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Focus on Earth
by Patricia Monaghan

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Lammas 2004, Vol 3-4
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
red-tailed hawkMessages from Hawks

She burst through the door, our exuberant new neighbor, and burst out with her question. "Somebody tell me, okay, what is it with hawks around here? I keep seeing them being chased by these really small birds. The hawks seem to be running away. Now what is up with that?"

Kathy was new to the Midwest, new to the ways of hawks and sparrows. And she was genuinely perplexed. Her question brought me back to my first days in this sky-dominated land, when I began to watch birds as never before. I remember being baffled, as Kathy was, when I saw hawks with sparrows apparently in hot pursuit. It made no sense to me: Hawks are big and strong, sparrows fragile and light. Why were the hawks fleeing?

Simple: because sparrows can drive off hawks who attempt to invade their nests. We told Kathy that. She tilted her head in surprise. "But the hawks are so much bigger. It just doesn't make sense…"

I remember having the same reaction: It doesn't make sense. Size should matter. So should strength, and hunger, and brute force. Yet a dozen times a year, I hear a hawk scream and look up to see a dark ominous silhouette flanked by one or two tiny defenders. And I know that somewhere, nestlings are safe.

I am pondering the omens brought by birds -- hawks and sparrows, doves and eagles -- as summer bakes the desert where young Americans wage an unpopular war. I know some of these soldiers: a student's husband who enlisted to get out of the inner city, shipped off only months before his obligation would have ended; a friend's daughter, a reservist who hoped to make inroads into a previously-male institution, to help other women find nontraditional work; another friend's nephew, a lost boy who found no work in his rural community and hoped to see the world in uniform. None of them wanting to kill, all of them praying not to be killed. Ordinary young people, transformed by service to the empire.

These hot summer days, I think a lot about another empire whose symbol was the eagle: ancient Rome, to which my imagined relationship has suddenly altered. When I first read Tacitus on the crushing of the Druids, I fantasized myself a descendent of the holy women who wailed as their forest sanctuary was destroyed. Now I know I am as much a descendent of their murderers. I can picture myself in Rome, inveighing against the sacrilegious massacre while sipping wine and nibbling olives from the African latifundia. I can imagine it easily, for just this morning I decried our imperialist wars while drinking my rigorously-p.c. shade-grown coffee. Even as I object to this government's policies, I enjoy the benefits of being a citizen of the world's richest country. Ignoring or denying this contradiction will not make it go away.

As a woman, I have felt oppression and restriction, especially in religious contexts. I do not believe in violent response, so I have defined myself as a dove. But like all Americans -- even those of us who are pacifists -- I am also a hawk, huge, hungry, and brutal. That I am not the immediate instrument of war does not make me innocent when it is waged by my nation.

Acknowledging one's complicity in oppression and strife is a difficult thing. It can lead to a self-righteous self-absorption that leaches life's energy and destroys the spirit. But it is also spiritually dangerous to ignore our connections to those who provide us with such riches or protect our consumption of them. How can we hold that bitter knowledge while still celebrating life? How can we embrace the hawk and the eagle, as well as the dove and the sparrow?

Hawks have come to me often, these last few years. A red-tail flew straight at me not long after 9/11, veering away just four feet from my head. The day we invaded Iraq, I saw three road-killed hawks beside the highway. I met friends for a woodland walk and discovered a wounded-raptor refuge. Hawks have come to me, and I find myself fascinated by their power and speed and beauty. And by their curious powerlessness when confronted by small, angry, agile sparrows.

tree sparrow with chicksI often feel I cannot change the course of empire. My actions -- buying locally, reading globally -- seem so small and futile. It becomes easy to believe that larger forces inevitably win over smaller. Easy to give up hope and to think we must also gather large and violent forces, if we are to change the course of history. Yet when I watch the dance of sparrow and hawk, I grow hopeful again, because I witness how much passion matters. To protect their young, sparrows fly at hawks with sufficient power to deflect the predators' intent. What a metaphor for the ongoing struggle for right sharing of world resources, for inclusiveness, for equality!

The sparrows tell us that whether as dissenters from within the empire, or as resisters without, we have impact when we act with passion. That protecting what we love -- the land, the sea, the sky where these birds fly -- can fill us with that passionate power. And that when we act out of that power, somewhere nestlings are safe.

And that gives me hope, this summer day in the heart of the empire.

Patricia Monaghan's new collection of antiwar poetry, Homefront, is available from the Poets for Peace series of Foothills Publishing (

Graphics Credits
red-tailed hawk, public domain photo by Beth Jackson, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Digital Library Service.
+ tree sparrow with chicks, public domain photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Digital Library Service.

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