The oldest known, living wild bird in the world is a Laysan albatross, at 64 years of age. She showed up recently at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, just in time for the breeding season. There are more photos here, if your voyeuristic nature is piqued, of what happens when she and her mate see each other again after months apart. (Hint: it’s not unlike that of lovers of another species, meaning ours;-)
I often wonder how she’s done it. How she’s evaded swallowing a toothbrush, mistaking it for a bit of floating squid, and it puncturing a lung or intestine or stomach. How she’s managed to steer clear of the tantalizing baited hooks zooming off the backs of long line commercial fishing boats. How no shark has munched on her while she was enjoying a rest on the surface of the sea.
“You can’t reach old age by another man’s road,” said the man we know as Mark Twain. Today is the 180th birthday of Samuel Clemens, as he was christened. “My habits protect my life but they would assassinate you.”
I suppose the 64-year-old Laysan albatross could say the same thing. Clearly, she’s a tough, old bird.
And, now, that I’ve thrown two of my obsessions into the same blog post—Laysan albatross and Mark Twain—I might as well compare them to each other. Or, at least, the man to the bird.
If you pardon me the latitude, Mark Twain resembled an albatross a bit. During his later days, he had a head of white hair that I’ve read he preened with great care. He possessed a nose that would make an albatross proud. And, then, there was his well-known walk.
Nearly 150 years ago, in Hawai‘i, nearly everyone the young Mark Twain ran into commented on his gait. They said he walked like he was drunk. Even upon rising from bed in the morning—or afternoon as was more his style.
But Twain later proclaimed he only got “tight” twice while “ransacking” the Hawaiian Islands. So, he wasn’t always drunk. He just walked like it. Naturally.
And, then, there are albatross. They are built for the air. With their bundle of soft feathers; six-and-a-half-foot, slender wings; and legs situated far back on the undersides of their bodies, they are the “grandest living flying machine on Earth,” according to ocean conservationist Carl Safina. And he should know. He wrote the biography of albatrosses.
As graceful as prima ballerina Anna Pavlova in the air, albatross are more awkward on the ground. Some compare their walk to that of Charlie Chaplin, but I’m lobbying for Mark Twain. I suppose, for that to be completely accurate, albatross would have to start smoking cigars.
The next likely beat in this essay might be to call Mark Twain my albatross. And it’s true that a project around which Mark Twain centers has followed me around for a few years. But it’s no heavy burden around my neck as many people associate with the bird species due to the 1798 poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In that situation, it was the action of a lone sailor not the bird itself that was considered bad.
The only appropriate metaphor for an albatross is wind. And for sailors, there’s nothing like a good wind to fill their sails and fly across the sea, exactly what I hope my writing projects gather—wind and movement—this coming year. Because there is nothing more fun for a writer than when the words soar from her fingertips. Except, perhaps, skimming waves and trailing a wingtip across the water like an albatross.
Happy 180th birthday, you old geezer.