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Zen and the Terns of Manitou by Eric P. Mayer North Manitou, affectionately just the Manitou, is a wilderness island located in northeastern Lake Michigan. It is a land of contrasts in many ways, yet there is a unity here that ties everything together. The Manitou is an island where harmony reaches far beyond the physical place to stir intense awareness within those who meet her.

During the many years I've come here, I've thought a lot about what the Manitou is for me. I've thought about the allure that beckons me back each year. The allure is subtle, yet powerful, and far beyond enticement. It reaches far beyond fascination and charm, too. The allure is more than a thing "out there" because it comes not only from the island, but also from deep inside. Compare it to a symbiotic relationship, of parts vastly different, island and man, the union of which is not disadvantageous to either but advantageous and necessary to both; of parts combined such that they are not only dependent but together form an entirely new entity. This is my experience of the Manitou. This is the allure, the harmony that ties everything together.

We saw the greenflash at sunset Monday evening from beach at the foot of Old Baldy Dune. It was only the second time in my life that I've seen this phenomenon. A beautiful emerald glow flooded our world for an instant as the last glowing remnant of the sun's globe slipped silently into Lake Michigan's sparkling blue waters. On Tuesday night, though it lacked the greenflash, the sun's orange glow set ablaze the silhouettes of low clouds with resplendent glory on the distant horizon. We were the witnesses. And not only witnesses, but participants; this is the Manitou in concert.

Those sunsets, observed quietly with the lap of gentle waves on sand and pebbles, consisted not only of the greenflash and the fiery glow of cloud silhouettes, but also of all those thing then missing from our busy lives that would prevent them from being seen at all. A sign back at the ferry landing in Leland said, "A spouse and a steady job has ruined many a good fisherman." Certainly there may be an element of truth here for some, but the real ruin of the fisherman comes not from the spouse or the steady job but from a failure deep inside the fisherman himself. For the good fisherman is born from within not prevented from without. Likewise, those sunsets are not the sole possession of the Manitou but necessary, too, is the yearning within the human heart that seeks them out and finds them.

For me, this Manitou is much greater than the sum of its parts. Strangely, it consists not only of the things that, taken collectively, make it a physical place, such as dunes of sand, forests of tall trees and beaches of crashing waves, but it consists also in the things that are not here. The Manitou exists powerfully, too, of things cast off, left behind, forgotten; those things once deemed necessary but which, in the final analysis, are not only unnecessary but actually counterproductive. It may seem strange to say an object consists of the things it is not, yet it is true of the Manitou.

Let me illustrate. When we arrived on the island we discovered that I forgot to bring our coffee pot. A coffee pot is both necessary and important, for with it we brew the tea and coffee that makes life in our wilderness camp high above the beach a glad kindness. Yet the coffee pot is not here, and I suppose the Manitou is better for its absence. Better because its absence caused us to rediscover the coffee pot we already had in the form of our cooking pot which made the same tea and the same coffee with equal perfection.

I could go on and on about the things which the Manitou is not. But I suppose it is more important to say what the Manitou is.

Not long ago, a barge loaded with sawed pine timbers from Alberta encountered one of Lake Michigan's notorious stormy gales. Strong winds and high seas washed a great number of the timbers overboard to set their own course, guided only by wind and current, for destinations unknown. A great number still remain in the lake. Others washed ashore along Lake Michigan's eastern coast. Some made their way to the deserted beaches of North Manitou, thrust ashore by a mighty and relentless rumble of blue waves that pound the surf in a froth of water, sand and breeze.

Earlier in the week we assembled a tattered collection of these sawed pine logs into a makeshift bench on the beach. It became the place in late evening to sit and watch the sun go down and contemplate the end of the day. And that is where I found myself, alone, on Thursday evening, comfortably seated on those logs facing westward towards the setting sun, a chorus of four-foot waves thundering in front of me then hissing less violently back into the lake.

Through the binoculars, the crystal blue waters of the lake reflected silver the glare of the setting sun, the horizon sky a pale orange. A stiff onshore breeze whipped the waves to white caps, tossed the hair behind my hat and ruffled the sleeves of my shirt. To the north and south along the beach my binoculars revealed not another living soul, save for a lone gull that pecked the sand at the wave's highest reach, his dinner the meager bounty of windblown spume.

Off shore I spotted a tern, then two. Further searching revealed several more companions, evenly scattered above the shuffle of blue waves. Cruising back and forth above the lake, the terns alternately flapped their wings and sailed in the breeze. It occurred to me that these were large terns, bigger than the ring-billed gulls that frequented the beach near camp, perhaps as big as herring gulls. That would make them Caspian terns, Sterna caspia. But I had no one to confirm the identification. I didn't need to confirmed it.

I chose one tern and followed his wind-tossed flight more closely. Black legs tucked tight against the white underbody near a forked white tail. The head capped in black with a white chin and a blood-red bill that appeared to glow in the orange light of the setting sun. The head looked only downward into the waves, turning left then right in quick jerks, searching. Massive wings, white above but darkening black near the underside tips, folded with quick and deliberate precision launching the bird missile-like into the clear water in a behavior typical of terns. A narrow fountain of silver spray shot skyward as the air pocket sucked closed after the plunge. Beneath the waves for only an instant, the tern emerged as if running from the water, flapping its massive wings, the tips at first striking the lake, then aloft again low over the waves pulling a trail of water like silver beads. A quick shake expelled a puff of tiny droplets from the body as the tern gained altitude with strong pulses from the wings. Then it was back into the wind for more cruising and another plunge.

Yes, these were Caspian terns, and they were hunting. The Manitou had given me long hours to sit, listen and observe them in undisturbed solitude. I studied them carefully through the binoculars for over an hour, observing the minute idiosyncrasies of their behavior above the waves that evening. It occurred to me that for the most part, these terns were predators, flying over water with head down, sometimes hovering, always scanning the surface, preying on small fish which they catch with their sudden, arrow-like plunge. Sometimes it appeared they would even swim a few strokes under water to catch their prey.

Their success rate did not appear to be high this evening. I watched them for a long time before I saw one return to the surface with a small silver fish wiggling crosswise in the bill. Holding the fish and flapping wildly its wings, the tern trying to gain altitude and swallow the fish all at the same time. The problem was the fish was crosswise in the bill and too large to swallow unless it went down head first. Several jerks of the head were unsuccessful in turning the fish in flight, so the tern made an abrupt splash landing on the water. Once down, the tern's head shook more freely, the bill released slightly the wiggling fish and recaptured it properly aligned with deft precision in a quick jerk. And then the silver fish disappeared, sucked down the throat, gone. Even as it was being swallowed, the tern took flight again, flapping its wings on the surface, then slightly aloft, its head dipping and throat constricting to move the fish into its belly.

It was a beautiful spectacle to behold, I thought. But that was from my perspective on the beach, the comfortable observer. From the terns' perspective, there was probably less beauty than work for survival involved. Survival that included not only the act of hunting itself, but of protecting a territory for the hunting. For these terns were not just randomly flying over the lake as I first supposed, but careful observation revealed they were, in fact, flying over their territory of the lake; a territory with defined boundaries, invisible to me but nonetheless very real to the terns themselves. One straying out of his domain was quickly spotted and driven off by the defending tern with swooping dives and a low-pitched, rather hoarse kaa-uh, kaah scold.

From the fish's perspective, the word beauty probably doesn't even enter into the equation of the events I witnessed. Terror and death are probably more fitting; the struggle for life failed, the survival of the fittest proving him not fit to survive. I tried to imagine myself that fish. His world beneath the silvered waves, a world of liquid blue where survival is based upon sheer numbers in most cases. It is a world where danger lurks in all directions. There you move in great schools of companions because you believe the strategy reduces your personal threat from predators. The problem is all your companions believe the same thing; that you increase their chances for survival, that you will be taken instead of them.

And that's when the attack comes, not from below or from the sides, but from above, from the tern you didn't even know was there. You probably don't even hear the plunge until you're already squeezed tight in that great blood-red bill. By the time you begin to struggle you're already breaking the surface above your watery world, to be glimpsed only once from above, and that briefly. That's when your eyes see the feathered head and you wonder what it is that's got you. It's nothing you've ever seen before, something you never knew existed. The tern doesn't bother to mercifully bite your jugular like a lion. No, instead he crushes you through the middle with his powerful bill while trying to move your head towards his throat. The point is, you are alive when he swallows you.

I put down the binoculars and leaned back casually upon the pine log bench to watch the sun disappear beneath the waves. There was no greenflash, no low clouds to burn bright silhouettes. The sun's red globe merely sucked into the lake, gone. Left behind was the chorus of thundering waves beneath a stiff breeze under twilight's azure sky. Together we bid adieu the lone gull, my skulking terns and the small silver fish.

So what is the Manitou? Certainly all of the above, and more. And the allure? Well, that's something more difficult to put into words. Perhaps those who say don't really know; those who do know don't say, or can't say, or shouldn't say. The Manitou offers time for all sorts of important things usually overlooked in the humdrum of daily life. It's a place where time is measured less by the clock than by quiet contemplation at the end of the day. It's a place to behold the greenflash and fiery orange sunsets, to watch Caspian terns for long hours in unhurried solitude, and to ponder what it's like to be something you are not. Yes, this is the Manitou, here and anywhere the inner voice speaks its wisdom in a silence loud enough to be heard.

13 August 1997

Eric P. Mayer can be reached via email at and you can see photos from his visits to the Manitou Islands and read other works at

Copyright 2001 Manitou Publishing Co. & Eric P. Mayer • All Rights Reserved.

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