December, 2015

The Windhover on Advent Sunday

December 1st, 2015 12 Comments

 

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 valour 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.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

 

 

It is not an easy poem, even taken within the context of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ frequently difficult standards, but if you can force yourself to follow the first rule of reading poetry—which is to forget about meaning or understanding and simply read for the music of the thing, trusting that meaning and understanding will come later, on their own—it is one of the most evocative and magical of all poems. And it came rushing back to me (at least the first two lines did, which is all I can usually remember) this past Sunday as I drove home from church.

This past Sunday was the first Sunday in Advent, the first Sunday of the season when Christians around the world celebrate the coming nativity of Christ and express their longing for His return. Personally, I think He has overdone His vacation time and He’s long overdue; given the current state of world affairs He knows all too well that we could use a little help here sooner rather than later, but I expect He knows His business better than I and I shall try to bide my time in patience.

But as I approached the turn-off from the hardtop to the dirt road that leads to my house, I saw a dirty and much the worse for wear SUV parked by the field. Two men and a little girl were talking. One of the men was holding a falcon on his wrist. My heart in hiding stirred for a bird and I stopped my truck.

What little I know about falconry comes from reading Steve Bodio’s blog (http://stephenbodio.blogspot.com/ ) and books, and from Helen Macdonald’s (apparently she spells her name that way, with a small “d”) H Is for Hawk, which is to say I know only that it is an arcane and demanding enterprise that takes far more time, skill, knowledge, ability, and patience than I have or will ever have, but so what? I can’t draw a circle either, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a Rembrandt.

One of the men was my neighbor, a young horse trainer, the other was the falconer, and the little girl was his granddaughter. The bird on his gauntleted wrist was an Australian hobby; at least, I believe that was what he said. The wind was blowing hard and I was distracted by the bird—who can look at a man when there is a falcon so close by?—but it looked very much like the examples I have researched, small and fierce and so beautiful, even with its hood on. There is something about birds of prey that I find immensely compelling, and I longed to stroke the proud little breast, but I suspect that, just like service dogs, everyone in the wide world has the same reaction, so I refrained from touching or even asking if I could. Instead, we spoke briefly about the increasing population growth of our valley that makes his falconry increasingly difficult (falcons need a lot of fence-free space) and helped put an end to my quail hunting.  We talked about where to find valley quail and mountain quail and chukar, and then he opened the back of his SUV, and I literally gasped with delight.

The back of his vehicle held a welter of equipment on one side, but on the other side was a low, two-bird stand made of PVC pipe with the bars covered in some kind of carpeting fabric, and on one of the bars was peregrine-gyrfalcon cross, for so he identified it. Unlike the little hobby, with its appeal and charm, this bird radiated the kind of power and authority that would have made any attempt to touch it as tacky and presumptuous as touching the Pope, or clapping Queen Elizabeth on her back. This was a bird that commanded respect. For one thing, it was almost as big as a red-tailed hawk, and even with its hood on it had a regal air, a quality of majesty graciously condescending to slum it for a while.

I was too late to watch him fly either bird (he was on his way home), but even that little glimpse stirred me in ways I find difficult to express. I love living in a place where I can see wild things, and I am fortunate enough to see birds of prey regularly: eagles, both golden and bald; a wide variety of hawks; harriers; osprey; a variety of falcons, including the ubiquitous and delightful kestrel; great horned owls; barn owls; even once a spotted owl and once a burrowing owl; I get to see them all from time to time, and some of them regularly, but rarely close-up. To be within touching distance of something as charismatic as that peregrine-gyrfalcon was extraordinary. Even on a stand in the back of an SUV I could see the brute beauty and valor, sense the achieve of, the mastery of the thing! O my chevalier!

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