Photo Credit: Sofia Theodore-Pierce
Birds are the most elegant chronometrics, save for the gaudy rooster. They permit the graceful allowance of inexactitude, yet are remarkably consistent, drawing a window of time rather than a point of precision on its face. It was the many windows in my apartment and the dozens of birds that flocked to the surrounding trees that allowed me to forgo an alarm last year. Every morning the noise seeped in as layers on layers of constructed song overlapped and blended, creating a soundscape that felt alive and vibrating. It pulled me from my bed, buzzing, with enough precision to allow me a cup of coffee before I caught my always-late bus.
The clock stopped the moment my grandmother died. This dot in timescape, inarguable, was witnessed by the cousin dearest to her. He saw the hands, the face, unmoving, and he knew. My father, on the other hand, had been staring out the window when he saw a horde of crows freaking out in the trees across the street. Though symbolic in their own right, their strange concentration was drawn from the presence of another: an owl, seated on an upper branch in broad daylight, in the middle of a city. The oddity had pulled him to watch the spectacle on the back porch for a half an hour. The weight of this indication did not sink into clarity until three days later, when the clock stopped in Ted’s kitchen as he sat quietly at the table.
An animal encroach into what we as humans have constructed as our own scapes (land, city, home) often leaves us unnerved despite its inevitability- the cougar cowing in the suburbs, the pigeon in the public library, the hornet tapping from inside the window. But behind the unease is a sense of knowing that we
drew our bounds too tightly around a world oblivious to them, that no fault can be pinned as a butterfly to some cork, though it is often the animal who suffers as a result.
When an animal bridges our sense of time, the breach reaches beyond our ability to reestablish lines of physical space. It tugs at a thing waiting to be unraveled, a placement of a finger to that that resides within us, a hardened spot being rendered soft. Behind all of our innovations we know that there is something internal and eternal possessed by animals, something we too have, but have become bald of by our own doing. Their reminder of the ticking that is deep and unpeeled.
Eight years later, the owl returned, this time across they alley, again the crows gave away its silent majesty. Its significance now was a hand placed gently on a face, a window opening to let something out, my father recognized and nodded to it and went to call his father.
A bird experiences rhythm in a way no longer parallel in any way to our own. In 1866 an enormous flock of passenger pigeons spent an entire fourteen hours passing overhead, stretching an entire span of daylight, a common recognition of one beginning and ending of the sun. Despite our redrawing of landscapes, migrating birds show up the same day at the same spot every year for longer than we have known. There was a time when this pause in migration was indicative of a relationship, a handshake, a look in the eye and then seeds were sown.
The birds still seek this. They still show up at the window. Their feathers gloss with oil. We bury our faces.
We camped on Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay three years ago. It was late summer, the grass was crisped, the brownish mound’s trees and trails came into view as we crossed the bay on the ferry. I am 21 and the myth of the owl is ingrained, instilled, and conjures fear in me. I have concluded to turn my eye from large birds, gatherings of crows. After setting up camp we hiked to the peak of the island, walked around the abandoned military barracks and immigration holds. On our return at dusk, we followed a large buck who had appeared on the path in front of us. As we tailed him, wearily, a large swoop caught our path. An owl spread itself before us and darted away in the liminal space between day and night, city and wild. As it grew dark and we reached closer to our camp, I studied in my head whether the sighting qualified as the sign I had dreaded for years.
Suddenly, a lapse of time, a rush of air, somewhere in the unseeable nearness a tall and dark shadow plunged to the ground. We heard it, it had happened. The next morning the fall was pulled from its preliminary sinking into explanations of imagination, our path was cut one hundred meters up by a massive broken trunk.
A bird cannot cut time with a knife. Instead, it provides a roundness, a more complete vision of what time is. A circle we both reside within.
Now, I have grown a desire to watch birds. To study them, in their homes, not just to gaze out at them while sitting in my own. For the three months that I will be in Iceland, the arctic terns will be roosting on the roof of the abandoned fish factory by the hotel/restaurant where I am working. On the first day, I kayak out into the Reykjarför∂ur where a dilapidated dock holds a small flock of squawking terns. I approach the dock, grabbing hold of its lower edge as my boat gently bumps the half-rotten wood. Later, my boss tells me, you are about the only person who they haven’t attacked when approached like that. To this, I smile, take the handshake into my pocket, and throw my wristwatch into the water.
Erin Howe is teacher and writer who has lived in Spain for the past two years. She is now journeying by way of Iceland back to her home in Portland, Oregon.