Yesterday the fastest creature on Earth stopped by for a visit. Ever the news-bringers, our park’s crows alerted us to a predator’s presence, and I was astonished to see a rare Peregrine Falcon up there on a high branch, lit beautifully by the winter sun as the crows called, annoyed or just gossiping.
My first Pacific Northwest peregrine encounter, 27 years ago, had involved only sound. I had just sweated my way to the top of Little Si (at 1500′, higher than almost all of the eastern state I’d just moved from).
I was sitting there on the rocks, munching granola and admiring the vast glaciated valleys and the two forks of the Snoqualmie River merging below me, when suddenly the air vibrated with a sound I couldn’t place; I caught a blur of movement out of the corner of my eye. It was all so quick that I had no time to pay closer attention, and there was nothing to look at afterwards that I could find.
Fortunately, I was with friends who’d lived here longer, and one volunteered, “I think that might have been a Peregrine Falcon.” I wasn’t a birder back then, so he went on to explain that they can dive at up to 200 mph—OK, now I was impressed. Little Si’s rocky face made a great launch platform for that avian rocket.
Peregrines are built for speed. Their tapered wings let them maneuver quickly in pursuit of their prey of smaller birds, their bodies are aerodynamically shaped, and their hearts are capable of beating extraordinarily fast to provide their muscles with the oxygen needed for rapid movement. That dark area beneath their eyes may help reduce glare when they’re winging after fast-moving prey. They even have a cone-shaped structure (called a baffle) in their nostrils, which keeps the air they’re flying through at such incredible speeds from piling up so they can’t breathe.
I, in contrast, am not built for speed. Air does not have any problem making it into my lungs and the word “aerodynamic” does not apply to any part of my body. My heart beats so slowly, and my blood pressure is so low, that I always have to explain to physician-assistants that it’s OK, their equipment is functioning just fine, I just have genetically slow metabolism.
This is a blessing as far as I’m concerned. To a remarkable degree, all mammals get the same number of heartbeats in a lifetime, from mice to whales: about 730,000,000. So I’m planning on living a really long time.
More importantly, my slowness can enrich that extended life in a special way: by its usefulness in the naturalist’s toolkit. At four years old, Jane Goodall was fascinated by the fact that hens could lay eggs, but she couldn’t find an opening in a hen that could accommodate an egg. So she snuck into a henhouse and waited. And waited, holding perfectly still so she wouldn’t scare off the hens. Finally, it happened—and when she finally emerged, thrilled with her new discovery, she learned that her frantic family had been searching for her for the past four hours. Pretty good for a four-year old. Goodall’s remarkable gift for stillness later opened new windows into chimps’ lives in the wild, allowing her to witness behavior hidden from more restless scientists.
We slow ones, we who have stillness instead of movement as our default, get left behind a lot. I always end up being the last one on the trail, sometimes to the serious annoyance of fellow hikers who feel most alive when they’re stretching out their stride, breeze in their faces, toned muscles comfortably warm with exertion.
But nature presences herself in different ways to those who walk slowly or sit in contemplation. Creatures emerge from the shadows, go about their daily tasks; we can experience them for who they are at peace, not who they become in fear or escape. We in turn quiet our internal chatter, letting ourselves see our natural Others face to face rather than through a glass darkly.
Years ago I sat at a riverside camping spot while my companion went exploring for the afternoon. I sketched, or just sat. After a while a subtle movement on a nearby branch caught my attention. At first I couldn’t make out what it was, then after a while I saw that it was a hummingbird on a nest. Looking more carefully, I was astonished to see it opening and closing its beak—I had thought hummingbird beaks were like tubes, lacking hinges as they sucked nectar from flowers. A while later, another hummingbird arrived, then began feeding the one on the nest: I had been watching not only the smallest hummingbird species in that area, the Calliope Hummingbird, but a baby of that species, the tiniest gem of all, only because I stayed put.
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I spent a long time yesterday with the falcon. From time to time we locked eyes; I felt I was being calmly assessed, taken deep into those huge dark eyes that see so much better than I can even dream of, enveloped in that timeless, hooded gaze.
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After a year of sabbatical followed by several months of a research fellowship, I’m back at work. I’d forgotten what it’s like to be busy. Busyness is addictive: it gives us an injection of adrenaline, makes us feel important—and, as Darlene Cohen points out in her lovely little book The One Who Is Not Busy, it also serves to distract us from the emptiness we’re afraid our lives might hold, from the suffering around us. I now have to struggle to regain that precious sense of open time: time for play, meandering thoughts, open-ended sketching. Tasks I should do and projects I want to do compete for limited mind-space.
The Jesuits have a marvelous term, contemplatio in actione, expressing the integration of a contemplative heart in an active life. I’m not very good at that. I’m happy for a bit of actione here and there in my week, but I’m much better at contemplatio in inactione.
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Yesterday’s falcon wasn’t clocking 200 mph or even moving much. He occasionally stretched his elegantly pointed wings and striped tail, preened his talons, or just drowsed. Even the fastest of all Earth’s creatures must balance speed with stillness.
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