Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson - Rachel Carson, Linda Lear (1999)

Part I

Chapter 5. Road of the Hawks

[1945]

RACHEL CARSON’S LIFELONG FASCINATION with the sea was matched by an equally intense interest in birds, nurtured first in the company of her mother in the hills of western Pennsylvania. It was a passion she maintained throughout her life.

At her U.S. Fish and Wildlife job in wartime Washington, Carson’s ornithological interests found outlet in company with other members of the newly organized Audubon Society of the District of Columbia. Carson was soon elected to the Society’s Board of Directors where she worked with artist Roger Tory Peterson and other notable scientists. Society activities also provided the rare occasion for social gatherings and outings that Carson enjoyed.

One of the most popular Society trips was to the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in eastern Pennsylvania to watch the fall migration. In October, 1945, Carson, along with her Fish and Wildlife colleague and friend Shirley Briggs, who was an equally avid amateur ornithologist, spent two days at Hawk Mountain. Perched on a rocky promontory, braving a bone-chilling wind, Carson watched the hawks and took notes on their behavior. The following fragment from those field notes reveals how deeply Carson was affected by the spectacle of the hawks, but also shows how she related even non-marine experiences in nature to the ocean and to the ancient history of the earth.

image THEY CAME BY like brown leaves drifting on the wind. Sometimes a lone bird rode the air currents; sometimes several at a time, sweeping upward until they were only specks against the clouds or dropping down again toward the valley floor below us; sometimes a great burst of them milling and tossing, like the flurry of leaves when a sudden gust of wind shakes loose a new batch from the forest trees. [ … ] On the horizon to the north, formed by a series of seven peaks running almost at right angles to the ridge on which we sit, an indistinct blur takes form against the sky. Second by second the outlines sharpen. Soon the unmistakable silhouette of a hawk is etched on the gray. It is too soon to make out the identifying lines of wing and tail that mark him for one species or another. On he comes, following the left side of the ridge, high up. Sometimes he banks steeply and his outlines melt into the sky. Then a swift wing beat or two and we have him in our glasses again [ … ]

Now follows a long wait with no more hawks. I settle back against the rock behind me, seeking shelter from the wind, trying vainly to draw some physical comfort from the hard angularity of stone. The cold is bitter. The morning had seemed reasonably mild down in the valley, as we had our quick cups of coffee in the predawn blackness. But here on the mountain top we are in the sweep of all the winds out of a great emptiness of sky, and the cold seeps through to the very marrow of my bones. But cold, windy weather is hawk weather, and so I am glad, although I shiver and my nose reddens, and I look speculatively at my thermos of hot coffee. But that must last the day, and now it is only ten o’clock.

Mists are drifting over the valley. A grayness overhangs all the sky and the clouds seem heavy with unshed rain. It is an elemental landscape – a great rockpile atop a mountain, nearby a few trees that have been stripped and twisted by the mountain winds, a vast, pale, arching sky.

Perhaps it is not strange that I, who greatly love the sea, should find much in the mountains to remind me of it. I cannot watch the headlong descent of the hill streams without remembering that, though their journey be long, its end is in the sea. And always in these Appalachian highlands there are reminders of those ancient seas that more than once lay over all this land. Halfway up the steep path to the lookout is a cliff formed of sandstone; long ago it was laid down under shallow marine waters where strange and unfamiliar fishes swam; then the seas receded, the mountains were uplifted, and now wind and rain are crumbling the cliff away to the sandy particles that first composed it. And these whitened limestone rocks on which I am sitting – these, too, were formed under that Paleozoic ocean, of the myriad tiny skeletons of creatures that drifted in its water. Now I lie back with half closed eyes and try to realize that I am at the bottom of another ocean – an ocean of air on which the hawks are sailing.