I was off island last week, in Moosup with my family, and the first thing I did go out to look for snowy owls. The thing is… snowy owls have not been in Southern New England since the 1920’s. They may not come again in my lifetime. I’ve been tracking their flight patterns through Project Snowstorm. Here is the site.
The owls I’ve been following are still around, but have moved from where they’ve been all winter and are making long daily flights. They are expected to head north at any time. The fish hatchery should have been a perfect place with big open fields and lots of prey, but I've gone every day and I haven't seen them there, nor in any of the other places where my brother Nick and I have been searching.
We did find other worthy birds - blue heron, and geese and ducks and a few hawks. So I learned again the lesson I always learn as a nature photographer: I’m not in control of my subject. I’ve taken enough pictures so I can make a general plan, but then I get what I get. It's good to be flexible because I can easily miss some amazing things, and I might as well accept that it is going to take some time. But how bad is that? Behind every picture are many hours of happy walking, searching, watching, waiting…expecting and planning and being drawn to certain things and waiting some more and being surprised.
I ask myself why I love birds so much. It could be their feathers… each one a different shape, perfect to its task, perfect in itself and then perfect all together. And it could be how they wear their wings like coats to keep themselves warm… or how when big birds come down to rest, their outstretched wings fold to their compact bodies like origami paper. It could also be their antiquity… they are living descendants of dinosaurs.
But it’s not just that… it’s the way they act. They are so damned good at everything they do. A flock of geese were flying in “V formation” and then coming down, honking wildly, cupping their wings, falling from the sky like paratroopers.
A crow, and this just amazed me…was flying in a high wind… and the wind got under his wing and pushed it open… it looked like the wind would dislocate his shoulder… but the crow went limp… the wind took that wing and hurled that bird across the sky. And the bird rolled and turned and got control and stretched and flew away.
Heron stand in one spot… they wait for hours. I wonder what they think about during all that time… Are they quiet and empty, or hungry for the next snack to swim by? Or do they consider… you know… plan what they will do each night…figure out what movie to watch? Whatever it is… to be in their zone… to see the world their way… to be so perfectly made and possessed of such perfect behavior… well…that must be something.
Seeing all this has made me want a more instinctive life. I probably don’t use that word correctly from a scientific point of view… what I mean is...I want to live from these questions: How do I trust the way things are? What do I know without knowing why? What am I drawn to? What do I do without even trying? What gives me life and energy?
Photography, this gift of our very technological age, has given me ways to connect more deeply with ancient human behaviors - seeing, searching, hunting, making things from what I find, bringing them back for my tribe.
Barbara Carr is a new friend I’ve made by having this blog. She’s a wonderful artist and a poet and I hope to send you more information about her work soon. She showed me a beautiful painting that she made of a snowy owl. She also told me what Andrew Wyeth said: “One’s art goes as deep as one’s love.” That’s good. Love is an instinct also.
Birds live every moment of their lives in danger. Maybe that’s what makes them so smart and perfect. They have to use their every capacity and that fulfills their lives. I don’t live that way and I hope I never will but perhaps I have other ways…instinctive ways…to remember mortality...to clarify my life...to pay closer attention… to trust who I am…to lose myself in a process…to give it what I have…to love what I do and the people for whom I do it.
Yesterday morning I was packing the car and three hawks flew directly over my mother and brother’s house. They circled around and one called to the others and by the time I got the camera they were gone. I thought they had flown in the direction of the hatchery so I went there as soon as I could. I left the dogs in the car, which offended them greatly.
I went back and let the dogs out for what I thought would be a little break. Wilson walked a few feet looking back at me over his shoulder and then he came back for me and did it again. He's older now, and he wasn't like a puppy jumping around. It was more dignified than that... more of an invitation: “Come on… come on...” So we did the circuit again, together.
We’re home since last night, and I’m in the process of rebooting myself into my island life. I don’t feel home quite yet but I know I will by tomorrow when I get out with my camera.
PS. Marybeth Jarrosak just wrote to show me her new snowy owl pictures. They are fantastic. You can see Marybeth's images here. Marybeth very kindly told me exactly where and when to go looking. I'll be out first thing in the morning.