On December 29th there was a hawk in the tree outside my window. I had been awake for about ten minutes and was standing next to my bed, kind of deciding if I should make coffee and check my email or the other way around, but still 80 percent in the dreamworld and only having a really vague idea of who or what I was. I saw movement through the window, which I was not really looking at, but it focused me enough to see it, the hawk, which had just landed on a branch of the fir tree and was still bobbing a little, and with a small animal pinned in its talons.
It was a Cooper’s hawk. I checked on the internet. Someone later suggested that it might have been an osprey. I took this suggestion with some odd offense, considering. It was a hawk, I said. A Cooper’s hawk. For some reason this struck me as a crucial detail, that it be a hawk. I don’t know about birds, so I don’t know if it’s true that an osprey is kind of like a discount version of a hawk, like a fake Versace bag, or the less-pretty Olson twin. It’s hard to pinpoint why it makes a difference. I mean, seeing an osprey in the tree outside my window, in Little Italy, in urban Montreal, would be a pretty special event, a once-in-a-lifetime occurance, if I hadn’t already seen a hawk. I imagine if I ever see an osprey now it will feel a little overdone.
What the hawk was doing was eating one of those little shitty birds that hang around parking lots and benches and sidewalks, anywhere people are likely to leave behind bits of sandwiches and french fries. They might be sparrows but they feel more generic than that. They are kind of like the essence of “bird,” if by essence you mean possessing all the defining features and none of the distinguishing ones. The hawk was holding the smaller bird between its talons and picking away with its beak, which may have been curved, or not. I watched it for half an hour, and then I went to make coffee. When I came back, it was gone. I had wanted to see it in flight, but I wanted coffee more, apparently.
Later that day I told my friend, I saw a hawk eat another bird in the tree outside my window. I was just standing there thinking nothing, and then Awwwk! I made a noise and a gesture like a bird of prey descending on its victim. There was this full-on Planet Earth scene in front of my face. I’m trying not to take it as some kind of omen, I said.
My friend, who I love and who can be a real pain in the ass, didn’t look especially impressed. So you’re planning to get a little mystical about this?
Well, I said. I don’t know if it means anything. But it’s pretty special, right?
It’s not the first time I’ve felt like nature was performing directly for me. Once, I was sitting on the balcony of my apartment, waiting for a ride to the funeral of a friend. I noticed a perfect orb spider web strung between the balcony railings, directly in front of where I was sitting. As it came into focus, a small insect flew into it. The spider rushed the insect, zapped it. It began rolling the insect in silk like you roll out croissants, except it kept rolling and rolling, layering the silk. The insect was writhing as it was being mummified, for a while anyway, curving in toward itself and then straightening out again, which made it look even more like a croissant, when it was curved.
There is something these moments produce, a substance. Emily Dickinson talks about it in the poem that begins Essential Oils – are wrung – The Attar from the Rose – Attar: the ground-out, sticky, condensed matter that emerges from the clash and rub of vital forces.
Okay, my friend said. But a hawk catching and eating another bird isn’t special. In fact, it’s kind of the basic building block of nature. It’s not like you saw a behaviour that’s incredibly unusual or rare.
Maybe the act itself isn’t rare. But seeing it is.
So you think that makes you special?
Maybe it’s a mistake to separate nature from the city; yes, it is definitely a mistake. The city is a habitat, or it’s made up of many habitats, all interdependent to some degree, like any creek or valley or mountainside. There are hawks that live in cities. Several hawks call New York City’s Central Park home. My friend saw one of these hawks take a pigeon from the steps outside the Museum of Natural History, to the horror and delight of bystanders.
Though they both live in cities, there is inarguably something which separates the hawk I saw from, say, my cat. The hawk is a wild animal, and though maybe it is only a few degrees away from domestication, since it feeds off of shitty birds which in turn feed off sesame seeds that my neighbour dumps in the backyard, a food chain that begins with the excess of human civilization, still there is something about it that moves me in a way I don’t totally understand yet. My cat moves me in a different way, a domestic way. I am not so desperate as to think of her as a surrogate child, but I get satisfaction from caring for her. She has big eyes and a heart-shaped nose and no claws, though she retains the instinct to sharpen and will swish at my armchair with her blunted paws.
And now there is a squirrel in its nest in the tree beside the tree where I saw the hawk, and the nest is made of leaves and garbage that’s blown off our balconies. And the squirrel isn’t doing anything, it’s just sitting there, like a bird with an egg, and I wonder if it has babies in there or maybe it plans to, and it’s so rare to see a squirrel in repose, I mean leisure time is surely unknown to nature red in tooth and claw.
My friend went up north, way north, capital N-North, inside the arctic circle, where the horizon actually looks different than here on the forehead of the world. He went out on The Land with a hunter-filmmaker and saw a polar bear. They call it The Land up there, as though there is a harsh distinction between the frozen plains that stretch for hundreds of miles and the frozen plains that support houses and portable trailers. And so there is.
I saw a polar bear, my friend told me later, and that’s a truly amazing thing, but what is even stranger to think about is that a polar bear saw him. And it’s true that few southerners will ever see a polar bear outside of a zoo or a Planet Earth episode (and few circumpolar dwellers too, I imagine – how many Torontonians have been up the CN Tower? And yet there it is) and that’s probably okay, but the act of witnessing one of the wild animals for oneself is surely balanced on the transcendent experiences scale by the counter-act of being witnessed. Of all the humans that could have been reflected in the bear’s eye, it was my friend and the hunter-filmmaker, that time. And there are so many more of us than them.
Witnessing makes us part of an act, as though something from that act, some of its essence, flies off and sticks to us, by virtue of our witness. So yes, one animal catching and eating another is the attar of life. And now some of that attar has flown off the hawk and is stuck to me.