[Malibu Surfrider Beach, lacounty.gov]
Can a nickname be prophetic? You be the judge. Way back in junior high, because I was a skinny kid with huge eyes, my friends called me “Owl.” We surfers were all about sobriquets in those days, mostly based on physical characteristics or behaviors. One long-boarder I knew was called “Pisser,” because when he had to pee he’d just dig a hole in the creamy Malibu sand and let go without even bothering to move from his sitting position, especially if he was watching out for big waves breaking at the point. Nevermind that there was a girl, me, right next to him!
When someone gives you a nickname and you’re thirteen you can become obsessed with it. I read every book I could find on owls. I collected owl objects and drew and painted owls, even one with my face and two hugely exaggerated eyes atop an intricately detailed owl body. Impassioned, I penned owlish poems and even felt like an owl, which in my undeveloped mind meant being bookish, philosophical and possessed by thoughts of death. By the end of high school I’d fallen in love with the raven, who seemed way “deathlier” than any owl, having read Poe in one of my English classes. I wore only black for years and would have dyed my hair black and changed my name to Raven if I hadn’t been so inhibited. In time, I forgot all about owls. That is until recently when I decided I was no longer a deathophile and wanted to get in shape.
It was a rainy morning in our Pacific Northwest town when I set out for a calorie burning meander through Cornwall Park. When I first moved here I was a runner. Hammering my way up and down the root-gnarled trails that circle this 65 acre gem of a green space had been a daily routine. I wondered if I still had it in me. After walking for a few minutes, I decided to give running a try, starting with a gentle jog. I ran up the steepest hill in the park and felt good. Encouraged, I headed down some steps set in a side trail that eventually joined one of the main paths winding along the edge of a large grassy play field bordered by a canopy of cedars. I was starting to feel like my old trail-running-wild-woman self when suddenly something flew right across the trail in front of me, so close that I was nearly knocked off-balance. I stopped, heart pounding, and looked to my left. There, not ten feet away on the lowest branch of a cedar was a barn owl of such exquisite plumage that I remembered a quote from Kyle, one of my former 7th grade students:
“Sometimes I hallucinate in the woods.”
The creature was so finely decorated in patterned lines and spots, and daubs of turmeric and chestnut-brown that it seemed as if something magical might be going on. No real bird could be this beautiful! Here is a sketch I made later from memory, since I didn’t have a camera with me at the time.
Even more amazing, the owl stared at me and I stared at it for at least 15 minutes. I know this because my stopwatch continued to track time. Now, the kind of staring we did was interesting. At first we just looked. Then the owl turned her head, as owls do…I’m saying “her” because she just felt female…and I inched my way forward. Then we looked again. We did this over and over until I was within maybe two arms lengths of her. She seemed almost frighteningly close. Still, she looked at me, or maybe looked into me with such intensity that, and I know this sounds weird, I understood we were connected in some deep and ancient way.
I also knew that if something didn’t break the spell I’d be quite content to look at her forever, to even become her. For a moment or maybe an infinity, since time had actually ceased to exist, my perspective altered so that I was the one on the branch looking down at the owl below and she was staring up at me. That’s when I heard what I barely recognized as my own voice saying, “You are the most exquisite owl in the world and I love you, but I have to leave you now. Thank you for coming to be with me here and I hope we meet again, but if we don’t I will never forget the time we spent together. Good bye dear friend.”
I raced down the path and didn’t look back because I was so confused and felt such a great loss. I was crying hard, loud, and I was afraid of becoming out of control hysterical. I kept running until I reached home where I collapsed into the world’s longest bubble bath, which was when I recalled reading stories about indigenous people sometimes finding their personal totem in the forest . Had I, perhaps, just found mine?
A few weeks later I was back wandering in the park with my camera, looking for my feathered companion, hoping for another encounter when I was drawn to the almost tangible rays of sunlight pouring down through an opening in a grove of cedars and Douglas fir. As I was shooting the picture above, I heard a man’s voice behind me.
“Beautiful, eh?” He was a young guy, maybe in his early thirties, with a Frisbee in each hand.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “Did I get in the way of your throw?”
“No, I’m fine. Did you get a photo of the owl’s nest, too?” He smiled and pointed up ahead. “It’s right there near the top of the rays, just above the t-off.”
“You’re kidding, right?” I said, and then I told him about my experience with the barn owl…how I longed to see her again. “My nickname used to be Owl when I was a kid,” I added, remembering.
“Hey, that’s nice,” he grinned. “Well, I’ve been playing Frisbee golf here for 11 years and I can tell you for sure that your owl lives right up there with her mate, so you can see her whenever you want. Come on, I’ll show you.” And he did, and below is a photo of my totem’s home. I didn’t see her that day, but I know I will again sometime, and meanwhile I’ll just carry her indelible image in my heart.
I saw my world again through your eyes…
from “The Owl” by Ted Hughes