We’d been living in Phoenicia a couple years before my first religious experience of seeing a bald eagle. It was winter, early 2004. On a gray afternoon, I’m driving the family Subaru along freshly plowed Plank Road, aka Route 212. The Esopus is to my left, clearly visible through the bare trees. I’m in a foul mood.
My mind tells me something massive is circling the water. I spy a bright white head, and although I’ve never seen one in three dimensions, I know immediately what it is, and what it’s doing: It’s a bald eagle, and it’s fishing. My heart pounds. I make a series of high-pitched simian noises.
I have the presence of mind to pull over, but not the presence of mind to realize there’s no shoulder, just a berm of plowed snow over a ditch, which I’ve either forgotten or don’t care about. In any case, the axles grind and I dimly realize I’m stuck and will need assistance to get home. But, again: I do not care.
I hop out into the chill and lean against my car to watch the eagle. It’s then I notice a white Chevy van has parked behind me, and the driver – a thirtyish guy in coveralls – is hopping out to lean against his vehicle and do what I was doing. No words pass between us.
This is my first sighting of a species I was told throughout my childhood and young adulthood would soon be extinct due to DDT. I may as well be seeing a pterodactyl. It moves as if underwater, barely pumping its wings. I am a child.
I’d not realized how I’d grieved this majestic species’ supposedly imminent demise due to human folly, how deep the inevitable tragedy had sunk. But it must have, because seeing this eagle is like the ecstatic communing in a dream with someone who’s passed on – a sense of reunion, of “There’s been a terrible mistake, everyone was wrong, you’re actually still alive.”
Except this is real. I can barely process it.
I don’t know how I know this, but: the eagle is aware we’re watching it. It glances over for a millisecond. Something inside me bends beneath the weight of its yellow gaze. I feel the same from the stranger, our presences combined.
I have no idea how long we watch. Each circle over the creek reels us further in, until the eagle alights on a birch about 20 feet away, folds its wings, and gazes at us full on. We both take a sharp, involuntary breath.
In its presence, I am free. No vindictiveness, no ill will toward anyone, no worries, no regrets.
After some immeasurable moments, the eagle unfolds his wings and launches himself skyward, sending glistening bits of ice flying from the recoiling branch. He makes one wide circle over the Esopus and heads west, releasing our attention, disappearing in low-hanging clouds.
My companion and I spontaneously laugh. In a few monosyllables, he communicates he realizes I’m stuck. He produces a hemp rope, with which he tows me out. No fuss, no muss, very little conversation. Words seem weird and unnecessary. That said, I do thank him, and he smiles and drives away.
I have passed that spot quite a lot since, and I almost always recall that afternoon. The days and weeks before it, and after: not so much. But that span of time with the eagle and the stranger, however long it was, is forever.