December, 2013

Book Review: The Lessons of History

December 27th, 2013

 

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I inherited much of my father’s library many years ago, including the entire eleven volume Story of Civilization, by Will and Ariel Durant. Included in the set was the single slim volume they wrote afterward by way of an introduction, The Lessons of History. Over the years I have frequently dipped into individual volumes of the main text for research, but I never read any entire volume until my wife came bouncing into my office one evening and thrust The Lessons of History under my nose and said, “Read this chapter!” I read it, and immediately wondered why the hell I hadn’t read the whole thing long ago. I have now rectified that. Not the whole eleven volume set, but I have read that one-volume introduction and I was blown away by it.

The Lessons of History is intended to be both an introduction and a survey of human history as a product of the human experience, of man’s essential evolutionary nature. The Durant’s do not judge; they do not say this system is better than that, or peace is better than war. They do not even bang the drum of George Santayana’s often misquoted maxim: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” What they do stress is that man will, in fact, continuously repeat the past because he cannot help himself. Man has evolved to be a particular organism with particular needs and desires and drives and responses and those are the things that influence his behavior, over and over again throughout the millennia. It will be many a long day before the lion evolves into a critter capable of lying down with the lamb, and it will be just as long before man evolves into a critter not driven by, “acquisitiveness, pugnacity, and pride.”

So what The Story of Civilization chronicles, and The Lessons of History summarizes, is the sequence of patterns of behavior that have been repeated continuously since the first known civilization(s), with “civilization” being defined as a social order that promotes cultural creation. But it is the laws of evolution that limit civilization, so that man’s natural instincts of competition (for food, mates, power), selection (some men will always have better competitive skills than others, and so there will always be inequality), and reproduction (influenced, obviously, by competition and selection) will always be the limiting factors that cause a civilization to rise and fall. And the rise and fall of civilizations—all civilizations that have been or are yet to come—is a given. None will last forever, and the speed with which they appear and vanish can depend on a variety of factors: geological, climatological, biological, or even political. Do you doubt that last one? Consider Communism. Primitive communism, meaning a society based on communal sharing, actually worked in hunter/gatherer societies that were constantly on the move pursuing game, but those are precisely the societies that have neither the leisure nor the wherewithal to pursue the cultural creation that defines a civilization. The moment a society depends on continuous labor to feed itself with provision for the future (as in agriculture, for example, as opposed to hunting and gathering) selection comes into play, along with its concomitant concept of private property (this patch of earth is more fertile and productive than that patch) with some men being more successful than others, and communism ceases to be an effective tool for societal survival. After all, if everything is going to be shared equally, I might as well just kick back here a take nap and let you do the heavy lifting.

Competition between individuals means I run faster, fight harder, or outwit you. In a society, that translates into war, and since man is what he is, wars will continue as long as man exists. To quote the Durants (writing in 1968): “In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war.” The only silver lining in that dark cloud is that war does stimulate the tool-using animal’s creative impulses, and occasionally those instruments designed for destruction are converted to creative and beneficial uses. Reproduction among individuals means, well, I hardly think we need go there, but in a society, it means pretty much that he who has the most children wins, which goes a long way to explaining why there are currently 7,132,780,410 people on earth, and that number will be over 7,132,800,000 before I finish this blog. (7,133, 415, 700 at time of posting.)

But it was the repetitive evolution of different political structures that really caught my eye. The Durants used China under Wang An-shih (1068-85 AD) as an example of the failure of socialism. Wang An-shih decided the state should own and control everything, commerce, industry, agriculture, and “[succor] the working classes [by] preventing them from being ground into the dust by the rich.” For a while, everything was hunky-dory, with great feats of engineering, pensions for the elderly and unemployed, an overhaul of the educational system, governmental boards in every district to administer every damn thing in the world. Sounds a little like America today, doesn’t it? But it fell apart (the Durants cite as reasons high taxes, an enormous army, and bureaucratic corruption, also much like America today), as socialism always has throughout all of history because, to quote the late Margaret Thatcher, “Sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.” That’s me quoting her, obviously, not the Durants. Instead, they wrote: “The experience of the past leaves little doubt that every economic system must sooner or later rely upon some form of the profit motive to stir individuals and groups to productivity.”

As I was reading all this, I happened to watch the movie, Meet John Doe, with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, and its theme of Christ’s message in today’s world, and I started thinking about America today. In the movie, the success of the John Doe Clubs that spring up across the nation is due to people and communities coming together to create work for their less fortunate neighbors. Not once in the movie is there any mention of a handout or any form of money given away as opposed to earned.

The Lessons of History stresses that selection and the inevitable superiority of some people means that there will always be inequality, but not necessarily inequity. There are two forms of equality that no society can ignore without fatal consequences: equality under the law; and equal opportunity for education, because education provides the opportunity for every man to rise according to his ability. However, even if the law and educational opportunity are available for all, if the gap between rich and poor widens too much, and if there is no bridge of middleclass with which the poor can hope to overcome that gap, violent redistribution of wealth will inevitably occur. It’s one of the lessons of history.

Steve Bodio on Golden Eagles

December 14th, 2013

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I received an email from Steve Bodio about Golden eagles, in response to my post (“Golden Eagles Redux. Or Not.”), and he has been kind enough to let me reprint it here. He has the unique perspective of a falconer who knows what he is talking about. He also provided the magnificent photograph.

This is Steve:

I have a bit of a heretical stance about Golden eagles re wind farms– too complex for sound bites ( or just too ambivalent?) but closer to yours than the prohibitionists’ stance.

I dislike the amount of kills allowed for wind farms. But whether or not the population is harmed needs at least two questions answered. One is how many (golden) eagles there are; the other is what else takes them out of (breeding) circulation.

The first is never discussed except among biologists– it is as though certain enviros do not want to ever say anything optimistic. The number of bald eagles got brought low, partly by persistent pesticides, and now increases as it becomes ever more tolerant of human society. But the number of known Golden nests (or rather the reasonably accepted extrapolated number ) is AND MAY ALWAYS HAVE BEEN almost inconceivably high, so high I am not inclined to quote it without access to the actual data, except five figures of PAIRS in North America. (There are two nesting pairs I know of within ten miles of where I write these notes). This is never publicized, but you can track it down. The data is not from livestock or energy apologists, either. Remember, there is an untouched Arctic population, and ones in Labrador that seem to eat herons in breeding season. The golden is so adaptable that there is a Greek population that eats mostly TORTOISES. I doubt wind turbines will dent those numbers or scare them away.

The Texans used to shoot hundreds every year and it seems to have done little BIOLOGICAL harm. Now wind farms are allowed to kill several hundred a year, and Navajos and other Native Peoples are allowed not only unlimited hunting but utterly unlimited access to such species as red- tailed hawks, not to train but to sell feathers. Which works out in practice that every delinquent kid on a troubled reservation sees a hawk on a pole ands shoots it. Then probably sells it. While there are serious religious uses of eagles by the Pueblos, there is also an internal market, really illicit, in feathers for tribal dance outfits, competitive and lucrative- and some sympathetic judges have decided these commercial competitions are protected too. (Meanwhile one pueblo has modified its ceremonies to no longer kill eagles, and has hired a biologist to teach them how to keep them in a healthy way!)

Many activist types hate falconry as intolerable meddling with romantic symbols, but a falconer’s eagle is not even lost from the population– only “on loan” so to speak. The Kazakhs I rode with in Asia let them go to breed after ten years, and eagles commonly live to over 30. Until now falconers were a allowed a take of (I think) 6 wild caught golden eagles a year, only from areas in Wyoming and the Dakotas with proven sheep predation problems. Right now the government is inclined to end this benign “use”. I wish that moralists and humane activists would not go after the tiny portion of eagles allowed to falconers! If we allow a small kill harvest from the tribes, an unknown yet amount for wind farms, oil wells, roads and such, and want a healthy population… we HAVE to set fairly rigid quotas to be safe. But known numbers could easily allow a live take of up to six (or ten or whatever– except I don’t think that there will ever be that many eaglers), some of which would eventually even breed.

Meanwhile, in the warden- free lands of most reservations eagles still exist only because of apathy– there is no protection. Ranchers under 60 are more or less benign, and don’t shoot them (wolves are far more threatening in both reality and reputation), but some angry young rez kids kill every sitting bird they see, and sell the feathers no matter what, as a demonstration that they “own” them Some tribes have made clear falconers shouldn’t get any quota, because they are religious symbols! A bit of googling would show us the old regs, under which we existed and complained for decades, while Texans shot hundreds or maybe even thousands– see Don Scheuler’s Incident at Eagle Ranch) even thousands, were uninformed– they now seem almost as unimaginable as photos of the aerial dogfights with eagles when they were hunted from planes. But counter intuitively they were probably biologically harmless in that they didn’t– because they couldn’t– wipe out eagles. Morally though, making dead eagles a commodity for anyone looks worse to me than wind farms; commerce can drive extinction like stoking a fire.

Why not reasonable quotas for falconers’ birds? Fewer privileges for Indians, at least ones with no religious stake, as those don’t have the built- in cultural reverence? And less posturing from anti- wind people at least about eagles aka Charismatic Megafauna (the turbines may actually be worse for bats, group far more threatened than the golden eagle!)

Joseph Smithson, Riflemaker

December 12th, 2013

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In Good Guns, Stephen Bodio writes, “At its best every good gun is a kind of time machine.” And he might have added that every custom gun maker is a link in a chain of time machines that stretches back to the Clovis spear point or beyond, a line of men obsessed with the pursuit of perfection.

No one becomes an artist – any kind of artist – with a view to getting rich. Painters paint and writers write and gun makers make guns because they can’t help themselves. They may find their avocation early (Mozart was composing at five) or late (Grandma Moses only started painting in her late seventies when her arthritis got so bad she could no longer embroider) but they are driven.

Joe Smithson found his avocation early. He was raised on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona. His family had a large ranch and his father owned the local trading post.

“I think that’s where my fascination with firearms started, because [his father] was always taking in a lot of guns for pawn.”

After high school, Joe went to Trinidad State Junior College, renowned for the gunsmithing program started in 1947 by P.O. Ackley of Ackley Improved cartridges fame. He was able to study under some of the best gunsmiths in America, and went right from college to an apprenticeship with the legendary Jerry Fisher. Then he opened his own shop in Farmington, NM.

“I started a shop with Jim Mosley (the dean of the gunsmithing department at Trinidad) and we were in business for three or four years before I opened my own place. But then I ended up moving to Provo, UT as a single dad with three kids.”

Joe opened his own shop in Provo, but as he says, “Gunsmithing is a hard way to make a living if you don’t have an outside income. I was lucky enough to have one customer [Mario Zanotti] who kept me afloat ordering guns every year. Without him and the support of Mosley and Fisher, I couldn’t have made it go.”

Fortunately, he did make it go, and today he builds six to eight guns a year, depending on how involved the projects are. Eighty percent of his business is bolt actions, but he can make anything from double rifle or shotgun to lever action or single shot. (The rifle that got him accepted into the American Custom Gunmaker’s Guild was a Fraser falling-block single shot he made himself completely from scratch, action, screws, springs, everything, by hand. It was not, he learned, a productive way to do things.)

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The rifle Joe sent me to play with was chambered in .275 Rigby (his favorite caliber for light game is the 7X57mm, the virtually identical precursor and inspiration for the .275), and built with the traditional looks of a British ‘best:’ a breathtaking walnut stock with a crisply defined cheek-piece; ebony fore-end; smooth metal butt plate; square bridge action made by Granite Mountain; flawless – and I really mean flawless – wood-to-metal fit; folding leaf sights; an extra front sight and dust covers for the scope mount slots (!) tucked away in the pistol-grip trapdoor; detachable scope mounts…. Stop right there. Detachable scope mounts unlike any I have ever seen before.

When Joe started using Granite Mountain’s double square bridge action, he wanted a flawless and failsafe detachable mount to go with it, one that would go back to zero every time. He started experimenting with traditional lever systems, but eventually abandoned them in favor of his own unique design.

Each mount has a button on the side. When the button is pressed to remove the scope, an internal ball bearing rises up into a hole in the cam, allowing the mount to slide free from the base. Putting the scope back on, the mounts slide forward into the corresponding grooves in the bases and, when the button is released, the ball bearing drops down into a hole, the button cams over the ball bearing and the whole thing is locked into place. It is simple, easy to use, and absolutely failsafe. If it feels as precise and solid as a Tomahawk cruise missile, it’s because the mechanism is made by the machine shop that manufactures parts for Tomahawk missiles. Of course Joe, being Joe Smithson, then hand polishes and laps the mounts before installing them on bases he makes himself. He has also modified the system to work on other actions or even on double rifles. It’s the relentless pursuit of perfection, and it’s so successful that he makes them for both Westley Richards and Purdey.

I admit to being a sentimental fool – just ask my wife – and I get swept away by romance when I should probably stick to practicality. Certain words and names conjure up irresistible images of adventure and excitement. Winchester, Parker, Holland & Holland, 416 Rigby, 30-30, .375 H&H, .30-06, and of course, .275 Rigby. 275 Rigby? It may be relatively unknown in America, but it is a distinguished and popular round in England. It is the round we associate with tiger hunter Jim Corbett and elephant hunter WMD “Karamojo” Bell, and it doesn’t get more adventurous and exciting than that.

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The .275 was originally developed by Mauser in 1892 as a military round, designated the 7X57mm or 7X57 Mauser, or even sometimes the 7X57 Spanish Mauser, since the Spanish army was the first to adopt it. In case you were busy passing notes to the cheerleader seated next to you in history class, I will remind you the 7X57 is the round that caused such enormous losses for Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. It is also the round that enabled 88,000 Boer guerillas and commandos to fight the might of the British Empire and 500,000 of their soldiers to a humiliating standstill. The British eventually prevailed, but only after instigating a series of scorched-earth tactics whose brutality would today result in Queen Victoria, her Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, and Lord Kitchener all being tried for war crimes in The Hague. (During the last 18 months of the war alone, over 20,000 – some reports put the number at over 26,000 – Boer women and children died in concentration camps.)

John Rigby & Co., originally an Irish firm founded in 1735, moved to London in 1897, and even before the end of the Boer War they already recognized the superiority of both the Mauser bolt action and the 7X57. However, knowing their British market, they offered the gun under the designation .275 Rigby, but by either name the round earned a reputation for accuracy and low recoil. And effectiveness: no less an authority than the late Finn Aagaard, who touted the 7X57 as a superior deer rifle and excellent all-round big game cartridge, reported that he once fired 173-grain solids from a 7X57 at plywood boards and achieved more penetration than he did with a 400-grain from a .416.

Ballistically, it is a little less powerful than the .270 Winchester, but an excellent choice for deer, antelope, wild boar, even much of African plains game. It is not a long-distance cartridge, but at moderate distances (out to 300 yards) it is extraordinarily effective.

The .275 Rigby is virtually identical to the 7X57, with the same case dimensions, the primary difference being that the 7mm is commercially available in more bullet weights than the .275.

The .275 Rigby Joe Smithson sent me was built on a Granite Mountain square bridge action. Granite Mountain Arms is a Phoenix, AZ based company that produces (in their own words) “the highest quality precision Mauser 98 style action ever produced… …the world’s finest double square bridge magnum action…” Based on Joe Smithson’s rifle, I tend to agree with their claims.

The Mauser action makes a great hunting rifle, especially for dangerous game, for the same reason (among others) that it made a great military rifle: that loose, sloppy action is very forgiving. If you fall on your face in the sand with a buttery-smooth action with close tolerances, like some of the old Mannlicher-Schoenauers or Colt-Sauers, you may have to take the gun apart before you can work the action again. I went bottom over teakettle down an embankment with a Colt Sauer many years ago, and it took about five minutes for me to get enough grit and dirt out to be able to extract the bolt. Five minutes in the sunshine on fine, cold day in southern Utah doesn’t seem like much. Five minutes in Alaska in the company of a grizzly who has lost his sense of humor might seem like an eternity. Fall on your face with the Mauser and its loose tolerances allow you to force the action. (The original Mauser 1898 had a bolt handle that jutted out at 90-degrees so that clumsy soldiers could use their boots to kick the action open or shut.)

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Granite Mountain actions are CNC machined out of 8620 steel and case hardened. The receiver has an integral ‘C’ ring and a drop-bottom box with a hinged floor plate. The bolt has dual opposed locking lugs and a third safety lug, a recessed bolt face, a modified bolt handle to accommodate scopes, and the traditional three position wing safety. It comes with adjustable sporting trigger, and everything is hand lapped and hand polished. Of course Joe Smithson, being a perfectionist, does his own lapping and polishing on top of that, and the result is an action as slick and smooth as a politician chasing votes, but with Mauser’s loose and forgiving tolerances.

I have been privileged to shoot a good number of custom rifles built on Mauser actions and whatever hand polishing has been done by the maker has been superseded by that looseness. Not so with Joe Smithson’s work. It is still has that Mauser looseness, but it was without a doubt the smoothest Mauser I have ever handled.

I fired four five-shot groups, and with the exception of one stray (doubtless caused by a combination of global warming and the tilting of the earth on its axis) all four groups were under one inch. In one group that rifle put two bullets so perfectly into one hole that it took me a while to realize I hadn’t missed the target altogether. In another group three bullets created a single modified clover leaf under half an inch. Oh, yeah!

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Perfection does not come cheap, but whenever a tool transcends mere function to become a work of art, price is no longer the issue. If you can afford to consider buying a custom firearm of this quality, what you are paying for is much more than just a hunting rifle. You are paying for the pursuit of perfection, a pursuit that takes you all the way back to the Clovis spear point.

Golden Eagles Redux. Or Not.

December 7th, 2013

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I just posted a blog about a Golden eagle trying to take my hat—or possibly my head—off as I teetered on a ladder cleaning my gutters. And now, in one of those coincidences that makes you think Jung really knew what he was talking about when he developed his theory of synchronicity, I stumbled across an article about wind farms that contained some disturbing news. California, where I live, has some of the largest wind farms in America (second only to Texas), notably in the Altamont Pass area near San Francisco, in Kern County in the central part of the state, and in the southern desert in Imperial County.

Wind energy is clean energy, and in addition to its minor contribution to America’s electrical energy needs (wind farms account for about four percent of all terawatts used) it is a feel-good industry. It’s not the most effective form of energy production, and it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing addition to the landscape, but driving past a wind farm it is easy to lull oneself into a sense that we’re making progress, that we’re on the verge of a cleaner, healthier, and safer world where wind and sun will eventually replace coal and fossil fuels and those nuclear power plants we all prefer not to live near as we boot-up our computers with electricity.

Cleaner, yes. Healthier? Safer? Well, that depends on whom it is supposed to be healthier and safer for.

The article I read was by someone named Rick Moran and was entitled Administration to Give Wind Farms Thirty Year Pass on Killing Bald Eagles. Following up on that provocative headline, I found the Audubon Society’s take on it was no less shrill: Interior Dept. Rule Greenlights Eagle Slaughter at Wind Farms. The Audubon news release was accompanied by a photograph of a Bald Eagle. I’m not sure why Mr. Moran and the Audubon Society singled out Bald Eagles, but it is a well-established fact that wind turbines are lethal to birds of all kinds, and birds of prey especially. Back in 2001, when there were far fewer—and for the most part smaller—wind farms with much smaller wind turbines, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintained that forty-thousand birds killed annually was probably an underestimate. In the Altamont Pass, the bird of prey most vulnerable to turbines is the Golden Eagle, drawn there by traditional migratory patterns and an abundance of small animals, primarily ground squirrels. Those wind turbines in the Altamont Pass area date back to the late seventies and early eighties, before Barack Obama even started shaving, yet now everyone seems to be excoriating the President’s administration for “slaughtering” eagles.

I’m afraid the bloom is off my rose when it comes to President Obama. The “Fast and Furious” debacle did it for me. Since I have already written about that, I have no intentions of laying the whole thing out again, but what it boiled down to was the President went on national television and said he knew nothing about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms’ “Operation Fast and Furious,” and maintained he had not even heard of it until it became breaking news a few days earlier. Two weeks later he refused to release any White House emails or documents pertaining to “Fast and Furious,” invoking the right of executive privilege. Since executive privilege only applies to conversations and correspondence between the President (or a member of his staff speaking on his behalf) and some other party, we are left with only two options: either the President lied when said he knew nothing about it; or he broke the law by invoking executive privilege to protect someone else. Since then, we have had the shameful disgrace of Benghazi (immortalized by Hilary Clinton’s dismissal of the deaths of four Americans with the words, “What difference, at this point, does it make?”), the less than stellar debut of Obamacare, the President’s constitutionally questionable use of executive order, and host of lesser issues that have tarnished his reputation.

But on this issue of wind turbines, I happen to agree with him. The world and his wife and the little dog behind the stove are all screaming for America to break its dependence on foreign oil. But nobody wants more oil drilling. Fracking is demonized as being right up there with pederasty. Burning coal is equated with chain smoking on an airplane. Practically every green organization in the land is calling for (in some cases suing for) the dismantling of hydro-electric dams great and small. And hard to spell places names like Chernobyl and Fukushima kind of dampen one’s enthusiasm for living near a nuclear reactor. The people who scream the loudest against these energy sources use up a lot of kilowatts in their temperature-controlled offices screaming on their MacBooks and their i-phones while playing games on their i-pods. Something’s got to give if we all wish to continue living our lives in the ease and comfort we have all come to accept as a birthright. And just as we take these things for granted, so too more and more emerging nations and societies are going to want the same toys. How are we going to power all those critically important X-box games and smart devices?

Do I want eagles killed? Of course not. But the Audubon Society itself pointed out there are large swaths of the nation that are not migratory paths, and where wind farms could be placed with minimal danger to any avian species, and that in any event, greenhouse gas emissions have the potential to kill far more birds (not to mention people) than wind turbines.

Just for the record, as long as I’m ranting…

As someone who shares his home with three cats, consider the following: forty thousand birds killed by wind turbines pales in comparison to the estimated one hundred million migratory songbirds killed every year by hunting housecats. It’s why I never allow my cats outside.

Besides, they might become a meal for an eagle.

Golden Eagle

December 2nd, 2013

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I had to clean out the gutters the day after Thanksgiving, one of the routine chores of late fall, after all the leaves have finally fallen. The good news is that we live in a one-story house, so for the most part it only involves my getting up about ten feet on a ladder. In fact I don’t even have to extend the extension ladder, except for the area over the entry which is about twenty feet up. The bad news is that we live in a one-story house, so it means there is a lot of roof and miles and miles of gutter, making it pretty much a day-long job, between dried leaves and dried mud which must be scraped out. But except for the raised entry area, it’s also a relatively safe job.

So of course I was up on the ladder at the highest point when a golden eagle went past. He was so big and so close to me and going so fast that for a wild moment I thought I was under attack by a B-52 bomber. (“Bombing Run Goes Awry; Local Man Vaporized; Details At Eleven.”) We have a healthy local population of golden eagles, so it’s not unusual to see one. Thrilling, always; unusual, no. But normally I see them hundreds of feet up in the air, riding the thermals with stately elegance. Once, Darleen and I came upon two on the ground eating something they had killed. They had progressed to that point in their meal where I could no longer tell what it had been before it became dinner, but we reined in the horses about fifty yards away and watched as the massive talons held down the bulk of the meal while the formidable beaks tore off chunks.

They are awe-inspiring predators. Steve Bodio has written a magnificent, fascinating book, Eagle Dreams, about his travels to western Mongolia to hunt with the Kazakh horsemen who ride out with their eagles after no less a prey than the wolf, and it includes a photograph of wolf skins hanging from the home of one of the hunters. I’ve never personally met a Mongolian wolf, but I don’t imagine they’re that much smaller than our wolves in North America, which is to say they’re probably just about the size of a former middleweight perched high up on a ladder.

There is thrilling, and then there is thrilling.

In this case, the eagle passed about twenty feet over my head, going at Mach speed with a family of red tail hawks (three of them, so I assume it was a family unit) in hot pursuit, followed by an large extended family of ravens (mom, dad, kiddies, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, in-laws, even that embarrassing old great-uncle who always tells such inappropriate jokes at family gatherings), though it was hard to tell if the ravens were pursuing the eagle or the red tails, the red tail and the raven being, shall we say, uneasy neighbors. They went by in a noisy woosh! (ravens are noisy fliers) at such great speed that they vanished over the nearest hill almost as quickly as they had appeared, leaving me clinging to the ladder and wondering if I should seek shelter.

My God, what a magnificent bird!

Though it is about a kestrel, not eagles, I’ll leave you with The Windhover, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet from the God’s Grandeur series. A Roman Catholic convert and Jesuit priest, Hopkins dedicated the poem, To Christ our Lord, and while it may be a difficult read that begs to be read aloud, it needs no explanation beyond that to make it accessible. However, to clarify, I will add that “sillion” is an archaic spelling of “selion,” meaning a furrow turned over by the plough.

The Windhover, To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird,–the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

 

 

Brute beauty and valor and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

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