On the insistence of owls
1. One day last summer, my partner and I hiked a loop that began at Crawford Oaks in Columbia Hills State Park, located on the Washington side of the river, just east of The Dalles. It was a spontaneous decision—to go on the hike in the first place, to do a full loop, to begin conversations along the trail about life and living—and so the experience was marked by sudden bursts of ideas and feelings. It was, in the best sense of the word, a strenuous day. But good strenuous and bad strenuous still leave the body and the heart and the brain feeling: tired. And we were. We survived difficult conversations, a long stretch of nearly unbearable wind, and our various inclinations to turn around and head back.
2. Burrowing Owls, or Athene cunicularia, live in open, grassy habitats, including the shrub-steppe ecosystems you encounter in places like The Dalles. Opposed to the common depiction that the only way to see an owl is by looking up into a dark night, Burrowing Owls hunt during the day, and they do so on or near the ground.
3. Our SECRETS curriculum features a lesson about relationships—the kinds that involve competing, or that are helpful in nature, or else constituted by the power dynamics of predator/prey. I think SECRETS is a successful program because it lets students experience learning for what it is, and what it can be, simultaneously: educational, challenging, accessible, dynamic, fun, hilarious. We take concepts that might otherwise quickly unfold into abstract, exception-filled states and simplify them, make them tangible, even turn them into a game or two. A great example is found during our field trip station, “Rock City,” where students spend time out in the shrub-steppe pretending to be squirrels storing up acorns for the winter. They choose caches and compete over resources and attempt to survive in their habitat. Just look at all those learning words in action!: cache, competing, resources, habitat. When we’re in the classroom, we prioritize bringing the local outside world in with us; and on field trips, we insist on recognizing the classroom space that exists outdoors.
4. Burrowing Owls, like squirrels, often use caches of their own: storing up extra food for use during incubation and brooding periods. In fact, their ability to make good use of space is shown in the fact that, according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Burrowing Owls have been known to nest in piles of PVC pipe and other lairs unintentionally provided by humans,” when unable to find more natural suitable habitats. The adaptability of these birds, the ways in which they can take up more and more space while remaining silent in flight…it points to their irresistible omnipresence. Even now, sitting at home and imagining for a moment the Columbia River, I see its surface as letters bobbing up and down in their forward momentum, ebbing and flowing across the page: O w l, o w l, O w l, o w l, O w l.
5. All this focus on words. I can’t help that this is where my attention gathers. As a kid, I used to take pieces of paper and walk around the house, writing down the names of anything I encountered, a writer with nothing yet to say and so I made brand names into my material. Cheerios, Toshiba, Panasonic, Kohler, written just like that, with no further context, in sloppy little-kid handwriting. I wasn’t meaning to evoke the real-life objects those words signify. I just couldn’t resist the act of inscribing, the visual act of seeing words and then participating in their doubling. Perhaps it is the way I’ve grown to process information through images. Or maybe just a weird insistence on words as a kind of visual medium: when I’m writing, I see things more clearly. Can it be more than a metaphor?
6. During the second half of our hike at Crawford Oaks, shortly after we’d made the turn that constituted the loop, we found ourselves at one of the SECRETS field trip locations, near The Dalles Mountain Ranch. Curious to see how low the water had dropped since I’d last been there with a group of 5th graders, I asked my partner to step down near the creek with me. Just a quick glance and we’d keep going. This was after the wind, after the talking, after any temptation to turn around and go back could possibly exist. After all, we had officially looped at this point, and so going back was going forward—an easy thing to say, a difficult thing to know. “This is where ‘Stream Scene’ happens,” I told my partner. But without the station signs, without the field trip maps, without the kids, I wondered if this place could be called something else?
7. What is a name? A type of word, a group of letters. A brand that comes to be associated with value, or prestige, or dependability. Athene cunicularia. If I tell you we saw one that day, right at the next moment of the story, gigantic, sitting on a rock in the low creek just off the trail, what would you think? If I told you it looked at us so long that time slowed down, that I couldn’t tell going back from going forward, that it reminded me of my cat’s eyes staring into my own: big, dilated pupils that recognize.
8. What if I call the river an owl? What if I tell you that my name, yes my real name, is Bear? Here, let me flip my wood cookie necklace over and show you: Owl.