I have a new skill. I can hear the difference between a male and female Great Horned Owl in the dark, and not have to hear them right next to each other. Listening to a female call to her mate in the dark this morning, I wondered about the symbols of Fall. Why do we put owls in our Halloween decorations along with ravens and crows, harvest symbols like corn stalks and pumpkins, and cool nights and big orange moons low on the horizon?
I grew up in the city, only going into rural areas on special occasions; camping weekends with my family or hiking with friends. We slept with our windows closed-up tight, the doors locked, and the air conditioning on. I woke up to an alarm clock inside a curtained room, rushed to get breakfast and my things to get to school and then work on time. I spent very few quiet days and nights.
Moving to the rural high desert of Southern California changed my life immediately in many ways, the first of which was an immediate slowing and quieting down. My city nerves, always twanging, never resting, continued to fire off even in the quiet desert atmosphere. Like…when you leave a concert or a bar after a long evening of dancing and drinking, you lay in bed, ears still ringing from the clamor of music and laughing. Or like when you finally get the cast taken off a broken limb and your skin, grown used to the constant touch and rubbing of the material, crawls for days with the cool air against it. Those neurons in my head were so used to hearing noise, seeing light, and reacting to stimulation, it took a long time for them to relax and quiet into my new surroundings.
A couple years into living here, I began to notice the changes in seasons. The feel of the air from one season to the next, the plants that changed, the animals that came and went. People say that Southern California has no seasons, but they’re wrong. They may not be garish and obvious, but they’re here. You simply have to be quiet and look closely.
In a house with large windows filling up almost every wall, you notice the light day and night. The sun coming up a little more and more to the north or south, and then back again. The moon changing each and every evening, sometimes you think a neighbor has a new unshaded porch light, so bright that you have to close your curtains to sleep. The stars change with the seasons! I didn’t know that until I lived here.
But the owls are what I love most. Summer gets hot here, as you probably know. By August, the swamp cooler runs all night and into the morning. The big fan sits on the roof pulling air from outside, through wet pads and into the house to cool us as we sleep comfortably. It feels marvelous but it is loud and monotonous. I know Fall is coming because the swamp cooler has been able to cool the house enough to shut off in the night, leaving the house quiet and still when I get up in the morning.
Fall has officially arrived when I can turn the swamp cooler off when I go to bed and open all the windows to let the cool, dry night air flow through the house as we go to sleep. Lying in bed, it’s quiet, so quiet that I can hear animals walking by outside my window, coyotes on the hunt. It’s an amazing feeling, but not half as amazing as what I hear in the morning.
I usually get up around 4am. Walking through my office, I pick up my journal, my book, my glasses (stupid aging eyes), and my phone. I stop by the kitchen for a glass of water and a cup of coffee and then on to my livingroom couch to settle in and read until the sun starts to lighten the sky.
Surrounded by my open windows, without the fans running, I can hear all the little things in the dark, including the owls. They seem to be most active at this time of day. Maybe they are just like us, it’s the end of their day, the kids are fed, Dad is home from work, Mom wants to talk about what went on and how she’s dealing with the neighborhood. The sun will be up soon, so they’re gathering the family together and settling down?
All I know is the noise that occasionally goes well into daylight hours and finally settles down as the sun begins to peek over the horizon. I hear the higher pitched female calls first and wonder what she’s saying. Then I hear the male return her call with his low WHO WHO from across the yard. As Fall moves on, I’ll hear strange screeching noises and more who-ing…it’s mating season and they’re calling each other to bed.
I could talk about owls all day, but I’ll leave you with this…what I originally was thinking when I started writing to you about owls. Why are owls a symbol of Fall? Because when we didn’t live in cities, when we were out on our farms and ranches, making our way in the world, when we sat in the dark making up stories about what was happening around us instead of watching them on Netflix, we heard the owls being sexy out there as Fall approached and associated them with the cooler nights and the shortened days. The spooky mating calls of a large night predator became a symbol of the coming winter and we incorporated them into our own stories and lives.
My culture perpetuated the symbol, but I had lost the meaning. Moving to the desert brought that richness back into my life. Nature, human and otherwise, remains constant. We may cover some parts up and lose track of the meanings for a while, but it’s still running underneath the surface, waiting to come up and reveal itself from time to time. We just need to keep our eyes open and look for it.