What a 1690s Advice Columnist Would Say About Pale Male and Lola
January 20, 2011 2 Comments
NPR ran a story today on a brave settler, one Pale Male, red-tailed hawk, who decided to make Central Park in New York City home. The story was more or less built around his lady-love Lola, a red-tailed hawk with whom he had raised seven eyesses (this, I learned, is the word for baby red-tailed hawk chicks). Lola, like the man who customarily left Edgar Allan Poe half a bottle of cognac and three roses, is gone, and presumed dead.
It’s a tearjerker of a story, but we needn’t despair. Red-tailed hawks aren’t particularly prone to heartbreak. Pale Male already has a new mate, Ginger, and he’s had several others in the past, including First Love, Chocolate, then (ironically) First Love again. (She was injured the first time and they reunited after Chocolate’s death).
Then there was Blue, the mate with whom he raised eleven eyasses. Get this: Blue disappeared (or so Wikipedia tells me) right around September 11, 2001. Spooky!
The radio program ended with the reporter hoping that Lola hadn’t died, that she’d just “grown tired of it all” and flown South to start a new life.
I’m surprised, sometimes, by how desperately we try to build a meaning nest out of the twigs we find in the animal world. This is true of the Mama Grizzly phenom, which I wrote about way back when, and it’s still true of the Tiger Mother kerfuffle now. Still, I GET it. Every part of this story plays so well. Pale Male, that Thomas Sutpen of red-tailed hawks, builds his outlandish house in an inappropriate space (and hires the equivalent of a French architect to boot—the nest, surrounded as it was with metal spikes to keep pigeons away, was a mite unorthodox). One mate after another dies. In 2001, he survives the quintessential American tragedy. He doesn’t mourn, he doesn’t grieve. He moves grimly on; he rebuilds on the spiked and inhospitable ground where he’s staked his claim and perseveres, stupidly, stubbornly, in living his settler dream.
It’s delicious. I get it. I’d be on board, were it not for one thing.
I’ve actually worked with red-tailed hawks.
And I’m sorry to say that, impressive as they are, you’d be hard-pressed to find an animal less in tune with our metaphysical enterprise. The vulture? Maybe. The center I worked for had one, and our vulture cut a gray, dispiriting figure. He spent his days taciturn, drooped, defeated, kicking around idly in the dust. In order to transfer him from his pen to his cage I had to sneak up and hug him from behind, otherwise he’d throw up on me. (This is a common reflex, made rather more reflexive since I had just fed him some fresh sliced-open pigeon.) I wasn’t very good at vulture-hugging-by-surprise, so we usually spent some time running around the tiny enclosure in a flurry of ruffled feathers and, occasionally, barf.
The owls, of which there were two, were curmudgeonly, dirty, unkempt—Rooster Cogburn and Jack Nicholson. They seldom bothered to open their second set of eyelids to look at you (they have 3 sets in toto). Try to jess them, though, and they’d spring to life. They’d twist, shuffle, turn, peck and sink those claws into and through your protective glove till you chickened out, nursed your perforated arm and got your dander up to try again.
Then there were the red-tailed hawks. I came to know two fairly well. Casey Affleck’s role in the Ocean movies pretty adequately describes the one. The other one was a friendly amalgam of every character Drew Barrymore has ever played. They were great birds. Strong, friendly (comparatively speaking), trainable, good hunters. Majestic when they fly (not that these could—we were nursing them back to health). But it’s just a fact that red-tailed hawks are kind of, well, bird-brained, because they’re birds.
All I’m really saying is that while I get the temptation—I really do—these are probably not the most reliable containers for our philosophical projections.
In which opinion I’m joined by the prolific author of the Athenian Mercury, a “society” (actually one dude) created in the late 17th century so that people could send in dumb questions anonymously and get condescending answers. In other words, it was the first advice column.
Here’s one entry for Saturday, April 1, 1693. Read the Wikipedia entry on Pale Male and tell me you don’t hear some echoes:
There’s a Raven has built a Nest in the Northwest Pinnacle of Louth-Church in Lincolnshire, (which Church is 57 foot higher than Bow) the like has not been remember’d of 60 years, and above: Some People look upon it as Ominous, your Thoughts are desir’d on the Matter?
Here’s the Athenian Mercury‘s dispiriting response, and it’s as frigid a splash of cold water as any advice-seeker has ever gotten:
The Business is a great way off, and therefore as the Old Woman said, it mayn’t be true—But true o false, ’tis scarce worth the while to go so far for satisfaction, since be it Raven or Owl, or what it will, ’tis all one, and signifies no more, We believe, than that the Raven was willing to choose the best place she cou’d find for a Prospect for her self, and her Young Ones. As for any thing Ominous in’t, We think its only fit to be laugh’d at with the Old Auguries, for it can signifie nothing that we know of either Naturally or by Institution; and indeed how should a Bird know more than a Man, and how foretell others Fates, that does not know its own? whether it shall be shot or starv’d, or what end ’twill come to—As Messalon in Josephus Wittily said, when he took his Bow and Arrows, and kill’d the Bird out of which the Soothsayers were going to fetch Miracles.
Having figuratively shot at least one stupid ave-prophet that failed to prognosticate its own demise, he goes on to give the question-asker the bird. (I’m gonna throw down a gauntlet here and say that even Dan Savage might find it tough to be this caustic).
Here, the Athenian Mercury says, is what that goddamn bird you’re writing to him about would have had to do to make your moronic letter worth his while:
We confess, had this Raven, like a Halycon, swum down the River, and built its Nest in the Sea, and this Gentle Whale flown o’re the Mountains tops—Topt the Woulds [? not sure about this word], and been Shipwrackt on the Northwest pinnacle of Louth Church, there had been then something in the business if not very ominous, yet very wonderful, and wou’d have well deserv’d the notice of the Chronicle as well as the Athenian Mercury.
So there you have it.