Two birds flew past me—a bald eagle and a great blue heron. They were awe inspiring, graceful, and heartbreakingly beautiful. About a mile from home, I was sitting on a rusting steel I-beam atop the concrete abutment of the lower Collinsville dam on the west side of Connecticut’s Farmington River. Long abandoned, the structure hasn’t generated a kilowatt in half a century. I perch here often and lose my thoughts in the sound of the falls and hypnotic rushing water. Winging by in such a mesmerizing moment, the birds suddenly and strangely transformed into metaphors. Within my imagination the symbolic became strangely as palpable as the flesh and feathered creatures themselves.
Just after noon, the sun blazed summer hot and unmitigated by clouds. A bald eagle flew upstream in light so strong that its white head and tail glowed brightly enough to make the rest of the bird disappear. It followed the river upstream until almost out of sight. Then it circled back so low over the slack water behind the dam that its reflection on the river was as clear and luminous as the raptor itself. Gliding over the concrete barrier, its mirror image was broken in the rocky riffles and curling whitewater below.
Not long after the eagle disappeared around a bend, a great blue heron emerged from the same spot and flew upriver; long neck coiled back, slender legs extended. With leisurely and steady wing beats it appeared to move in slow motion. Unlike the eagle, it seemed to absorb the light rather than reflect it. My eyes followed the bird as if in a trance. Having emerged from where the eagle disappeared just a few minutes earlier, I wondered whether the first bird had transformed itself into the second.
Perhaps I’m unduly influenced by our national culture, but the eagle struck my imagination as regal, powerful, and resplendent with light and rationality. The heron, by contrast, seemed mysterious, intuitive, dark, and almost prehistoric. I believed that I understood the commanding presence of the eagle, but the heron remained inscrutable. In a dreamlike way I had stumbled onto the living juxtaposition of the Apollonian and Dionysian which seems to explain more to philosophers than commonly needs explaining.
Sometimes the conjunction of a place, a moment, and other lives interrupt our routine ways of looking and stretch our sense of space, time, and meaning. Sure, I’m projecting myself into creatures that live and die regardless of anthropocentric fantasies. But, how else am I to fly?
(Thanks to Leo Kulinski, nature photographer par excellence, for the heron and eagle images)