The Peace of the Land

“The peace of the land, the last islands of this peace, made me feel small. I welcomed the feeling. It was a pleasure to feel insignificant, to let my desires quiet, to feel, in the moment, the human body as an instrument attuned to peace.”

Alison Hawthorne Deming

I am sitting on my back porch after 10 o’clock on a Tuesday night with a jam jar halfway full of sauvignon blanc. The air is crisp and I have a jean jacket over my pajamas and soft, grey house slippers on my feet.

In the quiet calm of a spring evening perfumed with the fleeting scent of a short-lived lilac bush, this is when I hear the sound of a barred owl. I have only heard this sound once or twice before at my father’s or late grandparents’ respective farms, not in this little suburb of St. Louis, which boasts of being a“city of warmth,” as opposed to all those other cold and unfeeling cities.

This is the witching hour of wonder. Many women write about living their lives on the margins of their family’s lives and their many responsibilities, and I finally understand what they speak of. Of how, after they have ushered children to bed and bid partners adieu, they take a moment for themselves, to breathe deeply, and then, with any luck, to quiet the thousands of things we could be doing otherwise.

During this little reverie, as I sip my wine and deadhead the moss rose on the patio table, I listen to the barred owl, not yet sure of what I was hearing. The call sounds like a cross between distant howler monkeys I once stumbled upon in a Costa Rican rainforest or a Gremlin.

Because it is the 21st century, I record a quick video and ask my Internet friends, “What is this?”

“A dog?” one asks. “Or maybe a quail?”

“My bets are on a barred owl,” another friend writes.

The following morning I search online for barred owl videos. My two-year-old daughter snuggles closer when she first hears the electronic version of this owl and asks me, concerned, if what she is hearing is a monster.  

“No, not a monster,” I assure her, pulling her closer. “An owl.”

She makes the requisite who-who sound from the Little Owl’s Night and Little Owl’s Day books I have read to her since she was a couple of months old. We love these owl books so much that I emailed the author, Divya Srinivasan, pictures of Luci “reading” and Srinivasan kindly wrote back. That is how much we love owls in this house.

Yet, our collective confusion at being confronted with the sound of an actual owl versus the fairytale-version of an owl makes me think I have not prepared her or even myself for the true mysteries of nature. Not to mention, this disconnect between the real thing and the simplified version makes me think about how inadequate most of our “teachable” animal sounds are.

It is like the icebreaker-parlor trick David Sedaris wrote about using almost 20 years ago with Germans and Greeks by asking them a seemingly simple question: What does a rooster say?

Our respective cultures code the symbolic sounds of animals around the world. These onomatopoeic sounds are passkeys to learning a language. Just as the barred owl made me investigate what I did not know about the suburban wildlife around me–a place where bats circle my street after dusk and Eastern cottontail rabbits dash out of bushes as I pass during a walk–so, too, is there deep admiration in witnessing a child make sense of the discrepancies and contradictions around her.

We learn together, bit by bit, trying to find the words and sounds for the everyday wilderness that surrounds us.