I went for a walk in the park down the street because it is a sun-drenched fall day, the leaves still clinging to the trees in all sorts of brilliant shades of dying.
At the top of the hill, the gingko trees were like slim, stinky, vertical gold bars.
I heard a calling in one of their branches, which I couldn’t identify. Something between a chirp and a cackle. I looked and looked and couldn’t see any animal, no bird rustling in the branches.
I walked on, looked over at a building with an apartment for sale whose floor plan my sweetheart and I looked at online last night. Three bedrooms ??? an almost unthinkable luxury for us, and why was it in our price range? Because it’s next to a hospital and across the street from the Walt Whitman Houses (which sound quaint but are big brick public housing projects)? I was thinking about the complexity of gentrification“
when a whoosh of wings skimmed by me, inches away. A hawk landed in a tree and I stopped to watch it as it peered across the park.
For the next half hour or so, I stalked it. I stood/crouched/sat, watching it like reading a poem. The urban park and its mysteries slowly unfolded line by line.
A nuthatch hopped along a branch above the hawk as if it were completely oblivious to the predator’s presence. But how could it have been? The squirrel on the tree trunk below it had frozen, its front paws splayed and gripping the bark tight.
The hawk sailed out of the tree and landed on a stretch of grass. It proceeded to peck and tear at something on the ground. I figured it must have killed a small bird earlier and had been chased or scared away. Now, it was coming back with midday boldness to reclaim its kill.
The eating of a small bird by a hawk takes ten minutes or so, and is surprisingly a non-messy affair. A plane sailed by. I looked past the hawk at the avenue busy with afternoon traffic and the pizza place filling up for lunch.
After the hawk swallowed its last bite, it flew up into a nearby tree. I went over to the site of the meal to find one small smear of blood, a bunch of downy feathers and a few larger feathers. The rest of the bird ??? beak, skull, bones ??? had been consumed.
In the tree the hawk beak-wiped while purple finches flittered between the upper branches. Did they think they were safe? That the hawk was full?
It was not.
It sailed from the tree to a nearby rose bush where it couldn’t quite get a foothold to land. In the middle of the bush a squirrel scrambled, making a series of distressed cries. Two tiny little birds landed near the squirrel, flanking it, as if protecting their fellow prey. Seemed foolhardy to me. A jay squawked and took a couple dive-bomb passes, but the hawk ignored the birds and rose up in the air. It tried unsuccessfully to find another angle to grab the crying squirrel within the thorny branches.
A siren wailed down Myrtle Ave. The hawk twisted its head around, its bright eyes scanning me. Two jogging women on their second lap around the park asked, “Is it getting used to you following it around yet?”
“I guess so.”
More accurately, I think, it just didn’t care that I was there. Didn’t care that the little birds of the park were making a racket. Just wanted to eat the squirrel it had set its sights on. But the squirrel stayed put. The finally hawk took off, buzzing a group of moms and babies and their picnic spread.
I walked home simultaneously pleased that the squirrel was spared but feeling bad for the hawk’s yet-to-be-sated hunger.
I thought of how this encounter blurred the (false) boundaries between wild and tame, between urbanity and wilderness, between predator and prey. And then I thought of this strange, haunting poem by Laura Jensen in her book, Memory, which seems like as good a way as any to end this post.
A Confessional Poem About Two Finches
Small things. I was spending money.
The clerk wrapped up the cage in paper.
I brought it on the bus
to a complicated girl, whose hair
was brushed in a frenzy.
To keep a light alive requires
much brushing, much sun.
She was lonely, her job
would send her back slowly. The shoes
she left in the hallway were proud shoes,
shoes that would not keep finches
anywhere but in the sun.
The birds belonged to me. The pain
and the traps they were caught in, the sun
that would not let them be, the world
that become for them a light
of bad intensity was mine.
Oh, I gave them only away, and the small
bodies, brown and red, feathered
like clouds, like leaves lay solid.
They are gone. Sunlight comes back,
wind music, and music
that begins about four during the summer.
I have no idea where that girl
is living, but I believe she lives.
And I believe the death of the finches
did not radiate from us, but from the death
around us in the beautiful light.