I listen for the whistling calls of the eagles and await the clarion caws of the crows in return. I have little hope for the outcome but that doesn’t prevent my vigilance of the scene.
It began a month or so ago. We looked up to see a flight of a dozen herons or more. (It’s called a siege of herons.) We had never seen so many together in flight at once. And the greater miracle of it was that they were flying up to perch in the big firs behind our house. You could hear their “braaack” calls as they landed and settled, choosing different trees to roost.
Over the next couple of weeks we would watch them as they came and went, sometimes in flight together, sometimes in pairs. Their graceful, elegant gliding and soaring as they went from the beach and back to their roosts in the trees was the larger part of the coming of spring. Ah, yes, the emerging flowers, the sun breaks in the rainy days, the gradual warming all contributed to the lightness of the heart that is the promise spring makes to everything. But it was the flock of herons that made this spring so memorable. The herons felt that promise too as it was mating season and time to build and rebuild the nests.
We watched them as they would bring sticks back and sew them into the burgeoning nests that would hold anywhere from three to seven eggs and then chicks. We watched them mating and marveled at the gift we had been granted by the herons to be allowed to be so close. We felt an honor that they had chosen the trees behind our house to make their home. I would play my different flutes to them in hopes of some kind of comfort, mostly for me.
When we moved back to the Northwest and into an old relic of a house that begged for constant renewal, we knew the lack of light in winter would be problematic. When renewing the roof (the first thing one should do when remodeling a house, assuming the foundation is solid and secure) we installed six eight foot skylights between the eaves. They had draw blinds for when the days were bright but on those many, many grey days they could be raised and the changes the sky brings would be visible. Birds flying over would alter the grey canvas and occasionally bald eagles would circle from a great distance as we began to realize they were studying us. I recall lying in bed one morning looking up at a circling eagle eying me from a distance above. It was at once exhilarating and humbling. I had no doubt were he bigger, were I smaller and the circumstances different I would account for part of his varied diet.
Like so many of Earth’s creatures Eagle has not had an easy time of it. He was once king of the aerial food chain, that Forever once ago when there were wealths of salmon runs and many fish in the rivers and lakes to choose. There was little need to prey on ducks and shore birds except in times when awaiting the great runs of fish. Those days are like moments from a remembered dream, now that the runs of salmon have almost disappeared. Even though I know the answer that lies deep within me I continue to ask myself: What is wrong with us? There is an aggregate madness that swells in humans with their numbers. It cascades and can only have inevitable outcomes. Much will have vanished before those outcomes are fulfilled, however.
The spring of March grew and settled comfortably even as winter tried to renew itself a time or two. Eventually the season wins and it was spring-ier with each passing day. With each of those days we grew more content and happy as the herons continued their sojourn with us.
I remember one day looking out the window of my own aerie that views the high firs and the outer harbor and seeing the approach of the flock of herons as they came up in chorus from the beach, flying overhead so close that the anthropomorphic could imagine both of our smiling visages as we gazed at each other.
In the distance was a pair of bald eagles doing their mating dance in the air, twirling in toward each other and then momentarily grappling their talons together in a twisting glide towards the water, releasing after a moment or two to begin the dance again. Spring, and everything feeling the biological pull of life.
The days passed, flowers emerged, the weeding and restoration of the garden beds and the lawn commenced. I even put in a root garden of my own this year intending to eat more locally and to begin to relearn the power of the Earth to foster life. We could hear the clack of the herons as they settled into the neighborhood and we would also hear the whistling calls of the various eagles. Often they would be right in front of us in the high fir branches that gave them purview of inner and outer harbor and all the life that inhabited the neighborhood.
Something I have learned over the years here on the island and in the neighborhood is to pay attention to the clarion calls of the crows. They announce to the neighborhood and to themselves that there are invaders or changes of interest to them as a community. Many people do not care for crows but I have learned to respect them over the years. They are smart and playful and seem to have a network for communicating the possibilities of occurrences.
I remember them doing just that last year when a red-tailed hawk had been marauding, looking for any advantage as every raptor must. The crows had a nest above the back building where I have my office. I hadn’t actually realized they had a nest in the fir there as they didn’t announce their comings and goings and the chicks were very quiet as they emerged from the eggs. Then one day about this time of spring I heard the cawing clatter and clacking of alarm and went out to discover why they were so upset. It took me a while of scanning but I eventually saw a crow chick, almost fully fledged, in a high branch of the cherry that is next to the fir tree. I didn’t completely understand at the time but the crow chick had been routed in fear out of the nest and hadn’t yet mastered flight to the extent that it could fly either back to the fir tree and the nest, or beyond and out to join the world of crows. The rest of the crows remained most of that day, some coming and going but keeping a vigil and, seemingly, continuing to encourage the fledgling to be brave.
Every so often I would spy the red-tailed, usually because of the agitation of the crows. Some would fly off to challenge and rout him, if possible. One day he had gotten a prize, perhaps a crow chick but it could have easily been another species, and the crow community had risen as one to hector him as he held his perch inside a smaller fir and in a space they could not enter or could only enter at individual peril which they did not choose to do. He took a couple of smaller birds but seemed to be passing through and wasn’t seen again for some time.
Now he was back and there was great concern. I watched the young crow on his perch but there was nothing to be done. At least not by me. The following morning I was awakened by the crows and when I came out to see, the young crow was on the ground and eviscerated. The parental community of crows was outraged but resigned. As they looked on I buried the little crow. For the rest of that day and a day or two longer they returned to gather at the spot and caw what I took to be remorse. I remarked at this as they seemed to show some element of community only hinted at in their other behaviors.
After this I began to pay greater attention to their calls learning which were simply calls of attention and which were signals of alarm to the community, calls that sounded warning and the greater need of numbers. Come! Come now! Come all! And they would. Whether it was a hawk or an eagle that needed harassing out of the neighborhood or some other potential calamity we weren’t privy to, we would look up, look out, to see them flocking in the air and then into trees where they had something cornered, or at least a communal need of group discussion.
I knew that the crows and eagles had previously consorted in a heronry that had a great deal of human hope invested in it on a small island closely connected to ours. The eagles had driven the herons into alarm and attacked the nests eating the eggs (and chicks if there were any), and the crows would take advantage of whatever was left over. In some cases a sufficiency of crows (referred to as a muster or a murder of crows) may have been to harass the eagles away to get a greater share.
I heard of this but did not witness it. In any case, the hope of that heronry went away with the herons. Still, there were heron pairs on the beach aplenty and seemingly they had adapted to the predation and harassment.
And then, there they were above us! A dozen of them coming and going and seeming to gladden all heaven with their presence. I have always marveled at herons; at their intent stillness on the shore; at the sound of their clattering call; at their elegance at perch on a tree bough. I have felt that kinship with them as fellow creatures that delighted me. The eagles have delighted me, too, and I felt relieved as their numbers grew again after the ban of DDT had taken affect after many years. They were even to be taken off the Endangered Species List. There was hope, after all.
I had been watching the eagle pair in trees out my window and lost in reverie as I played my guitar, answered e-mail, all the daily patterns of my life. And then I began to hear the crows. A quickening intensity that told me there was an intrusion in the neighborhood. I went to the door to listen and then walked down the steps to investigate. There were a great many of them and they were shrieking their intense agitation.
And then I saw the cause of their terrible concern: There was the eagle huddled over the heron carcass. As he saw me he hopped and flapped and slowly rose into the air, all to the frantic chorus of the crows. He had taken one of the nesting herons, I didn’t know whether the male or the female, but he had covered the scene with a pall of feathers and the lifeless, beautiful bird on the ground that only a moment ago had been happily warming her eggs and awaiting the next generation. The eagle in only a minute or two had swooped upon her and carried her weight to the ground in front of the tree. Once on the ground he had eviscerated and gorged almost to the fault of not being able to lift himself back into the air. Only my startling him and the core fear of both me and the crows caused him to grip all of himself and wildly wing himself to the air and finally into the big fir in front of my window where he was joined by his mate in a state of whistling excitement and preening. I was not absolutely sure but I thought I saw him disgorge some of his glut to his mate.
A sadness had entered the air. The big, beautiful heron lay on the ground surrounded by piles of her feathers. Her eyes still seemed to look out and back even though the eviscerated state of what was now her carcass spoke differently. Hope is the last thing to go in death. As Emily says: Hope is the thing with feathers. We stared at her and wished her back to life with all our hearts. There was no sound up in the tree and we assumed the other herons had been routed in the process. We went temporarily back to our routines, checking every now and then to see if other creatures would come to partake and honor the heron by nurturing themselves on what was left of her. After a while we decided to put her into the ground under her nesting tree. We make ceremony. We cannot help ourselves. I kept some of her feathers to adorn and remember.
All this happened on the full moon of April. Easter week. And now it’s Good Friday. There is death everywhere as well as the promise of rebirth. The remaining herons have returned to protect the nests and are very quietly awaiting the hatching. The eagles remain and scan the shore and the trees for all opportunity, as they must. Their nests will have eggs soon, too, and some avian entrepreneur, or maybe a high-climbing raccoon will seek advantage of them. It is Good Friday, a day I have never really regarded as good. Having been raised Catholic the day always carries a degree of ominousness with it. Christ dies at three p.m. we were told. Was that Eastern Daylight Savings Time or Pacific?
And now I listen. And watch. Some futile voice internal wails distantly a warning not to let the eagles take another heron. I listen for the eagles whistles and cries. I listen for the crows clarion calls. I walk the perimeter speaking up to unseen herons hovering over their nests. But grudgingly, unwillingly, I have to admit that this isn’t really any of my business, as much as I wish to make it so. I am an observer here. Here to observe the herons with hope, the eagles with concern, and the crows with a new found respect and certain knowledge that they, too, will take advantage when it is presented by an unguarded nest.
I hear what sounds like a gunshot and then the power goes: a transformer has blown. The generator begins to run almost immediately. My office isn’t connected but I go to battery power on my laptop and continue typing. This. Somewhere in the back of me I hear the eagles and a somewhat softer heron call. It doesn’t sound really like alarm but I’m vigilant so I go out to check. Goddamn! Goddamn! Goddamn! Goddamn! There’s the eagle up in the tree above the heron’s nest! I can’t tell if the heron is there or has been driven off but I begin to yell at the eagle in full voice: No! No! No! He doesn’t move. I rush back up the stairs and grab my bb gun. He is too far away, I think, but I must try. I yell and shoot upwards. He ignores me. Then I take a reasoned aim and hit something close to him, close enough to give him some concern, and he takes flight. I can hear a heron in the tree above me voicing concern. I hear the other eagle and see it in flight, as well. And here come all the other herons, at least six of them. Like the cavalry in flight and rescue! Where were the crows, I ask myself. Where were the crows?
There is no way around this: That which you love deeply will cause you great pain. There is no way to open the heart significantly without feeling that sear at all the exposed edges. The recourse is to scar and tighten, holding against the next possibility, or, to allow the enlargement to remain open, soothing it with tears and the hormones of grief periodically, but bravely willing the pain to transform you. Love and Courage.
After the first heron had been taken by the eagle there seemed to be a settling period. There was still a nest with eggs below the nest that held the bird taken by the eagle. The two mated herons seemed to sense the gravity of the situation and became very clandestine in their movements, exchanging positions on the nest only at twilight and dawn and sometimes in the dark. The eagles returned to their perch on the tall fir tree and monitored all of the goings on in their wide purview. One day a pair of gulls, who undoubtedly had been raided by the eagles, harassed them at their perch but were unable to come as close as the crows who, protecting their nests in the surrounding trees, would make aerial forays against the eagles like some kind of avian RAF guarding the skies of Britain, or in our case Burton. They would occasionally come close enough to an eagle that the eagle would duck (no pun intended) and a couple of times we watched the crows craftily fly up to close by branches and hop up to peck an eagle in the back before pirouetting into the air to restart the assault anew. One day we even watched as a crow defecated on the back of an eagle. Such indignity!
Periodically, every few days, we would hear the alarm of the crows and come running to find the eagles close and, a couple of times, actually almost up to the nest. The heron on the nest would squawk its cry out in alarm and hold its ground for as long as it could. A couple of times the noise of the neighbors, the crows, and me with my boyhood bb gun managed to dissuade them but they would return to their perch eyeing the surroundings and waiting
And the scene deepened as we became more involved, referring now to the female as Beaky and the male as Klack. We are humans and we grew up on fairy tales and myths. They are the core of our hope and the metaphors of our downfall. Faint hope was all Pandora could save for us.
This drama filled our days as the eggs turned into once and future herons. On the full moon of May both herons stayed in the tree and were joined by a younger female heron in an adjacent tree. As the moon rose their silhouettes shadowed against the fading light of the sun and in the morning their behavior told us a chick had hatched. Then one day a couple of weeks ago we heard the first faint clacking of the chicks. Now the tension tautened as our attention tightened. We tuned our hearing to the crows, distinguishing different calibers of calls and listening for the sharp high whistling of the eagles to bring us alert and rush to the ramparts willing the crows on and the eagles gone. And it seemed to work. The chicks (there now were two) were incessant and you could distinguish their separate vocalizations. The parents were still very cautious but they came more frequently to feed the chicks and we said to ourselves, and to them: We’ are not sure how you’ll get to the fledgling state where you can fly from the nest and journey into heronry but we will do all in our power to help lift you into the air. What fools we mortals be.
A couple of days ago the intensity seemed to rise. The eagles were more frequent and there seemed to be at least one more eagle than there had been. They would fly high above the nest behind us in the fir tree and another nest farther down on which we could see herons but could not reach. They were on their own. Several times the eagles, their approach heralded by the crows, swooped over and neared the nest but were driven off by all of our various efforts at various times. Not on our watch! Our seldom expressed but deep-seated fear was that if these pairs of herons couldn’t make it out of this accommodation to predation by the eagles their local population probably would crash. This provokes an ache that is barely expressible but I know is deeply understood by, oh, so many.
The herons had lost their larger nesting colony some years back in spite of the island’’s citizenry purchasing a sizable amount of land around the colony so that they wouldn’t be infringed upon by humans. didn’t matter. The eagles found them and scattered them to smaller breeding groups or individuals. Our hope was that this was adaptive behavior that would allow them to survive. All day of May 19th we watched them come and go, listening to the loud clacking of the chicks, the crow caws, and, most intently, for the high eagle whistles. The next day was the turn of the page beginning my sixty-seventh year on the planet. I would be sixty-six years old.
I had made plans to go shoot pistols with one of my oldest musician friends, the guy who showed me how to hold a flat pick correctly so many years ago. I hadn’t been shooting guns for many years but I have turned to shooting arrows with a compound bow as a practice of strength and meditation and have found it deeply satisfying. The real target is the one I’ve been trying to hit all my life: Me.
Determined to thwart the eagles on my birthday I rose at five-thirty, at first light, to meditate to the sound of the birds and to listen for calls that warned of an imminent dawn raid. It was the beginning of what was supposed to be a beautiful day. There were no eagles in sight, the chicks were clacking away, and the parents were coming and going in their attendance to the care and feeding of their future. I met my old friend and we drove to the shooting range where we made manly for an hour or so wasting lots of powder and brass. There is much involved in this ritual and it probably is a separate psychological tale. Having skill with weaponry is deeply embedded within us: The stave against fear that coils at our core; the belief that, somehow through our skill at inflicting pain on another, we can save ourselves. These weapons are for killing others. In self defense.
We had lunch and reviewed our fates. Both of us are weeks close to the same age and have been in music all our lives, having even played together years ago in hopes of building a band strong enough to sail through the stormy gauntlet of the music business. We didn’t succeed but we became deep, close friends. He’d been ill and was usually in pain but he still voraciously chewed life. I commiserated and mentioned my upcoming thyroid surgery and the worry that my voice might not return to its full character. Something to worry about. I got a call from my beloved that all was calm and quiet at the nest and that the eagles hadn’t been seen all day. Perhaps they found other fish; or fowl.
I rode across the water on the ferry and got home in time to pay a little attention to myself and get ready to go see our next door neighbor’s presentation from their trip to Kenya. Both very knowledgeable people, he’s become an expert nature photographer and she a budding videographer. She studied geology years ago and brings her sets of knowledge to her new avocation. We eyed the nest before leaving and satisfied ourselves that everything was all right. The presentation was entertaining and educational but we left a little early in order to get served at the local restaurant. Happy Birthday! The drama of the herons had filled us, providing real drama to our lives, connecting us into the real of Nature that we always look upon but seldom are drawn into in this kind of emotional way. We had made a grave error in thinking of these herons as ours.
I woke at dawn and listened closely. It was quiet with only an occasional, somewhat distant, crow call. I laid there and dozed until seven when I got up to check the nest and to meditate. I’ve found meditating in the garden, when it isn’t raining, or meditating at the open door of my office, when it is, is very satisfying. I can hear all of the birds and other sounds and meld into them. It also allowed me to monitor the herons. It was quiet but I didn’t note it immediately. I meditated for half an hour or so and slowly drew myself back into the world and went out to check the nest again. There was no sound from the chicks and there was no heron on the nest! That chill of dread, that opening of the pit that provokes an emotional vertigo, began to rise. I looked up in the tree and the big male was standing on a branch above the nest, slightly to the right of it, as he often did before making the transfer or taking flight. There was no one in the nest. A wave of blue torpor washed through me. They’re gone, he seemed to say as he looked directly at me and then to the nest. It is my need to read too much into this, but I watched him pick up a nest twig as he’d done in the early breeding stage to offer it to the female building a stronger nest. He held the twig for a while and then let it drop. He remained looking at the nest and then returned his gaze to the sky. He slowly rose up into the air and lofted himself away making a turn once. My heart rode with him on those wings. It was farewell.
I went back into the kitchen to make some coffee and to see if my beloved had risen. She had. Just. She’s been as involved as I have through this whole tragedy, this classic tragedy, and her face imploded a bit at the news. She went out to glass the nest although she knew it was true. They were there last night right before we left.”
A couple of hours later the female heron returns. I hear that same soft scratching sound the male made that tells me she has little hope but must have a final look. She stands by the nest but she does not go in it. I look at her closely in the binoculars and I can make out an injury on her back, what appears to be a welt of raised flesh out of the feathers. She probably fought off the eagle as hard as she could until he finally reached her; or, he could have struck her coming to the nest and she barely escaped. She and I have watched each other for a long time and I have felt deeply that she knew, that they both knew, we were allies in some sense. She doesn’t make any sound and in a little while she flies away.
And it seems that it is finally over. I come back to my office and my computer, and begin to try to order my thoughts to tell this. This has been a very moving six weeks. I have been brought to the mirror of mortality: mine and the herons. In two weeks I will have an essential gland removed from my body. My body will then see what is left to work with as my mind contemplates the same at sixty-six. At the back of all of this is that the eagles took the herons on my birthday. The eagles win. This time. They will take all the herons they can find on nests. They know how. We will notice their absence and the patina of hopelessness will increase in thickness a bit. And we’ll go on. We’ll perhaps grow more in our ability to accept inevitable things, deepen our souls. Maybe we’ll understand love a bit more and love each other with greater care thinking of how the male heron would offer the nesting stick to his mate and that fundamental agreement that existed between them. Perhaps.
I hear the claxon of the crows and look up to see the eagle flying low and flat and with great intent. He’s caught the crows by surprise. He flies low over the trees and I hear that desperate clacking, scratching cry of a heron in distress. He’s taken the last nest. I run down the neighbor’s driveway to where I think the nest is but I can’t see it at first. It’s across a little ravine on another neighbor’s property. There are so many different branches from different trees in the way that everything is obscured. But I can hear the terrible sound and know the quickening eventuality. The crows have arrived but they can do nothing. They never really could do much except sound the alarm and annoy the eagles. Where there had been a heron on its nest this morning now there is none. None on all three of the nests. And how many more? The eagles listened to the sounds of the chicks and when they were loud enough, indicating they were growing bigger, the hungry eagles took them. There is regret, deep regret, here but the eagles can’t be blamed. We can, though. It was our greed destroyed the fish. It was our ignorance developed the DDT that almost wiped out the eagles and many other species. It was our arrogance demanded more and more humans at the expense of Everything Else. When the eagles, at the top of our food chain, have lost their daily bread they will come for ours, assuming that if they can take it, it was really theirs. We may learn the tack of the crows but if the eagles cannot feed eventually we will feel their hunger and our numbers, too, will diminish. I cannot argue with any of this. I don’t know how and I think it’s impossible and useless to do so. We have reached a stage, an age, where we must, and will, change. Change: The Only Constant in the Universe. As close an idea to God as can be contemplated honestly.
I don’t know if I’m any wiser today, the day after my sixty-sixth birthday, but I am older. I heard the muted distress calls of the lone heron on the distant nest who returned to find emptiness. She will leave. I heard the crows again and saw them in pursuit of the eagle. It’s hard to believe there is a Plan.
In order to ease all of this a bit I went for a long run in the late afternoon. The herons were deeply embedded in me and occasionally would rise up in bubbles of longing and regret. As I was coming down the road back to the house I looked up into the tall fir tree to the side of our house and there was the female heron we had called Beaky. I could tell because of the discoloration of the wound on her back. She was standing on one of the tallest branches where she had a vantage point to look to the outer harbor and back to the tree behind us that had been her nest for the last six weeks or so. I came to the door and said, “Would you go get your camera>” Beaky looked down at us seemingly shyly but she waited, maybe waiting for her mate to come back or to see where he might be. We watched her for about half an hour until the shrill whistling of the eagles calls warned her into flight. She sailed away over the outer harbor.
And now the day is ending. I quietly recite the Heart Sutra and look into the ultramarine of the sky inside me to the siege of herons flying over the house and into the trees.