I’m doing something a little different this week! The following is a short reflection I wrote for a class I’m taking on personhood and interspecies communication. We drew cards from an animal medicine deck in class, then looked for ways the animal + interpretation influenced our lives. I thought I’d share it here!
About a week before I pull the card, my dad sends our family chat a photo accompanied by this text: “Look at this eagle, guys!! Right in the tree by the creek!” In the photo it is easy to make out the white gleam of his head, the gentle arc of his folded wings, the craggy line of his back as he arches over the branch. In one bright talon he holds a silvery fish, the other entangled in the ribbons of its guts, caught mid-swing. When I go over to visit their house later in the day, we walk to see the eagle’s tree in their backyard. Bending low to the ground, my dad and I can just make out a constellation of scales littered through the dirt. The last gasp of the fish, left behind in shed skin.
Trash birds, I tell my friend, when I see that I’ve pulled an eagle from the animal medicine deck. He laughs, then says, no, it’s cool, as if to reassure me that I’ve gotten a good one. They are trash birds, I say. Opportunists. That’s true. They’ll eat whatever meat comes along, dead or alive. Last weekend, a few days after my dad sent the text about the eagle in his backyard, I drove through the Gorge and saw another one hunched over a deer on the train tracks that run alongside the highway. It was a split second but I swear I saw yellow eyes glare out at me from a pink feathered face, dyed from the blood, as the bird spread his wings over his prey.
“Eagle medicine is the power of the Great Spirit, the connection to the Divine. It is the ability to live in the realm of the spirit, and yet remain connected and balanced within the realm of Earth.” Why do I need eagle medicine? I felt sure that night I would pull a card that would make me feel seen, that would recognize—that would honor—how tired I am, how weary I am. Can’t the medicine deck know that I am not well, that I have been giving and giving and giving of myself until I’ve made myself sick? I didn’t know until I pulled air that what I wanted was water, something to soothe me.
I feel eagle like an itch in the middle of my back, just out of reach. Bothering me. I think I know eagle, like I think I know most birds. Like I know the red-tailed hawks that sit in the park in Portland and at the ranch in Fossil, like I know the owls that hoot at Reed in the night like they do when we are backpacking, like I know how a chukar or a Hungarian partridge or a pheasant feels sitting in the palm of my hand after my dog brings him to me when we are out hunting. Like I know blue heron, flying over my car on the bridge or sitting in the pond or walking down my street in New Orleans. Harrier hawks and turkeys, falcons, black-capped chickadees and robber jays, crows, ravens, hummingbirds, titmice. Birds are my heritage, the gift of my father’s family, an encyclopedia of bird knowledge. A special kinship with the sky.
Eagle medicine says it is a connection to the divine, but I have only ever known eagle to be of the basest instincts. I remember them the way I’ve seen them, glaring white heads engaged in various kinds of violence. Or else they are sitting in trees, looking like undertakers in dark suits, hunched against the cold. At least vultures don’t pretend to be noble like eagles do, they are honest about who they are. I rarely see eagles flying, or when I do I don’t remember it. I don’t want any more violence. My life right now feels like it is all endings, and change to me is brutality. Manuscripts finished, a boyfriend left, an MFA over, my house soon to be sold. I don’t want eagle medicine, I don’t care what the book says the card means. I do not feel divine.
A few nights before I wrote this, in the moments before falling down into the well of sleep, I remembered two twin shadows, arcing over the water. What were they, where was I? A hunting trip on the John Day River, last year, in the middle of January with my dad and uncle. Dogs, guns, gear, all of it went onto the raft. We floated each day to new spots on the river to hunt chukar in the steep and winding river canyons, climbing for miles through the heat of the day as we followed the dogs, slipping on steep shale slopes and hiding in the shade of pinnacles when we stopped to rest. It is unforgiving country. We were the only people on the water, the only people around, for miles. At night it was so cold it burned, and I dreamed twisted and strange dreams, of enormous birds landing by the tent, their feathers brushing my cheeks. I was dreaming of them. They appeared on our first day, a pair of golden eagles, soaring high above the canyon walls, their shadows still big enough to swallow the prow of the boat. I would watch them above the edge of my collar, pulled up around my face to shield me from the wind, to see the way they danced together. It felt like they were calling. They followed us for three days, or we them, until we took out at Cottonwood, every day just ahead of the boat. Every day the same height, black shapes against the sun.
It feels like walking through mud, I tell her. I thought I was just tired but I think I’m sad.
She nods, and says, you look lost to me.
I don’t know what to do, I say. I think I am lost.
How will you find your way? she asks.
Lauren? she says, a few minutes later. What’s going on in there?
Nothing, I say. It’s just stillness. It’s just silence.
I took a picture of the eagle medicine card on my phone before I left, a hurried snap that leaves my thumb blurry at the edge of the photo. I remembered it as a bald eagle, but when I look again I see clearly I was wrong. The bird on the card is all golden. I was never meant for violence, the wicked curve of a bald eagle’s beak. This golden eagle has a sly grin, a twinkle in a clever eye. I laugh because maybe this bird is scolding me, for thinking I knew better. I was so sure I had it right.
“If you have pulled this symbol, Eagle is reminding you to take heart and gather your courage, for the universe is presenting you with an opportunity to soar above the mundane levels of your life…In learning to fiercely attack your personal fear of the unknown, the wings of your soul will be supported by the ever-present breezes which are the breath of the Great Spirit.” I wanted something to see what I already know is, the mud that is walking on earth. I wanted to be told again that it is hard and soon would be easier, or at least would say Isee you, how hard you are working. But maybe what I need—so rarely what we want—is to let go, push off, follow twin shadows. Then fly.