[wpaudio url=”/audio/june11/morgan.mp3″ text=”listen to this essay” dl=”0″]
I grew up in the wilds of Central Oregon and had the good fortune to be raised by parents who understood my instinctive need to wander. “Benign neglect,” my mother called it. By age twelve I wandered far and wide, exploring, visiting people, or just communing with nature. On Occasion, I rode my horse down to Camp Sherman, a small resort community set along the banks of the Metolius River, and sometimes I headed for Vandy Morton’s house.
Vandy and her family lived at the Camp Sherman Fish Hatchery on Spring Creek. Her father worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and headed up the hatchery. I was interested in the Mortons. They lived a different life than I was used to. I liked hanging around their house, which wasn’t really a house so much as a garage. Vandy told me her father planned to build the real house one day; the garage was only temporary, although, as far as I know, that one room was all they ever had.
I didn’t know her father very well. He was always busy at the hatchery, except when he came home for lunch. He would drink a beer, then take a nap in an old recliner in a corner before returning to work. One day, after lunch, Mr. Morton invited me down to the hatchery to feed the fish. For Vandy it was an old routine. “Go ahead,” she said, “I’ve seen it hundreds of times.”
The ponds lay side by side and from a distance looked a bit like tennis courts. A sturdy cyclone fence surrounded them, which Mr. Morton and I entered through a locked gate. He disappeared into a small shed, then reappeared with a sturdy white plastic bucket of fishmeal, and began tossing the granules onto the water. The fishmeal arched out like fishnets striking the still surface, and a frenzy of fish boiled up gobbling the meal. Over and over he flung the grains until the stink of fishmeal rose off the water making me catch my breath.
Suddenly, out of the sky, there appeared a black fleck that sped toward us. I squinted in the glare of the sun and saw a flash of blue gray zip above our heads.
“Damn bird,” Mr. Morton spat.
“What is it?” I asked, aware of a quickening tightness in my stomach.
“A menace, that’s what it is.”
The kingfisher circled the ponds chattering like a squirrel in its excitement. It flew with acrobatic grace, swerving over and around the enclosure, then swooped upwards, climbing straight up. At the peak, and with the military precision of a jet fighter, it tucked its wings and came straight down, plunging into the pond just to my right.
Mr. Morton’s face set hard, and he hurled a long-handled fishnet into the water where the bird entered. I thought he had killed it, but no sooner had the net struck than the kingfisher shot out of the pond. I could see a small fingerling in its beak as it approached a pole, and, caping its wings around the air, adjusted for a landing.
As the kingfisher lit I heard a loud metallic snap. I stared dumbfounded as it flopped to one side; the small fry fell from its beak and tumbled to the ground. The kingfisher hung upside down helplessly flapping its wings trying to free itself. The snap was a small, hinged trap whose steel jaws had broken the kingfisher’s legs, left it alive but helplessly maimed. It continued to scream loudly, flapping and lashing about like a small blue-gray shuttlecock.
“There, that ought to teach you, you little son of a bitch,” Mr. Morton said as he continued to throw fishmeal out across the ponds.
I stared at the bird this man had crippled and left to die. I wanted to scream. I wanted to run, but instead I was frozen in shock. No one in my family would ever have done this to a bird. In fact, my mother instituted a hard and fast rule on our ranch: if you kill it, you eat it. Everyone in my family knew that wild animals were to be left alone.
Mr. Morton continued his chores completely unaware of me.
Scuffing the concrete sidewalk with my cowboy boot, I finally summoned enough courage to ask, “Can’t we take him down now?”
“Nope. Leave the him up there as a warning to the others.”
I never went back to the Morton’s house after that, but every time I saw a fish hatchery I wondered if that was the approved method to protect young trout so they could grow up to stock rivers for fisherman. Looking back— some fifty years later— I suppose Mr. Morton felt his actions were justified, protecting his livelihood and his family. Some might say he was no different from the kingfisher, but, even at my young age, it occurred to me that someone might have covered those pools with a screen.
I’ve thought of Mr. Morton over the years and have always wondered why a man so dedicated to fisheries would not love all wildlife; how wrong he was in all he did, both to kill the bird, and to act as an unwitting cog in the machine that stripped the river of its natural diversity.
In reality, my fierce little kingfisher was a friend to all fishermen. Time and depleted numbers would prove him a vital part of a balanced ecosystem. In natural waters, they have proven to benefit anglers by reducing the enormous numbers of young fish—young that would otherwise exhaust their own food supply and grow up stunted. And the Metolius River, micromanaged by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and people like Morton, eventually became a monoculture of hatchery-raised rainbow trout. The browns, indigenous redbands, and enormous bull trout that once owned the upper portion of that river, all but vanished. In recent years hatcheries have moved to more divergent species, but they did irreparable damage back then.
Now I live on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica where kingfishers winter regularly. Like me, they like the warm weather, and like me, they like a solitary life. The last time I saw a belted kingfisher he sat atop a tall pole down along the sea. His oversized blue-gray crest, ruffled up like a waxed Mohawk, reminded me of a miniature punk rocker. His wings were slightly ruffled as though he’d slept in his suit, and the white stripes across his chest gave him an oddly military look. His fierce black eye was cocked. On the lookout for a meal. I looked at the bird and thought, and what if I should go wild and take my food on the run, would I ruffle my feathers and cock my head looking for breakfast in the clear waters below? Would the rumble in my belly bring me close to danger’s grip for an easy catch at the hatchery? And would I, with eyes tightly closed, dive headlong into the water, retrieve what I considered rightfully mine, and fly to the pole where I would dash it dead and eat it?