NATURE: H is for hawk ... and human nature

I maintain a number of feeders and birdbaths and, in return, my avian visitors repay me with a glimpse into their lives. Playing, talking, mating, fighting - sometimes all at the same time! To contribute to their survival in this small way feels right and good.

So why, when a hawk swoops in to prey on them, am I rooting for the hawk?

This past summer, two juvenile Cooper's hawks learned to hunt in my backyard. Their mother would glide in, quiet as a whisper, and perch, invisible, in a tree. Her offspring, on the other hand, would announce their presence with excited squawks and a noisy flapping of wings before taking their position on the fence. The birds, of course, scattered to the four winds, laughing their heads off.

I was laughing too - at the same time that I was urging them to "Be quiet!" "Get in a tree!" "For Pete's sake, be a hawk!"

In other words, capture and kill the very creatures I've been giving sanctuary to.

I never observed the young hawks make a successful kill, though they continued to thrive. Their bellies plumped beneath buff feathers, their yellow talons grew into fearsome claws. Eventually, they left my yard and the neighborhood. Whenever I drove past a farm and espied a hawk hovering above a field, riding the air currents, I hoped it was one of them. Alive, hunting, glorifying in its hawk-ness, the nature of which I know to be fierce and pitiless, having once watched in fascination one bleak February day as a hawk tore into a sparrow, spattering the snow with bloodied flesh.

Winter is gradually overtaking autumn where I live. Morning frost covers the grass like a glazed doughnut. The last of the gold and crimson leaves fall forlornly to the ground. The sky gives one final gasp of boisterous orange and imperial purple before fading to black. The ghost of my breath wavers in the cold air. My lungs burn when I run.

I breathe. I have lungs. Two facts I don't generally give much thought to. But that's what winter does. It gets you where you live. The austere landscape reduces everything to essentials.

Helen Macdonald's book, "H Is For Hawk," explores the complexities of her relationship with her goshawk, Mabel. As a meditation on grief, it is achingly painful to read. But the simplicity of its title, reminiscent of a child's alphabet book, says it all. Our engagement with nature puts us in touch with the

elemental facts of human nature.

The hawk must kill.

This is right and good.

I felt this was right and good on a winter day.

I felt this was right and good on a beautiful summer afternoon.

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