3rd Annual Terrain.org Nonfiction Contest Finalist
My boy talks to the hawks. Like me at his age, and even now, he is outraged at their indifference. A familiar red-tail in a snag starts at our approach, lifts regretfully from its bony limb. I point out the band of dark belly feathers, the handsome tail. We know this bird. It doesn’t care. It circles away until it is lost in the sun, a single lofty cry for our effort. At noon, when warm air thermals converge and rise out of the river canyon, turkey vultures take to the wing and sail by the cabin, one after another, each on loose tilting wings as if on a test drive, patrolling the woods for a cougar kill or some other morsel of dead and decaying flesh. On the deck we watch them pass, sometimes so close we can almost touch, finger to primary. But they, too, ignore our raptor desire. This makes my boy cry. What’s the point of living in the wilderness, he wants to know, if you can’t be friends with the animals? I shake my head. This is a question I can’t answer with any satisfaction.
Years ago, in a hard-case town north of Seattle, while still a student myself, I took a part-time job as a classroom aid in a Special Ed program. The Discovery School was for children with severe learning and behavioral problems, problems that could at times seem so beyond the pale that you forgot you were dealing with children at all. But children they were, despite all the swearing and nervous tics and beatings they tried to administer to one another, and nothing revealed this sadly disguised fact more than a visit by the Hawk Lady with her tame birds of prey.
A pronounced sense of hope and expectation took hold at the Discovery School when word leaked out one Monday morning that the Hawk Lady would be the surprise event for Friday Bonus. Even the older kids’ faces lit up, because sudden expressions of surprise or elation were sometimes beyond their control no matter how hard they tried to convey their discontent in tight grimaces. The younger students cheered openly and for a moment they embodied the wonderment of childhood. The Hawk Lady, after all, was up there in the annals of Friday Bonus lore with fieldtrips to town and afternoons at the beach. All the kids had heard about the woman with the birds; some had even seen her in years past. They all knew she could talk to the hawks. And, incredibly, the hawks listened. They did tricks. They flew across the room and back again. As a reward, she smiled and cooed to them, stroking their napes and giving them little balls of meat. The Hawk Lady and her charges were like a happy family from some strange and distant place. This was one Friday Bonus that was not to be missed. Each student bit his or her lip on Monday and considered the odds of making it through the week to Friday. They wanted it badly.
Of all the students, there was one who I knew would be fired up. Sometimes Trent came to school dressed in a black Harley-Davidson t-shirt and wearing a leather watch cap of the sort Marlon Brando popularized in The Wild Bunch. Under the cap his hair was dark and stringy, as if he hadn’t bathed in a long time, short in the front and long in the back with a little rat-tail that fell across his collar. Although Trent was in the middle school, he was about eye-level with my navel. He had darting black eyes and dark, knitted brows that would one day be bushy. His skin was pale, freckled, and doughy. He had chipmunk cheeks and looked ridiculous in his little outlaw getups. Trent liked to talk about riding his father’s hog to motorcycle rallies and that sort of thing. He talked about the chopper his father was building in the garage. He talked about illegal street racing. He talked before the morning bell, in between classes, on the way to and from gym. He talked whenever he wasn’t supposed to. He talked and talked and talked. This was one of his goals: to listen and not talk so much. Other teachers discussed Trent with unreserved awe. His ability to talk a blue streak fascinated and unnerved them. “Don’t let Trent manipulate you with his chatter,” they told me. It was hard to take these warnings seriously. At first glance he looked hilarious in his little motorcycle outfits and above all harmless.
I liked to find an area of common ground with each kid and use it to have the normal conversations most of us take for granted. With Trent it was birds. It started with a poster Trent had made and which was now on display with other student works of art in the main hallway. For the poster, he had cut out a few magazine photos of bald eagles and pasted them onto a sheet of red construction paper and scratched out some barely legible words about endangered species. I mentioned to Trent one day that I admired his work. He explained very seriously that he knew quite a lot about eagles. “I see them all the time, actually,” he said like a little man. “They live near my house.”
“How interesting,” I said, prodding him on, as if this was necessary. He seemed to know more than I had expected, lecturing to me about the large winter concentrations of bald eagles along the Skagit River near his town, how these eagles came down from Alaska for the salmon runs. Then he started in about a particular eagle he happened to know personally. This one lived in a tree in his backyard and always greeted him. They had a secret friendship that most people couldn’t fathom and wouldn’t understand. He suggested I might want to come over and see for myself, though he would have to charge me a small fee to make the introduction. He could take care of the transaction now, he said. About this time the classroom head came over and asked Trent what he was telling me. Trent hunched his shoulders and looked at his feet; today he was wearing a small pair of black cowboy boots with steel-pointed toes, boots that he told the other kids were fashioned out of lizards and crocodiles.
“Why don’t you apologize,” she said firmly.
Trent started quivering, as if his little frame couldn’t contain itself. He shook all over and grew irate. “Why?” he barked like a small dog.
“We’ve talked about this, Trent,” she said slowly and deliberately. “It would be a shame to miss the Hawk Lady on Friday. Today is Monday. We have a long way to go.”
Summoning everything he had in a single spasm of damage control, Trent blurted out a quick “Sorry,” and ran off. The teacher turned to me and smiled ruefully, letting me know how little I knew about this world. I wasn’t to encourage Trent with his lies. “He’s very manipulative,” she reminded me.
How like my boy I am. In the early morning I sit outside on the deck, hoping to see one of the sharp-shinned hawks nesting somewhere in our woods. For weeks now I have tried to find their nest and my failure as a naturalist is starting to irk. Sometimes I wonder if I missed my calling, wonder whether I should have studied more science in school. The math always stopped me. Wrapped in blankets in a rocking chair now, with binoculars in my lap, it’s easy to fall into reverie in the cool half-light of early dawn. I can almost see the nest site. Maybe, I imagine, I’m an ornithologist and I know the tricks of locating hawks in the wild. This is a recurring fantasy. Me the ornithologist, at the nest site. A pale blue light suffuses the forest and the hawks begin to stir. I watch them from my blind. The male flies over to his mate and nuzzles her. It’s dark still, too dark to do anything but preen and wait. They sit side-by-side 35 feet up an oak, concealed in the tree’s leafy foliage. They live in a dense stand of woods, with a creek nearby and a view over the watershed from a black and ghostly pine. This is the female’s first breeding season. It’s not the best nest. The four young are only half-grown and already they’re too big for the simple twig structure. At the base of the tree is the hollowed-out corpse of the fifth nestling.
With a flashlight I jot down notes for my lecture while in the blind. The class is studying population dynamics. Sharp-shinned hawks, I will explain, are the smallest North American members of the Accipiter genus. Jay-sized, they hunt almost exclusively small birds—and for this they were once widely persecuted. The name describes their thin legs. They have long tails and short, rounded wings for maneuvering through trees and giving chase in short bursts of terrific speed beneath the canopy. Despite their small size, sharp-shins are known for their ferocity. In mad, tail-chasing dashes they pursue prey, twisting and turning around obstacles—sometimes even bursting through obstacles such as bushes and shrubbery—and with such intensity and single-mindedness of purpose that the hawks have been known to completely ignore human observers in their attempt to catch dinner. Here I’ll flash an image on the projector to show the adult’s fierce-looking red eyes. Sharp-shins and their larger cousins, the Cooper’s hawk and goshawk, are notorious defenders of their nest sites. They scream at human intruders, and dive-bomb if necessary to protect their young. At this point I will pull out my climbing helmet and display the talon marks. The students love this part. But then there is the inevitable: Viewed as cold-blooded killers in an earlier age that valued some species over others, the hawks were frequently shot if discovered in order to safeguard the so-called “beneficial” species like songbirds and game birds. And worse, market gunners once lined up along the bird’s fall migratory routes to blast the hawks out of the sky by the thousands.
I turn off my flashlight. Robins and hermit thrushes are the first to awaken the woods with song. I train the spotting scope on the nest. The ungainly young hawks begin to fidget. They’re covered with fine white down, naked quills emerging where their primaries will be. The female will not go to her young without food now. They are rowdy and demanding. The male sets out on his morning rounds. Two more wing beats and a twist of the tail and he dips down into the cool, fern-filled dampness of a small ravine. A creek flows through the ravine, pooling and spilling over moss-covered rocks down the slope where it meets another larger creek that flows into the river. The little hawk uses the creek openings as a highway. A mile from the nest he sees a tall sugar pine sometimes used as a lookout by a pair of meddlesome ravens, so he stays close to the ground until he’s sure the coast is clear, swooping out of the ravine and letting his momentum carry him across a pond to a dirt road, which he follows, flapping and gliding, keeping low. Where the road passes a cabin he detours into woods and follows the margin of a meadow. If the hawk is stealthy, he may take a big prize here, something to keep the nestlings occupied for at least a couple hours. Towhees skulk in the blackberry brakes and red-breasted sapsuckers work the trunks of old apple trees.
Martha brings me a cup of tea, interrupting my reverie. The sun is high and the hawks are nowhere in sight. I am not an ornithologist, I am not a professor.
At the end of Monday, after all the students had left, we tallied up the point sheets to see who had a good shot at seeing the Hawk Lady at the end of the week. Except for a few demerits for being off-task, the kids completed a banner day. All 30 of them making it through a Monday was unprecedented, considering that weekends were usually an automatic go-back-two-squares in the incomprehensible board game of their lives. Frequently they brought all their baggage to school with them on Monday: negative interactions with guardians, siblings, and friends; fights in the neighborhood; humiliating experiences in society in general. As psychologists put it, they acted out their turmoil from home while at school.
But today was different. It wasn’t hard to understand either. Children are instinctively drawn to the top of the food chain. They desperately wanted to make it through the week to Friday Bonus. Watching their severe countenances, I remembered vividly my own childhood mania for raptors and my first experiences with these birds in the wild. A pair of broad-winged hawks nested somewhere in my neighborhood every summer of my youth, tucked away in an undeveloped woodlot. Most mornings while doing my chores of yard work I saw one or both birds soaring high over the community, whistling their plaintive calls. Once, a broad-wing flapped ponderously over the lawn with a large snake dangling from its talons. Another time I happened on one just as it knocked a brown-headed cowbird off a telephone line. Seeing me, it slipped away into the woods without its prey, which struggled vainly in the road with visibly bleeding injuries and a broken wing until I reenlisted my pellet gun for the first time in many years and ended the bird’s suffering.
My parents, slightly amused by my avian interest, bought me binoculars and took me to the local Audubon for the annual hawk watch. I watched several thousand broad-wings make their way south one clear September day, all of them so high and tiny in the sky as to be nearly invisible. The next year I turned my attention to my local pair in earnest. For two consecutive summers I tried to find the nesting hawks. I followed old horse trails through private property slated for subdivision and into a dark boggy tract near a lake that was part of an old estate now owned by the city. I had once seen a pair of broad-wings circle up out of these woods calling to each other, clasp talons at the peak of their flight, and then spiral back down again into the canopy in a courtship dance. But unlike sharp-shinned hawks, broad-wings don’t call attention to themselves by cursing and dive-bombing intruders; they retire in the foliage, out of sight. I never did find a nest, and now those woods are gone.
On Tuesday, after lunch, one of the teachers noticed an upper-schooler playing with what looked like a Zippo lighter. Alec was a tall, sinewy 16-year-old. He was the best athlete in the school—when he wanted to be—and seething with energy. Unlike most of the other kids, he came from a loving two-parent family. To see these people waiting anxiously on the hallway couches every couple weeks when a problem surfaced was heart-rending. This wasn’t the plan, their faces said. Nobody knew exactly what was going on with this boy, though a form of autism seemed likely. He had a head for numbers and dates and other trivia, and frequently he badgered unsuspecting classmates and substitute teachers with what seemed like a battery of unrelated questions only to piece together a patchwork history of the individual that could prove alarming in its accuracy. In one instance Alec’s interrogation enabled him to find a substitute’s home phone number and he called it repeatedly, night after night, until the number was disconnected.
Alec closed his fist and draped it behind his chair back. “It’s mine,” he said. The teacher quietly told Alec that lighters were against the rules and that he could diffuse a confrontation by handing it over for the rest of the school day, after which he could take it home and not bring it to school again. Alec smiled malevolently and the standoff continued. The other dozen or so upper-schoolers were shuttled off to other classrooms. Six teachers surrounded Alec while the school counselor listed his options: hand over the lighter and take a time-out in the hallway; or continue with the behavior and force the teachers to perform a “containment.” Alec was to understand that the latter would result in his father being called away from work to pick him up early and a week-long suspension.
“What about the Hawk Lady?” he asked, carefully considering his options, and when he got his answer he again smiled the hard, thin-lipped smile of the doomed. It was a chilling look, filled with an eerie knowledge of self that spoke volumes of an unhappy future. “Fuck the Hawk Lady,” he said, brandishing a metal-tipped mechanical pencil in his other hand. With the focus on the lighter, no one had noticed the pencil. Alec had a weapon. The counselor informed the boy he had crossed a line. Alec said he didn’t care.
When it was over we had managed to recover both the lighter and the pencil and wrestle Alec to the floor. One teacher suffered a minor stab wound to the leg that ripped his pants and left a light, bloodless scratch, but otherwise the program had proceeded as well as we could have hoped. It took six of us to secure Alec on the ground, with a teacher on each limb, one holding his head facedown on the carpet and one holding his back. Because Alec was not allowed in the seclusion room (where he had done $500 worth of damage in a previous visit, ripping the padding off the walls and kicking in the door), the six of us sat on him for more than an hour waiting for the boy’s father to arrive from the Boeing plant where he worked. I held his left leg. It felt long and taut underneath me, though it hardly moved a ripple the entire time.
Alec’s father spent a good while talking his son down. He had seen him in this predicament before and knew just what to say. He was one of only a few parents we could count on in this respect. “These people want to help you,” he said calmly. “If they let you up will you try to hurt them?”
“Yes, yes, yes,” said Alec.
“Then you’ll have to hit me, too.” Alec denied this, but his father insisted. “If you hit them, you’ll have to hit me.” There was a long pause before Alec agreed to go home with his father without a fight. Carefully we stood up. Alec rose off the ground with a quick bounce like a tough halfback at the end of a play, gathered his jacket and books from the floor, and left the building with his father without a word.
“It’s too bad,” the man said while his son waited in the car. “All he could talk about last night was that gal with the birds.”
It’s cool and damp out. Riley and I have had our noses pressed to the window all day, watching gold finches and siskins eat sunflower seeds at our new feeder while a flock of juncos pecks at scraps on the ground below. “You didn’t hang that bird feeder for the finches,” my wife accuses me, “you hung it to attract sharp-shinned hawks.” Riley starts to titter and she grabs him up and pretends to devour him.
“Soon he’ll be too big for that,” I remind her.
I’ll admit that I’m obsessed with our pair of sharp-shinned hawks. They are my white whale, haunting my waking hours and my sleep. Most people cannot understand. It’s just a bird, they say. To me they are the essence of the wild, the reason I am living in these remote woods far from civilization. Their secretive behavior is testament to the enduring mystery of nature, I say to Martha, and she smiles at me—a smile that suggests any other person mouthing such stuff would earn a scornful hoot. But she knows me.
Rarely do we actually see the hawks, and when we do, they visit us singly, never as a pair. More often we find only a calling card, a windblown scattering of feathers on the ground from a recent kill. The fact is, the sharp-shin is rarely seen in the breeding season, and this is part of the attraction for me. Most sightings occur during the fall migration or in the winter, when the little hawks are lured to suburban bird feeders for an easy meal. My first glimpse as a kid was just so: a white explosion of snow and feathers out of the bushes near our Droll Yankee seed dispenser and there was Sharpie, with a tufted titmouse in its talons.
The finches at the feeder suddenly scatter. Riley and I run outside. Nothing moves. The quiet is palpable. Sometimes the know-it-all Steller’s jays issue imperious proclamations if they suspect a predator is about, but mostly it is the silence that announces the hawk. Fifty yards away, where the meadow surrenders to forest, a sickle-shaped form ghosts through the tree line and disappears. Not until the shadow slips away for good will the tentative trill of the song sparrow start up again. I watch these small dramas with intent, studying arrival and departure routes, taking compass bearings, bending over my maps at night like a code breaker, trying to understand patterns and preferences.
A week later, while thinning beats and carrots in the garden, the treetop gossip of warblers and vireos ceases all at once. A lonely male lazuli bunting has been singing for days from the top of a black walnut, and now he, too, miraculously loses his voice. I drop my trowel and look around. There, circling directly overhead, brashly in the open, is the sharp-shin. It spirals up into a brainless blue sky as if daring me to follow and then peels off in a long descending glide, wings folded, moving northeast toward the headwaters of Meadow Creek. I take a compass bearing, mark the newest coordinates on my map, and set out on another bushwhack in search of the nest. Again, I fail to find it.
“What will you do if you find it?” my wife asks. This is one of those questions. I try to ignore it. “Watch it!” I finally say, incredulous. “See what happens.”
What I’ll do is bring Riley to the nest site. It won’t be the same as having a conversation in English with the hawks, but he’ll get as close to the action as any kid could hope for.
On Wednesday Julian Burke came late. We watched his arrival with some interest through the reinforced Plexiglas windows in the front hall. Teachers gathered in the hall, drawn irresistibly to the sight like rubberneckers at an accident. The boy’s arrival had a slow-motion quality. He trudged frame by frame across the bright green grass with his head down. The time was close to noon.
Julian took a variety of medications that affected his nervous system. He had uncontrollable facial tics and moved his hands in herky-jerky motions. He lived in a group home. Each day a caseworker brought him to school in the morning and picked him up in the afternoon. This morning he was late because he had bolted out the back door during breakfast and attempted to hitchhike to his grandmother’s apartment. A caseworker tracked him down, but Julian assaulted her in the middle of the car ride to school, forcing her to pull over to the side during rush hour traffic on I-5. He ran off again. The caseworker flagged down a patrol car on the highway.
As we watched Julian’s approach, it was hard not to laugh. The incongruity of the scene was comical. On either side of him towered a fully uniformed police officer, with a big hand under each of his arms. Whenever Julian struggled or let his legs go limp, they simply lifted him up and carried him along like so much baggage. His hands were out of sight behind his back, cuffed. Some facts are inescapable: Julian Burke was ten years old.
Once inside, Julian was put facedown on the floor and held by the officers. He kicked and screamed. They treated him like any other criminal, explaining as nicely as they could that it wouldn’t get any better for him if he kept it up. The teachers removed his socks and shoes so he wouldn’t run again; it was cold and wet outside. His pockets were checked, his belt confiscated. Julian whined like a young boy. He also used language that would frighten most adults and made a number of threats. He tried to kick out a window, but Trent had already beaten him to it the other day, ruining his own chances to see the Hawk Lady, so now Julian’s bare foot merely recoiled off a sheet of plywood. While being carried bodily to the seclusion room where he would be left to calm down for a few hours before reentering class, Julian asked in all seriousness if he had blown his Friday Bonus.
The audacity of the question in the face of all this carnage was enough to make you cry—Julian had no concept of reality. He was divorced from any sense of responsibility for himself or others, and some caretakers wondered openly whether he could feel emotion at all. None of us save the administrator and staff psychologist even knew the full extent of his file, although it was assumed to be crammed with a long list of documented physical and sexual abuse. When the school counselor admitted sadly that, yes, he had blown Friday Bonus, Julian erupted into another violent tantrum and howled the rest of the way to the seclusion room that he wanted to see the hawks right now.
Julian’s entrance had not been missed by the other kids. Pandemonium reigned for the rest of the day, with teachers in a state of triage, running in and out of classes trying to help each other in crisis situations. Three teachers per class plus a secretary, counselor, and administrator didn’t seem enough to plug all the cracks in the dyke. In the lower school classroom a tiny illiterate boy named Pony cried incessantly for his friend Julian, asking repeatedly why the cops had hurt him. Pony called Julian his best friend even though Julian had punched him in the face the previous week.
My boy sleeps in an aviary. He has a peregrine falcon and a kestrel, a red-tailed hawk and a snowy owl. The fluffy white owl is his favorite. At night he holds it tight to his chest like a charm to ward off evil spirits. Lately the darkness has begun to frighten him. This is a new development and we’re trying to take it in stride. Back in the city the kids learn from each other. Information gets passed around like runny noses. They learn about tag and base (“One, two, three…everyone off my apple tree”), they all want the crusts cut off their sandwiches. The chain of knowledge is obvious to any parent. But out here in the woods we see similar behaviors that seem to spring fully formed from nowhere—the spontaneous generation of a four-year-old. Like this sudden irrational fear of darkness. Where did it come from? There are no other kids here to let him in on the secret of things that go bump in the night. No radio or TV, not even an overheard conversation. My wife tries to assure me that Riley is just like any other kid his age. I know this is true, and yet I worry about all the unforeseen dangers, about how he will grow and what he will become. I think about my own choices. In the next room he clutches his owl and mewls for light.
Ironically, it is a real owl, we suspect, that stirred up the new fear. The other evening, right around dusk, as Riley and I returned from the garden with handfuls of lettuce, a barred owl flew across the meadow and up into the big fir that shades the cabin. We watched it sitting motionless in the tree—and it watched us back. The sky turned purple and then black like a bruise and we went inside for dinner, forgetting about the owl. Later, after we’d tucked Riley in and said goodnight—against his wishes because, to our bewilderment, he was suddenly scared of the dark for the first time in his life—the owl let loose with its trademark hooting, right outside the boy’s window: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you alllll?” Riley shot out of bed and was beside us in an instant, inconsolable. He had his stuffed owl with him and cried hysterically. There was nothing we could do. We were powerless to put him at ease except to hold him until the heaving sobs came farther apart and, slowly, he fell asleep.
Friday morning I carpooled north to school. I was excited. The Hawk Lady was coming. Along I-5, I noted hawks in their usual spots: a red-tail perched on the same overpass arc-lamp as always, two more in a large leafless tree off the highway. Sometimes I saw eagles too, occasionally a falcon dashing over the sloughs and sewage treatment ponds as if late for a terribly important appointment. Later, if the sun came out, a pair of red-tails was a sure bet, hovering high over the school grounds the way they often did on nice blustery days. I would point them out to the kids while we walked in a group to gym. That would set the stage for Friday Bonus. First, the birds in the wild, far away and free—that would be my contribution—and then the captive birds, up close and in some way comprehensible.
During upper school math class I strolled from desk to desk, offering a little help to the kids who needed it, which, today, was all of them. They broke their pencils and slammed books. They silently swore at us and glared at each other. A few had to be separated at their desks with tall cardboard partitions; others stormed out to the hallway to cool down with self-imposed time-outs. It wasn’t even 10 a.m. yet. As I walked by the window I looked outside for a moment—that’s where I wanted to be. Back behind the school was a grassy border and the wooded edge of a city park. The cherry trees were just starting to come into blossom. Dozens of robins probed for worms in the grass while sparrows and finches fluttered among hedgerows.
All at once the flock of robins rose off the lawn in a single exodus of synchronized grace and took flight deeper into the park. A sharp-shinned hawk emerged from around the side of the building and landed in a tree near its wary prey, ruffling and rearranging its feathers like a person making elaborate napkin adjustments before a meal. For a moment the classroom burned away. The sharp-shin was right here, just outside the window, but I couldn’t say anything. Any mention of hawks would send the classroom into an uproar. Already, I knew, most of the kids had been unable to keep it together during the week. The harder they tried the more prone to frustration or outbursts they became. Eventually the sharp-shin gave chase again and all the birds vanished into the woods on cue, as if at play. A girl cried that she didn’t understand and pushed over her desk. At the sound of the crash I turned away from the window. For a moment she stood there in the empty space where her desk had once been, not knowing what to do next, her books scattered and her desk on its side several feet away. Then she ran from the room.
After lunch the administrator visited each classroom with some bad news. She whispered to all the teachers that an unusual circumstance had arisen. She had just checked the charts and found that every student was disqualified from Friday Bonus. The Hawk Lady was cancelled.
As mercurial spring gives way to the heat of summer, I know time is running out. Soon the hawklets will fledge from the nest and the family will be on the move, the adults teaching their young how to hunt for themselves in preparation for fall migration. I keep searching. Martha chides me for my determination. If only I put this much energy into other things. She’s been gathering information about schools for Riley during our infrequent trips to town. “We won’t be living in the woods forever,” she reminds me. Riley will be just fine, I say. I can’t imagine it any other way.
By July it’s too hot to move. We spend days soaking in the river. Riley has lost interest in the hawks. He’s on to other predators. A pair of ospreys making house on the far side of the river provides far more entertainment. They cluck at our arrival on the beach and sometimes circle us, their long hinged wings flapping impressively. “Maybe they want to know us,” he says hopefully. He shouts his name into the sky by way of introduction. One of the ospreys has a trout in its talons. It makes several passes over the nest to drop the food, and each time it begs off and swings past our spot on the beach instead, still holding its fish. Our presence is distressing the birds but Riley is convinced they want to share their catch with us. Martha and I steal glances at each other. Of course we won’t tell him otherwise.
My own quest is not over despite the heat. In the early morning, after seeing one of the hawks fly over the meadow, I take a compass bearing and make some notations on a map. I ask Riley if he wants to come with me but he says it’s boring. Even the offer of riding shotgun on my shoulders is not tempting enough. Then I’m gone, setting forth across the meadow to find the old skid road that will be my gateway to the woods where the hawk vanished from sight. The road was carved out of the wilderness by the homestead’s previous owners, who logged much of the property’s valuable old-growth Douglas fir. Some of these trees were more than ten feet around at the base—not exactly prizewinners by Oregon standards, though good-sized trees nonetheless. Their stumps still command presence in the woods: great round picnic tables surrounded by leggy stands of 35-year-old second growth. The skid road comes to an unnamed creek, where a dilapidated trestle bridge slumps into the water, then peters out on the other side. I head upslope. Beyond the reach of the loggers the trees get bigger. It’s tough going and probably for the best that I’m alone. These moments in the woods have become precious to me. Back at the cabin I am a husband and a father. I till the garden and chop wood, apply Band-Aids and read bedtime stories. In the woods I am something else. Barrel-chested trees of three centuries stand rooted before me, their tops out of view. I want to see them all. The miles of bushwhacking go on for hours and yet when I return home to plot my course on the 7.5-minute map tacked to the wall, the dots and connected pencil lines will look meaningless in the vast green wash of the wilderness, as if I have been merely taking a stroll out the backdoor. All that green, divided by the hard red lines of quadrants and circled by contours, will appear to mock my efforts.
Higher up the slope I find what I’m looking for: an exposed promontory overlooking the watershed—a place where sound will carry. I’ve brought a tape player with me, along with a recording of a sharp-shin. It’s a wild cackling call, reminiscent of a flicker or pileated woodpecker, only higher pitched and more threatening. If I’m right—that the hawks are somewhere in this patch of lonely woods—then they should hear my recording and try to defend their territory, perhaps betraying their nest site. But the calls go unanswered.
By August I must concede that I will not find the hawks. We haven’t seen them in weeks. Maybe they’re gone. Soon we will see others of their kind, birds from the mountains of Washington and British Columbia and elsewhere as they make their way south following the fall migration of songbirds. I suppose what bothers me most about not finding the nest is the fact that I can’t invoke that old adage of the Brooklyn Dodgers fan. There will be no waiting for next year. Next year will be spent back on the grid in the city, far from the secret haunts of sharp-shinned hawks.
Not long after the Hawk Lady debacle I quit my job at the Discovery School. The administrator encouraged me to apply for a full-time position, but I knew I wasn’t cut out for the work. I was young and I had my whole life before me. I could go anywhere. I tinkered with the idea of going back to school, getting a degree in the natural sciences. Then another job came up in a large corporation and I took it, not realizing how quickly the years and responsibilities pile up. At the corporation, higher-ups spoke of exit strategies: ways to conclude a project or get out of a bad predicament. The cabin in the woods, after several years, became my exit strategy. It’s temporary, I know. Soon enough we’ll return to the city. Riley will be in school. On a Saturday we’ll all go for a hike in the Cascades like the rest of the weekend warriors. Maybe I’ll see a little hawk circle up out of the timber, its shadow scaring all the other woodland birds into silence. I’ll think about running off into the woods to look for a nest. Then I’ll remember we have to be somewhere later—a birthday party or barbecue—and I’ll stick to the trail, watching the hawk as it turns in the sun and soars across its domain. I’ll point it out to my son and maybe together we’ll watch it fade to a speck in the sky, and I’ll watch my son as he cups his small hands over his eyes to cut the glare. In these moments I’ll feel myself receding into the background, the hawk and the boy moving away from me, each of us heading into the unknown.
Langdon Cook is the author of two books, Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager (Mountaineers 2009) and The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground Economy (forthcoming, Ballantine 2013). He writes a food column for Seattle Magazine and his work has appeared in Outside, Gray’s Sporting Journal, The Stranger, and elsewhere.
Sharp-shinned hawk photo courtesy Shutterstock.