The other day I put my son in the car and went for a drive on the Olympic Peninsula. We ended up at Fort Flagler, an old battery installation with 100-year-old guns positioned high on a bluff overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca, well, just below the strait, right at the entrance to Puget Sound. I put our peanut and butter sandwiches and the rest of our lunch on a picnic table while my boy climbed on and around the guns. Boys love guns.
Far out in the water I saw two large Coast Guard vessels. As they came closer, I noticed they were escorting a submarine, the top, the sail and foreplanes were visible between them. Soon the sound of airplanes could be heard; loud, roaring jet engines – their noise was everywhere yet they were hard to spot. I did, though, and watched the two military jets make wide circles over the water from the northern reach above Whidbey Island to where I sat, or, to be precise, stood. Standing as if at attention, I watched this display of military power. The sub could probably circumnavigate the globe and who knew from whence it was returning, what it had been doing where. I don’t know much about planes, but from what I’ve seen in the movies, these jets or ones like them were capable of unleashing all sorts of destruction.
I was contemplating the feelings this sight inspired. Ostensibly, these machines and the people who operated them were here to protect me. They were part of our military defense. I couldn’t help wondering, though, defense from whom? Was Japan going to send warships past Pearl Harbor this time and go straight for the Space Needle. Were Russian submarines lurking off our shores waiting for the right moment to strike.
Or, looking at it another way, was this just a show of strength, part of a larger ongoing flexing of the muscles designed to scare off any potential enemies.
All well and good, I supposed, except it seemed to be a rather expensive way to defend such a remote, peaceful and unthreatened stretch of land and sea. Surely, all this was superfluous, or at best overkill. Yes, overkill. Impressive, but a tad excessive to my mind.
As these thoughts were percolating through my brain, a bald eagle flew before me. It appeared, it just appeared, perhaps from below the bluff, one instant out of sight, the next approaching in regal, majestic flight directly towards me. Not fifty yards away it pulled up, flapped its wings, stretched out its talons and alit atop a tall cedar. It now occupied the foreground of the martial panorama I had been contemplating.
There it was – bald eagle, jets, submarine, coast guard vessels – all pieces of a brilliant board, for it was a brilliant day. Vast blue skies, a brisk, clear day at the end of winter, beginning of spring; sun, sky, water, all around me, enveloping me, a speck in a giant gem, the merest pawn on a gigantic, fantastic chessboard.
While recognizing my insignificance in this way, I was still able, it did still occur to me that I had in some small way paid for a piece of those machines. I paid taxes, the government took my money, and this is what they bought. Then, too, if not simultaneously, in close sequence, I considered my place in nature, my place in this world beyond national boundaries, beyond governments and militaries, economies and brutal human competition. Outside society, what was I? Another animal, flesh, blood, eyes, ears – matter, with life, breath; a sentient being.
The eagle stared at me. I thought it did. I felt it, piercing. As he continued to look at me, I looked forward to this moment, this time right now when I would write about what I was seeing and how I felt about it. It inspired a glimmer of superiority. I may be just another animal, but I am capable of thought, analysis. Unlike the rest of the natural world, unlike all other creatures, man alone is able to translate what he experiences into art, well, that may be too strong a word, we can attempt to translate all around us into a vehicle we feel compelled to share with others.
Not only this, though, occurred to me then. It also crossed my mind that among all these humans, I alone was capable of expressing the thoughts I was having, indeed, it was the thoughts themselves that were unique and powerful. So, amidst the sublime natural world was a member of the highest species and I held a place in that species so lofty, and I had arrived at this point, literally and figuratively, I stood on a bluff after a journey of years and experiences that gave me a view and a viewpoint unlike anyone else’s.
It was at this instant that brief apex when my ego, had it been a balloon, would have been inflated to its absolute maximum. It was just then that the eagle left its perch, glided the remaining distance between tree and table, and in a flurry of flapping wings, surprising in both size and volume, landed with grace and skill at the very edge of the table immediately in front of me. Needless to say, I was stunned. The shock prevented me from running, crouching, covering my food, or otherwise protecting myself. After the tumult of that landing, the noise and visual cacophony, if I can put it that way. After all that, there was silence.
Then, he turned his head, and pierced me again with his eagle eyes, opened his beak and clearly said, “Hey, how ya doin’?”
You can imagine my surprise. I replied haltingly, “I’m doing alright. How are you?”
“I’m good. Thanks for asking.”
We stared at each other. The bird craned his neck and looked past me towards where my son was playing. I turned, too. He was still climbing on the old cannons, standing guard like ancient soldiers. He seemed fine; safe and oblivious to the fact his father was talking to an eagle.
“Little boys certainly do like playing with guns.”
I looked at the eagle quizzically wondering if he was being sarcastic. It was as if he had been reading my thoughts
“Yes, I can read your thoughts,” he chirped, “and I’m an eagle, I don’t do sarcasm. Besides it wasn’t sarcasm, it was meant to be disparaging. Snide, you might call it, although that too is somewhat beneath us.”
“Right,” I said slowly and then took a long look around. Maybe there were hidden cameras in those old barracks over there. Maybe this was a joke and a gameshow host was going to pop up from behind those bushes, microphone in hand, a big grin on his face.
“It’s not a joke,” said the eagle. “There’s no one else here, just you and me.”
I pondered that, staring back at the eagle, trying to make sense of it all. The incongruity of English coming out of that beak made me forget for a minute what an awesome creature this was. Regal, stunning, majestic, and, also, despite what he had said, snide. There were limitations to the expressiveness of his facial features to be sure. One wouldn’t think an eagle would have much “range” to speak in a theatrical sense. Yet, his eyes and the angle of his white-feathered head clearly bespoke a certain disdain.
“Yes, I find you stupid,” he said, “but don’t take it personally. It’s a feature of your kind, the most prominent actually.”
I blinked back at him. This was rich. We’re at the top of the food chain. Hell, if it weren’t for us the bald eagle would be extinct. He would have ceased to be.
“Yes,” he said, “but who took us to the brink of extinction. Do not confuse success with intelligence. Sometimes the bad guy wins.”
“So why are you wasting your time with me, an idiot bad guy.”
“Good question. You surprise me. And, at the same time, validate my visit. See, I was flying around just checking for food, halfheartedly really, I wasn’t particularly hungry, had a vole earlier, just a bit peckish, if you know what I mean. But, I wanted to take a spin on the afternoon thermals. I do love a good afternoon thermal, especially on a day like today. Come to think of it, though, it was more than that. Were I of the human persuasion I might attribute some supernatural reason for my motivation, as if a force called me to leave the nest. You’d call it fate or destiny. Frankly, it just was. Just like it is now. So, here I am now, with you, as I should be.”
“Isn’t it though,” he said.
“The question remains. Why?”
“You show an uncharacteristic focus, I mean, for a man.”
“Let’s see, I was flying around minding my own business, just being, you know, living in the moment as your sort might call it. I saw that sub and those ships, then I saw those infernal jets, heard them, felt them – beastly things. I decided to touch down and that’s when I started hearing your ridiculous thoughts.”
“The fear of advancing American militarism?”
“That, yes, and your unconscionable superiority, your drift towards a faux moment of enlightenment. It was really too much. You should be embarrassed.”
And indeed I was.
“You were waxing philosophical,” he said accusingly.
He looked at me derisively, as if I should not dare respond to such as he in such a pathetic manner.
He sighed and continued. “Do you think we can let any dumb punk enter the realm of philosophy, attempt to ascend into the rarified air of absolute truth, defining the divine and all that?!?!”
“Surely, there are plenty of us who do.”
“Aye, verily,” he said. “And what a mess they make of things. If only we could catch them all. Fortunately, I found you early before you could cause too much trouble.”
I felt chastened. Belittled.
“Listen, don’t take it too hard. There are thousands like you, you can’t help yourselves, for every Buddha there’s a billion buffoons.”
Buffoon? Eagle or not this was beginning to go a bit too far.
“What makes you so smart, huh? Why are you the arbiter between what is wisdom and what foolhardy. You’re just a bird.”
“How dare you! I am no buzzard, no vulture, lump me in with chickens and pigeons will you?” He huffed and strutted around the table narrowly missing my PB & J. “I, you blathering imbecile, am the bird of Jove, King of my kind, the lion of the upper air. Just a bird,” he scoffed. “I should claw your eyes out.” He lifted a talon and made a motion in the air in front of him. Even at my distance, more than a yard, it was quite intimidating.
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly, “I meant no disrespect. But, really, why do you have this power?” He bristled still, so I bumbled on trying to get my point across as gently as possible. “I mean, you, well you certainly are a magnificent bird, and yes, I realize ‘bird’ doesn’t do you justice, it is clearly insignificant, I mean it lacks the import, it doesn’t convey at all the depth of your beauty. But, and I think you might understand why someone like myself, and by that I mean a lowly human, you might see how I might wonder, not being aware of this beforehand, not even knowing, for instance that eagles talked, could speak eloquently even, you could see my confusion. Put yourself in my shoes.”
“Yes, well, look at it from my perspective. Why would any creature in the animal kingdom, even the most kingly, hold it in his purview, that is to have as his responsibility the policing of human thought.”
With that, at the end of my jumbled ramble, he simply stared at me. Disappointment colored every feather. His unblinking eyes showed a trace of pity. The overall result, the feeling he conveyed in look and attitude was one of utter disdain. Gradually, this ebbed and he relaxed, his taut muscles slackened and he grew more thoughtful. He reminded me at that instant of an owl, somewhat pensive. Then with another short sigh, a resignation that seemed to say, ‘Yes, I know you are not worthy, yet I will continue talking to you. I will tell you my secrets and perhaps I won’t regret it.’
“It’s like this, human,” he spat (literally, a small fleck of saliva or vole blood left his mouth). “In the ‘animal kingdom’ as you so quaintly and naively put it, we have achieved what the wisest among you seek to achieve. Nay ‘achievement’ is not quite correct. We are. Do you see? We simply are. I am eagle now just as I was eagle millennia ago. I was eagle when Snohomish first started adorning their totem poles with my likeness. I was eagle when the Asiatic tribes crossed from Siberia to Alaska and came marveling at me. My kin, my kind, are me, you see. We are eagle. We know now what they knew then and I know here what the golden eagle knows soaring over the Alps or hunting in the Himalayas. This is what sets us apart, well, this and winged flight, our breed, indeed, all the species to varying degrees, we all learn from our pasts, no, we are our pasts. All we do is the result of thousands of generations, we possess the collected wisdom of every eagle before us. We don’t feel compelled to write it down, though.”
He paused to let that sink in and gave me a sneer.
“This is all fascinating,” I told him. “I still don’t know why you’re telling me all this. If what you said was true, and I have no reason to doubt one so magnificent as yourself, but if, as you say, you stopped here to stop me from philosophizing, then why are you pressing on. Why not fly away and let me slink off in confusion?”
“Well,” he said, “There’s philosophy and then there’s philanthropy.”
“I don’t follow. You seem to hold a very low opinion of mankind. Why would philanthropy enter into this discussion?”
“That’s a good human. You’re asking all the right questions now.”
I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or insulted. “We were almost driven to extinction, what you say is true. This was disconcerting. What you might refer to as ‘a wake-up call’. It appears we’ve averted that fate for now, but there are gathering threats.”
“This isn’t going to be an environmental polemic, is it? Nature screaming out to be saved from man-made global warming.”
“Global warming, nuclear annihilation, whatever. My ‘philanthropy’ is entirely eagle-centric.”
“Huh?” I scoffed. “What happened to all your metaphysics, existing on a higher plane? This attitude sounds decidedly un-zen.”
“Dude,” he said. “You guys are going to kill us.”
“Not exactly ‘living in the moment’ now are we, eagle?”
“Do you know what ‘extinct’ means?” he parried.
I gave him a flat stare. This wasn’t the direction I thought we were headed. I turned around to look for my son. He was off in the distance now playing with a stick, like it was a sword, slashing it back and forth at the weeds in front of him.
“I gotta go take care of my son,” I said.
“You know you’re beginning to sound awfully pedantic. I don’t need a lecture from you.”
“Fine,” he said petulantly. “Go, then. Go ahead and run away while the planet melts and your country threatens to destroy us all.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Oh, and remember, “I slipped in, “you’re the symbol of this great country.”
“I’m an eagle,” he said puffing himself up again, “We don’t do symbolism.”
“Franklin was right,” I shouted at him, “We would have been better off with the turkey. Oh, and I lot of good you guys did for the Romans.”
“Listen, buddy, I’ve had just about enough of you.”
“So, leave,” I said. “No one’s got you on a leash.”
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll just do that then.”
“I will,” and as he turned to leave, he looked over his shoulder and squawked, “but you can’t say I didn’t warn you.” Then with one muscular burst he left the table and a few flaps of his wings took him soaring. He circled once above me, dropped a turd that came surprisingly close to my lunch, and then flew off into the distance.
I flipped him the bird.
“Man,” I thought. “Who knew eagles were such pompous pricks.”