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The Symbol

I’ve seen them in Alaska, Yellowstone, Maine. Always alone— their singularity capturing so much of the spirit they epitomize. Usually they’re roosting on the uppermost branch of the tallest tree in the area. Occasionally I’ve spotted one swooping into a landing or launching powerfully, improbably into the air. The sight, for me, is always thrilling—much the same way that spotting a breaching whale is thrilling. But whereas whales belong to the sea, which belongs to no one, the Bald Eagle, at least in my mind (and probably many other minds), represents America. Even when I saw one in northern Canada—where I know they are plentiful—I thought to myself, “What’s he doing up here, far from home?”

When I was a child I was told the Bald Eagle was on the verge of extinction; we had all but destroyed our national symbol. Yet they came back, and a decade ago were removed from the endangered and threatened list.

Perhaps because I have only ever seen a Bald Eagle in wild and majestic places, my conception of them is linked with all that is so good about America. These sightings invariably fill me with a rush of awe, a swelling of gratitude, a sprig of hope.

When, very recently, my son saw his first Bald Eagle on the Missouri River in Montana during a father-son canoe trip, his one word reaction captured everything I have always felt, not only about the Bald Eagle, but about the wilder parts of our country.

“Whoa,” he said softly.

“I know,” I whispered back.

It felt good to pass something down.

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