My Heliopolis

May 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

You are crisp lines and aging brick
you are the wind whistling through alleyways
you are the graceful equation of the arch
and you are water-worn walls, sun-scorched rock,
ravens roosting on the growth of scaffolding.

The phoenix and the hawk
are migratory birds, all cycles
and the change of seasons,
ever leaving,
ever returning,
burning and evolving
though the core nature yet remains.

Be my place of returning
with your streets full of secrets
your fine architecture, old and new
growing in the ways that cities do
in the turning of the seasons
in the cycles of the sun and moon.

I am my own sun.
I burn and shine of my own light
drawn from the worlds above, below,
without, within,
the joy the pain the inspiration –
I light my own pyres, now.

Be not my igniting fire;
be not my captor, nor my hero.
Be instead my Heliopolis,
a stable place to build my nest,
to perfume with cinnamon and myrrh.
Hold me safe as I ache, and burn,
and am reborn.

North Wind, Winter Sun, Rough-Legged Hawk

May 30, 2013 § 1 Comment

When I speak of hawk, I speak of Buteo lagopus, rough-legged hawk in North America, rough-legged buzzard everywhere else. I do not speak of the true hawks, accipitrinae, goshawks and sparrowhawks and such, bigger and rounder than falcons but still sharp-edged. I speak instead of buteo: heavy-bodied, opportunistic hunters, not too proud to scavenge; broad-winged soaring birds.

There are far more tales of falcons than of hawks, and often people mistake the two. Horus is a falcon, not a hawk, and certainly not a buzzard; Freyja is falcon-cloaked, not hawk-cloaked; and so on. Finding legends and myths of hawk as hawk – not falcon mistaken for hawk, or conflated with hawk – is nigh impossible. Searching for totemic interpretations of hawk just brings up “messenger, protector, visionary” over and over, and a lot of writing about red-tailed hawks.

How to discover myth within rough-legged hawk? I could begin with a list of facts: northern bird, rodent-hunter who won’t pass up carrion, feathered all the way down to its talons. Buteo lagopus will hover over open ground, looking for prey; it’s one way to tell it apart from other hawks. It nests in cliffs and Arctic treelines; it hunts in tundra and prairie from the air or from a perch. It builds its nests from sticks but sometimes even from caribou bones.

It’s a poor start, little more than bones and air. It’s difficult to extract symbolism from something that is so tactile, so present, so here-and-now. Hawk is the hollowing of my palate into a beak; hawk is the cramping of arms into wings; hawk is prickling feathers beneath my skin; hawk is high-alert, sensitivity to environmental stimuli, birdpanic; hawk is the sense of the eternal now, present-moment without real awareness of future days or past weeks. Hawk is an ever-present experience. How do I view it as myth and archetype when I can’t even find cultural myths to guide my sensing?

I’ll start with symbols. Associations.

Rough-legged hawk is not air so much as wind, spring wind and north wind; it is the rustle of high-plains grasses. It is a sun-bird, too, but not the hot southern summer sun of Vulture, nor the fierce pounding warrior-sun of Falcon. Rough-Legged Hawk is a colder star, arctic sun over tundra and winter prairie, warm enough to ease the chill of winter, bright enough to illuminate mouse-skitter and hare-movement.

Rough-Legged is a creature of borders, nesting where cliff and tundra meet, prairie and treeline. Hunter and scavenger both. Rough-Legged Hawk feels like early spring, late fall, the edges of winter – as contrasted with Red-Tailed Hawk, which I always associate with warmer times: late spring, summer, early fall, the warm summer sun; more direct. Rough-Legged Hawk is a bird of in-between times and places, transitional.

Myths.

If I were to make my own stories of Rough-Legged Hawk, I’d write how he came by his colors. His chest feathers are like an impressionist’s watercolor painting, as if Monet dabbed his brush on the rough-legged’s breast. Or like snow on frozen high-plains earth. That’s what strikes me each time I see one up close, at the local bird rescue, or in pictures; rarely in the wild, so near the bottom of its winter range. Did the snow fall on her as she nested, and she refused to move, and the winter left a smattering of white across her head and chest? Was he too foolish to find shelter in a storm, or too stubborn? Did the spirit that painted the animals run out of paint when it got to Rough-Legged Hawk and have to spread it out as best it could?

How and why does he hover, when so few birds his size know how? Did he learn it? Rough-Legged Hawk isn’t so clever to steal the knowledge from others, like Crow or Raven might have done. But perhaps he scavenged it somewhere, if another bird or insect were so careless as to leave the trick of it lying about.

Meaning.

Hawk has taught me mindfulness, living in the here-and-now, present-moment. To really see, not just move from point A to point B without noticing my surroundings. To sit apart and watch, observe, focused and quiet. Open awareness, unblinking hawk-gaze.

For me, Rough-Legged Hawk in particular is about flexibility, practicality. He is not so consummately opportunistic as Grackle or Crow; there is a consistent core of constancy about Rough-Legged. But he is flexible within that core, not passing up elk bones when looking for nest material, not passing up carrion when looking for food. No use in being rigid, but remain true to what you are.

Simplicity. Too often I make things more complicated than they really need to be. Things are simpler for hawk: soar, nest, hunt, perch. Human-anxiety is a thing of words and worry, of racing thoughts, too much stuff, too many concerns. Birdpanic is a thing of too much stimulus, overwhelmed by the over-abundance of noise/sights/activity in an oft-human environment, my mind gone wordless, thinking reduced to pure sensory input. There is a distinct difference between these two types of anxiety for me, and I experience both. When I am human-anxious, it helps to become more hawk: simple, focused on the now, tactile, experiential; soaring, perching, feel the wind in my feathers. When I am in birdpanic, it helps to become more human, focus on human-thoughts and human-skin to shift away from sensory bird-mind; and it helps to indulge hawk-need, to remove myself from all the noise and bustle of a crowded place, get into open air where I can see sky; breathe. Both approaches involve simplifying – simplifying my thoughts, narrowing my focus, reducing the complexity of the situation.

Transitions, borders, the in-between. Nest in one environment, hunt in another. Migrate. Movement within a range. There are things that are Hawk in general and there are things that are Rough-Legged Hawk specifically; being a border-dweller is one of the latter.

Perhaps I’ve been more connected to Rough-Legged Hawk as symbol, myth, and spirit than I ever realized.

References:

Expressing Hawk

May 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Once, I wanted a body long and lean, all bird-boned lightness. When I looked in the mirror, I expected on some level to see sharp features and steep angles and was startled every time by softness and curves. I envied the angular androgyny of some of my friends. I’ve come to accept that this is simply not my physiology. I am wide-hipped and broad-shouldered, heavy-boned and solid; even trimmed of excess fat, I won’t have the lean slender lines that aesthetically appeal to me.

I realized, as I began to mold my body through movement and nutrition into something more to my liking, that I didn’t want to be insubstantial or waifish. I realized that I liked having substance and solidity. When I began systematic bodyweight strength training, building heavy layers of muscle, I found that I felt increasingly at home in my skin. I developed an awareness and command of my body, my movements and limbs, that I didn’t have prior to strength training.

Rough-legged hawk is in the Buteo genus, heavy-bodied raptors with broad wings and a penchant for scavenging so that they’re called buzzards in much of Europe rather than hawks. This is in contrast with the Accipiter genus, quick lighter-framed raptors, goshawks and sparrowhawks, sometimes referred to as “true hawks”. Rough-legged hawk soars and sometimes hovers. Rough-legged hawk is not quick and agile enough to hunt most birds on the wing, but rather hunts rodents in an open field from the vantage of a high perch, launching from perch to prey.

There is substance to rough-legged hawk, weight and solidity and strength. To be buteo is to be a heavy bird. I want power in my limbs, I want heavy muscle, I want to be all controlled movement and potential forcefulness. The more physical strength I develop, the less dysphoria I seem to feel: gender dysphoria, body dysphoria, species dysphoria… they intersect in this instance. I appreciate GreyGhost’s point about flight as an expression of strength, weight as a stabilizer in flight, gravity as both ally and opponent. It resonates for me regarding buteo as well.

I express and manifest hawk in other physical ways as well: things that ease my discomfort with my body, that help my reflection in the mirror be a little less startlingly strange. I keep my hair cropped short in an undercut, a pinfeathered buzz of hair beneath a longer crest. The prickling shortness quickly grows to the softness of down until I shorten it again. I find myself preening my own hair (feathers), particularly just after cutting it; the feel of it is as much an expression of hawkness, for me, as the look of it is an expression of gender.

Certain activities express hawkness for me, or provide an outlet for it: dancing, sometimes, when I can reach an ecstatic trance state through movement and exertion, so that it’s more like shapeshifting, flying, soaring; being in high places, rooftops and upper decks and clifftops, perching on the edge (fearless) until worried observers call me back; running, on the rare occasions I decide it’s worth the aftermath of stabbing pain in my knees. That doesn’t do much for the reflection in the mirror, but it helps ease some of the pent-up bird-needs, which means hawk is a quieter influence in me, and thus helps calm the feeling that my skin doesn’t fit right.

I’m very tempted to get a tattoo, eventually: rough-legged hawk wings stretching across my back and shoulders and extending down the upper part of my arms. I don’t know that it’d do anything for the feeling of discomfort in my own hide, but it would be an external, visible representation of an integral part of me, and that has its own value.

Balancing Feathers and Pinions

May 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Imbalance.

For me, it looks like this:

I stood in the central community building of my university, a tall airy structure of glass and concrete, open all the way to its ceiling several stories up. Classes had let out, and swarms of students poured in from connecting hallways and outer doors, passing through, stopping for conversation, yelling across the floor. A cacophony of noise and movement and people.

Something in my brain shut off, or turned on; but either way the chaos around me drowned out all conscious thought and words. My skin prickled with the realization of feathers beneath it, the roof of my mouth seemed to hollow and harden into a beak, tongue turned stubby and inflexible, lips motionless. I found myself hunching, wide-eyed, arm-wings held just apart from my sides, fingers splaying spasmodically.

A panic flooded my head. Noise / danger / loud / out! Despite the wideness and height of the building, I felt claustrophobic. Suffocating. I grasped blindly for conscious thought, words, humanity, but my pulse raced and my beak gaped. Overwhelmed.

Out out out out out out out

I shook from the effort of keeping control, walked faster than was seemly but I didn’t run and I didn’t shove anyone in my haste to get outside.

Fly flee escape fly

I pushed through the double doors and into the open air, blue above me, breeze in my feathers/hair, concrete below. There were people here too, and cars, but nothing for the noise to echo off of, and far more space. I drew in deep breaths of air, my heart rate slowing, my mind stilling. I focused on fingers, hands, words, the boundaries of my skin.

That was six years ago, and I still remember it so vividly.

I didn’t have this problem for the first couple years after consciously identifying as bird. It wasn’t until I started suppressing it, trying to deny parts of it, that I began experiencing intrusive shifts and increasing difficulty with control.

When something affects you, ignoring it or denying it doesn’t make it go away. If anything, it just affects you more adversely because you’re not being mindful of it and not taking steps to manage it. I don’t know what really causes the experiences I identify as “bird”, but trying to suppress those experiences or rationalize them away has more ill effects than not.

So I suppose the first step to balance, for me, was accepting that yes, I am avian in some way; and yes, it impacts my life.

I found some effective short-term tricks for controlling my shifting. The main one is shifting towards “human”. If birdness becomes sharply prominent in an environment where I can’t afford to indulge it, like at work, I focus on words, sentences, speaking; I focus on fingers, manual dexterity, things impossible with wings or claws; I focus on where my physical skin begins and ends, reminding myself that I am here and now and human. I imagine pulling my feathers in, pushing bird-mind down beneath the surface.

But this is a temporary solution, resorting to hard control and suppression. When that’s all I do, birdness comes clawing/flapping up more often, more harshly, harder to suppress each time – until it gets to be as difficult to control as in the above description. There are longer-term solutions.

I mentioned acceptance. That’s the first step. Then: striving for balance. For me, that means finding safe times and places to immerse myself in bird-thoughts, bird-awareness, feathers and beak. That might mean taking a walk in a park, or standing on a balcony and feeling the wind, or even – weirdly – dancing, at a club or around a fire (depending on your preference – I like goth clubs for this, myself; I don’t get bothered, everyone dances in their own space, and I can lose myself in music and movement, fly inside my mind while my body goes through the motions of it all).

Finding ways to express my birdness also helps. This doesn’t mean wearing birds on t-shirts or jewelry – no, what I mean is engaging in activities that are soothing or comfortable to rough-legged buzzard. Hiking at the intersection of cliffs and prairie, buzzard’s preferred habitat. Scavenging, in my own way; whereas hawk might go for roadkill meat, I scavenge the other leavings of deceased animals: bones, game-bird feathers, and the like. Perching in high places where I can get a good view of the ground below.

When I express my birdness regularly, in places and times of my choosing, I manage to find a better balance between human fingers and avian pinions. After a while, I stop needing to consciously make time to be “bird”, because the divide between human-mind and bird-mind blurs to nearly nothing, until I am at a stable constant state of bird-and-human-at-once, aware of both.

It took a while to get there. There were three years between the birdpanic experience detailed above and the following journal post, in 2008. This is what balance feels like, for me:

I have been comfortably, constantly aware of my birdness these past few months. There have been very few shifts; it’s been an ever-present thing instead. Not just frazzled pin-plucked feathers during times of anxiety or stress, I’ve not just experienced birdness in skittering frightened flapping-panic, but in contentment as well. This is rare, and it’s wonderful, and I’m really liking the constant sense of feathers.

Not prickling and itching under my skin like I sometimes perceive the feathers, but just there, everywhere, fluffing with cold or pleasure or happiness, standing on end with threat or irritability, slicking back in fear or worry or miserableness.

I have felt more fully bird than I ever have, and it is day to day and ever-present. My feet are bird feet, long and clenching-opening-curling; my mouth is also a beak, hollow palate, nibbling-tasting-testing everything (pens, necklaces, the edge of my shirt collar or sleeves); I am aware of movement and my own movements and the strangeness of my eyes.

It hasn’t felt unusual at all, though. It took me a few months to realize how constant my awareness of my birdness has become, because it feels so natural.

A Raptor’s Primary Senses

May 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

My eyes are weak.

I’ve had vision problems since childhood. Astigmatism. Severe near-sightedness. Glasses, contacts. I’ve always been protective of my sight; I read so much, I depend on my sight for so many things, that going blind is my greatest fear.

People talk about being “eagle-eyed”, about seeing as sharply as a hawk. Vision is a raptor thing, their primary sense, right? You hood a falcon to keep it warm, restrict its sensory input. You cover bird cages at night. Some birds (some songbirds, and budgies) see in the ultraviolet spectrum. Sight is a primary mode of perception for many birds, most of whom have a poor sense of smell (vultures being an exception), though quite a few rely on hearing as well.

What, then, for a near-sighted hawk?

Here’s the thing: while I rely intensely on sight, it is not my primary sense. I am not a visual thinker. I am tactile, I think in texture, I translate my perceptions into tactile imagery, and I feel this makes a certain sense for a bird-person.

Think on it. Feathers in the breeze, communicating a host of information on air pressure, wind speed, and wind direction. Flight is not a visual feat, but rather a tactile one. Filoplumes feathers are sensory feathers, transmitting information on movement and vibration much like a cat’s whiskers, indicating when a contour feather is out of place, and possibly even helping the bird gauge airspeed.

Touch is one way birds bond. Allopreening is mutual grooming, and the bird being preened exhibits visible pleasure. Parrots are visible examples of allopreening as they are highly social birds, but ravens do it too, as do mourning dovesowls,caracaras, and there is even interspecies allopreening. The mated pair of red-shouldered hawks at the wildlife center I used to volunteer at also engaged in allopreening.

So perhaps it isn’t so unusual for a hawk-person to think in texture and rely on tactile feedback as a key sense, particularly a near-sighted one like myself.

The Alien Avian

May 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Humans are social creatures, pack animals by nature, apex predators, and of course – mammals. It makes sense, then, that other apex predators, other mammals, and social apex predators in particular would translate more cleanly into human bodies, and be more recognizable. Perhaps this is part of the reason for the disproportionate number of wolves in the therian community, and of big cats.

In comparison, birds are alien creatures: of the sky and sometimes the ocean, with only rare species residing primarily on land (ostriches, emus, cassowaries, kiwi). They occupy a different sphere entirely, treetops and cliffsides and wind. They are hollow-boned, feathered, and beaked; they are egg-layers and nest-keepers.

Many people have a good grasp of body language and cues when it comes to mammals. Some of this is due to early and frequent exposure to cats and dogs, and some of it might be simply that the cues are similar to human ones: a mobile face, lips curling in a snarl for canines and humans both, eyes widening or narrowing, a hunched slinking posture when threatened or a big forward posture when threatening, and so on and so forth. We can read “feline”, we can read “canine”, and even “equine” or “bovine” are comprehensible with little previous exposure. The nuances might take study to learn, but beyond that, humans speak the same basic language as most other mammals.

Birds speak a different language. It might be motivated by the same things (fight/flight, fear/aggression, hunger, territory), but it doesn’t look the same. A bird’s expression doesn’t show in a mobility of facial features, but rather in the subtle pinning of pupils, in a gaping or clacking beak, fluffing of feathers (and there’s a difference between contented fluffing and a threat display) or slicking back of feathers, head-bobbing, head-weaving, preening, plucking…

Social birds are easier to relate to, and easier to study; they’re more motivated to communicate. It’s far simpler to study a parrot (and the psychology of african grays, for instance, seems similar to that of humans), which is a highly social flock bird, than to study a raven, which is social on a much smaller scope. Their intelligence may be similar, but it’s trickier to demonstrate the intelligence of ravens than it is for parrots, perhaps in part because so many of our measurements of intelligence (and methods of taking measurements) are based on intensely social, mammalian humanity.

Translate a bird into a human, and what do you get?

People often have a hard time reading my tells. It takes conscious effort and it’s taken a lot of self-training to make facial expressions, to display feelings and affect through standard facial (and vocal) cues. When I am not feeling well, I often don’t make the attempt at facial expressions, usually because I’m more focused on my mental state than on communication of that state – and in some respects, I think I fall into the behavior Tsu described: “an injured bird hides.”

When I am anxious or agitated, it shows in my physicality: shifting my weight from foot to foot, clenching and unclenching my feet repeatedly. Fidgeting with my scalp, short-shorn hair like pinfeathers and down, stress-preening, feather-picking. My eyes go wide and staring when there’s sensory overload, too much stimulation for hyperalert hawk-mind; my head swivels to look at every sudden motion. My breath rate increases, going rapid and shallow under intense stress; this is a normal physiological reaction for anyone’s anxiety, but it’s not joined by an anxious expression, it doesn’t display on my face. My face lacks emotional expression to the point where I have had coworkers, managers, and casual friends walk up to me when I am in the midst of a full panic, and they choose that moment in which to comment on how calm and laid back and mellow I always seem to be.

It’s not just stress and anxiety that manifest primarily in body language, either. Interest expresses as a sharpened intensity, hawk-stare, turning the entirety of my attention to a single point. Often my mind is split several ways, but when something trulycatches my attention, it commands all of it, all of my focus. I lean forward, my gaze is as still as my face; I fidget less. When fully engaged, fascinated, I become less animated, more still, more intent. I seem more serious when I’m very interested in something, razor-edged. Happiness is a softened gaze and fluffed phantom feathers; relaxed contentment means slower movement, increased comfort with physical contact, swaying side to side, limbs loose.

It’s different socially, too. This is more of a hawk thing than a general bird thing, because plenty of birds are highly social, flock creatures: parrots and geese and crows, to name a few examples, though I’m sure their form of socialization looks very different from mammalian pack dynamics (and I would love to hear the social perspective from a flock bird person at some point). Rough-legged hawk is a solitary bird, or pair-bonded at most, apart from sometimes roosting communally in winter territory and forming small flocks in migration. I understand group dynamics and hierarchy thanks to observation, study, and social psychology classes; it’s not an ingrained knowledge or an instinctive understanding. Thanks to being human as well as hawk, I am a social creature, and I need social contact and meaningful relationships in my life. However, socializing with people who are intensely hierarchical can be strange and stressful for me, and I react poorly to attempts at shoehorning me into a hierarchy in a group setting. (I deal with it better in a work environment, where I’ve learned to accept it and can see the efficiency around it; but in social, casual, or friend groups, I see no point to it and deeply dislike formations of hierarchy.)

I have no patience for dominance displays in general. Fortunately, I do not trip the dominance/hierarchy-aware instincts of most of my intensely hierarchical friends (wolf-people and even some cat-folk). That’s where I prefer to be, in a group setting: non-hierarchical, outside a hierarchy if one exists within the group, seen neither as a threat to dominance nor someone to be dominant over. It sometimes means I fit oddly in a group setting, or don’t mesh with the larger social fabric of a group; a part and apart at the same time. It can make finding meaningful, nourishing community difficult. Most of the time, though, I don’t mind.

A bird is not a mammal, and it’s hard to describe what it’s like as a bird in human skin when all our language is mammalian, when my body is heavy-boned and featherless, soft-faced, toothed instead of beaked. It’s like trying to translate a complex concept from German or Japanese when there’s no word for it in English: it takes paragraphs and pages to convey even half of it, and so much is lost in the translation even then. Bird is alien and other – closer, maybe, than reptiles with their cold blood and scaled thoughts; closer, perhaps, than the wet world of fish, or the colony-existence of bees and ants. Yet it’s alien in comparison to cats and foxes, wolves and horses, a psychological uncanny valley of almost but not quite comprehensible.

Storm Trapped in Stone

November 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Written in May 2006.

she is a thing of wind and wings –
one moment solid, one moment fey –
her eyes alight with starfire,
her mind away in flight,
now hissing in birdwarning, now starting in birdfright,
flapping up a fury –

and the sky is dark with fury
of clouds and raven wings,
and the air is charged with fright –
garbage bags whipping like something fiercely fey,
like birds with tattered wings seeking to take flight;
they startle her to instinct, that primal flickering fire –

– like the heat in her belly, anxiety-fire,
as her heart beats a tattoo of thrumming fury –
caged in ribs, trapped from flight,
raging against too-heavy bone, ghost-wings
stretching, straining, reaching for the wind so fickly fey –
ground-chained bird, no way to flee from fright.

thus the panic settles in her breast, the feather-fright
flickering like candleflame in the storm, fearfire
an answer to the shotgun of thunder; she dances fey
and wild, shying, skittering awkward from the fury
of skydrums. she breathes, then, to settle the wings
in her chest and her thoughts, and takes flight –

– not launching freely into air, but flight
on asphalt and concrete; the birdfright
passes, thumpthumpthumping out through the wings
that are her feet, and she is consumed by fire
in legs and lungs; the road soaks up her fury
and becomes her tar-soaked sky, turned fey

and feral by the birdness pouring down, fey
as the moonpaths to another world. this is flight –
or as close as she can get. her body knows the fury
of wind trapped in stone; her mind knows the fright
of the jessed hawk. her spirit bathes in phoenixfire
and within a human shell stretches feathered wings.

there is a feyness in the intimacy of fight and fright –
she knows the feel of flight; she knows immolating fire,
and a fury of feathers fills her dream of wings.

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