In July our city was captive in the breath of a dragon. Summer in Seattle is usually moderate in temperature, the hottest part of the day rising later in the afternoon, and falling quickly with the sun at night. Last month was scorching by our standards, with many 90 degree days burning full-strength by noon, and staying hot overnight. It’s tempting to stay out of the glare, but every Seattleite knows to soak it up before that thick grey cloud curtain rolls across the sky and we are stranded, sun-less, for another 8 months. Still, I could not bring myself to endure direct exposure and stayed mostly undercover each day until the worst was over.
One weekend there was a cool, overcast respite from the heat, and I decided to walk the dog in a large wooded park near Greenlake. The lake is a small freshwater body, verdant with algae blooms, where abundant wildlife has year-round residence. Aside from the usual squirrels, raccoons, and possums, there are rabbits, foxes, turtles, bats, and carp. Hawks and eagles hold court in the trees, and majestic osprey occasionally glide through and grasp the tallest branches with their ravishing talons, scanning the water for snacks. But on this day I was astonished by an owl.
She was round-headed, with dusty brown streaks in her feathers tapering down to grey wing tips. Her face was a glowing platinum with piercing dark eyes, like tiny daggers in a handful of snow. I heard her before I saw her, delicate whistling cheeps rippling out through the air. She was in a group of three others, high up in a mossy tree, and they were being harassed by a mob of hysterical diving crows. The owls were moving together, jostling for position on a large branch, adjusting and re-adjusting their bodies for maximum view of the ground beneath them, where I stood with the dog. They seemed barely disturbed by the crows, who finally gave up trying to dislodge the larger birds from their post, and flew off silent and defeated.
Two of the owls jumped up and flew a few branches higher, releasing feathery streaks of light. But she remained there, blinking and serious, staring down at us with her wintry full-moon face. I could see her breathing, a soft push-and-pull through her middle, small shimmering puffs of life. Her voice rose again, the song so fragile and yet clear and beautiful, like fine lace on a bare shoulder.
Suddenly she turned and raced up the tree, head down, wings half-open, and I saw who she really was. Her feet were feral, clawed, her thighs thick like a bull. She tore up the wood as she ran, moss and twigs splintering, insects swarming away from the impact of her steps. She ran past her kin, up to the highest branch of the tree, and disappeared into the ether. Only the shredded tracks of her path, and the lingering echo of her cry, showed she was ever there at all.
Wild singers are all around us in the city. Their music is free, but invaluable. If their songs ever ceased it would mean the worst kind of disaster, yet we lose them in a thousand ways; muted by our headphones, drowned out by urban cacophony, or simply shoved aside by the dense ringing of our own thoughts. But the birds carry on, undaunted, spinning their magic into every single day of our lives. Driven by instinct, but also by passion, they call out to each other with voices unbound. Let them remind us: we should strive to do the same.