New York Times Review

On The Shelf


Review, September 19th 2004


Published: September 19, 2004

BACK in West Virginia, my parents often sat around the supper table and told stories. Gradually I began to understand these were actually parables to explain for my benefit subtle concepts of family, or the relationship between heart and spirit, or the nature of loss within the schemes of an unknowable God. So it is with Alan Tennant's ''On the Wing'' -- a straightforward narrative that gradually evolves into a complex narrative that connects the origins of life with its uncertain future.

It begins in a battered single-engine Cessna Skyhawk 2,000 feet above a sandy plain the size of Connecticut -- great tidal flats off Padre Island on the Gulf Coast in Texas, home to more than 300 species of resident, wintering and migratory birds, including Falco peregrinus tundrius, the fabled arctic peregrine falcons. These tiny acrobatic raptor-hunters are perfectly adapted creatures of the air. They fling themselves into surging updrafts to be lofted into the high, thin sky from which their astonishing eyesight lets them spot the smallest prey. Then, tucking in their wings, they fall, heaven-thrown darts, unfolding at the last moment to expose razor-sharp talons. Unwary doves, luckless cormorants or distracted gulls never quite know what's hit them when the falcon rips past at suicide velocity, leaving behind a curved gash to the bone.

But as magnificent and successful as they are, there is something wrong with the peregrine. That's why Tennant is in that old airplane, a guest of the Army Chemical Corps, which is trying to figure out where these falcons go when they migrate. The Army wants to know because in the tissue and bones of these tough little birds resides the residue of the millions of gallons of pesticides that keep American farms productive. Falcons are at the top of their food chain, which means they eat creatures that eat the insects that ingest the deadly chemicals. This accumulation of poisons has brought the peregrine to the brink of extinction. The Army studies the falcons not because it loves them, but because it hopes to figure out what is going to happen to them, and by extension to us, and to prepare for the worst.

Tennant knows that, and it infuriates him. It matters, he writes, when technology obliterates not just the life, but what he calls the ''heroism of other species,'' the immense bravery that sends birds on vast treks only to succumb to man-made molecules that wither their hearts, thin their eggs and still their souls. Restless, and dissatisfied with the Army's limited goals, Tennant plots with George Vose, the civilian pilot of the Cessna, to ''borrow'' Chemical Corps instruments and follow a migrating falcon all the way to its destination. ''Can't think why you'd want to follow a falcon in the first place,'' Vose says. Tennant replies, ''Same reason you'd want to.'' This is Huck and Tom just before they light out for the territories

Emily is the name they give the falcon they follow. She is singularly designed by evolution to fly to her ancestral breeding ground in Alaska. In contrast, the Cessna is designed to accomplish many things in the air, and therefore none of them perfectly. At the controls is Vose, who is in his 70's and simply loves to fly, and Tennant, much younger, who does not. In fact, he heartily dislikes tumbling around in the unbridled ocean of the lower atmosphere. When they are tossed aloft by a mountain thermal, Tennant writes:

''Below, the Missouri rotated up to fill our windscreen and I could feel the Skyhawk's airframe begin to quiver with unfamiliar speed. As the gray-brown earth rushed up to meet us, in a futile gesture of self-preservation I shoved my seat as far back as possible, thinking how men instinctively raise shielding hands in the face of gunfire. . . ''Vose managed to lean over.

'' 'We'll get out of it!' he yelled.

''I shut my eyes and hoped so.''

Still, the men are a good pair. Vose is irascible, yet patient when he needs to be. Tennant is conniving, but driven. And, chasing an angel, both are chased by their own demons. Vose knows the day he stops flying is the day he dies. Tennant is in love with a good woman, and sincerely believes he is meant to be with her, but only after his next quest. And she understands him only too well.

If there is a weakness in Tennant's story, it is that his falcon is always off-screen. Far too small to be seen from a pitching, rolling airplane, Emily is but a tenuous beep-beep emanating from a tiny transmitter sewn into her tail feathers. This, however, gives Tennant room to ruminate and fulminate about the earth below, the sky above and the inhabitants of both. For all his impatience, Tennant is a studious man who knows many things. He writes knowledgeably of the once-wet American prairie that was forever flattened and permanently dried by modern farm machinery and therefore needs constant irrigation. When he flies over the fossil beds of Hell Creek, Mont., Tennant tells us of the claws of Deinonychus, the human-sized raptors of Jurassic Park, and how they are duplicated precisely by the talons of modern birds of prey. But his best aside is a story of a red-tail hawk named Cherokee that lost a wing as a baby bird but still spent 12 years stubbornly climbing a tree every day to launch itself in flight, if only for a few seconds. This is all good stuff.

Tennant closes with another flight, this one south from Texas across the Yucatan Peninsula and on to Belize, chasing after more falcons. On this leg Tennant and Vose have become like an old married couple, arguing often but certain they will stick together when times are hard. In a way this section is a bit redundant, though necessary to tie up loose ends. Tennant laments damage done to the ecosystem by the nationalized oil and petrochemical companies of Central America and discloses a dirty little secret: as much as we try to cleanse our environment in ''developed'' countries, the ''developing'' countries are accomplishing a masterly job of polluting themselves, and thereby us, all over again.

We humans, through the practice of our various religions, tend to compliment ourselves about the special relationship we have with our Creator. But an honest book like ''On the Wing'' reveals the true nature of our planet. Tennant's parable encourages us to find the strength and courage to place ourselves in the context of the world as it really is. We come from the same place as his falcons and, soaked with the chemicals of civilization, we're heading toward the same destination. The only difference is the paths we'll take.

Homer Hickam is the author of ''Rocket Boys,'' ''The Keeper's Son'' and many other books. He is also a dedicated amateur paleontologist.

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