I had to clean out the gutters the day after Thanksgiving, one of the routine chores of late fall, after all the leaves have finally fallen. The good news is that we live in a one-story house, so for the most part it only involves my getting up about ten feet on a ladder. In fact I don’t even have to extend the extension ladder, except for the area over the entry which is about twenty feet up. The bad news is that we live in a one-story house, so it means there is a lot of roof and miles and miles of gutter, making it pretty much a day-long job, between dried leaves and dried mud which must be scraped out. But except for the raised entry area, it’s also a relatively safe job.
So of course I was up on the ladder at the highest point when a golden eagle went past. He was so big and so close to me and going so fast that for a wild moment I thought I was under attack by a B-52 bomber. (“Bombing Run Goes Awry; Local Man Vaporized; Details At Eleven.”) We have a healthy local population of golden eagles, so it’s not unusual to see one. Thrilling, always; unusual, no. But normally I see them hundreds of feet up in the air, riding the thermals with stately elegance. Once, Darleen and I came upon two on the ground eating something they had killed. They had progressed to that point in their meal where I could no longer tell what it had been before it became dinner, but we reined in the horses about fifty yards away and watched as the massive talons held down the bulk of the meal while the formidable beaks tore off chunks.
They are awe-inspiring predators. Steve Bodio has written a magnificent, fascinating book, Eagle Dreams, about his travels to western Mongolia to hunt with the Kazakh horsemen who ride out with their eagles after no less a prey than the wolf, and it includes a photograph of wolf skins hanging from the home of one of the hunters. I’ve never personally met a Mongolian wolf, but I don’t imagine they’re that much smaller than our wolves in North America, which is to say they’re probably just about the size of a former middleweight perched high up on a ladder.
There is thrilling, and then there is thrilling.
In this case, the eagle passed about twenty feet over my head, going at Mach speed with a family of red tail hawks (three of them, so I assume it was a family unit) in hot pursuit, followed by an large extended family of ravens (mom, dad, kiddies, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, in-laws, even that embarrassing old great-uncle who always tells such inappropriate jokes at family gatherings), though it was hard to tell if the ravens were pursuing the eagle or the red tails, the red tail and the raven being, shall we say, uneasy neighbors. They went by in a noisy woosh! (ravens are noisy fliers) at such great speed that they vanished over the nearest hill almost as quickly as they had appeared, leaving me clinging to the ladder and wondering if I should seek shelter.
My God, what a magnificent bird!
Though it is about a kestrel, not eagles, I’ll leave you with The Windhover, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet from the God’s Grandeur series. A Roman Catholic convert and Jesuit priest, Hopkins dedicated the poem, To Christ our Lord, and while it may be a difficult read that begs to be read aloud, it needs no explanation beyond that to make it accessible. However, to clarify, I will add that “sillion” is an archaic spelling of “selion,” meaning a furrow turned over by the plough.
The Windhover, To Christ our Lord
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,–the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valor and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.