“He really was an enchanting person. In some way he was like the spiritual father of everybody…. It is hard to imagine Central Park without Charles Kennedy.” Marie Winn, author of Red-tails in Love, and close friend of Charles, remembering him after his death in October 2004

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

In Which We Hail Hawks and Conjure Owls

The great Red-tailed Hawk, Pale Male, is having his day in the celluloid sun, as well he should. The first weekend of showings in NYC went very well. Hurray for Pale Male, Frederic Lilien, and all the ‘hawkoholics’!! “The Legend of Pale Male” will have another week in The Big Apple and then on to San Francisco, Boston, San Diego and beyond!

And… for many of us, cold weather is owl weather.  Deb and I took a late afternoon walk today, across the main road and into Cherry Creek State Park, ‘our park’. As we approached the woodland trail we voiced our ramped-up anticipation, “Good time to see owls…”

We strode into the spinney as the sun painted the leafless trees with a sepia cast before it fell behind the Front Range. It was easy to fall into an altered state of consciousness.  Memories. Connections. Magic?
When my brothers and I were small, Uncle Charles bought us all of the A.A. Milne books. I have two next to me now. Some of my fondest early memories are of curling up in Charles’s lap to hear him read The House at Pooh Corner and When Were Very Young in his most expressive thespian voice. It was easy to picture Pooh and Piglet, Eeyore and Owl (or “WOL” as he spelled it) frolicking in the Hundred Acre Wood. Later, Charles would come back to Iowa from New York when I was 10ish to lead the neighborhood kids on naturalist expeditions through the Bever Park Woods and waist-deep into Indian Creek.

And many times, just like today, being in our local Hundred Acre Wood, we feel certain that Charles must be present, just behind the next tree, picking up ‘haycorns’ for Piglet or pausing to listen for an owl’s call...
In Charles’s photo-essay book about owls (soon to be published!) he has a poetic photo-essay about Long-Eared Owls, a species in search of which he and his friends spent many cold Central Park nights. Along the way, they developed a micro-cosmology of owling, containing such important elements as belief and serendipity. From Charles’s book:
Lee and Noreen and I developed a rule. It allowed us to believe in ourselves and believe in owls. 
         Rule: If you think you saw it, you did.
 And from Central Park In The Dark, by Marie Winn:
 If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Our little band of night explorers––Charles, Lee, Noreen, Jimmy, and I––adopted this unprincipled philosophy as soon as the screech owls arrived in the park…We wandered the park at random, looking for owls.
…One warm, clear February day Charles struck pay dirt. As he was trying to locate a noisy woodpecker drumming somewhere near Warbler Rock, his binoculars lighted on a little screech owl sunning itself at the entrance of a cavity about fifteen feet up in a black locust. The bird was perfectly camouflaged, detectable only by sheer serendipity––Charles’s specialty.
 Deb was the owl whisperer today. Well back in the woods, in muted light, she stopped abruptly, beckoning me with swift hand action. We were sure she had spotted a Long-eared in a tree not far from the trail. We had no binocs, so we needed a closer look to make sure. So we did what Charles would do: We bushwhacked stealthily through low bushes and thistle patches toward the tree. And… we found a perfectly owl-shaped jumble of sticks, perhaps remnants of an old nest. 

Not a setback––a good omen. So I hooted the “Who are you?! You too?!” of the Great Horned Owl a few times for good measure and we walked on down the path––for about twenty paces. Deb stopped again, this time crouching and pointing back into the woods and up…to an actual Great Horned Owl. The sun was gone, but it had set ablaze all the trees to our west in its screaming orange-and-magenta wake.

In that scene I flashed on the plaque that adorns Charles’s memorial bench in his Hundred Acre Wood—the Ramble in Central Park. The plaque features one of his haiku:
empy milkweed pods
weeks since a butterfly
maybe there’ll be owls

Past the Great Horned and nearing the edge of the woods, Deb and I took stock of our walk: Gulls, geese, chickadees, pheasants, magpies, flickers, two kinds of sparrows, juncos, a close encounter with a large white-tail buck at dusk, and a brace of coyote sopranos singing a forlorn duet up the far draw.  

On the home stretch I remembered a poem, which was the genesis of this post.  I wrote the piece ten days after Charles's death––right after an early-morning birding jaunt to Cherry Creek, when I had burst into the house, on auto-pilot, and had gone straight to the phone to dial Charles's number. 

Last Rite of Autumn 
October 30, 2004

on mornings like this
I would phone Charles…

describe my park’s sunrise
made of October grasses
crows and sparrows and pink clouds
on freshly powdered mountains…

and hear an echo
about a hawk family pulling pigeons
from an oak and maple blaze,
about the dusky gift of owls
on diminished days in his park…

we’d then declare our shared love
of autumn
as it cast its soft spotlight
on our fortunate lives

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