Hunting with the owlets

On the evening of September 8th, I headed out into the woods to spend a little quiet time (which I do at least once each week, with no expectation of what I might see. I hadn't seen the owlets in two or three weeks, instead encountering a heron and a peregrine falcon, so I was excited to see whatever Mother Nature decided to show me.

Before I even made it to the woods, I saw one of my owlets sitting on a fence post behind the pole barn. I couldn't believe it. She was so beautiful - still with much of her white coloring, and beautiful "horns" that have fully grown in.

Truthfully, I cannot easily tell these three birds apart, especially when they are alone. Together, I can compare their sizes and behaviors and make a pretty good guess. But when they are alone, I trust my intuition to clue me in. I had the feeling that this one was Lyra - she certainly had that diva attitude about her, which is so like the Lyra that I know.

For the first time since she was a baby, she let me come pretty close to her and watch her for quite a long time. She was mostly napping, but at one point, she puffed up her feathers, opened her mouth as if she were yawning, and made several squawks (still not hooting). I could hear her siblings answering her from the woods beyond, but none appeared.

Some time later, I heard a duck quacking and landing in the pond several hundred yards away - out of sight, but loud enough to hear. Lyra heard it, too. She perked up, moving her head forward and back, forward and back. I thought she might fly off, to explore, but she remained where she was.

I remained there for another ten minutes, taking pictures and watching Lyra, the duck happily quacking over and over again, and suddenly I realized: there are at least two other owls out there in the woods. I couldn't help but think about the duck, who would be completely defenseless against a Great Horned Owl.

I carefully made my way down the hill, hearing Lyra squawk behind me. As I rounded the corner, the pond coming into view…sure enough, there was an owlet sitting on a rock overlooking the water. I had a feeling it was little Vesper, the runt of the family (or, more accurately, the last one born, making her markedly smaller than her older siblings).

Copyright Yancy Lael 2017

Copyright Yancy Lael 2017

I can't explain the feeling I had in that moment. I was nervous, excited, and even a little horrified. There was my beautiful little creature honing in on her prey. All of that gorgeous wildness was about to turn into blood, bone, and death. I have seen what Great Horned Owls can do to other birds - even birds larger than themselves - and it isn't pretty.

I wanted to see Vesper have her moment. I wanted her to have her dinner and keep surviving. I wanted to see her power.

But I also couldn't bear to see a harmless female duck lose her life.

What an odd moment, there in the woods, twilight descending, the shadows growing longer and longer, the sun a stark red against the smoky sky, the pond gently reflecting the tableau surrounding it, the duck happily quacking away. The owl waiting. Watching.

Did this duck have a mate? If her she was a mother, her ducklings would be grown by now, but would she be missed if she never returned home? Would Vesper kill her quickly enough so she would not experience pain?

Whose life was worth more in that moment? The duck? Or the owl? Would allowing the duck to become Vesper's dinner (breakfast?) be fairer than depriving Vesper of her well-earned meal?

I didn't have any answer to any of those questions. But I did know one simple thing: I couldn't bear to witness death in that moment. It was too beautiful. Too surging with life. All three of us living beings who wanted to keep on living. Who wanted to survive.

So I slowly walked toward Vesper, who finally became aware of my presence, and she flew away, into the trees. I felt guilty, but also grateful that I had come at that moment. Grateful that the duck would be able to return home, safe and sound.

I took a few pictures of the duck, then held up my arms and yelled, scaring her away. I knew Vesper would come back if the duck was still there and my attempt to save her would have been in vain. I watched the duck's retreat until she was no longer visible, relieved that she was safe.

I thought about what I'd done as I made my way back up the hill, back toward the house, Lyra still squawking away, still sitting on her post. We so often hear people advise us not to mess with nature. That if you do, it throws everything off balance, sometimes in ways we cannot even foresee.

I find this saying laughable, though. Look how much we have messed with nature in the last 100 years. We cover the earth in concrete, blast through tectonic plates to extract oil from beneath its surface, create enough plastic waste to destroy our ocean habitats, and poison the water with our chemicals. So making a fuss about not touching baby animals that appear to have been abandoned by their parents, or interfering in an animal's hunting habits doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. There are worse kinds of interference happening every day, every second.

But beyond this, using a word like interfere implies that there's a division between us and the wild world. There's us (the domesticated) and them (the wild animals). The truth is, though, that we are all one and the same. We are animals, too. And these so-called wild creatures live among us, and we amongst them, and everything we do affects the other, whether that's our intention or not. (You know what they say about the butterfly flapping its wings in Central Park.)

I have been a part of these birds' lives, and they of mine, since they were born. In their experience, it is normal to have a woman skulking around in the woods, taking pictures of them and watching them. Having me join them on a night of hunting is just another day for them. (Though I still feel guilty that I "stole" Vesper's dinner.)

The action that I took is a reflection of the kind of wild animal I am - philosophical, intellectual, pseudo-logical. I tried to make a moral distinction in that moment (which really was a random choice born of my own perceptions) and when that failed, I made a decision to do what would make me more comfortable. Because, yes, I, like other humans, have been somewhat domesticated, and that domestication alters our perception.

I often wonder what it might be like to have a different perspective - something wildly different. Like an owl's. Would it be as simplistic as we assume it to be? Do owls think about the meaning of life? About the price, born by other beings, to keep them alive?

I feel lucky to have had the experiences I have had with them. To watch, observe, think, wonder. To, in a sense, change my skin just by spending time with them. What would it be like to be one of the woodland's most powerful predators? To be so calculating, efficient, and even, perhaps, cold-hearted?

If you think about it, though, are we so different from our Great Horned Owl companions? Humans are at the top of the food chain. You could argue there is no one more cold-hearted, efficient, or calculating than we are. If we have this in common with the Great Horned Owl, what else might we share?

As they have grown up, I have seen so much tenderness in them. I have seen both the mother and father owls come swooping in the moment they thought their baby was in danger. I have seen the mother owl sit for literally hours at the top of a fence, a powerful sentinel, when one of the babies was too tired to try to fly out of the patch of grass she had fallen into.

I have also seen the babies peck at each other. I've seen them come flying at their father, pummeling him with their wings until the father gave an angry squawk and flew away. And now I have seen them carefully stalking their prey.

I think I am drawn to these owls because of the mystery they represent to me. They live in the darkness. Their lives are, generally, shrouded from the human eye.

But the more I watch them, the more I see humans reflected in their behaviors and the more I see owls reflected in humans. We are all so connected.

Where you can be yourself

A few weeks ago, I was at an event hosted by a local non-profit that works to get school-aged children out of the classroom and into the forest to experience more hands-on education. There's a lot of emerging research indicating that youth learn better in the outdoors and retain more information when education is more physical, more hands-on. (As you can probably imagine, this doesn't surprise me in the least.)

Copyright 2017 Yancy Lael

Copyright 2017 Yancy Lael

During the event, a kindergarten teacher began talking about the positive experience she was having with her class during their outdoor education days each month. She had a whole list of anecdotal evidence to share that made her believe the experience was worth pursuing, but one of the things she mentioned really struck a chord with me. She said that one of her students told her something like (you know, the kindergarten version of this): "I feel like I can finally be myself when I'm out in the forest."

When I heard this, it gave me the chills. I hadn't really put it into words before, but this is exactly what I feel like when I'm out in the woods. Finally, I understand what drove me to seek out those wild refuges! And of course, it was a 6-year-old who put it to words. Leave it to a kindergartner to put complicated truths into simple words and in the process, solve all the worlds problems.

The greatest privilege of being in the wild world is that we get to connect with our own wildness (which is what we really are, after all). We get so caught up in the myths we've created around being humans that we forget we are still part of the kingdom Animalia, the genus Mammalia. We are animals, belonging to the forest, the desert, the mountains, the rivers.

Out there in the woods, I never have to worry about how I look. I don't worry about the rituals of mating that we single gals think about so often. I don't have to put on makeup. I don't have think about whether or not my face is bent at an angle that's unattractive so someone standing across from me. I don't even have to wash my hair. I can lie in the dirt and stare up at the sky through the canopy of branches and experience one of the greatest freedoms I have ever enjoyed: Not thinking about whether or not I'm attractive enough to catch a man's eye.

Out there in the woods, I can sing. I don't censor myself and my love of music comes spilling out. I hum as I'm walking, I sing softly while sitting by the creek, I even call out loud tunes from the top of the hill to see if I can make an echo of song in the fields below me. I don't mind so much when I miss a note (which happens a lot). I don't worry that someone will walk in, see how much energy I'm giving to my song, and laugh at me for being so dramatic. I just sing and I know the squirrels, the vines, the owls, love to hear these melodies.

Out there in the woods, I can just be myself. I don't have to impress anyone. I don't have to worry about saying the right thing, about having good manners, about keeping the peace or being "spiritual." I can take in every sight, every sound, every texture and engage fully with what's around me, barely spending a second thinking about my deadlines, my obligations, the social missteps I made in the past week. I don't have to worry about investing or working out or saying just the right thing at the right moment. Everything I do in the woods is the right thing in the right moment. There's no judgment from the flowers, the deer. There's no one measuring my progress, asking for goal charts, demanding more growth and improvement. I am what I am in that moment and what I am is perfect.

The woods demand nothing of me. The woods take nothing from me. The woods embrace me - not imperfections, and all, but me, as a whole, with no judgment. There's no such thing as "imperfections." I'm just a set of patterns, fractals, elements, observations, pulses, and movements, just like every other living creature out there. We are, all of us, together, one.

I can be myself out in the woods. And what greater gift is there than that?