“A Gift, Hurled from the Other Side” by Julie Zickefoose

Cooper's Hawk. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

Cooper’s hawk. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest.

I was sitting at the drawing table, trying to keep my spine straight as I finished the last of a tedious couple of months of edits and revisions to a how-to book I put together 15 years ago. One doesn’t really “write” a how-to book. One puts it together. I entered the last edit on page 230; pasted in the painstaking revision of a six-page Resources section, every entry and detail of which had needed updating; and sent the dang thing off to the publisher. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good book. How-tos are just not my bag and never were. I’d rather write in loops and curlicues than neat, straight lines.

I took a deep breath and started a status update for Facebook, the little crutch/reward system I lean on when my work threatens to grind me to powder. Checking in, posting stuff, and connecting with friends gives my brain a teeny squirt of something—serotonin, maybe—that makes me happy.

“Just finished an incredibly tedious, months-eating rewrite, edit, and update of Natural Gardening for Birds, a book I put together 15 years ago for Rodale Books. The thought that I might now…”

And before I could continue with “…do something I’d like to do…”, a great big dark shadow swooped through the feeder area just outside the window. Wings roared as doves and finches, sparrows and cardinals exploded in panic. I was off the drafting stool, lunging for my camera, and sockfoot skidding to the foyer window before you could say “Cooper’s hawk!”

My first photo was diagnostic but not stellar. I was skidding to a halt, after all. So was she.

My second photo was The One. Oh hosanna! What a beautiful killer she is, clasping the branch with her crooked yellow hands, her eye ablaze, her outer tail feathers exclamation points!

Yes, there are some small branches crossing her, but I love the immediacy of this photo. She’s landed in that birch like she was hurled there. She’s just alighted and she’s already planning to leave. That’s an accipiter for you. They don’t spend a lot of time ruminating. Like Nike, they just do it.

My third photo was her, leaving in pursuit of juncos and white-throated sparrows. She wound up diving right into a brush pile Bill had created on the edge of the yard to give cover to winter sparrows. It worked: The hawk, a blue bullet, dove into the center of it, trying to nab a white-throated sparrow. The hawk came out empty fisted, and beat deep into the woods. The total elapsed time from seeing the blur of this incoming rocket to her departure: about four seconds. Raptors make my heart beat faster. Accipiters make it fibrillate.

It didn’t take long for a big smile to creep across my face as I looked at the photos and it hit me that my Dear Old Dad was mighty proud that I’d finally shoved that durn book across the finish line again, 15 years after I did it the first time. And maybe he sent that beautiful Coop to say Huzzah! Life Goes On! Join the Party! And maybe just, “Hello, Julie. I’m here. You are accompanied.”

Dear Old Dad, who passed away in 1994, used to send me neat two-page, single-spaced letters typed on the vintage manual typewriters he loved to pick up at yard sales. Now, having no stable of typewriters at hand, he works with hawks. Hawks are his apports, the gifts he sends me from the other side. Dad never got to meet our kids or see any of my books, at least not while he was here on Earth, but I know now that he’s watching; the hawkish coincidences are too rich, numerous, and astonishing to be denied.

I’d never heard the word “apport” until Charles from South Texas used it as we compared notes about synchronicity and messages from the departed. Far, far too many perfectly timed gifts (if you call a hurtling hawk a gift) arrive on Charles’ doorstep and mine to be chalked up to happy chance.

The perfect synchronicity of events continued when another friend, Caroline from South Dakota, posted a link to an interview with photographer Ken Van Sickle. Everything he said about his art resonated deeply with me. Perhaps my favorite quote was

“If you were there when the Hindenburg caught on fire, and you took a picture of it, that’s a great photograph. But you’re not a great photographer, because you can’t repeat that in everyday things.

“What a great photographer does is, they are consistently able to make something in a style that’s personal to themselves. My pictures don’t depend on extreme sharpness. They depend on the composition and on the subject and on the way I see it.”

I don’t pretend that my Cooper’s hawk shot is a great photograph. There’s no composing a photo when you have your camera set on center auto focus and the hawk is perched in front of you for perhaps two of the four seconds it takes you to vault from your chair, grab an eight-pound telephoto rig, and skid down the hall to the foyer window. You center the viewfinder on the bird, hold your breath, and try not to punch the shutter button too hard. You wind up punching it on the first shot, squeeze it on the second and third, and you’re done. The hawk pulls the plug. Time’s up.

However, I was there and I did have my camera, so in my view this qualifies as a Ken Sickle Hindenburg moment. That, and my Dad sending me a honkin’ big adult female Cooper’s hawk as I was running my book-finishing victory lap, is plenty enough for me. With such absorbing work and distracting (if rich) opportunities to communicate via social media, I have to make sure I live in the moment, keep looking up and going outside, keep gathering the gifts that are set down right in front of me. I think we all should pay more attention to signs. And should I forget, Dad’s there, hurling hawks like this one, who burst out of the woods, grabbed me by the shirtfront, shook me down, and demanded an audience. Thank you, DOD. Got your message. Headed outside!

Julie Zickefoose’s new book is Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest.

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