In which I make my way into Crossfire Canyon and meet a wondrous bird. I muse upon the experience of eye contact with other species, referencing N. Scott Momaday and Martin Buber. I see the light, loose and free in the canyon–it’s beautiful. Part one here, part two here, part three here.
As I worked my way down the trail, I discovered that my right knee was finally healing from a months-long bout with tendonitis and perhaps nerve damage. As recently as two weeks earlier I hadn’t been able to raise that leg very high, so I tripped frequently over stones in the trail or fell on my backside on that more difficult-to-negotiate rock outcrop down which I had to lower myself to get where I wanted to go. But this time, no trips, no falls. Still worried that I was inviting further trouble, I forced myself down the trail. As I walked onto an overlook I frequent to see what’s happening in the canyon below–whether or not cows are lounging on the trail, for instance–something fine happened.
A mature golden eagle flew across my line of vision, very close and nearly on the same horizontal plane where I stood. I halted and reached after the bird with my gaze, wondering if it would do something I’ve witnessed several times since I began hiking in Crossfire Canyon. Knowing that eagles can see our eyes far better than we can see theirs, I maintained eye contact, looking steadily at its head. The eagle appeared to be fleeing in a straight line angled slightly away from me but then turned in a slow, tight arc and circled back. I kept still, moving just my head to follow its flight and maintain eye contact. The bird dropped in altitude and swooped in so closely that I could see its yellow feet and curled toes and talons tucked up against its body. I heard the “whush whush” of its infrequent wing beats. The eagle circled six or seven times, keeping me at the center of its flight. During its last couple of passes, I remembered my manners and removed my hat so that the bird could see my entire face. After another minute or two of what I supposed to be eagle-style, close-in inquiry, the bird spiraled north along the cliff faces. It rose above the rim, disappeared, and I was gone to it.
What was the bird’s intention as it regarded me from its wheel in the air, holding me at the hub of its interest? This episode was the third or fourth time I’ve met with eagles in this slowly turning fashion, eye-to-eye, spinning in an orbit of mutual encounter. As the eagle left, I felt soothing effects from the bird’s attentions but avoided the temptation to think of it as awareness of, sympathy for, or interest in my suffering. Nature is not sympathetic, like a kind nurse. It’s ready to make hard use of me at the least lapse in judgment. Were I to fall to my death from the overlook, that same eagle might not hesitate to strip me of morsels of my remains–in particular, those very eyes by which we had spoken. What we’d said to each other I didn’t know, but it isn’t necessary to know. In The Man Made of Words, Scott Momaday says of pictographs in south-central Utah, “We do not know what they mean, but we know that we are involved in their meaning.” The same is true of those moments of eye contact with other species–an event that occurs more frequently than humans realize because too often we look at other species seeking only our own images. Animals are all the time looking at our eyes to judge our intentions or to express concerns or interest. The philosopher Martin Buber understood something about the quality and intensity of animal eye contact, saying, in his remarkable treatise on relation, I and Thou, “An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.” He goes on to describe what he thinks an animal’s gaze means:
The language in which [the mystery of becoming] is uttered is what it says–anxiety, the movement of the creature between the realms of vegetable security and spiritual venture. This language is the stammering of nature at the first touch of spirit, before it yields to spirit’s cosmic venture that we call man. … Sometimes I look into a cat’s eyes. The domesticated animal has not as it were received from us (as we sometimes imagine) the gift of the truly ‘speaking’ glance, but only–at the price of its primitive disinterestedness–the capacity to turn its glance to us prodigious beings. But with this capacity there enters the glance, in its dawn and continuing in its rising, a quality of amazement and of inquiry that is wholly lacking in the original glance with all its anxiety. [Speaking of the cat] … The animal’s glance, speech of disquietude, rose in its greatness–and set at once. My own glance was certainly more lasting; but it was no longer the streaming human glance (pp. 96-97 in the 1958 Smith translation).
Animals as small as hummingbirds and lizards have engaged my attention by way of their gaze touching mine. I wouldn’t presume to fix and so impose myself upon the meaning of such encounters, but I do know that during that moment of contact, fleeting though it may be, that creature and I are involved in something. In the case of this eagle, were I dead and my eyes fixed, its interest in them would be of a different and, to our thinking, brute nature. But we were both alive, looking across at each other, the eagle aloft in its element and I rooted in mine. I’ve seen, I think, how golden (and bald) eagles display anxiety. They catch sight of you and rise quickly into the air well out of the reach of both your weapons and your eyes. I don’t think this most recent encounter had anxiety to it, though there might have been a tension between us, an uneasiness braided up with the magnetism of curiosity. And though the eagle’s interest was not sympathetic, I might risk calling it “considerate” in the primary sense of the word “consider”–“to contemplate”–and maybe, too, in its possible root sense of searching the constellations (sider, sidus) to determine position and calculate direction or to glean intimations of other kinds of relation from circling fields of stars.
The eagle gone, I returned to the trail and continued down, pausing now and then to watch the few leaves remaining on cottonwoods ripple in cool breezes running up-canyon. The low-angled, late November light flickered sharply on the trees’ scale-like leaves like sunshine on wind-ruckled water. When cottonwoods sport their autumn regalia–full coats of yellow, heart-shaped leaves all a-flutter in the wind, sunlight flowing over the tree like firelight over gold–I feel a spike of pleasure, hard to contain. Something about how cottonwood trees’ leaves glitter when they’re all stirred up with breezes puts my mind in a prickle. Even when the trees’ plumage is sparse and turning brown, like it was that day, there’s a kind of native beauty to how sunlight and currents of air play around the largest of Crossfire Canyon’s trees. If I had not needed to portion out my time, I could have spent an indefinite amount of it standing there mesmerized on the trail, lost in the light fantastic of wind-shimmied cottonwood leaves.
This time of year, mid-morning light, wide-angled as it is, shines with brief intensity. In only a few hours the west canyon wall would sheathe the sun. A shadow would begin to form on the stone, almost as if seeping from the rocks. It would lengthen, darken, spread toward the ground. A chill would set up in the shadows while the east wall and its talus slopes and bench remained brilliantly lit, the stones seeming to stand up on their shadows and the juniper and piÃ±on pines taking on a polish, a forest of glowing detail and eye-straining intricacy. Winter dusk that falls early upon low ground in late fall and winter will gradually fill the canyon wall to wall, while up on the mesa daytime blazes away a few hours longer.
But at the hour I was there, autumn light glazed both of the canyon’s sandstone faces. Just at the rim, the ripest blue sky, a broad vein of turquoise bluest were it appeared to just touch the skyward stones and the canyon’s tree-line fringe. I’ve never, ever gotten over the color of this planet’s daylit sky–that blazing blue. It has never grown old. And here, at the November sun’s downward slide toward winter’s solstice, that cool but deep blue went in at the eye and provoked a physical response, a warmth that ran deeper than a blush, throat-down into the upper chambers of my chest.
To read part five, go here.