Sunday, August 30, 2009


On the cusp of autumn, the owls are back in the cottonwoods. All week long I wake again and again to hear them. Calling. Calling. Their softly feathered voices like sonorous drums carrying a message along the watercourses of the valley.

I don’t know what brings these great horned owls from their usual haunts to our tall cottonwoods each year. During the summer, we see them perched on power poles or swooping out of the tops of willows and gliding off into the dusk. But late winter and early fall they join us for a week or so, settling in outside our sleeping household and gently waking us in the dark hours. I am impressed by their persistence, their meditative calls that go on and on. I wonder what they are thinking.

Owls are one of my totems. As a child, I grew up on salt water in the land of coastal tribes. Dark fathomed arms of the Pacific reaching into the continent to lap fir-covered humps of land. Even in this dry country where I now live, I feel a tiny totem pole shaped inside me. Significant, recurring experiences,indelible over time. What I carry with me.

At our first home in the canyon, I was often with owls. At the edge of a vast grassland bench, Tulley Creek nestles into the draw with red rock rims stair-stepping to the breaks above. It’s a special place. But I was struggling with the isolation of a woman in a man’s world, and hardly any men at that. It was like being on a tether, trapped in the snare of two babies under the age of two. Diapers piling up, everything washed on a board.

One long evening in August, I stood in the screened porch looking east when a tiny screech owl landed on the gatepost at the end of the boardwalk. Another owl landed on the other post. They perched quietly, their heads swiveled backwards. I had never been so close to an owl.

I stepped inside and picked up the crawling baby, took the other child by the hand. “Look at the owls,” I whispered, kneeling in the porch doorway. Dusk was falling and the orange tabby kittens began tumbling out of their lair in a mass of daylilies crowding the porch. Suddenly I knew why the owls were there.

I had already lost most of my cats and in the constant battle with mice and packrats I couldn’t afford to be without. My last mother cat had been hauled off by something that left her dead and hanging high up in an alder tree behind the cabin. These kittens were all I had left. “Get,” I said, waving a hand at the owls. They ignored me, eyes riveted to the squirming kittens wrestling in the trampled yard. I picked up a rock. It smacked against the post. I picked up another rock and threw it hard. The owls lifted and flapped away.

The next afternoon I had to get out. I saddled a horse, threw some panniers over the saddle, put the baby on my back. I lifted the toddler onto the horse and walked to the old orchard about a mile down the bench. I picked too many apples and let time get away from me. Dark was gathering. The mare was spooked. She didn’t like the bags of apples shifting against her side or the toddler perched on top of the load. Coming off the hill onto the trail, she snorted and whirled, the toddler cried. I jerked the lead, apples spilled.

I barely got a hold of the toddler and dragged him to the ground by one arm before he got dumped. The mare pranced and snorted like there were cougars in the brush. The toddler refused to get back on, so I trudged toward home, lugging him in one arm, the baby whimpering on my back, the mare wall-eyed and jittery at the end of the lead.

Night air flowed around us, the cool dirt smell of evening mixing with the sweet smell of apples. Then a shadow passed overhead. I looked up. The biggest owl I had ever seen glided above me. Off to the side another owl flapped silently along the trail. The owls followed me all the way back to the cabin. Remember, their softly drifting shapes seemed to say. Remember we were here first. And I haven’t forgotten.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef