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Grace Descending

hawk2.jpgRed-tailed hawks nest in our valley in the summers, and we hear them so frequently overhead that sometimes we don't even bother to look up. But on a recent summer day, had I allowed that shrill and ordinary call to go unacknowledged, I would have missed the extraordinary performance of a birdwatcher's lifetime.

High up against white cumulus, a pair of red-tails rode the thermals where the rocky tailbone of the ridge dips into Goose Creek. One bird traced a wide path at four hundred feet, the other, at eight hundred or more. They circled in opposite directions in a single rising kettle of warm air, aware of each other-probably male and female. The lower bird called its rasping tee-DEEER! and as if in response, the higher bird tucked its wings tight against its body and plummeted straight for the tallest White Pines along the ridgeline. He pulled out nonchalantly at the last instant, to climb the warm air again and soar in lazy spirals above his partner. I've watched redtails perform this power dive before, and it always thrills me. For a moment, I become the bird I'm watching, I see what it sees and feel what it feels. My head swims as I pull out of the free fall, climbing once more, to look down on the tiny white house where the man stands looking up, shading his eyes with his hand.

But that man had never witnessed the display that followed moments later. The two raptors flew circles in close formation in an ordinary kind of way, when the one broke away alone to his higher berth. And then, from a great height, the higher raptor tucked his wings and his silhouette against bright cumulus became the shape of a wingless fuselage of a falling missile, a feathered arrow. The trajectory anticipated the arc of his partner along her slow circle. At the very last instant as I was about to believe I was witnessing an attack, the perfect line of the free-falling bird veered just enough to miss its target. The nearness of his passing pulled his victim sideways into the turbulent undercurrent of his fall. Just then, he unfurled his wings full, breaking his descent. He rose just enough that the two birds were suddenly side by side. And they embraced.

Talon in talon, wings wide and fixed, they fell-yet not a fall, but a dance, a sacrament each bird for and with the other. A russet, feathered carousel twirled with the smooth choreography of a maple fruit in slow motion. Bird with bird, they whirled in a giddy centripetal act of play or thanksgiving. Round and round through the buoyant air, their outstretched wings traced circles in space, while they held to each other for life, for joy, in graceful descent. At the last moment, they parted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, and resumed their silent scribes in the thermal over the ridge.

What does one say in the presence of such wonder? Are there ever words to express this unexpected and poignant beauty? I stood there, awe-struck, and speechless: was this practiced or spontaneous--a ritual fixed by instinct or a creative act of will? My inner poet even considered for the briefest moment that these two birds chose to do this there and then because I had acknowledged their presence by looking up, an honored and appreciative audience of one.

I know better, of course. But even so, having witnessed this, I'll be more open to these small and private miracles of beauty in the years that remain. And I will ponder the possibility that we create these revelations simply by being receptive and ready for them in the ordinary of our busy lives.


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Fred, I think you witnessed part of the mating "dance." What fun to watch them! Wish I had seen this!

"that we create these revelations simply by being receptive" - that's a wonderful idea. You might have something there. Either these things are commonplace and no one notices most of the time, or else there is something else going on, because it happens far more often than coincidence would account for, in those all-too-few times when I pay attention. A shaft of sunlight that suddenly illuminates a lovely vista, a double rainbow that arches over my economically troubled city as I happen to be driving along a vantage point, a hummingbird that hovers almost on my shoulder as I pause on a woods walk.

What a beautiful moment - and I just read that Johns Hopkins is experimenting with a drug from mushrooms that causes a spirtual experience. They can see benefits for the depressed and the dying. Hmmmmm.

Down here in Florida, the sandhill cranes are dancing. I watch them with love and awe, and I feel like all is well after all.

For the last two summers, we had a red-tailed hawk living in the woods around our home, but I have not seen him this year. Perhaps he found a mate and she made him move.....LOL

Perhaps those hawks are imitating what they see the earth-bound humans below them doing? I'm just speculating, of course.

I've only seen this once - a couple of bald eagles during a kayak trip across Prince William Sound. It wil stay with me forever.

Thanks for reminding me to look up.

Do you know Whitman's poem "The Dalliance of the Eagles"?

Skirting the river road, (my forenoon walk, my rest,)
Skyward in air a sudden muffled sound, the dalliance of the eagles,
The rushing amorous contact high in space together,
The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel,
Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,
In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling,
Till o'er the river pois'd, the twain yet one, a moment's lull,
A motionless still balance in the air, then parting, talons loosing,
Upward again on slow-firm pinions slanting, their separate divorce flight,
She hers, he his, pursuing.

This is one of the best things you have ever written!! Thanks for sharing.

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