This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
Several years ago, a friend and I climbed the high bluff above Brownsville, Minnesota. We stood at the edge of the bald top and looked far down where the channel of the Upper Mississippi curves in a wide “S” around sand bars and willow islands. We could see and the patterns woven across its surface by the warp and woof of wind and current.
By the time we noticed the bald eagle circling up from below, she had almost reached eye level. In that respect, eagles are like hummingbirds. It takes a while to sink in that they are really there. "That was a hummingbird," we say.
This was an eagle. In other ways, in size, and movement, no two birds could be more unlike. My friend and I watched the eagle rise in its wide lazy circles, riding the air, its snow-white head and tail bright against the blue sky. The eagle rose only a few feet each circle, minute after minute. Smaller and smaller until it vanished from sight high above Brownsville. So far as we could tell, it had never moved its great wings.
Was the eagle hard at work, circling there, searching the river for food with its sharp eyes, or was it at play, expressing the sheer joy of being alive on a cool afternoon above the river? The medieval world would have called this neither joy nor work, but "nature nature-ing," an animal at one with the bluffs and the river, and even with her food swimming in the water below, in a way we self-conscious humans can never be.
My friend and I stood there for a while after the eagle disappeared. Rooted to earth by the pull of gravity pressing my shoes into the grass, I envied the freedom of the eagle on its wings.
The eagle remained in our memories long after it had risen out of sight. As it always does. To catch sight of an eagle on a cold January day on the way to work changes the whole rest of the day. Later, at work, a part of us is still high overhead, circling, looking down at the books and papers on our desks.
"Ready to go," my friend said. And we turned and began descending the dirt path circling down the side of the bluff, coming into Brownsville for a landing.
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.