An Author’s Journey, my encounter with an owl

An Author’s Journey, my encounter with an owl

Who Cooks for You?

A true adventure

He flew on silent wings; one swoop and his talons grazed the top of her head. She didn’t see him coming. She was walking down the forest path to her cabin after a hearty meal at the farmhouse. It was twilight, drizzly, and she was alone. Before she thought to run, he went in for a second swipe. This time, she sprinted, and even though her cabin was closer, she ran back to the farmhouse to warn us. This was my first night as a writer-in-residence at Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers located on Whidbey Island, WA.

Hedgebrook Writer’s Retreat for Women

The writers’ cottages are tucked away in the forest amongst cedars and furs, pines, hemlocks and vine maples. In owl territory, it seemed. Funny, the packet I received when I was awarded the Hedgebrook residency, mentioned deer and bunnies, not attack owls.

An owl encounter

The victim, bearing minor scratches, burst into the farmhouse dining room and told us her story. We’d just finished dinner. Now we had to walk down the owl path to our respective cabins. We strategized. We had numbers; there were five of us and one owl. He was 2 pounds, we were 600. But wait, an owl perched in the tallest cedar can spot a tree frog at night, and he can hear a pinecone drop a mile away.

With a basket for a hat…

We needed an edge. A shield, breastplate and matching helmet would give us one. We settled for coats. We buttoned up to our necks, tucked in loose hairs and most important, covered our heads. There are many ways to protect a head. Flip up a hood, don a wide brimmed hat, tie on a red blinking light, or put tomorrow’s lunch in your pocket and wear the Red-Riding-Hood basket it came in, on your head, the handle like a bow. I put on my basket after I finished tying my hood.

We turned on our windup flashlights and marched shoulder to shoulder into the woods. We walked a fast clip. And the owl, wherever he was, allowed us to pass.

Crazed owl hoots good morning

He woke me before my alarm. I rushed downstairs and opened the window. First light winked through the branches. I wanted to get a look at that owl. It was a frosty morning and I shivered. The fire I made the night before was ash. I wrapped in a blanket and waited. It wasn’t long before I heard him hooting. “Hoo-hoo hoo hoo. Hoo-hoo hoo hoo hoo,” he called. Was this the crazy owl from last night? While he hooted, I peered into the branches. He was nearby, I knew it. But where? 

Who cooks for you?

I opened my Pacific NW Guidebook and turned to the owl section. A Barn Owl screamed and clicked, the Burrowing Owl cooed. I read on. The Barred Owl’s hoot was unique. If he hooted words they’d be, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” Who cooks for you? I substituted ‘hoo’ for each word. I hooted out loud a few times. Yes, I found my owl! I studied the picture. He or she, the book wasn’t that detailed, was about two feet tall, had a four foot wingspan and friendly eyebrows. He looked cuddly, not crazed.

The owl had been quiet for a while. Sunlight twinkled through the trees, and yellow and red leaves glistened. I shut the window. I’d have to go out there later, in the dark, and walk to the farmhouse.

A writer’s dream

My lunch-basket hat sat atop the table; my coat hung over the chair, and in the pocket was the sandwich, cold, as if it’d come out of the refrigerator. I thought of dinner the night before. An epicurean feast, and the first meal I hadn’t cooked in ages. Hedgebrook had a chef, a real chef who made mouth-watering dinners and lunches to go. The type of meals I would never prepare at home because, well, who has time for fancy stuff, when you had kids and jobs and messes to clean? I ate the sandwich for breakfast, roast beef, not bologna. Who cooks for you? I chuckled. I had almost two weeks left at Hedgebrook to write whenever I wanted and without interruption or obligation.

Prepared for the owl

That night after dinner, we walked to our cabins together. I kept the picture of the owl in mind, the big brown eyes, the stripes. We had our hats on! One of the women wore a floppy one, and I wore a hardhat I found in my cabin. I looked like a construction worker. Problem was, someone with a bigger head had worn it last and I hadn’t thought to adjust it. As I walked, it slid over my eyes, off the back of my head, to one side, the other.

We arrived at the giant elm, the spot where we would split up. Two of us left the path and headed to our cabins. Not a peep out of that owl. Strange, I felt disappointed.

The encounter

We’d only walked a few feet more, when the owl swooped in and landed on a branch. We had high power flashlights this time, not the wimpy windups, and we shined our lights on him. He didn’t look as friendly as he did in the picture.  Still, I felt a little giddy. Who cooks for you? I smiled. The chef made chocolate chip cookies for dessert. A rare treat; I never baked at home. She gave me extra on my way out. They were in my pockets.

The owl blocked our way, and he wasn’t budging. We assessed the situation, then, with no warning, my companion marched up to that bird and started telling him off. I watched her wave her arms, whoop and holler. I’d never seen anything like it. The owl cocked his head. Apparently, he hadn’t either. Finally, she put her hand on her hip and turned to me. “He’s not scared at all.” She sounded surprised, and held her flashlight steady.

An epiphany in the dark woods

The owl’s eyes slid over to me. I thought of the cuddly owl in the book, and saw a hunter. Earlier, I came upon bunnies on the path and tried not to scare them, but a twig snapped underfoot, and they scurried into the bushes. This was not a crazed owl. I turned off my flashlight. We were tramping through her territory during prime hunting hours and scaring her dinner away. She was probably a mom and had mouths to feed.

The owl took flight. She made no sound; the branch didn’t move. She glided. She flew in my direction. Several feet away, she broke course. Whoosh! She soared up, up and over my head. I whirled around to see where she’d gone, but my hard hat slid over my eyes and fell to the ground. I looked up. A moonless night, the sky inky-black and the only sound, rustling leaves.

Hedgebrook Farm.

“Hedgebrook isn’t a retreat, it’s an advance.” Gloria Steinem

Photo: Oak Cabin at Hedgebrook. K. Thompson ©2008

Kate E Thompson, 2008 Hedgebrook Alum

Seattle writer, Kate E Thompson, is looking for representation for her second book, a historical novel called A Matter of Principle, a coming of age story set in a bustling 1869 Salt Lake City, Utah. Thompson is also the author of Bigfoot Hunters Never Lie, and a novella, The Asteroid's Daughter and the Serpent Handler's Son. She’s an avid reader, is fond of reading old diaries and letters, and enjoys nothing more than searching through university archives and special collections.

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