I am a mother, a teacher, and a nature lover. I grew up on a mountain we called Owls' Knob in the Ozarks of Arkansas. The first seven years of my life were spent living in a log cabin, far from a store or streetlight, without electricity or running water and after twenty years of travel, I returned to the abondoned homestead. Now I live on a hill by a small lake and work at a public garden. These are stories about nature written from a women deeply influenced by place.
Have you ever hiked in the woods without a flashlight? Not through your back yard to gather forgotten items or to the curb to put out the recycling or even across the farmyard to tend animals, but deep into the unknown woods, just too see what it out there at night? Before I started working at the Ozark Natural Science Center, the only time I wandered through the woods at night without a light was during bonfire parties, in which we were a pack of loud drunken fool, uninterested in the night's sounds. At the science center, I take children on a night hike.
I begin the hike with my flashlight on and lead the children into the woods. An adult is also at the back of the line shinning flashlight. Once the center is completely out of sight, I stop and turn off the lights. We talk in the dark about the night. Often a few children are afraid and I ask them what they are afraid of. They always say the same things and a debunk their fears one at a time.
"Wolves," they said.
"We killed off all the wild red wolves. They exist only in zoos or parks, so don't worry."
"Same fate as the wolves."
"Cowardice creatures. As far as I know, no one has ever been attacked by a coyote."
Black Bears are about as dangerous as coyotes."
"Blood sucking bats."
"None of those around here, perhaps a few blood sucking mosquitoes though. And that is just about the only thing I fear at night. Mosquito bites and diseases." (I also fear copperheads, but only in the summer months.)
By the time I have finished quelling their fears, their eyes have begun to adjust. I have a bag of tricks over my shoulder and a do a few nifty nighttime tricks to get their mind somewhere else.
Then, if the moon is not completely dark, we walk without a flashlight. I ask of complete silence and (amazingly) I often get it. Though most of the time we walk without seeing or hearing anything but katydids, we sometimes sneak up on a noisy armadillo or hear a barred owl calling in the distance.
Last week, we took an extra long night hike. We were in to dark woods for almost an hour. The moon was half full and the few clouds reflected the light to make it seen even brighter. I took the group to an abandoned house on the property. It is a hike I do often during the day, but I have never been at night. It looked spooky in the darkness. A few children did not want to creep up to the empty windows panes and look inside, but most braved the journey.
On our way back towards the center we paused near a cedar thicket and heard an Eastern Screech Owl. The children all gasped in horror at once. I prefer the name Ghost Owls for this little creature, because I have never heard it screech. It's typical call has a hoot and then an eerie trill, almost like a ghost howl from a Halloween cartoon. I explained in a whisper that they were hearing is one of the smallest owls. I showed them with my hands how tiny it is, only about 8 inches tall. They relaxed. After explaining that this tiny raptor was less dangerous than a hawk, we walked slowly into the darkness of the cedar thicket. Three times we snuck up on the owl and I quickly turned on my light to reveal the bird before it few down the trail on quite wings. My brave group of 10 years olds were excited and thrilled to have had such an experience.
As I drove home the next day, around dusk, I spotted a barred owl swoop across my path. I stopped my car and we watched each other. It sat in a colorful dogwood tree, and watched me watching it. I snapped a picture and the flash frightened it away.
Owls have a spooky reputation. Perhaps it is their eerie nightly sounds. Or their huge knowing eyes. Or the way they turn their head to look behind themselves. Myths and legends have associated owls with either death or wisdom for generations. I am in awe of their grace and song. This year, for Halloween, I am invoke the spirit of the owl!