The Snowy Owl

A nice picture of seagulls, as well as North Light, which I normally would have appreciated.

I went out first thing in the morning to find the snowy owl.  I knew when I found her that I’d have the best chance of getting close if I was alone, so I left the dogs at home, which I never do, which made us all a little sad.  I went down the dump road and began the long walk up the west side of the island to North Light.  I was ready to see the snowy owl at any moment.  I made myself patient, silent, perceptive and benign, like Marybeth or Pocahontas, someone an owl would like to be with. 

And then I saw her, the snowy owl, in the far distance.  I raised my camera and took a picture.  The snowy owl flew.  She came toward me and away at an angle, and disappeared off to the east.  I can usually focus on birds in flight.  Why couldn’t I do it this time?  Damn.  Plus, my feelings were hurt.  The owl had stayed for Marybeth and not for me.

I kept on walking because Marybeth said there had been two owls, one very skittish and one not so much.  I went all the way to North Light.  I didn’t see anything.  Well, I did see a lot of sea glass, but I didn’t care.  Stupid sea glass.  And I did see many sea gulls and even got some good pictures but I didn’t care about those either.  I began to walk back.  I saw a man with his dog about a mile away.  How was I supposed to get a picture of the snowy owl with people everywhere?  Then he cut into the dunes at the middle path that led back up around near the back of Sachem Pond.  I thought there might still be a chance if he hadn’t been at the far part, near where I had come in.  Then, I saw four more people.  I said, “This is how the snowy owl must feel.”  I went all the way back, fuming, missing my dogs because I didn’t know how to go for a walk without them.  At one point, I turned and a brown lab was there without his person.  I talked to him quietly, “Well, hello.”  And, “Who are you?”  And, “Are you lost?”  He looked at me with slightly uncertain and with soulful, serious eyes.  He followed me for a little while.  That made me feel a tiny bit better.   I called my husband.  I said, “I’m so upset I feel like I need to take a pill, or something.”  He said, “There will be more chances.”  I said, “No, there won’t.  There really won’t.  She is going back to the Arctic and I’ll never see her again.” I got to the people.  They were actually OK.  I showed them where to look for sea glass and found a particularly interesting piece and let the woman have it, which I thought was very nice of me, under the circumstances.  I got back to my car and saw they had parked next to me, and were from Delaware.  Stupid Delaware.

A nice picture of a wave.  Looking over the Old Harbor breakwater to Clay Head.

I went out again and took many more pictures of things that would normally make me happy, including some very nice waves but I couldn’t appreciate them at the time because I was being such a head case. 

Another perfectly good picture.

Then I ran into Malcolm Greenaway, a great Block Island photographer.  He had been out traipsing in the vicinity of North Light, looking for the snowy owl also.  We commiserated.  He showed me his equipment and the snowy owl picture he had gotten after trying for almost three hours, but the owl was in the far distance.  I told him that Edie had said to look near Cuttings Cottages and I went home to walk the dogs.  I was out with them, trying to make it up to them for my neglectful ways, when my husband called.   He had just spoken to Malcolm who had called to say that he found an owl exactly where I suggested.  So the dogs and I got back in the car and arrived just in time to see the owl flying away.  Malcolm had gotten some good pictures and that was something, at least. 

The beach on the West Side with no snowy owl.

When I woke up in the night, still inexpressibly sad, I said, “Enough.”  And I began to deconstruct my feelings.  I asked, “What is it about the snowy owl?”  I saw that this was different from all the other times that I have taken pictures.  It wasn’t like scores of chances with blue heron or thousands of chances with waves.  It wasn’t about being a grateful witness to the myriad beauties and surprises of the natural world.  This was about wanting.  One particular thing.  And having to have it. 

I asked myself what having a picture would get me.  I remembered that one of my teachers once said, “You can never have enough of something you don’t need.” I saw that this way of wanting was just confirming my lack of something, pushing it farther away.  I said, “If I really want the mystery that I feel in a snowy owl, wouldn’t it be just as good not to fix her in time in a picture, to let her remain alive and un-possessed? I thought, “Is there anything here that I don’t have already?”   I said, “I claim my sight, my birthright, my ancient and ancestral eyes.  I claim my wildish ways.”  That calmed me down completely.

So next morning I went out early to look for the snowy owl, but I brought my dogs, at least for the ride.  I passed Marybeth’s house and her car wasn’t in the driveway so I thought she might be out looking also.  I made up my mind that if I saw Marybeth or Malcolm in the distance I would leave and not screw up their chances, because you know, there are things more important than a snowy owl picture, such as my snowy owl support group, my photography friends. I did scan for the owl, but when I didn’t see her, I found myself picking things up on the beach, not sea glass… well, just a few specimens… but mostly pieces of plastic…a holder for a six-pack of beer, plastic bags and plastic flags and deflated balloons.  And here is something strange.  I felt a lot of snowy owl-ness all around me or even in me.  I just had snowy owl on the brain. 

I went out that afternoon and I bumped into Malcolm again…and then again the next day, when again I went out looking.  (I was not finding the snowy owl, but I was getting pretty good at finding Malcolm Greenaway.)  I told him I would be leaving this weekend to go to Nantucket with my friend Mimi.  He offered to help me clean the sensor on my camera.  He smiled.  He said, “Are you going to look for the snowy owl?”  “Of course”, I said, “it’s an illness.”  But I knew I'd be fine if I found her and fine if I didn't. 

I told Marybeth all about it, including my lust and jealousy.  She said she had just been lucky.  (That was true.  Well, partly true.  That woman has superpowers.)  She chuckled kindly.  She said, “Maybe the universe will reward your good deeds with a snowy owl picture.”  I chuckled in return, “You know it never works that way.” 

You know, it doesn’t… you can never get the recipe, or the equation or the way to get the soul of nature to buckle under pressure.  It is too powerful, wild and wily for containment, but you can learn and work with its wonders.  It’s generous and intimate in any case.


I went out yesterday...just for a short walk with the dogs.  I didn’t have much time because a friend was coming to dinner.  I'd given up on the snowy owl.  I went down by the back of Sachem Pond, not expecting or looking for anything.  And guess who was perched on the last house before the ocean?  I walked up to the stonewall and took her picture, knowing it wouldn’t be anything special from such a far distance.  She was the skittish owl but stayed much longer than I would have expected, leaving only when Molly started to bark.  I walked down the path to the water, and there she was in the grasses. 

The snowy owl turning her head to look at a crow.

I began to talk.  “I know you’re not that happy to see me, especially with the dogs, but if you let me take your picture, I’ll be very grateful.”  The dogs started walking toward her and still, she stayed.  I called them back and I got a little closer.   And closer still.  I took her picture again and again, and once again Molly and Wilson wanted to check her out.  I called them back.  And they came again, and I got a little closer.  By then my heart had melted.  I said, “Thank you.  Thank you.”  And, “I hope you have a good trip to the Arctic Circle.” 

The snowy owl staying and staying.

The snowy owl flying away.  I think that little bird in front of her must have been glad the snowy had better things to do than have a snack.

Wilson went about ten feet more.  I called him and he sat down and looked at that owl and the owl looked back at all of us and considered for a moment and then calmly flew away.  I called Malcolm and Bill and Marybeth to tell them.  Marybeth said, “I knew you would get a picture!”  I said, “I love that owl.  I love her so much, I want to come back as a snowy owl in my next life.”  She said, “Maybe you’ve already been one.”  I said, “I don’t think so.  Dead seagull is not really my favorite food.”  She said, “Lemmings then.”  I said, “That wouldn't be so bad.  I could come back and eat lemmings.” 

I went home and made dinner and my friend came and we had a wonderful time.  But then I was done.  Personal growth can be very tiring.

The same picture as the one above... with a little more perspective.