The summer I was fifteen I took a job working for the Bureau of Land Management’s Youth Conservation Corps. It was, in a word – transformative. It was waking at five a.m. and commuting to Medford at six a.m. to meet with other bleary-eyed teens and load into a work van. It was Southern Oregon heat – which meant being in the field with tools swinging in the cool of the morning and putting in eight sweaty laborious hours before the 3 p.m. triple digits hit the heat gauges. Blue jeans, long sleeved shirts, leather boots, high cuffed gloves and hard hats were mandatory not only to protect from heat, brambles, rocks, sharp edged implements, and tree snags but also as shields against the poison oak that was a part of every single project either in leaf, stem, root or oil.
I was not a lazy kid before that job, but I had never encountered such physically hard work before in my life. Pulling weeds and mowing the yard paled in comparison to carving a granite trail with a pulaski and heaving 15’ logs into place for a buck and pole fence. I wanted to give up within the first week. It was too exhausting, too hot, too dirty and too much. My folks stood back and said “figure it out; do what you need to do.” Miraculously, I hung in there. I didn’t stay for the paycheck (minimum wage was $2.30 an hour that year), but for fear that if I quit – I would become a “quitter.”
Within this writer’s memory are numerous vignettes from that summer, but the one that is spinning through me at the moment is the one about the owls.
Somehow, some where – between piling slash and deconstructing old cabins in the Hyatt Lake area, I got the sweet joy of seeing not one, but two different species of owls one dusty afternoon. And somehow, some way – my crew leader registered the enthusiasm I expressed about seeing those incredible creatures and recommended to a district supervisor that it might be “a neat thing for Martha” to spend a day in the field with a wildlife biologist. So, a week or so later – I got the never previously imagined opportunity to ride around in a BLM truck along bumpy dirt roads, co-piloting and learning to read the topographic map that would guide a day in search of many bird species, but especially owls in the region.
The day started in wetlands checking waterbird nesting boxes, and then we focused on the raptors. The Barred Owl so common in our region was the expected sighting; the two Northern Spotted Owls in two unique locations were the species we were specifically seeking – to confirm the nesting areas of this endangered bird. The Snowy Owl was the delightful surprise of the day. Their appearances in Southern Oregon are very rare especially during the summer, but there was no mistaking its glorious white form and the jaw-dropping wingspan we were treated to watching fly overhead before it disappeared into the forest. I learned that owls can be easily discovered in daylight when one knows where to go looking and how to call out for them. It was eye-spy among the fir trees and a day spent discovering, recording, asking questions and finding out about the unique wild nature. I came home fired with love for the mountains surrounding this area and especially the creatures who inhabit them.
My folks were ecstatic about my owl joy. I mean, come on – what parent wouldn’t be thrilled that their fifteen year old daughter was more enthralled by bird watching than boy gazing? But it was more than that. They were both lovers of the natural world and spending time outdoors. As teachers – and as curious to the core – they delighted in seeing and hearing any eager learner. Dad immediately began discussing my career path to wildlife biology which – alas – I never felt inclined toward, whereas Mom just wanted to hear owl sounds and touch the feathers I’d found on my single day as a government bird counting employee. It was one of those magical days in my adolescence where I was still just a kid who had permission to get completely lost in the moment and come home and talk nonstop at the dinner table about every single detail of the day’s adventure.
For the rest of my life, my parents and I looked back on those summer weeks like they were our own personal three-man team glory days. Dad remembered helping me get up at 5 a.m. and the way my yellow hard hat also fit his head. Mom remembered my dusty boots sitting on the back porch and how I’d strip off poison oak-tainted work clothes each day before scrubbing myself down with Fels Naphtha. There were trails YCC built that summer that I took my folks to hike in later years, and sections of fencing around Howard Prairie that I’d later point to and claim “I built that.” All three of us though, held the Day of the Owls like the absolute prize of the season.
There’s been a Great Horned Owl in our neighborhood for years. I suspect it makes its home in the graveyard one block over. I’ve also long suspected it is male, with his territorial and loud hooting. Over the years he’s been regularly heard calling out into the night – claiming his place with a steady, deep and stuttering rhythm that echos over the treetops and find its way through our barely open bedroom window. His haunting tones have often been reassuring during the lonely hours before dawn, reminding me that despite the insanity of humans, the natural world remains intact and a source of peace.
This morning, at 2 am what I heard for the first time, was not one Great Horned Owl in the trees of the cemetery – but a pair. Taking turns they talked to each other across the darkness. He would sing, and she would reply reassuringly. Their exchange was a balanced back and forth, with the female interjecting a single bark after each string of her higher pitched hoots. I was so mesmerized by hearing two voices that I got out of bed for a better listen from our front porch. If it were autumn, I’d swear they were performing a mating duet, but springtime seemed the simple venue for their song of partnership. In my sleepy haze, it occurred to me that perhaps these two just wanted to share the news that they have found each other and all is well in their union.
There are some cultures and folk who subscribe to the notion that animal visitors show up to teach us something. “Intuition, wisdom and transformation” are considered the symbolic meanings of the Great Horned Owl, and supposedly there are lessons for us to heed from the appearance of these fierce and beautiful guides. It makes sense to me that wild creatures and nature can provide us mere humans assistance in our work toward kindness, humility and more graceful ways of accepting the here and now. I’m less inclined to believe that owl has once again “shown up for me,” but rather chose to consider that owl has been here all along – silently winging it’s way over my head for the past 45 years. Maybe it is inviting me to show up and take notice? Better late than never.