Introduction:The Eagle Through Human Eyes

from Eagles


       You never forget your first eagle.

       When I was nine, I bought a plastic kite. It was transparent except for the image of a soaring eagle printed across it. It seemed enormous, and quite realistic. The wings were spread in flight and its talons were balled beneath its tail. Only the head, turned to one side in the heraldic pose, spoiled the image of a soaring eagle. It seemed to glare at me with its one eye.

      I set the kite aloft on a good breeze and with a full spool of nylon line tied to its keel. Watching the kite rise, I was pleased. No doubt there were people below, I thought, who would look up and mistake it, however briefly, for the real thing.

      The kite reached the end of the first spool and I had just tied on a second when I saw the real eagle. It flew out from over the ridge that, from where I stood, looked to be the top of Hollyburn Mountain. I had never seen an eagle before but I had seen pictures. I knew that no other bird could be this big.

       It began to circle my kite. My tiny kite. The wings of the real eagle hardly moved as it circled. Its course was so steady that it was as if it, too, had been painted on some invisible, slow-turning wheel. Then a second eagle joined the first. It might have been my imagination but it seemed to me the circle of their flight was becoming a spiral.

      My first fear was for the kite. It had cost me all the money I had and I began to reel it in as fast as I could, which was not very fast at all. I knew that eagles had keen vision. Surely, they could see that it was not a real bird. From the vantage of the eagles, it would be almost invisible edge on, a disappearing eagle. It occurred to me, then, that the one thing they could see from that angle was the string—a string that led directly to the perpetrator of this hoax.

       Now I really began to pull. I didn’t worry any longer about getting the line onto the spool; I just pulled it in hand over hand and let it twist into a clump at my feet. I would be grateful, I decided, to live long enough to save for another reel of fishing line. I didn’t know much about eagles but the pictures I had seen, like the image on the kite, were not of friendly birds.

       When I looked up again, the eagles turned out of their circle and flew back over the mountain.

       A Native North American boy of a thousand years ago might also have seen his first eagle at the limits of human vision, a cross of wings and body so steady upon the air and so impossibly high that it bore little relation to the birds of the earth. It’s easy to see why the Pueblo dwellers of the southwest believed that the eagle was only a visitor to the earth. From its real home, where the sun slept, the eagle people came through a hole in the sky to build their nests and lay their eggs in the cliffs of the high mesas. To them, the eagle also represented the zenith, where it looked down upon the animals at the four, cardinal compass points below.

       Athapaskan myths portrayed eagles as the deliverers of men from famine. A prince who gave an eagle a salmon during a time of plenty was repaid in the lean year that followed by grateful eagles who first dragged salmon, then sea lions, and eventually whales to shore in gratitude for the prince’s kindness. Such legends were probably inspired by the sight of eagle parents carrying food to their nests.

       In historic times, most native North American children would probably see the eagle’s feathers adorning a peace pipe or ceremonial robe or fletching an arrow before they saw their first live bird. For many First Nations, eagle feathers bore magical properties, from helping arrows fly swift and true to preventing those holding them from uttering a lie. Hopi tribes caged eagles for supplies of fresh feathers.

       Today, there are few cities where a child might pick up an eagle feather—indeed, possession of eagle feathers by all but native Americans is illegal in the United States. Through much of its continental range, the eagle has been eradicated by man. The places where it lives have been dammed, bulldozed, and built upon. The eagle itself has been shot, trapped, poisoned, and electrocuted.

       In our horrifying and paradoxical way, while we have sacrificed the animal itself, we have venerated its image. Film directors, postal carriers and Nazis have all decided that the eagle embodies their particular ideals and have incorporated the eagle into their seals. There are chromium eagle badges on motorcycles, Eagle four-wheel-drive cars and Eagle tires for them to drive on. There are Eagle hardware stores and Eagle pencils.