The gift of a salmonberry. 

Standing on the back deck of the boat slowly puttering through St. Herman Harbor we were passing an old crabbing boat rusting away. This boat has not moved in years, and it has the sad air of having seen better days. Since we were on a wildlife viewing adventure, however, I did not dwell on the sight of the old boat but was looking for anything moving: sea lions, sea otters, or birds.

That is when I saw a pigeon guillemot coming up from a dive with a silvery fish in its beak. The little bird did not eat the fish, but paddled over to the derelict fishing vessel, right toward a hole in its side. As I was watching, the pigeon guillemot stretched its neck as high as it could reach when another bird, namely its mate, reached down, gingerly took the fish and disappeared with it in the hole of the rusty hull. 

Pigeon guillemots are slightly smaller than a puffin — black with white wing tips and bright red feet and beaks. They are a common sight on the water around Kodiak and are usually in pairs or small groups. They raise their chicks in spaces under docks and between pilings or in nooks and crannies of the rocky shores. Or, apparently, in old and derelict ships. 

Later that evening, I was on a walk with a very special person. This was when the salmonberries were just beginning to ripen, and each ripe berry was a treasured find. Both of us are fond of the fresh berries, and the special sentiment of being able to walk through nature and pick fresh and healthy food from the wild bushes while walking by.

Kodiak has an air of paradise when tasty food grows right within reach. I often think about the beauty of nature’s way of providing delicious food designed to be eaten so that the seeds are spread. While I was still looking for the best and ripest fruits, a hand was proffering some beautiful, red and juicy berries to me.

It struck me then that I had been looking for berries, and if I had found them first they would have gone straight into my mouth. However, the man I was with, while I know he loves berries just as much, was giving the biggest and best ones to me before eating any himself. 

Another example of giving is in the sea otter story that I tell guests on our wildlife tours: Adult male sea otters often find and guard a territory. This is usually an area near the shore or around a rock with a bit of kelp forest.

The story goes that the sea otter defends this territory against other males. Moreover, he does not actually hunt there but rather does his own hunting outside of this little garden. Female sea otters move around and when they find a good kelp forest with plentiful food they stay for a while.

This gives Mr. Sea Otter a chance to charm the lady — actually the mating act in sea otters is a rather rough scene, and if he were a human the male would risk being arrested for domestic kelp forest violence. In any case, the female gets a few days of good hunting and plentiful forage, and then moves along. 

In all three cases a gift is presented to deepen the bond between two individuals.

While all these cases of giving are also between a male and a female, there are other kinds of giving. For example, I can imagine that the female pigeon guillemot handed the fish off to the chicks in her shipboard nest. In puffins, which are close relatives of pigeon guillemots, one partner will go fishing and deliver the fish to the nest for the other one who is sitting on the eggs until the chicks are hatched at which time both parents go fishing and bring food to the chicks. Anyone who is a parent has plenty of stories of selfless giving with their kids being the beneficiaries.

A particularly interesting form of giving is the anonymous gift to a stranger. Once, I drove up to a coffee window to order a drink and when I wanted to pay for it I was told that it was taken care of: Someone had already paid the bill as an act of anonymous giving to brighten a stranger’s day. It did brighten my day; thank you to Mr. or Mrs. Anonymous! 

Why would people give? In animals, we assume that giving is connected to improving the chances of reproductive success, either through gaining access to a mate or improving the chances of one’s offspring.

In people, there is another aspect of giving that has nothing to do with actual reproduction. It feels good to give. It is rewarding to improve another’s life. One aspect is that of leaving a legacy for being generous, another may be to make a change in the world for the better.

Often, people give out of a feeling of giving back, because they have received generosity or found some kind of betterment from an act of selflessness they have observed. Interestingly, the spirit of giving has nothing to do with how much someone has; I have seen people with a lot of resources give a lot to the community, and I have seen people with almost nothing give most of that to other poor souls. 

There are organizations that bank on the “spirit of giving,” particularly around the holidays. All kinds of agendas claim to use your money to do good and rectify some problem that they think you may care about. Millions of anonymous dollars get donated to causes from political to humanitarian, or to save the whales, the sharks, the orangutans, the tigers, the turtles and you name it! I can’t help but wonder what percentage of those donations are turned around to advertise and print spam mail so that more people use more of their money and support the administration of these projects.

Personally, I object to those practices of anonymous giving and would rather put my support where I can be sure it reaches its end goal. Perhaps I am just not as generous, or perhaps it has to do with the receiving side of the giving.

Consider this: If an eagle catches a fish and drags it to the shore to eat this may attract other birds to share in the meal. If this eagle allows the other birds to eat from the fish, we would call this an act of sharing, which is a form of giving.

However, if the eagle has no intention of sharing its catch, it will run after another bird, say a magpie, that tries to snatch a bite. If a third bird, perhaps a crow, were to use the opportunity to take a piece of the fish while the eagle was busy chasing off the magpie, we would say that the crow stole food from the eagle. We consider the act of sharing and giving good — even if the eagle already ate more than its fill — while the act of taking is bad, regardless of need or hunger. 

There is a kind of giving that does not feel good to the recipient. If there are ties attached to the giving the giving is no longer selfless.

If I give my son a plane ticket so he can come visit me it is not a gift to him but to me. Likewise, if a gift is attached to an expectation it is not a true gift. What about the giving or donation of things we no longer need? Is it a true act of giving if I go through my wardrobe and donate the things I no longer wear?

Is it true giving to bring out the cans of food I don’t like to eat to a food drive? I would argue that while it is giving, and it fulfills the need to do good and also helps others, it is worth thinking about what kind of giving you want to do.

There is nothing wrong with sharing whatever we have in excess of what we need with others who may need it. However, giving with payback expectations is not real giving. That would rather be in the category of a loan. Personally, I am most in awe of those amazing and true gifts that show caring and love by giving what we really treasure to someone we really care for.


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