“There’s an owl in our back tree. I couldn’t see it but I heard it,” my husband said, coming in from having taken out the trash. I reached for the respirator he’d been wearing. The one I bought to wear to Black Lives Matter protests this Summer to defend myself against the President of the United States’ contract security guards. The ones paid to brutalize us for lifting our voices in pursuit of justice for all Americans.
Outside on the porch, properly protected from what today the world air quality index called the worst air quality in the world, I looked up at the 150 foot spruce silhouetted against the evening sky. Then I heard it. All day I hadn’t seen a leaf stir or heard a bird. Every plant stood flat and still, working overtime to take the carbon monoxide from our eerily orange Portland air. The air that hangs over these ancestral lands of the Clackamas people. Now, as strange as the lack of birdsong all day, is the sound of this large bird of prey. Am I imaging the sound to be plaintive? Behind my closed eyes now, I see her habitat burning behind her. Her wingspan wide. Her flight path uncertain. Her pace faster than she is liable to fly.
Before thought is the action. I open my palms and open my chest. I connect to her. “Welcome, owl spirit,” I whisper. “I feel your loss with you.” I think of the one million acres of habitat that have burned, in Oregon alone, these past three days. She knows nothing of Oregon. She knows nothing of California and Washington and British Columbia. She knows the land. And she has a right to feel as unsafe here as anywhere right now. Because so many humans – so many American humans – do not know the land.
She is not alone. Humans are unsafe from each other. The fire in Southern Oregon, that wiped out my brother and sister-in-law’s old neighborhood was arson. A man did that. A man who just wanted to, did that. And the actions of so many before him made the land so dry that it went up like a tinderbox. The now and the many choices that came before him. History didn’t happen. It’s happening.
My heart breaks open with the pain of the losses around us. So many homes, so many lives, so many dreams lost in a blink. And the owl and I stand and take it in. I open my heart to the pain. To her sound. It feels like all I can do.
This moment has been coming. That’s what I think when I’m putting on my respirator. When I’m joking about when the “locusts” are due to arrive. When my kids are calling this hazardous air, stay-indoors order “next level quarantine” and they’re asking me if it’s time to bust out the industrial sized pancake mix from the “apocalypse food” tub in the shed. ‘Yup, it’s time’, I think. The future is here and I’m not even anxious.
What I am, is changed. I think of the mirage I lived in during the Obama years. The making of hay while the sun shone. The belief that it could only get better from here. The hope was blinding. It was sticky and addictive. I wanted it so bad. And I had it. So what did I have to fight for?
The fight was always being deferred. It was always going to be this bad. And we knew it. But we couldn’t face it. So I think while I stand and take it in. Me and the owl. Facing it.
Octavia Butler wrote prescient novels about this time. She described what happens when we praise greed, when we love things more than people. There is death. There is destruction. There is great loss. Those who die, die. They’re not feeling the loss. It is those left living who feel it. The suffering. Alleviated only by connection with loving others. With our Beloved Community, as described to us by Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King and so many brave Black leaders have reached out their hands for generations to offer the good news. About how liberation is possible for all of us if we take the great, beautiful leap into trust and belonging.
And today I feel the truth as clear as day. We will belong to each other or we will die. It is that simple.
While I was writing this I wondered about the concept of spirit animals. About what the owl might mean for those who feel her. I am accustomed to instant answers and google couldn’t tell me enough about the people who walked these lands for many, many generations. I don’t know what the owl meant to the Clackamas. To the Cowlitz. To the Kalapuya. I found though that among many Native tribes of this continent, seeing or hearing an owl is believed to be a bad omen, often signaling serious illness or death to come. Especially when an owl is found hanging about the home instead of the woods.
I hear her omen. It is only validation of what we know. The death is here. The illness is here. And it has been here since the first white colonist arrived to these shores, prepared to take life to have things. They took, and denied it. And took, and denied it. And we whose ancestors claim far away lands, we whose ancestors chose to come, so devoid have we been of true understanding, we have played out the script of that deception all along.
The owl is believed, not just to be a harbinger of pain, but also to have powerful medicine. The owl is believed to see behind masks of deceit. So I welcomed her to our home. I embraced her. I am prepared to let down the mask, stand in the pain and feel it all. The shame, the grief, the rage. It is my deepest dream to bring many of the most fearful to that place with me. So that we may stand and feel it all together. And in doing so, in looking straight into the trauma, the pain will burn us clean of the fear. It is a risk to look. To feel. But if we can, we just might finally belong to each other, to the land and to our futures.