The Radiant Life With Animals

One of my grandmothers was an eagle, a golden eagle. From the beginning she and I knew one another in a particular and mysterious manner of kinship. In all her injured shining, she was the “killer bird” the veterinary school didn’t want to handle, and so they sent her to the rehabilitation center where I worked.

Sigrid, the woman who created the facility, took the eagle out from the cardboard box in which the bird arrived, speaking gently the entire time. Reaching in, holding the bird’s legs, she lifted the eagle out of the closed-in darkness.

photo of a woman in front of a microphonephoto Fall for the Book / MC Photography

“Some killer bird,” she said, smoothing the feathers down around the eagle’s face and eyes, comforting the beautiful golden with her kind words. She cleaned the dirty beak with her own ungloved and vulnerable fingers. The membrane closed over the eagle’s eyes in relief.

One wing we pulled open to a wide and magnificent spread of feathers. The other wing drooped, clearly broken, probably from an automobile.

When the eagle was moved out of intensive care, she was placed into the flight cage with many other eagles. But this one never flew. Instead, she leapt up and claimed a tree stump for her perch. She remained with us a long while and I helped look after her, taking her food, checking the claws for problems.

The wing was too broken for flight, but we always hoped for healing. We believed in impossibilities. Perhaps that was part of the magic of a world that revolved around birds, magic that sometimes made a broken life whole. We called it a wing and a prayer. If nothing else, we wished for the absence of pain and the life of the bird for education purposes.

As the eagle stood on that trunk of tree, I brought food to her, cleaned the ground around her, and picked up the undigested pellets she spit up that contained the bones, claws, and the fur of animal remains. These birds need a diet of total animal, all parts.

As with all the great birds, I knew the possibilities of injury to myself: the claws, the sharp beaks. But I never felt afraid or endangered. Some days as I bent down below her to clean the ground, she held the healthy wing out over me with care, so kindly, so wide and perfectly feathered that even as I felt the comfort, the broken wing seemed even more heartbreaking. One day I called her Grandmother. The name remained. Soon she was called Grandmother by everyone. And like a grandmother, there were times she tried to straighten my hair to be sleek enough for flight, the way she would have done with her young.

But she required something of me in return. Grandmother, like all of the animals I have known, maybe even more, required that when I enter, I be present with fullness, with all my heart and being. I learned to stop outside the door before entering the enormous flight cage, stopping long enough to place myself in a quiet balance.

In my life with many different animals, I found that each species I have met prefers those who have an internal peace, a wholeness, people who do not dwell too strongly in the chattering mind. After many years of work with different species, I have considered this state of human being and its place inside and without us. Perhaps, from the animal soul, it is the human mind that is the hard-edged and dangerous part of us. It can be as devious as it can be beautiful and creative. The human mind can plan threats as well as artistic works, cruelty in place of gentleness. It can hate as deeply as it can love. In contemplating human thought, we haven’t designated what the mind might wholly contain, just as we can’t say where the human spirit truly dwells.

But animals recognize the soul of the human and know when we are fully present, know our intent, even our caring. They see us completely.

Linda Hogan (Chickasaw) is the author of 16 books of poetry, essays, and fiction. She has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Excerpted from “The Radiant Life with Animals” to be published in Keepers of the Green World: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Sustainability, edited by Melissa K. Nelson and Dan Shilling for Cambridge University Press, 2016.

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