“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

Friday, November 26, 2010

Film Fun and Gratitude

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     When he died in October 2004, Charles left a substantial body of unpublished photo-essay books and haiku poetry focused on the natural world of Central Park in New York City.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.

Fortune Smiles 
     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.

Steve Kennedy
Aurora, Colorado 
July 2010


Billie Jo said...

Good that Charles' river of joy still flows through his recorded work, through Jill and through you.

No wonder it feels like he is still with you all, he *is*.

Wonder if our red tailed hawks (yes, we have a pair that fly above us, mostly above the Picayune) have heard of the excursions of Pale Male?

Thanks for sharing.

Steve Kennedy said...

Yep, there is no doubt that Charles is still very much with us. It is extra nice to know that the next generation of Kennedys is grooving with his spirit. I'll bet your red-taileds have heard the buzz about Pale Male. They have a tight community, those RTHs, from what I've heard. Thanks for following the unfolding kennedyworks story!

ombsmith said...