Recently, as I approached the University of Iowa’s Jessup Hall on my way to work one cold morning, a wide wingspan of majesty and terror flashed past my eyeline. A red-tailed hawk swooped past me not six feet away and landed elegantly upon a low branch in the Austrian pine to my left.
A raptor’s flight, especially seen so close, is always majestic. But the situation suggested terror as well. Hawks don’t fly so low and close for no reason. The terror was not for me but for the squirrel sitting on the same branch the hawk had just landed on, now chattering frantically to avoid becoming the winged predator’s breakfast.
The hawk sat calmly, even patiently, about six feet from the terrified squirrel still spouting a furious, desperate rodent tirade. In this frozen moment, I found myself in a moral dilemma. Do I do something to save the squirrel’s life?
I fully understand ecosystem balance, the predator–prey relationship, the circle of life. And I know that, truly, there’s not much of a moral question when it comes to a hawk hunting a squirrel. I understand that nature can be red in tooth and claw.
I understand Eastern religion and philosophy less than I understand ecosystems, but I also very much value their ideas of being present and mindful, of valuing the now and living in the moment as best I can. In a life-or-death now, I will choose life.
All of these concepts also underlie my beliefs about living well in our home, place and community. The ecosystem is a fundamental principle of place in my life philosophy. As great visionaries from Aldo Leopold to Wendell Berry tell us, the pattern of nature is the one true guide for living well—and rightly—on the earth. In so doing, we should always commit to being fully present where we currently dwell. The richest life experience arises from being mindful of the world we are immediately immersed within. An ethic of care for that home place arises from such inhabitation. I take “you are here” as a powerful touchstone for life.
But ecological and “be here now” understandings provide some cognitive dissonance. Inherent in ecology is future process. What happens now has everything to do with what happens next in an ecosystem. The circle of life must be traveled, and the ecological balance implies a future dependent on a present. I know the hawk must eat to survive and play its part in the world’s cycle.
Several years ago, I had another encounter with one of the Pentacrest red-tailed hawks. Near the north entrance of Macbride Hall one day, I witnessed another tableau de la nature. A red-tailed hawk was standing—majestically and calmly once again—on the ground. An odd place for the bird to be, until I looked down and saw a young bunny struggling for its life in the raptor’s claw. The predator was waiting patiently for its prey to die.
My instinct was to rush the bird and save the bunny, but I didn’t. The circle-of-life principle partly overrode my instinct, but even more compelling was my grasp of this particular moment in time. It was already too late for the baby bunny. Although it was heart-wrenching to watch it struggle, I knew that “rescuing” it would be even more horrific for the tiny creature. It no doubt was severely injured already, and the most humane (and natural) thing to do would be to let it die quickly in the hawk’s clutches. My more recent squirrel dilemma was different, since the hawk had yet to capture its prey.
So here I am, in this very specific place in a very specific moment in time with a very real squirrel and hawk before me, in a literal life-and-death standoff.
The ecologist in me says to let the natural scenario play out. But the presentist in me says to intervene. All we have in life is this moment. At the core of being in place is being here fully right now. In that slice of now-ness in which I live—which is all experience really is—I don’t want the squirrel to die. I don’t want harm to come to a beautiful creature, especially one so helpless and small, fully part of my immediate here-ness.
Absolute now-ness is difficult, if not impossible, to entertain. I can’t help but reenter the stream of time. A decision to save the squirrel may temporarily violate the ecosystem balance, but I also am aware that the hawk will soon find another victim, perhaps even this same chattering squirrel a few minutes later, and the bird will be fine.
So in this place, at this moment, mercy compels me to prevent the suffering and death of a living creature, especially when it is within my power to do so, and since I know the future will provide for the raptor. Perhaps the ecosystem and the mindful present can—have to—coexist.
I pick up a couple of pine cones from the ground. The hawk is staring intently at me as the squirrel continues its staccato vocal fire. I toss a cone toward the raptor, then another that comes closer to the mark. The beautiful bird rises on its talons, spreads its wings and glides away. My compassion for a small creature has spared its life in this place in this moment, which is what the here-and-now has guided me to do.
I continue my walk to the doors of Jessup Hall, knowing fully that the circle of life, the pattern of nature, continues apace beyond the ken of my own “I am here” daily progress through life.
Thomas Dean brakes for squirrels. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 194.