Tales of a Golden Heart, Chapter 22: Of Snowy Owls and HU-Birds

–And a partridge in a pear tree. __Christmas song

Hobbies are a hobby of mine. By age ten, I’d dabbled in coin collecting, stamp collecting, photography, and of course birdwatching. The occasional tiger swallowtail butterfly constituted a rare treat, great yellow and black wings softly fanning its perch on a fragrant blooming lilac. Butterflies were cool…but only during the warmer months. Birds, on the other hand, could be observed any time of the year.

The Audubon Society. What a reference source for a boy of ten in rural Montana. Glorious avian literature through the magic of the mails. Mom’s big bird book, however, provided the real inspiration. A birdwatcher’s standard, three inches thick, chock full of color plates. Birds and eggs, artists’ renditions in full color. Robin, tanager, crow. Magpie, eagle, wren. On and on and back again.

The sheer vitality of our living environment made itself felt through their myriad voices and flashing wings. Meadowlarks trebled good morning greetings, hoot owls triggered mini-foghorns in the distant night. No one ever explained why every hoot owl gave the impression of distance, of soaring through darkness on invisible waves sourced from some faraway place.

Throughout the long hours of daylight, magpies chattered and crows cawed. Deep in the mountains, huge black ravens lifted heavily into blue sky from lightning-blasted tree snags with bass croaks that bespoke some hidden mystery, deep and unfathomable. High overhead, red tailed hawks and great golden eagles soared, sometimes in search of prey, sometimes pursued by angry hordes of smaller birds dive-bombing the kings of the sky in defense of their nesting territory and their young.

Near the ranch house, miniscule green hummingbirds hovered by the covered well, harvesting nectar from plants along the fencerow. Equally tiny brown wrens made their nests in holes along the bunkhouse eaves. Indigo-backed barn swallows swooped among the machine shop’s high rafters. Woodpeckers, too, a soft orange under feather sometimes falling to earth from a fast-flying flicker calling for rain, a thrill exceeded only during those seasons a redheaded woodpecker blew in on spring winds to rat-a-tat our aging telephone poles in search of insects.

Blackbirds abounded, as did their justifiably unpopular parasitical cowbird cousins, laying eggs in other birds’ nests for them to raise. Sage hens, known as fool hens for their lack of skill in escaping hunters, grazed in draws along the foothills. Once, a blue grouse made its appearance in deep timber, knowing not to venture from the forest. Mourning doves, too, knew this country, plus the inevitable droves of chickadees and innumerable varieties of sparrows, the rare kingfisher and the beautiful voice just beyond the yard fence from which I chose “Bob White” as my first pen name.

As snow came and went, so did flocks of ducks and geese. Mallards and teal and homely black fish ducks dotted the ponds and shallows along the Clark Fork River; high-flying vees of Canada honkers sounding their call of the wild echoed in the song lyrics made famous by singer Frankie Laine:

Wild goose, brother goose, which is best–
A wandering fool or a heart at rest?

Come the dead of winter, none remained but the hardy, too tough and too stubborn to flee south: Sparrows searching snow blankets for available nutrients, black-and-white magpies scavenging among the livestock herds and down the long black ribbon of U.S. 10, seeking road kills. In the early throes of one particular midwinter blizzard, Dad gone on one of his business trips and the rest of us gathered snugly about the woodstove, a great snowy owl came, driven on icy winds from the far north, a fantastic blur of widespread wings and startled round golden eyes as it crashed into the kitchen window. The glass held and the bird departed hastily, disappearing into the storm.

Society’s demands crept in, one by one, beckoning imperiously for attention. Band practice, and the growing responsibility for ranch livestock and machinery. The competition of basketball and rodeo. The insistent call of puberty and beyond. The need for money. Then college, family, and Uncle Sam’s Army. And of course, the need for even more money.

The simple joy of birdwatching became a thing of memory.

Still, it was a deep memory. It had influence, rising from the ashes from time to time in rare and special events. One Saturday afternoon in Eugene, Oregon, I found a chunk of land not yet overgrown with townhouses or strip malls. Nearly a mile of stream ran along the highway. Beyond that, green meadow beckoned, clumps of brush and a few trees in its midst sounding the call of the country. Vaulting over the fence marked with fierce warnings, I strolled content, slipping easily from sight within minutes.

Discovery. In a briar patch worthy of Bre’r Rabbit, a feral cat raised her young. Only a swift flash of fur betrayed her presence as she darted for cover. Her thoughts made more noise than she did.

Enemy! Beware, babies. Don’t make a sound.

What, me the enemy? “It’s all right, little one. I’m a friend.”

That’s what they all say.

“Hu-u-u-u.” I chanted the ancient name of God softly.

Nice sound. I’m not convinced. Go away.

“All right, little one. I’m going. Say so long to your babies for me.”

A few hundred yards beyond the briar patch, birds of several varieties darted hither, thither, and yon. What sorts? It had been too long since the boy crouched motionless but for a softly scribbling pencil, crudely sketching bird after bird with notes bulging the margins: Striped bars on wings, black on brown. Beak short, hardly curved. Nests in lower bushes…. Now they were only little, medium, and big birds. A sense of loss mingled with rediscovery, half an hour spent seated against a heavy-leafed tree in silence before returning to the townhouse and committing this, too, to memory.

Reading brought stories of special people to whom wild creatures came willingly. A published photograph of the Living Eck Master with a wild sparrow perched on his shoulder, a seeker drawn to the Sound and Light flowing through this channel of the Sugmad. Lai Tsi, Chinese Eck Master of an earlier century whose body received care from animals in the wilderness during his out-of-body journey to God realization.

Then, too, acquaintances had their own stories. One Eckist who lived alone in the Florida Everglades from age five to age sixteen before returning to society. Another who talked with a bear in rural Nebraska and explained to rattlesnakes when they crawled into buckets in the barn and had to be removed. Magical stories, true stories. I’d pass on the venomous reptile in the bucket, but how and when would a wild bird show me that kind of trust? Was I simply not ready yet? Did I just need to practice?

The answer came in the small town of Elk Point, South Dakota, in 1978.

Summer. Heat waves broiled the Dakota plains. In town, the hardware store opened its front door wide to compensate for the lack of air conditioning. A young clerk rang up my purchase of scotch tape and thumbtacks. We were alone in the store, it being lunch hour and the owner at home for soup and sandwiches or down the street at the only real café in town.

“Hot enough for ya?”

“You better believe it.”

Just then, a sparrow zoomed through the doorway, darted airily about for a few seconds, then attempted to exit through the storefront window, a maneuver about as effective as Napoleon at Waterloo. Frightened and frustrated, its wings whipped the offending glass. We watched for perhaps a minute before it became clear the bird had no idea how to return to freedom. Unable to comprehend the nature of the invisible barrier in its path, it would continue its futile effort until it died of exhaustion or fear.

The store employee attempted to herd the little fellow toward the doorway…to no avail. It flashed repeatedly past the young man in a brown blur, returning again and again to that oversized pane of glass stretching thirty feet along the storefront.

“Do you mind if I try?”

“Not at all.” He looked relieved.

I wanted to try an Eck technique. Softly, I began chanting aloud. “Hu-u-u-u-u. Hu-u-u-u-u….”

Focusing on the sparrow while keeping the soft Hu chant going, I called inwardly for Prajapati, the Eck Master who cares for animals. Easing forward, I extended an open palm beneath the bird still fluttering at the glass, then raised the hand slowly. Immediately, the sparrow settled down on my palm, and slowly I pulled my hand away from the window. The bird rode bravely for a foot or so, then flew in panic to pound the window once more. Carefully, I repeated the process, this time cupping my free hand over my nervous passenger so that it could not take wing.

The little flyer settled down, not twitching so much as a feather as we moved to the open door. Once outside, I opened my hands. The sparrow didn’t want to leave. We stood motionless for a minute or more as my new friend ignored all explanations about how it was now safe to leave.

It’s safe here. I like it. I’m resting.

“But you have to go now. It’s okay. There’s no more glass to worry about.”

I’m still resting. Glass-bashing takes it out of a fellow.

Finally, a quick upward motion of my hand settled the matter. The sparrow flew free, darting across the street and disappearing between two buildings.

So long!

“So long.”

I gazed after it for a long moment, the pattern of its departing flight etching itself in long term memory. The soft warmth of its trust lingered in my palms. Smiling, I finally stilled the barely audible Hu chant and returned to the counter to pick up my purchases. The clerk stood absentmindedly by the door, dazed. As I left, our eyes met. He looked puzzled.

“Always wanted to try that,” I confessed, and walked out grinning ear to ear, eyes squinting against the glare of South Dakota sunshine.

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For our readers who may not recognize terms like Hu, Eck, Mahanta, Sugmad, Eck Master, or Living Eck Master, the definitions can be found in A Glossary of Eck Terms at Eckankar.org.

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