Great Horned Owl and the Long-Night Moon

Reading and photographs by Robert Towe

From my nature journal, December 4: Before going to bed I close down the house and walk outside for a few minutes to stand and listen, to hear the evening hush of the dark December hills. I breathe deep and smell the night. The air is mild for this time of year, cool and moist with the musk of fallen leaves and loamy earth---thawed again, after hard November frosts.

The vast bowl of sky is full of slow clouds, curdled milky opalescent blue. Wisps of smoky rust stain the tall moon. From the west drift shadowy vapors, not thick enough for rain, nor dense enough to completely darken the ancient stone face of light. In winter months, when the sun rolls low across the sky, the moon rides high.

From deep past beyond all remembering, native peoples called the last moon of the natural year “The Long-Night Moon”. That time in the earth’s rotation we’ve squared into a grid of numbered boxes and named “December” has always known the shortest days, the longest nights. Can we imagine living by a “calendar” closely tuned with the movements and silences of natural cycles? ---a “clock” that ticks with spring’s first exuberant fluting of the Wood Thrush; the raspy summer night-music of Katydids; silky ears of corn sweetened in the husk; moonlit wolves crying across the milk-blue crust of snow.

So the indigenous tribes named the thirteen moons of the turning year. The round rock satellite rolling above us has no light of its own. It always reflects the light from the buried sun. Whether the moonlight is the color of ripe melons or of icicles, its soft or sharpened radiance sketches the night land with quiet glory, mystery and shadows.

This particular night is quiet, and still. Only one sound haunts the deep woods, the night meadows and the grey-faced moon: a Great Horned Owl hoots somewhere on the black wooded hill. The large owl’s booming notes drum muffled echoes across the deep hollows. I stand still several minutes, listening to his throbbing song, over and over, every twenty seconds. (And I wonder how he knows when twenty seconds is up?) The fearful imaginations of native peoples conjured forebodings from such ominous night-words. The dark sound stirs something in us primal and wild, living below the level of language.

Tonight I do not hear the female owl answering with her higher-pitched staccato tones. Suddenly the male stops calling. All is quiet but the faint river in the distance. I wait and listen, but the great owl has gone silent. From somewhere in the pastures of night, a horse snuffles.