, Newburyport, MA

April 1, 2013

A flip of the falcon

As I See It
Jack Garvey

---- — In Stoneham not long ago I spotted what looked like an owl perched on a branch 35 feet above me as I unloaded a van.

Realized it wasn’t when it looked down. Two store clerks stepped out and guessed “some kind of hawk.”

Next day, some 35 miles northeast along Plum Island’s causeway, five cars were parked as seven birders shot pictures. I stopped to ask.

“Peregrine falcon,” she answered, showing an image on her zoom camera. Looked like the very same bird.

Next day I added mention of the falcon to a yet-to-be published account of birding on Plum Island —which led me to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

All I wanted was the spelling of “peregrine,” meaning “wanderer,” sometimes “pilgrim,” but the alternative name caught my eye:

“Duck hawk,” meaning that it preys on duck—and sometimes pets and other small creatures I’d rather not name.

Capable of “stooping” (diving) between 175 and 210 mph, it could have sued Ford in 1960 for naming a car that barely sputtered to the speed limit even after Nixon notched it down.

Defamation of Car Raptor.

So those who guessed “hawk” know their birds, and on day four I knew that a lone, basketball-sized bird standing in I-95’s median strip about 17.5 miles southwest of here was a peregrine falcon.

No doubt about it. With the rearview clear, I slowed for a good look. Immediately, the talons of realization sunk in:

Not only is it the same bird, he’s stalking me.

“He” because this falcon is Johann Sebastian Bach reincarnated — even looks like him, helmeted with thick sideburns, a compact, rotund build, and a decidedly Lutheran aspect.

Out to avenge my 35 years of basting his Brandenburgers and stuffing them with the musical equivalent of blue cheese.

Flipping me the falcon because I once drove one of Ford’s cheapos and — to mock a mocking car — renamed it “The Pigeon.”

I might beg the bird for mercy, as I have never trolled that common, lowbrow joke about why Bach had 20 children. No, no, no, I would never stoop so low for laughs by adding that his organ had no stops.

However, offense may be worse every time I pipe melodies as elegant and uplifting as the opening of the “Bach Double” into jigs and rags, flapping my arms, flexing my knees, fixing my eyes, flaring my nostrils, at times vocally chirping or quacking between measures.

Purists demand: “What gives you the right?”

Firmly: “Because Bach is dead. And I am not.”

“Have you no shame?”

Shame? A word I keep hearing but have no idea what it is. Like “rehearsal” and “practice.”

All the hooting is musical camouflage: Baching up the wrong notes.

Whether I went into shock — as it is clinically defined — for these whimsical, nonsensical and slightly surrealistic musings is doubtful. After all, I resumed speed and stayed in one lane.

Only when an ambulance screeched past did I realize I missed my exit by 3.5 miles — and people waiting would not tolerate any story about Johann Sebastian Bird.

Otherwise, I would have hallucinated all the way onto the New York Thruway aiming for Cornell.

That’s where I imagined I was going, although in sober retrospect I should have passed Ithaca, continued all 350 miles to Syracuse, turning south for the Onondaga Nation.

Not sure of eastern tribes, but Dakota tribes believe that birds can carry the spirit of the departed.

Always thought they were recently departed, people known to those who see the birds, with or without field glasses. Some such encounters can be unpleasant.

One young Lakota Sioux saw a low-flying hawk cross a road before him, close enough to hit the brakes. He then u-turned and detoured 35 miles on the desolate Rosebud Reservation rather than cross the path of that long-gone hawk.

Could the Onondaga explain how someone who died in 1750 can return to beguile me evermore? I may be old, but not that old.

And how to make peace with someone — sincerely, my benefactor — whose death I treat as a foolish joke to this very day?


Jack Garvey of Plum Island can be reached at Two lines (“Bach is dead … “ and “whimsical, nonsensical … “) he pecked from Jethro Tull concerts introducing, respectively, “Bouree” and “Mother Goose,” his all-time favorite bird.