I watched footage of American bald eagles yesterday. Not for the first time of course; I’ve seen plenty before. But in watching this bit of video, shot over 30 years ago, I once again beheld what a magnificent creature the bald eagle is, how it is symbolic of our country, and why it has been our national bird since 1782.

Before you go assuming that this post will be merely a flag-waving testament to my patriotism, drawing parallels between our own ever-struggling republic and the freedom and inspiration of a soaring eagle, I beg of you, don’t be hasty. Beauty is only skin (or feather) deep, and my analogy delves much further than the shallow tint of an eagle’s silhouette backed by wind-furled Old Glory on the rear window of your neighbor’s GMC Sierra (likely built in Mexico, of course).

I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t at least acknowledge that aspect of the eagle-nation analogy. So I’ll start there. Please, bear with me.

Call me sentimental; the flight of a soaring eagle is inspiring and does make my heart swell with Patriotism. Grace, guts, and glory are all exemplified in that seemingly effortless flight. Its twists, turns, swoops, and dives symbolize the sometimes tumultuous, though purposeful pitches of our nation over the years. And from each of these breathtaking maneuvers, a recovery and stabilization follows, bringing relief, amazement, and a wonderment of when the next slight movement of a wingtip will induce another deadly spiral.

The kinship between bird and nation is even more obvious when the hunt is on. Swift and skillful, an eagle on offense is a force to be reckoned with. Approaching with stealth and the sun at its back, the ghostly plumage of the bald eagle is hidden from unsuspecting eyes. And should its prey fall helplessly under talon or beak, the only mercy to be shown is likely a quick death.

I recall once hiking along the base of the Tetons, watching my step as I traversed the rocky path. Looking down, thoughts of my recently deceased grandfather, a Marine, came forth and the Marine Corps Hymn echoed faintly in the far reaches of my mind.

From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli…”

As the hymn continued, its volume increased in my head and its rhythm guided each step. My hike had become a processional march of sorts. As I approached the end of the first verse, the trailside sage at the corner of my eye was shadowed for a split second. I looked to the sky and with the Grand Teton as a backdrop towering above me, two bald eagles (a mated pair, I would like to think) not 30 feet overhead, crossed paths head-on just as the last four words passed through my brain.

…of United States Marine.

I stopped instantly and watched, open-mouthed, as they continued weaving back and forth – back and forth. The sun was positioned perfectly to emphasize every feather, every tail motion without obscuring my view in the slightest. They circled over me, keeping the Grand pinned behind them for a good two minutes. I was amazed, spellbound. I mean, here I was, being granted the ultimate national eagle-watching experience and I hadn’t even been looking for it!

And believe it or not, standing alone near the shore of Taggart Lake, beholding a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I cried. Not the sobbingly big crocodile tears of an overly sentimental nationalist, mind you. Nor tears of loss for my Marine grandfather (though his death had affected me deeply). No, these were slow, somber tears of a patriotic heart witnessing a breath-taking scene of beauty and national symbolism, and of thanks for being made aware of it by the slightest shadow caught at the corner of my eye.

Slowly, a thermal from the valley began to pull them South, as I had seen the paths of so many paragliders be equally affected. But I continued to watch them, all the way down the wall of Tetons, eventually fading to small specs, barely visible against West Gros Ventre Butte.

Sound too good to be true? Tell me about it. I still can’t explain hearing the Marines’ Hymn at that moment. Or how the eagles crossed directly overhead right as the verse ended. Or why it happened when I stood precisely where the Grand was at its best angle from the Southeast. Or how I caught that shadow when I did. But it happened, and I wouldn’t have believed it either if I hadn’t witnessed it and recorded every second of that moment in my memory.

Yes, the eagle is a fitting symbol of our country based purely on its behavior and physical capabilities. And the mere sight of it in its natural habitat (Grand Teton or no) inspires me. But I find the eagle’s trials of the last 100 years draw an even more substantial parallel.

As we all know, DDT (a powerful, man-made insecticide) was used extensively throughout the United States for most of the 20th century, without adequate environmental and biological testing before its widespread use. In addition to being a threat to human health, this chemical turned out to interfere with the eagle’s calcium metabolism; making eggs brittle and unable to withstand the weight of an adult bird, as is required in their natural nesting environment.

In addition, legal and illegal hunting played a significant role in the decline of the eagle population in the mid-1900’s. Human ignorance propelled many Americans to kill eagles, despite their revered and iconized status as a national symbol, based on ridiculous beliefs that small lambs and even children could fall prey to their talons.

Even now, in addition to continued illegal hunting, eagle populations face serious threats including power lines, habitat destruction, human-produced trash in the ecosystem, and hazardous pollutants such as oil, lead, and mercury.

What parallel do these harsh realities share with our nation, you ask? Let’s see…suffering brought about by ignorance, unprovoked aggression, limitless expansion, unregulated industry, chemical pollution, and the short-sighted use of new technologies without safe and adequate testing. So many citizens’ lives have been threatened and lost due to the same root causes; so much of our nation’s current social, economic, and political woes can be traced back to similar origins. And as we can observe, the plight of the eagle parallels the plight of our nation throughout its self-created ordeals.

Of course, the story of the American bald eagle is also one of hope. Having been reduced to the pitiful number of only 400 nesting pairs in the contiguous 48 states by the 1950’s, eagles have experienced a significant resurgence in numbers over the last 30 years. Through scientific research and advice, government intervention and regulation, education of the public, and thankfully a concerned populace, we reversed direction and made the protection of these animals a national priority. In 2007, they were finally taken off of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered and Threatened List.

It is perhaps this factor that provides the greatest emphasis on the metaphor that I am implying, and actually ties our mutual existence together into the bargain. Not only does the resurgence of the eagle inspire hope, having seen its way back from the brink of extinction to a renewed level of success, but also it demonstrates a fundamental quality about our nation and how it can succeed. It was thoughtfulness, awareness, and the scientific method that brought the problem to our attention. It was the compassion and restraint of our people and government that made recovery possible. It was education, and cooperation, and attention to observable results that turned the tide.

The symbol of the bald eagle comes not just as a majestic, free, and deadly raptor, but also as a dreadful symbol of the threats of industry, ignorance, aggression, pollution, and human discordance with nature. Fortunately, it also is an inspiring symbol of hope and recovery and the fruits of cooperation, education, prudence and, yes, even government regulation. The recovery of the American eagle may well be a biological triumph, an environmental marvel, but I feel its storied success most powerfully when I observe the country’s errors that first threatened it and the national heroics that ensued in order to overcome that terrible wrong.

I love this country, even with all its faults. And the hope that the eagle inspires in me is the same inspiration I have when I read the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. I feel the same swell when reviewing our nation’s short but colorful history and acknowledge our finest moments: winning our freedom from Britain, abolishing slavery, granting women and minorities the right to vote, defeating the worldwide threat of fascism, ending racial segregation.

I acknowledge our dark times as well (the present not withstanding), knowing that we, as a nation, worked together to overcome terrible times, threats, and injustices. It gives me hope that we will again see brighter days. Despite our current economic inequality, political gridlock, environmental degradation, and overwhelming corporate influence in government, I look to the past plight of the eagle and of our country for perspective. I know the struggles were long, and the results came slowly and were hard-fought. I know that there was suffering, and death, and at times it surely seemed hopeless. But still we overcame.

The eagle, and its close relationship with our nation, reminds us of the majesty of freedom and the potential dangers that come with it. It signifies our rights as well as our responsibilities, and the struggles we endured, acknowledged, and chose to overcome. So much to consider from such a special yet vulnerable creature. I can only assume that is why I cried that day in the Tetons.

Some may call me foolish and sentimental. Others may say I’m reaching. But it seems we have so little to be hopeful about these days. If an eagle in flight can give me some encouragement, I’ll take it.

May the wings of liberty never lose a feather.

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