Tough as the Chough

I have spent quite a few years trying to thicken my hide. I am tough. I am the rock and the icon that I strived to be, in my own small world. I can rest assured that the scowl on my brow is earned, that my callouses are functional, and that my limps carry stories. I feel wise for 24, and yet absolutely, completely, utterly foolish at the same time (which lets me know that I am grounded beneath it all). A friend, a quiet hermit named Zach, always told me that “a man with soft hands has not lived,” and I valued the truth in his words. I am a constantly evolving creature, and oftentimes I consider the process to be a more rewarding goal than the actual end results, yielding many things left unfinished to the unobservant eye (because they might very well be finished to me, which is all that really matters). Yet there has always been a part of me that was secretly jealous of those that endured their birth, grew up, followed a course, and enjoyed their life without severe, excess struggle. Simple, humble acceptance. But a governing truth to my nature is the fact that I know nothing worthwhile in life comes easily. Thus, I have fought, day in and day out, for things I truly want, in this case, to be tough, to be strong, to be a resource for those around me as an unstoppable force.

Ruuun Wagtail!

Unstoppable like a wagtail chasing a bug.

But the scary truth with being tough, is the disconnect from others. If we are constantly the called-upon guardian and hero, how do we show weakness? If we’ve done it right, we will live on, in one way or another, even after death, and we know it: to some degree we would live on, and to the tough death is not even a fear to begin with. So how do we show mortality when we have convinced ourselves of our earned immortality? We take the time to appreciate the smallest, simplest, benign things. Because nothing says “I am human” quite like recognizing the beauty in the things that no one stops to see.

~

Rounding a knoll 30 minutes into the Causeway Coast, a narrow trail juts out into the sea quite like the Lion King rock in the cartoon (with no savannah beneath, only crashing waves). Inevitably, one must take a breath at the edge and smell the cold, salty wind from the Irish Sea, and if you are fortunate, you can see Scotland in the hazy distance, where Benandonner, Fionn’s rival, waited patiently for the chance to brawl. The northern side of the ledge dishes inward, where sea birds catch wind drafts with absolute ease, and, if you are observant, you may catch sight of the rookery below your feet.

The Rookery

Here, the fulmar, stiff-winged sea birds, have claimed their territory to breed and rear young. Constantly bickering, the fulmar spent most of their days attempting to dislodge couples from their claims, in hopes of winning the best spot. Each day I visited, more fulmar pairs had declared their nests, and more squawking and grunting echoed in the cove. As it filled, more drama reached the rookery when a band of western jackdaw decided to nest in the same location. The jackdaw are tiny corvids with piercing white eyes that illustrate flashes of their mischievous nature. Much like fireworks, they burst from shrubs with their wings spread wide toward a passerby, and chatter, almost giggling, at our startled expressions before they rejoin their mates and repeat.

Now the riot couples of jackdaw shared space with the dysfunctional fulmar, whose affection was reminiscent of the gawky romances spawned in grade school where cooties might still be a problem in a relationship, and they spared no hesitation at sabotaging the awkward sea birds. The jackdaw had nests to build, but at times it was better to divert attention to their twisted humor. When an imported stick for the nest was deemed unsuitable, a pair of jackdaw would remove it and drop it… on the heads of the fulmar. Now, fulmar possess a unique defense: they projectile vomit on their oppressors. So when a large stick came tumbling down on their heads, one fulmar collapsed into a blind rage and immediately vomited on its mate, sending both birds into fits of screeching while the jackdaw tucked, rolled, and danced away into the skies, calling their comical chuckling chirp. Defiled, the fulmar would throw their heads up and bellow, but eventually they would make amends, lower their cries and heads, coo softly, clack their beaks together, and embrace each other’s neck. “I’m sorry I puked on you, baby.”

And such is life at the rookery, secreted just out of sight where most would never see or appreciate the spectacle of life below their feet.

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