While my teenage son was home for spring break last month, we went to the New Orleans Aquarium of the Americas, which offered the usual miracles.
Stingrays floated like kites, their mouths as straight and narrow as coin slots. A sea turtle, solemn as a dirigible, swam by, too. Otters indulged an indolent afternoon, curled on their backs as they slept off lunch. Jellyfish pulsated in a rotating drum, creating what looked like the world’s biggest lava lamp.
But the most memorable spectacle for me wasn’t a sea creature, but the barred owl perched atop a swamp exhibit.
Barred owls are common in this part of the country — so plentiful, in fact, we sometimes cross paths even when I’m not looking for them. I had written last year about seeing one in my backyard shed, at first wondering if he were real. Barred owls get their name from their distinctive markings — alternating streaks of brown and white across their chests, then up and down on their bellies.
Nothing quite prepares you for how eerily motionless they can be. “If you’ve ever met an owl up close, you might understand why I didn’t first grasp that it was a living thing,” I wrote last year about the visitor to my shed. “Owls have a great genius for remaining perfectly still, which is how they can go undetected by prey, a critical skill in catching supper.”
The aquarium’s barred owl also was doing his best impression of a statue, although his head eventually swiveled in that strange owl way, like a periscope surveying the sea. Then he blinked slowly, as a stage curtain might rise and fall between acts.
I was taking all of this in when a young girl passed and took her own look at the owl. “Probably fake,” she announced with an eye-roll before passing to the next exhibit.
She didn’t seem especially interested in knowing for sure whether the owl was real. It made me wonder if a generation raised on virtual reality was coming to see such distinctions as beside the point.
The thought had crossed my mind earlier in the day, when I spotted a young mother comforting her infant at an eyeglass shop. While the mother’s friend browsed the bifocals, she seated her baby in her lap and showed him a cartoon on her smart phone. The images on the tiny screen seemed to charm him just as well as a rattle might have, though I asked myself if this small turn away from the actual in favor of the simulated was something to welcome.
Maybe I should have asked the same thing when I was a young father, happy to let my kids watch TV in the car instead of urging them to look out the window. Which might be why, when wonder lands in front of us, we could soon be unable to recognize it.