A Wing and a Prayer

Author: Jake Page

“She’ll be fighting mad,” the healer said. She had broken both her radius and ulna, or what we think of as the forearm, and the healer had set it and waited several months for it to knit itself back together. Now it was time for her to go back into the world, and it fell to my wife Susanne and me to accompany her. She was a red-tailed hawk.

When we fetched her, she was in a cardboard carton that said “Bird Inside,” so we didn’t get a look at her. In her carton, she was placed carefully on the back seat of our car where she would remain silent and in the dark for the next couple of hours, responding only to the pressure of braking with a short scrabbling of talons on cardboard. She was part of what has become a fairly routine operation in these parts, at the center of which is the healer, a woman named Shirley who got started helping put wounded raptors back together again 20 years or so ago and has since made it her exclusive, full-time life’s work.

On any given day, she will have several hawks, eagles or owls in rehab, inhabiting large and small flight cages her husband has erected on their property. Here I saw my first Mexican spotted owl, that creature that has pitted more people against one another in the West than Helen did in Troy. The owl has eyes that are a deep black, so deep you would imagine they were portals to another universe. Inside her house Shirley often has another few smaller raptors like kestrels (what I used to call sparrow hawks) healing in cages and, down the hall, she has created a bird emergency room that would make any veterinarian proud.

Shirley is so busy these days watching over her patients that she often enlists others to collect an injured bird and bring it in for repairs, these messengers obtaining an official permit to do this from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The raptors come from all over the Southwest so sometimes it takes a real team. For example, an injured hawk is taken to a guy in Clovis, a town near where New Mexico gives way to Texas (and where, incidentally, they found the first signs of the ice-age hunter called Clovis Man, who has been accused of hunting the continent’s woolly mammoths to extinction). Shirley would ask the guy to drive the bird 80-odd miles to Fort Summer (where Pat Garrett ended the short, violent and overrated life of Billy the Kid). There he would be met by another person in Shirley’s far-flung empire of volunteers who would take the next leg — 120 miles to Moriarty (which was not named for Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis but for a rheumatic sheep rancher who died there in 1932). Meanwhile, my wife, Susanne, is dispatched to Moriarty for the last leg, bringing the injured bird the final 60-some miles to Shirley’s emergency room outside Albuquerque. In all, this calls for more than 500 miles of driving.
For a bird. Not what you would expect, perhaps, from a state like New Mexico that still brags a bit on its macho, violent history.

The red-tailed hawk silently waiting in the cardboard carton had come originally from the mountain country of northern New Mexico, near the town of Questa, which is about 7500 feet above sea-level and where most residents would call such birds_ halcones_. The town abuts the Carson National Forest, which constitutes what amounts to the southern terminus of the Rocky Mountains. Up there are plenty of conifers and other trees and all the rodents and other goodies a red-tailed hawk requires to make a living, soaring overhead, emitting the eagle-like squeal - cree-e-e — that you hear on the soundtrack of virtually every movie about the West that Robert Redford has ever made, bless him. (You’ve got to like a man who likes eagles and hawks.)

There aren’t many kinds of raptors more commonly seen than the red-tail. It is one of the most widely dispersed of all hawks, and it is happy in more different kinds of habitats than any other hawk on the continent. So this was not a dramatic rescue of an endangered species.

Shirley pointed out that when this hawk came to her with broken wing she was pretty docile. But now she was okay, her hollow bones having been set and healed, and we had better watch the talons when we opened the box. Shirley gave us her Global Positioning Satellite machine and sent us off to a place called Sandstone Bluff, which we could see from a map was about 90 miles to the west.
As we were passing through a jam-packed residential sprawl nearing Route 40 West, Susanne looked over at me and said “Jane Whitefield.”

I played for time (unsuccessfully), and Susanne reminded me that a man named Thomas Perry has written a wonderful series of thrillers featuring a half-Mohawk woman named Jane Whitefield, who is expert in helping people get a new identity and disappear. These are people who are (for the most part) innocent but badly threatened owing to one circumstance or another. Her rule is never to relocate someone in a place that is anything like where they once lived.

A snowbound suburb of Minneapolis suddenly commandeered my mind, followed by an image of Queens, New York, as seen from the highway slicing through it from LaGuardia Airport to Manhattan. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with either place, but I surely, within a half-hour at most, would wither on a vine in either, having adopted New Mexico, where open spaces are never much more than a half-hour away. On the other hand, I noted that there was no reason yet at least why I should hide.

And then of course my thoughts turned to the hawk that we were liberating, yes, but relocating as well. Sandstone Bluff overlooks a national monument called El Malpais, which means the Badlands. To be precise, it is nothing much more than a huge lava flow. Sure, plants have done their miraculous number and have grown on the bare lava. Sure, there’s no hunting (by humans) in a national monument. But what kind of hunting will there be there for a hawk? She learned to hunt in the mountains, a relatively moist place with its own suite of mammals and birds and other prey. What good was a lava flow? Why were we supposed to take her there?

Well, ours not to reason why, but simply to open the box, watch the talons, mark the exact spot via the GPS (a detail demanded by Fish and Wildlife) and go home. But what makes Fish and Wildlife think the hawk is going to stay nearby where we let her out, I wondered. No doubt she’ll head for the Zuni Mountains rising miles across the lava flow. And anyway, what if there’s already a female hawk in the neighborhood? What then? Questions cascaded.

As soon as we hit Route 40, however, most of the frets subsided. Once we headed west at 75 miles per hour, the world opening up ahead of us, the long vista over the earth’s gentle wrinkles, the red rocks not yet in sight but ever reliably doing their Henry Moore act out there . . . Indian country . . . after 30-odd years of accelerating up the ramp onto Route 40 (and more than a century since the official closing of the American frontier — now discredited as a shaper of character), we both still get that particular sensation of being unleashed, of Liliputian trusses unraveling and falling away. Possibilities. Promise. It’s a different feeling than you get crossing the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan into Fort Lee, New Jersey.

I hoped the hawk might feel something akin to the way we did, but then how could she, sitting in the dark in a box?

Before long we reached the general vicinity of Mount Taylor, an old volcano that commands the horizon for 80 or more miles all around it. You can see it from the airport in Albuquerque, and it heaves in and out of sight as you make your way west over those wrinkles I mentioned. And then you see the blood.

Mount Taylor’s real name is Tsoodzil, which is Navajo for Blue Bead Mountain. It was here in myth-time that a heroic pair of twins ran up against the biggest of the giants who roamed the land and who all had to be dispatched before the world could be safe for Navajo people. With some timely help from their father, the Sun, the twins slew the monster at Tsoodzil, and his blood flowed copiously, darkening as it hardened into the ragged black litter along Route 40 that non-Navajos persist in calling lava. The world was born in violence, as all good mythmakers and geologists know, though some people would prefer it otherwise.

Which thoughts led, however fleetingly (I don’t spend all my time fretting), to the notion that we were about to unleash a spectacularly violent creature into whatever serenity might exist in El Malpais. Our female red-tailed hawk could be expected to go after any small mammal out there, along with medium-size to small birds (even — gasp! — a bluebird) and all manner of reptiles such as snakes. These she would pursue from a height of about 100 feet, swooping down, talons out, at about 120 miles per hour. Nowadays we all know that no ecosystem can pass moral muster unless it contains predators at the top of the food chain. Indeed, the prey-predator “relationship” is seen as wholly benign from this lofty viewpoint. But seen by the hapless vole or sparrow, cringing as the talons arrive like Hollywood’s most appalling special effects? Even those most gentle scientists, the ecologists, can be a bit macho.

Well, I thought to myself, executing a perfect, spiraling moral punt as we swung off Route 40 onto the road to the Badlands, someone with an even loftier view is reputed to watch out for sparrows.

Our destination is not a result of heroics at Tsoodzil but of a smaller, more recently active volcano. The lava lies in a long north-south-running swath across a low area between mesas and small mountains, some of which reach about 8,000 feet. (At least the elevation might be about the same for our relocatee, if not the landscape.) One ventures out on such lava flows only in the most hardy footwear and returns afterward with the footwear in tatters. It is black, sharp, jagged, raw, shiny, unforgiving stuff — indeed, monstrous, one might say. Whizzing by it at a safe distance, I thought idly about the wonderful defiance of the plant world: imagine a sage seed believing it could erect from a small pocket of dust in this utterly horrible place the grand superstructure of a shrub.

I know seeds don’t have beliefs, any more that bushes or hawks have moral frets, but you know what I mean, right?

A mile or so from our destination, overhead, we see a soaring hawk and, yes, the sun is glowing through its coppery red tail. A mate? A competitor? Never mind.

Sandstone Bluff is yellow sandstone, sensual yellow curves and nooks looking out over the lava-filled valley, maybe 500 or more feet above it, a vertigiously steep drop-off. Twisted silver carcasses of old cedar trees lay curled in the rock, and live cedars, equally gnarled, stand by. From this place you can see as much as 25 miles. We don’t feel we have much time to admire the place, or scope it out from our version of a hawk’s perspective. She’s been in that box now for at least two hours.

We put the box on a flat place on the sandstone, about five feet from the precipice. Before I have the cardboard flaps completely open, she bursts out, erupting silently into the air maybe three feet above the box and, in a matter of seconds, a few athletic wingbeats, she disappears around a higher promontory of yellow rock some hundred feet away, into the vast, oceanic silence of the place. Below us, all around us, nothing moved that we could see.

The hawk was free again and, besides the ludicrously accurate GPS coordinates and elevation we dutifully recorded, that’s all we knew. For better or for worse, the red-tail was on her own again . . . and with far better eyesight than ours. Potential. Promise.

A small thing, to be sure, in any reckoning of the earth’s accounts — but then I suppose that depends on whose point of view you’re talking about. In any event, the hawk’s world and ours no longer overlapped. It was lunchtime, so we grabbed a hotdog on Route 40 and drove home. Shirley needed her GPS device. Someone else would be taking a rehabbed owl out somewhere that evening.

Jake Page is editor of the recently released Harry N. Abrams book,Sacred Lands of Indian America.