Wild Medicine by Rachel Bunting

Close up picture of hawk claws on a mossy rock

This hawk is the first really wild thing I have touched. 

Up close, he is much larger than I expected, nearly 24 inches tall with a wingspan of more than three feet. He has wing damage and a cut on his left side from being tangled in construction netting. He is scared and hostile: anyone who opens the kennel door will find him focused intensely, ready to lash out and snap at an arm or hand coming too close. This is the moment I’ve been fearing; surely, it’s too soon for me to be handling a hawk, I haven’t learned the protocol yet. But I have learned already that this is the way it works at the wildlife hospital: you learn to handle the hawk by handling the hawk.

***

I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in January 2015. For a while, things were largely unchanged — many of the initial symptoms that led to my diagnosis abated once I began treatment, and the one symptom that remained (a constant pins-and-needles feeling in all of my fingers) didn’t interfere with my life in a significant way. I continued working, writing, taking karate classes, hiking in the Pine Barrens. I considered myself lucky; after all, I had such a mild case.

By the middle of 2018, I started to have difficulty walking distances of more than a mile. After only a few months, I realized that my right leg was no longer going to follow the signals from my brain. Instead of the effortless coordination of hip, knee, and ankle, my right foot began dropping repeatedly once I reached the one-mile mark, like I had suddenly acquired a ten-pound weight. My toes would catch on the ground, causing me to stumble and, in a few startling and embarrassing cases, fall down entirely in a full body sprawl. Though I tried to continue hiking, it quickly became clear that it created more stress than it relieved because of the hypervigilance required for each footfall. An MRI showed newly formed lesions on my brain and spine; my doctor confirmed that the coordination challenges were irreversible. Continued progression of the disease was likely, he told me, though there was no way to tell just how quickly it would move. I was heartbroken. 

So much of what I love is only accessible by foot. I first disappeared into New Jersey’s pinelands as a child at summer camp, where I spent weeks at a time running among the trees, learning to build fires, and swimming in dark waters. I carried the things I learned there into adulthood, hiking and camping and exploring the ruins of old villages. There were so many things I loved about being in the middle of these woods: the dry, earthy scent of the sugar sand baking in summer heat; the sound of the creeks making their way through the forest; the wild blueberries growing trailside; the pine warblers flitting along the lower branches of the trees, their flight songs audible from a great distance; the dark green needles of the trees etching shapes into the brilliant blue sky. I learned to recognize locations by the quality of light and the scent of the air; I walked for miles following old rail lines, firebreaks, game trails, abandoned cranberry bogs. I learned to hike alone in the pines, learned to love the silence broken only by my own feet upon the ground. I learned to test my boundaries and the limits of my self-confidence in these woods. I was determined not to lose them. 

***

“I need a minute,” I call over my shoulder. “I can’t — seem — to get it — hang on.” My words are punctuated by a series of thumps and grunts. This is my fourth shift at the hospital.

“That’s okay,” Fiona responds from behind me. “Just try to grab the other leg.” Fiona is a veterinary student who’s been volunteering for four years. Last week, I watched her wrangle a full-grown turkey vulture from its kennel alone. I think I hear judgment in her voice and feel the sweat gathering at my hairline. 

“I can’t,” I say, my voice tightening. More thumping. “I have a hold on one leg, but every time I try to get the other one, he grabs me.” 

Located at the eastern edge of the Pine Barrens, the wildlife refuge was just deep enough in the woods to offer all the things I loved about being in the pines. I’d applied to volunteer on a whim, then had second thoughts immediately after clicking “Submit” on the application; I wasn’t sure I had the stomach for observing animal injuries up close. I told myself it didn’t matter; I wouldn’t be accepted – of course they’d want hospital volunteers to have some experience with wildlife beyond liking to look at it. I was surprised to quickly hear back from the Volunteer Coordinator, who assured me that I would learn all I needed to know on the job. I agreed to start in the spring. 

Three months later, I am leaning into a large ceramic kennel, its metal-barred door wide open behind me. Both of my arms are covered to the elbows in heavy, Kevlar-reinforced leather gloves. The fingers of my left hand are wrapped around the muscled thigh of a red-tailed hawk. His eyes are hard and bright; he looks as though he’d like to rip into my nose with his sharp, hooked beak. It’s hard to tell if I have a good grip — the protective gloves keep his talons from sinking right into my arms, but they make it difficult to feel exactly what’s happening. 

The hawk opens his beak silently, then half-spreads his wings inside the kennel and leans his large body toward the back wall. This leaves his left leg free to strike at my right hand each time I try to catch it. He is determined to keep me from touching that leg. 

I reach in again and swear: he kicks out but I am not fast enough in pulling back; his talons close tightly around my thumb. I try to remember what Mike, the assistant director, said about the pressure of a hawk grip — was it 20 pounds psi? 200? I can see the hawk’s small pink tongue protruding slightly as if he’s mocking me. I can’t untangle my thumb. 

I glance back at Fiona, the whole of my upper body bent awkwardly into the kennel. “He won’t let go,” I say in frustration, “and I can’t get past his foot when I reach in.” I’m embarrassed to realize I’m panting as I feel the sweat running slowly down my neck.

Fiona peers over my shoulder. “Use your left hand to catch his other leg so you’re holding them both in the same hand.” She makes a gathering motion with her own hand, outstretched fingers bending in toward her palm to form a fist, and nods at me. I take a deep breath and move my hands toward each other. She’s right: within moments, I have both legs in one hand and am backing slowly out of the kennel with the hawk. He finally releases my thumb and I get a better grip on him — one leg in each hand, separated slightly to keep him off balance. He flaps his wings a few times, trying to regain control, and I am surprised by his power — so light, so incredibly strong. He stops struggling and rests, wings still spread low against his body. He stares directly into my eyes.

***

The ecology of the Pine Barrens is a kind of magic. The foundation of the landscape is the dry, acidic, sandy soil that supports the growth of scrappy trees, grasses, and shrubs fed by cedar creeks — fast-moving freshwater creeks, tinted the red-brown color of iced tea by the cedar trees that cling to their banks. The Lenape tribes who lived here learned that the pitch pines thrived in fire; they developed a system of controlled burns and companion planting that allowed them to control the water content of the soil and produce healthy crops of maize, kidney beans, and squash. But early European settlers failed to understand the ecology; they quickly gave up on trying to farm traditional crops from their homeland and turned their attention instead to shipbuilding, charcoal, and bog iron production. 

The reputation of the land as unfriendly has held for centuries among not-quite-locals; it’s not uncommon to hear someone from North Jersey or Pennsylvania describe the Pine Barrens as ugly or empty. But a closer look at the landscape reveals a richer truth: the land is shockingly alive, anything but barren. Home to more than 300 species of birds and mammals and 850 species of plants, including rare orchids and carnivorous plants, this place luxuriates in wildness. 

This is what I have come to love over many years: dawn hikes in midsummer led me, accompanied by woodpeckers and warblers, to gatherings of pink lady slippers and Indian pipes beneath pitch pines stretching toward the rising sun. Sometimes, hiking into late morning, I’d find a fawn napping trailside or a raccoon fishing lazily in a shallow creek. Once, I caught a glimpse of an orange tail disappearing into a thick cluster of mountain laurel — a red fox, skittish and shy. Here, miles from a paved road, there is a feeling of being untouched and unbroken. 

And this, I understand, is what MS demands I give up. 

***

I turn to face Fiona; she steps forward with no hesitation, expertly snaking her hand around to grip the back of the hawk’s head. He snaps his beak shut and she gently pries it open again by pressing a finger into the corner of his mouth. She carefully threads a feeding tube into his mouth, past the glottis and into his crop, then steadily presses the plunger on the slurry-filled syringe at the other end of the tube. Slurry — a brown liquid that looks like applesauce and smells like meat — is all this hawk will get for the next two days. His pupils dilate as his crop fills. When the syringe is empty, Fiona pinches the tube closed and slowly draws it out of his crop before letting go of his head. The hawk shakes his head and the feathers on his chest puff up. Now that Fiona has moved away, he is staring at me intently again. His beak is less than a foot away from my face. 

Fiona moves efficiently as she cleans out the kennel: removing the soiled pillowcase and newspaper, wiping down the walls with disinfectant, adding a new perch, making a “nest” out of a hand towel covered with another pillowcase, draping a fresh towel over the kennel door to reduce exposure to the stimuli of the room. 

“Ready,” she announces after just a couple of minutes. 

I step forward and lean into the kennel again, aiming for the perch. As the hawk’s wings brush against the sides of the kennel, he folds them against his body. I lower my hands so that one leg at a time touches the perch and his talons reflexively open to catch hold. Once I’m certain he is steady on the perch, I release his legs and step back quickly, closing and latching the kennel door. 

“Good job,” Fiona tells me. As I take off the raptor gloves, I feel my hands trembling. I exhale heavily, surprised to realize I had been holding my breath. 

***

I have attempted three medication therapies; two of these failed to keep my disease from progressing. The first, which required me to administer three self-injections per week, was the least concerning: in use for more than 20 years, the medication was considered among the safest and most tolerable. I had no noticeable side effects beyond a welt at the injection site which faded within two hours, and I expected no long-term ill effects on my body. But when a particularly difficult exacerbation left me unable to organize my thoughts, unable to find the right word for “mirror,” I asked for another MRI. My neurologist quickly identified new lesions, and recommended we switch medications. 

This one, a daily pill, was newer and fraught with more risk, not the least of which was a highly unusual but potentially fatal viral infection. Still, there was the promise of slowing progression, so I tried. I dutifully swallowed the pill each night at 9 p.m., and my cognitive ability strengthened itself again (though I still sometimes say “toilet paper” when I mean “pillowcase”). I was overly attentive to every new quirk and ache in my body, certain that each was a sign of the viral infection that I feared and never developed. Eventually, though, I began to feel the heaviness in my leg, the inability to pick my foot up properly. 

My current therapy is twice-yearly infusions: for six hours each time, I am tied to a chair and a machine that beeps at me, counting each drip that falls from the bag into the tube leading to the needle in my arm. On infusion days, my mood alternates between grateful and resentful. But I am learning that there are ways to live, to feel healed, even as the body goes on breaking. 

***

The hawk is healing. Three weeks after his arrival at the refuge, he is now in Flight 5, a large, L-shaped outdoor enclosure that runs the length of the volunteer parking area. This is where he’ll strengthen his flight muscles and practice hunting again after being cooped up in the kennel. I approach Flight 5 with his breakfast (a squirrel, recently removed from the basement freezer and defrosted in a bowl of warm water on the kitchen counter) and watch as he sweeps from one end of the Flight to the other, his broad wings slicing the air with ease. The laceration on his side is barely visible, just a soft shadow of a line disrupting the smooth expanse of feathers. 

He lands gracefully on a perch about fifteen feet in the air and watches me closely. The enclosure has a double-entry system. I step through the first door into a small vestibule, then close the door behind me before entering the Flight. His head cocks; he keeps his left eye trained on me, tensing only slightly as I walk toward him. He has the advantage here, and he knows it. 

I pass the perch and move toward the center of the Flight before tossing the squirrel a few feet ahead of me; immediately, the hawk opens his wings and descends to pick up the squirrel. Within seconds, he is back on the perch, holding it in place with his talons while he tears into it with the sharp beak that made me so nervous. Out here, he looks smaller, juxtaposed against the dwarf pines and scrub oaks growing inside the enclosure.  

***

It seems that everyone I meet knows someone who has MS, but doesn’t know anything about MS. Before my diagnosis, this was true for me, too: someone told me the mother of a high school friend had it. She was in a wheelchair, had frequent migraines, always seemed angry. I didn’t know what MS was doing to her body, didn’t understand how much — or how little — of who she was then was a result of being sick. 

Being sick, though, is not quite right. Sick still seems like a temporary state of being — you get sick when you have a cold, when you eat two-day-old shrimp scampi. It passes. But what I feel is not temporary, this spiderweb of doctors’ appointments and infusions, of lab tests and mercurial black-and-white images of my brain, of good days with long walks at the local park and bad days when an electric shock runs from my head to my toes each time I look down. 

But if this is immutable, this idea that my body is no longer what it was, then so is my determination to keep hold of what I can. If I am required to recognize new losses as this disease progresses, then I will continue to look for ways to hold on to the things I can, to keep loving the things I have always loved. 

***

When I return to the hospital kitchen, Fiona tells me the hawk is scheduled for release tomorrow. A warmth blossoms behind my ribs and I picture him, wings spread wide, gliding above the pine trees in the late afternoon near my favorite pond. 

At the end of my shift, I pause outside my car to look in on the hawk again. I know this will be the last time I see him, as I won’t return to the refuge for a week. He is flying laps around the enclosure. It’s as though he knows he is just hours away from freedom, from returning to what he loves. 

I start the car and drive slowly to the end of the refuge driveway. I hesitate for a moment, looking to the right, where the road will lead me back through the sprawl of neighborhoods to home, then to the left, where the pine trees chase each other out into the distant heart of the forest. In my rearview mirror, I can still see the hawk in Flight 5. He looks strong and steady as he tests his wings, increasing his speed with each lap. 

He looks ready. 

Meet the Contributor

Rachel buntingRachel Bunting lives and writes at the edge of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Her writing has been published in online and print journals including Entropy Magazine, Wordgathering, [PANK], Muzzle Magazine, and The Nervous Breakdown. When she’s not writing, she can be found caring for injured and orphaned animals at the local wildlife hospital.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Margie Savage

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