story of primal love and our changing oceans and, perhaps, a final fork in the road.
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