Life, Death, and Renewal

The sharp cry hung still in the air for a moment, then settled slowly to the ground below.  Above the field, a red-tailed hawk circled – watching intently for any signs of movement.  Her call had been intentional, its purpose to frighten one of the voles, shrews or mice that she knew to be living in the grass into panic – sending it scurrying away from safety and into her clutches.

Spring had come at last to the valley, but it had been long in coming, and winter was not quite prepared to release its grip.  The hawk had survived several winters, but this one seemed the worst of all.  The snows had piled deep in the valley – making hunting difficult, and there were days when the wind seemed to blow right through her – the layers of feathers offering little protection against the wind’s cold bite.  She preferred not to migrate, as most hawks did, and had managed to survive quite well in the woods and valley over which she now soared.

In staying, she had managed to maintain her hunting territory and nesting site; warding off advances from newcomers as they returned in the spring.  Her mate had died last fall, but maybe she would allow an approach from another this year.  She had given birth to several chicks – each year some would not survive, but the others she tended and fed and taught to soar and hunt as she did now.  She was proud of her offspring, and occasionally she wondered over which fields they might be soaring now.

Catching her mind adrift, she pulled her attention back to the task at hand and began scanning the grass below for movement once again.  Hunting was hard at this time of year – though the sun shone brightly, it offered little warmth and the uprising thermal air currents that she used to help her soar were not present.  She was forced to flap more and this drained her depleted resources even more.  She had not hunted successfully for the last few days, and the cold and the wind were beginning to take their toll.  She would have to find food soon or she would not see another spring . . .   Finally, a small grey form scurrying through the bent grass.  The hawk folded back her wings and prepared to dive.

Unseen by the hawk at first, a young fox also plied the edge of the field.  The fox had been born only the previous spring, but disease had decimated the foxes in this area and she already had a litter of her own to care for.  Her mate had been taken by disease, and although she and her pups had so far been spared, she had five young mouths hungry for milk and their appetites seemed insatiable.  Working slowly, silently, through the bushes at the edge of the field, she heard the rustle in the grass some eight feet away.  Gauging the distance and direction, the fox crouched, her feet under her, and prepared to spring.

One vole could not be shared by two such hunters, and this time the fox won.  The hawk had to break out of her dive to avoid a collision.  Another time and she might have tried taking the fox as prey, but if her attack were not perfect there would be a fight and she was too tired for that, too tired.  There was no point challenging the fox for the vole, as the energy expenditure would not be justified by the reward.  Besides, the vole disappeared into the fox’s mouth and was gone in an instant.  Breaking out of her dive, the hawk climbed once again to her hunting altitude and continued her search.  However, she could not maintain her flight for much longer, and she was soon forced to come down again, this time landing in the welcome arms of a maple tree.

After landing and settling her wings, the hawk’s thoughts journeyed again across the valley below.  How well she knew this field and the woods beyond – after several years it was as though she knew the names of every blade of grass, every leaf on every tree . . .   She had known many trials and many triumphs here – had borne witness to the very cycles of existence.  She closed her eyes and dreamed – of sunlit valleys, of young fledglings slowly testing the strength of their wings, of warm updraught currents that could carry you so high the ground seemed a dot – one you could easily cover with a feather . . .  Overcome with exhaustion, weakened by starvation, the hawk’s talons released their grip on the branch and she fell, lifeless, to the leaves below.

The next morning the young fox passed by again, continuing her hunt.  The groundhogs on which she preferred to prey were just beginning their annual sojourn out of their burrows after a long hibernation, and on a cold day such as this were just as likely to stay underground.  Most of her prey at this time of year would be squirrels, rabbits and chipmunks, mice, shrews and voles.  The former was quick and hard to catch, and the latter did not provide much sustenance.  With five hungry pups demanding her milk, she was close to starvation herself.  It was as she walked around the maple tree that she came across the carcass of the hawk.

The wind had not been right, and so she had received no warning of the surprise she had now come upon.  Frantically hungry and yet ever cautious, she seemed in a quandary as to how to proceed.  She approached the hawk slowly, wary of a trap, and ready to rebound in a split-second if necessary.  After a quick sniff she retreated, then began her slow stalk from a different direction.  She retreated and approached, retreated and approached until she had walked up to the hawk from all four directions.  Only then was she satisfied that there was no danger.  Overcome with hunger, the fox tore into the carcass with a fury, sending feathers scattering every which way.  In her gorge she tore the wings clear of the body, the neck remaining attached to the head with only a flap of skin.

After she had eaten, the fox picked up the remaining carcass and carried it back to her den.  Her pups were not yet eating meat but the legs and claws would be good for them to teeth on (better than her foreleg), and there would be teachings about the bones of birds – how they are hollow and could splinter – causing injury or even death if care was not taken.

All that remained of the hawk under the maple tree were the wings and some scattered feathers.  On the leaves covering the ground were a few splatters of blood, but these were washed away by the first spring rain.  The wind gathered up some of the feathers and scattered them; some were caught in branches and others came to rest between the bent stalks of last year’s growth of grass and wildflowers.  Other feathers were gathered by the little people, the mice and voles to line their dens, and some of the downy feathers were collected by the chickadees to use in nest-building.

Eight days after the fall of the hawk, another hunter arrives on the scene.  He wears the skins of deer, wolf, and beaver, and feathers stream down from his hair.  He is far from his people, but at times he too must travel far in search of food.  Arriving at the maple, he is confronted by the remnants of the hawk’s wings and the rhythmic waving of the feathers, being taunted into movement by the whispers of the wind.  He crouches by the remnants that lay there, and his eyes scan over the ground in search of clues.  What he sees before him reads the story of the hawk and the fox and the interplay between the two.  He hears the voices of the wind, and as the birds relate to him the details of this final chapter he despairs for a moment over the loss of such a bird.  Still, he pulls a small gift from the pouch around his waist and gives thanks for the gift of the feathers before setting about the task of collecting those he can see.  Some of these feathers will be given as gifts or fastened to sacred objects as a way of showing respect for the hawk and to ask her spirit to watch over him.  Some of the feathers might be used as fletching for his arrows, allowing them to fly straight and true.  The deer his arrows bring down would go a long way toward feeding his village – the death of the deer bringing life to him and his people.  It was a circle he knew well – the cycle of life, death, and renewal.


Mike  Pedde 19/4/95