Especially on hot, sunny days in the early afternoon I sometimes take breaks visiting the reservoir dam, which is only about a three minute walk away. Nowadays the reservoir's water level lies about six feet below what it did when I arrived because water is being drawn off for irrigation. There's a good deal of very shallow water, which attracts wading birds. The other day when I got to the dam's far end there was a single, elegant little Black-necked Stilt standing stiffly in the shallow water. You can see what that species looks like on our own Black-necked Stilt page.

That day I lay on the viewing area's sizzling concrete and with my binoculars feasted my eyes on the stilt -- a black-and-white-tuxedoed little bird with slender, shockingly red legs, a perfectly proportioned, needlelike, cocky little bill definitely up-turned, and white, bushy-looking eyebrows -- and I wondered this: Why should one bird species give the impression of having a more perfect appearance than any other?

For example, on the page of my field guide illustrating the Black-necked Stilt also one finds the Black Oystercatcher and the Lapwing. The latter two species are handsome, interesting-looking birds, but I'd never consider them "perfect" just based on their looks. But, yes, there's something "perfect" about that Black-necked Stilt.

Here's how I have it figured out:

Throughout the Universe there flow a certain number of elemental abstract themes. I visualize these themes as being like ribbons of every color and texture slowly undulating in open space. An example of such a universal theme might be "gaiety." Another, "nobility." There's "harmony," "aggression," "generosity" ... on and on. Moreover, when I think about it, each of these themes is paired with its opposite, which also constitutes a theme -- "somberness" with "gaiety," "meanness" with "nobility -- always the yin and yang of things inextricably paired.

I'm expressing these themes in terms of human traits -- "gaiety," "nobility" -- but the Universe's themes are expressed in all kinds of ways. The quality I call "gaiety" sometimes manifests itself beautifully in pieces of music, but also it's in a blue-flowered Jacaranda heaving in the wind on a sunny day. This "gaiety" also expresses itself in certain parts of the rambunctiously branching phylogenetic Tree of Life, for example the orchid branch which at this moment in evolutionary history is exploding with joyous diversification of blossom designs and colors among newly arising species. In fact, nowhere does the thing I called "gaiety" express itself more perfectly that in the fact that the Universe itself consists of something instead of nothing, and that that something lustily, singingly, dancingly evolves.

People appreciative of music know that some pieces are more successful than others in expressing something -- the "something" being some kind of universal theme, such as "robust young love" or "nostalgia." Therefore, maybe I sense something "perfect" about the Black-necked Stilt because that species, like certain exceptional pieces of music, expresses a universal theme more "artfully" than some other bird species. Just as Beethoven's Ninth inspires us more than Beethoven's Eighth...

What could be the theme the Black-necked Stilt so perfectly represents?

I guess its theme is not as general as "gaiety" or "nobility." It's a smaller abstraction, something like "elegant cockiness" or "playful conservatism."

Refined Japanese in ancient times displayed their understanding of the connection between things of the material world and abstract notions when they ceremonially associated fragrances of incense with particular poems or moments of history, in the exquisite ceremony know as "listening to incense." In a similar manner, today any reflective person can find universal abstract themes expressed in terms of the personalities of people, in landscapes, in historical evens, works of art, and plant and animals species all around us.

The fulfillment of this proposition is arrived at when we not only recognize universal elemental themes, and reflect on them, but also choose which themes we can most nobly identify with, and then live our lives in harmony with them.