Flash in the Pan
A Quarterly Posting at Tiny Lights
by Adrienne Ross Scanlan
Driving to the Methow River, I argue with Bob, the nature writing workshop teacher, about objectivity, subjectivity, and the Gulf War; those big questions writers wrestle with about life, death, perspective. Sunday morning shines with light. No sign of fall rain to ruin our field trip. Up ahead there's a flash of white and black wings. A bird takes flight. Something dead is in the road. Bob pulls the red Subaru over, saying, "I think that's a northern saw whet." An owl.
At the sound of our footsteps, scavenger birds fly into the forest. Bob picks up the dead bird by a limp wing. He points out the frayed edges that give an owl silent flight.
"Was a magpie on it?" he asks.
"I can't tell a magpie close up, much less from a distance," I confess.
We walk back down the road towards the car, Bob's strong left hand on my shoulder. He says, as a gray-bearded sage imparting wisdom to a novice, "One day, you must learn the magpie."
Yet what holds me, even as I hold it cradled in my hands, is the saw whet. I have spent days, months, years in meetings to end war, stop violence, craft the peaceful solution. But in nature, my heart goes to the wolf's graceful freedom, the killer whale's strength, the owl's deadly precision and merciless beauty. The saw whet's white and earth-red plumage is soft, but the owl's talons are sharp and open, as if ready for the bird to swoop onto a small forest creature. Where its eyes once were are now sockets soft with blood. Scavengers had gone first for those magnificent orbs that so magnify light that the nocturnal saw whet sees best by starlight but becomes blinded from headlights speeding down a country road.
I want to believe this night creature is sleeping through our bright morning, and soon its brown and white spotted wings will carry it to a roost in a western red cedar. But I know there's no waking from death. I want to believe the saw whet's death was as wild as any blood-red skein of predator and prey that weaves an ecosystem together. But I know what struck this tiny, modest lord of the air hit hard and continued on without the courtesy of stopping to eat its kill. I want to believe in ghost owls, as if the asymmetrically placed ears that allow the saw whet to hear in three dimensions could catch in the darkness the sound of a mouse rustling a willow leaf dried crisp from the winter nights. But I know it's this world that matters. In this world, there's no life without death, and our arrival interrupted hungry scavengers from doing the only thing that transforms death back into life.
I place the saw-whet on ground shaded by a willow. It's all I can do. When we drive off, and the magpies return, the owl will be partly in darkness.
Adrienne Ross Scanlan's essays have been published in Fourth River, Tikkun, Pilgrimage, the American Nature Writing series, and over 40 other publications. She lives in Seattle, WA with her husband and daughter, and is nearing completion of her manuscript Turning Homeward: Restoring Nature in the Urban Wild.
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