exploring the life and works of charles francis kennedy
“He really was an enchanting person. In some way he was like the spiritual father of everybody…. It is hard to imagine Central Park without Charles Kennedy.” Marie Winn, author of Red-tails in Love, and close friend of Charles, remembering him after his death in October 2004
Since Charles’s death in 2004, Deb and I have had many experiences with what we have come to call “Charles moments.” Last night offered yet another.
photo by s kennedy
December 21, 2010: Winter solstice, lunar eclipse, standing outside in the chill of night, looking up anticipating something special, something beautiful and transporting. It was a very Charles thing to do and this morning I couldn’t wait to gather some of his body of work in praise of heavenly bodies. Photos, essays, haiku: the Charles trifecta. Enjoy!
First, here is an essay that appears in both Charles collections published to date. It recalls an adventure with his dear filmmaker friend, Frederic Lilien. It features a gorgeous photo that is also found in “The Legend of Pale Male”, now showing in theaters around the country.
Hawk In The Moon
photo by C.F. Kennedy
paints so beautifully
The Belgian and I had been scouting this shot for several days, Frederic with his video camera and I with a still camera. Pale Male, the boss Red-tail in the park, had been bringing his just fledged kids to Turtle Pond for hunting lessons and we wanted photographs, especially since a full moon was on its way.
This pond had just been drained and for profound ecological reasons: it was nearly dead. A few years before there had been nine species of fish in the pond—now a struggling two. The pH values were all off, as was the oxygen level. The pond was strangling primarily because of bad drainage and silt overload.
A drained pond bottom was Christmas for the rats. Food galore. But as the food chain goes, it was also early Christmas for the hawk family. The wily father brought his eager but inexperienced juveniles to learn to hunt at the rat deli. To aid in the elaborate renovation of the pond, several thick 25-foot creosoted poles were sunk into the ground and used for stringing temporary electrical wires. Hunting from perches is a principal technique for Red-tails, so when they were not strafing the pond bottom for Rattus norwegicus, they were sitting on a pole planning their next attack.
The crepuscular time was best for everyone. The rats are primarily nocturnal, but dusk is just fine with them. Dusk is a bit late for the diurnal Red-tail, but when training the children, one works late. For Mr. Lilien and Mr. Kennedy the time of day was spectacular. The sky was becoming a richer and deeper blue and, of course, the point of it all— the full moon found the hawk.
From the photo-essay collection Pale Male and Family and the haiku collection The Fish Jumps Out of the Moon.
And now a sample of the haiku to be found in The Fish Jumps Out of the Moon: Haiku of Charles F. Kennedy, beginning with a lovely scene turned exciting in this pair of poems.
keeping the moon
on the water
of the moon
In the next three Charles looks skyward and plays with the heavenly bodies.
is a precise half tonight
thin autumn air
Mars in the water
flat on her back
Now a triptych wherein sharp observation meets humor, geometry, and whimsy.
in water or sky
splashing the moon
with a rock
throwing round stones
the full moon
I am swept into the following scenes each time I read them––so evocative and romantic in a way.
I continue to peck away at a modest biography of Uncle Charles. The main work to date has been reading through his papers and interviewing people close to him. But the only way I can genuinely (credibly?) render a telling of his story is to make it the story of what Charles meant to me and how our journeys intersected. Consequently, along the way I have stored up odd bits of my own written work that in any way relate to Charles's impact on my life.
Tonight, I came a across a document containing what is, on the surface, a not-so-modest rumple of posts I've made over the years to our fine Cobirds birding listserv. I have kept them (and other pieces) because as I write anything about birds or nature or jazz or books or politics or beauty, I hear Charles––or perhaps I just feel close to him. And then I look at the page and I see his influence: the joy, the whimsy, the anticipation, the child-like awe. It's all genuinely mine now, but mostly gratefully borrowed. I don't write as well or think as well as Charles did. I most certainly don't appreciate as avidly and thoroughly as he did. But here I offer some snips of my stuff as homage––a way of moving his story forward. Thanks, Charles.
A few examples:
From the yard.
Every day, all week long I would turn off KUVO jazz and open the window to hear Billie Holiday. 10 White-crowned Sparrows singing "God Bless the Child." I want them to stay.
It's day three of Barnum and Bailey's Bushtits. Five strong on suet feeders they fend off Flickers and Downys. Under the seed feeders they shoulder up with burly Juncos. They've temporarily taken the tiny place of a quintet of Mountain Chickadees, which had ruled the small spaces of the yard for nearly a month. I feel a bit guilty about getting into this show for free!
A burst of brash Bushtits just peppered my feeders-- four-at-a-time on the suet feeders and more-at-a-time on other feeders. A perfect flying circus! And then they were off, a gray parade of cartwheels and summersaults. A fine addition to the yard list here at Parker and Belleview in Aurora. ***
On my morning walk at Cherry Creek State Park I sneaked into a fine fall concert at the Beaver Pond, a venue with great lighting and spot-on acoustics.
A Western Meadowlark diva opened with an aria about her meadow and its bright golden haze. ("The mullein's as high as a birdwatcher's eye!")
A spurt of comic opera was chortled by Virginia Rails in a baritone duet.
Three tenors dressed as Marsh Wrens rattled out an extended tribute to pugnacity; an old drinking song, I think.
A giddy soprano choir of Gold and House Finches tinkled from the risers through the entire show.
With me in the willow seats were a dozen well-behaved Lincoln's Sparrows and also a Gray Catbird, who, sensing this was not a jazz concert, opted to simply mew along to himself.
Nothing rare, sorry. But mighty rarified!
Highlights and delights:
In the early morning mist a pearly string of 30 Snowy Egrets was strung along the dam and swim beach. On the southern sandspit runway one good tern (species) deserved another; four Commons and Two Blacks looking like ultra-lights among the pelican jumbo jets. And just west of the swim beach I wandered into recess time for a whole school of wired Wilson's Warblers who didn't even notice their shy, stylish classmate, MacGillivray's.
Always a treat.
I post today in praise of understatement at Barr Lake. It's not that Debbie and I minded the impromptu avant garde concert presented by a Warbling Vireo, a Black-headed Grosbeak, and a House Wren, all blowing madly from the same tree. And we enjoyed the gaudy kingbird and oriole air show.
But this morning's best show was the Subtlety Pageant.
A raft of Gadwall won for Best Use of Available Light--- brief, but stunning.
Several Swainson's Thrushes quietly triumphed for Best Use of Available Shadows--- putting good optics to the test!
Four nicely distributed Lincoln's Sparrows won in the Most Elegant Skulker category--- handsome little surprisers.
And one special Orange-crowned Warbler grabbed the award for Best Discreet Flash of Crown Patch--- a modest, but memorable performance.
From this tiny, remote corner of the big cyber room, let me begin with this: Thank you, thank you, people of the Bay Area! The press and the filmgoers were delighted with “The Legend of Pale Male” and they let us know it. “Us’ in this case is Frederic Lilien, the filmmaker, Deb and me. From San Francisco to Berkeley to San Rafael the first West Coast weekend of “The Legend” was uplifting. The old red-tailed master of the New York skyline, Pale Male, found a new bunch of fans out on the western edge.
The film-related duties were lighter in CA than in NYC so Deb and I––and Frederic––had opportunities to be tourists in and around San Francisco, and we met up with friends and family who live in the area. So packed was the itinerary that I didn’t have a minute to blog even a morsel while in San Francisco. Deb’s pedometer let us know that between little jaunts on cable cars, trains, busses, and trolleys, we walked 9-10 miles per day for four days.
Wandered the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. Got to City Lights Books along the way and picked up some Beat poetry books. Jack Kerouac was a fine haiku writer. He and Charles could have a had a mad, wild haiku time of it. From Kerouac's Book of Haiku:
Deb near City Lights Bookstore
to the moon,
Among the cows
Missing a kick
At the icebox door
It closed anyway
This July evening
A large frog
On my door sill
And the quiet cat
Sitting by the post
Perceives the moon
In his haiku book, Kerouac, like Charles, pays homage to haiku masters Buson, Basho, Issa. I love these circles, these touchstones.
We spent Sunday with Frederic exploring the Muir Beach, Point Reyes area––walking the trails from the beach to the tops of the cliffs. Magical. Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks were kiting in the thermals. Turkey Vultures plied their macabre opportunism, ignored by the wading birds and scrub birds busy with their own rounds.
Deb and Frederic in Sausalito
With Frederic at Muir Beach
Charles didn’t need a formal invitation to accompany us on this trip, he is always along, whatever the adventure. On Sunday he seemed to be very present––Deb, Frederic, me, and the ghost of Charles. When it came time to settle up for lunch at a fun little café in Stinson Beach, Frederic and I began a stubbornness game that Charles loved (and most often won), the “I’m paying and you have nothing to say about it but ‘thank you’” game. On the plane home that evening the seed of a poem came down the aisle and I caught a little draft of it.
Getting ready to zip off to San Francisco, but thought I'd add one more gift received from a good New York friend, Regina Alvarez, who works for the Central Park Conservancy. Charles was on the Woodlands Advisory Board for the Conservancy (the umbrella group that manages all of Central Park), and Regina staffed the Board. I was delighted to have the chance to see Regina and her cousin, Fred, in NYC over Thanksgiving. Regina is a gifted and passionate horticulturist and manager, and she was part of some of the best adventures Charles and his friends had in the park, in daytime and at night.
I asked Regina if she would provide a quote for the cover of the upcoming book about owls in Central Park. She graciously provided the following––
“I often think of Charles and talk about him at work. One of my favorite things about Charles was how he got me to slow down and look at the park. As Woodland Manager, I am often very busy and I run around the park getting things done. With Charles I would stop and admire the beauty of the park where I work everyday.”
Director of Horticulture and Woodland Management, Central Park Conservancy
The deep chill and the short, dark days of December provide a dramatic backdrop against which we may experience the subtle beauties of the natural world in stark relief. Charles was nearly always in a state of rapt anticipation of the next bit of beauty, the next unexpected source of joy, the next dose of perfect photographic light––in all four seasons. But he and I agreed that late autumn and early winter were particularly sublime. So, stop, admire, and enjoy!
The multiple award-winning documentary film, "The Legend of Pale Male", soars into San Francisco for its big opening Friday, December 10.
Deb and I will arrive there on Thursday, December 9 to help filmmaker, Frederic Lilien, with opening weekend logistics. This inspired film centers around the remarkably intertwined lives of a famous clan of Red-tailed Hawks and a large community of hawk-loving New Yorkers. The cinematography, editing, and writing are superb. Throughout the film, tribute is paid to Uncle Charles-- for his role in mentoring Frederic through many years of filming and hawk stalking, and for his devotion to the hawks and hawk watchers.
The film has been very well received by audiences in New York, where is has earned an additional week of screenings. This is a film for everyone, from nature lovers, to documentary film fans, to young and old alike.
If you are in the Bay Area or know people who are, please pass on a link to this site and get out and see the film! It makes a great holiday treat. Encourage your favorite groups to attend. We have had a good number of school classes attend the film in NYC and the kids flip for the film. Many of the 'star humans' in the film are children. Too sweet!!
The great Red-tailed Hawk, Pale Male, is having his day in the celluloid sun, as well he should. The first weekend of showings in NYC went very well. Hurray for Pale Male, Frederic Lilien, and all the ‘hawkoholics’!! “The Legend of Pale Male” will have another week in The Big Apple and then on to San Francisco, Boston, San Diego and beyond!
And… for many of us, cold weather is owl weather. Deb and I took a late afternoon walk today, across the main road and into Cherry Creek State Park, ‘our park’. As we approached the woodland trail we voiced our ramped-up anticipation, “Good time to see owls…”
We strode into the spinney as the sun painted the leafless trees with a sepia cast before it fell behind the Front Range. It was easy to fall into an altered state of consciousness. Memories. Connections. Magic?
When my brothers and I were small, Uncle Charles bought us all of the A.A. Milne books. I have two next to me now. Some of my fondest early memories are of curling up in Charles’s lap to hear him read The House at Pooh Corner and When Were Very Young in his most expressive thespian voice. It was easy to picture Pooh and Piglet, Eeyore and Owl (or “WOL” as he spelled it) frolicking in the Hundred Acre Wood. Later, Charles would come back to Iowa from New York when I was 10ish to lead the neighborhood kids on naturalist expeditions through the Bever Park Woods and waist-deep into Indian Creek.
And many times, just like today, being in our local Hundred Acre Wood, we feel certain that Charles must be present, just behind the next tree, picking up ‘haycorns’ for Piglet or pausing to listen for an owl’s call...
In Charles’s photo-essay book about owls (soon to be published!) he has a poetic photo-essay about Long-Eared Owls, a species in search of which he and his friends spent many cold Central Park nights. Along the way, they developed a micro-cosmology of owling, containing such important elements as belief and serendipity. From Charles’s book:
Lee and Noreen and I developed a rule. It allowed us to believe in ourselves and believe in owls.
Rule: If you think you saw it, you did.
And from Central Park In The Dark, by Marie Winn:
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Our little band of night explorers––Charles, Lee, Noreen, Jimmy, and I––adopted this unprincipled philosophy as soon as the screech owls arrived in the park…We wandered the park at random, looking for owls.
…One warm, clear February day Charles struck pay dirt. As he was trying to locate a noisy woodpecker drumming somewhere near Warbler Rock, his binoculars lighted on a little screech owl sunning itself at the entrance of a cavity about fifteen feet up in a black locust. The bird was perfectly camouflaged, detectable only by sheer serendipity––Charles’s specialty.
Deb was the owl whisperer today. Well back in the woods, in muted light, she stopped abruptly, beckoning me with swift hand action. We were sure she had spotted a Long-eared in a tree not far from the trail. We had no binocs, so we needed a closer look to make sure. So we did what Charles would do: We bushwhacked stealthily through low bushes and thistle patches toward the tree. And… we found a perfectly owl-shaped jumble of sticks, perhaps remnants of an old nest.
Not a setback––a good omen. So I hooted the “Who are you?! You too?!” of the Great Horned Owl a few times for good measure and we walked on down the path––for about twenty paces. Deb stopped again, this time crouching and pointing back into the woods and up…to an actual Great Horned Owl. The sun was gone, but it had set ablaze all the trees to our west in its screaming orange-and-magenta wake.
In that scene I flashed on the plaque that adorns Charles’s memorial bench in his Hundred Acre Wood—the Ramble in Central Park. The plaque features one of his haiku:
empy milkweed pods
weeks since a butterfly
maybe there’ll be owls
Past the Great Horned and nearing the edge of the woods, Deb and I took stock of our walk: Gulls, geese, chickadees, pheasants, magpies, flickers, two kinds of sparrows, juncos, a close encounter with a large white-tail buck at dusk, and a brace of coyote sopranos singing a forlorn duet up the far draw.
On the home stretch I remembered a poem, which was the genesis of this post. I wrote the piece ten days after Charles's death––right after an early-morning birding jaunt to Cherry Creek, when I had burst into the house, on auto-pilot, and had gone straight to the phone to dial Charles's number.
I am sooooo grateful to my niece, Jill, for her surpassing hospitality for the past week. She has taken good care of her old uncle and she has lent a valuable hand with the film opening. As we enjoyed the Thanksgiving dinner she prepared yesterday I couldn't help but think about how Charles's legacy is being picked up and carried by this special young woman. So good. So good.
We are about to dash to the train and rumble into Manhattan to do one more round of 'film hawking' at the Angelika Film Center. Wednesday's opening was delightful––so many old friends and some great new ones met. So, now you get the synopsis of why of all of this is so important to me, but even more so, why all it was so important to Charles, who after all, is the star of this website. I humbly offer you my introduction to Charles's book, Pale Male and Family:
It was a fine and defining obsession. The story of Charles Kennedy’s relationship with Pale Male is one of devotion, wonder, and joy—along with a helping of “flying envy.” It also is the story of a unique extended family.
When he died in October 2004, Charles left a substantial body of unpublished photo-essay books and haiku poetry focused on the natural world of Central Park in New York City. Charles took thousands of pictures of Pale Male and his hawk family. Charles personally crafted the core of Pale Male and Family as a photo-essay homage to the nesting Red-tailed Hawk Charles variously referred to as “Central Park’s CEO,” “The Boss Hawk,” and “His Guyness: Pale Male.” Had Charles published this collection himself, he would have provided introductory notes and perhaps even some of his illuminating field notes. My job here is to offer at least some of what Charles would have wanted you to know, all of which comes unabashedly through the filter of my immense admiration.
Charles reveled in serendipity, so three bits of “coincidence beyond mere chance” must be shared.
One: After his arrival in New York City in 1960, Charles spent as much time as possible in Central Park, watching birds and studying nature. But in early 1994 he received an inheritance that enabled him to buy the camera equipment of his dreams and spend as much time as he wished in the Park.
Two: Around that time, the New York City birding community was abuzz about a rare find—a Red-tailed Hawk hanging around Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Three: A small group of hawk devotees was being magnetically drawn to the new bird, and Charles found himself in their midst. As years progressed, they would ogle, study, fret over, and champion the new hawk, his mates, and his broods at the nest site on Fifth Avenue at 74th Street. This group of “hawk-o-holics” evolved into a kind of family, a tight band of comrades who invited themselves into
membership with a family of hawks.
Charles was a charismatic, welcoming presence in Central Park. Most who made his acquaintance felt they were part of his circle, and he accepted them as such. However, a small group of “hawk buddies” developed an extraordinary bond—a bond that remains to this day. They are noted here because all are primary characters in Charles’s written collections as well as his life.
The “family” includes author Marie Winn. Ms. Winn’s marvelous book, Redtails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park (1998), chronicles the full adventures of Pale Male and his many admirers. Filmmaker Frederic Lilien is part of the clan. His award-winning PBS Nature documentary “Pale Male” (2002) has been expanded into a feature-length film, The Legend of Pale Male, which will premiere in fall 2010. The late Dr. Alexander Fisher was the gracious, renowned dermatologist who welcomed hawk photographers and others to his Fifth Avenue apartment terrace. That balcony became “Hawk Headquarters,” the platform from which most of the photographs in this book were taken. Rounding out the crew is a trio of “hawk bench docents”: Lee Stinchcomb, Noreen O’Rourke, and Jim Lewis. Jim’s “History of the Fifth Avenue Red-tailed Hawks” appears in this book as Appendix 3.
Obsession and Devotion
In the first several years of the Pale Male phenomenon, Charles and company committed to daily, 14-hour vigils. Every detail was monitored—from relations between Pale Male and his mate of that year to the date and time of the last juvenile to fledge. Some years a betting pool was kept as to when the young would leave the nest.
Charles’s entire schedule, for weeks at a time, would be centered on the rhythms of the hawk nest. He engaged in endless study of any and all scientific information related to hawk behavior, hawk biology, and hawk nesting. I fondly remember urgent phone calls that would begin something like: “Did you know that a Red-tailed Hawk’s eye is nearly the same size and weight as the human eye? Whoa! Just think about it!” In essays, Charles balanced tantalizing scientific facts with romantic, anthropomorphic musings.
To this day, Pale Male’s nest is easily and best observed from the Model Boat Pond in Central Park. In spring and early summer Charles was a mainstay at the “hawk benches” on the west side of the pond. He led an ever-widening ad hoc (ad hawk?) circle of hawk-nest docents: volunteers who shared their enthusiasm and knowledge with all passersby. The docents’ devotion to Pale Male’s offspring was such that they came to the benches each day with special equipment (gloves, extra shirts) that prepared them to rescue fledging (or falling!) babies from the street-level dangers of the great Manhattan urban wilderness. And for several years running, Charles helped organize a birthday party for Pale Male, complete with custom-decorated birthday cakes.
Wonder and Joy
Readers of this book will hear, in Charles’s “voice,” the wonder with which he beheld the behavior of red-tails. He marveled at the hawks’ loyalty, power, resilience, and parenting instincts. He employed beatific images and metaphors, describing nearly fledged hawks as: “Soon to declare an opinion to the sky,” anticipating their “grand jete into the park.” And, of holding a rescued hawk, he said: “It was air. This fluid, elegant, wind machine had only the assumption of weight. Like lifting wind, only with talons.” To Charles, hawk chicks might be a “cloud of baby fluff.” Charles was also a master haiku poet, and each of this book’s haiku is an elegant expression of focused wonder.
Joy? Charles’s ebullience permeates this collection. Here is a taste of Appendix 1, Charles’s field notes transcribed from on-the-scene tape recordings. Sign-offs from postings:
The joy was in just simply being there. I was very excited about being back up there and shooting again.
I am still quite breathless about this whole thing. Whew!
Oh! I’m so excited up here today!
And it is exciting, folks!
It was an extremely exhilarating day today, by the way!
Envy and Kinship
In 1998, National Public Radio broadcast a feature on Red-tails in Love. When interviewed, Charles revealed the enormity of his infatuation with the hawks:
We have an immense envy of how it moves, how it looks. We dream of flying. We watch flying. We try and broad jump like we are flying. And he has that power––the power of death, I guess. The power of having a fistful of knives.
Even more compelling was Charles’s longing to be kin with wild creatures. From the same radio interview:
I have a very real sense that he knows who I am, not because I do anything remarkable. It’s because I’m here all the time. And he has astounding visual skills that allow him to live. And if he has such skills, then why wouldn’t he recognize me in his background, too?
In the documentary “Pale Male,” Charles rescues a newly fledged hawk from Fifth Avenue traffic. When he releases the hawk on Dr. Fisher’s terrace, a talon pierces Charles’s hand. The response is ecstatic. “We are blood brothers, that beast and I. He flew away with a bit of Iowa blood on him. Yeah, that was a kick!” Here, Charles also shows pride in being an Iowa native. His small-town, midwestern roots produced an affinity with nature and enabled him to appreciate how remarkable it was for a Red-tailed Hawk to thrive in a major city.
Chronology and Photos
This collection roughly follows the life cycle of young hawks—from small chicks peering over the nest’s edge to fledging from the nest to independent hunting in Central Park. The scenes themselves come from a variety of broods from 1996 to 2000. While many of the photos stand out in professional quality, every photo plays a role in illustrating the stories Charles wanted to tell, the lessons he wished to share.
Our Good Fortune
Charles often spoke of his fortunate life. It is our good fortune that he made such good use of his. He put himself in nature at every opportunity, soaked up information, and made fascinating sense of it all. Everywhere he went, Charles delighted in sharing what he knew, inviting others to enjoy the wonders of nature in the city. We are fortunate that he also took photos, wrote essays and haiku, and kept field notes.
Now you are ready to lift off into Charles’s tribute to the Red-tailed Toast of Manhattan.
Had a delightful dinner last evening with most of the 'hawk watch family', including Noreen, Lee, and Jimmy, all of whom appear in the Legend of Pale Male documentary. (Marie was the notable absentee. We'll catch up with her this evening.) Charles's good friend, Marsinay, was with us as well. For many years Marsinay was Charles's scribe, copy editor, and all-around most valuable player. It is to Marsinay that we owe the most gratitude for compiling all of Charles's photo-essay collections and haiku into readable, digital form. These folks were family to Charles and they adopted the rest of the Kennedys as part of their extended family, a blessing for which I will be forever grateful. It is a bountiful Thanksgiving, indeed!
Sitting on the subway after dinner I couldn't help feeling how sorely I still miss Charles. Others at the table had given voice to the same sentiment. Several of us recounted stories of having close encounters with Red-tailed Hawks in recent days and were all happy to believe that the encounters represented Charles's spirit affirming the success and brilliance of the film. Life can be so sweet and beautiful and sorrowful––all at once and so perfectly.
So, as my dear niece, Jill, and I prepare to head into Manhattan to help staff the grand opening of The Legend of Pale Male, I'll post the most poignant (for me, anyway) of Charles's stories from his book Pale Male and Family.
FEATHERS & FATHERS
When I was a 16-year-old kid, the brakes on my elderly automobile failed as I was backing out of our family’s driveway, and I smacked into Whitey Groatwald’s private car. Whitey was a much-feared highway patrolman whose territory included my hometown, and he was moonlighting at a carpentry job directly across the street. Large, ominous Whitey heard the crash—minor as it was—and came storming down on innocent ol’ me. Now this is a story about fathers, and mine, a sweet man with superb hearing, also heard the noise and came firing out of our house to protect his baby son from the evil officer.
Flash forward four decades to a 7:30-a.m., mid-July morning. One of the juvenile red-tails flew into a small cedar tree, carrying a dead pigeon. Following the young one was a small flotilla of neighborhood vigilante birds who felt that a hawk in their neighborhood was a considerable threat, which indeed it was. Two blue jays, two robins, and a mockingbird began their attack on the breakfasting red-tail juvenile.
This is the bird/father part. Pale Male, our hero who, in fact, had caught the pigeon for his son, arrived not at the bottom of the cedar tree where his young one was chowing down, but on the lightning-rod top, immediately drawing off the fisticuffing birds who, no doubt, had nestlings in the area. Pale Male chose to sit passively at the top of the tree and let the locals fly by and ineffectively attack, while his progeny sat directly beneath him eating its porridge. The pigeon feather is the last evidence of the pigeon that junior ate under the protection of Dad. Ah, dads.
I wonder if Whitey Groatwald was a good father. Maybe. Mine was.
To celebrate the opening of "The Legend of Pale Male" I offer an excerpt from a new edition of Charles's book Pale Male and Family, which will be available very soon. Charles was a great champion, photographer, and chronicler of the regal red-tail, Pale Male. This 'Prelude' to the new edition is from Charles's field notes--- adorned with a still shot from the film, punctuated with one of his finest haiku creations. Enjoy! And SEE THE FILM at your earliest opportunity. Catch the Pale Male Magic!
I was born and raised in Iowa. For years I believed I should have been born to a New York family. It took me over 20 years to get to New York City. And luckily I was right about my first migration. New York has been my longest love affair. There’s a vibrancy, and excitement, about this magnificent city. But it is just a city. The part that clinches it for me is the color green. The green of a great park. I wouldn’t have to live in New York City, except for Central Park. This park, this square mile and a third, invented in the middle of this major urban space, is as varied and stimulating as the city as a whole. And what I fly to in the park is the birds. The park is used by up to 200 species every year. In the last decade, there have been 268 species recorded in Central Park. During spring migration this magical green spot is a mandatory destination for thousands of birds. They need our park, and it turns out that many of us need them.
I worked as a jeweler for a number of years, with gorgeous stones, minerals, fossils, natural crystals. And that’s what the birds are—only they move. They are these exquisite gem stones, many the weight of a nickel, that can migrate for many thousands of miles and arrive here in this tight little island. Their beauty is extraordinary and the fascination is endless.
The last couple of years, the hawks in Central Park have become my obsession. And that’s a very current statement to be able to make: the hawks in Central Park. For decades, there were no hawks living in the park. There had been some hawks in the metropolitan area, although not a great number. But, in 1992 a pair of Red-tailed Hawks appeared in the park and set up housekeeping in some of the most exclusive digs in the nation.
From audio tape transcript of Charles preparing material for Frederic Lilien’s documentary film about the Central Park hawks.
I’m in New York City this week to help launch the premiere of the great documentary film “The Legend of Pale Male.” It is great to be back among the circle of birding friends Charles developed and invited us into. This inspired film centers around the remarkably intertwined lives of a famous clan of Red-tailed Hawks and a large community of hawk-loving New Yorkers. The cinematography, editing, and writing are superb. Throughout the film tribute is paid to Charles-- for his role in mentoring Frederic through many years of filming and hawk stalking, and for his devotion to the hawks and hawk watchers.
The film opens this Wednesday, November 24, at the Angelika Film Center here in the city. It will open in San Francisco, Boston and other cities in the coming weeks.
Yesterday I returned to Colorado after spending sixteen days in Iowa, staying with Dad, making the daily jaunts with him to support Mom in the hospital. The events of the past week have me clicking to Webster's online to make sense of what has been all around me: Grace. An ancient, complex word and concept with roots as deep as Sanskrit. Grace is defined in terms of human behaviors and as a divine gift. It's as elegant and potent a construct a we have in our language, right up there with love, truth, justice, and beauty.
Selected bits about grace from Webster:
-unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration
-disposition to or an act or instance of kindness
-ease and suppleness of movement or bearing
-the quality or state of being considerate or thoughtful
Selected scenes from the past week:
*My mom, intuitively and often playfully, making medical staff at ease with her by expressing her gratitude and reaching out for core connections with each of them: family, vocation, interests, passions. *Nearly every medical staff person walking through her door with clear intention to have a healing encounter, and perhaps even more profound, with receptiveness to meet my mom where she is and accept the intention of her overtures. Highly-trained medical staff exercising physical and emotional gentleness and attentiveness to Mom's needs moment-to-moment. Consulting Mom on whether she is ready to go for a walk or to be examined or to be stuck with another sharp object- and deferring to her when possible.
*My wife, the lovely Deb, calling me from our home in Colorado on Saturday to say that our beloved 18-year-old cat, Ella, had reached an irretrievable state of distress and frailty. Expressing her concern about having to go alone for Ella's last trip to the vet, but going solo with her anyway because of Ella's need and Deb's love for her. And for many weeks prior, Deb was always responding to Ella's needs, adapting the house to demands of the cat's condition, and staying close to her. *And then there was the veterinarian: putting Deb at ease by telling her about her current 'dance' with her own elderly and ill cat, providing a special blanket for Deb in which to hold Ella in comfort on her lap, and then sitting on the floor in front of Deb and Ella, so that their last moments together might be just like their best moments at home.
I believe I was witnessing, and hearing from Deb about, grace. Images of washing another's feet come to mind. The experience or gift of grace seems to grow from the fertile ground of practicing basic human kindness and service. Or, maybe: 'Grace behaviors' beget 'grace, the gift.' Or, perhaps: To act with grace is to create the experience of grace for the other and self. My friend, Rev. Bill Calhoun, speaks of the "grace margins" that exist in the paper-thin space between our separate selves––the potent place where need, pain, suffering, love, care, and healing meet when one party makes a "grace move" toward another. In the major spiritual traditions, humans are asked to intentionally make themselves evermore in tune with, and in service to, the other.
I don't remember having a conversation with Charles about grace. In his avowed atheism, Charles would not have believed in "the unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration." However, he believed deeply, based on the best of literature, philosophy, art, science, nature, and experience that people could create––and absolutely should create––the space and consciousness for the kind of love and healing that I have been witnessing. He practiced it and I know he would be gratified––and not surprised–– by how it is playing out in lives of people he loved.
In this elegant, percussive haiku, Charles captures the pulse of August in Central Park. For Charles, cicadas and fireflies were important touchstones to a youth spent in small-town Iowa.*
of cicada voices
the three year old
misses the falling star
grabs for the firefly
I spent my first twenty-one Augusts in Iowa. Now that I've been back in the home state for the past 8 days, I'm remembering that August can be a complicated month. I'm sitting in U of Iowa hospital watching light rain further soak the saturated lawn. My mother has come through her cancer surgery well, considering that the doc had to work on her for nearly six hours. She is chipper and determined to prevail. I believe it helps that she and my dad celebrated their 56th anniversary the day after her surgery––love, resilience, partnership, beating the odds. He is right by her side, looking strong with his can-do approach. Dad and I took a walk around the neighborhood the other night, flashed by summer's last fireflies, counting all the blessings in Mom's recovery. August optimism.
August rolls in like the poster-month for summer with suffocating deep-fryer heat and humidity. Then mid-month, as with two days this week, the same bright sun shows up, but the temperature drops 10 degrees and the air dries. The seeds of autumn are stored in August.
On this trip the nieces and nephews seem more fresh and vibrant than ever––unaffected by the heat index; no artifice in their exuberance about prospects for their grandma's recovery. And we've shared a handful of "Charles moments." We marveled at the rust-capped swirl of Chipping Sparrows on my parents' lawn, and pondered the synchrony of insect hatches and maturing seed heads with late-summer bird migration: eat some seeds, knock some into the soil, and carry some to new places, providing strength for the southward journey as well as next summer's sustenance. August launches spring.
And, of course, we listened to the cicada chorus. We collected their shiny brown husks and giggled at the idea of cicadas being bagpipes. An entire lifetime of just a day or two in which to make all that noise and leave a starter kit for a future August concert. I gotta believe we all have tickets to that concert.
*(These haiku can be found in The Fish Jumps Out of the Moon:Haiku of Charles F. Kennedy. 2010 Cerberus Press.)
It seems life is always presenting us with new "dance partners"––many pleasant, some disagreeable. My mom just learned that she'll be learning to dance with cancer. Bad things really do happen to some of the very best people...happens all the time... period. In October of 2004 we lost Charles to a vexing, perplexing mass of lymphoma. Now his sis-in-law, my very own sweet mother, has come down with cancer.
Cancer is always an unsettling partner, so everyone is concerned, of course. But there is good news. Mom is very resilient and she has battled through some very tough stuff in her life. We believe, along with Mom, that her crack team of docs is on top of things and has an effective treatment plan for her. Yea! And, of course, Dad is there, strong and supportive as ever, helping her navigate. The person most in command of the situation is Mom herself: facing her fears and hopes with aplomb, using her strong faith in God as balm and bolster, and her prior difficult and peak life experiences as guideposts. She is laughing, playing with her grandkids, hitting the nearby casino for pure fun, asking for the prayers of friends and family, and sharing hope and light with us familial worry warts. We'll all be with her as her treatment begins in earnest next week with surgery. We are confident it will go well and that she'll do well. Go, Mom!
Unlike my mom's case, Charles's 'C' went undiagnosed for too long. But he, like his favorite in-law, took a head-on, positive approach to his situation––even when he was gravely ill. It was never hard to see why he and Mom had such unabashed admiration for one another.
Note: In addition to getting Charles's books into posthumous publication, I've been slowly chipping away at building his biography. Here is an excerpt of a draft piece for that project, based on notes I scribbled on the subway after my last visit with Charles. It includes one of his pieces previously posted on this blog.
SAW-WHET XMAS From photo-essay collection "Owl"
Frankly, I don’t believe that a Saw-whet owl is likely to be mistaken for the Christ child. However, it was Christmas Eve.
Because it really was Christmas Eve of the first year I ever owned a camera, because I knew that the Saw-whet was roosting in a small group of hemlocks on the south edge of the Shakespeare Garden, because it was a holiday eve and I was magically alone, because it was between 4:30 and 5:00 pm and the exquisite owl would not have flown out yet to go to its night’s labor.
Because it was a soft December evening and I had the passionate feeling that there was nowhere I would rather be. Thus I had no choice but to break a park rule—a small one. There was a three-and-a-half foot high rustic fence twixt me and the owl. So I looked over my shoulder several times while awkwardly climbing over the fence, hoping to locate the owl for its Christmas close-up.
Owls tend to reuse the same spots for daytime roosting and for the previous week this one had its residence in one of the two small conifers very close to where I was clambering over the fence. Owls are such cryptic masters that I didn’t know exactly where the bird was. So when I stood up straight I was a bit too on target and bumped a branch that brushed the owl and it flew. And this is how my life has been. It flew perhaps two feet and landed on another hemlock where the photographic light was even better.
Saw-whets have many unique traits, and just then the owl illustrated one. They sit tight. This owl, a very small raptor, proved that its defensive style is to stay put, even on Christian holidays.
The Freud of us birders, the man who invented birding, Roger Tory Peterson, actually gave instructions in a book that he wrote in the 1970’s on how to pick up a Saw-whet. This bird is so committed to its defensive posture that according to Mr. Peterson, one can wiggle fingers in front of its face and with the other hand, from the rear, pick it up. For years I had dreamed of holding a Saw-whet, but now, with the perfect opportunity, I wanted the photograph more!
So I backed up a few feet, got my camera ready, stepped forward and bingo, a perfect Christmas Eve.
Charles believed in serendipity. He also believed that the world was an absurd, unfair place where Fortune smiled on some more than others simply because Fortune felt like it. The saw-whet owl essay reveals his innate gift for appreciating his own modest good fortune and his natural compulsion to share it with others in a variety of ways. Charles believed in sharing wealth in all its myriad of forms. He was an atheist and a compassionate humanist––and he was, of course, in love with the natural world. Talk to anyone who spent time with Charles in any venue and they will say that just to be in his presence was to feel comforted, encouraged, and uplifted. This was so even to the end of his life.
My brothers and I were with Charles two weeks before his death. He was in an Upper West Side medical rehab facility (not far from Thelonious Sphere Monk Street, Charles pointed out.) The small ward scene was unsettling; four beds, three occupied. Next to Charles was Billy, a handsome 80-year-old former Broadway show dancer who had recently broken his neck in, of all things, a fall. The graceful dancer was now a quadriplegic. He exhorted us to open his trunk full of artifacts related to his life and career and then regaled us with stories about his encounters, some quite intimate, with great stars of musical theater. Next to Billy was David, who sat at the end of his bed, with wild white hair and beard, fully dressed for traveling, and anxious. He looked physically well and he occasionally peered out of his dementia to loudly appeal to anyone who came near to, “Take me home, right now!” He spent most of every night in dialogue with unseen characters, especially someone named ‘Charlotte, dear’ beseeching them to retrieve him from that “wretched place.” And, of course, there was Charles––gaunt and physically wracked with stage-four lymphoma, he still managed to illuminate the entire ward with his undimmed charm and presence.
After my brothers had gone, Charles and I spent our last two hours together. Charles was reading the above essay from his recently assembled photo essay book titled, Owls. (Spurred by the rapid decline in his health, Charles had been busy for some time finishing essays and assembling the final collections of his essays and photos. He had conscripted his closet friends to assist with the latter task, masterfully maneuvering them to finish his beloved projects while simultaneously keeping them from obsessing about his physical condition.) I sat looking across Charles’s bed out the window toward the sailboats and wheeling terns along the Hudson River. My mind was occupied with recalling the excited phone call a couple of months earlier announcing the birth of this essay. And I had developed heartburn trying to find a moment to have a serious talk with Charles.
He caught me off-guard with, “Look, Kid, I know what you want to talk about. You just need to know that if I spend more than about five minutes thinking about dying, I will die. So, with whatever I have left this is what I’ll be doing: I’ll be getting Billy to talk about his luscious life because that is what he loves to do and I am so entertained by it. I want him to remember himself as he must always be, with his unbroken neck holding a beautiful face of one-third its eighty years and making great comical four-limbed leaps with no harsh critics, only critical awe.
I’ll make sure my physical therapist’s assistant knows her work matters; that her amens and testifying are a balm to me.
And these beautiful orderlies from Haiti and other hard places are going to hear from me over and over that they are singular and that I so welcome their caring touch and lovely spirits.
I want my physical therapist, Shourin, to teach me everything he can about his PhD study connecting human learning and piano playing because he loves to teach and his accent is pure music. He loves Beckett, you know, so we are of a kind, he and I.
Speaking of Beckett, I’m going to keep on writing a special play for David called “Waiting for Charlotte.” He is our Estragon, you know, and she is his ‘Godot.’ I want to make his part in this madness important even if we can’t connect with him. That dear man is right to be mad and is as mad as he is right.
And more than ever I realize that we are lucky guys, you and I! We have had such full and fortunate lives! What a kick it has been, the whole thing.”