(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)
I have seen two bald eagles (or, more likely, one bald eagle twice) in the last three days.
The first time, the poor thing was being harassed by two ravens who followed him, like jackals trailing a lion, for a remarkably long distance. The second time, he was by himself, flying quite low, but flying like an eagle on a mission, an eagle with things to do, places to go, and other eagles to meet. And both times it made my heart leap.
I’m an unabashed patriot. I love America and believe strongly it is the greatest country the world has ever known. It gives me a thrill every time I see our flag flying; I get emotional when I hear the national anthem; I feel a burst of pride whenever I see young men or women in uniform, especially young soldiers in their dress uniforms on state occasions; I even feel proud when I see a photograph of the Capitol Building, though I’d like to wade in there with a bullwhip and a branding iron. But bald eagles especially get to me. In part, this is because they are incomparably, dramatically beautiful birds; in part it is because they are our nation’s symbol; in part it’s because they are relatively uncommon in this part of the world (in twenty-five years I’ve only seen one here on two other occasions, though I’ve been to those places in Alaska where you can see hundreds on a daily basis); and in part it’s because the first one I ever saw was with my father, so I associate them with him.
I was home from college, and I had only recently reached the stage Mark Twain (apocryphally) made famous by discussing how much his old man had grown up in seven years. My father was by then director of Gunston Hall, the museum once home to George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration Rights, and on pleasant evenings that summer after the tourists had left, my father and I would take our drinks and walk around the magnificent gardens, the towering allées of boxwood and lilac, the acres of roses and jasmine and nicotiana, the air heavy with scent and the heat of a Virginia tidewater summer. At the end of the gardens, where the land dropped down steeply to the woods and the distant Potomac, there were two gazebos, and we sitting in one of those one evening when a bald eagle sailed by, skimming over the tops of the trees, below us, so that we looked down on his back and the incredible, brilliant white of his head and tail.
It’s a rare thing ever to be in a situation or place where you can look down on the back of a raptor, and to be able to look down on the back of a bald eagle, our national symbol, while talking to my father just as I was beginning to appreciate what an extraordinary, completely unique man he was and how lucky I was to have him in my life, made it one of those moments that will warm me on my deathbed.
And later, before his untimely and much too early death, my father was able to use that sighting and the fact that there was a nesting pair in the woods at the end of Mason’s neck, to get the federal government and the state of Virginia to join forces and protect much of that land from development. If we hadn’t been sitting there that evening and hadn’t seen that eagle, he might not have been able to do it, and Mason’s neck would now look like all the rest of northern Virginia, a sprawling mishmash of subdivisions and shopping malls, all the unimaginative cookie-cutter development that passes for progress in America these days.
But we were, and he did.