The Creatures I Live With
I live on a barrier reef island in the western Caribbean, Caye Caulker, Belize. My room is about twelve feet square. My office, with a hammock hanging in front of my computer, is along one wall. My single bed lies against another wall. In one corner my few tropical clothes hang from nails in the wooden siding and studs. Another corner displays tapes and hanging baskets with pens, envelopes and other miscellaneous items. In my kitchen corner three hanging baskets hold fresh vegetables and fruit. Staples, along with dishes, sit on shelves. My only appliances are a hot plate and a rice cooker, and my pans hang from nails.
I share my room with a gecko, a croaking lizard that comes out only at night. When the weather is going to change, he announces it with a loud sound made by pushing air out of the sides of his mouth. (I can't determine the sex of most of the creatures I watch, so I arbitrarily assign gender as I watch.) It sounds like a cross between a bull frog and a katydid. My gecko lives on the wooden beams of my ceiling and eats insects such as mosquitoes and cockroaches. After the sun goes down, whether I have a light on or not, I see him silently creeping along the beams or just peering down at me. When the other geckos begin their chorus outside, he makes his contributions that are quite startling when you are in the same room with him. We seem to be quite compatible. We're not competing for the same food or space. I don't mind sweeping up his occasional tiny turds since he does his job of keeping the insect population down, not to mention his weather predictions.
This time of year the land crabs come out around the time of the full moon to march across the island in a mass migration to the sea for mating. When I arrived in June of 1987, they welcomed me by knocking on my door. I opened it, expecting to see a person, but there was only a crab sashaying away. Their appearance and behavior is other worldly. They have two disk-shaped eyes mounted on top of narrow cylinders like periscopes; they have claws that operate like appendages of a robot, and, in front of their mouths are two doors that slide open when the claw brings food. They look like miniature space ships with six legs for land travel. When hundreds of these creatures come sashaying across the yard at dusk, it seems like an invasion from outer space. I used to bury my vegetable peelings in the sand behind my room. But the next day I always saw crab tracks around clean sand. I was striving for compost, but nothing stays long enough to degrade. Now I just throw my scraps out in the direction of a crab hole.
Outside my door is the warm Caribbean Sea, protected by a barrier reef a mile out. The calm shore is host to many wading and diving birds. Much of my time is spent watching birds, fish and other creatures. There is a barracuda that uses a lure. He picks up pieces of aluminum foil in his mouth and waves it until a fish is attracted. Then he drops the foil and grabs the fish. When he has swallowed his catch, he picks up the foil again. This is rather ironic since barracuda are often caught on flashy, metal lures.
There are several different kinds of sandpipers. One continually nods his head up and down; another wags his tail feathers; and yet another does both at the same time. It is an amusing sight when several of each kind are sorting through the seaweed on the beach for their favorite delicacies.
There are three kinds of small herons that fish in the shallow waters. Their thin necks are as long as their bodies and extremely flexible. They may be stretched out straight in front, lowered down into the water looking for fish, tucked up tight for protection, or anywhere in between.
The Louisiana, or tri-colored, heron, is hyperactive. She constantly darts around, running and making a big show of grabbing fish, even stretching out her beautiful gray and white wings for a flap or two. The little blue heron is more sedate and dignified. He walks slowly and deliberately. The yellow-crested night heron, which is named for punk hair style (a yellow topknot extending a short distance down his neck), is like statue. He seems to wait for fish to swim by, remaining perfectly still until the quick lunge as an unsuspecting fish ventures near.
When they do catch a fish, the herons invariably come up with it sideways in their long, thin beaks, and must shake their heads while the fish wiggles and flops until it is turned around to be swallowed whole. One can watch the bulge descend the long neck.
One little blue heron likes to listen to me play my mandolin, which I often do at dusk. One night he walked up the beach with his head cocked my way. The next night, unbeknownst to me, he was sitting ten feet from me, just out of my view, on the other side of an upturned boat. He flew away when I got up to go inside.
Mangrove swallows have made a nest in a long piece of bamboo which was set up on two forked sticks near the edge of the water for their convenience by the greatest naturalist around, an eighty-two year old man who was born on this island. The night heron likes to sit on top of the bamboo at night, which works fine as long as the swallows are already safely inside their little home. But, sometimes the night heron makes the mistake of perching too soon, before the swallows have gone to bed. She stands there like a statue with her neck beautifully arched. Then a swallow comes swooping down and the heron ducks. Just as she stretches out again, she gets bombed again, looking surprised each time. Eventually, the swallows get organized and dive-bomb her in rapid succession so she cannot resume her statuesque posture between bombs. Still, she doesn't get the message. This routine goes on for a long time before the lethargic, stubborn night heron finally flies away.
The pelicans are the clowns. They swoop around gracefully in the air and then, all of a sudden, they pull in their wings and fall from a twenty-foot height into the water with a huge splash. When the foam clears, they are floating with their massive beaks just below the surface of the water. My naturalist friend tells me that they can open their beaks wide and let the water out fast if they have a big fish, but must take a long time if they have small fish so as not to lose them. Then they raise their heads, beaks high in the air, and swallow with a shudder. A royal tern often flies in after a pelican splashes and stands on top of the pelican's head, hoping to catch some discards. The pelican gives her head a shake in annoyance and the tern flies away until the next splashdown.
These creatures have taught me much about living with them in peace and harmony. The fact that I spend the time watching means that I have slowed down enough to appreciate the lives of the other wonderful creatures on this planet. From them I learn the lesson of faith, faith that God will provide for me as for the "lilies of the field."Judy Lumb, 1989