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25 august 2016

I have a memory of seeing a bald eagle, when I was ten or eleven, in New Jersey. This is unlikely to be a true memory, even if accurate. It would have been 1970 or so, at which point bald eagle populations were greatly reduced and their range restricted. Still, it's possible: southern New Jersey is marshy, with lots of water features that are hospitable to these fish-eating birds, and bald eagles nest today further up the Delaware River. Stranger things have happened – in New Jersey, far stranger things have happened.

Still, the unlikeliness of the sighting means that I probably really never have seen a bald eagle in the wild. This is true of most Americans, though as Janine Rogers points out in Eagle, we see multiple representations of bald eagles every day of our lives. If you're an American, you can't avoid pictures of the big birds, and much of the time you probably don't even register seeing them.

I bet I've seen bald eagles in zoos, so they're not quite like other animals that haunt the human imagination but you can go a lifetime without ever laying eyes on: albatrosses, moose, whales. Rogers stresses eagle contradictions and paradoxes, and one of them is certainly that eagles, at least the big famous species, are both extremely familiar and extremely scarce.

Eagles are noble and despicable, great hunters and lowly scavengers, faithful mates and cold-blooded parents, fascist emblems and icons of freedom. Ecologically, they are apex predators, top of their food chain. As such they have great power, but great power corrupts greatly. At least symbolically. Rogers conveys the strong sense that eagles, qua eagles, just do what they must to get by. They hunt efficiently and with great force, using their diving ability and formidable talons to stun their prey, which they often eat alive. (An eagle's beak is more dining utensil than attacking weapon.)

Eagles are hard to tame, though Rogers cites examples of extreme falconry where eagles are trained to hunt wolves. The results are not good for either wolf or eagle. Eagles rarely attack humans, despite folklore; they rarely attack domestic animals, for that matter, and though undeniably dangerous if provoked and all that, are fairly retiring creatures. But they draw fear from ranchers, and before federal protections, eagles were indiscriminately shot all over the U.S. – even as they showed up on our money and seals and state flags.

Eagles appear only here and there in poetry, used more as quick reference than studied theme. Rogers looks briefly at Tennyson's "The Eagle" and Walt Whitman's "The Dalliance of the Eagles." She includes the most famous American literary eagle, the one that glares over the Custom House door in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. But she does not mention its runner-up, Herman Melville's emblem for the sublime elements of the human mind in Moby-Dick:

There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar. (Chapter 96)

My own memory is not nearly that sublime, so while reading Eagle I found myself singing eagle references from the pop lyrics of my youth. Like so many eagle sightings in our culture, these are trite items produced by people who have likely seen no more real-life eagles than I have. For instance, Rogers cites Lawrence Ferlinghetti wishing that the American eagle would "straighten up and fly right," but in turn Ferlinghetti was probably ironically appropriating the buzzard in "Straighten Up and Fly Right" by Nat Cole and Irving Mills. Eagles appear here and there in their own right in the kinds of standards they play in supermarkets. "Fly like an eagle / Let my spirit carry me," sang the Steve Miller Band. Bette Midler expressed a similar ambition: "I could fly higher than an eagle / You are the wind beneath my wings." Finally, Rogers cites the "cosmic pairing of opposites," the eagle and the dove; but far from cosmic, I drew only the connection to Crosby, Stills, and Nash:

The eagle flies with the dove
And if you can't be with the one you love, honey
Love the one you're with.

Rogers, Janine. Eagle. London: Reaktion, 2015.