Positive Existentialism and the Importance of Birds

Recently, a fellow bird-lover sent me a link to Jonathan Franzen’s April 6, 2015 New Yorker article entitled “Carbon Capture: Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?” which is concerned with how our apathy toward global warming extends to the extinction of birds and other species. Franzen suggests each and every one of us is implicated in global warming but that most of us feel impotent to do anything about it—and birds and other animals are the victims of the resulting apathy. The author goes on in his article to exhort us not only to act locally but also to think locally as well so that, as individuals or in smaller groups, we can make a difference where making a difference is most critical and possible.

American crow fledgling, with blue eyes

American crow fledgling, with blue eyes (all bird photos by Rick Clark)

But birds aren’t important only from the Protestant, New England Puritan, and Saint Franciscan points of view that Franzen mentions. Birds are also important from the Positive Existentialist point of view, which I suggest undergirds the most universal of value systems and which gives us a way to see all life on Earth as endangered and as worthy of saving.

American Robin in meadow

American robin in meadow

The Existentialist writers and philosophers of the 20th century—Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, and Gide, to name a few—posited a world in which there is no supernatural—no God or gods, no soul, no heaven, no hell, no “given” purpose or meaning. This point of view was experienced as so alien, pessimistic, and bleak at the time that most rejected it out of hand. However, I’d like to suggest that what many view as an agonizing dilemma might just as easily be viewed in a positive, redemptive light and that adopting the Positive Existentialist orientation might save the birds (and us) from extinction.

black-capped chickadee

black-capped chickadee

The problem with Existentialism is that, according to its view, nothing is more or less valuable or important than anything else, at least not from an extrinsic standpoint. This is the most troubling critique aimed at Existentialism: that the Existentialists failed to work up a system of values. But I think that’s because they failed to see that if the supernatural doesn’t exist, then we humans made up God, and if we made God up, then we’re the source of the values and morals we’ve projected on God in creating him. I might refer to this instinct as “the moral organ” (an idea I borrow from Joseph Campbell, who suggests the myth-making impulse is a kind of psychic organ). The relativism inherent in Existentialism applies to the value we put on human life in relation to the value we put on other animal life, including birds. Yet there’s no evidence without the created authority of an all-powerful supernatural being that one species is more valuable or important than any other—or that in the context of the universe anything whatsoever is important or valuable at all. It simply is.

Canada goslings

Canada goslings

The beauty of Positive Existentialism is that our view of the universe and our place in it becomes so much simpler and easier to understand. We humans are simply the most complex and sophisticated of some seven million species striving to survive (or thriving) on a relatively tiny star-lit ball of molten iron, rock, soil, water, and air rolling through space around one of trillions of stars in a universe billions of light-years vast. But not having a colossal supernatural being out there doesn’t mean we’re any less moral. It just means it’s up to us to act according to the authority we otherwise divest in “God.” If it’s we who conceive of God, religions, and moral systems, then it’s we who are moral to begin with. Morality is in our nature, much as the instinct to survive is in our nature. The Positive Existentialist orientation puts us in the driver’s seat, fully responsible for our own existence on this planet and in the universe. And if we returned to being a race of Nature rather than sycophants of the supernatural, there’d likely be a lot less conflict and fewer large-scale wars, since believing in different gods, differing versions of God, and contrary interpretations of “sacred” texts, wouldn’t be reason to kill each other off.

common loons

common loons

Once we get comfortable with a godless universe, we realize the world is ours to create, in our own best image, with all the goodness that we’ve created an all-powerful supernatural being to expect of us. We decide what’s important to us, to our individual selves as well as to the whole of civilization. We make our own meaning, we strive for the highest universal ideals and values, and we work hard to make our planet a paradise. Not to strive to make our planet a paradise is to fail as a race. Not to hold universal ideals and values is to fight and compete amongst ourselves till we destroy life on Earth as we know it. We know in our heart of hearts that we have the choice to become bad people and create hell on Earth or to become the best people we can become and strive to create Paradise on Earth.

eastern kingbird

eastern kingbird

While the Existentialists, especially Albert Camus, also posited Absurdism (the view that there’s no reason to exist in a meaningless world), the instinct to survive is not absurd. It is inherent. And to act to see that other creatures survive, including saving our birds, is heroic. Therein lies our meaning: In the context of our biological, ecological, economic, and spiritual imperatives, we need to create a world in which most or all peoples and species can survive and live together relatively healthily and peacefully.

American goldfinch

American goldfinch

As my philosophy professor, during my undergraduate years at Portland State University, suggested, the instinct of the survival of the species might in fact be the basis of human morality. I go a step further to suggest that recognizing other creatures’ instinct to survive as a species is just as important as recognizing our own need to survive as a species. We’re all Earthlings, so let’s extend the very secular Golden Rule to include other creatures, which is to say let’s have empathy not only for other human beings but also for other creatures on our planet (many of us do). We are arrogant to think our “ownership” of the land means that other creatures have no right to inhabit it. We humans created the once non-existent idea of property ownership, but plants and animals have no say about where the borders and property lines fell. This isn’t to say that property ownership is bad. Property ownership is natural, since most motile creatures on this planet are instinctually territorial, human property ownership being the formal extension of our territorial instincts.

great blue heron

great blue heron

As a longtime college English instructor, I copied and passed out a handout to my Intercultural Communications and Ancient Literature students that includes versions of the Golden Rule from sixteen different religions. The Golden Rule is, indeed, the first and most fundamental spiritual tenet, undergirding most if not all religions and spiritual systems and deriving, not from some external supernatural source, but from our own sense of one another’s vulnerability, imperative to exist, and longing for peace, fullness, and comfort. It is our highest empathic and compassionate means of relating to each other and to other creatures. The Golden Rule is an expression of our recognition that all creatures on Earth desire to survive, even thrive, on our shared planet. It is a universal, a sense we all have, or should have, in common. Live and let live.

gulls and moon

gulls and moon

I’m not advocating communism or any other system that doesn’t recognize Nature or human nature. I’m not advocating a Bacchanalian return to Nature, nor am I promoting anarchism or nihilism. Nature is very orderly, with territories, pecking orders, social structures, rites and rituals, symbiosis and mutualism, and, lest we forget, the food chain and its many fragile links. I’m simply advocating a heightened consciousness of and approach to our killing, exploitation of resources, destruction of habitat, mindless consumption, and ignorance of other creatures who might inadvertently be destroyed in the process of our exploitation and consumption, and I do so for the sake of the survival of our species and relative peace on Earth. It’s a matter of consciousness, empathy, intention, and, yes, action. True, we cannot achieve the ultimate ideal of a paradise in which there is no suffering or death, because, of course, we have to kill in order to eat and we all have to die in order for others to live, but we can lean toward some balance that enables most or all of our species to survive our otherwise careless destructiveness. If we believe in the human will and the ultimate good, then we are obliged to lean—heavily, at this late date—toward some sort of healthy balance between humans, other creatures, and Habitat Earth.

kildeer eggs

kildeer eggs

It’s impossible not to kill and eat plants and animals in order to survive. Life eats life. But we need to do it the way that some early peoples did, with respect, humanity, and even a kind of grief for being caught in the web of life in which we Earthlings must kill each other in order to survive. Many religions and tribal beliefs, in fact, are founded on this idea. Many rituals include sacrifices of animals emblematic of our taking of life to survive. Suddenly the taking of a life has the symbolic weight it deserves. But such rites don’t require that we believe in some obscure supernatural being—just that we treat all life with the respect that we seek for ourselves.

least sandpipers hunkering down in footprints

least sandpipers hunkering down in footprints

While there will always be those who set out to destroy others and the environment, we humans will always be most attracted to the brightest light, that of Aristotle’s “ultimate good.” As long as we can conceive of the light of goodness, we will always be drawn to it. Goodness shines its light on badness and shows it for what it is. Every clear-eyed, responsible, relatively intelligent human being knows this. Even dogs can learn the difference between good and bad. It’s when we know what good is and we choose to do bad anyway that amounts to the worst crime. Conversely, when we’re tempted to do bad and do good instead, we know we make the best choice, we confirm our belief in the human will, and we acknowledge our humanity.

mallard couple

mallard couple

I know there’s a degree of circularity in this logic, but it’s the best we can do without reconstructing the illusory authority of a colossal supernatural being, which, indeed, also involves a kind of circular logic (we exist; therefore there must be a God or gods to have created us). Ultimately, we must find our meaning and purpose in the context of our Earthly existence, in grooming the health of our planet and its many species.

peregrine falcon

peregrine falcon

Surprisingly, I’ve talked to relatively wise, intelligent, productive people who’ve told me they don’t believe in the human will. Some people can imagine a better world, or a better outcome for their efforts, but they say they’re helpless to achieve it. I, for one, believe in the human will. Not to believe in the human will is to suggest that nothing that came about on this planet came about as the result of human intention, and so much of what’s come about has come about in the last 120 years. 120 years of evolution and tumultuous change didn’t occur accidentally. If there’s one ideal that humans should believe in, it’s the human will. If we don’t believe in the human will, the belief that we can choose and create a better world, we may as well embrace the idea that there’s nothing that drives us but our basic animal instincts, that our bicameral brains and cortexes are for naught, that civilization is an illusion, and that the birds are doomed to perish, which is to suggest that this ever more complex world that we seem to be creating is nothing more than billiard balls ricocheting off each other, off the “bumpers” of the laws of nature into the bumpers of our idle constructions, physical and abstract.

red-necked grebes

red-necked grebes

Let’s face it, if we are conscious and have free will, then we are not innocent, unlike birds and other animals, who kill to eat and protect their young out of instinct (or so the theory goes). In fact, it would follow that the more conscious we are, the more responsible we are for our actions in the world, the less innocent—that is, the more guilty—we are for doing nothing to counter our own actions or the actions of others. How we live with our guilt, our remorse, I can’t claim I have no idea, because I too am as guilty as the next human being. I have killed—and killed for no good reason or without a second thought.

rufous hummingbird

rufous hummingbird

Some readers will argue it’s obvious that we humans are more important than birds and other animals because we’re more intelligent (according to our own standards and measures), we create and evolve technology, we have reason, language, religions, philosophies, countries, cities, governments, corporations, communication and transportation systems, schools, libraries, weather stations, and we’ve leashed the power of the wind, the wheel, metallurgy, plumbing, electricity, flight, space travel, and the atom. We may consider these characteristics and developments as indicative of how much more valuable we are than birds and other creatures, but our abilities and institutions are valuable only in our own eyes and according to our own value systems—intrinsically. There’s no great cosmic judge out there saying, “Wow, your technology is a clear sign of your goodness in the universe,” or “The high values to which you pay lip service are indeed the highest values in the universe.” They’re only valuable to us humans, not to other species, which have only been maimed, sickened, and killed off by our presence and our technologies. Certainly the pig wasn’t too thrilled about the invention of the sty, nor the horse the bit. The fact that humans can be viewed as more evolutionarily complex or sophisticated, or that we humans appear to have freedom of choice and can take responsibility for our actions—might make for good arguments, but complexity, sophistication, and freedom of choice are nevertheless human, species-centric values.

scrub jay

scrub jay

We can view ourselves as valuable and important only to the extent that we conceive and act on the highest universal values, ideals, and visions for the majority of people and species on our planet. This is what I think of when I think of Positive Existentialism. We can measure our goodness only within the context of our actions on Earth. War may occasionally be the only choice as far as we can see, but war is never good. We can’t say, “We’re a great people because we destroyed a country or a people and won the war.” Millions of people may be starving and dying due to disease on our planet, yet we are no better as people just because we’re not the victims. At minimum, we each—most of us—need to be self-sufficient. Beyond that, we need to contribute positively, in some small way at least, to creating Paradise on Earth.

shorebird flock

shorebird flock

We must choose to create Paradise of Earth. We must act on our choice to create Paradise on Earth. To do anything else is to succumb to apathy, inaction—or self-serving action—that is, to remain blind to, and even hate, Nature—a great sadness, indeed.

song sparrow

song sparrow

Animals, including birds, have every bit as much right to survive, to live, as we do. Just because we’re human doesn’t mean that other species don’t have a right to exist. Just because other creatures lack the technology we possess to kill them doesn’t mean we have the right to kill them meaninglessly or accidentally. This seems to be the attitude of humans for the most part: We think that just because we’re human we have the right to destroy other life and wildlife habitat (which amounts to the same thing). This mindset is not a sign of intelligence, but of ignorance, stupidity, arrogance, and sheepishness. It’s like a man stranded on a desert isle who cuts down the one and only tree that produces coconuts and upon which a parrot perches to keep him company and who cuts that tree down to make a raft to reach yet another desert isle with no palm or parrot on it. It doesn’t make sense to destroy this planet thinking we can simply go in search of and destroy another planet elsewhere. This is not a test we can fail.

spotted towhee

spotted towhee

Birds have been around since long before our hairy ape ancestors ever clambered down out of their trees and walked out onto the grasslands to scavenge lion-killed wildebeests. Birds may have evolved from dinosaurs, but I wonder what kind of dinosaur humans evolved from?

winter wren

winter wren

I take seriously the canary in the mine argument. The frogs, in the early 1980s and on, were the canaries in the mine when, due to human-made air pollution, holes opened up in the ozone layer and countless frogs died or were born deformed and dysfunctional. I’d like to suggest that, if we let bird species continue to go extinct (let alone cause them to go extinct) along with the pollinating bees, then we’re not too far behind them with our own demise (Endangered Species International lists 25 species of birds whom we humans have caused to go extinct since 1900). We are foolish to count our blessings when we think, “At least it’s not me dying due to global warming!” This is arrogant, short-range denial. And how stupid can we be to think we can simply move to another planet once we destroy this one! Or even to live under glass domes in order to survive the harsh climate and geological conditions that we helped create outside those domes. Are we so important as to deserve hell?

wood duck,male

wood duck

Beautiful, beautiful birds! What creatures besides birds lay eggs, sing, and fly? Insects lay eggs, and many fly, but none sing like birds (a few verge on melodious, such as the cicada). What other creatures display more brilliant and varied colors than birds (except butterflies and fish—other Earthlings whose species are endangered)? But even these criteria derive from a human aesthetic that values incomparable song, swift, soaring, and acrobatic flight, and dazzling plumage.

bald eagle

bald eagle

My favorite kinds of birds are the little ones that visit our house in the woods—the sparrows, finches, chickadees, thrushes, towhees, wrens, and warblers that typically dwell in forests, marshes, and meadows—the most apparently helpless, most childlike birds (except for those ubiquitous English sparrows, who, like the cockroaches, seem to be one of Earth’s ultimate survivors), the birds that for the most part seem not to eat human refuse. Many don’t eat the birdseed I put out for them because they’re not seed-eating birds or because they have an innate distrust of anything touched or created by human hands. They eat bugs—or seeds not supplied by the feeder. While I can’t really establish a relationship with an individual small bird the way I can with a crow, raven, or parrot, they’re always nearby, keeping me company while I work or entertaining me visually around the feeder, in the alder above, and in amongst the salal and rhododendrons at ground level. These birds are my personal canaries in the mine. Every year I participate in the Audubon annual bird count just to help make sure the numbers are still up and that none of the usual suspects have disappeared. The loneliness I’d feel without birds would be excruciating. I’m not sure I could go on living on a planet in which we humans have destroyed all the birds, where birds are merely the subject of ancient myths to which we hark with dreamy eyes and nostalgic literature, such as the beautiful passenger pigeon.

stellar jay

stellar jay

If we can’t save the birds and all or most of life on this Earth from which we were also born, then how important and valuable can we be? Having the ability to destroy life might make us feel powerful, but it hardly makes us “good.”

fox sparrow

fox sparrow

Hatred, destruction, and negligence of Earth are not family values. Letting one species of bird become extinct due to human causes is a failure of so-called human civilization. If the definition of civilization doesn’t extend to include other species, then either the definition needs to be reworked or the word needs to be thrown out of the lexicon altogether.

heron rookery

heron rookery

Copyright 2015 by Rick Clark

Advertisements

Stuck in the Moment!

Ever since the early seventies, folks have spoken dreamily of being in the moment, aka living in the moment, being in the here and now, going with the flow, etc. Since then, they’ve returned to nature, tried transcendental meditation, and practiced yoga, and they’ve heard and repeated the lofty aspiration to live in the moment as if it occupies their every thought, as if they’ve mastered the here and now and dwell here interminably—as if they reside forever in some eternal Nirvana. But I was always a little suspicious of their aspirations, since, speaking for myself, I’ve found it almost impossible to escape the moment.

Just us turtles here!

Just us turtles here!

When I was a child, I couldn’t help but live in the moment, as I was so completely mesmerized by the present world shimmering, dripping, whirling, singing, fluttering, crawling, and leaping through space, along the surface of Earth, the ground, or emerging from water then diving back down into its depths, or soaring to heights near invisible. This being-in-the-moment skill was innate, or compulsive, as far as I could tell.

What is this big pink creature I've landed on?

What is this big pink creature I’ve landed on?

And childhood wasn’t the end of it, either. I continued to be as attentive in my twenties. Not only was I still wholly fascinated by nature, all the vibrancy of life shimmering about me, but now I was also as attentive to women, how they looked, how they moved, how they responded to me or not, how they felt when they held me—all the physical pleasure I experienced (now only my wife gets my attention). I was so there! I was so inescapably trapped in the moment by my fascination with all that moved and glowed around me that I had no thought for the past or the future. Nor was I plagued by actual thoughts made of words that I could remember and recite or write down, for that matter, actual syllables pitter-pattering inside my skull to distract me from nature, art, and women.

Do the winter birds dream of spring?

Do the winter birds dream of spring?

Fact is, I didn’t manage to make any headway out of the moment and into some other place called “not living in the moment” in my thirties, either. Only, by this time, I was living in the moment of my travels, hooked on the ephemera and colors of exotic culture and other-worldly fish and birds, and, yes, women with new and intriguing appearances, movements, and scents. Where else was I to go besides where I was? How could I think about those people and places where I wasn’t, about my old home, my friends and family, far away on another continent, when I was confronted with so much eye-riveting, sense-engaging life and energy around me exactly where I was?

Early morning reverie...

Early morning reverie…

Might I add that in my forties I was little better about owning up to my responsibilities to step out of the moment and into that place where my thoughts, memories, worries, and expectations might take me to someplace other than where I was. I was a complete failure in my forties at escaping the present moment, at living elsewhere than where I was. Thus I give myself a D- for effort!

Are we like an unborn bird in a shell?

Are we like an unborn bird still in its shell?

I was so addicted to the present that I took up reading Zen poetry, mostly translations by ancient Chinese and Japanese hermit monk poets who lived in caves or stone or wooden huts with thatched roofs—who were the masters of living in the moment, who made an art of being here and now. I read and reread them living in their moments, because their moments were just like my moments. For this failure, I kicked myself altogether out of the school of “not living in the moment”!

Ryokan, (Taigu) Zen monk hermit poet, lived a strict Buddhist mendicant's life.

Ryokan (Taigu), Zen monk hermit poet, lived a strict Buddhist mendicant’s life.

Even in my fifties, even after I’d gotten married, gotten a masters, built a house, taught college English for many years, I still slipped back into the moment for hours, days, and weeks on end, hardly coming up for air in that other world of elsewhere and otherwise, where I could wring my hands, or pat myself on the back, or gloat till I was bloated, or worse, lose my bearings or forget what my hands are doing—which I have to say is what’s happening to me now as I seem finally to be breaking my inexhaustible ties with the present, slipping away a foot or two or even a psychic mile on occasion, wondering what it was I came upstairs to get, etc. I’ve become so absorbed with my own thoughts that I’m missing the whole world around me.

Do our bodies leave our minds behind?

Do our bodies leave our minds behind? Or the other way around?

Mostly, ironically, I’ve been working—and working more, at this and on that, so that I might have my old moment back, so that I might slip back into that saddle and ride like a wild-man upon the horse of my body, feeling every atom brush against my skin, hearing every warble inside the thrush’s song, smelling the earthworm crossing the rainy road and the slowly rotting camellias lying crumpled and bruised on the deck, tasting the dried-hard currant in the Irish scone, sensing my muscles rippling and sliding over my bones, feeling more alive than I’m likely ever to feel again. If only I can slow down once more and forget the past and the future (they’re still there, but only in the mind and in the changes we’ve made to the world around us—hopefully for the good) without succumbing to dementia or mindless lassitude.

No thought but what she's doing!

No thought but what she’s doing!

Still, now and then I dabble my little toe in the chilly moment. I watch an ant tussle with a fly’s wing or memorize the shape of a newborn purple plum where once a blossom blew, and I’m delirious to have returned. The moment welcomes me back—I’m so here again!

Like the sign says...

Like the sign says…

My Heart’s Owls

I am no less under the thrall of owls than were the Ancients, no less than are the New Agers and Halloween Trick or Treaters of modern times. More than any other bird, they perch motionlessly, or near motionlessly, on a limb near the house and peer at the ground below for rodents or the unwitting small bird. Or they raise their eyes to peer at me, unblinking and unfazed, or so it would appear.

First to impress her power and stamina upon me was a barred owl. She arrived one Sunday morning and took as her launch a myrtle limb from whence she kept an eye peeled for a rat that regularly made the journey to and from our railroad-tie compost box. All day the owl watched—and I watched her, checking to see if she’d snagged that sneaky rat. Interestingly, I was all for the owl, not being fond of rats visiting my compost box, let alone our house. But she still hadn’t left her post by the time we packed up to return to the city.

First barred owl

First barred owl

When we arrived the next weekend, I hurried straight from the car over to the limb where she’d waited so patiently, and sure enough there was a bolus of rat bones and fur below the limb and a large splat of white shit on the limb. Apparently, she’d not only had more patience for the rat to appear than the rat had for her to disappear but she’d also had the extra patience to digest it right where she’d slain and ate it.

Then, because owls have a way of appearing out of nowhere then disappearing for months on end, I didn’t see or hear an owl for nearly a year till one early morning I heard crows cawing scoldingly and robins chirping angrily from the time I woke till sunset that day. Here’s the story, in a simple narrative poem:

Great Horned Owl

Crows, cawing,
wake me up early.
I shut the window,
go back to sleep.

Crows, cawing, make me
close the sliding glass door
as we eat our breakfast
and drink our coffee.

Maybe there’s an eagle perched
in the spruce, out of sight.
Maybe it’s just a young crow
who’s over-flown its boundaries.

Maybe it’s a murder,
a congregation or congress
of crows. But the robins are chirping too:
Maybe the crows have found a robin’s nest!

I step outside, sidle roundabout into the woods
till I stand beneath the spruce, look up,
see an enormous owl with ears,
perched unfazed on a low thick limb.

Chickadees, towhees, a solo wren
have joined in the melee
at their respective elevations
in the crabapple tree below.

The owl has seen me, stares at me hard,
and as he does is caught off guard
by a charging crow and flaps
over to a limb on the alder tree.

And there, all day,
crows and sometimes robins
yell and swoop at what I now identify
as a Great Horned Owl.

I watch it blink its wide yellow eyes,
its pupils contract amidst sunlit leaves.
The big bird stares at me but never flinches,
impervious to the flak from other birds.

Only night will get those crows
off that poor owl’s back, when crows
return to their regular roost and the owl
starts hunting in the dark

for rats and shrews,
perhaps a sleeping crow,
though tonight this owl will have to hunt
without a good day’s snooze.

Great horned owl piercing me with its stare

Great horned owl piercing me with its stare

My mother died on July 5th, 2011. On the eve of what would have been her 81st birthday, lo and behold a barred owl landed and perched till after dark on the three-man stone my father and I—he with a broken collar bone and I with tendonitis and bursitis in a shoulder joint—in other words with two arms between the two of us—hauled up from the beach and set on a mound on the south side of the house as, what turned out for me, a memorial to my mother that I’ve come to call the Mother Stone—or the Mom-olith. I’ve heard many stories about birds appearing at moments of death, funerals, and memorials. Now when I look at that shapely green stone, not only can I not help but think of my mother but also can I not help but re-envision that barred owl perched there so long that evening, looking at me. The next day, her birthday, Fran picked flowers that I placed on top of the stone, I said a few words, and then I spread a small urn of her ashes that my father had prepared for me for the occasion, around the base of the stone.

Barred owl warming the Mother Stone

Barred owl warming the Mother Stone

Then, during the winters of 2011-12 and 2012-13, we had major “irruptions” of snowy owls from the arctic tundra to the wide-open grassy areas of Protection Point. The first year, there were seven owls, the second year eight. They stayed from November to April, hunting for and devouring any small rodent that resembled their main prey in the arctic, the lemming. Theory has it that the older, bigger owls force these younger owls out of their birthright feeding grounds due to increasing numbers of owls and therefore decreased numbers of lemmings. So the younger birds fly south in search of similar hunting grounds. They perch on the drift logs stranded up in the grass and doze during the day in plain sight, making them a much-sought-out photographic subject. Tens of thousands of photographers, tourists, and nature pilgrims have worn whole systems of new trails through those tundra-like meadows. Fran and I were amongst those many seekers of an owl sighting. As many as eight times each year, we took yogis, photographers, birders, friends, family, and the “bird-curious” out toward the end of that long sand-accreted point. What great, weighty, mythical birds snowy owls are! Here are a couple poems inspired by their mystery and magnificence:

Snowy Owl

I do not want to make you
any wiser than you are.
But to stop and stare,
astonished by your size,
your snowy elegance,
your golden blinking eyes
(with what solidity
you perch upon a snag
overlooking winter seas!)
is to experience the love
of timelessness, to join
the wise in motionlessness
and mute austerity.

I bask in seeing and being seen by you,
being ransacked of all my pretensions
by your otherworldly purity
and penetrating gaze.

I stand for minutes richer than hours,
minutes enriching, adding to, my years.
I clothe myself in your downy feathers,
I breathe in the coolness of your soul,
I don the precious gems of your eyes
and through you see myself, as animal.

On strong wide wings you veer away
as I glide back down the beach,
clad in my new white robe,
the whole world glittering gold.

Snowy owl on Protection Point

Snowy owl on Protection Point

Birders Flock

How reassured I feel
in a world where I find myself
standing amidst a whole flock
of birders, their giant lenses,
like tremendous beaks,
mounted on stork’s legs
of tripods, zooming in on
a single sleepy snowy owl
perched unimpressed
on a dune-grass drift-log,
their cameras chirping away,
clacking countless photos,
mesmerized for hours
in finger-freezing weather.
Now this gives me hope.

Snowy owl with Mount Rainier in background

Snowy owl with Mount Rainier in background

Owl’s, because they’re often huge, have large eyes, and can appear human and wise, and because they generally hunt and hoot at night and seem to show up at auspicious times, are said to be mysterious, prophetic, meaningful birds. Owls were sacred to the Greek goddess of learning, Athena, as a symbol of status, intelligence, and wealth. For the Egyptians, Celtics, and Hindus, owls were guardians of the underworld, protectors of the dead, rulers of the night, seer of souls. Owls have been honored as keepers of spirits who have passed from one plane to another, accompanying spirits to the underworld. As a result, owls have acquired a negative association with death (images of owls are a common sight at Halloween time, or All Souls Day). For Americans First Peoples, they were associated with wisdom and foresight and were keepers of sacred knowledge and forecasters of the weather. West African and Aboriginal Australian cultures saw the owl as a messenger of secrets, kin to sorcerers, mystics, and medicine people. In medieval Europe, they were thought to be priestesses and wizards in disguise. Their appearance announced change or death (or a life change). In general, they helped see that which was hidden from the view of others.

Interestingly, I never quite feel the same when I’m in the presence of an owl. Owls have abilities that far exceed any I can boast of: They can fly, of course, and can fly so stealthily that they cannot be heard by the unsuspecting small critter. They can see at night better than I can see during the day, and they are infinitely more patient than I am in their work to satisfy their needs. It’s this patience that sustains an owl’s life, a generally overlooked example I strive to emulate.

Bats in the Roof of My Brain

The world is magic enough, without adding the supernatural, if only we’re observant enough to see the beauty, mystery, and meaning that we otherwise miss when we don’t look, which we rarely do, we’re so busy, so hurried and harried, so preoccupied. All the colors are contained by the world around us, all the patterns and shapes, and especially the stories. And ours aren’t the only stories, those of us humans. No, stories are unfolding all around us, with every bit as much drama, depth, and weight.

Bats, or maybe squirrels, or both, have taken over my roof. I hear them at night, coming and going, and particularly during the day, the late afternoon, when they become restless, prematurely hungry, or uncomfortable—crowded, perhaps. I’ve watched and listened closely enough that I know it was a flicker that helped the bats find their way into my roof. That one handsome fellow pecked at the joint where the fascia boards meet at the gable of the roof, till the joint grew into a hole.

Red-shafted Flicker, Master Penetrator

Red-shafted flicker, the master penetrator

Once a bat enters, the story begins. Once they make a roof a home, they return every year, meaning to enter that roof as they did the season before. One leads another into the dark insulated interior of the raftered roof till a family grows into a clan and a clan grows into a colony—and the colony becomes a cacophony by late afternoon as the young begin to get hungry and anxious to try their wings.

Little Brown Bats Owning a Rafter

Little brown bats, owning a rafter

Meanwhile, I sit at my usual spot at the end of the table nearest the kitchen, where I can keep an eye on the many other stories unfolding at the bird feeder beyond the window. The bats are getting restless, they’re scratching, creaking boards, skittering along between the insulation and rafters and sheet rock. I begin to wonder if they’re not bats but squirrels, the ones I see trying for hours to leap up, over, or down to the bird feeder housing, in order to eat freely of the abundant bird seed I so graciously provide for the small birds I love (I seem to pick and choose the creatures I’m willing to love) rather than scrounge about for a few microscopic crumbs of seeds fallen to the ground below. But how can bats make so much noise? How can they alter the shape of my house, which I assume they’re doing when they make whole rafters squeak and bang?

Bird Feeder in Housing

Bird feeder in housing

Last year I waited patiently till late October, till the time Orkin Pest Control told me I should wait, to haul the big ladder up out of the crawl space and lean it up here and there to fill the holes and crevices that might lead into the dark cozy depths of the roof—late October because, by that time, the bats will have made their great en masse journey back up into the mountain caves to hibernate for the winter. Any time before then and I might have sealed the young, the whole clan, up inside my roof so they’d die as in an Edgar Allen Poe story, after which I’d be plagued by guilt and ultimately reveal my crime, although I’d hate to admit that not only have bats been pissing and shitting up there over our heads but also dying and decomposing up there, I admit again, just above our heads. I don’t like the thought myself.

The Sneakiest of All Intruders: The Squirrel

The sneakiest of all intruders: the squirrel

Yet for all the careful work I did to the roof with the liquid spray foam I sprayed and the small boards I nailed, the bats have returned with a vengeance, and I wonder how they’ve gotten in. I can see that the one knot hole I filled with foam the swallows seem to have pecked open again, inviting the bats back in. And while my imagination may carry me away to think the squirrels have managed to take over the inner recesses of my roof, they may have at least reopened other crevices to the bats, knowing that the bats themselves will eventually open the way so the squirrels too can make themselves at home in my roof. There seems to be a plot, a conspiracy of bats, squirrels, swallows, and flickers, to blast open my roof for general occupancy, for indeed there’s plenty of room for all.

Barred Owl, Waiting for Her Chance

The barred owl, waiting for her chance

The fact is, I love all these beautiful creatures, but do they know my house from their house? To them my house is just a big tree or a slowly decomposing stump. Nothing on those roof tiles says Keep Out. There aren’t any No Trespassing signs—no booby traps, no iron walls, no guards with pikes standing by. My beloved creatures know nothing about property ownership or the money and work it takes to build a house and make repairs. Nor do they have any sense that their excretions are worthy of concern to us humans, not to mention the eerie noises they make like ghosts at night.

The Rabbit, More Interested in the Garden

The rabbit, more interested in the garden

Today, I caught myself tearing my hair out, as the ruckus up there got out of hand. I imagine young bats arguing with their parents about going out in the world, about trying their wings, about catching and eating mosquitoes firsthand, while their parents fight them back to their roosts. They scrapple and scratch, scuffle and bump and begin to distract me from my thoughts, from my precious writing time, and I imagine cutting a hole up there where I think they’re hiding and driving them out, patching the hole, then scrambling all over the roof, here in the month of July, and sealing it with concrete and the latest rocket-science epoxies. When I realize I’ve jumped to my feet, I have to talk myself out of lighting the house on fire and being done with the whole nerve-wracking mess.

The Coyote, Wanting Nothing to do with me

The coyote, wanting nothing to do with me

I remember a cartoon in which the main character is driven to blasting his house to pieces with a shotgun trying to shoot a fly that’s driving him nuts and distracting him from his favorite television show, until the house lies in ruins at his feet. Then I feel silly and console myself with the thought that late October’s only four months off and they’re only bats, after all, although I’m beginning to think they could be raccoons (or something bigger), and I sit down to write my evil thoughts and not-altogether-unjustified paranoias away. I begin to feel grateful for the story they provide me, a story that is inherently theirs as much as it is mine, and I start listening and hearing the plot line in the scratching. I decide I’d rather dwell in a work of realism than in a cartoon, so I simmer down and start talking to the kids upstairs and urge them to obey their parents. Freedom and full participation in the story is not long off.