Henry Walters writes:
There was a time I resented having to eat dinner. When I was a kid, my kitchen job was always to set the table, so when I smelled garlic on the stove, that meant: stop what you’re doing. Whatever game you were playing before your mother called, it was always interrupted by the same ritual: placemats, napkins, knives, forks, spoons, salt, pepper, and a jug of water for the centerpiece. What did these things have to do with food? I didn’t like having to pray before the meal. I didn’t like having to make conversation during it. I didn’t like having to pass the salad. I ate with my head bowed, concentrating, and very fast, a little bit like a wild thing.
A number of these same images came to mind last week Monday, as we prepared to release Mary, Dublin’s own red-tailed hawk, back into the wild. The entire school gathered out on the Quad to see her off. The bell and anklets and leather jesses that I had put around her yellow legs last November had been cut away, and all that remained was to give her one more good meal, a helping of gray squirrel that Mary herself had caught. In the six months since she arrived, a bird in no way equipped to survive a New England winter on her own, she had gained the fitness and hunting experience she needed. Her new self-sufficiency was the result, strangely, of a partnership with people, one that did not tame her, or cage her, or alter her will, but instead turned her loose, day after day, to fly freely, hunt freely, and, as hawks often prefer, sit in a tree freely. She ate the squirrel leg whole, as is her custom, fur and bones and all, her wings spread out over it in protection, like a priest administering some pagan blessing. Hardly had the meat disappeared when she took off toward the top of a red maple behind the Schoolhouse, and a new phase of her life began.
A falconer (so called, whether he flies hawks, falcons, or eagles) is able to enter into a relationship with a wild bird as long as he performs a few essential functions: he keeps her from harm; he flies her for the right amount of time each day; he helps her to find prey; and he provides her with food when she has not caught prey herself. If he should fall short in any of these services, she will no longer tolerate his presence and will leave him at the first opportunity. The falconer, then, is servant to the bird he keeps. He has no power over her, and can aspire to none. She trusts him, but does not care for him. He holds out his arm and whistles to a pale silhouette in a treetop, and if she stoops to him for a moment and takes food from his glove, he takes it as all the more a blessing.
There is, though, something even more tangible that a bird leaves behind her, a feeling, merely, but a very precise feeling nonetheless, located somewhere near the pit of the stomach. You remember tromping around in the woods in January when there was nothing but the rasp of the dry beech leaves to keep you company, that and the hawk’s bell behind you, a hundred feet up. You walked and walked and walked till your feet were sore, your lips blue, and your voice gone hoarse from calling to the squirrels, all cozied up in their dens. All of a sudden, out from under your feet shoots a gray form, a bushy tail—and then a jingle above you, a whoosh of wings, two pounds of feather and blood and hollow bones come streaking down, all knit up with speed and daring and such strict intention, and strike the earth a blow that you can hear the whole hillside echo: she’s caught it, her wings mantling, her thin black talons kneading it like bread, and as she bends over it, beak open, the feathers on the back of her neck stand straight up like the hair on the back of your own. She will not stop what she is doing, ever. The thing—the whole thing, the scene, the hunt, the woods, the time of day—soaks up the light like something sacred, and here you are, in its presence, watching, not speaking, not eating, but very hungry, very cold, very grateful, and you have (have you?) only set the table.