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Nyctea scandiaca

December 25, 2010

There is a very short new post at Babble, with a picture of one of my favorite ornaments. A snowy owl, like Hedwig, if you couldn’t tell (the owl, the tree, and the laptop–I took the picture with Photobooth–were all swaying slightly at the moment of capture). I am, as I’ve mentioned, rather fond of owls. My first stepfather, who was my de facto father (he and my mother met when I was three, and divorced when I was seventeen) was an avid birdwatcher, so I spent a great deal of my childhood driving on long expeditions in one decrepit car or another, camping and hiking, looking for birds. And while it may be hard for anyone but the truly avian-obsessed to muster a great deal of enthusiasm for, say, a certain obscure sparrow or a rare migrant whose plumage varies only minutely from a familiar backyard visitor, even the most jaded child in the world will thrill to the sight of owls.

I was divebombed by a barn owl in (where else?) an abandoned barn on a birding trip with my parents when I was about ten; much later, in graduate school in California, I came out of an evening seminar and saw two of them circling over the quad, pure white from below, clicking (not hooting) like mad. They nested in an abandoned chemistry building, I later discovered, so I used to hang around there from time to time (it was near my ex-husband’s lab) at dusk to see whether they’d show up. They frequently did, but the thrill never lessened. I’ve seen screech owls, great-horned owls (about a year ago, one flew right over my head in broad daylight and perched in the crotch of a pine tree in my mother’s back yard. There he sat, staring down at me with his wild yellow eyes, so close that I could see the feathers on his huge talons, so enormous and vivid that I trembled, and gasped, and stood immobilized until he cocked his gigantic head, spread his silent sudden wings, and vanished) and burrowing owls, in broad daylight on the ground and popping out of their holes, in the dirt between the runways of a small regional airport. Once, I saw a barred owl at dawn–he peeked out from behind a limb and watched me, until the other birders I was with (I’d shouted “Oh! Hey! Look, look, an owl!” most uncouthly) grew bored and I, reluctantly, followed them away. I’ve seen baby owls, the most absurdly charming creatures in the world, first as gray fuzzballs peeking out of their nest, then twice as big only a week later, perched crookedly in their tree, while their mother, her back turned in disdain, waited nearby. I’ve heard more owls than I can count. But I’ve only seen a snowy owl once, and it may be my favorite birdwatching moment of all time. I was alone, and the owl was alone, and sometimes I wonder whether it truly happened, or whether I dreamed it.

It was my fifteenth birthday and my stepfather happened to be near my boarding school (my parents lived several states away, so I rarely went home from school, and they almost never visited me.) I went to school near Boston, and my birthday is in the absolute dead of winter, and it was an exceedingly cold day. Still, my stepfather picked me up outside my dormitory, and we drove together to Provincetown, because he wanted to look for razorbills.

I think it was razorbills. It may have been a thick-billed murre. Fanatical birders–“listers”, as they’re called, because of their absolute fixation on augmenting their life-lists of species sighted–often have strange gaps in their lists where a common bird, a bird that should be relatively easy to see (or “get”, as the listers say) mysteriously remains uncounted and unseen. I remember that my stepfather mentioned that the razorbill or murre, whichever it was, was not exceedingly rare, so we’d probably get it; however, as we trudged along the beach in the wind, I was less than captivated. Pelagic birds are not really my thing, and whatever was bobbing out there in the near-frozen sea (there was actual ice along the beach, where the waves were feebly breaking) was nothing more distinct than flotsam. Black and white dots, rising and falling with the waves. My stepfather set up his spotting scope and scanned them for ages. Here, have a look, tell me what you see, he said, nudging the eyepiece toward me. I was so cold I could not speak. The wind was terrible, and I was impractically dressed. I did the best I could–my eyes were watering, and my teeth chattered–while he told me what to look for–a heavier beak? A head that was slightly more ponderously shaped? The birds, identical as far as I could tell, rose and fell, rose and fell. We moved farther down the beach and my stepfather set up the scope again. I tried to stand behind him, out of the wind, while he scanned the clusters of bobbing birds, again and again.

We did not get the razorbill. At long last, I gave up–I was ashamed to go back to the car alone, but I was so cold. I took my stepfather’s judgment very seriously–he was a difficult man, a fascinating man, severe in his likes and dislikes–and I wanted badly to seem like a trooper, to stay the frozen course until the elusive bird was finally found, but in the end I gave up. Walking back alone, snow from the sand dunes blowing across the beach, I wasn’t sure what to hope for. If he found the bird, he’d be happy, but I’d be The Girl Who Gave Up. If he didn’t find the bird, there would be another chance for razorbills, but today–my birthday–would be a Failure. My stepfather was (is–he’s still alive, but there’s no word for former stepfather, so I always resort to the past tense when talking about him) a fiction writer, and the tales of birds we’d gotten or missed were vital chapters in our family lore. I trudged and trudged, unable to feel my toes. I hadn’t realized we’d walked so far. When I got to the car, I could hardly see my stepfather, hunched over his scope in the terrible wind, in the far distance at the half-frozen water’s edge.

I got into the car on the passenger side and sat. I didn’t turn on the heat–I didn’t know how to drive, and I was afraid I would do something idiotic if I tried to start the ignition. The clutch, the gears, the emergency brake–they all intimidated me, and my hands were so numb I could hardly bend my fingers. It was very cold in the car, but at least I was out of the wind. There was a line of wooden posts, linked by chains, about ten feet in front of the car. One was about twice as tall as the rest, for some reason. I stared at them dully through the windshield, not really thinking about anything at all, when all of a sudden the top half of the taller post turned in my direction and blinked.

It was a snowy owl. Standing on the post at eye level, it was enormous. Flecked with brown, fluffed up against the wind, its gigantic yellow eyes on mine, it was impossibly big and impossibly close. My mouth went dry and my heart began to pound; the bird, unperturbed, turned away, then back to gaze at me. I must have walked right past it.

I don’t know how long we sat there. I didn’t dare raise my binoculars–with binoculars, the owl might as well have been sitting on my lap–because I worried my movements might spook it, but the bird stayed put until I saw my stepfather coming back over the sand, the scope on his back, head down against the wind. Then it flew. I hoped he would look up, would see the owl take off, would quickly set the scope down and grab his binoculars and watch it as it soared away. But he kept walking. When he opened the back of the car to put the scope inside, an icy wind swept in.

I told him I’d seen the owl, though I don’t remember what he said. He wasn’t terribly excited. A snowy owl on Cape Cod in winter is unusual but not unheard of; at any rate, he’d seen one before. Preoccupied with the bird he hadn’t seen, and not the one I had, he turned the car’s heater up as high as it would go and drove me back to school. At the entrance to my dorm, he hugged me goodbye and left.

What does this have to do with Christmas? Nothing, nothing at all. Except that I have just spent a completely solitary day, thinking of other times alone that proved impossible to replicate or to describe. I’ve got a fire going and the tree looks beautiful; I’m quite disinclined to go anywhere, though I’m due at consoling-windows friend’s house in half an hour, so I should probably shower and dress. It’s dark, and cold outside. Merry Christmas to all of you, everywhere.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. IsabelleAnne permalink
    December 25, 2010 9:11 pm

    Beautiful post. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Celeste permalink
    December 25, 2010 9:48 pm

    That was lovely. I’ve been on that frigid cold beach, and yes it does let you know when you can’t stay any longer.

    I once met a man who was remarried. He and his new wife had each been married to somebody previously who already had children and wanted no more with the new partner. When the children were grown, the partners were dumped. They found each other, made a family out of each other, and kept dogs that functioned as their children in life. It’s very painful to be a de facto parent and be cast out, with no legal or familial tie to retain to the de facto children. I feel fortunate that I’ll never have that experience and have to face it with any kind of grace.

  3. December 25, 2010 10:43 pm

    You should read the picture book Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. The language is beautiful and you would definitely relate to the little girl in the story. It was one of the first picture books I began reading regularly to my kids, simply because of the language. Merry Christmas.

  4. twangy permalink
    December 26, 2010 11:28 am

    Thank you for the story, which I loved.
    A sparrowhawk once got trapped in the garage at my parents’ place – though to your listers, one of those is – pfft – common as muck, it had this very imposing, startling presence that rooted me to the spot. All birds are quite amazing though, are they not? Even the humble pigeon can fly. We humans are so earthbound.

    Do we need to have people there to bear witness to our life, you reckon? Or.. what? We’ll evaporate? Maybe it’s as simple as being a herd animal. Maybe we’re just animals that like to have another’s hide rubbing along beside ours.

  5. Tripta permalink
    December 26, 2010 11:31 am

    Hope you enjoyed the party at your friend’s place 🙂
    I’ve been reading your blog for a long, long while and I love your honesty. I don’t usually comment because I have nothing to add- I am a 22 year old grad student in India, and my experience of marriage is limited to seeing my parents’ and sisters’ families. But I love owls, too!
    Once, when I was sitting in my hostel garden, depressed and alone (life was rather messed up back then), when I looked up to see a couple of scops owls on the tree in just outside the gates. They were hooting- soft, throaty hoots that sounded like romantic nothings (I am an ecology major and this is very unscientific nonsense!), and it gave my pensive mood a definite fillip. It was a moment I’d always remember.
    India has many fascinating superstitions associated with owls. Unfortunately, they have led to many such species being captured/hunted. Incredibly, I’ve seen even educated people prattle about the good/bad luck brought by owl sightings 😦
    Sorry about going off on a tangent. What I meant to say was, this was a beautiful post. Please keep writing.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      December 26, 2010 1:59 pm

      I’m still quite surprised and delighted every time I get a comment from someone so far away. Thank you, thank you, you made my day! I would very much like to hear some of the Indian superstitions associated with owls. I still remember every owl I’ve ever seen, and I can’t imagine an owl ever boding ill (they’ve always cheered me up.)

      When I was fourteen I visited a friend of my grandparents who had an injured wild bird sanctuary. She was a wildlife artist of some repute, and gave me a portrait of one of her residents–his name was “Owlbert”–which she signed for me. I’ll take a picture and post it. While she signed it, Owlbert sat placidly on my wrist. It was a highlight of my life.

  6. Anna permalink
    December 26, 2010 5:20 pm

    i don’t think i have ever seen an owl, but i found your post haunting. i am having a very quiet day (children’s father picked them up early this morning to spend a few days in Montreal). i took a long walk this morning and this afternoon, while the sun was still shining, i took the dog for a walk through the nature trails near my house. i am trying to consciously appreciate this solitary state of being which is so new to me, this being the first christmas after the ending of a long marriage. either that or feel sad and lonely.
    thank you for posting and happy new year.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      January 3, 2011 6:45 pm

      Or both–appreciate the solitude WHILE feeling a bit sad and lonely. Multitasking, as it were.

  7. December 26, 2010 10:28 pm

    Have you seen that newish movie, Legend of the Guardians? We watched it this morning for Family Movie Picnic (version breakfast) and it’s rather incredible, all brave owls with remarkable motion. An owl watched me sort the recycling once in the driveway. And once when I was driving home from the food co-op a catamaran ran across four lanes, not twenty feet in front of me, and mine the only car on the road. Same feeling of was-it-real-because-I-was-the-only-witness. Which is one of the reasons I think people get married, to secure a witness, and it must feel odd to be without one on major occasions like owl sightings and Christmas. But like Anna is striving for: conscious appreciation of solitary states is really the best way to go. There is time enough to be surrounded, to be witnessed. I’d love to know what books you read.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      January 3, 2011 6:28 pm

      You are obviously a very good literary critic, having nailed what linked the owl thing to the solitary Xmas-thing (which I didn’t even quite get, myself.) Well done.

      Book list coming in next post. Though right now I seem to lack the attention span to really read much of anything…

  8. December 27, 2010 10:21 am

    i hope you had a great time at your friend’s house. your story was beautiful. it’s amazing isn’t it how some incidents remain so vivid in one’s mind through time. here’s to more lovely stories from you!
    have a great rest of the year! cheers,

  9. December 27, 2010 11:05 am

    Beautiful post. Really vivid and haunting. All my stories about being that cold involve delivering copies of the Detroit News as a kid, so not quite as magical.

    My mom is an artist in Michigan and recently produced a limited edition poster from one of the curiosity cabinets she’s making, and it’s a striking image of an owl. She doesn’t work from memory or photographs, so she spends a lot of time at the natural history museum in Ann Arbor when she draws animals.

    If you’d like to see it, she documents her work on a blog–scroll down about two posts and you’ll see the owl.

    Happy New Year!

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      January 3, 2011 6:27 pm

      I looked and I love! Thank you for showing me. What a creative bunch you are–violin makers and artists and such. I’m quite impressed.

  10. December 27, 2010 12:03 pm

    This! This story would be a metaphoric summary of the first ten years of my marriage (after which my husband grew tired of birds and it was no longer a Sin to get bored/ cold/ unbearably drowsy) (now it’s fishing, which I have luxuriously decided not to care about). Only I would have announced the Snowy Owl sighting with bitter triumph–I went back to the car, and I saw the cool bird! Therefore the gods of birders have smiled upon me and not you!

    The weird thing is that I miss these days. Or I miss the striving of them, and wish I were able to strive like that without the bait of external approval.

  11. Anne permalink
    December 27, 2010 1:47 pm

    Your story reminds me of a time when I was living in Milwaukee. I was seventeen, living alone, and got around by bus. One morning, I was walking the two blocks to the nearest bus stop, when I looked down and saw a group of about twenty chickadees foraging crumbs on the parkway between the sidewalk and the street. In the midst of all these everyday brownish birds was one green one. It was the same size and shape as the others, but looked like it had come from much closer to the equator than its companions. Amazed, I inched closer. The chickadees hopped away, but the green one stayed, pecking at the crumbs. I slowly knelt down beside it, stretched out a finger, and stroked its back. It hopped off to join its friends, and I stood up, dazed.

    Now, I know it was probably an escaped housepet, tamed to the point of accepting human touch, but in the moment–it felt like magic.

    You have a beautiful writing style.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      January 3, 2011 6:26 pm

      Thank you. I love that story. Your writing style isn’t half bad either, based only on that one dashed-off comment, just so you know.

  12. December 28, 2010 11:45 pm

    dear IB, not to beat an old horse … but i just had to share this with you. this also makes me sad (because my ex has never professed to liking this sport – because apparently it’s a more “asian” sport, and i’m asian). and i also know why he did it. my nephew got one last summer … my kids and i were supposed to go out to visit them and talked about it excitedly, but haven’t been able to do so. and i thought i would get this for my kids when i have the space for it one day… so guess what my ex got this christmas … yup the same thing your ex got for the kids.
    small parallel universe, huh!

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      January 1, 2011 3:11 pm

      Mine were really psyched, and I was a mite bummed out about it. It sucks to be scooped, and the fact is that children ARE kind of shallow and materialistic and I worry constantly that their life over at their dad’s is much more fun (because I am the bitch who makes them do chores and homework and go to bed early, etc). But there is literally nothing I can do–I am what I am–so I just have to let it go. Though here’s the thing: buy some balloons, put some tape on the rug or floor in the hallway to make a “court”, and play swat-the-balloon game. It’s just as fun as ping pong, and much cheaper. xxx

      • January 5, 2011 3:20 am

        thanks for your reply and suggestion. it’s the same situation here as well. i make the kids go to bed early, make them read/write, do minor chores etc and so i’m not the fun person. at their dad’s it’s all games, tv, wii … but i’m the way i am….
        the balloon game does sound like fun! thanks!

  13. January 10, 2011 7:02 pm

    I’m late to this, but that was a beautiful post.

    • January 11, 2011 7:20 pm

      I’m even later but agreeing that this was a beautiful post. There is nothing like an owl.

      • irretrievablybroken permalink*
        January 12, 2011 11:53 pm

        Thank you, thank you both. You’re not late. I get all these comments no matter when they’re written, as I’m sure you know (though I didn’t use to know)–whether someone comments on something I wrote yesterday or a year ago, it makes me equally happy. I am always so grateful.


  1. Christmas after divorce | Divorced with Kids

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