Just after we were married, Georgie and I lived in this little house beside her grandparents. They have a big peach farm and lots of land and they had a chicken coop behind the little house we lived in. Every morning I would walk through the backyard to feed the dog, sometimes pretty early and half awake. One morning I stumbled out back still foggy eyed and as I walked under the big tree I walked into something hanging from the limbs. I enthusiastically dislike spiders and since I assumed I had walked into a giant web I wildly wiped my face and head before realizing I had not walked into a spider. I had walked into a hawk.
Of course I found this odd but maybe not quite as odd as you may find it. Hawks occasionally take chickens and there are those who believe that if you hang a dead hawk from a tree limb it will serve as a warning to keep other hawks away. I knew this from my own childhood because my dad would proudly protect the pecans (pronounced pee-cons) by hanging blackbirds up in the trees. We presume all these birds died of natural causes since it would not have been prudent to shoot any of them.
My dad used to talk about hawks a lot. He loved them. Back in the days before red tailed hawks were a protected species he would demonstrate that love in a way that we probably do not understand. He would shoot them. I know how that sounds but hear me out on this. Google did not exist in the 1960s. Unless you were lucky enough to have a National Geographic with an article on your favorite animal or unless you were Grizzly Adams, you were not likely to ever get a close look at a wild animal unless it was unconscious. And if your favorite animal had wings, well you were even more out of luck. Pop was a great shot though, and he used his rifle to get a closer look at this animal. Now I’m not saying this was a good thing to do, but at least he used a rifle to make it a challenge.
Any ride in my dad’s truck up until just a couple of years ago would quickly turn into a hawk spotting trip. It was like he had some crazy hawk sensor. We’d be riding along with Marty Robbins singing us a cowboy story and dad would say “look at the size of that hawk!” I’d scan the trees and see nothing. After learning where to look and seeing just how hard it was to spot one, I wondered how he could focus on finding something so small while also driving a truck through traffic.
And he had hawk stories. He said that when he was a little boy shooting a hawk was like a badge of honor. He told me that his mother shot one once and he’d never seen her so proud. He told me about the moment when he learned as a young adult that you were not allowed to discharge a firearm from inside a vehicle….even if you were just shooting a hawk on the side of the road. He talked about how he watched the hawks adapt to hunting by the interstate as he helped build the stretch of I-26 through our town. He told me about the giant wingspan on one, right down to the number of inches it was across and how it had to have been a state record. He told me that when we saw hawks hunting it meant a weather front was coming in.
You can imagine that he was not happy when hawks became protected from hunters. He did, however find much solace in nature shows, nature channels and even watching the local hawks hunt doves in the pecan trees from the comfort of his porch chair.
Since he was enamored with hawks before I was born, I assume he passed the hawk genome on to me. On my drives to and from college I started counting hawks. When I drove that path again in grad school I did the same, trying to understand why they seemed to hunt more in certain weather conditions. I spotted them for 16 years driving to the old job. There was even one that hunted in the big oak tree across the street from my office window several times each week. I named him Hudson. Now when I drive anywhere 99% of my mind is focused on driving but that 1% is scanning the landscape for hawks. Every road conversation with Georgie is peppered with “there’s one”, “look at that one”, “did you see how big that one was?”. Now I have the crazy hawk sensor.
When pop died the family gathered at my parents’ house. There were people everywhere so (surprise, surprise) I found my way outside to the porch where the people were fewer. As I stood there listening to stories about him, I instinctively turned and scanned the tall pines across the road. Just as I did, the hawk he loved to watch slid out of the sky into the tip of one of the pines. He was enormous and beautiful. He sat there for several minutes frozen in his perfect posture before taking off again for a better spot.
Of course I believe that this was entirely coincidental.
Except when I don’t.