Thursday, July 31, 2014


Beast rolled over 90,000 miles yesterday. At the end of September, it will be eleven years since I got her, and it looks likely we'll pass 100,000 by the end of the year...barring another winter like last year's.

Still running strong.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Hawks

It’s been some time since that early morning when we were working in the far garden and first noticed the odd, persistent noise coming from up in the pines.

We set aside what we were doing and went to investigate, having learned some years ago that unusual noises are unusual for a reason, and generally bear investigation. At the edge of the great corridor in the pines, in the first rank of towering trees bordering the gravel driveway, high above the ground was a rough nest of twigs, branches and pine needles.
Our old, familiar breeding pair of hawks—I still don’t know the exact type of hawk—who we have seen in the vicinity of the pines off and on over recent years, was in residence. With them were at least two young.

A brief digression: A baby hawk is called an ‘Eyas.’ The plural form is ‘Eyasses.’ The female mother is simply known as a ‘hen,’ while the father is called a ‘Tierce*.’

With binoculars, we could intermittently see two small, fuzzy heads with bright, fierce eyes and angry little beaks peering through the branches. If I made a small clicking sound, they would look about alertly for the source. From day to day we could monitor their progress and growth amid all the squeaking and crying and calling; we moved a pair of chaise longues nearby to better observe the aerie at length in comfort. It was hypnotic to observe them for extended periods, peering almost vertically into the canopy where they flitted from branch to branch and tree to tree.

The Eyasses became more bird-like with each passing day, at first exploring tentatively. They would fall off branches awkwardly, tumbling briefly before unfurling their novel wings and converting from ballistic objects to aerodynamic bodies. Clearly, at the outset, flying does not come naturally or easily to them; it’s not their first choice or natural mode. Sitting still in the warm sun and having hot meals brought to them is their obvious preference. But all good things must come to an end.

Within about ten days, maybe two weeks, the Eyasses were flying freely and skillfully among the pines. At one point there erupted a torrent of calls in multiple voices from the aerie.

We investigated, assuming from the character of the noise that a feeding was happening. In fact, there was, though the actual meal was obscured from our view. One hawk, age and gender uncertain, perched on the edge of the nest, tearing bits of flesh and gulping them down voraciously. A second hawk approached, eager to join in the feast. But the first would have none of that. One angry cry, one swift shove with an open foot, and the interloper simply slides backwards off the branch, falling a good five feet before remembering those things attached at its shoulders and taking flight with a cry of indignation.

Now we hear the plaintive squeaks ranging farther and farther afield from the aerie. The binding ties are loosening, and the eyasses must be near fully fledged. What becomes of juvenile hawks? Do they stay in the neighborhood? Must they compete with their parents over a limited territory, with the result that the young must move along to more sparsely inhabited realms?

Yesterday, I think I only heard the distinctive cry once; Mary says she heard them a few times during the day. They seem to be spreading out, moving farther from the nest. I keep listening, waiting, thinking I’ll be lucky enough to catch another glimpse of them perched in the branches of the pines. We’ll see what happens; this gets filed along with the two other significant hawk-related sitings—the migratory kettle in, what, 2010? And last January’s close encounter in the Turkey yard. What beautiful birds they are.

* According to Helen MacDonald in "H is for Hawk," this comes from the root of 'third,' as the male hawk is a third smaller than the female hawk.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Willful Ignorance

Ever since sometime around fourth grade, maybe (when the Commonwealth of Virginia mandated that we be taught the History and Geography of the Commonwealth, and Miss Carver, bless her reactionary heart, executed that mandate), my mind and spirit have been drawn to those low dusky ranges to our west.

From a dozen or so strategic vantage points in the outer suburbs, you can cast your eye westward—there's a feeling I get when I look to the west—and see them undulate along the horizon from gap to ridge, the measure of detail depending on exactly where you are looking from. Regardless, whenever the opportunity presents itself I will at least glance towards those modest mountains, and remember countless days spent hiking and exploring the long wooded spine of Virginia.

So it was with a certain amount of chagrin that only within the last year or so I have had to confront my own willful ignorance of the true nature of Northern Virginia's geology and geography.

What I have viewed so wistfully on so many occasions from the outer suburbs, more often than not, is in fact Bull Run Mountain. Technically the easternmost constituent of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Bull Run Mountain is the southern extension of the Catoctin Mountains, which run northward through Maryland towards Pennsylvania, and peter out and die towards the south around New Baltimore, Virginia.

What I recall hiking on and exploring is the Blue Ridge proper, that broader, longer and taller range some twenty or thirty miles farther towards the west across the rolling Piedmont. Bull Run, Blue Ridge, Massanutten, Alleghenies. While Bull Run Mountain comes and goes in a short distance, the main process of the Blue Ridge extends more or less uninterrupted from Alabama to the Maritimes before diving beneath the waves and heading towards Iceland. It is that range that carries the Appalachian Trail, that hosts Shenandoah National Park, and that accretes so many things of beauty along its forest-draped flanks and hollows.

I was forced to confront my willful ignorance when we started regularly traveling the flank of Bull Run Mountain, and I began to recognize it as an entity in its own right with its own charm and distinctive nature. I also had to try and understand exactly how my brain had managed to willfully ignore the countless times I crossed that twenty of thirty miles of rolling valley without mentally acknowledging the two different sets of mountains. Amusingly, I am fairly certain that of all the places and times I have hiked and explored, exactly one was on Bull Run Mountain, it was short, it was utterly unremarkable and it is now almost completely forgotten.

 I laugh to myself now when I look westward. My new understanding of the true nature of gently rolling Virginia doesn't materially change the feeling it gives me to look towards the mountains. In fact, it increases my appreciation, now that I know it in greater, more honest, detail without abridgement or elision. It still makes me happy to look out and see Bull Run Mountain, knowing that just behind it, somewhat obscured by the turn of the earth's surface, lie what I always used to think I was seeing.

Never too old to learn, never too old to recover from a mistake.