Buteo jamaicensis

As I sat back in my chair reading the blogs late yesterday afternoon, it occurred to me suddenly that for my houseplants, summer is the darkest time of year. The Norfolk Island pine sitting across the table from me – the Jack McManis tree – has filled out tremendously in the past few months as its branches reach ever farther in search of light. Since the trees and bushes closest to the house are mostly deciduous – mulberry, lilac, spicebush, black walnut – they intercept much of the sunlight for the six months between mid-May and mid-October. In winter, not only is this impediment removed, but – another counter-intuitive thought – the lower angle of the sun makes for more direct sunlight, even if there is less of it each day. Combine that with the reflective qualities of snow, and this room in particular can become easily twice as bright during the darkest months.

It’s almost like a Daoist parable, isn’t it? Inside or out, the plants are the same in nature, they want the same things. Just as a dog at the genetic level may be all but indistinguishable from a wolf – but when the two meet, the former tends to end up in the latter’s stomach. In each case, the originally arbitrary division of Nature into an inside and an outside creates opposing interests. Might this be equally true of the body and the soul, I wonder?

Empty truism, Dave! Yeah, I know. But I am fascinated by the role that wildness – the Big Outside – and wild animals play in the formation of our identities as fully human beings.

I accompany my mother this morning on her weekly visit to the Amish farmstand and whole foods store in the valley. Which is lucky, because it turns out that the torrential downpour of the night before last had brought down a tree across the Plummer’s Hollow road, a smallish red maple. (Mom’s weak back prevents her from doing things like operating a chainsaw.) In a couple of places, the road is washed out to a depth of 8-10 inches, and we are thankful for the extra clearance the s.u.v. provides.

It’s a spectacular Autumn day. We drive slowly along the winding township roads, enjoying the views whenever there’s a break in the ranks of field corn. At the store, we notice a flyer on the counter – “Lost Falcon.” My mom talks about this for a few minutes with the proprietor, her friend S. – a woman in late middle age, unmarried and very bright. They both know the falconer. S. mentions that one of her grandnephews saw – he thought – a large bird flapping over with “traces dangling from his claws.” The falconer came out to look, but with no luck. “I think if I was a bird like that, once I escaped I’d fly away and I wouldn’t come back,” S. says in her precise English as she heads back into the kitchen.

She would, too – neither of us have any doubt of it. The lyrics of the very un-Amish gospel song “I’ll Fly Away” begin to percolate through my mind.

On the way back up the hollow, I catch the flash of wings from several hundred yards away. When we pull even with the spot, I see the profile of a hawk’s head against the trunk of one of the largest red oaks in the hollow. We back up for a better view, and find ourselves in a staring contest with a red-tailed hawk. Buteo jamaicensis: our most common hawk, but always a pleasure to watch – especially from such unexpectedly close quarters. Its species name reflects the fact that the type specimen was collected in Jamaica; any other connection between this individual and the island currently in the crosshairs of Hurricane Ivan is strictly metaphorical. Most of our red-tails don’t migrate even as far as the gulf coast, and some live here year round. Both last winter and the winter before we had a pair in residence, attracted no doubt by the abundant gray squirrels.

“Don’t you know you’re supposed to fly away?” my mother croons. Talking softly to wild animals is usually a good way to keep them from spooking – it seems almost to mesmerize them, sometimes. But a couple more blandishments and the hawk dips his head, opens his great wings and sails away downhollow. “Ah, an immature,” says my mother, noting the absence of red in his tail. “No wonder he acts so dumb.”

With Frances gone, the air’s about as clear as it ever gets here. The rest of the way up the road, every shifting shadow seems alive with promise.

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