“Those eagles, like angels, don’t distinguish between work and play.
To them, it is all one and the same.”
Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
2002 – I saw an eagle the other day. I was in a mass of traffic moving north over a ridge, when out of the corner of my eye I caught a stillness in the sky, an unmoving presence hovering in mid-air. Wings set, white head unmistakable, eyes piercing the ground for prey, it glided without moving down the ridge, unnoticed over the massed traffic.
I’ve seen eagles before. I think the first was some thirty years ago on the Mogollon Rim in northern Arizona. We were cruising through the national forest looking to go picnicing or fishing and came to one of the overlooks where the Rim drops down and the land cascades away forever. Zane Grey placed his westerns here amid the purple sage, fantastic scenery and sense of remoteness.
We sat watching the distance, how the air seemed palpable, an ether nearly touchable.
“What’s that?” Sue asked, pointing off into the ether.
In the distance, before the sky turned to haze, but beyond our ability to see details, a speck moved against the scenery, only its motion giving its presence away. We sat still, wishing the speck nearer, and it complied slowly, riding the updraft along the Rim. We stayed still and quiet, neither prepared to break the spell, as it came closer and closer.
Slowly details of the speck revealed wings, a flash of white for a head. It came slowly until it was within a hundred feet, level with us, hanging like a statue in mid-air. The white head showed a bright yellow beak and piercing, dangerous-seeming eyes. We sat still as rabbits when a hawk cries; paralyzed with awe, fear and ecstasy. He drifted off to the left, then moved away slowly down the Rim.
I remembered to breathe, then Sue interrupted the silence frantically, “Camera! It’s in the car!”
Faster than a speeding rabbit, I leapt tall boulders in a single bound, nearly killing myself on the pine stump on the other side. I scrambled to the car, hearing another crash behind me, as Sue cried “Keys!”
I stopped myself against the car and turned as the keys ricocheted off my chest into a mudhole. Frantically opening the doors, I dug through the debris and packs on the back seat to find the camera, and removed the case and lens on a dead run back to the overlook.
The eagle was still visible, but was now a quarter mile away. I snapped a shot or two in frustration. Sue came up behind me, her face scratched from the same pine stump that had trashed my leg. “Aren’t there other overlooks?” she asked.
We looked at each other briefly, then dashed back to the car, this time avoiding the most dangerous natural features. Sue drove as I dug through the back seat looking for the forest service map. We followed every east- and south-bearing road, periodically spotting the eagle hovering above the forest along the Rim. Once we tracked it on foot through the ponderosa pines, and were rewarded by some nearly unobstructed views from directly below, as it cruised above the treetops.
All in all, we covered about ten miles along the Rim, driving at least twice that amount as Sue careened through the forest at lunatic speeds. I used up all three of the rolls of film we had with us, but we never got as close as when we had sat quietly, letting it come to us.
We couldn’t wait to get the film back, and picked it up one evening on the way to dinner with some friends from Connecticut. We saved the photos for a surprise over dessert. Finally, after what seemed an eternity of dinner and maddeningly slow gossip and small talk, coffee and dessert were served.
Sue dramatically pulled out the unmistakable yellow envelopes, and said “We’ve got a little surprise for you two,” she told our hosts, “Something you’ve always wanted to see!”
Triumphantly, Sue pulled a photo out of the first envelope, and held it towards them. June and Mike exchanged a look. June said, “ You mean your husband in his underwear?”
Sue grabbed the photo from June’s hand, embarrassed.
“That’s a swimsuit,” I offered, getting a sharp look from Sue.
“Wait.” Sue said, quickly rummaging through the remaining photos. June and Mike sat very straight and still.
Sue handed them the second half of the pictures. “Here,” she said, “what do you see?”
June accepted the photos gamely, but didn’t look until she watched Mike’s reaction to the first one. “Um, huh!” Mike observed. June flipped through several shots.
“Trees?” she offered tentatively.
I grabbed the photos and flipped through them. Massive ponderosa pines fringed a photo of blue sky. Tilting one photo to catch the light, I could barely see the small speck in the center; our elusive prize, larger to the eye and the mind than to the camera.
A year or so later on the Navajo Reservation, I was driving down one of the many unmarked dirt roads with Sammy, who lived nearby. The country was mostly flat, covered with clumps of sage, rabbitbrush and greasewood no taller than an adult sheep. As we crested a rise, a dark shape came off of the dune next to the road, gliding and skittering along the road beside us.
“Stop,” yelled Sammy, and I fought to slow down on the washboard road. Our dust trail drifted over us for a minute or so, then dissipated to reveal the dark shape sitting on the dune just ahead of us.
“Eagle,” Sammy said.
“Golden,” I added to myself.
“What’s he doing?” I asked Sammy. “Why’s he just sitting there?”
Sammy looked it over closely. “He doesn’t look hurt,” he said. He thought a moment then added, “My uncle once told me a story. This is my mother’s brother, from over near Dilkon.” Sammy went on to explain his uncle’s clan, his relationship to many other people Sammy knew or was related to, and some details about his uncle’s life.
Finally, he returned to the story, “So, when his wife’s people accepted him and her brother went off to California, then her mother’s husband needed help with the sheep. My uncle was to help them round up the sheep so they could select a few to take to the market over at Holbrook, and some to slaughter for the dance my mother’s brother’s wife was going to give so they could do the curing ceremony for her father.”
“My uncle rode rodeo and always said he was the best roper in the Dilkon Chapter, but I always heard it was Ned Tsinijinny. We always supported my uncle, though, so maybe he was better than Ned. Ned had a really good horse, though.” Sammy paused to think about Ned’s horse or his uncle. I watched the eagle.
“Anyway, my uncle, he was helping with the roundup, driving the sheep down into the wash where his mother –in-law could get them over to the well. He was riding his roping pony and when he came up out of a small draw, suddenly an eagle jumped up right in front of his horse. When he got his horse under control, he saw no eagle flying away, no sign of him anywhere. At first he thought maybe it was a witch turned into an eagle,” Sammy shook his head, “but, he found a half-eaten lamb carcass where he saw the eagle. He rode around that place, and he saw that eagle hopping along, trying to hide in the greasewood.”
Sammy laughed, “That eagle had eaten so much lamb, he couldn’t fly. So my uncle chased him around some, until he hops right out of the greasewood.” He made a roping motion with his hands, “Then my uncle ropes him, just like a steer at the rodeo.” Sammy laughed again, “That eagle wasn’t too happy.”
I chuckled at the story, and asked, “So then what? Did he let him go?”
Sammy looked out the window, then looked back ahead, but now with the stoic, impenetrable face that Navajo show the tourists and belagani (whites ) that ask stupid questions. “Who knows?” he says.
I tried to loosen him back up, “Wouldn’t it be cool if that was the same eagle over there?”
Sammy turned to look at me, face impassive, but just a hint of a twinkle in his eyes, “No,” he said, “it isn’t the same one.”
We watched the eagle a while longer, then drove on in silence.
I saw eagles in other places, a few in zoos, many too far away for anything but a recognition of their size and majesty. Then one fall, I went with a project team to look at a proposed coal mine site in the Book Cliffs of Utah.
The Book Cliffs are aptly named. From a distance, they resemble a series of tiers of bookshelves, each higher and pushed back from the one below – a wide, massive set of steps leading from the desert valley to the higher plateaus and mountains to the north. The face of the cliffs is eroded and cut with spectacular canyons leading back into deep recesses unlike the unfriendly desert that fronts them.
We had driven for miles across the valley, finally penetrating a canyon on the face of the cliff. Immediately the desert shrubs gave way to shady groves of pines, and thick underbrush on the less steep side slopes. About a mile in, we stopped the vehicle and hiked up a steep jeep road back towards the mouth of the canyon.
The road ended at an old mine dump and abandoned mine opening that overlooked the canyon near its mouth, three or four hundred feet above the canyon floor. Pines, currants and kinnikinnic demonstrated the protective nature of the canyon, while only the immediate area of the mine workings showed the evidence of human intrusion.
Paul, Bill and I faced the canyon, while Rupert, the mine’s representative, faced us to describe the mine plan. “We’ll build the main access and surface facilities down in the desert flats in front of the cliffs. The workings will cut under the whole cliff face, and we can improve these old shafts for ventilation.” He went on into details about the mine depth, surface facility needs, and other details, most of which we already knew. I tuned him out to just enjoy the view.
Finally, he asked if we had any questions. Paul asked for some more details on water use and supplies, and Bill asked about the amount of disturbance in the canyon. Rupert’s answers seemed to jibe with the data we had already seen.
Casually, Bill asked, “How about sensitive environments or endangered species? You guys done any studies on those?”
Rupert’s response indicated that this was not his favorite subject. “Oh yeah,” he said, “every summer for the past six years we’ve been paying these people from Utah State to do surveys out here. On the next level up there are some sensitive springs,” he said it like he would describe a gay man, ‘sensitive’. “But they’re above where we’ll have an impact. They also found some threatened frogs, a rare grass, a couple of flowers and , maybe, a new subspecies of sage grouse. All of those are either above us or back in the canyon beyond where we’ll have an impact.”
As he answered, a motionless golden eagle floated down the canyon behind him, at our level but a hundred feet or so from where we stood. Paul, Bill and I stared open-mouthed past Rupert, as he began to grumble about miners being an endangered species. The eagle glided down the canyon out of sight. Paul, Bill and I exchanged a glance, then Bill asked, “You ever see any eagles?”
Rupert looked at Bill suspiciously, then shrugged and replied, “Nope, not up here.”
He seemed shocked and offended by our laughter.
Today, eagles are coming back to Colorado’s Front Range. In fact, a pair have begun nesting near the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant that is being cleaned up. The Plant ecologists maintain that eagles don’t hunt on the Plant’s undeveloped areas, because there aren’t enough prairie dogs. The eagles prefer the more open, grazed areas surrounding the Plant, where cattle keep the grass cover shorter.
An EPA guy told me of a recent visit to the Plant by a VIP from EPA in Washington, DC. As they approached the Plant, my friend pointed out the stand of cottonwoods where the eagles had located their nest. He explained the Plant ecologist’s belief that the eagles hunted on the grazed lands, such as those on the right side of the road., in preference to the Plant up ahead.
Consistently skeptical of such statements, they both laughed at the theory. Suddenly, in a flash from right to left, a bald eagle swept down, scooped up a prairie dog next to the road in front of their car, and flapped off to the cottonwoods. They drove in silence for a few hundred yards, then the VIP turned to my friend and said, “Keep up the good work.”
Now, if I look in the right places, I can see eagles on a somewhat routine basis. Mostly they’re visible as an unusually large speck, a gliding movement in an otherwise still panorama. Or maybe, they show up as a dark, slightly threatening silhouette in the topmost branches of a dead cottonwood.
For me, even a remote glimpse of an eagle is a thrill. It brings a sense of the possible to an otherwise routine suburban day. A sense that wildness is out there, beyond the Taco Bell, hovering at the edge of the tract homes and the crowded freeways.
But, like the eagles, the wildness is not waiting. It is gradually finding its way back; reclaiming the territory we temporarily pushed it out of with bulldozers and street lights, our lawns and swimming pools. It’s not waiting.
So, when I saw the eagle the other day, it brought back a realization of the wildness in me. A reminder that I’m not just a dislocated brain trapped in a speeding coffin of steel and plastic, but that I have a place in the wildness if I can only remember it. It’s out there and it’s in me.