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How One Incident Changed His Life but One Doesn’t Count … A Barn Owl Epiphany

by Annemarie Berukoff 7 months ago in Nature
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The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Author's Sketch

At the beginning of last summer, it was unthinkable that one incident could change his life’s mantra but so it did from one event to a total scope of lifeforces around him before unseen and uncounted. In fact, the number One didn’t make sense anymore in his new world.

Spontaneously, he had responded to a help wanted ad for short-term farm work. Raised in the city he didn’t know much about farm work, but it sounded interesting enough to spend the last summer to earn money doing something different before attending college to study for a forensic science degree. He visualized between chores having ample time to study the textbooks as well as relax wandering the fields and woods. In fact, he further rationalized some feelings because his great grandfather was a farmer in India at one time.

He responded in person as requested at the farmstead after about a 3-hour drive through a rolling meadowed countryside hosting more and more buildings amongst the rows of tree barriers against the wind. First impression was the few scattered grey wooden buildings enclosed by a board and wire fence that stretched below the low hill. Everything looked weather-worn, sun-bleached and shabby with use. First greeters were a handful of brown and black chickens and a horse hanging his head over the gate soon joined by a barking dog dun-colored and shaggy like a bundle of dried hay.

The farmer appeared in the doorway, a stocky man of many years, with grey fuzzy whiskers that grew wherever they found space on his face. He was dressed in brown plaid and boots that made a composite picture of well-honed age and strong trustworthy experience. Years before he served as a veterinarian assistant in town as well as raising a market garden with his wife who died a few years ago, leaving him to maintain the busy farm, now requiring younger hands and faster feet to manage.

The young man approached introducing himself. “Hi, my name is Darsh. I’m a college student from the city and would like to help out on the farm this summer.”

The old man held out a large knuckled hand with more hair, a smile separating the sparse whiskers on his furrowed face. “How do you do? My name is Thomas Stromly but people know me as Doc Tom so you can call me Tom. Handy at the farm, are you?”

“I don’t have much experience but I’m willing to learn.”

If appearance mattered, he liked the young man with the dark hair, ready grin, dressed neatly in buttoned shirt and gabardine trousers ready to shovel manure around with such eager enthusiasm.

“Can you lift a 40-pound bag of feed, young man? And wake up early?” were his two-interview questions. “I don’t count hours, but work finished.”

“I’ve been known to be a quick learner and don’t mind challenges. I think any new experiences may help my undertaking in my detective work later. You know my great grandfather in India was a mixed marketing kind of farmer so there may be some interest in feeling my roots, too … a life cycle, you know.”

Tom made a low chuckle, his rough beard bristling slightly, “Farmers are the salt of the earth. We’d all starve without good soil and food. So here is what I expect … some help through about four months before and after harvesting. Here is what you can expect … a monthly allowance and bonuses as applicable. You can stay in a spare room in the house, all private now, used to be my two sons’ room with Elsa, my wife, now passed on, lovely soul. The boys are educated now working in the big city for big money, I think. Did you bring any basics with you?”

“I’ll get my stuff,” said Darsh, recalling the loosely packed suitcase with some changes of clothing, underwear, toiletries and a couple books with forensic case studies and an I-pad just in case he had an entertainment anxiety attack.

“Well, settle in and then we’ll take a quick tour around the farm and check out your duties.” He liked his quick steps linked to his youthful motivation mixed with a little bit of bravado innocence.

The house looked tired, cracked, but sturdy; part logs, part boards and shingles with creaking floorboards but relatively organized inside with living basics like a wood stove, sink, long green painted cupboards stained with use, a table and 4 chairs, a couple lamps as well as electric lights for later evening. Darsh’s room was allocated to the left corridor, more a square box with a small bed, a wooden chair and a large flat cupboard that could easily serve as a desk. He had brought his own small flex lamp for light just in case he felt urges to study.

“By the way, we don’t have internet reception that's so popular nowadays. I hope you’re not addicted like some people … they say some kind of cultural change is upon the younger folks. The phone works, the television still works and takes me a week to read the local newspaper for what matters here.”

“It will do,” said Darsh, thinking peace and quiet this summer would be a fine change before the grilling of studies and demanding career solving crimes that would dominate his time as well as hoping to find real life adventure with some interesting clues about life just a few decades ago. The word life-changing wasn’t planted as a seed just yet.

“And I’m quite the storyteller once I get started,” grinned Tom agitating his whiskers. “Come, let’s say hello to my animals and your duties and later I’ll make you the best hamburgers you ever ate from fresh farm beef with no antibiotics.”

That night weary and full from a delicious supper, Darsh propped his head on the pillow watching the wash of stars twinkling through the large four paned window fringed with narrow curtains. He never breathed air so fresh that seemed to clear any mustiness from his mind and quickly fell into a deep sleep without dreams or any portending life’s mysteries where cultures and words weren’t questioned.

The next days were even busier with cows, farrowing pigs, and chickens to tend to and a substantial garden to hoe and water.

“Lately, it’s been drier weather than usual so need to be careful not to drain the well dry. Can’t rely on pumping water from the creek either,” explained Tom worried about another cloudless sky.

One day it was later around dusk when Darsh was in the barn helping a young calf suckle from his mother while the old untamed calico cat waited nearby for her dish of warm milk. Rather fascinated he noted how the dust filtered unto long cobwebs turning the threads golden in the setting sun seeming to exhale earth dung from ages before.

The barn seemed to be too spacious, a cavernous structure once built to store hay for a much larger farming operation now filled with open spaces, one which managed as the chicken coop with numerous nests for laying eggs with a couple of walled rooms beside it. The area was without ceilings just an open loft crisscrossed with side-by-side rafters from a central beam to four directions along the shingled roof.

He heard the swooshing sound behind his left shoulder followed by the screeching sound like rusty nails in the act of being pulled roughly out of dry wood. A long shadow, apparition-like, flew over his head, pale light glancing off broad white wings shattering the dusty webbing strings into golden dust. It came to rest in a top left corner on two crossed rafters. Half hidden in ensuing shadows, there it sat a pale lanky shape bobbing its round flat face with narrow dark eyes weaving from side to side and screeching what must be threats.

It was the first such owl Darsh had seen in real life looking as ghostly menacing as warranted his beliefs to fear such a bird, scaring his heart to beat faster.

“There’s an owl in the barn,” he exclaimed to Tom still much agitated. “It looked like a ghost staring right at me and it screamed this bone-chilling shriek. In our old Eastern Indian culture, they say an owl is a symbol of death and destruction. They say they represent souls of those who died seeking revenge. There may be some bad days ahead. Make it go away if you can.”

Tom was surprised at this flurry of words. Even as a modern young man, it seemed innate cultural ties could still prevail. But they were symbolic to think as apparitions, not a real living barn owl. Too many times he thought nature’s truth was someone’s interpretation for a private agenda or mythology.

“Well, isn’t that something,” said Tom, “but first let me ask not to call it an IT. HE is a male barn owl judging by his white feathers. In our culture an owl visits are a good omen bringing increased security. We believe owls represent inner knowledge connected to the energy of the moon. They observe and listen and provide great rodent services for farmers.”

Darsh shuffled, perplexed, in obvious contradiction to what he had been told. “Even the Bible says they are like ravens, messengers of death. People say it is bad luck to hear an owl hoot.”

Tom looked kindly, “Let me say that has been a real problem with what people say or think without the experience of knowing facts. The unity of nature has suffered often at the hands of superstitions or cultural needs. But for now, enjoy his presence as a fine handiwork of nature’s masterful engineering.

In fact, I believe he is the same bird I once accidently cornered too close to the feed bags who threw himself on his back and flailed his feet in defense with such a commotion of rasps and clicks as if I had kicked him. You know I once thought to give him a name but couldn’t find any suitable human tag.

In fact, I believe he comes every year to wait for his mate ... they mate for life you know.”

That night Darsh’s confused thoughts battered his brain from seeing an angry screeching bird attacking him leaving behind a trail of dead bodies as his ancestors thought to a peaceful bird offering branches with fruit and berries. After all, two loyal birds mating for life couldn’t be bad. Somewhere in the muddled contradictions, he would find his choice of reality, but he never imagined the incident that would change his life.

The next few days were again hotter than normal filled with watering and weeding the garden but at every dusk Darsh would wait for the barn owl’s return to his dusty rafter and scraggly old nest barely visible. Last night he watched his aerial dive through the open loft with widespread wings almost translucent against the fading light over a hovering body with raspy screeching to announce his arrival.

Then the next morning after feeding the chickens he saw the owl lying on the floor, one wide wing angled outward with an awkward turn to his head as if his neck was broken. There was no fear to step closer to note the tawny color of his head and back feathers mottled with shades of grey and brown with a white belly speckled with a few darker flecks. Both hands picked him up gently cradling his head noting the pale blue upper lids with sparse eyelashes closing to their lower eyelid like a dark scar with only a glint of his eyes beneath. His distinctive heart-shaped face was fringed with a lighter short ruffle and a fine-feathered fluff ridge along his beak resembled a nose. What a surprise ... how soft and light he was, about a pound, all feathers and light bones to fly better.

“Surprising,” he thought, “how we regard how special a life is, the closer we look at it.” But his wonder about a barn owl’s special adaptations would only increase with the more he knew.

Tom had veterinarian training and his examination would reveal what might have happened.

The barn owl was laid on the red checkered tablecloth to Tom’s sad voice, “Such a handsome boy … such a misfortune as these birds are declining as their range suffers habitat loss ... less open meadows. They are marvels of aeronautical detection able to turn their head 180 degrees. Note the face is shaped like a disc which helps to direct sounds to their ears … right here on the face … just behind the eyes. See how one ear is higher than the other and this ear is farther forward on the head than the other. This gives him 3-dimensional hearing so he can determine the direction and distance of sound even under the snow. That’s why owls tilt and move their head with excellent low light vision able to catch mice in complete darkness.

See how long the legs are meant to catch prey in the long grass. Looks like a fleshy foot here armed with such sharp talons strong enough to kill by clenching the foot rather than pecking. He can swallow prey whole … skin, bones, and all. He can eat up to 1000 rodents a day.

See this one front toe ... there is a comb feature to groom his face.

Now what’s unique to barn owls is how soft their flight feathers are covered with very thin hairs that help to trap air within the feather’s surface for smoother air flow action even at very low airspeeds. This foremost wing feather also has a row of tiny hooks that helps to deaden the sound of air hitting the wings’ leading edge … the truly silent predator of the night.”

Darsh was intrigued at the complexity visualizing beyond the still body as a marvelous space navigator getting rid of farmers’ enemies with no evil intent in his powerful hearing or shrieking calls except to hunt and survive.

“So, how did he die?” was the unspoken question.

Tom was suspicious. “We can first check what he ate. In fact, twice a day he coughs up pellets like poop through the digestive tract. There will be some in the nest if you want to climb up if you’re careful. I’ve climbed the rafters when I was younger. Put some of his recent pellets into this glass.”

Darsh, more than curious, ran to the barn noting that the boards were close enough together to reach the scraggly nest from which he gathered a handful of dried pellets into the glass; then, back to the house to spill the hard brown contents on the table.

Tom was ready with a magnifying glass, tweezers, and a big needle to break a couple open exposing a matted fur ball with insect skeletons, vertebrae, a possible shrew’s skull, paws and teeth and a tiny piece of intestine from some mouse that was squeezed open to find some crystal bluish specks.

“Ah,” sighed Tom rather quickly. “This is what killed the barn owl .... he ate a mouse poisoned with this weed killing chemical and the poison was passed inside his body. He must have gone further afield because our neighboring farmers are organic pesticide-free as the new modern now wants. Unfortunately, high temperatures will do that to extend any kind of farther foraging for food.”

Darsh closed his eyes tightly trying to make sense, trying to take more than one step further than reality in this sequence. Someone made a choice to add poison to his field to poison a mouse who in turn poisoned this beautiful bird who was helping him to control the rodents by flying further away to find a food supply in a hotter environment.

He squinted back tears of both marvel and sorrow at such a senseless, pitiless loss.

“What can we do with the body now?” he asked.

“Well, the proper thing would be to take him to that old cottonwood tree at the edge of the field where the coyotes will eat him … it’s Nature’s cycle of life where nothing is wasted. But Nature has been unnaturally disrupted so we can’t do that because the coyotes would be poisoned and anything that ate them would be poisoned.

I’m afraid the only thing we can do is burn him.”

“Can’t we just bury him … give him a spot to leave a small token he was here.”

“We can’t even do that because Nature’s food chain has been disrupted,” answered Tom quietly. “Putting him into soil will affect any organism that tries to decompose him … the worms, the nematodes, the sowbugs, the fungi and if birds or anything else that eats these decomposers will also ingest the poison. A frog might eat an earthworm that ingested some contaminated humus that is then eaten by a rare blue heron that contaminates her eggs before she dies. That’s how extinction happens, and God knows that is happening too many times.”

Silently, Darsh brought some straw from the barn to make a small loose pile on which the cold flightless body was placed, a small breeze flicking a feather or two.

The surge of emotions was from some unexplainable depth of Darsh’s mind that shook him like angry surf on a helpless beach. “Fly again, sir. Let me see you hovering again in the twilight,” he wanted to call out, “Shriek! Let me hear you shriek again. No danger… no fright ever again. Hiss, scream, let me know you live … how can I thank you? You have given me flight. Your sweet life has enlightened me.”

They both watched silently as flames licked and stretched hungry claws around the bird emitting trails of brownish blue smoke curling and eddying slowly upwards in its flight to the grey streaked skies belying the lifeless power from where it came. The rancid smell of burning feathers and flesh permeated even the patiently sitting hound dog left. Before long all that remained was a pile of glowing ashes. And a never dying spirit ... such bright memories from such dark ashes.

"You will always fly high, beautiful bird. Nature will be my high guide, too," whispered Darsh.

That night conflicting thoughts stormed through Darsh’s mind … some reasonable, some perverse, some incomprehensible. A constant thought spiked again and again, “How many steps from ONE when ONE doesn’t count anymore.” In his mind's eye, a heavy thick Number One waved like a metal baton capable of hurting before splintering into countless pieces on the wind.

One live owl, one dead owl … how many steps in between … a barn for nesting ... a mouse to eat … one human with poison … grow crops … company to make and sell poison … mouse eats poison … bird eats mouse and dies. Then no baby owlets … more mice … more poison … more run off … more water-table pollution … more disruption to natural cycles.

Where does ONE DEAD BIRD START and STOP? Is there any insight sharpened like the barn owl’s steady surveillance of the field he searches for food? Are any more senses heightened from noting the smallest details that make a difference to avoiding larger streams of consequences?

So, I want to be a forensic detective to examine dead bodies for causes and effects. I may someday have to autopsy a young teen girl who died on the street from a drug overdose. Where does ONE DEAD GIRL START AND STOP? Time to make your scrutiny more important to check out the causes and effects of her environment and make changes as warranted … her family background … neighborhood … schooling … students … best friends … social media texts … diaries … photos… hobbies … clothes … money

Somewhere in that life stream will be found the poisons that caused her death. They should be removed before propagation. What’s poison that affects people … anything that betrays common good beyond what is needed like power, ego, vanity, ambition, fear and anger.

But what does Number ONE really count when defining a chain reaction to what ending, if ever completed, with multiple meanings minus intention?

It’s not about one culture that permeates stories that owls are unclean, a source of superstition with their eerie screams, flying predators of bad luck to be feared and avoided.

It’s not about another culture that views them as spiritual creatures connected to the energy of the moon offering intuition, wisdom and bringing good luck if an owl visits you.

And then there is the one other culture that supersedes biology disbelieving the supremacy and order of Nature, neither evil nor benign, just terribly self-centered and tragically short-sighted. Manifestations are witnesses everywhere beyond any One decision to act: such as deforesting mountains, acidifying ocean waters, thickening greenhouse air pollution, increasing mass production agribusiness, raising climate temperatures, or denying science that matters.

So it’s not culture, societies or language, or any ONE human construct by which to relate to the Earth which has no language except its sustainable cycles, food chains, a master composite web of many parts where if ONE part is missing the other parts disassemble and don’t work anymore.

What about me, Darsh Pretali? I am ONE person ... a family's son, a city's resident, a country' citizen linked to a world community sustained by our natural environments. I, too, am a composite of many parts and choices connected to my culture reflecting the food I eat, the clothes I wear, the car I drive, the money I spend, my necessities and recreational values. But at what cost beyond any One of my choices each splintering into unremitting consequences?

I am ONE man but not an insignificant piece in this web that connects all humans to nature even with a free choice to use a chemical that destroys a mouse that destroys a bird, to pollute the air and water and soil shattering the laws of Ecology that everything is connected to everything else with place and purpose ... any matter and energy are preserved … what goes in, must come out ... what goes round, keeps cycling.

Stop and Start to Connect is better than Start to Stop to Connect.

But there is ONE NUMBER that counts indivisibly that matters for everyone … that ONE unbreakable responsibility to respect Nature’s ONE masterpiece of synergy and adaptations even as demonstrated by a simple barn owl hovering in suspension with the purpose of his flight as a medium for Nature’s mastery for all her inhabitants.

Thomas was right … there was no one suitable name to label him as part of Nature’s affinity but presence like air and water.

The rest of the summer into early fall passed uneventfully except perhaps Darsh’s senses were so much keener like the eyes and ears of a barn owl to judge the specifics of any interactions. The calves were allowed to stay longer in their mother’s pastures before weaning. The chickens’ cluckings were differentiated with loud cackles to celebrate when an egg was laid. The old horse was fed tender alfalfa grass and groomed more in gratitude for long service. The hound dog had more sticks to fetch with unexpected energy. And even the old calico barn cat was given ham scraps to add to her mouse diet. Once he thought he heard the rasping cry of a barn owl in the distance which could have been his mate returning too late.

Even the ghostly howls of a crew of coyotes in early morning hours didn’t frighten him … they were not superstitious omens but hunters on a mission to recycle food.

The clouds were more welcome as they streaked the end of the day in golden hues that filled the old barn with brilliant dusty cobwebs. The rain was sweeter to taste; the wet ground gave a pungent perfume to inhale smelling the roots of history that will continue to work.

Truly, one incident had transformed Darsh’s life to be more vigilant with more affinity around him; an acquaintance he never talked with, but who taught him strength and respect for continuity when one step starts and never ends.

A fond farewell was bid between a grateful man with old outsight and a young man with new insight.

“Thanks for helping me. It was appreciated. Ready to hibernate for the winter as they say … just need basics to survive.”

“Thanks for teaching me lessons that have changed my life. I’m thinking of checking out environmental studies.”

They shook hands, a crusty gnarled hand and a smooth hand with more calluses now.

For a moment, he looked up at the sky longingly … it was a new world now.


About the author

Annemarie Berukoff

Experience begets Wisdom as teacher / author 4 e-books / social activist re education, family, social media, ecology, and changing cultural values. Big Picture Lessons are best ways to learn.

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