Wings of eagles

“I saw the eagles again today.”

I looked up from the plate of food resting before me on the dinner table. “Where?” I asked.

“They were gliding in the air overhead just this side of the mountain,” my wife said. “I was out for my morning walk when I looked up, and there they were.”

Individually, we had sighted eagles in the village over the course of the past year, but they had always been solitary birds, sometimes perched or soaring above the river. Earlier this month was the first time that my wife and I had seen two mature birds together in flight.

“Where did they go?” I asked.

“They kept circling, then eventually they disappeared over the ridge.”

Quietly, I closed my eyes and watched them: circling, soaring, clockwise and counter-clockwise, currents of air pulsing through the tips of their long wings, white heads and tails glistening against the morning clouds.

Ever since I was a boy, I had always dreamed of seeing an eagle. I had studied plenty of pictures, emblems on the national shield, photographs on postage stamps, drawings in books on birds of prey.  I had watched native American dancers whirl about to the beat of drums, their headdresses adorned with eagles’ feathers twisting and turning in the air. Later, as a sojourner of sorts, I had kept a watchful eye over the course of my travels, always on the lookout, hoping one day to catch a glimpse of a mature eagle in flight.

Decades passed before I finally got the chance to see a one; and now here they were in pairs, soaring  above the small village that we have come to call home for nearly forty years.

Hope can bring us a long way.  Sometimes we wait years to witness our childhood dreams fulfilled. Perhaps hope requires a healthy measure of time to bring us to the point where we become capable of appreciating such gifts, long-awaited but yet unseen.

Christmas gifts

Christmas morning my wife took sick.

At the last minute we had to cancel our plans to host Christmas dinner. For the first time in forty years there would be no roast turkey with all the trimmings on the big table at the house.

I found the remnant of a loaf of crusty bread and hastily concocted a breakfast of french toast with a bit of bacon on the side.

My wife retreated to the bedroom upstairs while I cleared the kitchen table and did the dishes.

Afterward, I donned my padded vest, pulled on my woolen cap and stepped outside into the sharp cold winter sunshine. I ambled down the street to the center of town, then turned northwest to follow the road to the park.

Footsteps of previous visitors had iced up overnight. I found it easier to make my way through the crunchy snow along the margins of the path.

I skirted the frozen pond, blazing a trail through the brush under the bare towering trees at the far edge to the point where the two streams meet. The current had kept the water open in the center; great swaths of grey ice clung to the shoreline. Nothing moved in the quiet stillness: no winter bird, no air, no cloud in the sky.

Shortly, I turned and retraced my steps. Fifty yards further up along the bank I paused to survey the barren landscape. My eye glimpsed a grey shadow dart across the ice at my feet as a big bird dropped from its perch high overhead and floated over the dark open water.

A few powerful beats of its great black wings propelled the bird high above the river. Deftly, it dropped and circled, then climbed higher, then dropped again. With each pass overhead the brilliant white tail and white head flashed in the mid-morning sun.

Finally, the eagle turned and banked; then, with several more wing beats, it sailed off over the tops of the far trees.

***

This morning I thought to return to the point to see if I might catch another glimpse of the eagle.

Rather than make an approach through the town, I cut across the cemetery and picked up the trail along the river instead.

Several birds shifted in the trees on the far shore. One grey-blue form suggested a likely kingfisher, but I hadn’t brought my binoculars and couldn’t make a positive identification. Somewhere overhead a carpenter bird tapped out its coded message on a decayed limb.

As I stood there in the frozen snow, a small grey bird darted suddenly into the brush along the near bank and piped amidst the branches. Perhaps a sparrow, I thought; but no: this bird was uniformly grey.

Curiously, he flitted from branch to branch, seeking sustenance of some sort, finding nothing but a few lone winterberries, which seemingly held no interest.

Closer and closer he came, until finally he got to within several feet of where I stood.

Here he paused momentarily, bobbing nearly upside down on a fine twig; and eyed me briefly, revealing a bright yellow swath along the center of his crown: a little kinglet, meticulously surveying his vast winter wooded domain.

2016-christmas-river

A bird’s eye view

I arise early this crisp autumn morning, determined to make a day of it.

Out the door before sunrise, I stride down Winthrop Street, cross Main and cut through the empty lot behind the pub. Sauntering over the bridge, I face an endless string of southbound traffic; but the din melts away the moment I step into the woods.

I discover a shortcut to the old blue-blazed path and follow it deeper and deeper into the wood. It crosses what had been a narrow brook, now dried up in the long summer drought. I begin the diagonal climb up the ridge below spruce and hemlock, gingerly picking my way along over stretches of broken basalt rock. It isn’t long before I reach the top.

At the summit I step off the trail onto the rocky ledge high above the gorge. At my feet runs the river; directly opposite, nestled among the maples and oaks, lies the hamlet, now partially illuminated in the morning sun.

sunrise_cliffs_10-6-2016

Off to the west a blanket of grey mist floods the far valley. Directly across from where I stand, the Barndoor Hills rise up from the valley floor. Roof-lines of houses and the spires of two churches wax sharp in the morning light as the sun cuts through the stands of trees behind me.

I bring my binoculars up to pan the landscape, then let them fall gently against my chest. I drop my gaze to the river below to study the current. It meanders by the old mill, then slowly picks up speed, forming ribs of white water as it cascades down past the old bridge abutments into the gorge.

Suddenly, a shadow flashes across my eyes. I glimpse an airborne form floating over the river below. A big black bird pumps its broad wings, then soars through the air, its white head and alabaster tail blazing in the sunlight.

Momentarily mesmerized, I scramble to reach the binoculars at my chest. I ease the eagle into focus and follow the final few wing beats before it disappears around the distant bend.

sunrise_river_10-6-2016

Trudging toward the river

I stand in the snow, my boots buried in white. The intense mid-morning sunlight makes me squint behind dark lenses. I turn and look back at the expanse of snow over which I’ve come. My tracks pockmark the trail broken by some unknown snowshoer days before. The air is cold this morning, but the sun has softened the snow. I break through the glazed surface with each step. Every so many steps I stop to cough. It’s hard going through the deep snow in this deserted park.

The river lies up ahead, just around the bend in the trail. It won’t be long before I reach the bank, only a short distance away. Once again I stop and cough, then wipe my mouth with the sleeve of my coat. Keep going, I tell myself. Don’t stop now. Once again I look over my shoulder. It’s a long way back to the dirt road at the park entrance. I take a deep breath and trudge on.

Finally, I round the bend. The river lies ahead, shimmering through last year’s red briers along the bank. The edges have iced up. Out in the center water flows quietly beneath the over-arching blue sky. Bare trees stand along the bank in the distance. My eyes survey the scene, then stop. There, on a distant branch halfway up the trunk, rests a dense dark mass, accentuated with an unmistakable dab of white.

I lift the glasses from my nose and strain to focus through the cold. My eyes water and the image blurs. I reach into my pocket for the handkerchief that is always there. I wipe my eyes and replace the glasses on my face. The form waxes and wanes.

When I raise my hand to my mouth to stifle a cough, the black form drops from the branch. Two long lines shoot out from the bulk, pivoting on an invisible point. Suddenly, in this graceful spiral of descent the lines become wings, the dab of white becomes a head. The wings beat down, and as the bird rises against the grey backdrop of naked tree trunks, I see the white triangular tail flare. A few strokes more and the thin silhouette fades into the blue sky.

I pull my shoulders back and stand up straight. I stuff the wrinkled handkerchief into my pocket and thrust my fingers into the glove. I lift one foot, shake off the snow and take another step. It won’t be long now.

Soon I will reach the river.

"Winter River" 2013 © Brian T. Maurer

“Winter River” 2013 © Brian T. Maurer