Into the Wild

Where Eagles Gathered


This is a tale of two homes. They sit side by side above me, a low old house among big trees and a nearly finished new construction.

I am here to watch the eagle show. The homes overlook one of the Key Peninsula’s main salmon-bearing coves. At low tide, I have been told, eagles swarm.

But my attention has been arrested by muck. A footpath of raccoon tracks weaves along the shoreline’s top edge. I follow it through leaning and fallen trees, their limbs crusted with seaweed, and find deer prints as well. And tiny deer prints. A fawn with hooves scarcely larger than the raccoon’s palm.

Furtive, darting. Lately I’ve been feeling about that small, unable to grasp the changes being wrought in the world around me, the developments. On the mudflat are the winding trails of mudflat snails, crossing without logic. At the end of each lies a snail in what looks like a tiny impact crater.

I’m below the old house now. Above a margin of beach grass and fallen limbs, a medium bank rises, tangled with all kinds of native plants. A hummingbird appears for a moment to probe honeysuckle trumpets. A towhee dives into salal. Above the bank soar the trees: hemlock, redcedar, Douglas fir up to five feet in diameter. An eagle arcs through a patch of cloudy sky. It vanishes.

The property’s owner has been here nearly 40 years. Blue collar, frank, hardly the image of a tree-hugger, he uses a flame weeder on his paths because he has seen that chemicals end up in the cove. Wildflowers and moss grow in his lawn. When trees fall on the beach, he leaves them for fish and birds. His home is as embedded in its surroundings as a fawn curled on the mossy side of a log.

Compare that with the lot next door. I’m no student of architecture and could take or leave what I can see of the angular new house, but around it a mosaic of patios and rocks and water features and young palm trees pushes out to every edge of the parcel, where new privacy fences stand. A pile of dirt spills over the bank. Rock stairs lead to a patio built in the beach grass.

The owner of the old house tells me that the parcel held trees as big as his. Soaring limbs, high perches, a staging ground for eagles. Three years ago, when he returned from time away to find that his new neighbor had cut them, he says he lost his mind. He went over there screaming and cursing.

Later, others on his street may have speculated that he must have been drunk to cause such a scene. It wasn’t alcohol, he tells me. It was rage.

This is a man who had never run afoul of the law. Now, for his act of sorrow, he had a restraining order issued against him.

All of this has me thinking of the poet Theodore Roethke and a line he wrote at the end of his life: “There are those to whom place is unimportant, / But this place, where sea and fresh water meet, / Is important.”

Roethke wrote the lines on the shore of Puget Sound, far from the midwestern ponds and towering greenhouses of his youth, yet not so far psychologically. He was talking about landscape — like the owner of the old house is when he fixes me with his blazing blue eyes and says, “As powerful as this place seems, it’s fragile,” his voice raw after watching three years of sprawling construction and constant landscaping labor — but Roethke was also talking about a mental terrain from which his self and soul might rise.

Throughout his life Roethke had an exquisite ability to turn to snails and lakes and other things unarmored and vulnerable when searching for his solace. Letting his doubts and fears go naked in the underbrush, his poetry came out in short prodding lines and questions that rarely made sense but teased at bonds formed by the unconscious. His was not a poetry of vistas; his was a poetry pushing through tangles, full of fragments in which beetles loomed like dragons and birth and rebirth demanded constant returns to the muck.

And then, in this final long poem (called “North American Sequence”), the lines lengthen. Small streams run under downed firs. Salt and fresh water meet. He watches the “flash of the kingfisher,” the “eagles sail low over the fir trees,” “the gulls cry against the crows.” It is pure description. Instead of posing unanswerable questions he speaks of wearing “a crown of birds.” Seeing his surroundings for what they are, he can for a moment “sway outside myself.”

For a good 10 feet above high tide line, the bank of the new house looks like that of the old. Beach grass gives way to salal. Firs lean out. Above, however, everything has been shorn to dirt. A parapet of cottage stone running the width of the parcel supports patios and lawns. It looks like a castle wall ready for a siege. The house gives me the overall impression of a god’s-eye perch, a human sphere separate from the entanglements of local life — not to mention the aesthetic of Carmel implanted onto the Key Peninsula. The irony is that such development hinges on selling points like view and eagles and an architecture that supposedly brings the outdoors in. The terror is that this lexicon of real estate development might dictate our sense of place.

Toward the end of the cove, I catch the flash of wings. A splash in the water. A kingfisher settles on a branch protruding from the mud. Another joins it. A third zooms around, makes an awkward dive, and ends up in a dead tree leaning over the water. Youngsters, I think. Looking up and down the leaf-loaded shorelines, the new house stands out for its aggressively purified view. This is a beautiful estuary loaded with leaning trees. Kingfishers depend upon such things.

I think I’ll take the crown of birds over the high human lookout. Let the eagles be only half-glimpsed beyond trees that still stand. To have my feet in the mud of a world that looms and shifts, demanding respect, may make me feel low and mean on days like this, but as Roethke knew there are worse things than feeling small.