December: cold, a scattering of snow, the ice settling into the ground.
In Hardwick, on impulse, I stop into a store and buy a string of white lights with wooden reindeer for my daughters. It’s Sunday morning, and hardly anyone is out.
Walking home with those lights tucked into my backpack with a brown paper bag of rice and a square of cheese, a bottle of sesame oil, I cut through the cemetery. Before long, the cemetery will be snowed in for months.
I’m walking up the path from the piney woods, near last summer’s potato patch, when a bald eagle glides down from a white pine. I stand quietly — yes, white tail feathers, head, its curved beak earthward. Without flapping a wing, the eagle catches an upwind and drifts over my blueberry bushes and garden, then disappears around our white clapboard house.
I grew up in New Hampshire and never saw a loon as a child. We never saw wild turkeys, didn’t dream of bald eagles swooping over a trampoline in a backyard, never heard coyotes except when we were camping in the Rocky Mountains.
When I step into our kitchen where my daughters are baking cookies, they greet my news of the eagle with cool, and keep on with what they’re doing.
While the pandemic reigns, the wilderness hasn’t gone away. Hungry eagle, what did you find for dinner?
I’m at the edge of a pristine lake crouched under an enormous white pine at the place where the owners want to build a boathouse. On the way down, I waved to the carpentry crew working on the house; they’re the hired help as I, a town employee, am a version of hired help, too.
I’m writing a few notes when I hear a rush of wings. A bald eagle swoops out of the white pine so near to me I see its shockingly white tail feathers. The creature is so large its wings are almost oversized, flapping mightily as it turns and heads over the lake, apparently in no particular rush but moving rapidly as its wings bend through the air.
At the same time, as if on cue, a loon calls on the glassy lake. For that moment — in a day I’ve jammed with too much — I’m in no rush to go anywhere. Still crouching, I watch that eagle head across the lake, admiring its enormous wings, while I listen to the loon’s echoing calls.
My daughters and I have been swimming on this lake when loons didn’t nest here. All spring and summer we’ve seen eagles. The wild world — with its greater, wiser plan.
The loon dives and disappears. I wander to the lakeshore and dip my fingers into the cold, clear water. Gray sky, fallen leaves in the water, stones, my boots — and so much more.
As a kid, I believed bald eagles were in the same otherworldly category as unicorns: other than in a picture, I never imagined seeing these enormous birds.
Today, I walked towards my girls in the car, all of us in a little rush to get somewhere, when a bald eagle soared overhead. I called for the girls. They got out of the car, and we stood looking up and talking, watching the eagle glide over the rooftop and through the pines, before we continued on with what we were doing.
The eagles are always amazing, always stunningly intent on their prey. In times of enormous stress, I’ve imagined myself a coyote, feral-natured, a singular predator.
The world does change. We are neither one thing or another. Bald eagles may not be ubiquitous in my lifetime, but these beauties are edging into the landscape of my daughters’ childhood. I stood there, the golden autumn around us, taking note.