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.