The Eagle Lesson
 



Judith Nakken 

 

Copyright 2018 by Judith Nakken   

 

Photo of a flying bald eagle.


What did I know from bald eagles? The national bird, right? Had I ever seen one? Geez. While Nancy stood there waiting for my answer, I searched my mind through a whole disastrous train trip from Whittier to the San Diego Zoo during the mid-60’s with another woman, five kids under ten, and a hellacious hangover. (And the bus ride back, straight through the Watts Riot, thanks to my bleary-eyed reading of the train schedule. But, that’s a story for another time.) Monkeys, giraffes, foxes, snakes bounced to and fro in my memory banks … no eagles.

What else? My Native American husband was traditionally respectful of the bird, and seemed to venerate the feather with which he performed his smudging ceremonies. I was given to understand that, even though it was an endangered species, certain Native American ceremonies were allowed to use the eagle’s feathers.

And there were eagles around Coeur d’Alene Lake in Idaho, just a stone’s throw from the Spokane Valley where I had settled in 1969. People flocked to North Idaho by the carloads to see the birds having their Thanksgiving dinners on spawning salmon, sometimes 30 or 40 at a time, I had read in the paper.

That seemed to be the paltry sum of eagle knowledge that harbored in the trivia repository I called a brain when the young husband in his Forest Service uniform had burst into our office. “Nancy! There’s a mature bald eagle down at the river, by the bridge. Come on, quick!”

“Can I go?” was her respectful, if grammatically incorrect, question.

I envied the ease with which my bookkeeper asked. I couldn’t do it. I knew why, after ten years of introspection into my dysfunctional childhood – knew why I gravitated toward supervisory positions in the workplace, knew why I quit writing 20 years before at the first couple of turn-downs, knew I never again wanted to feel the pain of rejection in the pit of my stomach. But, knowing didn’t help. I still couldn’t ask for anything, and hadn’t for thirty-five years.

Surprise, surprise. When I waved her toward the door with a smile, the query erupted from my larynx, unexpected and unbidden. “I’ve never seen a bald eagle, or a hairy eagle, or any kind of eagle. Can I go with you?” (Those ten years had also taught me not to subtly correct others’ grammar.)

Okanogan County was the largest in Washington State and boasted only one stoplight in the whole county, smack dab in the middle of its largest town, population 4007. It wasn’t far to anywhere and we squeezed onto the single bench seat of a shiny new 1979 Forest Service pickup and hurried out into another sweet-smelling midsummer day. Not another vehicle appeared in the half mile to the bridge overlooking the Okanogan River. I could see from the watermarks how wide it was during spring runoff, but now, in mid-summer, it was only half its April size, flowing languidly over a clearly visible rocky bottom. Beyond it, far as the eye could see, was one of the Okanogan’s famous apple orchards. And there, on the opposite bank, busy feeding on something in the rocks, was a great big bird.

Not so much to look at, except for its size. There was no comparison to be had down there on the dry, gray riverbed, but it seemed to be the size of a 2-year-old child. The “bald” part was its whole white head, and its folded-in tail was probably mostly white, also. It tore at its lunch with beak and claw, gulped, and repeated the process over and over again, paying us no attention. I leaned over Nancy to ask what was such a big deal, but young Mr. Forest Service shushed me with a finger to his lips.

We had watched in silence for several minutes when the eagle gazed up at us. Not at all agitated, maybe she was angered at our intrusion or just finished with her meal, but she began to unfurl her wings and prepare for liftoff.

Brown wings unfolded slowly, each rolling motion extending them until the wingspan was surely wider than a man is tall, dwarfing the still body in its center. I was instantly reminded of the movie depiction of George Langelaan’s The Fly, with its white head caught in the spider web. How could this eagle possibly fly?

How, indeed. With no apparent effort, the wings undulated silently in unison and our national bird went straight up, perhaps a foot or two with each exertion, the whoosh of the air she displaced becoming audible the higher she rose. Above the orchard tree tops she changed direction as reported UFOs have done, immediately and without warning, and streaked off to the east. I exhaled the breath I didn’t know I had been holding while incipient tears sought to escape the corners of my eyes.

My companions were as awestruck as I, it seemed, for we didn’t speak on the return to the office. I hurried in, to leave the newlyweds to say their tender good afternoons, and to say a prayer of thanks for the eagle. Those thanks were of gratitude, with the knowledge that I could easily have missed this, might never in my life have seen the breathtaking flight of an eagle.

In these subsequent years I have occasion to give thanks again, each time I get a rejection letter with an encouraging note attached, or when I reach out to ask for something that may or may not materialize. Thanks for the lesson Madame Eagle, I say. My brief encounter with you taught me that sometimes the answer is yes, and once in a lifetime or so may be rewarded with a moment of ultimate perfection.

I have raced a tornado and seen the tail end of a tsunami, the memory of each still guaranteed to send goosebumps up my spine. On this day I added to that list of most thrilling experiences: I have seen a bald eagle levitate and fly.

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