At the Bus Stop, Strangers in a Strange Land

Least Of All
Least Of All | Photo: Alan Vernon | Flickr: Creative Commons License

I waited for a Long Beach bus opposite the last bit of never-built land in my neighborhood. It seems odd that these few acres, out of tens of thousands stretching as far as the eye can see, are empty still.

They're hardly what anyone might identify as natural, although they're relatively untouched even after 65 years of suburbanization.

A fierce, insistent piping came from the empty lot over the sound of traffic on the boulevard. In the middle of the lot, two pairs of some kind of shorebird stood over nesting scrapes in the gravel.

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I could not tell what sort of birds they were, a fault of bad eyesight. Perhaps they were sandpipers. Whatever they were, the little birds were out of place. They should have been, I suppose, at the gravely margin of a beach above the highest tides of summer.

I figure that the houses and hotels and the people in them that fill up much of the ocean edge of Los Angeles had crowded out these presumed sandpipers. They were six or seven miles from the nearest beach. An unbuilt lot surrounded by houses and shops was the nearest equivalent.

The little birds skittered across the gravel, agitated by the presence of five or six crows a few dozen feet away.

One of the crows paced along the boundary of the little birds' fear, rose hardly a foot or two above the ground, and glided inward. A little bird ran to confront the crow and then half flew, half ran on a vector away from its scrape, piping shrilly. Another crow rose and glided over the spot where the sandpiper had stood.

The feints and dashes by the little birds and the crows' cooperative patrol continued, sometimes taking both the crow and the shorebird into one of the crepe myrtle trees nearby. The birds never went very high or very far from the middle of the empty lot.

Occasionally, the crows lifted off in a group, circled high over the lot, but settled again on the gravel just outside the little birds' vigilance.

The crows on the lot left before my bus arrived, turned west over some eucalyptus and ficus trees, and roused 20 or 30 more crows perched there into a vortex of wings and bodies like so much torn construction paper silhouetted and silent against the yellowish sky.

The crows flew up and off. The piping of the little birds on the empty lot died away.

None of us -- crows, presumed sandpipers, and watcher -- is fully native to the place where this happened, although I began my life here and the crows, too, although their ubiquity in my suburb is relatively recent. And I cannot say that the interaction of the crows and the little birds and I was "natural" or even part of "Nature." I'm not sure that kind of "Nature" exists, except as something some other watchers see (as Timothy Morton has suggested).

On a patch of dirt the color of the full moon, something played out in a strange place among strangers. It had the quality of life and death for some of them. I found no metaphors in what happened and kept only this insignificant memory.

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