I HAVE BEEN SO hawk-addled and owl-absorbed and falcon-haunted and eagle-maniacal since I was a little kid that it was a huge shock to me to discover that there were people who did not think that seeing a sparrow hawk helicoptering over an empty lot and then dropping like an anvil and o my god coming up with wriggling lunch was the coolest thing ever.
I mean, who could possibly not be awed by a tribe whose various members can see a rabbit clearly from a mile away (eagles), fly sideways through tree branches like feathered fighter jets (woodhawks), look like tiny brightly colored linebackers (kestrels, with their cool gray helmets), hunt absolutely silently on the wing (owls), fly faster than any other being on earth (falcons), and can spot a trout from fifty feet in the air, gauge piscine speed and direction, and nail the dive and light-refraction and wind-gust and trout-startle so perfectly that it snags three fish a day (our friend the osprey)? Not to mention they look cool—they are seriously large, they have muscles on their muscles, they are stone-cold efficient hunters with built-in butchery tools, and all of them have this stern I could kick your ass but I am busy look, which took me years to discover was not a general simmer of surliness but a result of the supraorbital ridge protecting their eyes.
And they are more adamant than other birds. They arrest your attention. You see a hawk, and you stop what minor crime you are committing and pay close attention to a craft master who commands the horizon until he or she is done and drifts airily away, terrifying the underbrush. You see an eagle, you gape; you hear the piercing whistle of an osprey along the river, you stand motionless and listen with reverence; you see an owl launch at dusk, like a burly gray dream against the last light, you flinch a little, and are awed, and count yourself blessed.
They inspire fear, too—that should be said. They carry switchblades and know how to use them, they back down from no one, and there are endless stories of eagles carrying away babies and kittens and cubs left unattended for a fateful moment in meadows and clearings, and falcons shearing off the eyebrows of idiots climbing to their nests, and owls casually biting off the fingers of people who discover Fluffy is actually Ferocious. A friend of mine deep in the Oregon forest, for example, tells the story of watching a gyrfalcon descend upon his chickens and grab one with a daggered fist as big as my friend’s fist, but with much better weaponry, and then rise again easily into the fraught and holy air while, reports my friend with grudging admiration, the bird glared at him with the clear and inarguable message, I am taking this chicken, and you are not going to be a fool and mess with me.
I suppose what I am talking about here really is awe and reverence and some kind of deep thrumming respect for beings who are very good at what they do and fit into this world with remarkable sinewy grace. We are all hunters in the end, bruised and battered and broken in various ways, and we seek always to rise again, and fit deftly into the world, and soar to our uppermost reaches, enduring with as much grace as we can. Maybe the reason that so many human beings are as hawk-addled and owl-absorbed and falcon-haunted and eagle-maniacal as me is because we wish to live like them, to use them like stars to steer by, to remember to be as alert and unafraid as they are. Maybe being raptorous is in some way rapturous. Maybe what the word rapture really means is an attention so ferocious that you see the miracle of the world as the miracle it is. Maybe that is what happens to saints and mystics who float up into the air and soar beyond sight and vanish finally into the glare of the sun.