The art of observation

He explained patience. He said it was the most important thing of all to remember, this: that when you wanted to see something very badly, sometimes you had to stay still, stay in the same place, remember how much you wanted to see it, and be patient.  —Helen Macdonald, “H is for Hawk”

I brought the binoculars up to my eyes and adjusted the knob, easing the fuzzy silhouette into focus.  It was a big hawk: that much was clear from the sheer size and the hooked beak.  The biggest species of hawk in our region is the Red-tail, and the female Red-tail usually outweighs the male; but the colors of this bird didn’t quite fit.

There was a smattering of white spots across the shoulders on either side; they formed a V on the upper back.  The head was dark, the throat lighter in color; and the buff breast was streaked with dark broad patches.

Then there was the tail: dark brown regularly interrupted with black horizontal bars, extending well beyond the folded wingtips.

Majestically, it perched atop the Celtic cross on the pinnacle of the brownstone church steeple, emitting a series of screeching cries.

Another bird, similar in coloring but smaller in size, answered from his perch in the uppermost branches of the tall dead spruce on Winthrop Street.

I eased closer, pausing after several steps to bring the binoculars up and observe the detail of the plumage.

Finally, after twenty minutes, the big hawk lifted its hindquarters, spread its broad wings, and dropped off the steeple, soaring to a cluster of far trees.  I caught a glimpse of the tail against the overcast sky: definitely not a russet red.

Back at the house I studied a copy of Sibley’s Guide and searched online.  Finally, I found it:  a juvenile Red-tail.

There is an art to identification, where perception, perseverance and patience reward the persistent observer.


The Best in All of Us

Runners whom renown outran,
And the name died before the man.

A century ago the English poet A. E. Housman penned those lines in his tribute, To An Athlete Dying Young.

Admittedly, renown has out run most of us; but, as former athletes, we still gather together to remember.

We remember times, records, individual meets and races. Some of us even recall specific workouts—serial sprints up Sure Kill Hill or long lazy runs on Sunday mornings—when we were young and strong and fast and free.

Some of us remember the rush that came from hitting the final tape; or, at other times, the dejection of defeat.

Although we all ran, none of us consistently won the prize.

Still, running has much to teach us about life and about ourselves—how we respond to challenges that come our way.

Through running, we learn to rise to the occasion. We learn that we can do much more than we thought, that we can go much further than we might have imagined in our calculated dreams.

We learn perseverance; we learn to believe in ourselves. And at those times when defeat arrives—as it invariably does—we learn to accept it with grace.

To my mind, D.W. exemplifies these traits—the very best traits of a fine and gracious athlete.

There are special times when a runner of the highest caliber is recognized in life: at the end of a specific event, at the conclusion of a stellar season, at the finish of a sterling career. And on occasion, we choose to recognize the very best runners in hindsight when we gather together to celebrate—not the races or the record times—but the individuals themselves.

The caliber of such a person was apparent in those early days, days filled with pre-dawn risings for runs down deserted stretches of macadam roads or along leaf-strewn forest paths; late afternoon sets of intervals around a cinder track; easy strides through grassy expanses on cool evenings. Such runners remained firm in their resolve to train hard so they might give their all on the day of the race.

When we move forward from youth toward maturity, we recognize that the race does not stop at the tape on the track or in the funnel to the finish line; for we continue to run our race every day, rising early, stepping into other shoes to face new and more arduous challenges. It is perhaps here that the true colors of the committed runner become apparent.

In the forty odd years that I have known D.W., I can testify that he has shown himself to be an athlete of the highest caliber, both on and off the training turf, on trail and track, in victorious times and times of loss. He possesses that innate quality of a true mensch which I will call grace—grace under pressure, grace on the victory stand, grace among peers at the close of day. In short, he fits the bill.

It is proper and right and a good thing that we should gather together to celebrate not only his former athletic accomplishments, but also to recognize the man who stands before us as an example of an individual of the highest caliber, who ultimately represents the best in all of us.

Remarks on the occasion of the induction of  Rev. Dennis L. Weidler into the Juniata College Hall of Fame, November 6, 2010.