For months now we’ve been learning from a pair of Northern Harrier hawks nesting near our three townhouse balconies, which overlook the San Diego River Gorge. Hawk totem. Teaching us how to be fierce in our commitments.

Whoosh! I was standing on the small balcony outside our bedroom when from behind the wall on my left swooped a v-shaped pair of grey wings that soared up into a tall eucalyptus, about four trees to my right. A few minutes later, I could see him soaring back with a stick held perpendicularly in his beak like a trapeze artist’s balancing bar, longer than his body length. It was early March, nesting season.

How can he fly with that thing? I wondered. He landed in another eucalyptus just off our port bow, a few yards away.

Hawks tend to surprise me. I think of them as flying miles above, soaring on the air currents. But I’ve also had the startling realization that one was sitting on the fence four or five feet away, watching me water the garden bank long before I noticed his magnificent presence. Only then did he choose to open his wings and veer away, slipping easily into obscurity among the back yard tangles of suburbia.

That was two houses ago, and a different species. He taught me to Pay Attention.

Hawk is one of my totem animals—a messenger who speaks to me of things I might be neglecting or forgetting. If you’ve read my post about rabbits, or beetles, you know that I believe animal encounters relate to our current state of mind and body. They are not as random as we might think, and they almost always have something to teach us about our life at the moment.

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