"There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar."
---Moby Dick by Herman Melville
I got lost on my first solo cross-country flight, only for about 5 minutes but it was still not a good feeling. I knew the general area I was in, and the terrain, having grown up in the state, but somehow I had flown right over the airport at which I was expected to land, looking down and seeing a lake that wasn't on my map. Following my instructors teachings, I had the good sense to check my position every 10 - 15 minutes, so by backtracking I was soon back on course, but not before witnessing a flock of geese flying right along side of me, honking almost as if asking me to join them. I would have missed that had I been on course.
Sometimes you can find yourself by getting lost, by looking out and down on the world and reinterpreting it as a consequence. Rather than being shaken by my error, I simply laughed in surprising coincidence, as a goose dived from the sky in salutation.
There is a feeling of god-like power in that, viewing your domain beneath, a feeling that is almost empowering in its perspective? Do all the birds of the sky feel that power? That freedom, not just the mighty hawk, but the fledgling bird testing his wings for the first time, hungry mouth tasting the autonomy of the sky.
Birds fill my horizon and surround my home. There's a large wilderness preserve kind of park backing up to where I live, the hills sloping up to trees through which flows a large stream.
Most of the birds I can recognize, sparrows, my favorite the Cardinal and the occasional dove. Birds vary in more ways than species and color. Study them long enough, and you'll see the different ways in which they eat, and what they won't eat. Look where they sleep, is it high up in a tree?, or snuggled down in low covering, with the small tender plants pulled in around them like a blanket. You can study them by when they eat the most, a hearty breakfast or a quick bit of avian fast food and a late day buffet in a field. So many ways, the shape and size of the nest, if there is one, their connection to the nearest body of water, or a broad patch of open sky, if there is one, and to what degree that nearness is necessary for survival. To some the nearness is more important than we realize. Yet in all their differences they all fly on the same winds, that takes them to their desires.
Birds are meant to fly free, not be caged in. My Mom had a few birds over the years, parakeets, but I always felt a twinge of guilt for keeping them locked up, even in a large cage. When you hold a bird in your hand, it closes its eyes in resignation. Trust. Or fear?I had a neighbor out in the country once who kept a quail in a cage, just so he could hear the "bob white" of it's call. I'd watch the bird in there, reminding me of a prisoner in a small cell in tiny jailhouse, tapping out small Morse code signals on the outer bars in a minuscule hope of someone hearing him and seeking his release. But no one came to bail him out and I could only think of him growing tired and expiring there in that tiny cage, his prison cell, his spirit deflating, his soul becoming as worn and fragile as the drab brown uniform he wears. I don't believe the man did it to be cruel, the bird had plenty of good food and fresh water, he simply thought like others, that he could take a wild thing in and tame in, that it would only require the creature to make an adjustment in it's lifestyle, to shift the center of its desire from one thing to another.
One day while the neighbor was away, I went over and quietly opened the cage door. The bird was gone in a flash, with the urgency born of prisoned spring, and the awakening of burgeoning truth, to itself, the sun and the wind, not the man who imprisoned it.
I am a hunter I take life, but I respect life. I think to that day of my first hunt for a large whitetail buck. It's an event that stands out in my mind, like that of my first solo, when I was just 17 years old. Two acts so completely different, yet in my heart, the same, moments of testing myself, and what I could do. Knowing when to go forth, and when to pull back.
I waited there, in that blind, flanked by two experienced hunters who had taken me out. I was hardly more than a girl, yet I already knew the curse of blood, and the wildness of spirit which would only grow stronger as I got older. I tried to act as if it were no big deal, we're going to get a deer, that's it, but it took some effort not to let the trembling show.
When the buck came into view, I hesitated, he was so beautiful, so free, but the hunter lived in me, and this deer would feed us for many months, times were tough in that mill town and many tables were bare. I'm not sure if I closed one eye, it seemeed I closed both, but I draw and fired, one shot through the heart, and watched him bound away, his shadow casting a form on the earth that he had left, but did not know it yet.
But it was not to be a "take your shot, pose with your trophy". No, there was work to be done, and I was not going to be allowed to sit aside and watch the others prep him simply because I was a girl. I was handed the knife, to bleed him and gut him, guided by those much wiser than I.
When I first soloed, I remember sitting there, hand on the throttle, looking at my instructor, standing along the edge of the taxiway, being hesitant to move my hand, and he just gave me a little nod,a sign I was ready. That day, in the forest, it was much the same. The oldest of the group, drew a bloody fingertip across my brow, to brush the hair from my eyes, consecrating that moment in which the hunters skills would be passed on. I drew the knife, and spilled the blood, hot smoking stream in deep grey woods. Yes, blood was spilled, but not with shame, but with pride, for I had been deemed ready to do so with the judgement that such acts require. Gone were the days of pursuing rabbits and squirrels, I had taken my first buck, to be discussed before a winter fire someday.
For hunters gather, as pilots gather. Sometimes in a dark room, long after the day is done, with a cold beer and a roaring fire. Other times in odd moments and at odd times, with no prior planning, simply showing up to just sit and trade stories, waiting for the sun to come up There is a yearning in us that love the wild, be it forest or sky, blooming as you discover that it holds that which is already within you. Like any other passion it is often accompanied by a partiality for that which surrounds its form, which even in its absence still speaks fondly of it, in reverent tones and lively stories.
That day in which I took my first deer stands out, not so much for the action but for what was passed on. What they taught me that day was more than the taking of game. They taught me when to shoot and when not to. What game was worthy, and what should be left alone. When the woods were a safe haven, and with a rumble of thunder, when the woods were a place to leave. Just as I learned to fly in the pitch dark of a hangar as I listened to my instructor as we put our plane to rest, I learned the rules of the hunt, there in the dark, heavy dew of an April morning, while we squatted, knees crying, underneath a turkey roost. I learned without speaking. I learned just by watching. I learned not just when to act, but when when to just walk away and let it go. I learned that with freedom comes responsibility, with wrong decisions, comes death, if not in the flesh, then of the spirit.
Tonight I'm going up for just a short flight, hunting season is a long way off, and the thrill of TV holds no luster for me. The last time I went, I took my friend Miles with me; this time I will go alone. There are a few cumulus to the north but other than some building light turbulence, the short flight should be uneventful. But the clouds continued to build and as I circled a large cornfield, the wind picked up, and off my right I saw a hawk dive down for the safety of the trees. He was ignoring the small birds that were his prey moments ago, as the sky grew menacingly dark and the wind picked up further. The birds had better sense than some, taking no chances when dealing with a dearth of stable air. As the birds of the air knew, death can await in a gust of fate, in the unexpected whimsy of a cold front. In the sky, everything is mortal.
Yet, it is worth the risk, and prices we pay for just a moment to hold that freedom of winged creatures in our hands. The throttle is at full power as the little engine chugs against the decrease in air density in this warm summer day. Still pushing on upwards where the air is clearer, and purer still, out of the haze layer of summer, the smog, the noise; clouds at every turn, their dark reflections playing across my wings like shadow puppets. I have no schedule, no phone, no chatter, no demands other than the demanding gods of pitch, power and airspeed. Like the birds I am free, a carefree vagabond, endowed with the grace of the wing, knowing no bounds in this unrestricted spot of sky far away from the city and any regular air traffic routes.
I pivot and turn to gain a little room. It's hard to resist the urge to continue higher, upwards in search of some absolute perfection, some crystal moment of divine knowledge, far away and remote from human memory, worry and obligations. Up towards the sun, now shining brightly, like a diamond in the sand, pure and priceless, a bright rare gem of light that would provide both wealth and freedom. But like Icarus's flight into the sun, continuing upwards can have dire consequences. The decrease in performance speaks as loudly as any caution light. My airplane is at the limit of what it can do, as am I right now. And so like his father Daedalus did after the Icarus's plummet to earth, I'll leave my feathered friends, and hang up my wings for the day, knowing that soon I too can return.
I check for traffic and slide on back down, performing some dives and rolls on the way, laughing as the earth comes up in greeting. The familiar landscape is in my window and my thoughts are simple. The push of the wind, and the fuel remaining; things done from training and habit, requiring little thought. Leaving room for those obvious thoughts, there suspended above the green of hard edged corn fields, lost in the improbability of being up here at all,. The sky is clouding up and I remain silent, reading the signs of the sky, a poem composed of cursive contrails and feather-like exclamation points of white and amber light. It's time to head home, as the visibility is dropping and the clouds seemed to be starting their own little rumble.
I wonder why the air had gotten so smokey. Someone is burning off some acreage, soon to have homes built on it. As the hawk hunts better fields from their viewpoint, from the smoke, the smaller birds escape the flames, up from the dense, cold remains of grain, into the veined complexity of sky, where space and freedom interface. From aloft I sense rather than see them, and know that soon some of them will find shelter in the trees behind my home, looking simply for their hearts longing, while keeping the freedom of their wing.
For isn't that what we all desire.