Quest for the Red Screech Owl
December 15, 2006
Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl
We went to see him this morning.  Just the three of us.  Myself, his daughter, and his wife.  We left the little ones behind, contemplating their presents under the tree.  How do you explain his affliction to little ones who don't share the memory of his memories?  How do you recreate the spark of his personality after its last embers have grown cold?

And now, under pewter skies of a midwestern winter afternoon, we are on our way to see the owl.  Just the three of us.  Myself, his daughter, and his wife.  I have little experience with wheelchairs and it takes all my strength and focus to push his wife along the undulating trail of wood chips through the forest of somber, leafless oaks.

His daughter walks beside her, exchanging family reminiscences behind the thin façade of holiday cheer.  I catch his daughter's eye.  We exchange resigned smiles, recognizing after all these years one another's innermost thoughts.  If we could somehow free his healthy body from his faded mind and match it with his wife's sharp mind, now held hostage by the failing body in this chair . . . .

Frost lingers in the lee of logs along the path.  The owl awaits us up ahead.  It is an eastern screech-owl, a common enough species, but unusual to find at a daytime roost, and this one is a red phase bird, uncommon amongst the usual grays and the first I've ever found.  Imagine Native Americans, bound by fears and superstitions, stumbling upon a mated pair, one gray, the other red, watching the gray one disappear into the nest hole only to emerge moments later in shades of red.

There is nothing that delights an experienced birder more than showing a special bird to others.  And I know I am seeking some personal epiphany, bringing his wife to these winter woods to see this special owl.  We round the final bend.  The owl is out, sitting on its roost snag.  Not really red, but soft rust.  I brake the chair, remove my binoculars and slip them over the old gray head.  I feel a tremor pass through the chair beneath my hands as she sights the owl.

We are before the altar.  We sit in silence, transfixed, temporary refugees from a world of fading minds, fragile bodies, and commercialized holidays.  We enter a world our species used to inhabit.  A world where continuity and change merged seamlessly, without tears, without difficult questions and hard answers.  Where dawn itself, be it gray or red, was cause for celebration of life.  Or a life lived.

He gave me his daughter, but there was much more of course.  He flew aerial reconnaissance over France from '43 to '45, and for countless years thereafter helped forge the steel on which this country was built.  A life lived.  We celebrate that life like the owl before us on its snag for its beauty, its stark simplicity, and its stunning complexity.

As we turn to leave, the setting sun drops below the ashen mantle of winter sky, sending shafts of luminosity radiating in bright panels through the darkening woods behind us.  The snag is cast in momentary brilliance, the soft rusts and russets of the owl's feathers glowing briefly in surreal red, then all goes to shadow.