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As thousands of gulls wheel in a cacophonous spiral above the open water where the Illinois River rushes over the dam just beyond Starved Rock, a bald eagle sweeps magnificently from its perch on a bare cottonwood and glides across the brown water, cutting the surface with its talons.
The moment’s hungry beauty makes me gasp. This is the dead of winter. The river is frozen all along its length except here, where the dam quickens the current, so it’s a spot of much excitement: a place to feed. I can feel the frenzy as soon as I get to the top of this naked outcropping of rock, a local wonder infused with blood legend, and my own current quickens.
Starved Rock State Park, two hours southwest of Chicago, has secrets it keeps revealing to me: canyons, waterfalls, a massive wood-beamed lodge built in the’30s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. And now this.
My heart wants to feed on the cries of the gulls and the patience of the eagles. We count nine of them in the trees on Plum Island, far more than I’ve ever seen at once in my life, and I wonder at my good fortune at coming upon them — great, rare, vulnerable birds. A sense of longing opens up in me, too big for my thoughts to accommodate.
The place was named after a 200-year-old massacre of Illiniwek Indians, several hundred of whom, men, women and children, starved to death atop this rock during a siege by neighboring tribes. Ancient tragedies lose their horror, however; they turn into the fodder of poetry and local color. Now it’s just a name. Starved Rock.
The eagle pulls up from its dive with its claws empty, flicks its wings a few times and lifts until it is no more than a small, black speck in the afternoon sky. Then it turns and heads back to us, finally reclaiming its perch in a high cottonwood branch. There is sits, with the others, watching.
My attempts to understand the moment and reduce it to something meaningful are just as empty; it is irreducible. Nevertheless, as I look on, at this live, noisy spot, permeated with legend and symbolism, I feel an enormous question pressing at me from the inside: Why isn’t this enough?
“There are souls … whose umbilicus has never been cut. They never got weaned from the universe.”
Perhaps Ursula LeGuin was thinking of such a place and such a moment when she wrote that passage, inThe Dispossessed.She was describing people who are not isolated from the process of life: “They do not understand death as an enemy.”
If there is any wisdom to be gleaned from nature, surely this is it: impermanence, death, rebirth. Yet in our proclamation as a species that death is, indeed, the enemy, we have perfected violence to a degree almost beyond calculation. Humankind is on the brink of another war; it toys with weapons of mass destruction. And it does this out of a fear of death.
All that we have will pass, no matter what we do to try to stop it. But perhaps if we love deeply, fervently enough, this moment that we are alive — love it with the magnificence of the bald eagle — we can rise above our fear of death and re-enter the circle of life.
Though we cannot reattach the umbilical cord, we can decide to grow up.