Memories of the Future, or, Somewhere in Indiana — Reflections on the Pandemic

And then one day the whole world just stopped.

I’m not sure exactly when I discovered the owl’s nest on the 24 hour live camera. Something strange happened to my sense of time early in the pandemic. Things started slowing down even as they sped up. I felt like I was somehow moving underwater and plummeting through endless space all at once. I found the camera in the middle of March, I think, when my growing obsession with bird watching was moving in step with increasing social restrictions. Stuck at home, I was monitoring and servicing my backyard feeders with a fanaticism that at times unnerved me. I would tell myself that the birds were an ideal distraction amidst the confusion, an oasis of calm that allowed me to turn off the news and direct my attention elsewhere, most importantly away from my own gnawing fear and powerlessness. And so I experimented with new combinations of feed and suet, trained my ears to catch and sift drops of birdsong, diligently recorded comings and goings in a notebook, and, at some point while investigating my hobby online, stumbled across a link to a live nest cam, mounted above a mother barred owl in a small rectangular box crafted from short wooden panels.

The eggs were already there, though I didn’t see them until a few days later, three bright orbs that I only realized I had glimpsed in the moment they were hidden again — a bit like shooting stars. At first I only saw the owl, which rarely moved, save for a subtle shifting of its weight, a little flutter near its eyes, or maybe a slow, steady turning of its head. There was something strangely thrilling about these syrupy movements, and when they happened it was like a private signal that rewarded my patience even as it charged the next long period of stillness with hushed, anticipatory pleasures. Whenever I locked on to the signal, the owl was just sitting there, not doing much of anything. I found it hard to look away.

The owl cam became a virtual tether to the world outside my windows, a tiny space out there somewhere, magically free from the crushing weight of information related to respiratory droplets, protein spikes, community spread. It didn’t matter that the owl moved so sparingly, and that sometimes its upper half would be out of frame and I would stare for ten minutes or more only at its hunched back, my eyes moving up and down the browns and whites and greys, divining patterns in its feathers. Knowing it was out there was enough. There was a quiet dignity in its commitment to sitting and waiting. A tranquility to its persistence. Enclosed, unmoving, but in no way trapped.

Once I had the page bookmarked, I would check in on the owl at all times of the day, just to catch a glimpse. Sometimes half a minute was enough. Just to see it, just to know it was still there, somewhere in rural Indiana, half a continent away in an undisclosed forest, up an undisclosed tree. I would check while in line at the grocery store, fright thickening my blood and my breath straining at the strangeness of my mask. First thing when I woke up. When I stretched at my desk and went down to put on my second cup of coffee. Brushing my teeth before bed. Days and days with really nothing happening. The owl, motionless in the daylight, only the tips of its feathers registering the breeze that stirred its small cedar box. The owl, motionless at night, illuminated in the eerie blacks, greys, and whites of the camera’s eye. When I watched late at night, I often turned the volume up on my phone to hear the steady hum – the static of full dark mixing with the tinny rattle of my phone’s speakers. If it wasn’t for the white noise and the almost imperceptible flex of its ribs and pinions when the owl took a deep breath, it would be easy to think the video feed had frozen.

One night, a few days into my spy sessions, a second owl arrived at the threshold of the nest-box, offering its mate a small mouse or vole. The hunter left and the owl I knew pecked and tore until a tendril of wormy gut was spilling from the belly of its meal. The owl raised itself up, tucked in its wings and then shifted the food under its body so that it nested on both the eggs and the prey. Then it settled in, unmoving, silent and stern as some ancient stone sentinel clad in night-vision hues.

There is something so real – so pure – about this, I thought to myself, even though I’m watching a mostly inert owl sitting in a fabricated nesting box rigged with multiple cameras and microphones somewhere in Indiana, all of this magically beaming its way up through the dark glaze of my phone. In the early days of that Spring the smallness of the modern world — felt at the shrinking edges of my perception — was a terrifying thing, but also, I thought, full of strange wonders.

Among the weird new blessings of being house bound — carefully prepared meals and the slow time to enjoy them, being unshackled from a long commute, cracks in the day filled with pleasure reading — having the time to just sit and watch the owls was near the top of the list. Sometimes I imagined that I was the only one watching the owls in the entire world, that maybe right this moment no one else was even thinking about them, though I don’t know why this would matter.

I watched recorded highlights of the first hatching. What emerged was a bulbous, alien head with inkblack slits for eyes, a body quivering and tottering in place. Although this frenzy of activity within the quiet box was thrilling, I found the helplessness of the owlet faintly repulsive. The head seemed far too heavy and unwieldy for its thin neck, pulling the tiny body down like an anchor. I watched recordings of the second and third hatchings. For days and days the tender owlets lolled about as if half-drowned and tossed up from some violent tempest.

The owlets grew like summer storm clouds. Their hunger was boundless, and soon every one of my visits was marked by the delivery or the devouring of fresh meat. Mice and frogs. Fish and worms. Flying squirrels. Crayfish after crayfish. Even a robin, its plump breast sagging on the broken hinges of its neck as the owl in the box moved it from corner to corner. Dead things piled up at the edges of the box. I tried to keep track, but couldn’t. The box seemed very small, and getting smaller.

What I wanted to see most of all was the owlets leave the nest. This was the silent promise of the sturdy little eggs, the stumbling promise of the mewling hatchlings exploring all corners of the box. The first flight seemed to be, in some way, the basic point of the entire operation, the big finale that everything was building towards. Why find these cameras, invest all this time and energy, if you weren’t going to stick around for the most exciting part?

But I didn’t see them fledge. Virtual tethers can fray all the same, and my obsession with the owls gradually faded. My mind continued to wander to the owls, but I found it harder and harder to commit parts of my day to watching them. By the beginning of May, when online meetings and classes were dominating my days, I couldn’t bear the thought of spending any more time staring at a screen, for any reason. My fragile attention drifted back to the vivid songbirds in my backyard, though on walks through the local park I found myself looking high in old-growth trees, hoping to spot some brown plumage blurred against the bark, a pair of inkblack eyes taking me in. No luck.

Later in the summer, when I check back in on the live feed of the nest after a long absence, it’s empty. A few tufts of feathers, some stray bones protruding from the remnants of regurgitated pellets, a ragged shadow of a meal long past — this is all that’s left. I watch anyway, for a short while, nothing happening, thinking about the owls and where they might be. Thinking, maybe right this moment the moonlight washes down on them as they move through the darkness, spectral and briefly luminous, shifting through their phantom forms.

English Professor. Author of "Conspiracy of One," a small book of short stories, and “The Coward," a collection of essays.

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