I am not a patient person. In wilderness settings, where my significant other likes to stand and gaze at the natural beauty all around, I want to explore, walk, clamber up things, turn things over, scurry and sniff. I can't repose the way he can. I would take the view that we just have two different ways of taking things in, each good, except for the fact that my impatience makes it hard for me to wait out wildlife. When some alarmed creature dives down a burrow, into a nest hole, or behind a branch, I'd like wait until it re-emerges. Or I'd like to do as many predators do: select a concealed vantage point, and wait until creatures who have no real wish to meet me come wandering along without a clue. But I can almost never bear to be still long enough.
One April day, I went to the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve on the coast of San Mateo County, California, to examine the tidepools. The tide tables showed there would be an exceptionally low tide early in the morning on a weekday. As I hoped, there was no crowd. It was so early that no ranger was on duty to put out traffic cones to warn people away from the harbor seal rookery.
Staying inland, on the sand, I walked south until I was past the rookery, where the seals and their pups lie near the water. I went out on the rocks, near the edge where waves lash the water. As I crouched, peering into a tidepool, I looked up and saw a seal sticking its head out of the water, looking at me. I got up and walked south to another tidepool, observed by the seal. It swam along slowly, keeping its head up so it could see me. I went to another tidepool, and another, and every time I looked up the seal was staring, swimming south to keep me under scrutiny. Okay, they're smart animals, and I'm kind of weird. Why wouldn't it be curious?
Coming to a wide channel that had been drained by the retreating tide, I was amazed to see an abalone lying in the middle of the channel, out of water, upside down and motionless. There were no people out there who might have turned it over, and I couldn't think what else might have done it. Maybe it had been making a daring abalone traverse from one rock to another and suddenly been struck by a wave carrying a log or a boulder which knocked it loose. Or maybe it was dead, and had just relaxed its grip as it died. That was a grim idea, but it suddenly seemed the most likely. I turned it right side up, half in and half out of the water in a small pool. It was still motionless.
Here was a test of my ability to be patient. I wanted so badly to see if this abalone was alive, and I forced myself to sit and wait quietly. I would be still for five minutes. I didn't move, but in my head I fidgeted: silently I counted the seconds. After I had counted two minutes, a small wave swirled around the abalone. I almost thought it shifted a bit. But that might have been my imagination.
In the water, other creatures were moving. A purple sea urchin waved its spines and feet busily. A starfish the size of a dime began traveling along a frond of seaweed. A tidepool Johnny (a fish, also called a sculpin) scudded across the sand. Hermit crabs, far more impatient than me, bustled around with gesticulating antennae.
After I hit the five-minute count, I pushed the abalone with my finger. It was gripping the rock so firmly I couldn't shift it at all. It was alive. So that was good news about the abalone. I stood up and saw that no one was watching. I sat still for so long I bored the seal. That was good news about me.