And a Lonely Stranger Spoke to Me
When I saw the old man waiting by the pond with his camera my heart fractured a little along the faultlines, already weak, still vulnerable. He was waiting for the mating beavers, swooping under the surface, staying underwater longer than you’d think they could possibly hold their breath.
They trapped the nutria past the dam over there, he said, pulling his camera aside with one hand, pointing across the Delta Ponds with the other. They’re trapped between the two ridges of trees. There’s a male beaver with two females. His nicotine-stained mustache didn’t move when he talked.
All I had said was hello, as strangers to do in public spaces when proximity obliges politeness. He didn’t say hello back, responded instead like he was continuing a conversation in medias res.
In just a few sentences he revealed more to me than just his observations. That he comes to these ponds often enough to know that the cormorants are here, exactly where they are. He comes often enough to watch the neighborhood of this little ecosystem change with the seasons. He knows these wetlands, they seem to be a reprieve for him too. He seems lonely, not just a nature-lover.
That’s an emerald ash borer, he says, not exactly smiling, but getting more animated. It’s an exquisitely iridescent beetle, a deeper green gem-toned emerald than an actual emerald — not surprisingly a type of jewel beetle. Some larvae take up to two years to emerge as adults from the bark of the ash trees.
He tells me the city is monitoring the trees for the Asian jewel beetle — an invasive and ravenously destructive insect outside its native habitat. I wondered how they got here, how any of us get anywhere, and I assumed he could probably tell me if I asked but I didn’t want to stay in this moment much longer. He was kind enough, talkative without being overbearing. And I thought maybe he was one of the lucky loners who preferred being alone. Maybe he even had a loving companion waiting for him at home, someone who would lovingly pour over his photography with curiosity and admiration.
While he was talking about the two female beavers, each of which had had two pups this season, I appreciated this man’s appreciation for nature, the patience to wait for the perfect moment, the sun setting behind the cattails and a woodpecker resting.
Though I suspected he was lonely I wanted to keep walking. I wanted to see the turtles lined up on logs like they do before the sunset. But I also suspected our brief chat about bugs and birds might be his only interaction today. Or this week. I had no way of knowing but I remembered how many unexpected moments had pulled me out of my darkest places, how grateful I was to be saved from myself.
Though not miraculous, maybe a moment, like seeing the iridescent green of a beetle’s wing is enough beauty, even in its brevity, to create a connection. A flash of color not between us but between synapses. A spark of joy, a small whoosh of warmth that tells him to keep going, to keep waiting for the beavers, to get the perfect picture of the cormorants in their Christlike perches drying their wings for flight.
I knew I couldn’t take away the invasive loneliness of a stranger, especially if it’s lying dormant beneath the bark. But maybe I could distract him from it for that moment like a bird alighting on a branch, catching his photographer’s eye. I remembered that even a little bit of conversation can feel like companionship. And at the very least we could pause from our own lives to acknowledge the parallel lives of these animals not abstractly analyzing each other’s.