There is a tree in my forest that I love more than all the others. I call it my forest, but it’s not really mine. It doesn’t change because I claim it, but continues breathing and flowing and catching the wind. So I claim it not.
Below the canopy, ferns and ivy push through a floor of dead leaves and dirt. Drops of rain bounce from their faces, seeping into the earth. The creek yells of all it has seen, ripe with heavy, moving water.
From above falls the rough cry of the Steller’s jay, the murmur of the finch. Squirrels cling to thin branches, and they scrape white bark from maple trees.
Hidden in the boughs of the fir tree sits the owl. Watching. Blinking calmly. Then soaring noiselessly across the creek. That’s why this tree is my favorite.
We first saw the owl four springs ago while soaking in our hot tub. Great wings came from the darkness, resting on a cedar’s branch right above our heads. It wasn’t a bat, as I’d guessed, but a silent presence staring down at us. I screamed and laughed in surprise. My parents hushed me, but this creature wasn’t afraid of us. For so long I’d been taught that animals should cower from humans. But not the owl.
A few days later I was walking past the window, on the way to quiet my barking dog, when I saw the wings again. I ran outside, followed my growling dog’s gaze to the fir tree. A feathered gray head gazed at us. With my hands over my mouth in awe, I watched. There, in the dimming light, I first looked into the eyes of the owl. And he looked back.
Dark almond eyes smiling, darker than anything before or since. There was a primal, wordless, connection; a fullness in my chest. This is a wild animal, and it’s not afraid. That moment changed me. I felt the energy of the owl, and of all that lives. They are not worse or lower than humans, just different.
Within the coming weeks, a smaller, brown owl appeared. This one felt meaner, somehow. Or at least sterner. I looked up their song online and found out their name — barred owl, Strix varia. With spots on their back I thought they might be spotted owls, but the white stripes on their stomachs told me otherwise. They were mates, I guessed, and I imagined that they lived in the dead, hollow tree at the edge of the forest.
Time passed without the owls. My parents said that they’d just been a symbol of good luck and had gone away. “No,” I told them, “they’re still here, I can feel it. They’ll stay until the dead tree falls down.”
Then we began to hear their calls again, the rounded coo-coo-coo-roo falling in pitch at the end. I was right. They were still there, still perched in that same branch of the fir tree on most afternoons.
When I came home from long days of high school I would rush to the forest, lean against a nearby cedar tree, and learn from the owl. Each time I would wave, make eye contact. I wanted them to know me. Then I would crouch down, almost in deference. And I watched. Let the wind move you. Be patient. Be content. On days like this I found that even the rain was beautiful.
Spring came again. A tiny, fluffy baby owl greeted me from the fir tree one afternoon. It was frozen, unmoving. The brown owl flew over and sat next to her baby.
The owls visited often over the years, though with less frequency over time. The baby owls grew into cautious adults. They moved on. The dead tree fell down just last week. We didn’t hear it thud into the creek. I woke up and it was there, immutable, coarse and pale against the muddy water. The owls haven’t visited in over a year.
But I have seen four owls dance together in the shadows, I have hummed to their owlets’ sharp screech, I have knelt on bare earth at their feet. Even though I haven’t seen them, I think of them often. My owls. I think of them as my owls. Not because they’re mine, but because I love them.