The Dance of Birth and Death

When I was in college I had an English professor who joked that art is mostly about two things and birth or death. He said that somewhere in the crannies and creases of every great poem, painting, novel, sculpture, or song, you could locate this theme-of-themes, this eternal dance between the beginning and the end of the human earthly existence.

You’re either busy being born or busy dying. That’s how Bob Dylan put it.

A few weeks ago I was sitting in my third floor office in Wofford’s “Old Main.” I’m lucky, with a corner office and two windows. Just before lunch our resident red-tailed hawk landed 10 feet from my east window and sat for 15 minutes before a squirrel (even closer to my window) made its one fatal mistake and left the safety of the nest to head down the oak.

The patient hawk nailed the squirrel from the branch a few feet away, but it wasn’t easy. With wings extended, the big bird was caught high in the branches of the oak, only a few feet from my window! The hawk had the squirrel, with his talons wrapped securely around the squirrel’s head, and the rodent was bobbing helplessly below. The bird looked over at me several times, reached down and pecked at the squirming squirrel, and continued to hang there.

I watched in fascination as this little death drama went on outside my office window. It was late winter. Did that hawk have a nest somewhere nearby? A squirrel was busy dying while hawks were busy being born.

After about ten minutes the bird broke free and plummeted toward the ground, but the great hawk wings caught air right before the bottom and it flew to the front campus under a big cedar tree and finished off its lunch.

I’m sick right now of the death side of the great drama of life. In the past month there have been five deaths of people close to me, or people close to my friends. That’s a lot of death even for a poet.

So just when I was ready for a little energy from the other end of the spectrum, the owls arrived behind our house.

Three mornings ago the big barred owls showed up. There were two or three birds in the river bottom below our house, close enough to wake the dog.

They made their signature call: “Who, who cooks for you?” But they also screeched and carried on in other vocal patterns as well. Soon as it was light I got Toby and walked out under these magic noisy birds.

They didn’t fly away. There were three of them. Two of the owls were bigger, maybe males, and sat in the tops of big trees 40 feet apart. The smaller owl, maybe a female, sat in a third tree between them.

“A love triangle,” I thought. “Maybe it’s mating season.”

Toby didn’t like all that sharp whistling noise, and he barked. The hair stood up between his shoulders.

The birds didn’t seem to care that we were there. Once we got underneath, the two bigger owls hooted back and forth. Then as I watched and Toby barked, the two owls launched from their perches and clashed hard right over our heads with talons flying. They fought for a moment or two, hanging in the air, and then flew back to their respective trees.

The third owl sat and watched from a distance.

We stood below for a few final minutes until all three owls disappeared deeper in the woods. They left with those silent flaps of their wings that owls use to move through the dark woods. It’s always strange to see them in the daylight, and stranger yet to be witness to such an intimate show.

A great nature poet like Robert Frost or Mary Oliver would file these encounters away and come back to them on some cold morning hunched over their writing tables. I’ll try to do the same.

The world goes on. How briefly all we creatures pass through in our dance, coming and going.

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