People were curious and wanted to see something rare—a great black hawk from Mexico with legs so long that it hunted squirrels by running them down. Bird lovers drove in from around the northeast to the Deering Oaks city park in Portland, Maine hoping to catch a flash of black darting through the woods. They walked quietly on paths that curved over the manicured grounds and went by the tennis courts. They stood motionless behind trees like paparazzi, hoping to take a photo of the new celebrity.
I wouldn’t have gone. I don’t like zoos because they restrict the natural movements of its creatures, and their eyes lose their fire. The park was only a larger cage. Yet I understand the desire to experience the wilderness, but even in our national parks, we reduce the outdoors to a source of entertainment, not illumination.
Native to Central and South America, these hawks seldom leave their tropical home. In the spring of 2018, though, this juvenile male was spotted on South Padre Island in Texas. By August, he had made his way 2000 miles north to Bidford, Maine, then disappeared, until he re-appeared in Portland at the end of November.
No one knew why it strayed so far north, or why it stayed after the first snow. Was his internal GPS faulty, or was he on a teenage fling like the Amish Rumspringa before settling down. Perhaps his quest was closer to that of Chris McCandless who traveled to Alaska wanting to escape the restrictions at home, experience the pristine beauty of the wilderness, and live off the land like his ancestors. But he neglected to prepare himself to survive there, and was found dead inside an abandoned bus.
I understand the desire to live free of schedules and the expectations of others. When I go camping, I wait until morning to see what I feel like doing that day. Sometimes I’ll sit by a river and listen to the sweet singing of my ouzel, an American dipper, and watch it hop up and down in the rapids before swimming under the water looking for bugs. Or I’ll stay up late to watch the night sky, mesmerized by the constellations of stars moving through the depths of the cosmos, then sleep in the next morning rather than hike. Or I’ll wander around the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, a cathedral arbor of 300-foot-tall, 3000-year-old trees, and let its stillness and grandeur calm my restlessness.
After my wife’s unexpected death in her 40s, I went to Yosemite needing its wilderness to shake off the lethargy that, a year later, wouldn’t let me go. I also needed to believe that I was part of something greater than grief. Setting aside my fear of mountain lions and bears, I hiked the backcountry trails by myself, taking more risks than I should, aware that I could die if I made a simple mistake like slipping on gravel at the edge of a cliff. The rawness of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the cascading rivers, and hundreds of square miles of pine forests restored my sense of wonder.
Having seen the hawk, people left, thinking they had experienced wildness by watching. They did not worry how a tropical hawk would survive a Maine winter. Audubon’s people weren’t concerned, either, until someone noticed that the hawk’s legs had frozen and the bird was comatose. His legs had to be amputated and the hawk euthanized a week later.
Many of us no longer understand nature’s language. We feel uneasy being outdoors alone at night, even in our own backyards. We no longer believe that we are dependent on nature’s health, or worry that its demise will lead to our own. We tell ourselves that we are caring people who can read between the lines, identify future problems, and make the needed changes. Yet, we did not think the hawk needed help because it chose to be here and was free to leave if conditions became too harsh.
We did not consult our hearts. We did not err on the side of compassion. We did not listen to our wise elders imploring us to look out for the welfare of the animals and birds. We have broken our sacred trust with the land. In our drive to be individuals who can stand on our own, we have lost our sense of being members of a community that takes care of each other.
We aren’t blind. We know the climate is changing in our part of the state and around the world. Wildfires in the west are more frequent and more destructive. The polar ice is melting and the oceans are rising over the roads of our coastal cities. Farming is being marginalized as rain comes in unpredictable patterns, too much or not at all. A 7000-square-mile dead zone has formed in the Gulf of Mexico where fish can’t survive because pesticide runoff has depleted the oxygen to levels that won’t sustain life. A massive plastic garbage patch floats in the Pacific Ocean that is twice the size of Texas. Fracking and industrial pollution have left many people without safe drinking water.
The hawk may not have been an omen, a messenger, or a harbinger of nature’s collapse, yet I think about why workers took canaries into the coal mines. How many signs do we need before we act? How close are we to the tipping point where nature will tip forward into darkness and be unable to tip back?
One afternoon after Ev’s death, I saw a coyote howling for its mate in Tuolumne Meadows, then listening for a reply that never came. I know his feeling. Was the hawk lonely at night without his community? Did he panic not knowing how to get home? Did he resign himself to death when his legs froze, hoping for one last morning when he could feel the warmth of the sun?
With less snow in winter, most of Yosemite’s waterfalls stop flowing by August. Two dozen giant sequoias have already died because warmer temperatures in the high country are allowing insect infestations, and scientists don’t know if any of the ancient trees will be able to survive.
What would I have done if I hadn’t had the wilderness of Yosemite to nurture me back to health after Ev’s death? Where will I go if the rivers run dry, the sequoias are dead, and my ouzel no longer cares to sing?
Mark Liebenow writes about nature, grief, and the wisdom of fools. The author of four books, his essays, poems, and reviews have been published in over 40 journals. He has won the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Award, and the Chautauqua and Literal Latte’s essay prizes. His work has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and named a notable by Best American Essays. His account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with his wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. http://www.markliebenow.com