The Most Patient
Often, just before dusk, I take a walk in our backyard. I especially love evening walks this time of year, when the cool of the day settles down over the land and the early autumn light fades like a lamp that is being dimmed. The crickets and other night things have thinned their singing since the heat left with summer's dying, but a few sing on. Their songs seem sweeter and more tender in the fall, as if they know their demise is at hand. Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote that crickets were "the sound of silence made audible" and during this time of year, when the leaves are just beginning to turn and the smell of change hangs in the air, there is the timbre of a silence quietening more during each gloaming.
I like this time of day best of all because there is a stillness that is palpable more than seeable or hearable. We know the stillness is there if we are still enough to take note.
After I had walked the yard once around, the stillness was broken by a great cacophony of cardinals, jays, and wrens who broke into a wild commotion. This isn't uncommon in our back yard as a multitude of songbirds live there, swooping in out of the long branches of the Tree-of-Heaven that spreads itself out across the yard as if its many limbs are offering canopy.
That Tree-of-Heaven is one reason we bought this place. The back yard was certainly key. I had lived my entire life in a very rural place, most of my years spent on a piece of property surrounded by lush woods that one could traipse through for miles without seeing anything but trees. So when I moved to a small town to take a job as a professor at a liberal arts college, I thought I'd try something new: we bought a house that was less than a half mile from my office and classroom partly so that I could either walk or ride my bicycle to work each day. But I had never lived in town and although I love this house and this place, I still grieve the loss of the beech trees I knew for so many years at my former home. I miss the mossy banks of the creek that ran in a jagged line through those woods. I miss the brilliant red heads of pileated woodpeckers and the songs of whippoorwills I could always count on for company.
So it was absolutely necessary that if I was going to live in town I had to have some woods about me. Luckily, this place provided just that, abutting a large expanse of college forest containing hundreds, if not thousands, of undisturbed woods. And the back yard boasted not only that wonderful Tree-of-Heaven (which is only not wonderful in that it propagates relentlessly and its limbs smell like burnt peanut butter when broken--thus the nickname of "stink tree") with its branches brushing the porch just off the master bedroom, but also a nice lot of trees. Dominant among them are two queens that tower over a hundred feet high, and two of my favorite kinds of trees, to boot: a tulip poplar and a hickory.
And within the poplar, the hickory, and the Tree-of-Heaven the birds were having conniption fits. I became even stiller and watched the trees. Birds are melodramatic but rarely this ecstatic in their squalling, so I knew something afoot. There is so much to see if we pay attention.
Then, on magnificent wings that were ten times as wide as his body and which seemed to fill my ears with the sound of swooping while being simultaneously stealth, a barred owl sailed from the top of the hickory tree, passing over me. It is disconcerting to see a bird so large flying over because we are not used to it. We're used to songbirds darting about, but this was a very large owl. He (I was unable to discern his gender but he struck me as grandfatherly) perched on a branch of the tulip poplar and considered me from behind a screen of leaves, his eyes as tightly latched to my face as his feet were to that limb. If he blinked I never saw him. Staring contest won, he must have decided I was harmless. He glided back to his original spot near the top of the hickory. And he sat there for the next hour.
I squatted down in the yard and watched him. I realized that I had never seen an owl before, and certainly not while it was still light, as twilight was still stretched out pink and golden. The owl had settled in a patch of that golden light, making him seem beatific, as if the light within him was suddenly made visible by eyes like mine.
He turned his head and watched some small thing that I had no power to see or hear. But he did. After a great stillness of many minutes, he rolled his head to the other side to peer into new territory for a long while. A few minutes of studying. Then his great head revolved and his dark eyes fell on me. We stared at each other again. He was not as mesmerized by me as I was him, but he was certainly interested. And all the while he was completely still, unconcerned by the birds who continued to throw tantrums because he was nearby. I mostly zoned them out so I could concentrate on the owl, and I believe he did the same. Their cries did not interest him at all.
We stayed that way for a time. Until darkness had swallowed us up and the cold seeped into my bare arms. Until the tiny black mosquitoes started to feast upon me. Until I could no longer see him, but knew he was still there, watching. Waiting.
While I spent time with the owl I thought a lot about patience. I watched his diligent composure in waiting for his supper and studied on how quick I am to give up, to lose my fortitude. There was a kind of dignity in his persistence. Even the way he tucked in his wings and squared his shoulders suggested a nobility that is much rarer to see among human beings. I said from the outset that I had a blessing this evening, and a blessing is of many folds. One of these is that I learned to be more persistent in my stillness.
And I thought about what I could learn from the fact that my first reaction to seeing the owl was to take his picture. Nowadays we seem to think that if we don't take a picture of something, it never happened. As soon as I felt my pocket for my phone to snap the photograph, I decided I would wait awhile. I'd spend some time just being still first. The picture could wait, and if it didn't happen, then that was okay. I eventually took the photo (as you can see, below) because I wanted to make sure I remembered him correctly. I often use photography as a way to jump start my writing. But I'm so glad I didn't snap his picture immediately. I think somehow he trusted me the more for the waiting.
Yet some self examination remains: did I take the picture because I too have become one of those people who think that photographic evidence must be provided for every experience? Or because I truly love the visual and count it as a touchstone for my own creative process as a writer? I haven't looked at the picture once while writing this little essay, yet I will include it here to recall his beauty and stillness and remarkable staring prowess. Perhaps it will come in handy if I write about him in the future. Still, some part of me wants to preserve the intimacy of my time with the owl without sharing this image. Some part of me believes a wild thing like him shouldn't be captured on film.
I believe that grappling with decisions like these can make us better people because these things make our brains work. They force a certain part of our minds to kick into gear. They lead us to learning.
I also realized that when a blessing such as this happens to me--for seeing an owl in the daylight, when one can be seen properly is very rare--I immediately want to write about it. As soon as the darkness, cold, and bug bites drove me inside I settled down at my writing table and put my fingers to the keys. And somehow, the writing, the remembering, was almost as fine as the time spent in stillness and silence with the barred owl who is undoubtedly still out there, perhaps perched elsewhere, but very close still. There is a sweet and fine comfort in that.
Note 1: The barred owl is also sometimes known as "the hoot owl". That's what we called them when I was growing up, and we heard them often. We have heard this owl many times while living here, but have never seen him.
Note 2: the brightness has been turned up on the photograph for better viewing.
For more on barred owls, go here.