Friday, February 1, 2008


The old hunter proudly plopped the feathered carcass down on the ground for all of us to see. He stretched out its large, once-powerful wings to their full spread. The keen-eyed marksman felt sure he had just rid the neighborhood of a nasty predator.
Almost every farm had a flock of chickens running free in the yards back then. And anything that even vaguely resembled a "chicken hawk" was the enemy ... and was fair game for anyone with a gun. The trophies were often "spread-eagled," attached to a fence or tacked to a board wall with their wings fully extended. I was only a small boy then, and the dead bald eagle looked frighteningly large and ferocious.
Later I learned that the American bald eagle is our national bird - a part of our country's emblem - a proud, noble, royal, majestic bird and brave beyond belief. And that it is protected by Federal Law.
Eagle lovers "ooh" and "aah" at the great birds' ability to swiftly and silently swoop down to the river, catch a large fish with their talons, then,
without hesitation, flyaway with it, scarcely rippling the water's surface. They love to tell of some amazing aerobatics the feathery aviators engage in when in a playful mood. These include high-speed dives and loops and rolls reminiscent of the old-time human stunt flyers. They even speak of a few kinky tricks sometimes accomplished by two of the large, daring birds ... stunts that may or may not have inspired the old airline slogan, "Fly United."
The gaudy raptors' great size and snow white heads and tails set them apart from all other birds and their presence is always sure to attract attention. But they are not always universally loved and adored, respected and revered. Some farmers consider eagles unwelcome visitors to their property. Oh, they no longer believe in all the wild old tales. Most don't worry that their smaller livestock will be carried off ... or their small children. But a number of costly animal diseases plague farming country. Illnesses that cause a high mortality rate among their hogs, especially the newborn piglets, often wiping out the entire litters of most or all of the mother sows. In many cases, eagles get the blame for carrying these diseases from one farm to another.
In winter or early spring, a field spread with fresh hog manure holds a great attraction for eagles. From many miles away they will find and converge on such "choice pickings." And when finished, fly on to another such feeding ground, often a dozen miles away, and then another, possibly carrying some of the dreaded germs with them.
Some of our few surviving male chauvinists (an endangered subspecies) also take an extremely dim view of the bald eagles and their feathered world - a strange and unbelievable land where "queen size" means larger than "king size," where females completely rule the roost - and the nest - and everything else, a phenomenon made possible by their superiority in size, strength and ferocity,


The American bald eagle
Is our country's bird, although
Ben Franklin thought the turkey, wild,
Would be much more apropos.

Adult eagles are great, huge birds
Each is adorned with a clump
Of snow white feathers on the head
And on each and every rump.

Their size is quite impressive, and
They have plumage, goodness knows Like
old turkey buzzards dressed in
"Sunday-go-to-meeting" clothes.

To bird lovers, they're proud monarchs
Surveying from a tall tree"
Great untamed kingdoms as far as
Only eagles' eyes can see.

In the winter, they can be seen
On the river, now and then,
By a patch of open water
Often there'll be eight or ten.

Rural folks all know there's one place
They'll be seen flocking around
Where some farmer's spread hog droppings
On the snowy, frozen ground.

Though they're this great country's emblem
I will tell you this, for sure
Eagles look a lot less regal
When they're knee-deep in manure.

Theirs is an endangered species
Sorely threatened - yet I know
We sure didn't see this many
Baldies sixty years ago.

All-in-all, I must admit that
Eagles still give me a thrill
Whether seen out in the wild, or
On a crisp one-dollar bill.

Monday, January 28, 2008


One of my favorite rhyming poems has always been John Greenleaf Whittier's "Snowbound." It was required reading in the old one-room country school. And we had a great teacher who was always ready and willing to explain to us anything we didn't understand. If we stumbled over words when reading aloud, she made sure we got the whole picture.
I have a copy of the long old poem somewhere in my files. One of these cold, wintry days I may try to dig it out and read it again. I liked the flowing rhyme. The story told of a rural family that was snowbound – held hostage on their farm – by a super-bad winter blizzard. It told of each of the members of the family (and several visitors) and how each reacted and what each contributed to the stranded group. Whittier had such a great way of describing things. He could paint pictures with words, and almost make us not only see, but also hear, feel and smell the inside of that farm home with its wood heat and its good food. He spoke of many things we farm kids were familiar with.
I don't know how good my memory is, or how accurate my quotes, but, as I recall, Whittier spoke of "The sun that bleak December day" as a "time-worn traveler" that eventually "sank from sight before it set." In preparation for the coming storm, the children "piled with care their nightly stack of wood against the chimney back." And he described the cold as "a chill no coat however stout, of homespun stuff, could quite shut out that dull hard bitterness of cold that checked mid-vein the circling race of life blood to the starkened face."
The visiting school teacher was described as "Stern wielder of the birchen rule, the master of the district school." But, with the family, around the fireside that night he dropped his stiff facade and became almost human. He "teased the mitten-blinded cat, played crosspins on my uncle's hat." The poem told of an unfortunate lady who "cruel fate had denied a fireside mate." Also of an uncle, a hunter and who described "How the teal and loon he shot and how the eagle's eggs he got." Yes, I will definitely have to read that great old poem again just to get the story and the quotes straight. I only hope that I can find it in the shambles I refer to as a "filing system."
Being stranded by a blizzard is not nearly as great a threat these days. Most snowplowing and sanding and salting crews do a prompt and an excellent job of making our streets and roads passable. The sudden loss of electrical power can make things a bit uncomfortable and unhandy, but here is a modern-day "Snowbound" tale of a family that doesn't have much trouble dealing with such a problem:


The winter day wore on so slow
We watched new, white snow drift and blow.
The wild wind played, as blizzards do,
A whistling tune up chimney flue.

We gathered 'round the hearth-fire's glow,
Safe from the outdoor wind and snow.
A quiet day for game and book;
We used the fireplace to cook

Foil-baked potatoes, steamy hot,
Coffee in an old-fashioned pot,
White popcorn mounds filled giant bowls
Sausage sputtered on glowing coals.

In darkness, at the end of day,
We watched the firelight dance and play.
The fireplace, chuckling with delight,
Taunted the cold, storm-battered night.

Time passed; we prepared to retire,
Spread sleeping bags near the warm fire.
Before we closed our eyes in sleep,
We prayed – a ritual we keep –

Counted our blessings, large and small;
Thanked each other, and God, for all
The precious gifts we have and hold...
Our shelter from life's cruel cold.