Gaze Upon This World
I ’M BIKING through the dark in the smoky chill of Octo- ber. Overhead, a great-horned owl gathers itself and lands on a snag, its swiveling, feather-crowned head wider than my palm. I stop the bike and stand still. For a while, the owl and I watch each other. Then, hearing some creaturely
snap in the brush, it ungrips its branch and springs into the dark.
Wonder stirs in me and sharpens to delight. When I get home,
I’ll call Daddy and tell him I saw . . .
Three weeks ago today and it still isn’t real.
The fierce knuckly hands almost gentle in their letting go, the
big thing taking to the night as quiet as a sigh —
One breath. And then he’s gone.
I SEE THE WILD WORLD because my father taught me all my life
to look at it. The wrinkle of snake-back where I’m just about to
put my foot. Turkeys stalking in a cutover cornfield. The young
bobcat dashing across the road. Bald eagles wheeling over the
Upper Iowa River and the college where I teach. Spotting wild-
life became a game: “Buzzard or hawk?” he’d ask, pointing at the
sky. Driving the two-lane roads near our farm at dusk, I’d test
him back: “Might be a deer up there,” I’d say, “you better slow
down.” When, a hundred yards later, the deer flashed through
the headlights, he’d sigh. “You have the best wildlife eyes on
Earth,” he marveled. “If you don’t see it, it isn’t there.”
My wildlife-spotting habit follows me everywhere I go, and
by now, everywhere I go could mean Alabama, Rome, Florence,
or London. One January, three students and I were trudging
up Fleet Street at dusk, the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral glow-
ing in the sky. In the alley to Samuel Johnson’s house, up a
ramp of rain-shined cobblestones, a dark shape flickered. “ I’ll
be damned!” I exclaimed. It was a fox, white-tipped brush aloft,
Nature, sight, and time