For the hawk, a very good day
I was sitting at the breakfast table watching cute little chickadees and titmice playing bird tag in the snow-glazed trees, enjoying nature’s sweet grace, when reality came home to roost in the yard.
A shape swooped past the window, landing somewhere in the foundation shrubbery just beyond view. Probably a mockingbird, I thought, or a mourning dove. Definitely one our larger birds.
A moment later, a large hawk flapped up from the shrubbery and came to rest on the ground outside the window, noble head in profile, massive wings outspread. Its talons held a struggling titmouse. As I watched — partly in fascination, partly in horror — the hawk lanced its sharp beak into the captive bird a couple of times and then looked around, as if to check for an admiring audience.
Instead, it had me, half-chewed bite of muffin stuck in my throat as I debated whether I should run to the rescue — or try to take a photo with my cell phone. The hawk made the decision for me, tightening its grip before taking wing through the trees to enjoy its morning repast elsewhere, as if to say: You got a problem with my dining habits? You don’t appreciate fresh, free-range breast meat, rich in protein and essential nutrients? Fine, I’ll go somewhere else. By the way, you’ve got peanut butter in your beard.
Like many of you reading this, I think of myself as being on a first-name basis with nature. I feed the birds. I watch deer browsing through the yard. I coexist with frogs, snakes, salamanders, possums, raccoons and other critters that won’t make anyone’s “Top 10 cute and cuddly” list. I also know it’s a bird-eat-bird world out there, especially when a heavy snow keeps rodents inside their burrows, where they’re no doubt watching the Weather Channel and happily munching on the sunflower seed they pilfered from the garage last fall and stashed away in their winter storehouse.
I don’t begrudge the squirrels and field mice their share of nature’s — or my — bounty (although I do wish they’d take the seed hulls and not just the hearts). They’re simply obeying the cosmic directive to survive and thrive as long as possible, as was the hungry raptor.
But it’s a fact of human nature that most of us will empathize with and mourn the titmouse, rather than celebrate with the hawk on a successful morning hunt. Psychologists tell us that’s how we humans are wired: The empathetic impulse, the urge to protect the small and vulnerable, has the evolutionary benefit of ensuring our young receive nourishment and emotional bonding as babies. It’s part of what put us atop the food chain — that and the extinction of dinosaurs and saber-toothed tigers.
But there’s something else at play here. We take the titmouse’s perspective because, more days than not, that’s how things are. Life is a tenuous, untidy proposition, and it often seizes us in its claws. We don’t have to worry about being snatched away by a hawk, but other predations abound.
A ton of snow — or a tornado — swoops down from the sky. The lights flicker and suddenly we’re alone in dark.
The car conks out, leaving us stranded on the roadside.
We don’t get a callback from the job interview.
The fridge goes on the fritz, right after we’ve hauled in five gallons of milk to get through the storm.
The lab results aren’t what we wanted to hear.
Somebody runs a red light, veers into oncoming traffic or goes on a psychopathic rampage.
A lot can go wrong in life — and, inevitably, it will. These days, people go the mall to watch a movie and end up in the morgue. That’s why we’re supposed to take it a day at a time — or sometimes, moment by moment, breath by breath.
A lot can go right as well, and that’s why it’s important to savor our triumphs, not just the big ones but the small ones, too. Especially the small ones, because they come our way more often.
The power stays on during the storm.
The tree crashes down but misses the house.
Somebody finds the lost wallet or purse and returns it to the store, contents intact.
The traffic cop lets you go with just a warning.
Your kid calls home … not because there’s a crisis but just to say hello.
The fire engine isn’t headed for your house.
Sometimes, it’s a good day because of everything that doesn’t happen.
Sometimes, it’s a good day because you’ve made it through the night.
And sometimes, it’s a good day because you can look out the window and enjoy breakfast, appreciating the fact that you’re among the fortunate creatures whom life hasn’t eaten alive.
Chris Verner is opinion page editor of the Salisbury Post.