Earth Journal

 Vol. 10, No. 11

March 14-20, 2002

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Of Eagles and Politicians
by Audrey Y. Scharmen

In June of 1782, the Continental Congress selected the bald eagle as the emblem of our nation and made it the central figure of the United States of America. At that time, Benjamin Franklin remarked that no bird with such bad habits should represent the country. William Bartram described the bald eagle, in his diaries of April 1773, as an “execrable tyrant who supports his assumed dignity and grandeur by rapine and violence, extorting unreasonable tribute and subsidy from all the feathered nations.” In other words, the eagle is not popular in birdland.

There are still some who question the choice of a notorious predator and sometime-felon with perpetual bad breath as our representative. Actually, considering the shenanigans of some politicians since Ben’s time, the eagle seems an appropriate choice.

Ironically, they who bestowed the honor failed to create laws to protect the eagle. Not until the latter part of the past century was such protection provided, albeit inadequately: There are loopholes, called variances, that allow the powers-that-be to overrun his habitat almost at will. Thus, even though the eagle has rebounded, the national bird is said only to have “stabilized — probably plateaued” here in our region.

In the 1970s, when we thought his kind might expire, there was some discussion of a successor. Who would carry Jupiter’s thunderbolts in his stead? The popular dove, long a cliché for love and peace, is a hypocrite, said to be quite vicious beneath its perfectly groomed plumage. A blue jay is all bluff and empty rhetoric. The raven is majestic and articulate but is said to consort with seers.

Thus the eagle remains on the seal regardless of an occasional lapse of morals. But what the heck, everyone does it. Right?

When I came to live here on the Chesapeake, 20 years ago, sightings of eagles were few. Old-timers who had seen them waddling about the beach, or clomping about on residential rooftops munching on an enormous fish entertained us with such droll tales.

Then, one spring day, an eagle came into my midst. At the tip of a tall oak in my neighbor’s yard, he perched and preened for half an hour while we watched at close range. Regal and unruffled, he ignored an angry flock of crows and gulls protesting his presence. When finally he took flight, his broad wings were wide as our country lane where he flew very low for a block before taking to the blue yonder. He was huge, his white head luminous as moonlight.

I was reminded then of a close encounter, in 1964, with that other wily politician, Lyndon B. Johnson. He stood on the running board of a sleek black limo as it slowly cruised the tarmac of an airbase runway. He smiled and waved and paused often to shake hands with many of the small group gathered there. He was Texas-tailored and booted, his trademark white Stetson dazzling in the California sunlight. No matter our politics: We all were pushovers for his brand of showmanship.

To see an eagle soar is to see power and freedom in action and to understand why his supporters of 1782 fought for him as their choice. To see an eagle at close range is to overlook his frailties.

But, with eagles as with politicians, few is probably better. It would not do to see such a specimen relegated to the status of common nuisance, just one of the masses. And a local power-line bearing a shoulder-to-shoulder flock of eagles would not be a good thing.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly