6 March 2001
It seems hard to comprehend that it was 15 years ago when I first entered the night. Last year, winter was a foreigner. There was no snow and the woods were mine for the walking, the only obstacles being randomly thrown tangles of windfall. Layers of fleece were an option, not a necessity. The night remained black, but the landscape was brown. What a difference a year makes. Heading north out of the Twin Cities yesterday, it was easy to see that 2000 would forever be viewed as an exception, rather than the rule. Winter has returned... with a vengeance.
The drive west this year was one of contemplation and reassessment. For the first time in 15 years, I pondered the wisdom of continuing my courtship with the boreal owl. Now, I have a son whose exposure to northern Minnesota's night is still a few years away. At 3 1/2 years, he knows where his papa is, knows what his papa is doing, knows why his papa does what he does, but he has yet to grasp the concept of "Nikky, I'll be back in 7 weeks". Time is ticking to our reunion.
Financially, there is every reason to stop. My funding has virtually disappeared. Gone are the days of support from the DNR and the North Central Forest Experiment Station. Now, my budget mandates pasta and canned goods. It means that each year my fleece becomes a bit more worn at the edges. Yet, my presence here is about passion. There is no other explanation. Somewhere in Ohio, I realized that I still have questions about the owl that need I need to answer, and as long as questions persist, there is no logic that will dissuade me.
Last night, framed by plowed 3' ribbons of snow, I ventured up the Sawbill Trail. Winds were gusty and it was cold. Word from the Forest Service is that they have received an increasing number of calls about boreal owls, some living, but most dying. Every 3 or so years, the message is the same. If you are an owl, you live by the mouse and die by the mouse.
A 3/4 moon hung like an incandescent bulb in the sky, illuminating the white landscape in familiarity. Spruce boughs bobbed, losing the remnants of the last snowfall. Each year for the past 15, my first stop into the Minnesota night is still exciting and overwhelming. I sense my isolation and cannot yet anticipate the silence. I have said it before and will repeat it again and again: the quiet is deafening.
On this night, there were no owls. There was no wildlife. I was in a desert covered with 3' of snow. My surroundings slapped me with the realization that winter can be indiscriminate in its cruelty. I wondered how many bags of frozen owls will be carted down to the Bell Museum this year. Only the strong survive, and sometimes even they don't make it. During the winter in northern Minnesota that is the rule, rather than the exception.
© W.H. Lane