Getting outside more has, so far, been a substantial gap year benefit. I venture out most mornings, after I’ve dropped the kids off at school, hurrying to beat the sun’s ascent over the eastern range. It’s much colder early on; I’d do myself a favor if I learned to exercise in the afternoon, but mornings set me up for feeling good all day — necessary medicine for a winter-addled brain. The brisk air amplifies small noises, and, from the sound of it, none of the neighborhood dogs seem happy about their waking toilette. I breathe in hot, quick puffs, and hasten to pick up a momentum that will sustain me in twenty-something temperatures.
If I make efficient time, I’m on the back roads when the sun crests. Golden strands of light slowly unfurl over sweeping fields of bristly, winter wheat. Frozen stalks soften under crystalline dew. Sheep bleat and cough in hay- and manure-rich pens, sweet-smelling and pungent. The widening light draws my eyes ever upward in search of large birds, camouflaged in bare branches or perched atop utility poles and irrigation wheels. On a good day, I’ll spot as many hawks as the miles I roam. If I’m really lucky, I’ll catch a bald eagle’s high squeal, almost comically disproportionate to its size and magnificence, then scan the horizon until I spy its telltale silhouetted helmet, high in a far-off tree.
Solitude is a friend, though I often talk to the animals I encounter, engaging them in one-sided conversations that make me glad to wander in relative isolation. I might greet a horse or compliment a peacock on his display of lustrous, inky tail feathers. Since I’m the interloper in the animals’ world, it feels only right to usher calm with a soft voice and soothing words. I know they probably can’t interpret spoken language, but perhaps they understand posture and tone.
Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk gave me all the education necessary to remember why birds of prey are so named. Maybe it’s not an extreme sport to remind a hawk of its beauty as its black, fathomless gaze tracks my footsteps. I’m under no illusion who holds the power in our electric exchange. But I just can’t resist that moment of awe as the big birds pivot forward, bending into a dip as they swoop away, or deny the charge of nervous excitement each time I cross the path of evolution’s most successful killers. They are, at once, fond to me in their familiarity and arrestingly dissimilar.
I’ve read about an eagle’s telescopic vision: how humans might see a decrepit structure in the distance, where eagles perceive the intricate crenelations and crags of each dilapidated brick crumbling into blackened soil. How often have I wished to see into people the way an eagle spots a twitch in the tall grass, to have that telescoping insight into the intentions and hearts of others? Do the hawks I see recognize me: my freckles and scars, my squinting, watery eyes? Does the flaxen grass glitter for them like so much gold when the sun rises over the hills? My wonder grows with each wander.
Lately, hawks have been scarce, because they’ve started breeding. To my mind, this is one of nature’s jokes: that the things which inspire hope in the soul and ward off the pervasive emotional freeze of the coldest months disappear from the horizon when I most need them. Nevertheless, I venture out. I train my eyes upwards, eager to find kinship in the sky.
© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2018