Harrier

This entry is part 2 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems

Dear Todd,

Again this morning, a northern harrier
haunts our forty-acre field,
coursing low
over the spent goldenrod & brome,
the white flag on her rump flashing
as she banks & hovers, her wings
in a fluttery V:
mixed signals for those who would see her
as nothing more than namesake
for a flying weapon.
She drops
into the grass
& reemerges with a squirming meal.

Old fields like ours
are rarer than they used to be, & perhaps
she would prefer marshland,
but most of the marshes were drained
a hundred years ago, & so
for four days we have watched her
appear & disappear like
a magician’s handkerchief
along the top edge of the field.
Left alone, the land
reinvents itself
in ways that contradict all expectation.
The cool wet forest felled
for charcoal in 1813
would’ve held — in root-nets,
in yard-deep humus & baroque
superstructures of wood —
as much water as
a small lake.
But with the recent arrival
of the woolly adelgid, we know
the old-growth hemlock will never
come back. Best
to make our peace
with light & drought,
with openness,
with curled flourishes of grass
& a migrating harrier fishing for voles
under the bluest skies.

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8 Comments


  1. “to make our peace” … ironically, I just started The World Without Us a couple of days ago. Under any circumstance this poem would have been haunting, but now… it tracks as well as spells.

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  2. The yen to preserve the primeval is possibly the strongest card we hold in ecological politics, but I think it’s an essentially anti-ecological desire, denying interplay and participation, making nature only and always an object. And I have a deep deep mistrust of the longing to set things right by going back to original innocence. Somehow it always turns out that to get back to innocence something has to be killed.

    So anyway, that’s by way of saying that I appreciate this very much.

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  3. Very nice, Dave. I like the idea of seeing the harrier as a magician’s handkerchief, a beautiful sort of distraction from whatever’s going on right in front of our eyes.

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  4. I like thinking about the old longings, a preference for marshes or a time before all this light and drought. Perhaps a harrier can miss something that’s not been seen for a hundred years. It is something we share, that harrier and I.

    Very fine poem, dave.

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  5. deb – That book’s on my short list, too. The subject is something I think about a lot, actually – extreme biocentric conservationist though I might be, I find the prospect of a world without humans deeply unappetizing.

    dale – “I have a deep deep mistrust of the longing to set things right by going back to original innocence.” Me too! Very well put. I think the goal of serious conservation should be the recovery of wildness wherever possible, not the restoration of some specific primeval state.

    Laura – Thanks. I’m glad that image worked on a figurative level, though I think it really helps to be familiar with the bird (as I’m sure you are) and the way it looks and moves, especially with that flash of white.

    Theriomorph, Fiona – Thanks for stopping by.

    robin andrea – Good point about old longings.

    I think many of these grassland species are declining here in the east precisely because the land is recovering from the high-point of intensive use 100 years ago. And returning to Dale’s point for a moment, it’s difficult for us to know what is right: to maintain old-field habitat for such species (as we have chosen to do on our land), or let it all go back to woods of some sort to try and improve habitat for forest-interior species, which are also beleagured.

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  6. I’ve read this poem a few times, and I’m struck by how much you gather in a small space – history of a family, the history of the land, science, animal behavior, thoughts about the military, so very thoughtful. I like the idea of not clinging to the past, as Dale mentions, but accepting what is, and living at peace with it. Really great poem.

    Thanks for sharing the letter poem I wrote to Jo’s piece. It makes blogging more fun to respond with a poem, don’t you think? It’s more about reflecting back on the other how the work is perceived.

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