Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Strix varia

Monday, November 5 was the day before Election Day. I was anxious as the last hours of the campaign ticked away. After spending part of the afternoon calling voters in North Carolina, I went out to the Jewel Moore Nature Reserve to run.

Thirty minutes of my usual slow jog, and I was exhausted. My iPhone app told me I was done, so I slowed to a walk and went a few more steps down the trail, out of the restored prairie and into the bordering wood. A circle of benches beckoned; I flopped down on my back, the Decemberists ringing in my ears, and let my arms dangle. Blood roared through my head, and I felt gravity tugging at my face like I was in a centrifuge. I lay there for a few minutes, utterly immobile, as the evening began to fall around me.

When I decided to get up, I did so slowly. Upright at last, I raised my head and took a step forward -- then froze. A gigantic owl was sitting in a tree not eight feet in front of me, maybe another eight feet above my head. Staring at me.

Barred Owl

I didn't want to move, lest I break the spell. But the owl couldn't have been less rattled. It gazed at me, then swiveled its swivelly head to look out toward the prairie. Its sudden presence felt like a portent. I moved carefully around it for twenty full minutes, watching and periodically trying to get a cell phone picture -- nearly impossible in the gathering dark, against a silhouetting sky. This is the best I could do:

Huge owl perched 8 feet above me.

Until it left me of its own accord, I didn't feel I could leave the owl. It was the one who had the right to declare the encounter finished. And finally it spread its wings and flew a bit deeper into the trees, and I went home with my head spinning. To have such an experience on such a day. Surely it must mean something.

When I got home I told Cady Gray, my budding birder, all about it, and we went looking for pictures of Arkansas owls. A barred owl -- that's what it was, I realized. The owl commonly called a hoot owl.

I was thinking about that barred owl while walking through the nature reserve this past Friday, almost four weeks after that experience. "It was just about here," I recalled idly, and then -- I saw it again. This time on a low branch, fifteen feet down the trail, below my eyeline. Staring right at me again. And once again, I froze with my heart beating faster in my chest.

Was it the same one? From this angle, it looked a bit smaller than the almost two-foot length of my election eve owl. Maybe the coloring was a bit different, not quite as white around the face? I wasn't even certain it was another barred owl. While I was still wondering, it gathered itself, spread its wings, and flew right past me on its way to a higher branch overlooking the prairie. Involuntarily, I spoke aloud: "It's you!"

My walk abandoned, I followed the owl when it moved, in a completely unrushed fashion, to another tree after ten minutes or so. Then it seemed settled. Finally my time was up; dinner would be waiting for me at home. I had to back away from the owl's lead. I left it perched against the disappearing sundown in the western sky.

In the reflective, contemplative, self-assessing mood I've been occupying for the last month, the owl looms large. Birds represent freedom, owls in particular wisdom. I've thought about Athena and Harry Potter. I've turned over the long stretches of time I spent with this owl, searching for clues to its significance. The way it transcends its environment, refusing to be startled or spooked, moving its its own good time. The way it observes, turning its gaze on everything in all directions as it chooses. The fact that the barred owl is the only eastern U.S. owl with brown eyes rather than yellow ones.

I don't know if the owl has anything to teach me. But after two encounters in the past month, both up close and unbidden, it certainly has my attention.

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