It is the evening of the third of July and I am out walking with my dogs. As the light starts to fade, the sounds of fireworks rise. Muffled booms across the water, occasional cracks and rattles, small rehearsals for the big event tomorrow, which, given my proximity to Native American fireworks stands, could run from morning into hours far beyond tomorrow night.
Families are turning up in my little beach community. I pass gatherings around fire pits, and grandparents walking back from the general store with small children, all eating ice cream. Never mind that it’s the Pacific Northwest and it’s dropping into the 60s as the sun goes down, will probably be in the 50s by tonight. We just wear fleece while we maintain the holiday traditions.
One neighbor has strung an old-fashioned red white and blue bunting along his porch rail, and another has made bright wooden cut outs of firecrackers and placed them through his garden. I wonder if I can find my flag in the shed, if I can hang it before I head out for my shift at the wildlife shelter tomorrow. People don’t often think about it, but like pets, wild animals are pretty thoroughly terrified by fireworks, and this time of July at the shelter can be busy, with creatures that have been frightened into windows, or out onto highways.
We turn up a path through the woods that leads back to our road, very near where the local eagles have their nest.
Which makes me think of eagles—the national symbol, and what I’ve learned about them at the shelter these past five years.
I have prepared food for eagles, I have scrapped their leftovers and cleaned up their enclosures; I have helped bandage them, or held them as they’ve been bandaged. I’ve force fed eagles, tube fed eagles, tended to emaciated elders, and worked with babies who have been brought in when their nests collapsed. I’ve assisted at euthanasia when the eagles have wound up on the wrong side of humans: torn up by cars or trucks, or so badly shattered from gunshot that the giant wing couldn’t be rebuilt by even the most dedicated avian wildlife vet.
And, I’ve been fortunate enough to be present at releases—watched a now-healthy bird fight to get out of the grip of the rehabber carrying it from its cage, spilling it out of their arms and back into the air—the big bird’s wings beating the air, stretching out in its return to the sky.
I have had to explain to kids at presentations that it’s not simply coyotes that are wiping out their cats and small dogs—eagles will happily hunt easy prey, like unattended pets.
Because in all honesty, our national symbol is lazy.
Eagles are opportunistic: they think nothing of bullying other birds, like ospreys, for the fish they’re carrying, swiping it out of the air when it’s dropped in fear.
I’ve heard plenty of descriptions from Alaskans of dumpsters covered in eagles, just as happy to pick at the trash from the fish canneries than work for it out on the open water.
And they can seem surprisingly willing to put up with regular harassment from crows, ignoring the dive-bombing and outriding because they just don’t want to bother—that is, until they simply stop tolerating it—and the eagle flips over in the air and with its talons, ends it.
Eagles know how tough they are; they’re fully aware they have no real predators themselves, and they’re not above using their presence to reorder things to their own particular benefit.
Benjamin Franklin had all this in mind when he famously and satirically chided his compatriots at their choice of the eagle for the national symbol of this country. In a letter to his daughter he joked that we should have used the turkey instead, because it had more courage than an eagle, and “would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
Symbols are tricky things. I am forever telling my students to be careful what ideas they link to what images, as there are all kinds of ways that symbols can be read. You have to make sure to emphasize the connections you intend for them to carry.
I heard the baby eagle in the nest across the road yesterday, but nothing today. Its parents, a monogamous pair of many years, are undoubtedly nearby, keeping watch, worrying at the noise in the sky.
A friend who is Native American used to help me with my yard, and when an eagle flew over he would pause; to his understanding, eagles are messengers of God—“A blessing,” he’d say to me, and smile, and we’d get back to whatever we were doing.
If it is the job of humanity to rise above our animal nature, our physical selves, tonight as the Fourth comes on and the sounds of fireworks pick up I find myself hoping that we might think about our national symbols–override the self-centeredness, the sense of power and arrogance, in favor of tolerance, grace, and strength granted us by larger, natural creative forces.