PEREGRINE FALCON

1997 Larry Gates

 

The Chiricahua mountains are the northernmost extension of the great mother mountains of Mexico. They rise out of the Arizona desert as a verdant mystery. On the east side is a deep canyon where I often hike, looking for wildlife and Apache gods.

This morning I saw a female peregrine falcon perched on a high ledge about a mile up in the canyon. The bird looked regal. On the lower part of her face I saw the Egyptian moustache, which is a distinctive feature of her species. After stretching one pointed wing and then the other, she wailed out. I could see the morning sun was causing her chest and throat to gleam with unspeakable whiteness.

The raptor looked out over the scattered trees growing on the talus slopes. After she screamed again, her swift husband came sallying across the mountain valley. When he flew out of the shadow of a cliff and into the bright sunlight, I thought of the words in the Egyptian Book of the Dead which say, "This is how I entered the heart of the mountain. I had wondrous dreams of bright hawks soaring through dark corridors." My morning's magic bird was shaped like an elongated crossbow. His shallow flapping movements sent undulating pulses down the length of his wings. His flight was strong and direct as he went to the aerie on the side of the cliff.

I have seen peregrine falcons soar, swoop, and make enormous figure-eights in the air. Sometimes they shut their wings as they go into an immense stoop. These handsome birds can roll over and over in flight. At times they will dart so high into the sky they can hardly be seen, then they will come back again to do a loop-the-loop in front of the rhyolite cliffs. At the top of their arc, peregrines may momentarily fly upside down.

The peregrine is one of the fastest birds in the world. It hunts flying birds and bats from high above, pausing momentarily, before making a few rapid wing beats. Then it draws its wings towards its sides as it swoops down with the speed of a meteor to thrust its sharp talons into the flesh of a flying songbird. If large, the prey will fall to the ground where the falcon will retrieve it; but, if small, the peregrine will pluck it out of the air. When the peregrine misses, it soars high into the air, then stoops down once again.

Sometimes peregrines dive at unsuspecting birds then swerve away at the last moment, missing them intentionally. Imagine, if you will, the sound of wind rushing through falcon feathers, and the playful eye of the peregrine looking back at you just at the moment you are entering that part of your life which is a lucky gift. Imagine that same peregrine darting away into the blue sky to become one with the sun.

In the ancient world many spoke of an inner falcon that was as real as any outward one. The Egyptians knew this theriomorphic sky god quite well; they called him Horus and told many stories of his life atop the inner cliffs in the ethereal world of the inner sun. They also told of Horus being reincarnated on earth as a kind of Christ figure.

Today, the Egyptian falcon still flies in the hearts of men and women. When we experience in our chests the rush of shallow, forceful wing beats, it is the flight of Horus, who is the divine son of the great god, Osiris. We call this inner stirring our inspiration or courage. It comes to us from other worlds. As a gift. Our life is a mistake if it fails to take into account both the outer and the inner falcon.

In his book, The Outermost House, Henry Beston tells of his deep appreciation for how the otherness of wild animals is so magnificently expressed in ancient art. Egyptian art, in particular, he believed, had the unique power "to reach, understand, and portray the very psyche of animals." He believed these peregrine falcons carved in granite on temple walls carried the souls of all hawks. To Beston there is nothing human about these ancient birds; they are self-contained, and aloof as they speak to us of a world more primary and intense than the world of man. Like the falcons that fly in my heart and the falcons of the unscalable cliffs in Cave Creek Canyon, these ancient icons are terrifying and beautiful.

Today, I join forces with a million ancient voices and salute my non-human neighbors who live at the interface between sky and earth as they unite the above with the below. The peregrine is to me what the burning bush was to Moses, a window into the transcendent.

The word, "peregrine" means wanderer, and peregrine falcons do, indeed, stray wherever they will. They gallivant in Egypt; in Arizona, in Canada, in China, in Europe, and in unnamed places no man has ever visited. Every spring and summer a few of these wandering fragments of the World Soul go to a deep canyon in the mountains of southeastern Arizona. And I--a wanderer of a different species--migrate there, too.

As I traipse through fields of wild flowers and listen to singing birds, I am constantly aware that, above me, in the unspeakable heavens, the seldom-seen falcons are wandering too. I live my life in the reflected image in the Eye of Horus. If the falcons did not gaze at me I think I would cease to exist. If their swift shadow did not cross my path, I think I would fall into a terrible illness.

These birds are inscrutable and unknowable, they are fierce and distant. In the most secret parts of my soul I want to be like just them. I want blood and ch'i to flow through me as it does through the splendid body of the awesome wanderer.

Every year I find myself becoming more and more intoxicated by the wild beauty of the earth. On long summer afternoons I dream the canyon. I think of the falcons, and smile. The peregrine is that part of my soul that does not live within the bag of my skin. It is forever a pilgrim in wild and unexplored lands. It is the me that is not me.

 

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