Jenny has this way of listening to people around her, and when they say something she thinks might work in her blog, she invites us to write for it. “That would make a good blog post,” she says. Her ever-lovely smile makes you want to write it. This is not the blog post I told Jenny I would write, a reflection on how my relationship with certain literary texts has changed as I have aged. I may still write that one.
In the meantime, she sent me a podcast about a 62 year old Laysan albatross who this year hatched and raised a chick on Midway atoll in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Extraordinary! I thought. A bird still making babies at 62? I went looking for more information.
Turns out this particular bird was first banded in my birth year, 1956. Midway is smack dab in the middle of the Pacific, about halfway between North America and Asia, and 1325 miles west northwest of Honolulu. A small island, 2.4 square miles of land, Midway is a classic atoll. In sixth grade I built a series of four small clay models that sat for years on the front edge of one of my bookcases (bookcases now in Jenny’s living room), showing in cross section the stages of atoll formation, starting with the eruption of a new seabed volcano, with coral reefs growing up around the volcanic island as its enormous weight causes it to slowly subside beneath the waves. In the end, there is a narrow ring of coral islands around a central lagoon, miles wide. That is Midway (threatened, like all coral islands, by ocean acidification due to global warming), which, 28 million years of continental-drift ago, sat above the same hotspot now forming the big island of Hawaii. It is home to thousands upon thousands of birds, among them the world’s largest colony of Laysan albatross.
Theodore Roosevelt imagined Midway’s strategic importance, empire builder that he was, and began developing a naval air station there in 1903; at its height from the 1930’s through the 60’s, many thousands of humans were stationed there. It was bombed, along with Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, and six months later was the site of a decisive naval battle, that turned the tide against the Japanese in WW II. The base was decommissioned in 1993 and turned to a wildlife refuge, though the Navy is still cleaning up environmental contamination. In 1956 researchers were trying to figure out why so many albatross were striking navy vessels, damaging the ships—and no doubt also birds. That research miraculously sustains. Curious, isn’t it, how we humans learn so much over time, though not necessarily about the often self-interested things to which we first pay attention? (There is so much we don’t know, which can lead to such thoughtless destruction of things we find, too late, we treasure. So much it has not occurred to us might be worthy of our attention, if we could just figure out the right questions to ask.)
We like to give the objects of our inquiry names, by the way. A kind of anthropomorphism, wanting a relationship with the things we study, and relationships often encourage us to pay attention. This bird is called Wisdom, what we aspire to, so often unsuccessfully, as we age. And we do not know for sure that Wisdom is 62. Laysan albatross do not mate and breed until they are seven or eight. You have to catch a bird to band it. Albatross are built for flight with their six foot wingspan, and fly they do, pretty much all the time, except when they are sitting on a nest. Wisdom may well be older than 62.
It is pure chance that, 57 year after she was first banded, that we still know about Wisdom. Tracking bands affixed to bird legs have life cycles—such cycles are the theme of this contemplation, about which I’ll say more in a moment—and generally fall off within 20 years. Wisdom has had six bands, all replaced before the previous fell off. Because so few Laysan albatross have a history of continuous banding, we don’t know whether Wisdom is an anomaly or the norm. Bearing young at 62 might not be so special, for an albatross.
There is much more that is fascinating about Wisdom, but I have other goals in this writing. I encourage you to Google Wisdom, and learn more for yourself. This Gero-Punk Contemplation is about something I have learned from Jenny, not about aging per se, but rather about what Jenny describes as being conscious of where we are in the cycles that everyone, and everything, pass through as we travel through the life course.
As it happens Jenny told me about Wisdom the morning after my oldest friend, Eric Einspruch, visited me for the first time in my new home. I have known Eric for almost 40 years, and we have seen a lot of cycles in each other’s lives. I live with my 19 year old son, Fergus. Eric’s only child, Luca, is in second grade this year—Eric came to parenthood even later than I, and I was 37 when Fergus was born. Eric is an educational researcher and lives on soft money. For years, one of the contracts held by the company he worked for was a government funded one for gathering data on drug use in high schools in Washington State.
When Eric came to visit our new home, Fergus finally asked a question he had been puzzling about for years: Why in the world did researchers like Eric think high school students told the truth on those drug use surveys? He, Fergus, certainly never did. Good examiner of the human condition that he is, Eric responded to that question with questions of his own: Did Fergus underreport or overreport his drug and alcohol use? Did he answer with the same patterns about alcohol as he did for other drugs? Or was he more honest about some things than others? Did he think his peers all answered in the same way, or did some overreport and others underreport? Over the years, was his pattern of answering consistent, or did he change the way he responded to the survey from year to year? In the end, Eric said, he and his peer researchers assume the patterns of how students respond stays consistent over time, not individually, but as an aggregate, the sum results of all answers, and thus the trend lines are valid, even if they suspect an overall pattern of underreporting. And if the data shows, say, that 40% of high school seniors have drunk alcohol in the last month, or if 10% of all students have considered suicide in the last year, that is enough information to act on, even if the data may not be absolutely accurate.
Later that evening, as we sat over drinks, Eric was reflecting, in the way that grown ups do, on a photograph he had taken though the screen door of my then farmhouse of baby Fergus on all fours, before he had even learned to stand up. How had it happened that Fergus was now 19, in his second year of college? And he reflected too about the fact that he, Eric, will be 65 by the time his son, Luca, graduates from high school.
So when Jenny sent me the podcast about Wisdom the albatross hatching a healthy chick at age 62, it got me thinking about the long gestation and slow maturation of humans. Wisdom will still be 62, or maybe 63, when her hatchlings are fledged and on their own.
Now, Jenny has written in the Gero-Punk Project about her daughter Isobel, and her mother Susie, and the place she finds herself in her own travels through her life course. And she has written about the curious way in which our four footed friends, in her case her enthusiastic canine companion, Happy, have life courses different in duration than do humans, how odd it is to look in their eyes and see that while they were once younger than us, they are now older, and looking back with their own version of the wisdom of age.
But thinking about Wisdom the albatross and her hatchling, and Eric and I and our boys, or in my case young man, I was struck by how the path of the life course, the turn of the cycle, may be the same—birth, maturation, bearing and raising young, and perhaps the perspective that comes with age—but the way those cycles lay over each other are different. I was thinking about how the cycle of rearing young for so many species lays differently over the life course than it does for us.
When we say someone or some thing is 62, what we mean is that they have lived on this planet for 62 cycles of our planet around our sun. And because of the tilt of our planet’s axis and the different amount of the sun’s warmth that soaks into the surface, that is 62 passages of seasons, hotter and colder, 62 bursts of spring growth, 62 summer blossomings the plants setting fruit, 62 falls as plants move toward dormancy, 62 inner months of contemplation. But in the mountainous high country here in the Northwest, which Eric and I so like to visit, those cycles are compressed, the entire turn of the wheel—bloom, fertilization, and seed—pushed together between July snow melt and the dusty parched heat of August. Same cycle, laying differently over the year, as the rearing of an albatross lays differently over a life course from the rearing of a human.
Everything has its cycle, whether living things, or navy bases, or the decay of a tracking band affixed to a bird’s leg, or even volcanic islands that form and sink back beneath the sea. Wheels, and wheels over wheels, and the earth spinning around our sun, and the eventual fiery death of the sun itself, as a red giant, planetary nebula, and then white dwarf star, in a universe that must be cycling in its own way—everything else does, though what we understand as meaningful cycles of time is a matter of perspective.
Jenny too is an asker of questions, like my friend Eric. Questions are good for helping us figure out what is worthy of our notice. The right questions might lead to wisdom, or at least a life more in tune with the things we value. These are a few of Jenny’s favorites: What is the experience of traveling through the human life course with/in a particularly body? How do we know we are aging? Where does age and aging reside within human consciousness, and how is this consciousness experienced in an embodied way? Perhaps it all comes down to the practice I learned from Jenny, identified near the middle of this post: being conscious of where we are in the cycles that everyone, and everything, passes through as we travel through the life course.
Here’s to the work of paying the right kind of attention to the things which matter, in those resonant ways from which we might learn.
Simeon Dreyfuss is Chair of Interdisciplinary Studies and Director of the Liberal Arts Core at Marylhurst University, in Portland, Oregon.