river muse

Bearing witness

By CASS COLLINS
Posted 5/5/21

We all bear witness to our own piece of earth every day. Most days pass without incident. We do what we can to make our homes and neighborhoods safe. Whether rural or urban, in the natural world or …

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river muse

Bearing witness

Posted

We all bear witness to our own piece of earth every day. Most days pass without incident. We do what we can to make our homes and neighborhoods safe. Whether rural or urban, in the natural world or the constructed one, we look out for our neighbors. When we bear witness to a wrong, we try to make it right.

Our windows on the world outside grace us with light year-round, birds at the feeder, the river in all its stages (sometimes a field of ice in winter) and trees: the dogwood with its delicious early summer blossoms and fall color; the maple now dripping with lime green catkins, later full of leafy shade to tame summer’s heat; and the holly tree that reaches higher than our second story and stays evergreen like the white pines growing up on the islands.

Rarely, a bird mistakes our expanse of glass for the sky showing through the smaller, higher windows on the opposite wall of our bedroom. It must be viewing it from a very specific angle to do so, but sometimes, it happens.

One weekend years ago, we came home to find the patio door to our bedroom balcony completely shattered. Eventually, we decided one of the eagles that live along the river had collided with it. Nothing short of a weapon would have such power to shatter tempered glass. The culprit was a mirror that sat on a dresser opposite the door and provided an apparent infinity that did not exist. I removed the mirror that day. Fortunately, the eagle must have survived the encounter. In 21 years, that has happened only once.

But recently, enjoying a lazy morning in bed and the view of an awakening spring, I heard a sudden thunk at the window. I sprang up to see a broad-winged hawk splayed out on the patio below. Its large wings were fully extended. The broad stripes of its prominent tail feathers were on full display. I lifted my phone to take a photo to properly identify it. It seemed to be breathing and finally its head moved. It slowly gathered its wings and stood. Soon, it began to move its head like a boxer’s after a knockout punch, slow and wary, turning 90 degrees from side to side, still confused, I imagined. As I watched, I thought of George Floyd and the video witness that had just brought his murderer to account.

I was bearing witness to the hawk and to our own failure to protect it. I wanted to help but, at that moment, all I could do was watch and hope. Sometimes that’s all we can do. Sometimes we can do more—move the mirror, obscure the window. In the case of our hawk, he flew off into a nearby tree, having recovered from the encounter.

In the case of Floyd, we all know the outcome. The loss of a father, brother, friend and lover who will never get a chance to laugh or cry again. The loss of innocence of a teenage girl and a nine-year-old who stood by transfixed by the horror of a man dying at the knee of another man, unable to stop the murder unfolding before them. A community of people of color recognizing their vulnerability in a country that still doesn’t value their lives as equal to the lives of others. Police forces infected with the stain of racism make us all culpable if we fail to disinfect them. Bearing witness is not a spectator event. It requires action. Move the mirror, raise the camera.

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