The Call of an Owl And Iowa Earth

Last night our screech owl was back at the farm, holding forth from the highest branches of the shelter belt's tall pines. He roused me out of a dream I was having about planting the garden, something that has been on my mind now for a few days.

My wife, Sharen, who could sleep through a tornado even if it took off the roof, did just that. Slept through the screeching, that is. I slipped on my sandals, found the flashlight, knocked it against my palm until the bulb stayed lit, and went out for a look. The trees are white pines, and it's my guess that they're at least as old as the house, which was built in the early 1860s.

Most of the lower branches are lost, so the trees no longer really serve their original purpose of blocking the wind from hitting the house. The treetops have widened and flattened, and from the end of the gravel road a mile to the west you'd swear those pines were coconut palms. I stepped slowly and quietly toward them, stopped at the edge of the house, and sat on one of the hay bales we'd placed along the foundation as insulation for the winter. I pressed the flashlight against my hand, the beam making my palm and the lines between my fingers glow red.

It was a quiet night, the third warm one in a row, so it was no wonder that our owl friend had come to call. I waited, and then it came again, that tremulous wail as old as hunger. It seemed to come from the tree closest to me. I panned the flashlight beam up the spiked trunk. Nothing. Just last September's cones dangling there, waiting for the designated time, any day now, when they'll drop. .

Maybe he'd flown when he heard me coming. Screech owls, like most of the Strigidae, or "true owls," have keen hearing as well as keen sight. But, according to Audubon, they're also fearless. A former professor once told me that, while walking his dog in the woods at dusk, a screech owl had knocked his hat off! I panned the light through the other trees, and rested my left hand atop my head. I wasn't wearing a hat, and I wanted to keep what little is left of my diminishing hair.

The dream the owl had woken me from was a pleasant one. In it, I was laying out the paths for my new garden. The earth, freshly tilled, was as black and rich as chocolate cake - Iowa soil, and none much better on the entire continent. That was the dream. Ever since we'd moved to the farm at the start of the month (after growing tired of college-town living, and desiring the "real" rural Iowa experience), I'd been waiting for the weather to break, for spring to spring, so that I could take a break from sanding floors and painting walls to rototill a space in the backyard and plant my garden.

I'd been to the Ames nursery twice to buy flats of tomatoes and lettuce, broccoli and herbs. I'd bought seed packets of corn and peas, cucumbers and beans. The plants were taking up counter space in the kitchen, bureau space in the bedroom. And the design of the garden was taking up space in my head. I'd bought gardening magazines. I'd borrowed books from the library on garden design. Sharen, surprising me on my birthday, gave me a guide to organic gardening.

For weeks I'd been cursing the frozen ground. Then it came, all at once. One of those days when you walk out at dawn and the bees, the mayflies, and the midges are there as if they'd never left. The sun comes up above the brown horizon like a plate of honey, and the trees have somehow exploded with bits of green. And all along the creek, curried now by the rising sun, an armada of curling mists lifts above the water like ghost ships sailing into a whole other season. Only it wasn't one of those days, but three of them, and yesterday I'd planned out the garden on paper.

I SHUT off the flashlight and looked up at the stars, more than I have ever seen. When the Perseid shower comes in August, we'll sit out by the burn pile and watch meteors, I thought. By then, the corn will be taller than I am and we'll be eating fat, ripe tomatoes that we've grown ourselves.

I walked to the white propane tank and shone the flashlight on the gauge. A quarter-tank left. Enough to last if spring is really here. I walked past the flat patch of ground behind the tank to the place where tomorrow Harold Mabe, the man from Eldora who was recommended to me, would rototill my 600 square feet for $6.

My toes cold and soaked from the dew, I headed back toward the house to have a bite to eat before returning to bed and, perhaps, my dream. I shone the flashlight once more into the pines. I had spooked my owl friend, but he'd be back. It was all part of the plan.

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