I used to fish. A lot. Most days I caught nothing in the two or three hours I would spend with a fly on the water, sometimes one fish, occasionally a few. But as I watched the great blue heron pulling trout after trout from the swift current in the Clark Fork River, at a rate of perhaps one fish every five minutes, it was obvious which species was meant to catch and eat fish, and which species was not. Great blue herons can be as tall my grandmother (around four and a half feet tall) and have a wingspan of between six and seven feet (significantly exceeding nana's). 

The heron stood in the fast-moving water on the edge of a slower moving part of the river. Its long legs simulated tree branches or weeds growing up from the river bottom, and its motionless upper body dissolved into the trees and bushes along the edge of the river, at least from the visual perspective of a trout. The heron stood this way for five minutes or so and then, alerted to some movement, would cock its head at an angle to get a better view or to localize the sound of a trout moving under the water.

Pulling its head back into a coil like a snake it would strike, it’s head and neck disappearing under the water for a few seconds before emerging with an empty beak or one holding a 6” to 12” trout, wriggling furiously. The heron held its head still while the overmatched trout twisted back and forth, unknowingly aligning its long thin body with the heron’s long thin beak until the heron, with impeccable timing, opened his beak slightly and allowed the trout to fall into and then through his mouth. A slight bulge in the heron’s neck worked its way down in a few seconds, and the trout was gone. The heron nipped at the water with the tip of its beak, taking a drink to wash down the remnants of the trout.

Successful hunt

As I watched, mesmerized by the skill of this remorseless hunter, an osprey landed on the top branch of a tree hanging over the river. I had seen osprey on this same branch many times over the course of this summer, sometimes resting, sometimes watching the water below with unrivaled intensity. This time, the osprey looked immediately down and started scanning the water for visual cues of movement.The three-dimensional view of what was beneath the surface of the water, including every pebble, bit of algae, and fish, revealed itself to the osprey. The osprey saw through the foaming water that concealed the bottom of the river from me. Shifting its weight from one foot to the other, the osprey prepared to strike and then fell like a stone, wings tucked tightly to its sides, claws out in front held stiffly at a slight angle to the water’s surface. Breaking the water’s surface with a splash that scared the nearby heron into flight, the osprey disappeared. Then, his head broke the surface of the water and bobbed for a few seconds while he struggled to grasp his prize below the surface. He took flight slowly, the combined weight of the fish and the water clinging to his feathers proving difficult to lift. But lift he did, and the wriggling trout caught in his talons seemed nearly as large as the bird itself. 

The bird held the fish in one clenched fist and used the other to spin the fish so that the hunter and the hunted had their heads pointing in the same direction. Osprey always carry their fish head first in this streamlined manner. The bird continued its struggle to climb higher and higher and eventually the wings relaxed into a rhythmic pattern. Having taken off into the wind to ease liftoff, the osprey turned and flew downstream, blood dripping from the puncture marks down the fish’s tail and into the water. The two disappeared into the woods on the way to some distant nest where the osprey could share and enjoy his catch.

The differences in the approaches taken by these two hunters was clear. The heron’s long, straight beak was its weapon, its trap, sprung with perfect timing and precise force, whereas the osprey used its curved beak only later to tear the flesh of the bird while eating. The osprey’s weapons, on the other hand, were its claws—razor sharp talons able to cut through a foot of water and pierce the flesh of the surprised trout. The heron’s feet, on the other hand, were used only to grasp rocks on the river bottom to provide stability in the fast-moving current. The heron ate the trout whole and unharmed, squirming and wriggling its way down the heron’s throat to what must have been a frightening and slow demise, its fear tempered only by the company it found in this dark place. The osprey’s lunch likely died on the way to the nest through blood loss, and was consumed in small bites by the osprey, his mate, and any children still calling the nest home.

The search for the meaning of life is always with us, subconsciously driving our behaviors or as an active goal in the forefront of our minds. This search is at the core of the hundreds of philosophies developed by our species. How shall we live? What path should we take? Hedonism? Self-sacrifice? Escapism? Balance? Intellectual curiosity and lifelong learning? Omni-present intergalactic oneness? Buddhists believe that the meaning of life is to end suffering, while stoics say it is to live according to nature. Christians say it is serving God, some atheists, perhaps, to serve each other. Leopardi and Nietzsche concluded that life has no intrinsic meaning, a potentially depressing conclusion that they ultimately found to be liberating.

Maybe there is no meaning to life, or no single meaning in any case. Maybe like the heron and the osprey, there are different paths that can and should be taken. How would the heron fare if it perched on a tree branch and dove quickly down to the water, feet first, trying to locate and snare a trout with its stubby little claws? How pointless would it be for an osprey to stand motionless in deep water trying to trap a fish with its blunted beak? Are we any different? We each have our own gifts, weaknesses, tendencies, histories, personalities, and beliefs. How could one approach to deriving meaning from life apply to all of us? Maybe I should stop searching for the correct philosophy, the correct approach, the meaning of life, and start searching for the meaning of my life.

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