By, Dan O'Brien
A week ago I released my falcon back into the prairie air above our ranch. In less than a minute she was soaring, far out, over the pastures that she had flown above for years. My life would soon be far too full to give her the time she deserved and it was my hope that I might catch a glimpse of her from time to time, as I passed through the north end of the ranch on my way to dismal appointments in Rapid City. I hoped that I would see her again, perhaps on the very pole from which I first lured her.
For several months now I knew that I would have to release her, and I planned it so that the young and dumb ground nesting birds of the Northern Plains would be at their most vulnerable to a falcon whose wildness had been dulled by a spell in captivity. She was in perfect feather, and fat as a Butterball turkey on my fist. I was deep in regret as I loosened the braces on her hood. The autumn and winter days that we had planned to spend together were leaden in my mind as I snipped her leather bracelets. And when I slipped the hood from her head, her bottomless, black eyes caught my eyes for only an instant.
She must have thought that this was just another day on the wing, sailing over me, waiting. But there was no dog in front of us, no duck pond with chuckling widgeons. When she launched and began to rise to a disappearing spot framed by the developing thunderhead over the Black Hills, my thoughts should naturally have gone to what the difficult winter ahead of me might have been. But instead they turned to a poem that I had not thought of in forty years. In fact, just then I could not even remember the name of the poem—only the first half of the second stanza where another man released his falcon:
When Offa’s kinsman first understood
That the earl would not suffer cowardice,
He let his beloved hawk fly from his hands
Away into the woods and then he advanced to the battle—
It took me a full day and a couple phone calls to recall that the stanza was from an ancient Anglo Saxon poem called “The Battle of Maldon.” It is the story of a battle that took place in 991 CE between inhabitants of the British Isles and a band of marauding Vikings. It was one of hundreds of poems that I was asked to read in college and, though I can remember almost none of them, that scene of the soldier releasing his falcon in preparation for a great battle has stuck with me. “The Battle of Maldon” is a fragment of a longer poem. There was a fire, and the beginning and end of the manuscript were lost. Only 325 lines remain and so, though we know from other histories that there was massive bloodshed and maimings of unimaginable proportion, we never learn exactly who the young warrior is or what happened to him in the end. He is a kind of Everyman who was involved in a cruel slaughter at the hands of the Vikings. But all we really know about the man with the falcon is that he fights bravely in a barbaric struggle and that, facing that struggle, he chooses to release his falcon so that he can focus on the mortal challenge that he knows he is about to face.
All of those thoughts have cycled through my mind in the days since I released my own falcon. I imagine that the ancient soldier felt the wind from his falcon’s wings in the same way I felt it from mine—a tiny awkward flapping until she gained enough lift to concentrate on power strokes that took her higher and higher. Into the blue prairie sky, into a thermal, and upward. What did the battle of Maldon look like from five thousand feet above? Could the falcon discern the falconer from the melee of humans struggling below? Probably not. All we are left with are 325 lines written in praise of bravery. And maybe that is enough, because our reaction to that eternal struggle is what makes us human.