Going on an owl watch Saturday night, with a sermon coming up next morning, was not my idea of relaxation. But Bernice's disappointed look made me cheer up enough to say, "Let's go!" I couldn't think of any good sermon illustrations from owls, only a few puns that church people are too polite to groan at. Going there had to be a big mistake. Yet, there we were at 8:00 p.m., all twenty of us, ready for the Park Ranger and his friend to lead us into the largest bird sanctuary in Ohio. We stood around another half-hour waiting for daylight to pass. I hoped it wasn't far to the owl hangout—a fool's hope. Rather, it was roundabout through the darkening wilderness. We came upon a small path which we followed through uneven terrain, muddy turns, slippery inclines, and makeshift twiggy stairway to a small wooded lake. Other than a few dimly recognizable birds, there was nothing but sheer quiet amid tall underbrush around a "golden pond." But the hush was exotic! Dark was fully upon us as we were rerouted another way. Each step was an act of faith, guided by our few flashlights.
As time turned past ten, the trail turned treacherous. But we made it through to a sturdy, moonlit bridge over a tranquil, burbling stream. Suddenly, we were in an arched cathedral, and conversation hushed. We waited to hear one sound above the stream's flow. Not a peep. No sound of leaves. Awesome as it was, we wondered what we could expect.
Fifteen minutes went by. The Park Ranger broke the silence with his special tape recorder. I mused to myself, "How dare anyone break into this mystic moment with a raucous old sound track?" The Ranger fumbled around trying to crank up some owl sounds. I had my doubts about getting real owl noises. After a few squeaks, I was sure any wise old owl would know this is phony. But he got it working! The tape recorder began hooting, cooing, and screeching, running the keyboard of sound—real owl voices! Most real! How would owls mistake these? But, for fifteen minutes there wasn't one response from the Lords of the dark! The Ranger, confessing that this might not be the night, was about to give up. "What a disaster!" I thought.
Suddenly, the whole forest theater turned into an arena. Off to my right, a lonely hoot, then others, perhaps testing the night overtures. Soon the entire arena exploded, owls screeching all over the place! We saw owls flying around the perimeters of our space, visible through the moonlit breaks in the trees. It seemed as though they were taking positions around us to howl us out of the place. No doubt about it, we were in enemy territory, in the night space belonging to them. The Ranger confirmed our conviction. We moved out on the long trail back to our cars and revelled in our experience. Our wise old tree friends may have enjoyed the night encounter, but they really didn't want us invading their territory. It's good to walk with reverence in this sanctuary which we will never conquer and maybe never fully perceive!
Wendell Berry says that the biggest concern of decorum is the question of "what's proper to do," but that you can't answer that by yourself except by knowing the "propriety of place." How true!