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The Bite of the Puffin
by Stewart Blackburn

One summer between college years I was living at my parents cabin on the coast of Maine. A fairly wealthy family had recently bought the point on the other side of our little cove and I went to work for them as general handyman and helper. The man of the house said to me one day that he'd been talking to a grad student at the Maine Audubon Society summer camp on the other side of the point and had volunteered to help this young man accomplish his project of repuffinating Muscongus Bay, the larger body of water by where we lived.

It seems that at the end of the Nineteenth Century there was a major fashion fad for women to wear hats made of colorful sea birds. The entire population of puffins had been taken for these hats and they had never returned. This young man, Steve Kress, wanted to go up to Newfoundland and get puffin chicks just before they emerged from their holes on the sea cliff, cover their eyes and bring them back to Muscongus Bay, and then release them on the island where they used to reign.

The man was a very smart and friendly person who had made a living by following his passions and taking risks. So he was going to fly Steve up to Newfoundland in his own 4-seater Cessna plane that he kept locally. He asked me if I like to join the trip that also included his son. There was no hesitation on my part to be included in this grand adventure. So off we went to Newfoundland. We rented a car for the next morning, drove a couple of hours down the coast, got on a fishing boat, and went out to the island offshore to hunt for puffin chicks.

The operation was easy enough in theory. All we had to do was reach into a small hole with the entire length of our arm until we found a puffin chick at the end. We were to grab the chick, bring it out, and put it into a sack for safekeeping for the ride back to Maine. The only wrinkle in this was there might be a mother puffin in the hole as well, guarding her little offspring. And puffins bite.

Well, I found out how strongly puffins bite when I encountered a mother, and let me tell you that it hurt like a strong hammer strike on the thumb! I survived, though, and we brought half a dozen puffins back and now Muscongus Bay is once again home to Atlantic puffins.

But what made such a profound effect on me was the nature of passion. Here were three very passionate individuals: Steve Kress and his passion for birds in general, the man who took us up there, whose name was Robert Noyce, inventor of the integrated circuit and cofounder of Intel, and, of course, the puffin mother.

In each case the passion that they exhibited was not something that was manufactured, acquired, or even necessarily desired. It was the unfettered expression of who they were. It was an expression of their authentic character.

It was in the same spirit as what Sir Francis Chichester said upon returning from his historic solo sailing trip around the world in 1967, "One does these things because one has a Certain nature. One cannot get away from fate. If a person does not fulfill his nature, he will lead a frustrated life and be unhappy. If it involves him in fear he will just have to put up with it."

Our passions are an expression of our Soul; they're not something that necessarily has any cause we can find. They are more like calls from the future. They sing like Sirens, "Come to me, come to me."

Now the advice to follow your heart, but don't leave your brain behind, is good stuff. But in my experience, I see too many people hesitate to "go for it" with an excess of doubt. Doubt is fine when we are making plans and then pause to reconsider what we're doing. But doubt is unnecessary and gets in the way of a committed plan. Fortunately doubt can be cast aside with a little authority. "Go away doubt. I don't want you here now!" The more emphatically we say that, the more effective it is.

So I found that the inspiration of Steve Kress, Bob Noyce, and a mother puffin reminds me to take steps into the unknown, really the unknown parts of myself. It's all an exploration of who I am as a divine being. Feeling that passion keeps me aware that I am truly alive and on Earth.

Steve Kress has retired now from the Puffin Project. He has remained passionate about birds in general all his life so far as I know. Bob Noyce's passion to explore the physics of tiny circuits led him to create one of the most successful companies in modern times. The puffin who bit me had the natural passion of a mother, and hopefully had many other happy chicks in years afterward.

And, I, in part because of them, have come away less afraid to stick my neck out and show the world what I can do.

Copyright 2016 Stewart Blackburn

Stewart Blackburn is the author of The Skills of Pleasure: Crafting the Life You Want. His website is:; email:

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