Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Monday, July 4, 2011
Eagle and seagull
I can't help that this really did happen on the fourth of July. It was six years ago, and every day I encountered headlines about the Iraq War, but during it this encounter, I thought nothing at all about national symbolism until after the fact. Since then I have thought many things--Garuda and the snakes, the founding of Tenochtitlan, the Albanian Eagle--but at the time I only watched and felt.
I was waiting for my bus, but well before I got to the stop I heard the crying of a seagull. We had crows in my neighborhood but seagulls were not so frequent this far from the water; and it was a very insistent and repetitive cry. I looked up into the almost-cloudless sky and saw two birds: one small white seagull, and one enormous and unmistakable eagle. The wings were huge and black and straight, as if it were cut from paper. There were two small spots of of white: head and tail, I guessed, though it was very far away--yet despite the height, it was clearly not just huge, but in fact much bigger than me. I saw it flap its wings maybe twice or three times the whole time I watched. It was circling and rising in the updraft, and the seagull was diving at it, over and over. I have seen such a thing once before--I watched it from the window of the bus, and something seemed almost unbearably sad about it; but when I tried to put my finger on what, all I came up with were obviously loaded mistakes. It wasn't the fact that everyone else on the bus seemed oblivious to this amazing spectacle; it wasn't the apparent "nobility" of the great bird and the annoying gadfly-quality of the smaller; I couldn't quite tell what it was. Now, here it was again, but something was new: this time I could hear the seagull crying. I stood there for between five and ten minutes craning my neck into the sky watching. Every once in a while I had to check to see if my bus was coming; or the bright sun would blind me, and I'd lose the birds in the blue; but the sound of the seagull would draw my eye; remarkable that it could be that precise from such a distance. Rather early on, a plane flew by underneath the two birds; even then, the sound of the jet did not drown out the seagull's cry; and after that, they kept going, higher and higher. It was astonishing how high they climbed; how the eagle just rose and rose, swerving each time the seagull came in; how the seagull did not give up. So I watched and watched, bewitched; if I looked away for a moment to rest my eyes or ease my craning neck, I had to search to re-find the birds, smaller and smaller in all that swimming blue, but whenever I did, guided by the gull's voice, I was struck once again by how I could see, even from that distance, the sharp outline of pinions on the eagle's wings. A man walked by seeming not to notice; someone rode past on a bicycle. Something of my old annoyance with the apparent obliviousness of bystanders twitched inside me, but I dismissed it--too easy, probably wrong, and anyway not at all what I was interested in just then. Then a woman walked by who either had heard the bird or had seen me staring thunderstruck into the air and followed my gaze. As she passed I looked at her. "It's sad beyond words," she said. "Yes," I said, somehow both thrilled and unsurprised that someone else should perceive the same obvious emotional quality. "That eagle isn't going to let go," she said. And walked on. It dawned on me for the first time what that other little patch of white must have been. The whole significance of the scene inverted, a figure-ground reversal. I looked back up into the sky. My words with the woman had taken maybe 10 seconds. The air was silent. The eagle was gone, the seagull was gone. Nothing. They'd disappeared. Whatever final moment there'd been to see, I'd missed while getting my realization--if that was what it was. I scanned the empty air over and over.