Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Night Garden: The Curious Incident of the Call in the Dark


           I have never intentionally sought out the company of owls, certainly not by marching into the dark in the company of others in an organized fashion. The prospect of spying an owl perched on a tree in the woods watching for a telltale movement below strikes me as a nearly impossible task. Nevertheless, the experts in the field, the local chapter of Mass Audubon, has organized a series of "Owl Prowls" beginning just at sundown, and I have determined to accompany them (if it stops snowing on their scheduled dates) and learn their secrets.
            The principal search technique, so I am told, is to go to some place owls have been known to frequent and listen for their calls. It surely helps to be familiar with their calls; as owls come in a number of varieties so no doubt do their calls.
            However, while I have never gone looking for owls in a goal-directed fashion, owls have crossed my path in circumstances that I continue to regard, years later, as remarkable. And yes, now that I think about it, the essential point is to listen to what you're hearing.   
            One autumn evening when we lived in Plymouth, more than a decade ago, I was upstairs looking for something in the bedroom beside a slightly open window when I began to realize I was hearing something different from the usual run of outdoors noises: a car radio, a phone ringing, a goose flying overhead announcing a pretended desire to fly south for the winter, a bicycle squeak, a child huffing into a plastic New Year's Eve horn. What I was hearing went 'ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh.'
            This repeated series of sounds continued for some while before my mind, or whatever part of the brain decides to pay attention to what we're hearing, allowed me to realize that I was hearing something both unusual and compelling  It's a sensation that comes to you when you're doing something else, something ordinarily purposive, and suddenly your mind says, 'just drop whatever it its -- and pay attention.'
            I walked downstairs and said to my wife, "Do you hear that? That has to be an owl."
            She had been hearing something too without knowing what it was. But if I thought it was an owl then --
            "Yes! Let's go find it."
            So, taking our son along (he was happy to get out of homework or whatever else we were making him do), we decided to tune in to the call of the owl hunt in our old town center neighborhood. My only idea of where to spy an owl was to look up into the treetops.
            And there it was, a mere couple hundred feet away, around the corner at the top of a tall evergreen permitted to grow on the property of a neighbor who was away most of the time. Maybe the owl thought he had found a nice quiet place to surveil the neighborhood for interesting rodent activity. I don't know how to explain his calling. Maybe he wanted company.
            It was autumn, early in the season. We lived not far from a wooded town park surrounding a couple of ponds. Someone who knew more about these things suggested to me that perhaps a young owl might be leaving home, looking for his own territory to hunt. Maybe he was calling in for further instructions.
            We heard the owl two or three more times that fall. We would suddenly realize we were hearing the call, wander outdoors, and locate the owl in one of the neighborhood's trees.
            One one occasion, when we got a particularly good look at him -- not that I had any idea how to identify him: barn owl, barred owl, great horned? -- our presence apparently caused him to fly off. We saw the tree where he flew to, so we followed again. Before we got close he took wing once more and since Saul (our son) and I were into this adventure, we took a guess where he might heading even though we had lost sight of him. We walked around the corner, went down an side street with a downhill gradient and emerged into the open space of the town green. Lots of trees line the green's perimeter, but since the center is open I figured we have good sight lines from there.
            It was night now, full dark, though downtown lights threw some light on the green.
            We looked up at the treetops, moved around a little. I looked up at the large bird-like figure perched on top of the green's tall white flagpole once or twice before I realized what I was seeing because (I'm guessing) my brain must have assumed I was looking at some sort of icon-figure. A carved eagle, perhaps, on the top of the flagpole. But there is no carved figure on top of that flagpole.
            "That's the owl, you know," I remarked to Saul, casually, "on top of the flagpole" as if we both must have figured it out already. And because I didn't want the owl to think we were any ruder than we already were by staring and talking about him.
            We gazed up and saw his yellow eyes. He appeared to be looking right down at us as well.
            He stayed put another minute or so, probably hoping that we would leave and let him go back to calling and scanning in peace. But we didn't, so eventually he lifted his wings, rose up like an angel and then shot with speed over the trees into parts unknown.
            So while I have never searched for owls, I have come when they called. Their call is wonderful. And their flight a kind of magic.