The Fox at Dawn

April 4, 2022: Leap of Faith

Over and over yesterday afternoon, eagles sailed in commanding circles over our heads, high and low, sometimes to warn off a Coopers Hawk, a Red Tail or a Black Vulture who shat midair at the close encounter. Mostly the eagles just wheeled and pivoted in the glory of the afternoon sun, taking turns on the nest to sit a spell longer.

I don’t live near mountains or out in the country. I live in Louisville, Kentucky a good-sized city on the Ohio River that grows larger every day. It’s the day after Tornado Day, a day you never forget to mark if you lived through it, April 3rd, 1974. 148 confirmed tornadoes ripped across 900 square miles in 24 hours, 30 of them were category F4/F5. My city was torn apart that day, but unless you know where to look, you wouldn’t guess it had ever happened. I’m sitting where I most like to be before dawn, at the picnic table in the Little Wood behind my house. Some of these trees made it through that long ago tornado that destroyed houses not a half block away. These trees are survivors.

I am on spring break, a teacher’s salvation. It feels so good not to be trundling off to school in the dark, instead I’m sitting here quietly until I drive my daughter to work at eight. I had a miserable night’s sleep, wrestling all night with anxieties and wretched dreams, but this morning I am listening to the White-Throated Sparrow sing its sweet song in the rising light of day. All around me wildflowers are blooming. Almost a hundred years ago, a woman who lived two doors down from me made it a habit to dig up flowers whenever she visited her family in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky and then plant them here in this little wood, this small sanctuary tucked away from the rest of the neighborhood. God bless her for it. They are still here, thriving- trillium, lady slipper, bloodroot, dwarf larkspur and cowslips are blooming now. I cannot help but feel hopeful, leaving the night’s fears behind.

After I finished my job at the church yesterday, I went to my friend Melissa’s house to see the eagle nest. She and her husband have been renting this house that sits high on a bluff looking over the Ohio. It’s part of the family compound owned by the little sister of my best friend in middle school, the friend who broke my heart in the 8th grade when she turned her back on me in favor of the cool girls. Lordie, how life folds back on itself when you grow old in your hometown. In the front yard of Melissa’s house there is a commanding pine tree chosen by an eagle pair for their nesting site. They started building in February. The nest is mostly obscured by the branches that hold it, it’s unknown if the eggs have hatched yet though they probably have. But it seems clear that the parents are taking turns sitting on the nest.

Standing below with my binoculars, I thought I could make out a white head deep in the nest, and then whoosh! Out the eagle swooped, making circles over the tree. It sang as it flew, a song I’d never heard before. My heart just thrilled to it. I can’t help remembering my longing to see Bald Eagles as a child, when they were terribly endangered. They had completely disappeared from Kentucky by the time I was born. All the pictures I saw of them came from Alaska or Canada. It seemed impossible that they should ever live in Kentucky again. I lived in Seattle, newly married, when I saw my first eagle in 1987. It was reported in the newspaper that a pair were nesting in Discovery Park, that enormous, wild, wonderful park that looks over Puget Sound on Magnolia Bluff. It was big news. The article didn’t say where in the park the nest was, but I wanted to find it so badly. One night I dreamt of the tree and the path that led to it. So, we went in search of it and I felt myself being led right to it, as if I knew where it was all along. There! The eagle nest! There! The eagle! We returned many times to look for them, to watch them hunt in the sound. I’ve seen Bald Eagles many times since then and it always stops my heart. To see them in my hometown makes me cry sometimes. They’re back! We didn’t kill them all! My daughter doesn’t understand, she rolls her eyes at my enthusiasm. To her, the fact of them is just a fact. Eagles on the Ohio River, big deal. Yes! Yes it is!

As a child of the 1970’s I had a stark awareness of the environmental apocalypse that was upon us. I have vivid memories of the rage I felt at seeing how casually people threw garbage out of the car windows as they drove down the street. Yes, that was a thing. Drink cans, bottles, bags of McDonald’s trash, cigarettes. God, the mounds of cigarette butts you’d find in parking lots and along the curb from people emptying their car ashtrays, the smell of car and bus exhaust- it turns my stomach to remember them. The wave of public service announcements about pollution at the start of the environmental movement worked well on the children of that decade- the “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute” campaign, the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign with its “Crying Indian” (who was, in fact, Italian-American, but never mind). While the PSAs may have done little to change corporate behavior, they did succeed in influencing individual and family behavior.  Children made their families clean up, I know we did. Trash was everywhere- the streets, the parks. The Beargrass Creek watershed was choked with garbage and the waters were poisoned, truly dangerous to wade in. Very little was able to live in those waters. I remember how we had to wear our Keds into lakes and rivers so we wouldn’t get cut by all the broken glass and the million pull tabs that lay like mines on Normandy beaches. I remember the orange haze of the air, a stinging veil that hung before your eyes. I remember the headaches and asthma attacks during field hockey practice in August. I remember the urgent air pollution warnings telling us to stay indoors, which don’t do much good when you have no air conditioning. I remember so much carelessness. The grown-ups just didn’t seem to care.

The Trump years were deeply painful for oh so many reasons. One of the worst for me was the rollback of so many environmental protections and the gutting of the EPA. The return of that utter disregard for the planet that reigned when I was a child. Things are so much better than they were, it anguished me to see the US slipping back towards that time. And things really are better- locally it is demonstrable that the air quality has improved since the Clean Air Act. That haze is very rare now. The waters are cleaner- there are beavers living on the Ohio River and along Beargrass Creek again. Yes, there is still trash, but it is much much better. And people who casually litter are outliers, not the norm.

It is easy to forget the progress that’s been made when so much darkness keeps piling on-  mass shootings, continuing climate collapse, racism, dysfunctional government, the ongoing pandemic, the rollback of reproductive rights, the censorship of books, people and ideas, the attempts to push LGBTQ+ folx back into the dark closets of society, the reprehensible war in Ukraine. There is much to be unhappy about, too much to carry. It’s disheartening. But yesterday I watched Bald Eagles fly above the front yard of a friend. I know the fish they pull from the Mighty Ohio will not be laced with DDT. The eggs they lay will not collapse before hatching. Soon we will be watching eaglets spread their wings and take that leap of faith from the nest. The child in me jumps up and cheers, the old woman I am becoming cheers with her.