September 23, 2012
Midnight blue water rested at the horizon under a brightening sky, framing shafts of pine and fir at shore’s edge. Here on the southern tip of Lopez Island, off the coast of Seattle, the dawn air was cool and still, the only sound a few songbirds calling far away. I headed across the needle-packed yard toward a clump of pines. The bald eagle nest was right over there, Anya had said; she’d seen the chicks fledging just days ago, and they couldn’t be far away now.
I turned my binoculars toward the pines, eager to spot that huge platform of sticks three to five feet across. Eagles use the same structure year after year, weaving in more and more sticks for support until the whole can weigh a ton or more. Surely a nest the size of a mattress should be easy to find! I scanned the trees in one direction. Nothing. Puzzled, I looked the other way. No nest anywhere in sight.
Soon my neck stiffened from the upward gaze. I lowered the glasses and headed across the thick carpet of pine needles. The eagles would have to show up soon. Anya had said they were here, so I might as well wait.
It was 1995, and I’d met Anya just a few days earlier on a women’s camping trip to Mount Rainier, a vacation from my too-quiet life in Oakland, California, where I lived alone writing a doctoral dissertation and editing books. A few years earlier, at thirty-five, I’d undergone three severe losses—deaths of both parents plus divorce after thirteen years of marriage—followed too quickly by the end of a new relationship, and now I spent most days treading the waters of depression, withdrawn and silent. On the camping trip Anya had been almost as quiet. Each morning she would unroll her yoga mat a few feet away from the group and stretch silently through her poses. We’d hardly said a word to each other. Yet on the last day, when the group gathered on soft emerald grass next to a tiny ripple of creek to share what we’d gained from the trip, and I said I’d loved every minute of it but still—in this prime bald eagle country—hadn’t seen an eagle, Anya had urged me to follow her home. Her guest room was really a workout room, but I was welcome to unroll my sleeping bag there for a couple of nights and search for eagles by day.
Climbing now over rocks near the water’s edge, I gazed toward the deep blue of the sea. No eagles. I wondered how to find them. The thought occurred: Why don’t you call them? While meditating recently, I’d seen trees and birds in my mind’s eye, like watchful presences, but that was meditation, not “real” life. Birds don’t just come when you call. True, my skeptical biologist friend Meredith, who had taught me birding, had told me how, during a bewildering time, she’d gone to the beach and asked for an osprey to appear. Although it was not the season for osprey, and they were fairly rare at that beach, within minutes an osprey had soared high overhead. Nice coincidence, I’d thought, but no rational evidence suggested that birds could hear or respond.
Still, I was going to be here only until tomorrow, so there was no time to waste.
I sat down on a soft bed of pine needles, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. Inside, thoughts ran wild: This is silly . . . They’ll never show up . . . Might work for other people, not you. I took another deep breath and settled into my body again, feeling alive in my arms, in my legs and feet. Noticing sensations was feeling, not thinking—a good way to turn off mental chatter.
I brought to mind a picture of a bald eagle: that white head, fierce yellow eyes, and hooked beak; the dark body, white tail, and powerful talons that could make off with a fish nearly half the bird’s size. Please, I spoke mentally to the image, I’d really like to see you. Is it possible for you to hear me?
In the background I could hear another voice: Yeah, sure, right—now you’re praying to birds? Talking to someone you can’t see, who may not even be there?
I breathed again. I’m only going to be here today and part of tomorrow. I’ve seen lots of birds but never bald eagles. Please let me catch a glimpse of you. I remained quiet for a few moments, eyes closed.
There was no more to do. I opened my eyes. The sun was far above the horizon now. I sat in its midmorning warmth gazing quietly at pines. How long do you wait for an eagle to come when you call?
If you’re impatient like me, not very long. A minute ticked by, then two, then five. Nothing happened.
Trying not to notice a corner of disappointment, I stood up and headed toward the bike shop across the way. My chances of seeing eagles would increase—wouldn’t they?—if I covered the island. I picked out a bicycle and at the café next door stocked up with a sandwich, water, and an apple. Map in hand, new Lopez Island visor peeking out from under my bike helmet, I headed out.
The road I chose took me inland, and soon I was engulfed by peaceful summer-gold fields stretching to the horizon, the sea no longer visible beyond their gentle undulations. Cars passed at a leisurely rate, each driver in turn lifting an index finger—not four fingers, not a palm, just an index finger—to greet me. Shyly I waved back, unaccustomed after a decade of urban life to waving at strangers. I might have been back in the rural Ohio of my childhood.
I covered the length of the island, stopping for lunch along a sand spit stretching across a still lagoon, then heading inland again for more miles of quiet fields. Now and then I scanned the horizon for the telltale sign of black wings spread wider than a hawk’s and flattened out horizontally from the body, not lifted in a V like a vulture’s. I saw golden grain and craggy cliffs with pine trees silhouetted black against the blue sound, but I saw no eagles’ wings.
By late afternoon my bottom was sore from the thick denim seam in my jeans—I hadn’t packed biking shorts—and my leg muscles were yelping. Drinking the last of my water, I worried that I wouldn’t get back to my sleeping bag before dropping from exhaustion.
Finally back at Anya’s house, I finished the other half of my sandwich, soggy from the backpack. At dusk Anya returned, as quiet as she’d been on the camping trip. I told her no luck, I hadn’t seen any eagles. She said, Maybe tomorrow.
I went to bed wondering what had gone wrong. I guess beginners don’t get what they ask for, I thought. The next morning I would have time only to turn in my bike at the shop and head to the ferry landing for the return trip to Seattle and the flight home. The corner of disappointment had grown throughout the day and now threatened to take over.
Up early again the next morning, I thanked Anya for the impromptu visit and took one last hike around the outside of the house. Binoculars in hand, I searched again for the nest. If an eagle nest is so obvious, why couldn’t I spot it?
I called again to the eagles. And please, I added, hoping I didn’t sound too demanding, it has to be soon, because I have to leave right now!
At the bike shop a guy in a baseball hat pointed to the best corner for hitching a ride across the island, so I headed there and stuck out my thumb. Anya had assured me that Lopez Islanders often drove tourists to the ferry landing.
One car went by, then two. I tightened the straps on my pack and prepared for the three miles ahead. I was well out of sight of the hamlet, enjoying again the narrow road stretched between green and gold fields, before the next car approached. I turned and stuck out my thumb, and the small convertible pulled to a stop beside me. The woman driving waved me in cheerfully, and I hefted my pack over the side and settled gratefully down. Sun warmed the backs of our necks as we made our way north.
We were now in the very middle of the island. No other cars passed us on the road, there were no trees nearby, and we were sailing past tranquil fields, our vision open to the sky. I glanced to the right and saw, far away, across the fields, above the tree line at the eastern horizon, a tiny black spot in the sky. I ripped my binoculars from my pack and focused. Those spread-wide wings! Closer it drew. A nearly invisible tail! A light-colored head!
Over here! My silent call was more wish than thought. A head and tail of white materialized in the lenses. The bald eagle was headed straight toward us.
“Could you stop for a minute?” I asked the driver. She too had spotted the faraway shape to our right. “Sure,” she said, smiling, as she braked to a halt in the middle of the road. Still the eagle approached, on a course that would take it directly over our heads.
What happened next made my heart stop—and does so even now, more than fifteen years later. As we watched, the bald eagle, instead of flying over us and across the island, spotted the car below and, when it had arrived directly overhead, turned sharply to make a tight circle. I raised the binoculars again, eager for a closer look. There were the broad dark wings, spread white tail, pure white head. There were the sharp eyes trained on us as the eagle turned in orbit, shifting its regal head to stare directly down into the car. I watched, first with the glasses, then without. I had plenty of time to take in every detail, for the eagle, instead of making only one circle, was turning in many tight circles directly overhead. Thank you! I whispered. Thank you, oh, thank you! My heart was rising in my chest, as if elation could lift it to the eagle’s height.
I watched until I couldn’t hold my head up anymore. Only then did the eagle break orbit, beat its wings three or four times, and head back toward the spot on the horizon from which it had appeared.
Still in a daze, I boarded the Anacortes ferry and rode across the strait. I stared at the blue water, unable to think of anything but the miracle I had just witnessed. With my mind lost in wonder, my senses were freed to feel the sharp bite of sea breeze, to hear the piercing calls of gulls, to see in the deep water of midday the deep blue of nightfall.
On the two-hour bus ride to the airport, my mind dwelled still on the eagle making its tight circles above our stopped car. When I got home, there would still be a dissertation to write, friends would still be scarce and finances tight, but this one thing I knew: someone had heard my call. Something new was possible. The despair I had been fitted with like a suit of family clothes had been torn by a visit from another species. Although it would be years before the despair fell away completely, receiving a visit from the eagle nourished my growing sense of wonder. There was magic in the world, and it could be called up by sincere wishes sent out with respect. The eagle had answered—at a time when few others in my life were responding. Perhaps the world was a friendly place after all.
That a wild animal had come to my call was a smack to my consciousness. Something was afoot in the world—something that the best descriptions of that world, thought up by the most brilliant minds of the most modern society in that world, could not explain and did not even have words for.
Once I was home again, to say I turned skeptical of what I had experienced is to put it mildly. After all, I was thirty-eight years old and a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Through a decade of graduate school I’d been trained as a meticulous observer and in my dissertation was exploring gender and nature in Western religions. My school valued both rationality and faith, and it promoted faiths of all kinds, from Christianity to Judaism to Buddhism. Yet nothing in my graduate studies talked about what I had just experienced. Not one of those great religions taught that humans could become intimate with other animals or plants. There was no language for my experience, and so for all practical purposes my experience didn’t exist. Interspecies communication was not “spirituality”; it belonged instead to the back alleys of parapsychology and New Age woo-woos, which means—this is an understatement—that it was not taken seriously. Certainly I never mentioned the eagle to other students, much less my professors. After all, I hardly believed myself what had happened.
Yet by that point I’d also been a feminist for more than fifteen years, and if feminism had taught me anything, it was to pay attention to my own experience—to trust it even when signals from others contradict it, to hold my own way of seeing as equal in value to the seeing of others. Feminism, in other words, had taught me courage. Little in Christianity, with its doctrine of original sin—that fatal flaw in humanity that means you can never fully trust yourself—supported or even recognized this form of courage; Christian feminists had been saying so for decades already. My favorite Zen axiom had become, “If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him,” which is said to mean, Don’t believe what even the most revered authorities tell you, but instead test everything—everything!—in your own experience.
So when my experience started diverging from mainstream rationalism, including the religious kinds, I could not completely discount it. I had to pay attention. The eagle had bestowed a tremendous blessing, and being faithful to my experience meant being faithful also to this being’s gift. The eagle had flown across the island in response to my need, and fidelity to that appearing meant allowing the eagle to make a difference in my life; it meant, in effect, opening myself to a new kind of faith.
Priscilla Stuckey is a writer, scholar, editor, and Earth-advocate with a passion for reconnecting people with nature. Since 2005 she has taught humanities in the graduate programs of Prescott College (AZ). When she lived in Oakland (CA), a creek that ran through her property inspired the start of the Butters Canyon Conservancy, a neighborhood-based land trust for which she served as founder and first president. She is now active in the local and international movement to extend legal rights to nature. Since 2007 she has lived in Boulder and enjoys gardening with watershed-specific native plants. Her brand-new book, Kissed by a Fox: And Other Stories of Friendship in Nature, explores the rift between man and nature in a way that challenges Western preconceptions about our relationship with the natural world. Her website is thislivelyearth.com.