There is something in the human spirit that likes a practical talisman or two to help us get through life. We wear chains around our necks with a charm, a cross or a hawk’s claw, as I did in college when I knew that my running was going to be the center of existence for a while.
Getting back to nature
The hawk’s claw, which was admittedly illegal to possess, served as a reminder that I would get back to my nature study and painting when the all consuming cross country season was done. Even at 21 years of age I was conscious of the need to seek balance. To seek out that side of myself that needed nature to thrive.
I’d found the dead hawk during a run in a forest preserve and returned later on to collect the bird and bring it home. As a college student trained in taxidermy and a wildlife artist keen to learn the details of so glorious a creature as a red-tailed hawk, the discovery was a gem of sorts. I rendered drawings of the feet and studied the feathers on the back and wings, which were marked with such enormous subtlety that even someone accustomed to painting the details of nature saw the task as a daunting prospect.
Evolution and creation
Even so common a bird as a red-tailed hawk is a testament to the complex work of evolution and the wonder of creation. Such creatures also bespeak wildness and fierce nature. High-flying hopes. It is no wonder that pro sports teams are named after falcons, lions and eagles. The human race, for all its sophistication and logo-driven commodification still desires commune with our roots. And we are connected deeply, right down the genetic level, with everything that moves and creeps on this earth.
Don’t let the selfish creationists fool you into thinking the human race is separate from all creation. God doesn’t think that way, nor did Jesus, who taught using parables richly steeped in what organic fundamentalism, a term I conceived in my book The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age. Organic fundamentalism is a scriptural method that recruits metonymy (the use of one thing to represent another, especially nature) to communicate spiritual laws and values.
The whole bible depends on this tradition, and it supplies the metaphorical foundation for truth. In fact all great traditions of faith and belief ultimately recognize these deep connections between nature and what we call God, while scientists eventually sit in awe and wonder at what they study, at complexity, and at the meaning derived natural law.
Reduced to metaphor
Can you see this truth? We are reduced to metaphor to describe anything in this world. The very words you read here represent ideas, and ideas represent meaning, and meaning leads to truth. There are no shortcuts.
Literalism, by contrast, is the child’s view. It limits our worldview and leads to brutally childish conflicts over dogma, false theologies and politics. Look at what literalism does to the great religions of the world. The radical side of literalistic Christianity fights science and seeks to dominate social policy. The radically fundamental wings of Islamic faith issue threats against the world and resorts to terrorism. These two branches of faith engaged in Crusades and kill people within their own traditions to get their way.
It is a fascist form of faith that plagues our world. Resist the temptation to run or ride down that road, for it is the tarsnake of ignorance. Use your running and riding to gain the mental space to see beyond these fatal ideologies. They will kill your spirit.
A talisman of hope
As a youth, I wanted hope in the form of a talisman around which to draw the robe of my worldview. Youthful symbolism is different that childish faith, and I wanted a part of that awe and wonder to go with me wherever I went, especially wherever I ran.
So I hired a jeweler to mount one of the hawk’s claws in a clamp on a real silver chain.
With respect to laws
Again, the decision to use that hawk claw was illegal, and flies against the wildlife protection laws in every state in the nation. So I am not recommending that anyone use any part of a wild animal for any decorative purpose these days. I no longer possess the chain or the claw, and have since focused my acquisitive nature on taking photos rather than specimens.
Especially, I did not kill the hawk to collect the claw (which would have been heinous) but found it dead already. It is against the law to collect even dead wildlife however, and the laws to protect wildlife exist for a reason. They must be sweepingly observed in order to prevent potential for abuse.
But a determined young man accustomed to trespassing in search of birds to see was not going to be deterred by such considerations in the late 1970s. I’d been handling all sorts of wildlife specimens in field biology; ruffed grouse and great horned owls, gray and red squirrels, beaver and opossum and 15 species of ducks.
So the short leap to wearing a hawk’s claw around my neck was not difficult to make.
Despite how hokey it might seem, the hawk’s claw (along with the love of a woman at the time) did inspire me. I moved from 7th man to 2nd man on the team that season, and nearly winning my first varsity college race. Our team finished 2nd in the nation in Division III cross country. Not earth-shaking results by measure of the world’s great achievements, but they meant a lot to us, and me. And still do in many ways.
Returning to earth
I think the hawk’s claw ultimately dissipated from exposure to sweat at the base of my neck where it hung for so many miles. It returned to the earth, as shall I some day. We all do.
Or perhaps we’re all running and riding in a cycle much larger than our own thinking. This life and whatever comes next, or came before. Our own bodies are launched in a cycle of destruction and renewal, the marathon of reality and imagination we call life. Yin and yang. Darkness and light. Nature and nurture. Devil and God. Self and selfless.
As Crosby Stills Nash and Young put it in the song Woodstock …
“We are stardust, we are golden, we caught in the devil’s bargain, And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”