I rode out with some friends on their ranch the other day. Ostensibly, the goal was to locate a pregnant cow and see if she had delivered yet, and then to doctor a prolapsed cow, but it was such a glorious day, and the tasks were so few and so easy that it amounted to little more than an excuse to take a lazy and leisurely trail ride. We started on the flat, skirting the hills for a mile or so, and then rode up a long oak-studded canyon that grows gradually narrower and steeper as it rises. It’s a slow transformation and we were still in wide-open spaces at the lower elevation, riding through the oaks, when two golden eagles took off from the ground. One of them angled away, up one side of the canyon, but the other flew right over our heads, a distance close enough to be measured in feet, not yards, and as he passed over we could hear, in the valley below us, the faint and lonesome whistle of a train.
Golden eagles are some of the greatest avian hunters in the world, and these two might have been dining on a rabbit, or a ground squirrel, or a young deer, or even a new-born calf, though no agitated mother was in evidence, but at that moment they were something more than birds. Their flight, mingled with the sound of the distant train, became symbolic of time and place and a traditional activity that is passing from the world. We sat our horses and watched as the two birds rode the thermals, drifting east and finally out of sight. In that canyon, at that moment, it could have been 1912 instead of 2012, and it gave me hope that this magical and surprising old world will endure in spite of all man’s tender mercies.