The red-tailed hawk sails into my line of vision 150 feet or so up in the air over the Red River. He soars, seemingly effortlessly, capturing the updrafts of air that suspend him as he sails.
Now five other red-tails join him, weaving patterns back and forth among each other. I am seeing quite an aerial display on the autumn equinox against a blue sky patterned with soft cumulous clouds. After a few minutes they are gone, having moved their display upriver.
I have seen this aerial ballet of the red-tails and turkey vultures over the past week or so. It is the time of their autumn gathering to prepare for moving farther south as cold weather approaches. Hopefully they will pick up some rabbits and squirrels that proliferate here.
The land begins to prepare to rest with the approach of colder temperatures. It has fullfilled with vigor its task of producing an abundance of botanical life to feed the animal life that depends upon it.
Its color is still fully green, but now spangled gently with the first coloring of autumn, particularly the yellow that we call carotene. Before long the maples and oaks will follow suit and decorate the land with reds (for those who like the name-drop, that red is called anthocyanin).
One revelation to me is that the browns of autumn that I always associated with the death of leaves, the absence of life, is a color in a leaf itself, the last remaining color in its chemistry, called tannin.
As nature shares herself with me over the years, I become more and more aware of the layering of the levels of life. As we considered earlier the dependence of the animal layers of life upon the botanical layer, I find myself considering in recent years yet another layer.
The biologist Barry Lopez in his book Arctic Dreams makes a statement that I feel is the defining statement of this very fine literary work: “The land, an animal that contains all other animals, is vigorous and alive.” He made this statement after living and working with one of the few remaining peoples upon the planet who seek to live and work with the land as the land is given to them.
There is really nothing more that I can add to Lopez’s statement, other than to remark upon my thought journey in this regard. Perhaps it takes sitting upon the land for numbers of years for this journey to seek into a person.
I had thought of the land as an inert platform, a stage upon which the drama of life is performed. I begin to see it as a dynamic organism that began when the first stone on the planet was ground into sand.
We humans have to learn to live with the land as it is. Destroy it, and we die. It is the only land that is given to us.
North Dakotans, for example, almost destroyed their semi-arid western lands by putting in the plow. Ancient peoples had learned to live with that land for over 5,000 years. I think we are learning. Perhaps the great hawk will be able to soar over a land that is green for thousands of years to come.
James Alger, who lives in Fargo, N.D., has been a summer resident of the Leech Lake area with his family for over 45 years. Over that time he has grown to love and appreciate the people and the woodlands of this area.