Last Sunday afternoon I was driving my pick-up truck north of Monticello; free-wheeling it into my in-laws' Spring Creek property just west of the airport. The early afternoon was bright and sunny, and the fields were green with freshly mown hay stubble interspersed with heavyweight bales of fragrant alfalfa. I saw distinctive mounds of fresh earth dispersed about the fields and heard the definitive high-pitched bark of prairie dogs all around me. To my left, upon a rise above the dirt track 100 yards away, was an age old barn which was slowly migrating from together to apart. Admiring the scene, I wondered to myself how much time the dilapidated structure had before it fell in upon itself. It will be a shame when it goes; not only for the doves and pigeons that roost in its rafters and the cows that find shade in its shadow, but for those of us who appreciate its scenic quality. That distraction is most likely the reason I did not notice the giant golden eagle resting upon a knobby fence post beside the furrowed lane upon which I traveled. Before I became aware of the alluring bird of prey I was within 30 yards of it.
1960s Zuni Eagle Dancer Set
As I closed in, the great frequent flier turned its feathered brow lazily in my direction and blinked as if contemplating action. Sitting regally there, the eagle looked to be nearly two and a half feet tall. It must have decided I was not going to stop and gawk from afar as would most ornithological tourists. I wanted to get closer; to see this magnificent creature as closely as possible without causing a ruction or embedding it in my grill. As I moved in, the barnstorming bird rolled to its left and for the most part fell off the cedar post. I had the impression the eagle was full of varmint and reluctant to be pushed from its perch. As if in slow motion, great mottled brown wings unfurled to a width of what I presumed to be six feet. Just before it hit the ground, the captain of the skies flapped its marvelous feathered appendages, lifting itself a good three feet in the air with one stroke. Another lazy beat and it was six feet up as easily as you please. On the third beat I was within ten feet, my windshield was overshadowed with grapple hook beak, tufted breast and curvaceous claw. The bad boy bird let out a scream of indignation and banked a hard right, which exposed a very impressive underside. I was so close now that if I knew what I was looking for I might have been able to distinguish gender.
As the hefty heavyweight of the raptor world glided past my open window I was gifted with and even closer top side view of the ace aerialist and marveled at its grace, beauty and raw power. The bird's golden yellow eyes flashed in my direction and I saw a fierce aggression. Its hooked black beak, edged in yellow, opened slightly as it flew. The beak was larger and longer than my thumb, and a whole lot more ominous. The talons on its hoary yellow feet were longer than my fingers and, "Oh Baby!" did they look wicked as they flexed in flight. This was a creature not to be trifled with, not without significant body armor anyway. My mind flashed back to descriptions of early Native people hollowing out shallow depression in the earth on or near the edge of some windswept mesa overlooking a canyon or plain. In my mind's eye I could see some scrawny, malnourished fellow lying in a hole while his brothers covered all but his hand and eyes with a thin layer of brush and earth. At the last moment someone would pass him a frightened cottontail and his cohorts in crimes against nature would disperse and seek shelter from sharp sighted surveillance on high.
This unlucky contestant, holder of the short straw, would lie there with a shrieking rabbit in one hand and the other poised to grasp tail feathers from the monster bird if it made an appearance. Prayer feathers from the majestic, almighty Eagle are considered the most powerful of all transmitters of the sacred word. "Live feathers"; those extracted from a living, breathing eagle, allowed for direct and undisturbed communication with the spirit world. I wonder what Lucy talked the first Charlie Brown into attempting this feat of fearless bravery. It was a sure bet the bunny was a goner in this undertaking, but what of the poor schmuck in the covered ditch. From what I saw during my up close and personal inspection of the adult golden eagle, it is my guess that when that ravenous winged aeronaut swooped in for take-out there was significant danger afoot. There certainly would have been a higher moisture count in the bottom of that burrow upon extraction than upon insertion. A slight miscalculation of aerodynamics, ballistics or geometry could prove fatal, or at least allow for a walk on the wild side. Talk about placing your faith in "a wing and a prayer!" I mean to tell ya.
I watched in admiration as the great bird flew away and landed on the crest of the barn. For a brief moment I wondered whether the heftiness of this mighty master of the heavens might prove weighty enough to turn the gravitational tide and topple the outbuilding. It, of course, was not. I braked the truck, switched off the ignition and exchanged glances with the courtly creature for several moments. As I watched, I thought how, of all the great birds in Navajo mythology, the eagle ('atsa) is the most honored and revered. The child of Cliff Monster had become respectable, a symbol of ceremony and high regard; a warrior serving as a metaphor for the ultimate predator. The founders of our great nation concurred, and honored the eagle by designating it our national bird. This eagle, on the other hand, had no such regard for me, or anyone else for that matter. It screamed in my direction one last time and lifted itself skyward without leaving behind a single gifted feather.
With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.