In search of a rare Café breakfast we took a morning walk through the shadows of this deep green swamplands. This watershed area was designated parklands and built with the efforts of CCC workers in 1938. Timber architecture never gets old. No doubt remote and isolated at the time, it is now a gratefully undeveloped oasis just 15 miles or so from urban Tampa. We started out from the campsite on the path that wanders along the peopled side of a meandering green river thickly faced by rough palms and pines, elegant Cypress and the sharp points of the palmetto.
The water’s barely discernable flow is remarkable here for its color and texture. Forget the transparent element in your water bottle; this water is something quite different. Thick, verdant and completely opaque after a foot or so, this river holds an entire universe in suspension. What lies beneath the green screen, only the river knows. We heeded advice from wise readers and kept feet, human and canine away from the edges. To be within reach of the river, was to risk being sucked into its belly.
This footpath is just barely removed from the behemoth vehicles of recreation and the tiny tents of the optimists neighboring our current camping site. Standing quietly as part of this land of camouflage we lingered, watching a mysterious swirl of green water initiate an easy flight of the white bird to the next hammock. A gleaming 4-foot alligator posed on a dead log. Smiling from his post across the river, he looked like a decoy for an 8-foot cousin waiting below.
To discern what is here takes time, it takes attraction and attention. It takes a willingness to become part of the mystery. As we stepped out of the brush where footpath crosses camp road delineated by a striped pedestrian crossing, a Barred Owl called out from the Pine. We took note of this old friend, and familiar call, and felt blessed by this real life edition of Minerva’s Owl.
Hours later, driving on a mundane errand, I found her there splayed out on the zebra stripes between the fast moving traffic lanes of Route 301. Apparently she was sent reeling from this life by collision of wild raptor and passing car or truck on this busy corridor.
Spotting the striped wings, I pulled to the roadside and stopped. I hoped it was not an owl, but maybe a turkey? I watched a concrete truck rush towards us, displacing enough air and space to raise the broken body and spin it above the pavement. In a blur of feathers the body flipped over and dropped back to earth on her back, wings offered outward in a position reminiscent of beloved human martyrs. Then I knew for sure who she was.
In a rare moment of embracing the rules, I considered the location just off the park grounds, and the hefty five figure fines for possession of raptor feathers by a non-Native. I considered the road clearing prisoners up ahead and the fire tower to the south. I returned to the park to enlist the ranger’s blessing, hopeful that there would be interest in preserving this beautiful body. I thought of our grandson and his classroom unit studying Owls last Fall. The subject had piqued his interest, pulled and prodded him to become an integral part of his new class, in his new school. Owls are like that, they take you along.
I know from experience that it is against the law for Jane Q. Public like me, to have an owl preserved through taxidermy; this is not my first owl. The Park employee I encountered seemed immune to the possibility of preservation, and I identified this route as useless when she asked me with surprise, “An owl is a raptor?”
I returned to the Spot, pulled off on a turning lane to “no place,” next to the zebra stripes. A traffic pattern created for an “un-developed” development, this lane turned into nothing but an overgrown barricade guarding acres of cleared, but empty “lots.” It was the only place on this straight freeway of a Florida 2-lane where a fragile body could lay untouched by tire, and I could pull off without danger to life and limb. I asked for a break in traffic, and barriers of will went up at north and south.
Armed with a faded dog towel, I reached for her. The body was painfully soft, limp and fragile to the touch, and amazingly heavy. Certainly she was just hit, her neck broken, the rest of her intact and beautiful. There was the Face of Minerva’s Owl right there in my hands. She felt like family. I scurried across the road into the car as if the Feds were watching from the nearby fire watchtower.
As I put her in the car her head flopped, but her wings folded perfectly back to her sides. Her legs were thick and furred as a cat, with sharp curved talons clenched, and frozen forever in that moment; a predator in pursuit. What I didn’t expect was her presence; the smell of the woods, the feeling of flight, the intensity of focus still frozen there in her legs. I didn’t expect the still animated life force that joined me in the car. Driving down 301, going to Publix, with an Owl Spirit in the car. The mundane and the sacred were taking a road trip.
I will take time pondering the meaning of this event. Look at my Minerva Avatar picture chosen months ago, and you will see what I saw on the road. Has she slipped from my imagination, riding on spirit through the ethers into our physical existence? And for what reason? Nature wastes nothing, certainly not a life of a wild thing.
We here in Minerva will think deep thoughts about how it came to be that an owl that greeted us in the morning was by afternoon, dead in my hands. What can we understand from the story of an Owl spirit flying high and focused, taken down in a moment by a miscalculation of timing? Was she on her way to her Publix too?
We brought her to see our grandchildren so they could see the magic and the mystery that belongs to the winged beings. The next morning went drove to a trail that became a track, and made a path to the north. We put her at the bottom of a big tree with a nice nesting cavity. If she died of old age, she might have just plopped there after a long life.
There is meaning here, the understanding of which was made more imperative by the owl calling last night so loudly and insistently over our camp that Mac growled in response each time and Bear threatened to do a full fledged howl. It wasn’t quiet until I rose 2 hours before dawn to write this story.
There is no sentimentality in the divine Minerva, there is only her wisdom as a witness to an epoch divided by each single lifetime. How then should we spend our minutes of eternity?