Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Essay: Beating Hearts

I have been thinking of a pair of students in one of my classes. They are in their late teens and they are in love. They sit in the back of the class, talking low, or touching, sharing a book. When they might not know I see, she will sneak glances with eyes that ask for a response, and he, well, he might be a little older; maybe he has been through this before, or just keeps his emotions close.

I have been thinking of them since Friday when my dog and I heard what we thought was a bark, an odd bark, and it stopped my dog, almost. Her gait changed, and she slowed, wary, but ears forward, head up, the point position, if she knew what that was. I called her to me, and she came, but she looked as though she might bolt, on a chase, and at the same time like she might bolt away.

We heard it again, but I was talking to my dog, so the sound wasn’t clear. A dog, maybe, a ways off, in a backyard. It might be upset, or it sees something.

Or it could be—and just as I thought this, I heard clearly, a deep, guttural, hooting.

The owl.

I’d seen owl feathers in Lubber Run Park over the past month, and then, last week, I spotted an owl in a tree, down near Arlington Boulevard. I shot a picture of the owl with my cell phone, too far from the tree to get a good shot. But it was fun to watch the owl’s head twist around to see me. I’ve never seen a grown, healthy one in the wild.

Last year my dog spotted an injured barred owl hiding itself behind a rock on the shoreline of Lubber Run creek, and we waited until animal welfare came to take it away. And a month or so after that, we saw the cutest little owl at the base of a tree about a foot from the paved path.

We were out early that morning, the sky still dark, and my dog was yanking me down the hill into the park off N. Columbus Street. I couldn’t see what she was so excited about, neck stretched through the collar, straining, until I was just about on top of the poor little thing. The eyes were so wide, and the pupils so large and its body so small that it looked frightened, more than wise. I never knew if it was an owlet that was too afraid or incapable of flight, or if it was a full-grown, but injured owl. Now I’m guessing it was young.

And here we were, just my dog and me last Friday, walking through the woods, stopped by the unfamiliar sound. The sun was just up on an overcast morning, and the renaissance of underbrush was shadowless in that way that happens when the dull light comes from everywhere. Where we stood, with new leaves on the giant, old-growth trees, I couldn’t see the houses I knew were there.

Despite all the dire environmental news, for a moment, the forest, this little forest in dense-packed Arlington, with its towering oaks and maples, felt primordial and verdant, huge yet intimate, as though I could walk forward and see the owl, as though it were calling to me. But of course, it wasn’t.

A startling moment later, a second owl called from behind us, but closer, maybe a hundred yards away. The first called again and it went like that for a minute or more. Call and response, longing and desire, public yet intimate.

During student conferences yesterday I asked the young woman in my class where her boyfriend was, since he had missed his conference that ran just before hers.

“I don’t know,” she said, “I haven’t talked to him in days.”

“Oh!” I said. “Sorry.”

“It’s alright,” she said, and her eyes looked like she meant it, as though she wisely understood that this was how it goes sometimes, that the odds of survival in this environment are long.

Through the canopy, I saw, just as I was wondering if I’d be lucky enough to see, the second owl, beating the air with desire—thuketathuketathuketa—its voice disrupted by the strain of beating wings and the fierce pounding of its heart.

Related sites…
  • For a quick introduction to the barred owl, click here; to hear the barred owl, click here.
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