Feather-light

I went running in Sligo Creek Park today. There I was, at the edge of winter, a time when the days are still getting shorter and Iate afternoon means nearly dark, when I heard a rustling commotion above me. Thinking it was one of the many deer that frequent these woods, I looked up the incline beside the hiking path, but there was nothing. Instead, directly above my head I saw a falcon, swooping up to a tree branch, and beside it a small bird, maybe a wren, wings going every which way, grace no longer within reach. It looked as though the two birds were flying side by side, but of course they weren’t. Tiny down feathers floated down toward me like autumn leaves, and I caught several, so soft and light it felt as though I was holding nothing at all.

Up in the tree, the falcon sat serenely on a branch. There was no motion beside it—no wren that I could see. I thought maybe the small bird had escaped, and felt disappointed for the hawk, relieved for the wren. I stood watching, maybe five minutes, then the falcon glided through the branches to another tree, just a bit further from me. The adventure was over. On to the next hunt.

I turned and ran a few more yards to a spot where I like to stretch before heading back home. I took my time, luxuriating in a Sunday afternoon with no pressure to be anywhere at any particular time. Then I headed back, and looked up to see if the falcon was still there.

Perched high above me, it was absorbed in pulling apart the wren, which it had captured after all. Feathers floated down in small clouds, too far away now to catch. The light was fading, so the falcon was a silhouette on the branch, holding down a barely distinguishable shape with its talons, pulling up strings of meat with its beak, allowing the occasional wing to unfold from the pile of flesh and feathers, then collapse again.

I was transfixed. And, like a fairy tale –the Narnia chronicles, or Where the Wild Things Are, when a child visits a magical kingdom and thinks perhaps he’s dreamed it, until he finds some evidence in the waking world that proves it was real – I tucked those first few feathers into my shirt. Here they are, this really happened, right here in Sligo Creek, just a mile from the border of Washington, D.C.

We run or bike through this park every day, we drive our cars along the highway beside the creek, we go to work and come home and make dinner and all the while, the natural world carries on, swooping to catch prey and tear it apart high above where we live our lives. Glimpsing this magical realm gives me hope: The world’s rhythms are far steadier than anything we could ever conjure ourselves, and reach far deeper than we might imagine.

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