‘Eagle, Take Me Home’
On Grief and the Myriad of Deaths That We Live
They say that ‘pain is an illusion.’ Neurobiologically, everything is an illusion. But, how can I tell myself that it’s an illusion when my pain is so clearly trying to communicate something with me? Intellectualising it as ‘technically an illusion’ is like gaslighting myself out of a state of being, of grief.
Sitting down to write about grief has been incredibly hard. For one, I don’t understand it or all of what happened, and for two, it sent my mind into wintering, icing me out of the ability to write — the very process that I use to understand the world around me. Through that winter I have trawled through the swirling cacophony of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance that grief is. But here I am, writing again — so I must be surfacing.
The grief that has sent me down this path wasn’t the death of a loved one, so much as a departure. I don’t know and I won’t pretend to know the grief associated with the early death of a loved one beyond the hard but expected passing of my grandparents in their old age. Although, one of them did die too young while I was too young as well — my only memory of Nonna Virginia is imprinted in my wild eyebrows.
Nonetheless, I am in grief over love, while lately a lot of people around me seem to be in grief too. So, two days ago and in need of understanding, I went on a long walk through the bush to visit some old acquaintances, and to see what advice they might have for me about this painful state of grief.
Poco was a brown kelpie, a working dog. She was my first friend and many times we had rolled around in the warm dirt out the front of an old house far from anywhere, chewing each other’s legs and sharing sandwiches. She passed when I was twelve. Dad took her body and cremated her in private, as he’s always done with his old workmates. For twenty years I didn’t know where she was.
I was 32 years old, out exploring the land that raised me, bouncing my way down an old, abandoned track in the hot sun when I found her. Well, perhaps I was brought to her.
It was the energy that stopped me not 500 metres after picking up an eagle’s feather. The energy made me get out of my car, then I really felt it. My vision warped at the edges and throbbed like the first-person perspective of a departing mind on the silver screen. I hadn’t thought of her in years and suddenly there she was, Poco was right there with me as present as the living. I was in tears as I spun around searching for her. “Poco is here! Poco is here!” I was muttering aloud. But she was everywhere, and eventually, I just stopped to feel her. I knew this was where she rested. I struggle to explain it, but I have never felt such transcendent power in all of my life, still pinching that feather between my index and thumb.
Earlier, coming over a rise I was pleasantly greeted by the sight of a great eagle taking flight from a roo carcass just in front of me. When you are so close beneath their wings you really sense their majesty, not like the monarchs that we create but something real, with real power in nature. As the eagle soared up, a feather slowly drifted down. I got out of my car to pick it up. I held it from its base and marvelled at it for a moment. Then I carried on, holding that feather between my index and thumb.
It was this experience that made me realise the connection between the eagles of this land and the Spirit of Death within them. Not Death as the sinister reaper, Death as the spirit of transition, of rebirth and renewal, loss and letting go, and new beginnings — the ancient Romans had a god for these processes, Saturn. This wasn’t the first time that eagles had presented death to me. So now when I need to process such a thing, I go to visit these old acquaintances at their aeries, their nests, across the land.
Out on my walk, after revisiting Poco’s Rest, I came to the first aerie, with no eagles in sight. I took a knee beneath the myall tree that held the eagle's tangle of sticks and looked at the fluorescent moss growing over the arid land — it has been unusually wet this year. I crouched and simply stayed present; the messages usually come once I leave.
I walked away and no sooner had I taken ten steps than something strange caught my eye. A sleepy lizard out on a winter’s day — it certainly is a strange time to find a reptilian friend like this. Perhaps this was the message for me from the death spirit. Sleepy lizards mate for life, remaining monogamous by returning to the same partner every year, for up to twenty years, to mate. They will mourn the death of their partner and stay with their body for some time. Why was this one out in the cold, struggling to move and exposed to the eye of the eagle? In my search for understanding, its struggle against the cold told me to endure my discomfort and not to fight my wintering mind, but to allow it as a process. It occurred to me that I was in pain because I had loved, illusion or not, and that is a beautiful thing.
My first memory of an eagle, one of my first memories of anything, was just outside dad’s workshop on our sheep station. I must have been about three. Dad was inside welding something and gave me a stern warning that I should stand outside and not watch the pulsing electric arc. Of course, I watched for a moment, it’s too beautiful not to, but then quickly looked away as I remembered what his tone translated to if I was caught.
I found myself out in the warm sun, looking around for something to do. It didn’t take long for my little neck to crane upwards to the big baby blue. With my back turned to the arcing electrode I watched this big bird circle round and round, a shadow passing in and out of the sun. How odd. I watched for a few minutes before I got quizzical.
‘Daaad, why is that bird going round in circles?’
Looking up from the shadows in the shed, ‘because it’s circling you, you’d better be careful out there.’
You learn about death at a young age in the wilderness. Mum’s biggest fear was that we’d be taken by eagles when we were young. Perhaps by three, I was too big. Though many years later, mum’s fear came rushing in.
I had just climbed the rugged Mt. Alec and was enjoying my solitude above the world, naked in the late autumn sun. I sat still, reading my self-help book on the fading tail of a hard relationship that had left me questioning many things about myself. I sat right on the edge of the precipice, the warm flat rock radiated into my body and a big nothingness splayed out to the east before me.
I must have sat still for too long.
The gentle breeze suddenly became a gust that seemed to be coming up the slope right behind me. Then my instincts kicked in as I realised that was no gust, that was something else. I ducked my head and looked up just as a large eagle swooped straight over my head. The gust of wind had been the air over its wings. As it glided out over the abyss it looked back under its wing, piercing its eyes straight through mine and into my soul. I’ll never forget that face, daring me to live.
I walked up to the second aerie on my journey, I must have travelled 6 km by now. I stayed present for a moment, absorbing its energy, and then departed to climb a nearby bluff. After the steep descent, I was wandering through a beautiful woodland on a spur that descended gently to the east. Straight in front of me rose a little Mulla Mulla, very rare around here, from the stony ground. After visiting the eagles, I tend to walk straight into things that carry a message. The Mulla Mulla is a beautiful herb that grows purplish fluffy bottlebrush flowers — it is bush medicine for loneliness and emotional pain. The eagles showed me that healing from grief isn’t something that just goes away with time but requires my attention and the use of help that I am willing to receive or find for myself. There are tools out there more powerful than my pride if only I am willing to be resilient and vulnerable.
Great Uncle Bruce is my last remaining elder, 89 years young. He too was once a child and a custodian of this land. When he visited earlier this year, I took him and dad for a drive down a very bumpy and overgrown old track to show him some hundred-year-old camps I’d found, made by woodcutters servicing the days of wood stoves in Whyalla. There are all sorts of old trinkets left behind — mostly old bottles. As we bounced along, we talked about the land and managing our flocks of sheep, talking about signs of overgrazing or a good patch of feed. Heading for home, he shared that he was pleased with my knowledge and that he felt comfortable with my upcoming succession of the land.
Just as he finished speaking, two great eagles soared up just metres over our ute. When I see one eagle that means something personal, two eagles mean something interpersonal. Being the vehicle of the death spirit, I thought, ‘please no, don’t let this be the last time I see him.’ But I was being too literal. I realised that these eagles marked something else, the death they had brought was the blessing of a new beginning.
After finding the Mulla Mulla I came out from the hills and into the plains. I was headed for the third and final aerie in my quest. I found two eagles nesting in their home that was older than me. I was sure not to get too close because they will abandon an aerie for years, including the young inside, if they sense danger.
By now I had done 12 km with no food or water, and still had 4 km to go. But as I went to leave the bush I was called by an energy, as it does, to go home a different way. I guess this is my version of drawing from the tarot. The spirit of death had one last thing to show me. There, on the ground directly in front of me, lay an abandoned emu egg.
Emus are perhaps the most neurotic and flighty creatures I have ever come across in my years out in the bush, they embody the spirit of insecurity. This was the final message for me on my walk. If I was going to process this grief and release my mind from its winter, then I was going to need to come back to feeling secure within myself. Without my independence, I can’t carry myself in a world where everyone must carry themselves with responsibility for their own needs. We can be offered help, but it is us that must accept it.
The old acquaintances showed me what I needed to know about grief. That I mustn’t fight it, but welcome it as the processing of having known beauty, that I can work with it with vulnerability and courage, and that when I am finally willing to let go, it can lead me back to myself.
Whether death comes as the death of love, divorce, severance, or the death of life with the physical and eternal disappearance of a loved one, the pain is real for whoever feels it. Grief does not compete, though some process faster than others, and really, does it truly end?
In death, the world-in-itself — described by Eugene Thacker as the part of the world that we cannot perceive and cannot know — presents itself in a way that we both experience and do not experience at the same time. We feel the unknowable void as it transfers our love into it. But that love never crosses over completely because we have known it. It remains across the boundary to hold our hands from the shadows for the rest of our lives.
Last year I wrote a poem about the land spirits that guide me, at a time when I was far from home and desperately in spiritual need. The poem, The Eagle and the Adder, included the eagle that embodies the spirit of death, the adder of fear, the forest of ego, the rain of forgiveness, and many others. The poem was about my home, which, if you haven’t gathered by now, is a very spiritual place for me. The last stanza is just one line, ‘Eagle, take me home.’
This last line is the understanding that life-at-peace is surrounded by death. Home is always in transition, rebirthing, renewing, departing and beginning again. Home, as steady as it may seem, is dynamic. Often, we can’t see it changing, and sometimes it’s a storm. Every day we grow older and wiser, some days we gain love, and others we lose it so hard that we might be happier to just lose ourselves. This is the death spirit, the great eagle ever soaring and ever watching over us. Allowing us to keep moving, as it glides down to hold safely what we have loved until it is our turn to be held.