On Bald Eagles and Independence Day
I’ve never been the traditionally patriotic type, my nature is likely far too cynical for that. Even as a child, I always thought the displays of unabashed nationalism were by far the least interesting part of Independence Day celebrations. I did, and still do, prefer the barbeque and baseball aspects of the holiday far more than the soldier deifying and flag waving, both of which tend to make me somewhat uncomfortable.
That’s certainly not to say I don’t have a deep admiration for the framers of the Constitution, especially when one considers the prevailing wisdom of the times and the context in which they were operating, or an abiding respect for those members of the armed forces who put themselves in harm’s way regardless of the policies that put them there. That in this day and age these things have to be clarified is unfortunate, but any public statements that can be read as critical of the nation have to be qualified lest one be characterized as a terrorist and shipped off to Gitmo. See what I mean about cynical?
No, perhaps the best part of Independence Day is the high profile given to the Bald Eagle, that noble bird that graces the Great Seal of the United States. The bird, that since the nation’s inception, that has been associated with the ethos of the citizens of this land. The story is a famous one; that despite Benjamin Franklin’s case that the Wild Turkey would be a better choice, the founding fathers were swayed by the sturdy brow, the fierce demeanor of the Bald Eagle rather then the truly bald, largely earthbound Turkey. A contentious issue to be sure, and obviously one of great importance whose ramifications echo down the hallways of history. It begs the question; Would our nation be different had we gone with Turkey rather than the Eagle?
Allow me to editorialize. On reflection, the Bald Eagle is perhaps an appropriate bird to represent the current state of the union as we wish to appear. The Bald Eagle appears noble, it appears fearsome with impressive talons and enormous yellow hooked beak. From afar, a perched Bald Eagle inspires wonder as it surveys its surroundings. On the wing, it’s carried beyond its station to look over the world from above, quick to respond when moved to do so. The Bald Eagle is the consummate provider on the nest, the cruel tools of death commandeered to ensure the survival of the next generation, who in turn will become majestic examples of all that is good and virtuous and always shall be so.
And what of the Wild Turkey? The slightly dumb but well-meaning fowl is likely closer to how the rest of the world sees Americans on our better days. Even in the 18th Century Franklin saw this, and perhaps even foresaw how the blatantly face painted, lack of self-consciousness, bordering on arrogant American national mentality could use the humility the Wild Turkey would provide when proudly emblazoned on seals and coins. We know all too well how our national leaders too often see themselves as Eagles, but come off as Turkeys. Or perhaps not as the Eagle is perceived, but as it really is.
We birders know a different bird. Even Ben Franklin had an inkling, calling the Eagle “a rank coward” and “a bird of bad moral character”. While I wouldn’t go as far as Franklin, there’s some truth to his characterization. The Bald Eagle, while cutting an imposing figure, is a typical predator, and as such, prefers not to hunt when it can steal. Why waste the energy? There’s not much of what we call “honor” in nature, merely survival by whatever means necessary. The Bald Eagle, by virtue of its size, is the chief thief among the raptors, and survives very well, at least when not exposed to DDT.
One doesn’t have to stretch to see the point I’m making here. Along with so many other Americans I cringe far too often at the country we’ve become, at the country we’ve allowed ourselves to become. The nation that once aspired to the self-reliant, free, far-sighted aspects that the Bald Eagle represents has now reduced itself to the other side of the coin; the mugger, the looter, the bully. Through woefully misguided policies, both foreign and domestic, we stand on the precipice of the unknown. And I worry. Thoughts that when I allow myself to indulge fully in them verge on some sort of existential depression. The news seems all bad, and often overwhelmingly so.
When I was in Middle School I read a book called Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, a modern parable about our relationship with the Earth. The plot revolves around a guy who talks to a gorilla. I know, sounds weird, but if you haven’t read it you should, right now, seriously. I probably didn’t understand most of it back then, but one of the stories within a story that resonates with me still is one in which our modern civilization is compared to an early flying machine, the kind that didn’t really fly, but perhaps didn’t crash right away either.
Anyway, the machine is our civilization, with fancy bells and whistles, and we’re all in it working madly to keep the wings flapping because, you see, we’ve pushed ourselves off a very high cliff in the full expectation that we’re going to fly. But we’re not flying, we’re falling. We just haven’t realized it yet, and we’re accelerating towards the ground because we haven’t figured out how to beat the law of gravity, the rules we have to live by to survive. And the closer we get to the ground, the more people look up and realize things aren’t going so well and maybe we should do something about it. Sometimes I feel too much like those people who are looking up to see the ground rushing towards them.
You see how it’s easy to get trapped inside your own mind here. To feel the weight becoming more oppressive, especially on a day set-up to declare with full throats that everything is A-OK and we should all just shut up, stop asking questions and enjoy your day off and isn’t everything we’re doing just dandy, after all? But we have life preservers. Family and friends and birds and creative outlets. We have a system of government we can work with, and the means to do just that this Fall. We have the ideals that the Founding Fathers, men far ahead of their time, left for us to interpret. We have the hope that our flying machine only requires some hard work and perseverance so our landing is softer than the head on collision we look to be heading towards.
Or maybe, just maybe, we get this thing figured out. We’ll catch an updraft, turn our eyes to the horizon, and soar off into the future.
Just like the Bald Eagle we all want to be.