Posted by: Mark Nielsen | January 29, 2008

Watching Us Like a Hawk

10 In a desert land he found him,
       in a barren and howling waste.
       He shielded him and cared for him;
       he guarded him as the apple of his eye,

 11 like an eagle that stirs up its nest
       and hovers over its young,
       that spreads its wings to catch them
       and carries them on its pinions.  

(Deuteronomy 32: 10-11

I have a growing interest in the Native American (and sometimes African) concept of totemic animals. In researching the tradition for a school lesson last year, I found that the neo-pagan and New Age movements have sometimes bastardized this tradition. They do this by claiming “personal” totemic (or symbolic) animals, when the original idea was to choose an animal that represented  or “partnered with” the values of an entire clan or community.

So I’m not here to do that. Suffice it to say that, for me, I take great pleasure in both the natural and symbolic beauty of hawks, falcons and eagles. I used to say that dolphins are my favorite animal, and they’re certainly still up there in the top five, along with ducks, turtles, various apes, and raptors (the generic name given to the class of hunting birds with talons and hooked beaks).

My friend Spencer, through years of persistent and gentle nudges, has turned me into a “birder” despite all of my former stereotypical opinions that it’s a dorky hobby. Oh well, I guess I’m a dork after all. So what else is new?

I started really noticing the unique role that hawks and eagles play for me on one of the numerous canoe trips I took in my thirties to the Boundary Waters in Minnesota. It was then that I first had a chance to see some bald eagles out in the wild, and one of my canoeist friends (also a serious birder) talked about how baldies are not so much hunters as they are bullies and scavengers. When possible, they let other animals make the kill, only to swoop in and take it away. I thought about the irony of this particular bird being the United States’ national totem, and what it might imply about our own historic habits. But that’s a discussion for another day. I’m feeling generous and patriotic after Obama’s showing in South Carolina, so I’ll spare you the political diatribes for once.

What I really find myself more intrigued by is the skeletal mechanics and basic biology that makes raptors such great hunters: their speed, their ability to glide noiselessly, their incredible eyesight. It’s a wonder to see an osprey swoop down and take a fish, or a peregrine falcon glide slow, low and silent over a prairie, watching for mice. Last time we were in Wisconsin at our house, a first: a redtail hawk sat on a tree limb in our yard, overlooking the frozen lake, for a good half-hour or more. Sue and I were giddy, acting like it was Elvis himself out there in our tree.

It’s also really weird and thrilling to see how a redtail hawk will sit on a road sign or other slightly raised structure, right next to the interstate. I saw one yesterday, less than a mile from O’Hare Airport on I-294. It’s like nature, wildness, the life-and-death-ness of the hunt, all breaking into a civilized, boring urban or suburban environment and trying to reclaim what was theirs for thousands of years before we got here. Plus it always makes me think of the above biblical passage, as the unexpected glimpse of a hawk pulls me out of whatever distracted state my mind is in, reminding me that I too am being watched, maybe even carried on the wind of the Holy Spirit.

Usually I give the hawk a little salute — maybe a left-over gesture from my days as a genuflecting Roman Catholic, I don’t know. To me, a hawk is like the totemic substitute for Yahweh and His people: the hawk is the great Eye in the Sky, the powerful yet patient and controlled being at the top of the food chain.

When we feel a need to rise up, to get perspective; when we wish we could glide smoothly above or gracefully through all of life’s challenges; when we want to believe we’re being protected… we can think of the eagles and the hawks, and have hope.

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