We were returning from downtown with a hatch full of discounted fancy booze — yes, this is one of the things I will do with a vacation day — when I remembered that if you cut westward from Chain Bridge, instead of going straight south to my end of Arlington, you skip a lot of traffic lights and pass through a neighborhood where I used to do some of my best mileage. The hills undulate like the frozen-looking waves in a Hokusai painting and you never see anyone on the sidewalks. I grew up nearby but these days it is a Mercedes owners only kind of hood.
There is this little nature center and trail, though. When I was the four-eyed kid that everyone thought was weird for reading and trying to see which of my schoolmates I could front-squat, that park was Middle-Earth and Narnia and the place where the Faun met the Woodcutter’s Daughter. The hill that separates it from the streets and houses on the south side might have been an overgrown burial mound, or possibly Sentinel Hill outside of Dunwich. Later, it became the eminence from which I gathered speed before cruising up and down those wavelike streets in damp dawns that fogged my glasses and condensed in my hair.
There was a new garden sort of thingummy across the road from the entrance. I asked the Engineer if he minded slowing down so I could have a look. They had put in a stand of pollinator magnets, Joe-Pye weed and some kind of miniature sunflower and a thing called Mountain Mint which smelled of mint right enough and was so clustered and cumbered with bees that the plants looked triffidly alive.
We crossed back again and started up the path only to come to a full stop. On the upper porch of the nature center — a little historic house that had been good for countless pit stops in my full-bladdered youth — a brand new enclosure stood, and there inside, perched and dozing, was the barred owl that has lived in that nature center for as long as I can remember now, twenty years maybe; the references I can hunt up say they live more than twenty years, but Owl seems ageless. He lacks a left wing and can only live in captivity, but as we watched him quietly — signs at the approach to his new lanai enjoined silence and warned us that “The Owl Does Not Like Dogs” — he bated a little on his perch, fanning out the opera cloak of his remaining wing. I had never seen him do that when he lived in a much duller room indoors.
I could have watched the owl all day, but there were those paths, and Sentinel Hill; the nature center itself is closed on Mondays so we had the place almost to ourselves.
Half way up the trail to the hill, one of the oaks that I must have passed hundred of times had died but good. Shelves of jadelike fungus sprouted from its fork, its bark had become an agate-like frieze of muted colors, and a big scar of naked wood on its pathward side was… smoking?
The Engineer, whose allergies stuff his head completely, said “Maybe it’s spores or something blowing up in the breeze?”
I blew on the blackish scar. Smoke blurted and the pulpy-looking wood flared like a cigarette end.
“This is not good,” I said. The Engineer took off his shoe and ground the sole into the smoldering bit. I carry a Swiss knife, and that did more good, digging out the sawdusty half-rotted burning part where we could stamp and smother it on the ground. We went over it till no more cinders would blow up from the powdery surface.
I have no idea how that got started. I have no idea how it happened we were there at that precise moment.
A couple of nasty, barky dogs were dragging their owner along the low path back to the parking lot. We took the high fork, passing the owl’s pavilion again. “I don’t like dogs either,” I said in the undertone you use when you don’t want to wake someone up. Owl woke up anyhow, for about three seconds, and turned his flower face half toward me.
Goddess give him many years.
Nowadays, when I observe some specimen of Caine noctua, I try to look past the fine grey down on the toes, to see beyond the white spots arranged in neat lines, like a firework display across its brow. Instead, I try to see the bird whose image the Greeks carved into their coins, sitting patiently at the ear of the Goddess Pallas Athene, silently sharing her immortal wisdom. Perhaps, instead of measuring the feathered tufts surmounting its ears, we should speculate on what those ears may have heard. Perhaps when considering the manner in which it grips its branch, with two toes in front and the reversible outer toe clutching from behind, we should allow ourselves to pause for a moment, and acknowledge that these same claws must once have drawn blood from the shoulder of Pallas.