manimal behavior.

This has nothing to do with running.

Almost nothing.

For some reason, I've been thinking about animals quite a bit lately.  Always have, I suppose.

I can vividly remember thumbing through my father's National Audubon guides as a small child, mesmerized by the myriad of creatures in the colorful panes that the informative pages in the back of the books assured me dwelt in the very meadows and forests nestled at the fringes of my suburban Pennsylvania haunts.  Some of the birds, butterflies and insects pictured there weren't even flung that far afield, lurking within the landscape of my own backyard.

Before the arrival of my 12th birthday, our family had migrated from the small town of my birth far away (20 whole miles?) to the rural seclusion of an 87-acre campground, not one inch of which actually belonged to us, but all of which was open to my and my sister Kara's curious scrutiny thanks to Dad having been hired to oversee the grounds in exchange for modest lodging, even more modest wages and the opportunity for him to remedy a tugged heart and leave behind a job that left him unfulfilled.

Kara and I probably never fully grasped or even considered any of his or my mother's motivations, but I know I certainly didn't question our just-beyond-the-doorstep access to the woods, seemingly endless open fields, an always cool creek and a small, but paddle-worthy pond.

Sightings of deer, Ring-necked Pheasants, foxes and other wildlife were regular occurrences.  Prehistoric snapping turtles would rise periodically to the surface of the pond or defiantly bask in the pool of silt collecting just above the point at which the water of the creek slowed and widened.  Owls would call from the windows of our old barn at dusk and throughout the evening while discarded skins clinging to the structure's beams hinted at the five-to-six foot length of the inhabiting black rat snakes that dutifully kept the rodent population in check.

A more tame menagerie of cats, dogs, chickens, geese, horses and sheep also resided in the barn and were adopted as extended members of our family while serving as the wild-but-not-too-wild targets of petting from urbanites visiting the quaint camp on weekend getaways.

At some point in early adolescence, peering over my nose at yet another in an endless parade of devoured books, I read of spirit animals, sometimes referred to as power animals, creatures identified by individual humans as corresponding beings in the natural world, symbols from which to draw strength, connection and inspiration.  Different personalities identified with different animals, seeing I expect qualities they may have wished they possessed but in all likelihood lacked entirely.

On some level, I appreciated and was fascinated by the spirit animal concept, but, honestly, it never resonated with me.

Frequently I would survey the deer just after sunrise, silently ambling from the sown fields on the property due south of the camp holdings back to the higher ridge lines and more heavily wooded tracts owned by our northerly neighbor, and I would feel an overwhelming sense of wonder when observing their graceful movements.  Not to say that I felt a oneness with them.  If anything, there was greater awareness of my own clumsiness, a complete separation from the elegance of  Whitetails gliding on legs so delicate it seemed impossible for them not to bow and break.

Traveling during my early adulthood, I witnessed pronghorn bounding across prairies, a grizzly bear in Yellowstone nonchalantly pitching sizable rocks over its shoulder in dogged pursuit of succulent grubs, mountain goats magically suspended on imperceptible moraine perches above a glacial lake, spectral beluga whales breaching and rolling in eddies just meters from Anchorage's shoreline, a bobcat stealthily slinking across an open switchback and a bull moose bellowing as it burst from the brush mere strides ahead of me and a backpacking companion as we rounded a bend.

I marveled and still do years later at each of these sightings and many others, envying the instinctual existence of the magnificent creatures and what I deemed, anthropomorphically, their utter independence.

That doesn't mean I ever stumbled upon an animal, THE animal, that struck me as the one that was me, only not me, but a more feral version of me with lessons to share and grand wisdom to impart.

Among the majesty of the animal kingdom, there has always been one group, distinct from all others in its ability to elicit in me the most awe and generate the most curiosity.


Total captivation is the sight of them on the wing and the sound of them in the air.

The thwacking of a Pileated Woodpecker diligently going about its carpentry, the indescribable tremolos of the Common Loon or the sustained call of a Red-tailed hawk will all make me stop in mid-thought so all my senses can be trained for another listen.  All other impulses must fall away.  Whenever on display, swallows at their acrobatics and soaring eagles overhead trump all other priorities.  Even commonplace sparrows, doves and robins interest me enough to merit a moment of reflection whenever they flit within view.

Within this mesmerizing family, there are a few birds that have become favorite, stand-out performers in every instance that I've been lucky enough to stumble upon them.

Hovering American Kestrels, patiently frozen in midair awaiting the appearance of prey below, will never cease to amaze me even if I should I live to be two hundred years old.  Shrugging off gravity's pull, the Kestrel appears simply to pause, to rest in place until it has located a bogey and tucked into its deadly, precise and astonishing dive.

Another bird of which I've always been most fond is the Great Blue Heron.  This tall, long-necked wader is at first glance a spindly beanpole, surely unlikely to retain its upright state much less trace unutterably beautiful lines low across the sky when startled into flight.

Oh, but how it can.

And then there's my one-sided love affair with the Kingfisher.  Throughout my 39 years on this blue/grey/green/khaki dot of a planet, there have been numerous introductions to one territorial Kingfisher or another and at each meeting, I've been spurned.  I refuse to take the cackling dismissals personally, sharing as I do a love of solitude and the right to a little space of one's own.  Per each ornery request, I beat my retreat, but I do, when able, seek out a hiding spot nearby to watch the bird, once certain its realm has been restored, return to the role of master fisherman.

These spectacles, on the surface, having nothing, not one single thing, to do with running. 

However, on my Labor Day run, I caught all three of these birds in the very acts described above.  In the space of just 45 minutes, all while engaged in one of my favorite activities, I saw a Kestrel hover, a Great Blue Heron burst from the reeds and a Kingfisher dive bomb for trout.

I'm pretty sure that none were winged versions of me and I didn't happen to feel any special bond between myself and either of the three.  What I did experience was the usual admiration and awe, neither of which have diminished over the years, as well as a profound appreciation for the fact that one love, running, can be so blissfully married to other loves.

Something else occurred to me.

I am assuredly blessed to have been given opportunity to travel, to explore and, in the process, to visit some amazing places, meet extraordinary people and view birds and other beasts in their natural, if dwindling, habitats, but, perhaps for the first time, it struck me that I have not been a passive observer or just an "aw, shucks" recipient of hand outs.

Even as a young boy, I pushed open the door, undid the latch, swung wide the gate and wandered out.  I spoke up.  I tagged along, asked questions.  I did not stop at the water's edge.

My eyes were always open, my hands constantly busy turning over rocks, memorizing textures, reaching for branches or rocky handholds from which to climb higher and gain broader, wider vantage points.

I didn't walk, I ran and still do.

I run.

I run and hope that, in their own ways, Lily and Piper Bea will too.

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