Nature Bats Last: A Lesson from Southern California's Local Islands

The seasonal crowds of Point Bennett, San Miguel Island, Channel Islands National Park in California.
The seasonal crowds of Point Bennett, San Miguel Island, Channel Islands National Park in California. | Photo:minkfink58/Flickr/Creative Commons License

People in front of our post office have many causes. I enjoy going to the post office just to see what they are. Over the years I have encountered folks championing for many things: the end of domestic abuse, the beginning of the ethical treatment of animals, the banning of the ivory trade in Thailand, the legalization of marijuana, more pepperoni on pizza (it is possible these last two causes were related).

Recently, in front of our post office, a man held a familiar sign.

"The World is Ending."

I have seen this sign before. I'm betting you have, too. These signs are generally general, allowing the sign maker to hedge his or her bets. And, of course, they are right. One day the world, for us, will end. No species lasts forever.

I was curious about this man's thoughts. He seemed lucid and calm, sitting cross-legged atop a wall, smoking a cigarette and watching his fellows rush into the post office with packages and missives that, if he was right, might be pointless.

I hesitated and then walked over to him. It is not always easy approaching strangers, but I am rarely disappointed when I do.

Gazing up at him, I held up the envelope.

"I'm wondering if I should mail this," I said.

He regarded me. He took a drag on his cigarette.

Exhaling, he said, "What is it?"

"A check."

He was neither hurried nor addled.

"You could give it to me."

"Would it be a short-term or a long-term loan?"

This earned me a smile.

"Hard to say."

I have learned that you don't learn anything if you don't ask. I do not question everyone who camps in front of our post office, for some of them are mumblers with strange tics and jumpy eyes. But this man sat serene as the Dalai Lama, encased in a cloud of smoke.

"Do you think many people believe you?" I ask.

"Nope. I'm pretty sure most of them don't even pay any attention to me."

"Then why are you sitting here?"

"Because it's important. And it's a good place to bum smokes. Got a smoke?"

I have a friend, Ian Williams. Ian is a park ranger who works out on San Miguel Island, one of the five islands that comprise Channel Islands National Park off the shore here. Ian spends a lot of time away from his fellow man -- San Miguel Island is quite remote -- perhaps this is why he is both quiet and wise.

Ian once said something that never left me.

"Nature bats last."

Story continues below

At the time, I was camping on San Miguel Island. On this particular day Ian and I had hiked out to Point Bennett, a vast spread of white beach and dark rock upon which sprawled several hundred sea lions, with a mix of elephant seals and northern fur seals thrown in. San Miguel Island is an important pinniped haul out and rookery. In the summer just past, Ian told me, some 25,000 sea lion pups had been born on San Miguel. Performing simple extrapolation, pinniped researchers figured on 25,000 moms, and at least 25,000 males and juveniles during the breeding season. Seventy-five thousand sea lions in rough sum; never mind the other species of pinnipeds.

Ian and I crouched behind a rise in the dunes. It was spring now and most of the pinnipeds were gone, but it still made me feel good just to think of that vast blubbery spread, a paean to life's continuity.

"It's wonderful to think of so much life in one place," I said.

Ian smiled.

"Yep," he said. "It's a population that would seed some California cities."

San Miguel Island had once been home to ranching and bombing (thanks to the Navy), but now both of these entities are gone, the Park Service now overseeing the natural course of things.

I asked Ian how the island was recovering after a long history of assault by man. Ian told me the island was slowly returning to itself.

That's when he turned to me and smiled.

"Like they say, Nature bats last."

Out on the beach, the sea lions lolled, liquid-eyed beneath the open sky.

I am an optimist by nature and also because it's easier -- pessimism is, well, so draining and dark. But like my new post office friend, I am not entirely optimistic about the direction we are heading. Polluted oceans, ruined reefs, great swaths of forest slashed and burned, rivers reduced to curdled brown eddying, skies of filth and soot. Outside of epoch ending comet strikes, our planet has never witnessed cataclysm like this. Never before have such terrible changes been wrought by a single species. Mankind is making the wrong kind of history.

The average species lasts a few million years. We may not even make the average.

Just because we have an opposable thumb, doesn't mean we can't stick it in our eye.

One day the world, for us, will end. No species lasts forever. Regarding this, I think Ian and my post office friend would agree.

One day great hordes of sea lions may loll on the beach at Santa Monica, watching with liquid-eyed disinterest as ravens poke curiously at the skeletal remnants of amusement rides.


It's hard to say.

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