The two windows, small and unmovable, furnish a clear sweep of the harbor through their film of dirt. The sea gulls come and perch near the window ledges. The birds stare in at me and I stare out at them. During these interviews we both carry rather silly expressions, for neither of us seems to know what he is going to do next. They act as if they, too, have read up on the universe around us and are wise to the fact that in this jumble of orbits we are foolish to have ambitions, that we are foolish to do anything all day long except eat. In a million million years the whole show will be ended anyhow, and so why should they or I acquire wrinkles trying to amount to something? Whereupon, we merely stand and stare, passengers on the same boat.
The pelicans now are different, specially the old pelicans that perch on the pier-heads beyond the windows. The pelicans have worried so much about life that the tops of their heads are gray. They have worried and worried, yet have arrived nowhere either. They do not even bother to look in the window at me. Each day has become as much a burden to them as their heavy bills. They are tired, so tired they have forgotten how to make a noise. They are so tired they no longer can be bothered scrambling for food.
At first they must have despised the sea gulls for all of their squawking and for all of their swooping for scraps and for their greedy habit of robbing the nests of the cormorants. They must have regarded sea gulls much as I regard committee people, and yet the pelicans in time must have grown up, which is more than I can do. They must have forced themselves to consider the sea gull in its better moments, when its stomach is stuffed to the limit, when it is content to sit by these windows staring in at me as though it, too, is filled with reasoning. All sea gulls, I think, would ultimately like to be pelicans, but so far are too earthy to overcome their appetites.
And so I do have my acquaintances, after all, in my studio upstairs on the tugboat pier.
Elephant Seal Editor
Each year we go after elephant seals for the Zoo. Sometimes we go in the Navy’s tugboat, Koka, sometimes in the Navy’s Eagle boat 34. We cruise to that Mexican island of Guadalupe.
There on the sands the monsters are awaiting us. They comprise the only herd of their kind in existence, and they are too contented with themselves to be angry at our intrusion.
They have basked in the sunlight of those islands for hundreds of years now, and who are we? We are a pestilence of germs to carry them away. Only they do not recognize germs. They fear nothing they cannot recognize.
From the vessel we float the sides of a cage ashore through the surf. The frames are covered with paddock-fencing of the strongest. On the beach we put the cage together, leaving the shore-end open.
We walk through the herd selecting the member we want, although all look healthy enough. Their black eyes are as doorknobs, their sea-washed hides catch the Mexican sun and radiate it back at us. Their long noses are like sawed-off elephant trunks, and they turn these noses up at us as we walk past. We do not belong here. They can tell this by sniffing.
We select the one we wish, not because of his size, but because of his convenience to the cage. We shoo him backwards into the cage. We threaten to hit him in the snout if he does not back up, yet he weighs a ton and a half; he weighs as much as all of us twice over.
When he is in the cage, and the cage is secure, we wait for the tide to rise; then we float the cage out to the vessel. The ship’s crane hoists the load aboard, and the ship’s pumps are turned upon the captive to keep him wet. If he is not kept wet he moves about scratching himself and fretting.
Sometimes we bring back three at a time. We can bring back as many as we have room for, as the herd must number half a thousand. Sometimes we see them swimming far offshore long before we reach the island. They are so big that you imagine you are looking at some sea-monster these many years extinct.
But 50 years ago there used to be lots of elephant seals around here, old fishermen say. The elephant seals used to come as far north as Southern California. Everybody thought the herd had all been killed off until these were found at Guadalupe. The Mexican Government does not permit them to be killed now, and the expedition has to get permission from Mexico City before making the capture. This always takes a long time.
The only syndicate stories I am ever sure of selling are about elephant seals. Nobody seems to be anxious to buy my short stories or my opinions, but I can always market copy on elephant seals. They are my lone entrée into literature. Nor are my words sufficient in themselves. My stories must be illustrated. This fact used to humiliate me four or five years ago, but now I am hardened, and I am grateful for any outside check.
For other reasons, too, I consider myself quite an elephant-seal expert; I am the elephant-seal editor. I know that the only time the bulls are the least bit vicious is during May and June. This is mating season for them, and as each bull is fond of collecting a harem the fighting among the bulls is terrific. They bunt each other against the sharp rocks of Guadalupe until one or the other gives up and dies. They do not bite. Their mouths are not built for biting. They simply slam each other without mercy; then for the remaining ten months are on the best of terms with all the world. To bear their calves the cows go away into hiding on the opposite side of the island. Some caves are there, and cows like to be around caves.