Yesterday I was out in the backwoods, trudging through the weed tangled snow when I heard the unmistakable cry of an eagle. It came from over my right shoulder and sailed into view on level with the tops of the cottonwoods. It circled around, dipped and bobbed as if it were riding a raft on an invisible river current. Landing on a nearby branch, it cocked its head toward the pond, then leaped off, throwing itself back into the updraft. No wing beats, but it rode higher and higher, then circled back and came swooping down until the wind picked it up again. I stood riveted, realizing the eagle was not hunting, but simply playing. The body memory of flying from my dreams sent me sailing with him. As I became absorbed in the sky, imagining myself into his flight, my camera hung forgotten around my neck. A hundred great shots that I didn’t get of the eagle.
But if I had been trying to capture the moment, I don’t think I would have lost myself in that feeling of soaring so completely that when at last the eagle disappeared and I turned to go, I was surprised by the awkward weight of my boots as they pulled me back to earth.
Gary Snyder says: “To see a wren in a bush, call it ‘wren,’ and go on walking is to have (self-importantly) seen nothing. To see a bird, and stop, watch, feel, forget yourself for a moment, be in the bushy shadows, maybe then feel ‘wren’–that is to have joined in a larger moment with the world.”
I think this is true sometimes of photographing birds as well. We “capture” the bird in a picture, but in so doing, we end up with the viewfinder, and that intent to come away with something tangible, coming between us and the experience. This was not a moment captured but a moment lived.