Sandpipers: A Study of Life Together at the Edge

“Sandpipers in Golden Light on the Olympic Coast” (courtesy of Thomas Robinson)

On a recent beach walk at Cape Disappointment State Park near Ilwaco, Washington, we came upon a treasure at the waters’ edge. The tide was high and the sea was wild, with booming and crashing waves pushing sea foam over the tops of the sea dunes at the high tide watermark. The beach was littered with flotsam and jetsam of a winter sea, including huge driftwood logs scattered about carelessly among pieces of sea trash newly cast up by the waves. I walked along the tops of the dunes looking among the piles of driftwood for floating glass balls used by Japanese fishermen as floats for their fishing nets. I’ve only found one in my life of looking along the north Oregon coast and south Washington coast.

Though I did not find any glass balls, what I did find was a treasure of God’s creation in a flock of Sandpipers. There were over 100 Sandpipers feeding along the waters edge. When I write “the waters edge,” I am referring to the wild, undulating movement of waves washing up the beach and back into the ocean in multiple overlapping sheets of water flowing in and out along the foamy shore. I stood and marveled at the Sandpipers constantly on the move: at times running with legs moving so swiftly the became a blur of motion; at times neatly lifting up above the waves momentarily to move themselves just above the waterline to wet sand that may offer them more food.

The real wonder though before my eyes was the synchronicity of their movements. The flock moved mostly in united rhythm, running up and away from incoming waves, or lifting up together to fly in formation as a flock. While flying together just a feet or two above the wild waves crashing to shore, they moved in harmony, front to back, white to brown; a “fling of Sandpipers” as they are called among collective nouns. The instinctual choreography of this community was mesmerizing to behold. I’ve watched them before and have never tired of wondering how those little bird brains pull off this magic in their life together.

I think a lot about life together. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote what I believe is the best book on the Church written in the 20th century, a book titled, Life Together. In this book, Bonhoeffer speaks of “the day together” and “the day alone.” He writes, “whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone. You were called into the community of faith; the call was not meant for you alone. . . . If you neglect the community of other Christians, you reject the the call of Jesus Christ.” (from Life Together, from the chapter “The Day Alone”).

Our lives are an undulating rhythm of life together and life alone, time with others, and times of solitude. When we are together, we often struggle to know how to live in harmony with the people around us, including those we love best and know most intimately. All of us live at the edge: the edge of mystery, the edge of the great deep, the edge of the unknown, the edge of life with others. Sandpipers are “God’s little theologians,” as Martin Luther loved to call birds, revealing to us an inner harmony, a way of beauty seldom witnessed among any flock of humans, a balance and wonder of life together at the edge.