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September 13, 2017

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The Battle of Maldon

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 poemonly 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 minea 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.


Comments

Cecilia Rivas Schuermann

September 13, 2017

Beautiful, moving story. Thank you for sharing.

David Bauer

September 13, 2017

Thank you for sharing your moment and your connection with your falcon. It reminds me of the saying that if we truly love something we must be willing to set it free..

Jim (F) Crates

September 13, 2017

Dan – I am never more moved by your writing than when you are writing about your relationship with the falcons, it brings a tear to my eye, literally. In reading the ‘Battle of Maldon’ I was taken back to how moved I was by Rites of Autumn, way back when in 1989 when I was just graduating college. Maldon prompted me to take Rites off my bookshelf, open it up, and read it again-it is that time of year.

Keep fighting the good fight – JF Crates

Fiorella

September 13, 2017

Dan, this is so beautifully written and powerful. I once witnessed looking into the eyes of a bird of prey I held in my grasp…looking into a wildness I will never understand, but also getting a tiny glimpse of our common wildness. Releasing it released a part of me too. Thank you always for sharing your experience with us!

Martin Wilke

September 13, 2017

Makes me want to go read Equinox for the third time! I live in Boise. Have you ever been to World Center for Birds of Prey? I’ll take you!

Two Dog

September 13, 2017

The twinge of loss with the anticipation of recovery, even briefly is a bittersweet moment. The kind that adds meaning to our days and memories to our hearts. She flies to a life well lived, long or short, within a framework of freedom sweetened by the experience of another species and another way.

Chuck Beatty

September 13, 2017

Well done, Dan. A bittersweet and heroic decision. A lesser man would have flown her badly through the fall. You’ve given her everything she needs to survive. She’ll do well.

Jamie

September 13, 2017

Dan, thank you for such a wonderful story of celebration and sadness. It was very moving.

James E. Swab

September 13, 2017

Dan—You have lived/are living a helluva life. I envy you and admire you. You’ve got it right. Keep up the good fight.

Liz Aicher

September 13, 2017

God speed, to you, Dan, and the falcon.

Lan Evenson

September 13, 2017

Dan, your thoughts are so captivating. A tear came to my eye as I read how it was time to release your falcon. I have eppreciated your writings for many years now. This prompts me to reread “Rites of Autumn” and “Equinox” again for a third time. Best wishes to you and your family.

Dan O'Neal

September 13, 2017

Thanks for that, Dan. And for your bravery and insight :)

Linda Clark

September 13, 2017

As usual, another beautiful piece of writing about the glory of the natural world. One word, though, about the “cruel slaughter at the hands of the Vikings”.. As a professor of Scandinavian studies at Yale pointed out in an NPR interview about the History Channel’s “The Vikings”, cruelty was the order of the day. Read the history of the battle of Agincourt if you have any doubts. I just had to stand up for my Viking forebears! : >)

Cynthia Baker Burns

September 13, 2017

Just brilliant. I would have liked to have witnessed the release- a life moment for both of you
Thank you

Ramona

September 13, 2017

Obviously from the other comments I’m not the only one to get teary eyed from this bit of great writing. Thank you Dan.

Santana Tamarak

September 13, 2017

thank you, a wonderful sharing of loss and gain, all at once. we all gain more than we know when we let go.

Lynn

September 13, 2017

How does he know that this time he doesn’t return? I am obviously green but I’ve wondered that.

Harry Greene

September 13, 2017

Beautiful moving prose, thanks! Now I’m wondering if we have another friend in common, Steve Bodio?

carolyn siscoe

September 13, 2017

Words and thoughts transcend everyday cares. That is beautiful. Hope all is well with you. And thank you.

Douglas Shearer

September 13, 2017

A touching story. But remember, as was pointed out, these animals should be in the wild. They were not meant to be pets or personal possessions.

Kathy Antonen

September 13, 2017

Literature continually teaches us: we aren’t alone in our human condition. So very well said by both you and the Anglo-Saxon writer.

Kay Lewis

September 13, 2017

Oh, Dan, what a poignant moment! Thank you for capturing it to share with us as you were releasing her to her true life. I do hope you see one another again.

Diane Thill

September 13, 2017

I cannot imagine how difficult that must have been for you, having read your books and knowing how much you love your birds. Beautifully written, and it brought more than a few tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing, Dan.

Dick Schott

September 13, 2017

great story Dan and my heart is with you knowing how hard it had to be, but it has to give you some satisfaction that she and her kind were a great inspiration toward your love of restoring the prairie and now she can watch your work and enjoy the results every day. Thanks for sharing Dick

Carolyn Miller

September 14, 2017

That is a heart-warming story and brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing and restoring the prairie.

Linda M. Hasselstrom

September 14, 2017

I also believed he released his falcon so that if he died in battle, she would not die with him. Think about that, too. And again today, I plugged your work in my Road Scholar class and was gratified to see some folks write down your name. I quote you every time on the value of this grassland in Custer County. Be well, and remember Julian of Norwich: All will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

Ken Kaswecl

September 14, 2017

Birds all over the world are having it tough these days. Good you gave yours freedom to thrive. I think about you guys and our prairie often. Keep up your good works.

Donna Fisher

September 14, 2017

My students—especially the ones who didn’t like literature—loved passages from Rites of Autumn and they would have loved this, too. I hope teachers of SD high school kids these days are sharing your writing. Thanks for letting her go, Dan, and for touching our hearts with wider meaning.

Laura H. Harris

September 15, 2017

Dear Dan, What a moving and touching story and the memories that you are sharing. I hope you will see your falcon again one day high in the sky soaring in pure happiness. You have a gift of bonding with God’s creatures that brings you inner peace. I could feel myself swept away when you described the brave soul that spared his falcon’s life so that he could fight valiantly against the Vikings. Written history and oral history handed down through the ages gives us a glimpse into the harsh life that our ancestors lived through. Thank you so much for this wonderful peek into what was our yesterday! ~ Laura~

Keith Lewis

September 15, 2017

Dan—That falcon is your inspiration, restoration, and hope as you fight the noble battles to preserve the prairie—and the biological diversity upon which all of life depends. Your mystical bond will continue as she looks down on you and the land you’re struggling to save. Your guardian angel soars in that airy realm, far above this mortal plain. Yet, you and she are one.

Sallie Reynolds

September 15, 2017

Lovely story. Blessings on your girl. Last March I released the young Red-tail, a West Nile Virus survivor, whom I’d rehabbed for six months. We’d hunted and explored learned from one another. I too was facing tasks I knew would keep me from working with him the way he needed, but he probably had already learned as much from me as he could. Perhaps I was sad at the thought of all things I had yet to learn from him. But he was ready to go. I released him in a field about a quarter mile from my house, and today, 6 months later, he still appears from time to time if I walk that field, and if I have a treat to toss him, he’ll wing over and snatch it. But he is living his wild life well. With no recurrence, apparently, of WNV. And no regrets.

pat

September 15, 2017

Thank you,Dan, for another important and beautiful post. If only we can learn that Nature and Humans are one, not the perception that Nature is outside us.

Laura Culley

September 15, 2017

I just love how you string words together to make glorious sentences that make even more glorious paragraphs—and then, the outrageous stories. Thank you so much for sharing that talent.
As a falconer, I fully understand the bittersweet release. May she fly high and make more!

John Hershey

September 15, 2017

Thanks for sharing a meaningful human moment with us.

willard cannon

September 15, 2017

Enjoyed this very much. I live in TN, don’t see any falcons but have always loved my hawks and eagles. In your picture is a very beautiful English Setter. Thank you. I have a setter and have had many since I was a child in Alabama. My dad and I hunted with Bear Bryant and friends for many a year. Enjoyed those years. Thank you! Keep those setters close. Great buddies.

Melissa Moore

September 16, 2017

A beautiful piece. Best wishes to you in your upcoming challenges!

Gigi

September 17, 2017

Hmmm, are those “dismal appointments in Rapid City” worth letting go, putting aside or cutting back on the passion that inspired a mission and is a driving force? Spend even more time in falconry. The grasses, the bison…fauna and flora have benefited from your first love. And we are learning to do the same.

Karen Hirsimaki Filter

September 17, 2017

Beautiful Dan! A long time since I saw you start handling birds in your netted back yard aviary as a junior in high school! I thought you were a very cool guy then and am not surprised what a wise and giving man you are now! Bravo to you, your work with the buffs and restoration of our gorgeous grasslands! Hang tough, walk through the dismal appointments and know your bird is fine and will check in with you now and then!!

Anita Schott

September 18, 2017

Prayers for you as you carry on.

Christine Newman

October 13, 2017

Dismal appointments? Are you ill? We’ve just left SD to head back to FL for the winter. Would like to have seen you while we were there. Godspeed to you. Your story and lifestyle has been very inspiring to us.

Carol Radigan

October 25, 2017

A beautiful piece of writing that speaks to the human spirit. Thanks for the words, Dan!

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