Reflections of an Evolving Elder: Magens Bay Holds Unfathomable Secrets

Little known Pissarro oil sketch, reminiscent of a scene at Magens Bay.
Little known Pissarro oil sketch, reminiscent of a scene at Magens Bay.
Rocks and sea where Pissarro may have painted. (Source photo by Shaun A. Pennington)
Rocks and sea where Pissarro may have painted. (Source photo by Shaun A. Pennington)

Under certain light and at particular times of the day, I imagine that the place where the unexceptional tan-brown outcroppings meet the turquoise water at the far western end of Magens Bay was the inspiration for a little-known Camille Pissarro oil sketch, seen for the first time in 1996 as part of the bicentennial celebration of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas.

I was struck again the other day by my imaginings of this native-born, world-renowned artist sitting with his sketchbook, facing the rock wall, reproducing it with his oils on paper.

I was there earlier than usual for my run-walk at the beach – at one of those magical times when few humans have found their way to this refuge.

At the end of the path where I start my warm up, I looked out to the sea, startled for the umpteenth time by the unmatched beauty of this place – touched by its holiness – again.

Swept away by my love for the natural paradise I am gifted to call home, I had to stop and breathe as I soaked in that Pissarro-like muted, impressionist view.

As I gazed out, a lone royal tern swept across the hillside, bright white against green. Suddenly, she turned eastward swooping down closer to the sea, becoming a momentary part of that landscape. She made no attempt to fish, so the motivation for her flight pattern remained a mystery. I looked away for a moment and she was gone.

As I turned, trying to resume my increased heart rate by speeding back down the tree-lined path toward the open area where the path meets the parking section by the bathhouse, I was nearly tripped by a mongoose skittering across the trail in front of me. Then another zipped by going in the opposite direction – rushing to appointments only they were privy to.

The sun shining through the trees on either side of the path seemed to turn the air itself light green. My skin felt wrapped in color – I turned back to walk it again. As I reached the Pissarro scene once more, two brown pelicans caught my eye. The tern was gone, leaving the pelicans alone to keep an eye on the sea. Not one other bird was in sight. Why only two? What did they know that others did not?

The view looking east from Magens Bay. (Source photo by Shaun A. Pennington)
The view looking east from Magens Bay. (Source photo by Shaun A. Pennington)

Some readers may remember a day several months ago when the sky over the bay was filled with dozens, if not hundreds of the fuzzy-headed prehistoric dinosaur cousins. On that same day, what were most likely snook or jack fish swarmed the waters, gliding up to the surface in schools of 10 or 12, dorsal fins breaking through and then disappearing in unison. At first I took them to be tarpon. But I have never seen tarpon surface that way, and they do not bear the green strip on top that showed on the fish I saw that day. What had caused these unusual groups to enter the shallows at Magens in such large numbers that one day? The answer is probably a plethora of bait fish that moved through the water as large areas of darkness under the light blue sea – eerily separated now and then by the much larger silvery, green bodies who shared the space.

Much more recently, on the Pissarro morning, just before reaching the bridge over the mangrove swamp going east, a slender figure in the grass to the right caught my eye. A Black Crowned Night Heron stood on one leg, deadly still in sodden grassland. I stopped, mesmerized and not sure what it was until later. Giving up my cardio concern, I waited. Patience. Finally I was rewarded – a quick dart of beak to ground. What could have been there? Something to eat. Gulp, and then off he flew, his identifying black crest popping much to my surprise from his head as he disappeared into the golden bright light from the east.

A delicate balance
I started writing this piece two weeks ago. I was interrupted by something else I had to address that was far more pressing. Having completed what I needed to do on that for the time being, it was time to start my running routine again. Because of an early morning meeting, I didn’t get to Magens until 10:30 a.m. or so, far later than usual. It was Wednesday – big cruise ship day. Season has started. I was met with taxis and tourists arriving will nilly to take in the beauty that I so cherish. Undaunted by the crowds and the sun high in the sky, I began my run. Realizing that because of the congestion by the bathhouse area on the eastern side of the bridge I could not use my normal route, which takes me in a 1.2 mile circle around the eastern side of the beach road, I slowed down preparing to opt for the shorter, but safer western loop. That’s when I spied another something I had never seen before. There, sitting calmly on the cement railing on the seaward side of the bridge, was an immature Little Blue Heron. I stopped. He made eyes at me, but didn’t move. Neither did I at first. But I could not resist the temptation to get closer. Eventually, I went too far and he flew south to the other side of the bridge deeper into the mangroves. He perched on a branch, still in full view, and I bid him adieu and started back west trying to get my heart rate back up. On my next lap, as I again approached the bridge over the little lagoon, two tourists had their camera pointed in the direction where I had last seen the young, green-legged bird. I turned again back to the west. On the road side of Shed 4 was another tourist. Cigar held tightly between his teeth, he was toying with a drone that fortunately was lying still on the ground. Three women surrounded him, snapping pictures with their phones, as the man concentrated on the mechanism in his hand that could have launched the impotent drone, disrupting the peace and safety of nature’s habitat. I had seen it happen before.

A month or so earlier, while deep water running with my buoyancy belt keeping me in place out by the buoys, a brown pelican had befriended me to break up the boredom of that particular exercise regimen. He landed not far off on one of the white, bobbing protrusions that mark off the swim area in the bay. He had been keeping me company for a good 20 minutes much to my delight when I heard a noise I didn’t recognized coming from behind me. It wasn’t a jet ski or dinghy; I would have noticed that before they got that close. Not noisy enough for a helicopter. I swung in the water to see what was behind me. It was a drone. I watched in horror as my pelican buddy and another friend of his on a buoy farther to the east took off flying as fast as they could toward the outlet of the bay as the drone chased them – that’s right – chased them – away.

Last Wednesday, as I passed the man with the cigar, I wondered how much longer we can maintain the delicate balance between the natural habitat Magens provides for our remaining birds, bats, frogs, lizards, and yes, even our mongoose – and man.

It is impossible to know. The brown pelican was once endangered due to DDT poisoning. Thanks to one woman – Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring” – the Environmental Protection Agency was formed and DDT banned. As a result, the brown pelican is no longer endangered.

I wonder what being chased by a drone does to a bird’s psyche. That is another well-kept secret we may never uncover until it is too late.

Author’s note: Drones are not allowed at Magens Bay and the cigar man was properly informed of that. Unfortunately, a second tourist had to be stopped, I was told, on the very same day from using the noisy, pointless contraption on the other end of the beach.

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