I’m now back from a week spent banding gulls on Appledore Island in Maine. The work is part of Dr. Julie Ellis’ long-term study on the ecology of these charismatic seabirds (and it goes well beyond the stealing of french fries, I assure you.) But the gull study is only one of many projects going on at the Shoals Marine Lab, which encompasses almost the entire island. A songbird banding station is running full tilt this time of year, and on any given afternoon you might encounter grad students with buckets of crabs out on the seaweed strewn rocks or undergraduate interns scrabbling under buildings looking for barn swallow nests. Life on Appledore is like summer camp for biology geeks. We live in dorms, develop a weird intimacy of inside jokes that wouldn’t be funny on the mainland, and take our meals in a communal space known as Kiggins.
One day last week, I was sitting by myself in Kiggins having a rare moment of quiet away from screaming gulls and over-caffeinated humans. The room is large and high ceilinged, with the skeleton of a Minke whale* suspended from the rafters. From my angle, I could see through the inside of the whale’s rib cage through to its small, cross-shaped sternum. Maybe it was that cue, or maybe it was the quiet and the space, but I was transported to the Catholic church of my childhood. I am not religious, nor would I even call myself “spiritual” in any sense, but I went to Mass every week until I was away at school. I was an altar server, offering the priest water to wash his hands, tending the candles, swinging the smoking censer at my own grandfather’s funeral service. When I was much younger, we sometimes went to the Congregational Church of my mother’s tradition. It was a beautiful old New England church with white clapboards and a soaring roof and light and air. But I never came to love it. It was so scrubbed down, puritanical in its simplicity and so spare. God was an idea in that space. In my Catholic church, he was looming over us all the time in the crucified Christ angled over the altar. Catholicism is a corporeal, almost forensic religion. His ladder rung ribs jutting through the skin, blood at the wrist and ankle, a slice in the chest letting the trickle of fluid escape the pericardial sac. We learned from a nun exactly which bones in the arm were strong enough to support the weight of a dying man, and so where the nails would have been placed.
None of this ever bothered me. I was transfixed by it. No surprise then that I grew up into a job mucking around inside dead animals, wondering at the body itself, its machinery, and how that machinery winds down and then finally stops. I am a bone collector, a dissector, a dealer in body parts. And when I sit in Kiggins Commons on Appledore, I am in my own church. Out the great north facing windows you might see a circle of excited bird banders snapping pictures of a rare thrush, or a small knot of bicycle helmet clad students dodging the thwacks and feces of gulls defending their nests. Somewhere under the floorboards, a grad student is at work in a basement lab on small parasitic flatworms. My interests are not unusual out here. We gather under the cross-sternumed whale to eat, and talk, and tweak study designs. We laugh uproariously at jokes that are really only moderately funny, because people become giddy here, some having found the first place they’ve ever belonged.
And as for the soul, I’ve considered that too. While sitting at the bottom of a granite ledge one day, sheltering from a strong wind, I looked up to see the gulls lifting off the ground and soaring in place into that wind. Gray backs to the sky, effortlessly hanging in place seemingly for the sheer pleasure of it–what more could you ask of a soul but to be such a white feathered thing, suspended in the air high above this pile of rocks at the edge of the sea.