A Flicker, A Raptor & A New Year
This was an extraordinary year. That must always be true, but some years seem to require a more pumped-up celebration at the end, to have me truly feel like something remarkable and complete has wrapped itself up, right at the moment that something else, new and unknown, is sprouting up from its ashes. This year is one of those that needs no extra hype. It has been one hell of a glorious, treacherous, heartbreaking, exalted ass-kicking of a year. As a result, the dark days between the Solstice and New Year’s were a tremendous, big deal. And they were ushered in with the occurrence of a few unexpected events, events that were not up to me to control, each one feeling like a gift of the most generous magnitude, even as they were each scary, me heading into them as I shied away from them, feeling the simultaneous "If I have to!" and "Oh I really don't want to!!" But these events undoubtedly allowed me feel like I had successfully navigated some deeply dark waters and had made it through to a measurably different place. On this side of them, I am a more initiated, wiser woman than I was when 2014 began. As it is meant to be, all of the time, with every breath we take, throughout the entirety of our lives. Some breaths are bigger than others. Some years almost indescribable for the initiations they bring us.
These dark days still feel like holy-days for me, even though the world has resumed it’s frantic pace and I am back in my work flow, with clients full-time, planning my winter/spring schedule of classes and groups. Life has picked itself up, at least the way we do it here in the United States, with not a moment’s gap, silence or thought between events. Despite this, there is something else still happening. It is not business as usual in my neck of the woods.
Regular reminders of this occur here on the land, with friends, in the frozen silent pre-dawn mornings when all that can be heard are the great horned owls hoo-hoo-hoo’ing to each other in the cottonwoods. Here in this world-beneath-this-world, there is always a different process occurring that is seasonally reverent and eminently careful. And I am dropped to my knees by it regularly. This afternoon, quite literally.
While working quietly at my computer in the main room of this cottage, the elkhound, black cats and I all curled up in blankets and slippers (well, I was the only one wearing slippers), we were all startled by a loud BANG against the immense sliding glass doors. That sound is only ever one thing, and the volume of this particular bang let me know it was a bird of considerable size. The elkhound beat me to the door and was frantically pawing to get out to the deck where, on its back, fanning its glorious striped and polka-dotted wings, was a large Flicker. The red splatterings of his blood in the snow matching his brilliant red-rouged cheeks. His eyes gazing upward toward the sky, mouth opening and closing as if gasping for air, and indeed he likely was, having broken his neck so thoroughly. Blood was bubbling from his beautiful black beak; a beak so long and thick, coming to a sharp powerful point designed so perfectly to bore through wood and pierce insects. His grey feet and talons had already curled up in the position he would be permanently frozen in, just minutes later.
It has been some time since I have been present at the death of a wild one. It seems to be a regular occurrence for me to come across them once they’re already gone but rarely do I have the extraordinary and impossible honor of sitting with them while they leave. I dropped to my knees in the snow and scooped him up, one hot tear making its way down my cheek and onto his perfect spotted belly feathers. He was warm and supple. His gasping continued, though the wings stopped fanning, tucking themselves in perfectly at his sides, coming to an even more complete resting position. The grief of this moment became unbearable. Just as certainly as the beauty and honor of being here at this moment was also present. In a gesture that is so human, I tucked him to my chest and turned my face upward toward a pale frigid sky only to see, on my way up, just ten feet from me and this flicker, no doubt the subject of this other’s attention and desire, a golden raptor the size of a small eagle. Perfect, his own belly feathers gently rumpling in a slight breeze, his dark eyes locked onto the bird wrapped in my hands and clutched to my chest.
For whatever reason, this sealed my own fate in this moment and sobs poured out of me. Wailing actually. I can only imagine what the neighbors thought, though perhaps by now they’re used to this kind of thing happening over here. There is no logic for this response. But somehow doing the forensics on this moment, in that split second, imagining that this raptor had obviously been chasing the flicker (who has just been feeding at the hanging feeder, likely unaware that his doom was being slowly but certainly sealed as he cracked the black oil sunflowers one by one and swallowed them), and the flicker, in his frantic attempt to escape had flown with his full force into the window immediately and so efficiently and terminally cracked his neck in two. All done. This whole things probably took all of 2 minutes to unfold. And here we all were. A woman, a dead flicker and a hungry raptor. The wailing did not stop. I was kneeling fully on the ice, my bare feet melting their way through to the hard deck, stinging, almost burning, yet unimportant. The raptor, staring at me, now shifting in an irritated way, no-doubt waiting for me to just put its meal down already and go back inside like a good human. No need to meddle with thousands upon thousands upon millions of years of wisdom. I’m merely an intrusion here.
There was a moment when that felt like a good idea; putting the flicker down and letting this all play out without my irrational interference. Of course that’s what I should do. It’s just the way this whole thing works. There’s nothing sentimental about this. Without food the raptor will die. It has earned this flicker, who is dead no matter what, dead already in fact, whether he spends his last warm moments being torn to pieces by that bird’s impressive hooked beak and digested appreciatively or not. And what would I do with him anyway? I have more wings than one woman should ever have.
Sobbing still, for it had been some time since I’d really sobbed, and so much had happened in these last weeks. Hell, so much beautiful miraculous resurrection and restoration had occurred this last year. It was as if the stopper had been removed and all of the goings-on, like a year-in-review, just poured out me, all while clutching a dead flicker to my chest and looking on at this raptor who’s species was completely unknown to me (and is still unknown after referencing three different books on its kind). At some point I realized I was actually speaking, or some version of it, “How can this be so brutal and beautiful all at once?! How can this bird be so beautiful, so gorgeously adorned and detailed?! How can I NOT give him over to the belly of YOU?! Who are you....really?! Why are you not flying away?!”
But despite logic, despite my love for the fierce way life works all of us who participate, despite my deep longing to see the raptor come down and pluck the dead flicker off the deck and take him away, I could not hand the flicker over. Living in me was an awareness that our practice as humans is so dearly paradoxical. We must both embrace our impermanence and vigorously choose life, all at the same time. It’s not enough to acknowledge the inevitable as if some great musculature comes from the acknowledgment. In fact, there is a second gesture that is required, for which we have been so perfectly designed. We must be sentimental, we must grieve, we must fight Death even as we know we cannot win, the way two Kung-Fu masters 'fight' each other – not to win but to constantly 'best' the other, to hone each others capacity and skill. Skill they then use to truly engage with Life. It's not the winning, it's the honing, the reverent matching, becoming an ever-more magnificent version of ourselves in the process. We must not hand ourselves over without a fight. We engage in the fight because this is the fundamental gesture of Life, this reverent resistance to the inevitable.
My sobbing slowed down. And I found myself in quiet eye contact with the raptor who was, by now, on to the fact that its dinner tonight was not going to be flicker, despite its best-laid plans. It hopped up and down a few times, switched directions on the branch and then dropped into a free fall only to begin soaring, out across the lawn, over the pond and out into the field. It was at this moment the elkhound noticed the raptor, and in the way that he dances with all the very large birds that come to our land, the blue heron included, he was off...running after it as it worked to gain altitude...hot on his tail feathers. Life and Death, in this moment being represented by an eager young elkhound and an as yet unidentified but nonetheless glorious, deadly raptor.
And in another celebration of Life and Death, the flicker and I went inside.