What is it about hawks that stirs us? Every hawk watcher has an answer: freedom, power, the grace of their flight. But one suspects that there is a deeper meaning, something that reaches back to the tradition that hawks have access to the heavens. It is, says Fish. "the big view, the broad view. I think people climb mountains because they get a broad view of their lives. I'm sure everybody on Hawk Hill who looks up at a raptor is doing a reflective exchange, thinking what it would be like to be up there looking down."
What the hawk would be seeing down below is the clash between nature and urbanity—between belonging and alienation. At least some hawk watchers see it this way. For eight years, Dan Gottsegen, an artist, has been a GGRO volunteer bander. He had been painting hawks in some pictures, but those pictures didn't seem right and never left his studio. Then he began to think more about what drew him to the birds.
"I've been thinking about diaspora and migration," he says. Each generation in Gottsegen’s family has moved to a new place. It's a very California experience, for most Californians have come from somewhere else. "California and the West are particularly rootless," says Gottsegen. "My generation in this country has been trying to find a sense of place.”
He thinks hawks have that sense of place. "Even though hawks move and migrate and they are above a place, at the same time, they are so much of a place. When you've banded a hawk and are holding it, you're aware that they have a pure intention, unencumbered by doubt." He believes that purity of intention is what a human would have if he or she felt a real connection to place.
In many of Gottsegen's paintings, hawks have become emblems of human migration, but in at least one, he has managed to paint this hawkish purity of intention, this sense of belonging. He had a series of dreams that recalled the story of Jacob in the Bible. The story tells how God commanded Isaac to move into a new land, and how, years later, his sons Jacob and Esau contended for his favor. Jacob was sent by his father to Pandamarin to find a wife, and on the way, lie slept on the ground, with stones for a pillow. He dreamt of a ladder with angels ascending: to heaven and descending again, "and Behold, the Lord stood above it and said I am the Lord God.... The land whereon thou liest, to thee I will give it and thy seed. And behold I am with thee and will keep thee in all places their thou goest and will bring thee again into this land."
The way Gottsegen dreamt and painted it he slept on a pillow of hawk feather. and those were hawks soaring into the heavens and diving earthward. And he awoke to hear the voice say, "This will be your place."
Peter Steinhart is the author of The Company of Wolves, Dos Aguilas; The Natural World of the U.S.-Mexico Border, California’s Wild Heritage, and The Undressed Art: Why We Draw.