Lesley and I were still strangers when we parked our cars side by side in the Chimney Rock Parking lot, at the very edge of the continent in Point Reyes National Seashore. Lesley had a big, friendly smile and long, blond hair. She’d arrived slightly late to our first session of the California Naturalist Immersion Class, and I couldn’t remember what she’d said was her favorite natural phenomena. Octopus, maybe? I made a mental note to remember that she must like intelligent marine life.
During our ice-breaker circle earlier, I had chosen the ibex to represent me. An animal like a cross between mountain goat and big-horned sheep, the ibex lives in Israel’s Negev Desert. I loved seeing them hang out, like over-sized, tan, misshapen birds on the low desert trees, munching thoughtfully on leaves and branches as though they belonged up there. They represented the essential me, I felt, desert-loving and freedom-seeking at my essence, rock-climber and route finder, Israeli despite living here in the United States.
I returned Lesley’s smile, allowing myself to feel happy being there despite my trepidation about the California Naturalist class. The rooms at the Lifeboat Station, where we were to stay, were so crowded. The bathrooms uncomfortable and lacking in privacy. The entire building we were going to stay in seemed cramped, and the area where we were going to be eating a frightening potential abode of dust mites. I knew I could find hundreds of reasons to be worried about the week — they all were knocking on the inside edge of my consciousness. Instead, I tried to concentrate on Lesley’s wide smile.
We walked companionably down the hill, each step bringing us closer toward the on-the-edge-of-consciousness dreaded Lifeboat Station. Drake’s Bay stretched to the left, unflappable and blue, surrounded by yellow cliffs (the same rocky shores, according to legend, which made Sir Francis Drake think of the Dover Cliffs when he first landed). Elephant seals roared in the background, and here and there the desolate cry of a seagull flying overhead pierced the air. It was evening, and yet the sun still shone bright above the hills, and only the slowly lengthening shadows of the Monterey Cypresses hinted that night might come before long.
As we passed by the Chief’s house, where the Coast Guard captain had once resided with his family, an owl hooted, and then another. We paused, listening. The air quivered with the scent of the cypresses and the sound of the waves rushing onto the rocks below. The owl hooted again from our right. Looking up, my breath stopped, for we could see it, framed by the cypress as clear as the Point Reyes sun-setting daylight. My first Great Horned owl, right there. As though to confirm our discovery, the owl hooted again, its unseen mate echoing the call.
Others from our class appeared, coming up the hill toward us, curious faces I didn’t yet know attached to name tags which soon, a day or two later, I would not need. Binoculars were pulled out of bags, trained at the owl. The owl was silent, perhaps unsure of what the commotion was about, wondering if it was safe to advertise its location. Too late. We already knew exactly where it was, could see it on the bare branch, discovered its pellets on the ground below. Secret no more, the owl and its partner were ours for the watching and remained ours for most of our week’s stay.
“I lead you to make your own discoveries,” our teacher Chris said during one of his talks. “I could have led you to the owl, but I wanted you to find it yourselves.” My subconscious knew, of course, that the owl had been on that tree before Lesley and I discovered it. I knew, too, that other people had seen Great Horned owls before me, had seen this one more than once. I was neither the first to see it on that particular cypress tree, nor the first to discover the species. And yet the discovery was precious to me. I had heard the owl call, raised my eye in hope of seeing it, and met with success for the very first time. Seeing it was magic, surprise and miracle combined. For me, my owl sighting was unique, and the owl was the first, primordial owl, a wonderful beginning to a week still mysteriously looming before me and on which I placed so many hopes and expectations and innocent trust.