I began a very specific quest to see an owl a little over a year ago. Luke and I live by two different bird sanctuaries in Chicago, and since bird-watching is our main joint activity, we began going to the Montrose Park spot (it is the best spot) somewhat regularly. After joining the Chicago Ornithological Society’s Facebook group, it became clear that there were definitely owls in Chicago, and they were sometimes out during the day, and that plenty of them turned up at Montrose Park.
We went a lot. Luke even made an owl sounds tape that he put in a walkman with speakers to lure the owls. Sometimes we’d see a young hawk moving through the trees and that was a little exciting, because the hawk could have been an owl. But it was ultimately always a hawk, and nothing was ever an owl. After a year of relentless birdwatching, we’d seen all the warblers and a redwing blackbird flew down and took off my hat once, but never was there ever an owl.
2016, they are saying, has been a year for loss. When George Michael died, Luke said, “This year is like one of those jokes that goes from funny to not funny to funny again to REALLY not funny.”
When we lost our cat John last week, it was 8 degrees in Chicago; the news keeps saying that this is going to be one of the worst winters on record. Worse for me was that I had to leave; my plane to Portland flew out the day after we put John down. It broke my heart to leave Puppy — our other cat — alone. She has been confused; depressed. When we took John out in the carrier, she got on top of it and meowed and paced around like crazy. The love of her life has suddenly disappeared, and as far as I know, she will never know why.
My obsession with owls is a little off-kilter. I don’t really like any of the other birds of prey; as a lifelong vegetarian I have that pathetic tendency to close my eyes during the predator-prey scenes on Animal Planet. But with owls, it’s different. They are perfectly quiet; they can’t get wet; they are only out at night; they have this look about them. They are pure magic.
In season two of “Twin Peaks” a magical giant appears to Agent Cooper and says, “The owls are not what they seem.” I remember seeing that scene and thinking, “YES. That’s IT. THE OWLS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM.” I was watching with a friend and I said, “THE OWLS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM! THAT’S ONE OF THE BIG TRUTHS OF NATURE!” He said, “If they’re not what they seem, then what are they?” I said, “That’s not the point."
When John died, I didn’t want to ask for anything. You never do; you never quite know how to. But sometimes people know. We had friends come out of nowhere with emails and donations: “I know what it is like to lose a pet,” or, “You are not alone. Your pain is evidence of your love."
My friend Rebecca — a writer in my program who has watched our cats many of the times we’ve left town — sent me text messages all day every day as soon as she knew John was sick. She sent me messages about her dreams; messages about old bestiaries. She said, “I am breathing at/ with you, even when I’m sleeping."
And when we left, Rebecca and her partner Atticus went to spend time with Puppy. About John, Rebecca wrote to me, “It is amazing you found each other in this wide world, given how strange and fleeting it all is.” Then the day after she wrote, “We sally forth because we are creatures of love so we are compelled to take care of things (or else be stone but I’d rather take the pain if I can have the happiness too).” And the day after she wrote — and this one is my favorite, so read it twice — “Sadness is weird because it isn’t a single emotion. I don’t know, I never really get over loss; I think each different loss has its own number of happy experiences that need to happen to fill the space between then and now; it eventually shifts the proportion in a way.” I thanked her out loud, even though I knew she couldn’t hear it.
Later, she apologized for rambling. That made me laugh.
I am writing about John, because that is my most recent loss; it is the loss that pushed me into a hole of dread. I polished off my dusty questions about what happens to your soul when your body stops working; and why is there something rather than nothing; and what does it feel like to die. Those questions are scary. “Don’t think about them,” I say to my brain. My brain says, “I’m in this hole now and there is no ladder."
I am writing about John, but it applies to everything. Loss is everywhere. This was a year of loss. It has been on every newspaper and in every conversation. There is division, and fear, and anger, and at the heart of all of it, loss. There’s nowhere to put all this loss. The absence takes up too much space.
In African tradition (and several Native American traditions as well), owls are harbingers of death. Seeing an owl — or even hearing one — means you are going to die. In Western tradition, owls are symbols of wisdom. Old European cultures held owls as goddesses; as symbols of knowledge that hung higher than our human minds. I think, though, that these aren’t very different interpretations. Death and wisdom are only a hair’s distance apart. And anyway, forever, owls have been not what they seem. They’re beyond any sort of complete or comprehensive interpretation. Pure magic.
Yesterday, Luke left to go back to Chicago; I am staying in Portland a little while longer. We decided to take a sunrise birdwatching trip on Sauvie’s Island. Everything was frosty and webbed with that horror movie fog all along the gray water and the gray telephone poles. “We’re not going to see anything in this fog,” I said. Luke scanned the radio for something good to listen to; he conceded to uncomplicated jazz.
We were the only ones at the birding trail, except for a woman who lived on the island and was walking her dog and told us to look out for sandhill cranes and some weird duck whose name I can’t remember. We saw everything. The birds like to wake up early! They get up and they eat tiny bugs out of the moss and then they disappear; you’d never know there were so many birds if you didn’t go out before the sun. We mostly saw little guys: kinglets, tits, creepers, wrens, juncos, that kind of thing. It was quiet. Everything was ice and moss. I said, “When I’m out in this sort of world, I don’t feel afraid of death.” I meant because out there it's connected; the universe is too big for our brains.
We heard a scrub jay screaming in a fir tree off the trail, and we both had the same faraway thought: If a scrub jay is going crazy, maybe it’s an owl. Medium sized birds torment owls. It’s how they protect themselves. The day was full of light by that point; an owl seemed unlikely. But other birds started flocking to the tree — jays, towhees, catbirds — and they were all screaming. Even the little birds came to scream. All the birds were screaming.
So we walked off trail, just to see. Thorny bramble covered the ground and sprouted up waist-high. It wasn’t an easy walk. Here was my thought: I don’t want to get my hopes up. I had my hopes up about the election. I had my hopes up about John. I had my hopes up about the year. The feeling of hope inevitably comes with the sting of loss; and the loss has become too much. It was just the idea of an owl. But I wasn’t going to hope anyway.
The thing — whatever it was — flew out of the tree too fast for us to see. We followed the sounds of the jays; we followed and my hopes weren’t up, I promise — but on the other hand, even when you promise your hopes aren’t up, they always secretly are.
And under the second tree we saw the owl. Luke saw it first. He looked up and saw the owl staring down at us with saffron-yellow eyes and said, “It is an owl. It is.”
When I looked up and saw the owl, I started to cry. I couldn’t help it, because I hadn’t wanted to hope; but here was this owl, this symbol of death, and of wisdom, and of magic, and of another world, saying, “Go ahead. Hope. I give you permission."