Out of the nightand into my heart

It's a Wednesday night, which in our part of Anchorage means take-out-the-garbage night. Shortly after 10 p.m. I put on bathrobe, gloves, and boots, and prepare to haul our green trash can to the edge of the driveway for Thursday's early morning pickup. First, though, I take a broom and head out the front door to clear three inches of fresh snow from the porch. I've just begun sweeping the soft, fluffy powder when a voice calls out from the darkness.

Hoo. Hooo-hoo. Hoo. Hoo.

I lift my head in surprise, my heartbeat quickening at this familiar yet uncommon call. Uncommon, at least, in my neighborhood. In 7-1/2 years on Anchorage's Hillside, only once before have I heard a great horned owl while standing in my yard. Not that I spend lots of winter nights outdoors. Except for occasional hot-tubbing, snow clearing, or aurora gazing, my forays into the yard are brief: to and from the car for meetings, classes, or basketball. To and from the road, hauling trash.

The owl hoots again. And again. It seems to be calling from the wooded lot beside our next-door neighbors. I wonder if they heard the owl. Unlikely, unless they too have gone outside by chance. Then, off in the distance, a faint response. Hoo. Hooo-hoo. Hoo. Competing calls in this season of courting.

Ears still tuned to the hooting, I finish sweeping, then grab the trash can and carry it to the road. Along the way, I cross hare tracks, freshly imprinted into today's snow. I follow the tracks, hoping to glimpse their maker, but lose them where they cross the newly plowed road.

Arctic hares, like great horned owls, are mostly nocturnal. They're also one of the owl's favorite foods, along with other rodents and birds.

Trying to imagine the hare's response when it first heard the owl tonight, I suppose it instinctively froze in place, depending on a snowy-white coat to avoid detection. Or maybe a hooting owl is less cause for alarm, the predatory bird's attentions given to mating, not hunting. Perhaps now the camouflaged hare is watching me while listening for owls, long ears rotating this way and that.

If not for my garbage-hauling duties, I wouldn't have noticed owl or hare. They provide a glimpse to mostly hidden lives, a reminder of nightly dramas played out right by my door, yet so rarely noticed.

A few flakes of snow drift groundward. The 20-degree F. air is still, the night unusually quiet. The fresh snow that covers the ground and drapes the trees helps to muffle noise, too. No sound but owl until a jet passes through the night sky, mechanical roar muted, on its approach to Anchorage's airport. Then, once more, marvelous silence except for the owls' periodic hoots.

Returning to the porch, I stand and listen, relishing the owl's Hoo-hooo-hoo. I consider waking Dulcy, who went to bed early, exhausted by her work with the local school district. No, she needs her sleep. I'll hope the owl returns this weekend. And, come morning, I'll ask my wife if she'd prefer to be roused when an owl is calling, as she's requested when the northern lights are especially magical.

There's no doubt the owl is working some magic on me. The hooting has an eerie, haunting quality, but that's not entirely it. The call, like the wails of loons and the howls of wolves, speaks of wildness and mystery. The lives of owls are secrets, rarely revealed.

Tonight I glimpse a sliver of one owl's life through the darkness. Its repeated hoots send images to my mind. I picture a great horned owl perched in a nearby spruce, head swiveling, claws groping branch, eyes wide open, calling into the night.

I'm reminded of another winter night, six years past. Can it already be so long ago? Camped with two friends in the foothills of the Alaska Range, I heard the rapid Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo of a boreal owl. The rapture of that night's campfire, subzero cold, forest stillness, ink-black sky, wildly flashing stars, and owl calls are forever imprinted on my heart.

The hooting also reminds me how much I love life here in Alaska, here on Anchorage's Hillside. To be part of a world that includes this owl's voice is a gift indeed. I wonder if any others in the neighborhood are standing outside their houses, pulled away from familial responsibilities or the technological distractions of TVs, CDs, videos, computers.

The calls stop. I wait a few minutes to be sure, then turn toward the door. Still under the owl's spell, I know that six years from now, or 20, I will remember this night. I'll remember the fresh snow, tracks of hare, and hushed stillness of the air. I'll remember standing alone on the front porch, no rush to go inside, listening, listening. I'll remember my heart beating wildly and my mind growing calm, serenaded by owls.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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