Hark, a blog post! (Man, remember when I used to post three times a week? Crazy.) Last spring I sat down and wrote an essay about a wildlife encounter I had on the Saskatchewan prairie the summer after I graduated from college. It was my first real dabble into “literary” writing in years, and after submitting it around and racking up a pile of rejection emails, I’ve admitted to myself that it’s not likely to get published for real. However, I hate to just leave it wasting away on my hard drive, so here it is. If you like owls and have time for a 1500-word essay of questionable literary merit… keep reading.
In college, I learned exactly how and why an owl flies silently, with no wing beats disturbing the night. I sat in an ornithology lecture taking notes about how the ruffled edges to the owl’s flight feathers break up the turbulence of the air rushing over its wings, so that it can swoop down undetected on a mouse or vole. What I didn’t learn in that lecture was what it’s like to have an owl swoop low over your head and feel that total silence and how it seems more ghost than bird. I didn’t learn what it’s like to be the mouse.
It’s cold on the prairie before dawn, even in July.
I didn’t pack gloves with me when I came to Grasslands National Park for this job—who packs gloves for the middle of summer?—and my fingers freeze to the handlebars of my ATV as I zip toward the study site. It’s my first summer out of college, and I’ve taken my brand-new zoology degree to Saskatchewan, where I’ve been hired to collect data on how cattle grazing is affecting the plants and animals in the park. This morning I am counting birds, which means I have to be at my site by sunrise, when they start to sing. Sunrise is at five. Wildlife biology sounds like a glamorous career until you’re dragging yourself out of bed at 3:30 AM and grumbling about what a good accountant you would have made.
Still, it’s not all bad. Saskatchewan is not called the land of living skies for nothing, and I have a front-row seat to watch the dawn. Bands of clouds are starting to light up pink and gold at their edges. Beneath them low grass-covered hills roll toward the horizon, the dark shapes dotting them starting to resolve themselves into steer. I round a curve in the path and startle a group of pronghorn, which go bounding away from the ATV at what for them is a leisurely speed. There is not a tree in sight. To a girl who grew up with woods and cornfields, this landscape is alien, but it is beautiful too—without trees to soften its lines, it’s like looking out at the contours of a naked body, the body of someone I am only starting to know.
Eventually I pull to a stop, collect my backpack from the back of the ATV, and power up the GPS unit that will get me the rest of the way. With the roar of the ATV motor cut so abruptly the silence presses on my ears like a living thing. It’s about a kilometer in from the dirt track to the spot designated for my first bird count of the morning, and curious steer follow me at a distance as I walk, until I hop a wire fence and leave them behind. My footsteps crunch softly on the vegetation underfoot, the grasses dotted with wildflowers and with tiny cacti that blend in until you kneel on them painfully.
Finally I’m here, a patch of prairie no different from any other here except that it happens to be marked as a waypoint in the GPS. I pull out my clipboard and fill out the heading of my data sheet. The first narrow sliver of sun is just breaking over the horizon. I am the only human for miles in any direction.
For the owl, the “day” is coming to a close. All night it has been coursing back and forth low across the prairie, its buoyant moth-like flight carrying it over the grass as it watches and listens for small rodents. Breeding season is over and its young have already left the nest that was concealed on the ground among the vegetation. What does it think when it crests the ridge and sees a strange two-legged animal?
I never hear it. Getting my bearings, I simply turn around expecting to see empty prairie, and instead something is flying towards me—all feathers, eyes, and silence.
The bird is an owl with tiny ear tufts, buffy coloration, yellow eyes. I see them sometimes from the windows of the trailer where I live, distant shapes bobbing low over the prairie at dusk and on cloudy afternoons. But this one is far from distant, thirty feet away and coming fast.
I expect it to veer away. It doesn’t. It swoops toward me, passing only a few feet over my head, its unreadable yellow eyes meeting mine. It circles back and makes another pass before flying away in another direction. In moments it’s just a brown dot against the backdrop of the hills.
I never heard a sound. Not the faintest wing beat. Not even when it flew over so close I could have reached up and touched it.
My heart is pounding. I feel like something magical, something almost supernatural, has just happened—I feel like I’ve glimpsed another world, like it aroused some ancestral fear in me, from a time when primitive mousy mammal ancestors met their ends in the jaws of other yellow-eyed predators.
But the light is growing and the sparrows are starting to sing. I start the timer for my first point count, heft my binoculars, and get to work. Neat columns of data spin out across the clipboard, but my mind is still flying with the owl.
Anything I can tell you about the owl tells you just as much about me.
I can show off my knowledge of ornithology and tell you that it was a Short-eared Owl, Asio flammeus. Its presence in that particular field, with that particular grazing regimen, was one small data point for the study I was working on. It was not a new bird for my “life list,” the record birders keep of the species they see over their lifetime—I had seen Short-eared Owls back home in Ohio, though never so close. I can be less scientific, too, and tell you about what owls are supposed to symbolize—to many cultures, not an omen of wisdom, but one of death and bad luck.
“The eyes are the window to the soul,” says the cliché. If I told you I looked into the owl’s soul that morning I would be kidding myself. Whatever I thought I saw there, I was really looking into a mirror. We as a species impose our own meanings onto the rest of the world, but the name we give the owl is meaningless to the owl itself. We use names to categorize, to know that this bird is a Short-eared Owl and that one is something else, but even the idea of a species is something biologists made up for convenience. I remember once getting into a heady discussion of the meaning of objective truth, someone asking if you could point to a tree and say “that’s a white pine” and know that that was absolute objective truth, and all the biologists in the room (myself included) starting to hem and haw and talk about how often some tree species hybridize with each other. We need to be able to label things to be able to talk about them at all, but the real world is messier than the stories our neat categories tell.
Naming things helps connect us to them, too. When you move into a new house, part of getting to know your new home is learning your neighbors’ names, and applies to plants and animals as much as people. You can’t ask the owl to introduce itself, but when we take the trouble to learn their names we turn plants and animals from strangers into acquaintances. We can learn their history and their gossip and realize that what seemed like another anonymous cul-de-sac is actually brimming with drama. The difference is that the owl will never know or care what your name is. This relationship is entirely one-way.
I am probably not saying anything that others have not said before, and more eloquently. But more than anything else, maybe what the owl taught me is that each of us needs to come to this moment for ourselves, to look into the eyes of a predator and face the mirror.
A small piece of the owl took root inside my soul and grows and changes with every passing year, but the symbol-owl within to me has nothing to do with the life of the individual creature, overflowing with fierce life, whose existence brushed against mine in that cold prairie dawn.
Those knife-bright yellow eyes, the opaque barrier before the mind of the owl, have been the dying sight of many mice. For them, the owl really is an omen of death and disaster, just as many cultures believe it is. As I stood there transfixed by silent wings I felt a little of what the mouse feels. Knowing the physics of ruffled feathers is only half the story.
A month later I left the prairie. That was four years ago, and I have not been back. I could not have anticipated the turns my life has taken since then or the places they’ve led me to. Maybe the owl is still there, swooping low over the prairie at dawn while I wake up on a different part of the continent. More likely its children are. But I also took the owl with me, carrying the mirror of its yellow eyes with me wherever I go.