In a book whose title I have long forgotten, I remember that in preparation for combat on islands in the south Pacific, Marines were taught to let their eyes move slowly, continuously, over trees without looking for anything in particular, but to allow their predator’s or prey’s instinct to alert them to something off in a silhouette or shadow and to fire at that spot because it may be where a Japanese sniper had hidden himself.
I have used that same technique for many years in these safe woods, and I do not look for snipers, but for raptors or owls or anything that does not fit into the fractaled lines of tree limbs and leaves and wind.
Yesterday, snow underfoot, sun-dogs hanging in the south, the dogs sixty yards ahead of me and quiet, I kept up my habit, scanning the sky, scanning trees, and the shape stopped me, and I stopped, and I slowly let all the breath out of my lungs so I could be sure.
Twenty yards away, ten feet up a hemlock, scrunched in toward the trunk, an owl, almost certainly a Great Horned, watched me. He did not fly. I turned my head away very slowly. Owls will find a daytime roost that gives them protection from crows and hawks and keep to it day after day if undisturbed. I had stumbled onto his. I held my breath, waited, listened, did not turn back. I felt a little embarrassed as if I had opened a door on someone changing clothes or speaking to another in intimate tones. In a kind of slow motion, overly languid advance, I moved on. I do not believe that he flew on.
I feel a little shivery in remembering and writing this, as if I had seen a face come before me in darkness and murmur prophetic words into an absolute silence.
(Do you see him?)