The days grow longer at this time of year, but they never seem long enough.
Or so I was reminded a few weekends ago, when a Saturday set aside to do a lot yielded very little in the ledger of personal accomplishment.
I had meant to mow the grass in the morning before tackling a half-dozen other house chores. But our mower, freshly returned from the mechanic, broke once again — this time, beyond repair. What followed was a comedy of errors involving two treks to the store — one trip to buy a replacement mower, then a second one to return the new model when it, too, broke down inexplicably on the back stretch of our yard.
Sorting this out consumed both the morning and afternoon. I returned home at dusk feeling defeated and cross. Pulling into the driveway, I could see light draining from the sky, the day’s possibilities fading from view.
I circled the lawn to lock up the gates and the tool shed, resigned to a day that had seemed like a loss. That’s when I spotted an oblong presence on top of our yard swing — a small and slender shape about as big as a camp lantern. The dimming sun complicated my view, but I could see, in the light that remained, that the figure was white spotted with dull brown, as if it were freckled with rust.
I slowly realized that I was watching a barred owl — the first one I’d spotted in our decade and a half of living among them.
Owls are usually heard rather than seen, which is why they’ve retained such an air of mystery over the ages. Their hoots, not easily traceable to a living source, can seem oddly disembodied, something more rooted in the spirit world than in our own. I’ve listened to barred owls a lot in my years around our place. Their fluttering hoo-hoo-hoo, imperfectly translated into English by birdwatchers as “Who-cooks-for you?,” never fails to chill my spine.
But here, in the visitor perched a few feet away, was a reward for my faith in things not seen — a revelation of the source of the eerie night music that floats down from our oaks on random evenings and shakes us awake with wonder.
Barred owls are known to be active before dark, sometimes emerging at twilight, like plant workers reporting for their graveyard shift. I quietly retreated to the house and summoned my wife and son, hoping that they might be able to share in my discovery. The owl had vanished from the yard swing when we returned, but my wife silently pointed us toward the low branch of a tallow tree where the owl was alighting without a sound, its wing feathers muffled to mask any noise they might make while gliding through the air.
We stood without speaking for a few moments in a semicircle around the owl, watching our guest until it decided to recede into the high canopy of an old oak.
Heading into the house for supper, I realized that if not for the day’s jumbled plans, I wouldn’t have been in the yard at dusk, and I wouldn’t have spotted my first barred owl.
My Saturday had not been such a waste after all.