Sunday was the first eagle release of the New Year for the wildlife shelter where I volunteer. These things can sound more impressive than they turn out to be: a group of people gather in a field or grassy lot of some kind, some with children most of them with cameras–some with telephoto lenses the length of their arms. there is a lot of waiting around until a vehicle appears with large dog crate, and one of the senior staff from the shelter will put on very long, very heavy leather gloves and reach into the crate, to extract an eagle wearing a hood, which always causes them to look demoralized, if you ask me. The hood is removed and the bird realizes what’s going on, and it suddenly becomes irate–then, the pitch: the bird is lightly tossed into the air out of the keeper’s arms.
And what usually happens is it drops to the ground a number of yards away–looks to see what’s going on, then takes off again, flying to the nearest tree and landing, turning its back to us, ignoring our good wishes, often disappearing into the brush. No thank you, no looking back–eagles I’ve seen released have been uniformly unsentimental.
Sunday I got up and had coffee with my friend Phil, and we drove to the site. It was a gorgeous winter morning, the kind we rarely get in the PNW: clear and cold with a heavy white frost coating everything, glinting at angles in the sun. Along the way we pass a former bamboo farm, where varieties got loose and have grown to twenty feet clumps in some places; this morning as we drove by the bamboo is huge shocks of yellow-green, silvered with frost. And it is cold: 28 or so, which out here constitutes frostbite warnings. I’ve heard from friends in the Midwest they had their windows open yesterday, while apparently it’s been cold in southern California. Wending down the country highway in the sun and ice I feel like a snow-dome has been shaken, and the weather has just gone all over the place.
So today looks like an exceptionally fine morning for an eagle release, which is happening in the large sleeping field of an organic farm–lumps of brown grass bowed over and frosted, chickens in their pen back by the house, darting back and forwards, excited by they know not what. There are several groups of people but it’s not a huge crush; two media outlets interview Lisa, the new shelter’s executive director, a tall, attractive woman in a bright red ski jacket.
Then, yes, the truck rolls into the field and Mike, the wildlife director hops out, opens the hatch of the truck cap, and there is the dog crate.
A brief speech: the eagle is hooded, he explains, and will be brought out shortly, and released by the new director–she will throw him into the wind so he can get lift, and Mike gestures where he’d like us all to stand, so we don’t spook the eagle. Lisa, the new excecutive director has never even handled an eagle before, and she’s not afraid to mention this: her teenaged daughter stands by with a hand-held video camera, as Mike brings out the bird.
Lisa holds it a moment–I know how she feels–these birds are large and very strong, and the whole concept of holding an eagle sends adrenaline pumping up over your head; Mike comes over to mess with getting the hood off, and, suddenly aware of where he is, the eagle’s head snaps to attention. Lisa holds him just a moment longer then gives him the toss: the bird rises up out of her gloved arms and immediately banks to the south, away from the crowd, but in clear view of everyone: he rises up higher and catches sight of the water beyond the trees, and seamlessly heads for it–steady, strong wing beats as he confidently rows himself up and away, growing smaller and more distant to our sight but still there, back to the life he’s been missing, the things he’s left undone. I have never seen a release so flawless.
Over a return, thawing-out cup of coffee, Phil and I talk about it all–the eagle, the group at the event, maybe twenty percent of whom are other volunteers and board members, the experience of getting up early and standing out in the open on a cold, sunny morning.
It’s good to have things that make us feel human, he says. He is suggesting this effort of working with wildlife is something that opens me up emotionally, maybe even spiritually.
I think about that phrase after he’s gone.
No question this is an experience that reaches something in me that I’d consider to be elemental: a connection to the natural world, a recognition of my place in the larger scheme of the broad wild world.
But does it make me feel human?
I recently turned that around in a conversation with a woman at work, who was telling a story about her beagle, and remarked how animals could seem so human.
It’s the reverse, I blurted out: we’re animals. We’ve stepped out and created our own self-importance, but that doesn’t change anything–we just shift the roles to make ourselves feel better. The recognition we see when a raccoon wash his paws in a stream or a mother bear defends her cubs, the sentiment we see in a dog’s eyes–these aren’t animals being human, these are humans recognizing connection to animals, we just really don’t want to see it that way. Because after all, we’re the higher order. Right?
So, I wondered, what things make me feel human?
On a visit to New York City, some years back–an early evening in late summer, I was walking up from Midtown to meet some friends for dinner. First, there are the canyons of buildings, and the echo of noise–car engines and bus air brakes and all the traffic on the pavement–and there is the motion: other pedestrians streaming along in both directions, the occasional glimpses of people doing something personal, like walking in or out of their apartments or getting out of cabs. It’s all part of the scene: the brownstones and restaurants and apartment buildings on either side of me, some filled with more residents than the total of my entire town; cars and cabs flowing along in lines through the streets, orange neon, green streetlights, high billboards way above the crowd line and buildings reaching up high beyond that; women of any age going by in the moment’s perfect fashion, wearing sunglasses that may cost more than my first car, or good knock-offs, hoping no one can tell. I pass the street vendors, veer through trash cans lined up at a street corner, past high glass windows of books, or sales banners, or mannequins staring back at me. I pass a subway entrance–clusters of people going in or coming out, negotiate past a street character sitting down, blasted out from mental illness or intravenous drug use.
“Good evening!” says a tall, smiling black man, and I smile back and say, “Good evening,” and I keep to my course, on to a small restaurant up by Columbus Circle, on our way to Lincoln Center for a play with a famous actor that’s been getting mediocre reviews.
Active and energized, and essentially a huge block of pavement, wildly overbuilt and teeming with human beings–messy and creative and hazardous and beautifully crafted and entirely self referential–heading along the New York sidewalks as the sun went down and the lights came up I have never felt more human in my life.