While I’m on the Subject

Excerpt from the still-unfinished hawk essay:

Lengthening days of summer heat and stillness now. The tree that houses my hawks is exploding with green and lush leaves. I spend as much time as I can spare every day observing them. Kneeling in front of an open third-floor window, heavy binoculars in hand, I focus and refocus the lens, following their movements. The hawks are present in these moments, still visible if I look closely, but will soon be completely hidden beneath a twisted tangle of dense, leafy branches.

The female seems about two feet long, the feathers of her back blurring from auburn to intricate patterns in shades of cinnamon, her underbelly a pale, milky vanilla-white encircled by a dark band. She holds herself with a palpable air of dignity and grace. The male is noticeably smaller, his colors darker, more monochromatic, less vibrant, though still impressive. His underbelly is beige, not pure white, and his face, head and beak are a deep brown so mottled it’s almost impossible to tell where his features begin and end. The tails of juvenile hawks are grayish-brown and won’t begin changing till the bird’s second year; these hawks flaunt tails of adulthood’s familiar russet red shade. The hawks have exaggerated, bony brow ridges which shade the large black eyes from direct sunlight. They appear angry, face locked in a perpetual scowl, eyes protruding above the cere, the soft, mustard-yellow skin where the beak begins. If I notice them in the trees from my perch near the window, they must certainly notice me, with vision eight times more accurate and powerful than mine.

Red-tails are masters of flight, using updrafts and thermals in the air to their advantage. The distinctive aerial behavior is used to protect territory—which can be up to two square miles—and for elaborate courtship rituals during which they swoop up and down and try to touch one another with their talons. They can have a wingspread of 43-56 inches, which doesn’t surprise me. When they patrol their territory, they soar and dive, in an undulating orchestration, wings outstretched and reaching, almost touching the sky. Watching them I hold my breath and believe that I too could take flight so effortlessly and naturally if I tried.

I shift my weight to my other knee and refocus the binoculars. I see a flash of white and am startled to be looking into the faces of two baby hawks, something I’ve been hoping to see. They hardly look real, completely white and covered in fluffy down. I want to reach out my hand and feel their plush softness. I am certain I saw stuffed animals in their likeness the last time I visited the gift shop at the Pittsburgh Zoo. The chicks’ eyes are already large and noticeable and seem much too big for their heads, not yet forming the same scowl as the ones their parents wear proudly. They move awkwardly, bobbing their heads up out of the nest, hesitating, standing, falling down clumsily. I guess them to be only a few weeks old, and they will remain in the nest for another month before they fledge. The male stands right outside the nest, looking for his mate to return with prey to feed the chicks. I remain silent and unmoved, waiting and hoping for the chance to witness this act of mutual parenting.

I detail everything I notice about the hawks in a green spiral notebook, so I won’t forget. Later, I will turn the observations into something larger, something tangible, perhaps an essay. It is these details that will breathe life into the prose on the page.

Someone once told me that God was to be found in the details. I don’t know if I believe this, but I do know that noticing the details allows one to understand the world in unexpected ways. It will be the details that make a difference.

End excerpt:
I am one of those people who pay attention to everything, looking for signs, portents all around. things that eventually refuse to be ignored.


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