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Absolute wildness in Wyman Park


THE HAWK ALIGHTED onto a tree limb, which bowed low with the weight of it. It sat very still, waiting for the branch to settle. Its breast feathers were a dirty white, mottled with brown; the wings and head were nearly a uniform tan, except for a few darker streaks.

I had never seen a hawk in repose, outside of a zoo, or one so large and so close. I'm more accustomed to watching them circling in the heights, their "finger" feathers at the wing tip all spread.

The hawk looked back over the dense hill rising up from Stony Run that pours through Wyman Park. Then, "swift as a wasp's sting," its head snapped around, and it stared across San Martin drive to the park-like acres of the Johns Hopkins campus. It saw everything, large and small. I moved closer to get out of the street.

A mad marigold eye

The bird looked straight down at me. I felt its stare -- almost literally. There was an absolute wildness in its face: it's "mad marigold eye" glared above the hooked, predator's beak. This beast was only about 10 feet away. I tried to calculate how quickly it could cover that distance and be upon me. Was that contempt I perceived? Or, having assessed for itself that I was too big for prey, indifference?

I was determined not to leave until the hawk did. I might never again see one so languid, so comfortable with itself. But it was in no hurry. It just sat there, bending the sycamore limb with its heft, probing deep into its feathers for lice, its head revolving, almost as if it were on a bobbin.

What would it be like to be a hawk? I couldn't imagine. But then I didn't have to.

I had T.H. White's description to recall, from "The Once And Future King." Merlyn the magician had changed the young Arthur into a hawk and introduced him into the mews where the other hawks and falcons, all hooded, spent their nights. (Merlyn had transformed Arthur into various animals -- a fish, an ant, and owl -- as part of his "eddication.")

So Arthur spent the night among the hawks and falcons, and learned two things: these birds were stiff with warrior's pride; they existed in a kind of "Spartan military mess," with its protocols and perquisites.

And as warriors will, they ceremonialized their irrepressible instinct for blood, even concocted a hawk's "Triumph Song," about their feasts from the hunt. They sang it for the secret intruder: The mountain birds are sweeter

But the valley birds are fatter

And so we deem it meeter

To carry off the latter.

We met a cowering coney

And struck him through the vitals

The coney was like honey

And squealed our requitals

Some struck the lark in feathers

Whose puffing clouds were shed off.

Some plucked the partridge's nethers

While others pulled his head off...

After a while another pedestrian came along San Martin. The hawk, ponderous, irritated, registered his arrival.

"Fattest hawk I ever saw," the man said. "He must eat well around here."

"Packing it in for the winter," I suggested.

The man nodded.

The tame and the wild

This hawk could eat a Labrador Retriever. It could eat my dog, pick up all 60 pounds of him and carry him off somewhere, drop the remains from a high tree. I'd find his collar months later by the creek. Poor Trevor.

Such preposterous thoughts ran through my head. Of course it couldn't do that. A big hawk it was, but that's silly. So why was I thinking silly thoughts? Of hawks eating large dogs, and singing together in time?

Oddly, I knew the answer. They were stimulated by the evident ferocity in the bird, its hint of limitless possibility. This ferocity emanated from it like the visible waves of heat. It was a palpable quality, an energy moving like a fragrance through the air.

It is what I felt when the bird first turned its stare on me. Pure fierceness.

Malevolence and anger and desperation and hunger can enhance physical strength. Everybody knows that. But certainly not by that much. My dog is big. He still has teeth. He can bark.

But my dog is tame, and I suspect that he understands better than I the difference between the tame and the wild, how far

removed they are one from the other. A glance from that bird, and my brave dog would run like hell.

Richard O'Mara is a reporter for The Sun.

Pub Date: 12/04/96

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