I was out in the yard tidying up scraps of lumber, AGAIN — because we’d struck a bargain with our contractor for a lower bid if we relieved the carpenters of cleanup duty — when I had my first encounter with a neighbor.
Our house was sited, it seemed, as an afterthought when the development was established. About 1,000 feet in on the entrance road a steep hill begins to climb up to half a dozen clusters of large houses, those facing southwest enjoying sweeping views, the remainder simply enjoying substantial square footage and a quiet neighborhood.
But just before the base of this hill is reached, there is a left turn onto a ¼-mile dead end, and at the terminus, in a clearing surrounded by two wooded acres, sits our humble, 1,800 square foot home, from which we can barely spot our uphill neighbors, through patches of leafless deciduous trees in the wintertime.
Due to this unusual topography, I’d seen neighbors in their cars as we passed each other coming and going, but that’s as close as I’d gotten.
Then, as I was filling the wheelbarrow with the latest load, I was startled by a sudden glimpse of an imposing figure. There, about 50 feet away, perched in a tree on the southern border of the surrounding forest, was, by far, the most stunning bird I’d ever seen from such a short distance: a mature Barred Owl.
It’s cliché for a reason: it literally took my breath away. I was frozen, fearing the smallest motion or sound would scare this magnificent creature away, but I soon learned how foolish this impulse was. The owl did not appear to be afraid of anything. It exuded a quiet, yet palpable self-assured power. Unlike other predators, it lacked a fierceness, it’s primary weapons, four razor-sharp talons on each foot, are hidden behind feathers when the owl is perched and resting. Its equally sharp beak, a mere speck of yellow in the center of that face, like a seed in the inside of an apple cut in half, a beak downright tiny compared to those of hawks, eagles, even crows, but a beak that, nevertheless, gets the carnivorous job done.
And so, I started slowly walking toward the owl, for as harmless as it appeared, I knew that it could swoop down and gouge my eyes out. Who was afraid now, right?! With each step I was increasingly astonished by the beauty of this bird and the fact that it was letting me approach, until finally I came to the low log fence that marked the perimeter of the yard, at which point I was a mere 10 feet away.
And there I stood anthropomorphizing, introducing myself, explaining that my wife and I had bought the place from the couple who’d lived there previously, that we really love nature and all her creatures, that we’re sorry about all the noise and unsightliness of the construction, assuring it we’d be done in a month or two. I’d seen video of owls in action, but this one was downright stoic, hardly a blink, handedly beating me in our little staring contest. In the end, I remembered that owls are mostly nocturnal, and so this one was most likely resting up for the evening’s hunt.
In the end, we had about 10 precious minutes together before I was called away by other responsibilities. Sadly, and quite mysteriously, in the two years since our encounter, though I regularly scan the trees for a glimpse of our neighbor, I’ve not seen him or her since.
Oh, I’ve heard it, but that’s another story.