A little over five years ago, Travis and I spent our first night outdoors together camped next to Big Pine Creek, a waterway as remote as you get here in Indiana. Many moments of our five-year partnership have taken place along (and in the middle of) Big Pine Creek. When playing on Big Pine, we were usually camped on land owned by our friend Doug, who sold the place last summer. (I wrote about our final night there here and here.)
Sometimes I get visions of places I’ve loved and left. Lately, when I hear a certain kind of Christmas music, often piano, perhaps Oh Holy Night or Silent Night or a particularly haunting rendition of Carol of the Bells, I see Big Pine Creek in my head. It’s midnight on Christmas Eve, high up in a sycamore tree where a pair of bald eagles has roosted for several years. The night is dark blue, cold and clear, with only the sound of the water running below. The forest is bare of leaves, and a narrow ray of moonlight slips through the naked branches. There is no snow.
A bald Eagle Christmas.
I don’t know why I see this scene when certain music plays. Maybe it’s because one of the atoms in my grey matter used to live in a bald eagle, and it short-circuits my brain and plays the wrong tape.
Or maybe my memory isn’t being disrupted at all; maybe it’s because I’ve slept outside in December, and I remember how different it is, how otherworldly. I know how sharp those nights feel on your skin, how they freeze the hairs in your nose with each breath. I know how they sound, how a coyote’s howl or an owl’s screech can harness the thin, frigid air and ride it across miles and into your eardrums like an icepick.
Or it could just be that I’m prone to flights of fancy. Some combination of the last two seems most likely. I don’t really believe that eagles are whispering at me; I believe my brain is wired for connection with living things and places, both biologically and as a matter of my past experience. But what does that matter, anyway? If the arrangement of atoms in neurons is the language of the universe, then maybe it can be said that the eagles are speaking to me. Semantics.
Either way, I’ll still be seeing clips of this particular bend in Big Pine Creek. And on Christmas Eve, music or no, I’ll go outside and try to catch the sense of it on my skin, from the wind skating off the pond and through the willow branches. I’ll stay a second or two with the eagles on Big Pine, in their strange avian world, and then I’ll go back in the house, with the fire, and the dogs, and the rest of the human world.