Published in the Wisconsin State Journal on August 13, 2011
The hawk appeared late in the afternoon of a recent day when the heat index topped 100. I’d hiked to the ridge land via the hill road, a tractor-wide, fern-lined path canopied by oaks and hickories. The road circles the eastern shoulder of Helgersen Ridge and in the afternoon is cool, even on a hot day. It ends at the edge of 10 acres of hay meadow surrounded by forest.
I’d also gone up there to scout the south slope of the ridge for the terminus of a trail leading up from the farmhouse to an oak opening I discovered our first summer on the farm. There, a large white oak dominates a camp-sized area clear of brush. Staying out of sight there is easy in any season while only a few steps east afford a view of the entire valley descending to the Kickapoo River.
The opening bears no signs of habitation; no indentations or mounds. There is only an ethereal quiet there, something the poet William Wordsworth called a spirit in the woods.
I walked from the opening to the eastern tip of the meadow, a freeform pie shape, the crust side forming the broad western edge, and was about to step onto open ground when I noticed a hawk skimming the meadow and headed directly toward me. I stopped, still in the cover of woods, while the hawk swept onward.
At the tip of the meadow it banked sharply to its left and the whole expanse of its wing surfaces were visible. It was a Broad Winged, a light adult, distinctions somewhat beside the point here. Because the bank it executed was a magnificent, tight, perfectly balanced maneuver held expertly through every degree of the meadow’s tip.
Then the hawk leveled, headed westward in its hunt and disappeared and reappeared with the undulations of the meadow. At the western end of the meadow it banked again, performed a gorgeous chandelle, and headed back to me. I was witnessing artistry no human aviator will ever replicate.
We use language to force our beliefs onto Nature. A cloud looks like an elephant, the sun is a chariot traveling east to west, an escarpment is a facial profile, a hawk performs banks and chandelles as if it had gone to flight school to win its wings. This is a mostly harmless trait, our way of explaining away and classifying the curiosities and unknowns that confront and confound us. Our ability to do this—to make language—is, according to essayist Lewis Thomas, the thing that separates us from ants, hawks or any other living thing.
In short, we act as if hawks would not exist if we hadn’t arrived in their world to name them. It is that tendency that makes our ability to build language far from harmless because it then becomes, at base, an exercise in power. Language has the power to change a hawk into a predator, a varmint, a critter, and, thus, an enemy. It is not unusual, for example, to travel the West and see dead hawks and eagles tied to barbed wire. And stories shared with me have the previous owners of this farm calling them targets. On the other hand, studying a guide to the birds or watching them in flight erases the power of terms like predator and target.
The hawk repeated its tour of the meadow twice more before disappearing after one last chandelle away west, where the afternoon was taking light. I stepped out into the open convinced that the power of our language is best used to limit our reckless expansion into the realm of hawks or any other part of Nature that was here before we named it.
Copyright 2011 Karl Garson
Link to the essay in the Wisconsin State Journal