Columnist Jim Dodson on spotting a red-tailed sentinel , his a faithful, four-legged soulmate and the concept of spirit animals
by Jim Dodson | illustration by Gerry O’Neill
Late in the afternoon on an unnaturally warm New Year’s Eve, I hauled the last of autumn’s motherlode of leaves to the curb and sat down to rest on an iron bench at the back of the new shade garden I’ve spent hours building during the Covid pandemic.
My dog Mulligan walked over and sat down beside me.
Mully, as I call her, is a wise old border collie of 16 who still walks a mile with us every morning before sunrise before spending much of her day in the garden keeping a sharp eye on things, including the head gardener.
I call her my “God Dog,” the perfect palindrome for the joyful young stray I found running wild and free back in 2006. Our journey together has been a gift from the universe, which is why I officially named my garden for the old girl on Christmas morning.
As we sat together beneath the old oak trees that arch over the yard like the beams from some ancient Druid’s lost cathedral, watching the final rays of the old year slip away, I followed her gaze up the huge white oak I call Honest Abe and discovered — rather startlingly — a large female red-tailed hawk sitting on a limb, not 20 feet above us.
I’d seen this same handsome lady hawk several times that week. But never this close.
Perhaps, like me, she was merely resting from a long afternoon of hunting and being harassed by a murder of pesky crows that behave like drunken teenagers in our neighborhood, enjoying a moment of peace and quiet to contemplate the end of another challenging year on the planet.
Or maybe she was simply waiting for an early supper to appear, which could explain the sudden scarcity of squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks that normally scamper around our backyard at that hour.
Given the timing of the moment, however, and the dramatic presence just feet above our heads, I had a slightly nobler thought.
In Native American lore, hawks are considered sacred creatures that frequently appear as messengers from one’s ancestors, benevolent spirit animals sent to warn or offer a blessing. Almost every ancient culture on the planet, in fact, holds some version of this interpretation of hawks as noble creatures that symbolize clear-eyed sight and the urge for freedom. In the legend of Arthur, for instance, the knight-hero Gawain — whose very name contains the Celtic word “gwalch,” which means hawk — sets off in search of the Holy Grail.
Was this a message from my ancestors? A simple New Year warning or blessing being sent as the three of us — man, dog, and scary mythic bird — sat calmly eyeballing each other from close range in the lengthening shadows of an unnaturally warm winter afternoon?
Was it a final warning about the rapidly vanishing Arctic ice? Or welcome news that liberation from the killer virus might finally come in the days and weeks just ahead?
Impossible to say. But either way, old Mully appeared to have her doubts about our visitor, keeping a wary custodial eye on the big bird in case she tried some funny business in her garden.
In the meantime, I took out my smartphone to sneak a photograph and do a quick fact check on spirit animals over the internet. I was surprised to find several websites designed to determine one’s own spirit animal through various lifestyle questions that sounded more like a personality test for
a dating website.
The first quiz I took revealed my spirit animal to be an owl. Not quite what I expected.
The second, a turtle. Seriously?
Finally, I became the 7,437,375th person to take the animated YouTube “soul animal” test that revealed my spirit animal is a bear.
I’ll admit to being kind of bummed that no red-tailed hawk made my spirit animal menagerie. All three sites did agree on one thing, however: that spirit animals choose us rather than the other way around.
When I finally glanced up from my phone, the lady red-tailed hawk had flown away. Maybe she was looking for an early New Year’s Eve supper, after all. I’ve never seen her since.
Mully, on the other hand, was still by my side.
After 16 years together, whatever lies ahead in 2022, it was comforting to still be chosen by such a spirited animal.
This article was originally published in the February 2022 issue of WALTER magazine