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March 17, 2002

Saint Patrickís Feathered Serpent

Two years ago, when we first looked at Spring in the Arboretum, I plotted its course through a triad of Vernal Holidays: Saint Patrickís for the Past; Easter for the Future; May Day for the Moment.

In this schema, Saint Patrickís Day is the Holiday of ancestors and nostalgia, which provides the entree to my real subject: that Owl. Thatís right, by the alchemy of due regard, (and my need to get this off my chest), the Valentineís Day Owl is transformed into the Saint Patrickís Day Owl. Which is not to say itís green; birds of prey generally are not. A few hawks, like the Kestrel, are brightly colored, but Owls are typically nocturnal hunters, cryptically patterned, without iridescence.

Thatís the case with this Eastern Screech Owl. It might have been red, but itís the more common gray instead, and inconspicuous. It spends its days sitting in the hollow tree near the transverse road: people stream by, joggers, bikers, but nobody seems to see it. Oh, I see it, but Iím a birdwatcher. And I am informed, by the birdwatching authorities, that this bird cannot be counted.
Itís almost as if it wasnít there.
Almost.

The Owl is there as an act of Nostalgia.
Itís one of eighteen that were released in the Park last Fall, as part of an effort to reestablish native species that have been extirpated from the city. As if our missing familiars might show us the way home.

The sentiment seems laudable, redolent with nostalgia for our old country, but there remains some question about the cogency of these repatriation projects. Plants have generally done better than the animals they ultimately support, but animals are more engaging for publicity purposes, and publicity seems to be a large part of the equation. It sometimes seems that animals are installed in the parks with more ceremony than research, and with questionable prospects for survival.

So thereís been criticism.
And Screech Owls.
At least a few are still around, some with radio transmitters, though theyíll remove them if they can. Some of the birders have a certain contempt for the whole business, tempered by the fact that it is, after all, a real Owl, even if you canít add it to your list, except as a released bird.
You canít count it, but it counts; as much as any living thing.

In my temporal triad of Spring, the Owl might be seen as a mediator. Its premise is nostalgic, but its promise is of future plenitude: a reborn diversity which, if it resurrects our past, must fit it into an as yet unrealized world, where the stuff of memory will entwine with the strange and new. Meanwhile, there is this moment, our moment, in which the Owl is one more misplaced soul, seeking a little sustenance in the dark woods.

Owls are know for swiveling their heads. Their big eyes are fixed, so they must turn the entire head, and can do so with such flexibility of neck as to face almost, but not quite directly, backwards. Still there will be a spot at best glimpsed peripherally. We too suffer from blind spots in our vision. Unknowns of past and future cast a shadow on our present; such is the darkness this Owl inhabits.

The ďOld CountryĒ is no longer a country, or even a place, as such. Our memory of Nature, (as approximated in the Park), now serves as the focus of our Nostalgia. And the unlikely ďreturnĒ of Nature is ever our desire. Todayís Saint Patrick would need to bring the snakes back to Ireland. One sentimental day a year is not enough to accomplish it. We need to work on many fronts; in every time and place. Much healing must take place before the Screech Owl, of its own volition, returns to the heart of Manhattan. That Owl we will happily count. As for the one we have now, Iíve managed to get two holidays out of it, so the least I can do is give it the benefit of the doubt.
I fear its fate, but I hope for its survival.

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