smaller than a heart should be

Stay where you are, you lit fuse,
you dull spark of saltpeter and sulfur.

-Michael Collier, “Brave Sparrow”

As a child, I fell asleep every night dreaming vividly of flying, taking off from the edge of a mountain and soaring over forests and meadows. As an adult, the older I get, the more I think about the lives of birds, creatures I never gave much thought to until my mid-twenties or so. When I moved from Atlanta to the D.C. area, I was surprised at the number of crows. These big, noisy, black birds were always arguing with each other on the open green space of the campus mall at the University of Maryland. And surprisingly, seagulls found their way inland to congregate in the parking lots, near dumpsters, looking for stray french fries and pizza crusts. A pair of doves and a pair of cardinals always returned to our back yard in the spring, the doves making what my mom called silly noises for such a big bird. Generally, it seemed the only thing the birds had to worry about was finding enough to eat and avoiding the occasional neighborhood cat.

Then one day something bizarre happened. I was walking back to my office from class, cutting across the mall, when what looked like a whirling clump of white and brown feathers fell to the ground not ten feet from me. A hawk had intercepted a seagull in midflight, and now the two of them lay on the ground, the hawk’s claws sinking into the gull’s chest while the gull flapped its wings futilely against its attacker. Stunned, I watched the struggle for less then a minute before continuing on to my afternoon’s responsibilities. Later, I saw a pile of seagull feathers on the other end of campus, the only memorial to the bird’s fate.

I hate to see suffering, and I try to avoid wearing or eating animals. But there’s no denying that they eat each other when given the chance. And when I see the bumper stickers that read “May all beings be free of suffering,” I can’t help but think that this is a naive sentiment. If the seafull was freed from suffering, what would happen to the hawk? Violence and death seem to be part of the order of the universe, even though humans, as potentially moral creatures, can choose to minimize their contributions of either.

The incident with the hawk and seagull happened during a stressful period of my life. Like everyone at the time, I was still dealing with the emotional fallout of 9/11 just a few months earlier. Additionally, my parents had announced they were getting a divorce, and my grandfather had recently died. It wasn’t that I was feeling sorry for myself. Rather, I was worried about others, trying to come to terms with why there was so much needless suffering in the world and feeling powerless to do anything about it.

Not long after seeing the hawk kill the seagull, I happened to see some small birds perched on the side of a building, and I immediately had the irrational thought that I should somehow warn them about the hawk, tell them to be on the lookout. They had no defenses against predators, no way to fight back, just skinny little legs and a small beak. What could they do if attacked? Then I realized that they already knew this, if little chirpy birds can be said to “know” anything. They didn’t live their lives frozen by constant fear, unable to forage for food, build their nests, feed their young, fly around in mysterious patterns that confound scientists. No, they just went about their business, wary to be sure, knowing that there are hawks somewhere who may or may not want to eat them, but fulfilling their chirpy duties anyway.

And I thought, “Well, I could learn a lot from a sparrow.”

[Cross-posted at KC Bloggers.]

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One thought on “smaller than a heart should be

  1. Hardly the point of your post, but something worth adding… Several years ago, my parents had a family of Red Shouldered Hawks living in the backyard. My mom is quite the backyard ornithologist, so, she’d learned quite a bit about their mating patterns and where they typically nest, etc. The hawks returned each spring for at least 3 or 4 years, until one morning my mom woke up and didn’t see the hawks going about their normal morning affairs. She took a walk out to the back of the yard where the nest had been. Strewn all across the dead leaves in the wooded area were feathers, bits of bird, and destroyed nest material. Something ate the female hawk and all the babies in the nest.
    My mom wasn’t the only one who was distraught. Only a little while after my mom went back into the house, she was watching out the kitchen window and saw the male hawk return from his morning hunt for food. He returned to where the nest had been… and looked confused. He flew from branch to branch, down to the ground, back up again… and then started calling. My mom says that she’d never heard grief like the hawks’.
    Mom followed up to see what in the world could have killed the family of hawks. Apparently owls find baby hawks a delicacy. A barn owl had taken out the entire family. This many years later, we can hear the owl’s call throughout the neighborhood. More interestingly, the one surviving male hawk returns to my parents’ back yard every year.

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