In the same week that I decided to put up bird feeders along the busy road in front of my home, an owl moved into the owl house outside my kitchen window. The house has been there for years. I watched it often in the time period immediately after Dave put it up – naively assuming an owl would move right in. But owls are not so easily lured, I guess.
I’ve always had a bird feeder in my backyard, but lately I have been spending more time in the front of my house – resurrecting an old stone wall on the edge of the property. The cars go very fast on this road – much faster than the 35mph speed limit – – and I thought an addition of a bird feeder or two would slow them down.
“Look at the Tufted Titmouse” I imagined parents telling their children, the YouTube video that they were watching just moments before fading into the background. I would be encouraging birdwatching, a sense of environmentalism. It would be my contribution to halting climate change. I explained this to Dave when he asked why the birdfeeder there, next to the road.
“You are just going to get a bunch of dead birds in the street,” he said.
With the owl now in the backyard, however, I had more reason to give my backyard birds other options.
On the day of the discovery of the owl, I texted photos to my kids of the head sticking out of the hole.
“We have an owl!” I wrote. Dave wrote back first:
“Awesome! I almost killed myself putting that house up.”
“Those owls make sounds like death.”
I decided he was confusing owl noises with fox mating calls which are common at our house late at night.
Will’s response was the most curious.
“I love owls,” he wrote.
I watched the owl house for the next two days trying to figure out the owl’s schedule. I kept two pairs of binoculars next to the sliding glass door and told the dogs to shut up when they barked. I wanted the owl to think it was moving into a calm backyard. The owl’s head appeared in the hole at the same time for three days straight – 3:36pm. In the morning she disappeared by 8am; I knew she was still in the house, as I watched it continuously. I tried to imagine how she slept (did she need a perch?), read Wikipedia about owl behavior and looked at Google images for images of NJ owls. I wanted to know what kind of owl we had. Though she looked small, I did witness a “mobbing” incident by several of my backyard birds which is indicative of a Great Horned Owl.
All the while I was thinking about Will’s simple statement about loving owls. At one point, in one of my marathon staring episodes, I remembered vaguely an owl book I read to the kids when they were little. I called him up.
“Do you love owls because of that book I used to read to you?”
“Yes,” he replied. “I loved that book.”
I hung up and stared at the owl house some more. I was a little disturbed that I couldn’t remember the name of a book that I once read, over and over again, when they were children. But then, a little while later, while out on a walk, it came to me.
At first, the title was all I could remember. It would have been easy for me to locate the book, to read it again to try and remember the plot line, but I didn’t. I just stared at the owl house instead.
The next day, I remembered a phrase from Owl Babies.
Soft and silent she swooped through the trees
And, the next day, more:
It was dark in the wood
The third day:
She’s gone hunting.
To get us our food.
“I want my mommy,” said Bill.
I remembered the names of the babies: Sarah and Percy and Bill.
And then I started thinking about something Natalie Goldberg told us, her students, at a writing workshop I attended the year before. She was talking to us about writing memoir. As was usual for her, she quoted Dogen, a Japanese Buddhist Zen master.
“When you walk in the mist, you get wet.”
That day in class I nodded my head with the other students. Not because I was sure I “got it” but because of the way we she said it, that it was obvious.
What I really thought when she said it was,
Of course, you get wet when you walk in the mist. I knew there was more to it than the literal meaning, but I knew I didn’t understand completely.
It took the better part of the following year, when working on my own first memoir, for me to feel I could start to claim understanding. Memoir requires a lot of digging and connecting events – making sense of why we are the way we are. Some events are hard to recall. They are fuzzy, unreachable ghosts.
The more I kept at it, however, the more I was rewarded. Sometimes first in fragments. But then, whole clearer pieces. My life started to make more sense.
“Don’t struggle to understand practice, show up, be here and, like osmosis, the teachings will enter your whole body,” Natalie wrote about Dogen’s quote in her book, “The True Secret of Writing.”
I guess it applies to owl watching, too.
It was dark in the wood and they had to be brave for things moved all around them.