Winter Project Poets 2007
Essay: Merrifield
Oh, Canada! 2007
Memoriam: Reninger


Personal Essays

Anointing the Pretty (Blue) Feet:
A Vagabond Poet in the Galapagos

By Karla Linn Merrifield

    Anointing the Pretty (Blue) Feet:
        A Vagabond Poet in the Galapagos

        For weeks before I left for the Galapagos Archipelago, those fabled islands of Darwin's youth, the place where the unusual wildlife began to nudge him toward his theory of the origin of species, I was a fretful mess. No, I didn't fret about forgetting or losing my passport or airline tickets. I didn't worry about missing my flight to Guayaquil, Ecuador, or the connection via AeroGal to Baltra out in the Galapagos Islands. I didn't think twice about putting on a few pounds eating the much-touted fine food served aboard the M.S. Islander, the Lindblad/National Geographic vessel (48 passengers max) that my husband Roger and I had booked for our expedition.

        What kept me awake at night, what my husband and friends had to listen to, was this question that kept barking at me like a Galapagos sea lion patrolling his seaside territory: "How in the world am I ever going to be able to write a poem about blue-footed boobies -- and not make people laugh?" I mean, boobies! The iconic Galapagos bird's name alone is enough to get a trickle of giggles, a gush of guffaws. Boobies with impossibly blue feet, feet the color of my Microsoft toolbar! It is to laugh. And laughter was not a response I wanted to evoke from potential readers. Evolution is serious biological business; I wanted to do the bird justice, not poke fun at it. And there I was, fretting, as I was soon to meet the Islands' colorful poster child, none other than Sula nebouxii, avian extraordinaire, complete with true-blue feet.

        This is not the first time this has happened to me, getting these pre-trip poetic jitters; it was just the worst case I'd ever succumbed to.

        Writers block you may be wondering? Nay, nay. I'm not susceptible; I'm confident a poem will come; but I feared it would not be the one I wanted, the one about that unusual avian one. The Galapagos giant tortoise? That would be a snap; a turtle of any ilk is my totem. Besides, I know their voices well and had already gotten started on the tortoise-centered poem in this issue of The Centrifugal Eye.

                But the big b.-f. b.? I'm afraid not.

        There was the winter of 2002-03, when Roger and I headed south to coastal South Carolina, Georgia and into Florida not for the first time, but for our first retirement winter-long snowbird sojourn. Destination: the Everglades. Another dream-come-true adventure for this naturalist-cum-poet into another place that figures as a holy land on my poetic map of extreme ecosystems, a troubled, exceedingly fragile environment that had long called to me as a "nature poet" with an eco-mission.

        Saw grass and cypress domes beckoned. Anhingas and alligators. Gumbo limbo and mangrove trees. Maybe manatees and flamingos, too.

        Then I was there, hiking an upland trail beneath soughing slash pines and kayaking on Florida Bay among white pelicans. The Everglades poured over me and into me and I began to write.

                Because I am a human being
                & not a mythical creature
                who can turn into an osprey
                & fly through a pellucid sky,
                I am a body that is two-thirds water.
                The everglades red mangrove trees know that:
                theirs is a world that is two-thirds water.
                They recognized our kinship
                & made me see, by inviting me to trace
                their roots, all our similarities.

        That's only ten lines from "Out on Some Limbs & Back*," one of what became maybe two dozen "Everglades poems" beginning that winter. Despite my trepidation, that strange land and its strange animals – and trees! – spoke to me.

        And that trip to Newfoundland back in '99? Going to the ends of Canadian earth seemed daunting at the time. Would I be able to find my way through the cold, slashing rains of spring to sing of the cod that for so many centuries dominated that easternmost province where the sun first rises in North America? Would I know what to make of a kittiwake? Minke whales? Moose and caribou?

                Ours was to be in that place of cod fish
                apparently lost, disappearing from banks
                of long abundance, starving, mutating,
                swallowed up, choked on, spit out, wallowing
                beneath shadows of spruce & granite headlands.

                Ours was to pray for traces of gossamer wings,
                those fins translucent, in waves swimming on
                through warm Gulf Stream to cold Atlantic swells
                to spawn another sure generation
                of the Gadus & Newfoundlanders, too.

        My vagabond muse did not fail me. Out of Newfoundland came a long poem in eight parts, "Cod Pieces*," from which the above stanzas are excerpted.

        And what about Alaska, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories? Belize? The Sea of Cortez? The four deserts of the American west? The five Great Lakes of the east and Midwest? The Sandhills? The tundra and boreal forest? The Okefenokee Swamp?

        Those habitats and their flora and fauna have all come to life, spoken to me, as I applied pen to paper as I traveled.

        It's pretty clear: I get around. That's what I do: travel six to seven months out of the year. All the while listening to the voices of landscapes and the biota within them – and then writing them into poems. Even before Roger and I co-retired, we'd take off for a month each summer in search of North America, with occasional jaunts to the land bridge between the Western Hemisphere's two continents, becoming nicely seasoned travelers from campground to campground, park to park, wilderness to wilderness.

        So I was surprised to be fretting about meeting up with boobies and finding myself speechless in their presence. I fretted about being aware that I was fretting about the silly-sounding name of the Galapagos' star avian.

        After all, I've been able during my more itinerant years to have developed a discipline, a method to my madness of speaking in animal and plant tongues.

        It invariably starts with research. For our Galapagos expedition, I first read Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle (aloud to my husband). Then, I pored over a natural history of the archipelago that had come highly recommended. Very thorough, including pages of maps of the 13 principal islands accompanied by lists of the species that inhabit each one. Nifty!

        So I was "book-learned" when I stepped off the plane on Baltra Island, erstwhile site of a U.S. Army airfield in World War II.

        I knew what I had to do next: immerse myself.

        In my author's statement for Midst, my chapbook of nature poems, I explain:

                I find that if I stare long enough, listen well enough along the unbeaten
                paths, the animals will speak, pleading their cause, informing the human
                condition….I invite readers to hear what the carp, cod, halibut & others
                of their kingdom have to say. I invite readers to commune, to be in the

        At the same time, there's another aspect of my discipline that I follow. I do what David Abrams in his The Spell of the Sensuous alludes to when he says:

                It was from them [animal spirits] that I first learned of the
                intelligence that lurks in nonhuman nature, the ability that an
                alien form of sentience has to echo one's own, to instill a
                reverberation in oneself that temporarily shatters habitual ways of seeing                 and feeling, leaving one open to a world all alive, awake and aware.

        That is, without a whole lot of conscious thought, I start writing down what the voices are saying, chronicling the "reverberations."

        That's it, three steps. A snap, right? Especially with all my practice.

        But once I arrived and saw my first blue-footed booby on day one along a modest, lava cliff wall on Bartolome Island (just walking there in Darwin's footsteps cowed me), I still couldn't obey. All I could do was look at the feet, marvel at them, and laugh to myself, thinking what a funny bird with a funny name.

        Was I uptight or what?

        Yeah, but I diligently scribbled in my journal a little in the morning before the ship woke up and a while after dinner before collapsing in bed, my body tired from hiking, my mind overwhelmed with visions of flightless cormorants, marine iguanas, Galapagos penguins and Galapagos sea lions, the red-and-blue Sally Lightfoot crabs (another silly name), frigate birds in full red throat, waved albatrosses and flamingos, noddies and Nazca boobies, lava lizards, giant tortoises – oh my – and green sea turtle after green sea turtle, many making love at surf's edge.

        On day two, after having seen several dozen blue-footed boobies, voilą, I heard them. They claimed the last stanza in a poem called "A Sensible Thing Is the Color of Blue":

                mandatory to truly see
                webbed weavings among lava
                shore rocks of the Galapagos:
                blue, yes, blue feet of boobies

        Oh sweet relief! Once again, my attentive approach paid off: booby voices!

                And they haven't shut up.

        As I write this, I realize I've been off the islands, been back in the States a week. But I can't stop writing blue-footed booby poems.

        Here's the latest from them:

Ruach in Blue**

it's urgent:
repeat after me
say aloud slowly
the name of our Holy Bird
blue     &     footed     booby
pray     davening     in unison

Sula nebouxii
sound Her invisible breaths
        oo     oo     oo     y
        oo     eh     oo     i     i
blow those vowels
like Her wings do winds
crisscrossing the curving girth
of blue ocean     blue Earth
and plunge from skyblue
into seablue     messenger from above
below     pronounce these embodied syllables
chant now

        oo     oo     oo     y
        oo     eh     oo     i     i
Hope in Her ancient tongue is blue
only blue-footed of her kind
in this world as we know it
she asks only:
        Please     I beg of you
anoint My pretty feet


    Solid research. Staring and seeing and feeling in such a way to "shatter habitual ways." Laying down the words. It works, even when blue booby feet dance in the light of a Galapagos full moon.

                                                                By Karla Linn Merrifield

Read more about Karla Linn Merrifield and her booby feet.

* From Midst (FootHills Publishing, 2004).
** Ruach is the spiritual wind of early Hebraic religiosity.

Contemporary Poetry With An Eye Towards Resistance

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