The White Underwing

I happed upon this image just before a writing session. Here’s most of what I wrote.

Up, anxious, sitting on the pot. Above the bathroom curtain’s ruffle, I can see a section of the night sky. A wedge of moon travels above Linshaw’s roof and into the netted shadows of their massive copper beech.

That tree, part sentinel, part cautionary tale, is hundreds of years old. It was a sapling during the small pox epidemic of the late 1700’s. It grabbed sky in one direction and earth in the other when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. Horses and a stream wandered nearby at one time.

The beech was bigger yet at the Emancipation Proclamation. By the time of the Spanish flu perhaps the twin trunks had established themselves.

The white planked house is old too, but not nearly as old as the tree. I like to think that Abraham Jackson sited the foundation with due regard for the tree, a tree which was still in its youth but already punctuating his property with its mighty grace at the time of building.

The moon in her delicate variety is older yet, so old that a different scale of time is required. The coal-to-diamond scale. The asteroid-encounter scale.

All I can think about during my brief viewing of the night sky is how insular I’ve become. A life apart from the wonder of puddles and their up-side-down worlds. Apart from trout and hummingbirds. Apart from the cleansing sweep of cold night air in the lungs.

Oh I go outside, but my walks with the dog are more like mail delivery than adventure. Making the rounds. A chance to take stock of all the closed blinds and wonder why so few structures ever show any signs of life.

When I lived on the other side of the state in the Berkshires, all I had to do was raise my head off the pillow and gaze out my eastern window to be transported. Sheep’s Heaven Mountain, a name whispering: time passes, time passes. Not that long ago the wooded hill was bare and dotted with sheep.

Here the horizon is poked with roofs. One neighbor painted their house a bright yellow this year and at first I wondered at their choice. Today I welcome its yolky warmth in all the grey.

All the grey can dull the senses. Maybe that’s why the news of a snowy owl in Washington, D.C. captivated me this morning. She’d made her way south from her usual haunts. She could be yet another signal of the drastic climate change we’re all so busily — in one way or another — trying to ignore.

But when I spy her fluffed up against the cold atop a statue of Themis, a figure representing freedom and justice, I like to think she stands for something else. That she augurs change. I like to think that when she lifts her wings and reveals their white undersides, we are meant to notice and in noticing, act.

I don’t believe the arc of the moral universe necessarily bends toward justice. There are too many ways we can fail. But this bird perched on the head of a goddess carrying the sword of justice lets me think we have a chance. A chance to make things right. A chance to live up to our promise and to atone for our sins. Not because I say so, but because a solitary owl, mysterious and commanding, has told me so.

9 thoughts on “The White Underwing

  1. Liz A

    I passed through Union Station many times when I was in grad school at in DC … always in a hurry to get from one place to another, I don’t think I ever looked up, at least not long enough to form a lasting mental image … still, I felt a connection and then thought of Athena the Owl who nests at the Wildflower Center each year ( … and of Austin Kleon’s Coconut the Owl … they are endlessly fascinating creatures

    and so too the Linshaw’s tree … having known a magnificent beech in my childhood I found myself “seeing” the roots spreading in equal measure to the massive crown of that long-ago tree … but noooooo … I just went to Google maps and there, behind my one-time nextdoor neighbor’s house, a huge round emptiness where that glorious tree once lived

    “I don’t believe the arc of the moral universe necessarily bends toward justice” … too often, most often, I am disappointed by the way things go … hope is elusive in these Covid times

    1. deemallon Post author

      It is heartbreaking to lose a tree. Our entire neighborhood went into mourning when many acres were razed next to the school in order to build townhomes. Not coincidentally, I found a dead screech owl on my sidewalk a week later. Because of the association between Athena and owls, I thought this statue was her until I read the caption.

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