Serendipity (noun) – the occurrence of fortunate discoveries by accident.
The English author Horace Walpole coined the word ‘serendipity’ in a letter of January 28, 1754, basing it on a fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip” (an old name for Sri Lanka). “As their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.”
I love the idea of serendipity. Often it seems like my life is an endless round of must do’s and should do’s – it is wonderful when along the way I stumble upon an amazing or interesting thing I was not “in quest of”.
Yesterday the Sri Lankan princes were smiling on me, because I had just such an experience while driving through my neighborhood on the way to the local grocery store. I was feeling quite pressured, because I was on the fourth errand of the day and still had many hours of cooking and chores ahead of me. As I pulled up to a stop sign, my eye was caught by a trio of tall stately birds standing in the grassy median. Sandhill cranes! A mother, father and teenager, by the looks of it. They were foraging for food in the ground, which had been softened by an overnight thunderstorm.
Sandhill cranes are year-round residents in my area of the Gulf Coast of Florida, but they are shy and I do not get to see them very often. When I do spot them, it is always a pleasure. In fact, I can remember almost every time I have seen them – by the “Gem of the Nature Coast” sign at the entrance to town, among the live oaks in the buffalo pasture on the back road to my daughter’s school, or along the Suncoast Parkway en route to the Tampa airport.
If I can do so safely, I always slow down to take a long look at these gorgeous, serene shorebirds. They walk slowly along, their tall thin legs bending comically backwards at their knobby knees, placing their feet carefully as they plunge their sharp beaks into the soil, searching for things that I am really glad aren’t on my menu. Sometimes there is just a pair of adults, but often they have a young one along who is learning where to find the best chow. The adults have a distinctive patch of dark red skin on their heads and extra-long tail feathers that look like the old-fashioned bustle on a Victorian lady’s skirt. At least one of the adults is always watching the surroundings alertly for signs of danger.
So yesterday when I saw the sandhill crane family on my way to the grocery store, it was a delightful surprise. Serendipity on a small scale. But what happened next took the experience to a whole new level.
For some unknown reason, I momentarily pushed aside the pressure of my To Do lists and pulled the car over to the side of the road. I climbed out and walked slowly across to the edge of the median, down a ways from where the sandhill cranes were foraging, snapping photos with my iPhone as I edged as close as I dared. Then I decided to just stand still and see what happened (still taking pictures, of course!). This was on the main road through our neighborhood, so there was a steady stream of traffic on both sides of the road. I was surprised to find that most people who came by either slowed down or stopped to look at the cranes and to talk to me about them. (Maybe they wondered about the crazy lady standing in the middle of the median taking pictures of birds.) But my fascination with the cranes was enough to overcome the mild embarrassment of “making a spectacle of myself” and even the discovery that I was standing in an anthill and had ants crawling all over my feet and bare legs.
And that’s when serendipity really kicked in. The crane family became accustomed to my nonthreatening presence and meandered slowly past me on their feeding journey. I was thrilled to get some lovely up-close pictures even without the use of a superlong telephoto lens on a fancy camera body (oops, don’t own one of those anyway!) Then one of the adults leaped up into the air with spread wings, in prelude to flight, I thought. But no, it came right back down in the same spot. And then the other adult repeated the maneuver. Soon they were both spreading their wings and bounding up into the air and then down again, bobbing up and down to each other in between leaps. The teenager crane just looked on, bemused by the antics of his parental units. It finally dawned on me that I was witnessing the distinctive sandhill crane mating display right in front of me. I was in awe.
Eventually a loud truck startled the birds, who flew off together with their long necks stretched out in front of them, wide wings beating slowing as they headed in the direction of our neighborhood duck pond. I reluctantly came back to reality and climbed back into my car, marveling at the workings of serendipity.
Who would have thought that such an amazing discovery would happen to a harried mother rushing about on her errands, driving down a road she travels a gazillion times a year?
So just like the Three Princes of Serendip, keep your eyes open and your camera phone ready, for you never know when you too may make an amazing discovery, by accident or sagacity, of something you were not in quest of.
And when you do, be sure to share it with us!
Definition: American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition, Houghton Mifflin
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