On Friday night I was ready for the world to end. Japan had just experienced the largest earthquake on record, followed by a tsunami and more earthquakes, all of which killed maybe a thousand people, caused a huge amount of damage, and looked like it might result in at least one nuclear reactor meltdown that could poison millions of people, if not the entire planet. I almost felt bad that it had been a good day on a personal level: the amount of time I had to find a job before savings ran out nearly tripled, and I was making good progress in my search for a new career. While I knew the world has only a decade to avoid catastrophe, I was happy to get a few months of breathing room. I realized that, after this disaster, several months might be all any of us have.
Meanwhile, my wife found several beautiful photos of sandhill cranes on their annual pilgrimage to a wildlife refuge near the small town of Monte Vista in southern Colorado, and proposed that we go down there for the weekend. Not to complain, but the last time we took anything like a vacation was almost a year ago and almost as short. With us both feeling the stress of a steady focus on survival, we mutually decided that it was time for a sanity break.
Nothing could have prepared me for personally seeing thousands of birds in one place, while others flew in from all directions. The last time I had felt anything like it was during the Leonids meteor shower about a decade ago, when the sky literally rained hundreds of meteors per hour. It reminded me of a giant conference, with attendees arriving from everywhere. The cranes were getting reacquainted, finding mates, and eating, both on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning when we visited like voyeurs watching others live their lives, along with up to a hundred other birdwatchers parked around the area.
For me, the best part was what we did on the way home, stopping at Great Sand Dunes National Monument, which I had read about but never seen in person. There, another memory served as a reference for my reaction: the view of the Kilauea volcano craters in Hawaii. On the way to the dunes, we had taken a hike on a nearby mountain with an excellent view of the immense pile of gray sand, whose undulating patterns were reminiscent of desert scenes in movies, but nothing beat getting right up close and then walking in it.
When we got home I felt somewhat refreshed. Later, I realized that as much as I enjoy being around other animals and understanding geophysical processes, they're not what I can see doing as a career. My inclinations are more abstract and human-centered; it's what I keep coming back to, what really motivates me. Near my desk is the one new career-oriented book that I've been inclined to read without interruption: Steiner's “Human Ecology.” That's something I need to pay attention to, no matter what might happen next.