They scuttle, peck, scuttle, peck, then they dash up the shoreline, dodging waves, heads down, concentrating. What are they doing? They're "looking for something, something, something," writes the poet Elisabeth Bishop.
Sandpipers are the busiest folks on the beach because their food is hard to see and is coming and going in sloshfuls. It's delivered by waves landing on the beach. It's served on sand grains. As soon as these microscopic insects, copepods, ostracods, nematodes, protozoa, gastrotrichs and tardigrades slide in from the sea, after a very brief pause, hanging onto a bit of sand, they drain away into the mud, or back to the ocean. No wonder sandpipers always look frantic. "Poor bird, he is obsessed," Bishop writes in her wonderful poem "The Sandpiper." Imagine a dinner where each course gets whipped away before you can find it.
I just spent the last few days in the company of a hard-running gang of beach sandpipers, and reading Bishop's poem, she describes these birds as if she's one of them. Poets, like scientists, give living things intimate attention (and if you don't like poetry, I'm adding a video version that lets you see, line by line, what Bishop was talking about, shot through some imaginary binoculars, showing these crazy little shorebirds dashing beside the "roaring" ocean.
The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.
The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.
- Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.
The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn't tell you which.
His beak is focused; he is preoccupied,
looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.
The video version:
The video comes from filmmaker and Ithaca College professor John Scott; it's a draft, to be used in a full length documentary about Elizabeth Bishop. The original poem was written in 1956, and comes from Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems, 1927-1979. The reference to "Blake" refers to the poet William Blake who wrote the classic lines — applicable, I suppose, to a hungry little bird looking for sustenance from beach sand — about seeing "a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower."
"The Sandpiper" from THE COMPLETE POEMS 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.