A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a link to a Cornell Lab of Ornithology video about the magnificent and mysterious Snowy Owl. I shared the video on my Facebook page, and it drew a rhapsodic response; I showed it to Benj, and his eyes grew wide with wonder:
I think this video would turn anyone into a fan of the snowy owl, but for Benj and for me, it had a special resonance. The Snowy Owl’s importance to us is perhaps best summarized by a school report Benj wrote a few years ago, when he was nine years old:
THE SNOWY OWL, A Report By Benj . . . Fall, 2008
I chose the Snowy Owl, aka Arctic Owl, Great White Owl, and Bubo scandiacus, because it is my favorite animal. I first saw one when I was four years old and my school took a trip to the Trevor Zoo in Millbrook, NY. I thought it was a beautiful bird. My parents gave me a stuffed snowy owl for Christmas that year. I also like it because I like snow and winter. It was even on a Sesame Street game I used to play with Mommy and James, and I learned a little about it from that game. When I saw this assignment, I was excited to learn even more about this bird.
The snowy owl is a warm-blooded carnivore. It eats mostly lemmings and voles, but if there are not many lemmings and voles, it eats other small animals and birds. The snowy owl hunts for food during the day and night.
The snowy owl usually lives in the Northern Circumpolar region, above latitudes 60 degrees North, where few other creatures live, but it is also a nomadic bird and has been seen as far South as Georgia. The snowy owl’s habitat is the Northern Tundra around the world. It usually nests on the ground near good hunting areas. Snowy owls help control rodent populations where they live. Their local numbers are high when lemming population is high and low when lemming population is low. If there are not enough small birds and mammals to eat, the snowy owl will leave the Arctic and fly south, often landing at airports!
It would be both interesting and tricky to be a snowy owl. I would be able to see long distances, even at night, and I would make no sound when I flew. I could see all kinds of neat things, and I could sneak up on other animals easily. I would also be able to hear many, many sounds. But it would be very cold in the Arctic, and if there were no lemmings or voles for me to eat, I would have to leave behind my home to fly south in search of food. I’m not sure I’d want to be a snowy owl because although the snowy owl’s life is exciting, it is also very hard.
When four-year-old Benj first became enchanted with the Snowy Owl, he wasn’t able to use the pronoun “I,” express his needs, feelings, or opinions, handle any kind of ambiguity or uncertainty. We knew he liked the bird because he’d stopped dead in his tracks in front of it, gazed at it reverently, and resisted moving on to another part of the zoo. For Christmas that year, I bought him a stuffed snowy owl from the Institute for Ecosystem Studies’ gift shop, and although he didn’t snuggle or play with it (he never much liked stuffed animals), he smiled when I placed it prominently on a bookshelf in his bedroom. It has always seemed to me like a kind of wise guardian of and symbol for the essential spirit of Benj: his affinity for the natural world, his attraction to winter in all its pristine and dazzling clarity and whiteness, his aloofness and integrity, his potential for flight. That stuffed snowy owl traveled with us from our house in Poughkeepsie to two different apartments in New York, always the first thing to be unpacked after a move, always calming Benj and inspiring me when I looked at it. I’ve often found him staring at it, an expression of deep peace on his face.
If the snowy owl has functioned as a kind of tutelary spirit of and representative figure for Benj’s essential self, his ostensibly simple school report about the owl reminds me of all the work it took for him to get to a place where he could express that essential self clearly, fully, with nuance and humor and joy. In this assignment, he had a vehicle to explore his long-standing fascination with nature, a chance to delve deeply into a subject that interested him, an opportunity to display the precision of his thinking (noting all the possible names for the snowy owl, outlining the advantages and disadvantages of its situation) and his capacity for sensitive appreciation. Years of speech and language therapy had enabled him to use a “both . . . and” construction without anxiety—to allow that two potentially opposing ideas could both be true—this alone was huge for him. And the most important thing: he could tell us what he loved and why.
Tonight in the North-East, the first significant snowfall of the winter of 2011-2012 is predicted, and almost thirteen-year-old Benj is beside himself with anticipatory joy. “Now it will be a real winter!” Benj cried. Turning to his younger brother, he added: “James, aren’t you excited?! We’re getting snow!” I think gratefully of all the occupational and sensory integration therapy that has helped him let go of his anxiety about unfamiliar textures and enjoy the cold touch of snow on his face, fling himself into snow-banks, make snow angels as Peter did in The Snowy Day (one of the books he’d read and recite over and over again as a two year old with hyperlexia).
Tomorrow, he’ll be in Connecticut at his grandmother’s house, and I hope that perhaps a snowy owl will fly past him as he wheels about, exulting, on the snow-covered lawn. And I give thanks for the way Benj notices and appreciates the majesty of nature’s creatures, marks and honors the cycle of the seasons, and allows himself to feel and express simple joy:
Last night, an owl
in the blue dark
an indeterminate number
of carefully shaped sounds into
the world, in which,
a quarter of a mile away, I happened
to be standing.
I couldn’t tell
which one it was –
the barred or the great-horned
ship of the air –
it was that distant. But, anyway,
aren’t there moments
that are better than knowing something,
and sweeter? Snow was falling,
so much like stars
filling the dark trees
that one could easily imagine
its reason for being was nothing more
than prettiness. I suppose
if this were someone else’s story
they would have insisted on knowing
whatever is knowable – would have hurried
over the fields
to name it – the owl, I mean.
But it’s mine, this poem of the night,
and I just stood there, listening and holding out
my hands to the soft glitter
falling through the air. I love this world,
but not for its answers.
And I wish good luck to the owl,
whatever its name –
and I wish great welcome to the snow,
whatever its severe and comfortless
and beautiful meaning.
Better than knowing, and sweeter, indeed.