Across the road from our house is a massive old tree that we are calling the eagle tree.
I think it’s an elm. I figured it for a cottonwood at first glance, growing right on the bank of the river as it does. In the four months since we moved here, I’ve studied it often. I’m pretty sure it’s an elm. I could ask, but why spoil the fun. In retirement a person has time to study sunsets and rivers and, you know, trees.
The tree has a weathered look. It appears in no danger of falling over, but it has seen some things. Clearly it has survived many storms with northwest winds that howl in off the water. The trunk is thick and solid. Some limbs appear dead, but others were filled with leaves when we moved here back in August. The thing has to be 30 or 35 feet tall and nearly as broad. It’s an imposing presence on the river bank. Maybe that’s why an eagle has chosen as a fine place from which to survey the world.
Since the weather turned chilly, that eagle has appeared not long after sunrise every couple of mornings. High in the branches of the tree the massive bird perches. It sits without moving, except for a few feathers that lift in the wind and a brilliant white head that turns, slowly but without pause, from side to side. Perhaps the eagle looks for prey or maybe it watches for predators. If it’s the latter, then the eagle demonstrates no fear. Awareness, yes. Watchfulness, yes. But no fear.
Often in the mornings before I start my daily routines, I sit on a bench at the front window and watch as the eagle watches the world. Sure, I’m wasting time there on the bench. I could be accomplishing something more than sitting with a cup of coffee watching a bird in a tree. As I said earlier, though, retirement gives a person time to study things, and studying this eagle has a calming effect on me. If I could do it all day, I could probably throw away the blood pressure pills.
I never get all day, though. At some point — 20 minutes, half an hour, whatever — the eagle spots something that interests or excites it. In a sudden, fluid motion it leaves the branch, spreads enormous, powerful wings and soars down river. Invariably, its flight path takes it below the level of the river bank and out of my sight, so I never know just where it has gone or what prompted its flight.
Eagles fascinate me. I can think of no better word to describe them in flight than magnificent. They can be mystical in their presence, as when one soared high above the powwow grounds during the St. Joseph’s Indian School gathering in September. They can take your breath away, as happened some years back when Nancy and I went with our friends Cathy and Marty DeWitt to try to capture images of the 30 or 40 eagles roosting in the thick trees below the Oahe Dam. Marty, still a state Parks Division guy at the time, made some great pictures before the birds, one after another, left the trees for the sky.
I confess to a bit of pride that the symbol of our country chooses a tree near my house as its resting place. I know there’s a popular story that Benjamin Franklin favored the turkey over the eagle for the national bird. I read on the “History.com’’ website that the crusty old founding father never formally proposed the turkey as the symbol of the nation. My source says Franklin proposed not a bird at all but instead a biblical scene with Moses parting the waters. The Continental Congress is said to have not been impressed and eventually the eagle appeared as the official symbol.
It’s common knowledge around these parts that when winter is in full cry, two, three or more eagles choose this tree as a safe haven. I can’t wait. I’ll be able to sit at the window all day long, enjoying the eagles, the coffee and retirement.