My son and I sat on a jetty in the Potomac River at Westmoreland State Park taking a break during a hike. The sun was strong and the water still, and the sky so clear the horizon out on the Chesapeake faded to something like royal blue. We had walked sandy trails on hilly terrain for a few hours, through seagrass and hardwoods, and ended at a retreat area where a man fished for spot and talked about not catching anything, though he clearly understood Thoreau’s decree that “many men go fishing all their lives not knowing that it is not fish they are after.”
We climbed further along the rocks to the end, and we rested there for quite some time and talked about nothing, about other places up the Potomac to hike, about art and writing, and about how we were surrounded by some of the most picturesque scenery we had seen in some time, and I laughed at how my photographer son neglected to bring a camera. We laughed a bit and turned toward the river where gulls and a late-season osprey had been feeding about fifty yards out.
Just then from the east an adult bald eagle swept down in what I swear seemed like slow motion, and as the gulls and osprey flew off, the eagle grabbed a fish out of the water with his talons, swept back on high in perfect grace, and glided up toward the top of some hundred feet tall trees just to our right, where another eagle had been circling, and they both landed on neighboring branches. It was a scene from some nature show, a National Geographic special. It was one of those moments Sartre said can “hang in empty space like a diamond,” one in which you brainlessly repeat “Did you see that?” and then sit in silence hoping somehow to slow the whole thing down.
Incredibly and beautifully simple: An eagle glided in slow motion in front of us, grabbed a fish, glided off to the east and up into a tree nearby where another waited to dine. A basic act repeated by all birds of prey everywhere, every day, but this time we sat on the rocks jettying into the Potomac and almost could feel the push of wind from his wings the way John Muir wrote that “the winds will blow their own freshness into you…while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
I never asked the fisherman if he saw the eagles. I’m certain he sees them every day, again and again. He sees them.
We’ve done our share of hiking, of seeing wildlife and wild places. While these times of Covid have somehow careened our lives back onto the same path for awhile, we have hiked our share of wilderness long before this age of corona. We climbed the hills north of Irkutsk at Lake Baikal up to Chersky’s Rock and stared out through the misty afternoon across eastern Siberia, which Chekhov wrote is a place he would prefer never to leave. We walked almost entirely uphill for twenty miles in one day out of southern France into the Pyrenees and then another four weeks across Spain to the Atlantic, wandering through villages and walled, medieval cities, desert-like terrain, and pasture after pasture.
But through the years it has always been the Chesapeake region, my adopted home and Michael’s birthplace, that we’ve trekked. And at the heart of it all has always been the walk from our home to the river. We’ve seen enough sunsets on the Rappahannock to chronicle two decades of life here, and we’ve risen early to see our share of sunrises surfacing across the bay from Stingray Point.
France. Spain. Russia. Even eastern Quebec when he was young and we’d hike the hills behind Montmorency Falls, and in all of these, the locale, while beautiful and unforgettable, and even transformative as a good walk should be, was never the point of the matter. It was the silence, the understanding that the hike in the hills is more of a way to find ourselves and what grounds us than to discover any new paths there may be. To know nature, as those before—the Cossacks, the Celts, the Mohawks, and the Powhatans—understood nature, the rivers and wildlife; that’s what runs under the surface, weaves itself seamlessly into our narrative.
When I first spent a winter to build our home up in these woods I call “Aerie,” which is a hawk’s or eagle’s nest, I would take breaks and walk to the river. One time I returned, not long after the logs for the home had been stacked and the frame for the second floor completed, but the roof was not yet done, I wandered down the long winding driveway and saw an eagle perched on the gable. I stopped in the dead-still chill of that February day and watched him clean his feathers for a minute until he was aware of my presence. He looked back at me without moving for more than a moment, as if he had been waiting for me to get back from the water so he could welcome me home. Then he glided off the roof with barely a twitch of his wings and headed out over the trees toward the bay.
It’s a wonder that I will never tire of, the way he sits just watching, out on the edge of the rocks, taking it all in, so very aware, and then always before I am ready, he lifts himself up, pushes time behind him, pushes memories and happenings, and everything we know behind him to glide out on his own and see what’s out there.