The Hungry Pelican
Kure Beach Fishing Pier breached the earth-sea barrier with weatherworn planks. Jutting out of the turquoise waters rickety pier pilings, resemble the long legs of an insect too tall and bulky for its broom-straw legs, swayed with the energy of the Atlantic. As I walked out on the pier, I could easily imagine the pilings splintering, breaking the pier in half and folding into the water like a ship with a ruptured hull. A storm will one day do just that to Kure Beach Fishing Pier, as storms have done to fishing piers up and down the coast of North Carolina.
But that storm was not coming today. The weather was nice. A spring day, a few clouds to the west, sun slipping lower, just a hint of a breeze -- it wasn’t time to be wearing shorts yet, but maybe next week. Pier fishermen busied themselves hooking pieces of frozen shrimp and squid, casting, and waiting. A few were pulling in mullets and pin fish. Others smoked cigarettes and chatted up their fishing neighbors. Conversations about tackle and the one that got away and expectations are ubiquitous on fishing piers.
Two pelicans had landed on the pier before I arrived. They perched themselves on the top railing and seemed content to people watch, and I wondered if they thought of the pier as some sort of public zoo populated by tourist. Maybe they silently mocked our contraptions and apparatuses for luring fish to our coolers. Then, a lady yanked on her fishing pole, a gesture too long and grand for the four inch pin fish that she would bring over the railings. And I did learn what the pelicans were thinking. One pelican capered down from the side of the pier, gamboled pelican style across the pier and hopped-up on the opposite pier railing. The pelican stared at the lady with the pin fish. She took the pin fish and tossed it in a rainbow like arch at the pelican. The fish was twitching swimming motions in the air when the pelican snapped. In that instant, the pelican mutated from a lounging, affable bird into a nippy, carnivorous fish-shredding beast.
We love pelicans because of their grace. The fly in elegant formations, sometimes skimming just inches above the waves. They soar in the sky and plunge themselves downward, piercing the surface of the water, stabbing at fish. And pelicans are beautiful. Gazing into the eye of the pelican on Kure Beach Fishing Pier, I could feel his intelligence examining me.
In the sixteenth century Pieter van der Borcht, an artist from the city of Malines, which is just south of Antwerp, made wood carvings and engravings of a mother pelican tearing her breast open with her beak so her starving chicks could find nourishment from her blood. At the time, this was a well established Christian image. It is unclear when the pelican became a Eucharistic symbol – at least from the time of the fourth century if not earlier – but the pelican has long been associated with feeding and nourishing the spiritually hungry. And in this way, there is another grace that we see in the pelican. It isn’t a beauty that can be described or photographed as much as it is an intuitive knowing. Whether we call it God or a gift from the universe, something is telling us to look not beyond but through the material world and see all that is truly good – to see that which can feed us.
We are the hungry baby chicks, crying for our mother to feed us. And the good mother pelican has pierced her side and gives us her blood, the essence of this abundant life. Without this sacrifice, we toddle from one new fascination to another. Or worst, we anguish in despair, loneliness, and our own brokenness. We are the pier, the wobbly structure enduring one wave after another. And we know, it is only a matter of time. We are the hungry pelican, waiting for the gift of grace, the charity of another to nourish us. And there is a mother pelican. Call her art. Call her poetry. Or music. Name her beauty or Jesus or friendship. And take what she has to offer.