September 20, 2012
Red-tailed Hawk in fog
Red-tailed Hawk in fog

The tattered remnants of the latest hurricane plying the eastern seaboard brought last night’s thunderstorm.  Now, this morning, a thin ground fog covers the valleys where the runs course through the old battlefields and gray, gloaming skies mask the promise of the coming day.  The Red-tail, just a silhouette, sits sentinel in the ancient tree, the tree lifeless, leafless now, but living witness to the bloody carnage on these killing fields seven score and ten years ago.

There is something about hawks, their distant, silent shapes, that conjures awe and dread in the human soul, and here where so many were slaughtered in the ill-conceived battle strategies that forever changed our country’s history, the Red-tail’s brooding, watchful presence adds to the palpable weight of that history and asks the question, why?

Conflict archaeologists have dug and flagged and plotted this ground called hallowed by many.  We know the numbers and many of the names, we know the nuances of the battle tactics and the directions of the troop movements, we know where the cannons stood, we know the exact location where the more famous of the fallen fell.  Historians have told us all the economic justifications, and non-historians know the one true, underlying reason.  Freedom.  But only these few remaining trees were there, alive amidst the dying.  Only these few trees witnessed the awful chaos, the din and fear, the blood and smoke.  And those who come now in curiosity, to walk this ground called hallowed by many, will feel the souls of the dead, but no amount of interpretive film and signage will answer the question.

It seems only fitting, then, that the day is gray and the hawk sits in its tree, brooding and watchful, its ancient snag the only witness.  “Raptor,” the shape of raptor and indeed the very concept of raptor, lies deep within the human DNA.  The dichotomy of raptor as icon is fascinating.  The distant, soaring hawk can speak to man’s best instincts and most visceral needs--beauty, timelessness . . . and freedom, yet in the closets of our soul it speaks of predation, combat, and mortality, and raptors have graced the flags and armaments of all the war machines down through all our species’ history.

“Hawk,” like these battlefields, touches the full spectrum of human emotions.  “Hawk,” the concept, was there when our knuckles first lifted from the ground, and like these battlefields where corn now grows, fertilized by the blood and bones and threads of blue and gray, the concept speaks to remembrance.  “Remember” seems a more suitable verb than “celebrate” on this one-hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the conflict here.  Visitors come for a variety of personal reasons, but remembrance must be the takeaway.

The perfect prop, the Red-tail sits in its gray tree, in the obscuring fog, on this muted day, glancing back over time as we read the stories of the individuals who died here.  The tree was witness to these stories.  We must never forget.