Unexpected Beauty

Unexpected beauty. In a highrise, surrounded by a sky-scraping copse of towers, nature abounds. Gulls soar, fixed-wing on thermals pumped from rooftop HVACs. Summer settles into place, reluctantly, with every shade of green—Irish hues in streetscapes, courtyards, boulevards—while deciduous and conifers sprout tender shoots begging to be brewed in campsite tea.

From my concrete aerie a swath of ornithology—gulls now in a gang, to squawk and dive, pestering a lone bald eagle flapping broad extended juvie wings, its flightpath east to west. The local crow clan’s deep in conversation, clip-purr-caws of general assembly. Two sparrows singsong back and forth, melodic two-tone music penetrating everything—the white noise hum of traffic, mental illness shouts, a beep of backing trucks and endless buzz of newbuilds being born. A flicker (the bird) flashes—traffic cone red—its flight a series of upbeats, a child’s rendering of waves, an unending row of upper case U. Beyond, above an inlet, the duck-like flap of cormorants, their bodies darts, resembling failed supersonic jets, an Avro Arrow or a Concorde BAC.

Now all hell’s broken loose. Something’s up, up here. From our tiny deck a solitary bird wings straight toward me from a distance. It might be a pigeon, but the fuss! Every other bird has joined the dogfight protest—dodging, bobbing, weaving. And still the visitor gets closer. Now I see that it’s a raptor. Almost out of place, but not. Not here, in this open aviary. It swoops in to alight on the deck directly below, a socially responsible two meters away. The other birds scream insults as the big-eyed raptor ducks its head and watches, cautious, an overhang providing shelter.

I recognize it as a falcon. Peregrine. Not the last thing I’d expect to see in the downtown CBD but rare all the same. By the time it flies away most of the protest has dissipated. A few disgruntled caws and chirpy shouts. It leaves me curious but mostly feeling good. Whether these bursts of activity are a function of a COVID-quietened city—wildlife inching back to where it belongs—jaguars, boars and bears meandering through city streets around the globe. Or perhaps it’s just a further sign of how we’ve messed things up. Those same HVAC compressors seagulls seem to love, exuding heat for inside air-conditioned comfort, all of it confounds, compounds our weather system, temperatures and storms. Some of these birds—eternal migrators—have simply stopped, residing where they are, year-round. For the first time in twenty years of seaside running, swathes of shoreline are paved in goose shit. Geese are staying put and every gosling (all named Ryan) lives, survives and grows to adulthood where they were born. We’re nearly overrun with one of our (numerous) national symbols. But enough of the soapbox. You can read my global warming rant in stanza-form in Califragile Magazine. [perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#8893a5″ class=”” size=””]”A sobbing young man clambering over the midspan bridge railing, in the process of making his final decision. Oh, I thought, this is happening.”[/perfectpullquote]

The fact remains we live in beauty. All around, it abounds. Never more have I felt this than I did on our country’s national holiday (insert Canada Day pride/protest/all-of-the-above here). It was five AM. I’d finished a run and was cooling down, walking home across a bridge. There was one other individual out, here, at this time. A sobbing young man clambering over the midspan bridge railing, in the process of making his final decision. Oh, I thought, this is happening. And so with this pleasant-faced, sad and crying man clinging to the outside of the bridge rail, I began to talk. Spanish was his first language, our communication somewhat halted and mostly one way—me simply talking, not having a playbook to refer to, just empathy and openness and a small slice of personal experience. “I’m just … so … tired,” he managed to say. To which all of us, I’m certain, can relate. After some time, uncomplicated monologue then dialogue, we knew each other. In some ways, somewhat. In others, wholly.

While we spoke, with gradual encouragement, my new acquaintance chose to crawl back onto my side of the railing. I suppose someone made a call. Because with mild surprise we both realized a semi-circle of police, emanating patience, slowly, slowly, approached. Not interrupting. Eventually, with tears and thanks, we disbanded—the young man escorted to a hospital, me heading home for another quick cry, reaffirmed gratitude, and unexpected beauty.


Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of the Gone Viking travel memoirs (Gone Viking: A Travel SagaGone Viking II: Beyond BoundariesGone Viking III: The Holy Grail) and A Season on Vancouver Island. He’s won numerous book awards and received a Fellowship at London’s Royal Geographical Society for his expeditions. When not trekking with a small pack and journal, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, where he lives near the sea on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land.