Artist, author, naturalist, animal lover....Ben Zoltak writes about his tribulations in the creative arena, mother nature and family.
Here's a rendering of the owl I saw that morning, I desperately wanted to get my camera phone, but I knew I'd lose the moment and scare the owl away if I left.
Sometimes it takes an animal to show a human the way...
The Morning Begins with Heat and Ends with Cold Boards Underfoot
This morning I step out of the shower, I don’t have my glasses on so I see in 20/20 ultra fine particles of mist reflected off the bathroom mirror, circulating like a jet stream in my bathroom, adjusting their orbit ever-so-gently along the magnetic current of my aura. The past few years have been one hurricane rush of a morning after another filled with work and family obligations so daunting and relentless as to be nonstop; a quiet moment like this, watching aqueous vapor play along my skin, has been rare so I pause as long as I can and take it all in, breathing in a deep yogic way. I put on a t-shirt and pants, and decide to step outside for some brisk morning air. Although it’s only one of the first few days of autumn, the early morning chill still surprises me as I open the door from my art studio to the outside deck.
Barefoot, I step outside and the floor of the deck is frosty cold on the bottom of my feet. I take a deep breath and look to the west towards the lake. I look a little further north to the dinner-plate leaved catawba tree in front of my studio. A wave of white and brown spots fills my vision in front of me, it’s the giant wingspan of a huge bird. At first I think it’s a Coopers Hawk but as it passes by within two feet of me, I realize it’s too large to be that bird-hawk. It’s wingspan is nearly that of my own outstretched arms. I can’t emphasize enough the enormity of this stunning beauty, it’s as though this animal did it on purpose, a show of force. I’m taken aback, and I feel an adrenal reaction in my veins. It leaps up to a half dead limb of our ancient red oak where it turns it’s head towards me and I confirm that she’s an owl. I’m awestruck as my eyes behold the sight, we sit there motionless for the longest time... staring, each of us locked in a gaze.
I react and want to call out to her with a typcial "hoooo", but I stop myself, thankfully; I laugh quietly at myself for the knee-jerk reaction. Although it’s cold I stand there barefoot in a t-shirt and with a wet head. I try not to move. I’m thankful for the presence of mind to just be still and I’m able to look at her. Her head moves and turns, looking at me first from one side then from the next. I can see her feathered dress up close now: mottled, white, uneven spots over a mostly brown set of feathers. We sit there in the cold for over twenty minutes. The full moon setting in the west glowing incredibly white and yellow as the sun reaches up slowly lighting the eastern horizon.
I move just a little bit to see if she notices me. Just turning my own head, owl-like, with conscious hesitation. This continues for minutes at a time, then back to stillness. I stand solemnly, meditating with an owl. She has slight tufts of soft-looking feathers on top of her head, almost like horns but more subtle than a Great-Horned Owl. At one point she turns and I see light yellow talons.
Photograph of a barred owl my friend Vy Duong took recently, and was kind enough to share. Just like me, she saw her owl during daylight hours.
Without warning she leaps out towards the first rabbit which is eating underneath a small pine tree.
Then, to the east, towards the foggy sunrise, I notice two very plump rabbits. My owl friend notices too. She shudders with her wings for a second when she turns. After another minute of looking around, I notice she’s orienting herself towards the direction of the bunnies. The rabbits just sit there, ignorantly and blissfully eating greens.
Without warning she leaps out towards the fist rabbit which is eating underneath a small pine tree. She swoops in a graceful arc, and ever so slightly during her flight path, she sways around the trunk of our giant red oak. The morning is as silent as I’ve ever heard, wind-less and without the nearly ubiquitous clamor of traffic; still her wings make just the slightest sound like tearing tissue paper, cutting the air sharply. I move a foot over and watch as the bunny sees her coming and jumps to safety in the tall grass under that same young pine.
Having twisted my ankle recently, I hobble around the corner to see if my owl is there. I clamber over the deck and look towards my tomato garden and still don’t see her. I sense she is there though, like the first time I saw her, hidden in plain sight. Without notice, she leaps from somewhere in the neighbors maple next to my garden and flies north over my British neighbor’s house past her stately blue spruce and into tall and gangly aspen trees in the distance.
These are the sounds of the barred owl my neighbors and I hear most nights.
Certain animals speak to me, the Owl is high up on that list
I love animals and I find that they connect with me on a level that people oftentimes don't. For days after this encounter I kept wondering what that gorgeous barred or short-eared owl was communicating to me. I can hear my more cynical side saying, don't anthropomorphize this experience, it was just a bird looking for breakfast and you probably were edging in on her angle. Also over the years, I've lost that tender-heart outlook that so many people have of their so-called "spirit animals" and how those animals are that person's guide. Still...animals speak to me: dogs, cats, squirrels, deer, hawks, eagles, horses, spiders, turtles... they all break down my impacted cynical side, consistently. I don't have to be a cat-person or a dog-person to be able to appreciate the sublime communication that animals offer. I don't have to be over-the-top about caring for other sentient creatures to notice that they communicate in their own way on a level better than uttering consonants and vowels or hoos and whistles.
After a week of ruminating on it, I look back on the time spent with that owl early in the morning as the owl letting me know she was there existing just fine at her own pace, without rushing. As well as her sublime message: slow down. I'm confident the epiphany might've slipped past me any other day. But this owl turned my outlook sideways and helped me to realize, if I want to heal my body and heal my soul, I need to breath deep and slow it down. These past few weeks, having been hobbled by my twisted ankle, I realize that every aspect of my life has been harried and rushed for so long that it's the only way I've known how to operate. Now, with this gentle nudging or spiritual punctuation the owl gave to me, I've been able to reify, sometimes slower is a way to get to where you want to be, to achieve presence, to be in here and now.
I hope these observations might inspire you to double check your own attitudes towards work, family and even playful experiences. Slowing down has helped me to actually be there when things are happening. It's easy to put your mind in a dozen other places (half of them on your phone) while you might be missing out on your daughters cart-wheels or your son explaining that he made his friends laugh with his funny faces at school today or that new friend you made paying you an accolade for a meal you shared with them. Sometimes animals are speaking to you, if you let yourself listen you might be surprised what they have to say.
Here's the perch where I stood alongside the owl. I've contemplated cutting that dead limb down for years, knowing that it's hers, now I have to let it stay.
Ben Zoltak (author) from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on October 20, 2020:
Thanks for your kind relfection Peggy Woods!
That's what I was hoping to share, at least some of what that experience was like. While it was happening I kept thinking...I wish I could share this with my children or friends, I wish I could show them how intriguing this feels, to be in the presence of such a magnificent bird. She felt like some sort of tough mother nature representative, staring me down, asking me to take in the moment and see beyond my routine.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on October 20, 2020:
Your experience with that owl is a good lesson to slow down and take notice of things in the here and now. I enjoyed reading your article. That must have been a fun first-hand experience for you.