Monthly Archives: March 2012

when worlds collide (again)

here at the start of the owling season, my focus becomes a bit confused.  i think owls at night and sleep during those times when i am not owling.  sometimes though, i have to take on the shape of a round peg in the round hole that is tofte’s social life.

like today, for instance.

a wedding reception with food and beer and conversation and food and beer.  and that is to happen before i go out and listen for bastard owls. 

i asked the hostess of the gala what i should wear and she said “nice casual.”

i have no idea what that means.  a crease in my carharts?  extra gel in my hair?  i do smelly fleece and relish my week-ends during the spring because then, i am allowed to relive the glory and the stink from my springs of yore.

nice casual.  hmmmm.  fortunately, i have a soothing, social voice that will accompany me to this function and from her, i will derive common sense and balance and all of her accrued distaff wisdom.

did i mention there will be food and beer?

last night’s owling started with a (saw-whet) bang and ended with a spineless, nocturnal whisper.  two swets right off the start…one a half-hour later and thereafter…nothing.  as it did the other night, an aurora made an appearance, then slinked away to a paltry, emasculated display in canada.  everything that happened provided the perfect intellectual backdrop for what has now become an ongoing internal debate….what’s the point?

boreals are gone…they won’t magically repopulate a landscape that has turned younger and less supportive.  moose are gone.  i see bud light empties and “lil’ scamp” pop-up trailers in the middle of nowhere…two surefire signs of the pending apocalypse.

last night’s debate was accompanied by the painful realization that the magical, strigidaen nights 0f the 80’s and 90’s will not be rekindled, despite my fervent hope they do just that.  seventeen years ago tonight, i heard 18 boreal and 5 great gray owls in a single evening.  over the past 10 years, i have heard a total of 11 boreals.   

still, i am torn by the biologic concept that if one wants discovery, one needs to be in a place where discovery can occur. 

i have long held the desire to finish up when i achieve 30 years of owl indulgence.   i am 3 years away from that, but only if i finish my 26th year which, at this point, may be tough to accomplish.

fucking owls.

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silence 1, owlman 0

the night was everything the night was meant to be.  still. calm. clear. it contained the promise of every first night of every owl spring i have tickled for the past 26 years.

at sunset, i coursed up the gravel road to my start point. there, i would reflexively engage in my time-tested protocol: 3-minute stops at half-mile intervals for however long i could last. if nothing else, the owler and his methods have remained constant.

stubborn bastard.

several stops in, however, the night became everything it has become:

complete silence.

even in the stillness though, it turned out to be a perfect evening for shared nothingness.

jupiter and venus shone like beacons. wisps of clouds surrendered to cooling air. water moved below ice, creating a palpable tension in the landscape. first nights…first stops…rapid-fire flashbacks to years past and owls and stops and encounters and faces and moments and life and love and isolation and fear and loathing in the north woods.

i’ve been there and done that so many times, but for some reason i keep going back there and doing that.

standing in the middle of the road, looking skyward, it was hard to not be scalded by insignificance. stars and planets graced the night as they have for millions of years. i stood beneath the same astral light that shined on my forefathers when they stepped out from an irish pub in dublin a thousand years earlier and walked upright for the first time (that day).

the sky and a sense of being puts my pride in its place every night.  game. set. match.

at 22:00, the aurora came to life,  sending stilletos of green overhead.  then just as quickly, it retired to its luminescent arc at the top of the world.

coronal tease.

no owls and nary a wisp of wind. contentment. a rejuvenating earth and silence that was not just my own.

tomorrow’s blog?  less sap.

or more.


a blast from the past: march 21, 2001

 the smell of discovery

 here’s what people are saying about this post:

“owlman has captured the essence of the human organism.”  c.darwin, galapagos islands.

“it’s all true.  finally, someone is brave enough to come forward with this information.”  b. lane, tofte, mn.

“you are correct sir!”  e. mcmahon, hollywood, ca.

owlman has nothing on me.”  a. bancroft,antarctica.

“he did not ask permission to use the term lock-box.”  a. gore, ex-govt. worker.

“just what did this terms biology meant? dick?”  g.w. bush, wal-mart greeter.

“owlman stands alone on the island of truth.  e.o. wilson, harvard, ma.

“i could pile-drive that smell from him forever.”  j.ventura, wal-mart greeter.

“this story was better than viagra.”  e. dole,kansas.

“i could have written that.”  b. gates,seattle, wa.

“you could have written this with two less paragraphs.” b. selig,milwaukee, wi.

“you want stink? come join my tribe.” o. bin-laden,afghanistan.

“i was moved by your story.”  c. manson, chino state prison.

“your story exploded with reality.” t. kawcyzinski,marion federal prison.

“owlman is in complete charge of malfactorous digressions.” a. haig, washington, d.c.

“hey, who left the seat up?”  s. helms, space station alpha.

“owlman has raised everyone’s interest in this topic.”  a. greenspan, wal-mart greeter.

“stink is not now, and never has been a part of biology.”  g. ford, ex wal-mart greeter.

“there is a reason for the chaos you are experiencing.”  s. hawking, oxford, u.k.

“i am removing my link to your site!!!!”  m. theresa,calcutta and beyond. 

and now……true confessions:

 it’s not like my social calendar is teeming with appointments these days. i go to work at sunset and sleep at daybreak. that in itself puts me out of kilter with the rest of the world. just once though, i would like a dinner invitation to dispel the  notion that “it must be me”. 

the other day, i saw an old friend and was about to give her a hug but had to preface it with a warning: “reene,  i’m a little bit stinky”. she shrugged it off with a wave of the hand, gave me a hug, and dropped to the floor. when she came to, i cupped her head in my hand and asked, “are you okay?” her eyes rolled back and when they returned, she drew me near and said quietly, “bill willy, you need to wash your fleece”.  i breathed a sigh of relief: it isn’t me. it’s my fleece….then again, maybe it is me. 

any biologist who spends time in the field that says they don’t personally revel in their own stink is either not a biologist or is lying. well, let me speak for male biologists. i don’t know about female biologists since i am not brave enough to open that topic of conversation. guys love it. we breathe it and relish it. the smellier the better. feet, pits, butt. our musk is what biology is all about. it’s a personal thing. everyone else reeks, but i am the proverbial spring flower. 

the shower where i stay provides steaming hot water and the towels are fluffy. yet, they remain largely unused. my hair sports a sheen that is pure, 100%, dirt and grease. no need to brush because i am sporting the latest fashion rage: nature’s perm. the peaks and waves just never go away. don’t like today’s style? just put on a hat for a couple of minutes and viola! you are a fashion maven. my finger- and toe-nails have become down-sized petri dishes. bacteria are my friends. 

and the fleece. oh the fleece. when i awake mid-afternoon, the first thing i do is make sure that the fleece has not moved on its own since i took it off. i believe we have come to terms with each other. i don’t wash it and it doesn’t abandon me. fleece is an amazing fabric. it insulates, wicks, layers; does everything but slices and dices. it also retains odor like a lock-box (i had to use that term). 

when i am in the woods, i can imagine every mammal within 10 miles downwind has its lips curled, its nose to the air, wondering “what the hell is that?” it is an acknowledgement of sorts; they know i am here and i know that wherever i go, i am a mobile scent post. for 7 weeks each spring, i am the “potpourri of funk”. 

eventually, i will break down and send a stream of coffee-brown water from the washing machine into the drain, and will bask in the flow of cascading, hot water. i will be clean, but then the clock will begin ticking to a new and improved batch of stink. will it top the last? one can only hope. 

for now though, call the hazardous materials specialists. my fleece (and me) may require a government warning. and if you happen to see me on my rounds and want to give me a hug, that would be nice, but you may want to think twice about it.


trying to explain the unexplainable

this is what used to happen at the end of an owl spring…from april of 2001:

a third person good-bye 

the sun rose like a pair of cheap, pumpkin colored boxer shorts over the placid waters of lake superior as the cherubic biologist made his journey down the long and winding gravel road.  his field season would end with these cathartic miles of dust, and he grew melancholy, knowing that months would pass before his feet again strode atop the acidic soils of the boreal forest.  

life had taken many turns over the years for this wildlife fabio, yet through it all, he remained dedicated to his cause, like misguided conservative republicans are to theirs.  he had exhibited compassion and altruism during his brief stint on the planet; always willing to help, always ready to pitch in.  when the call came from hollywood, he was there, serving as a body double for brad pitt in the movie thelma and louise.  when he sensed that his cerebral presence in academia was detrimental to fellow students, he lowered the curve in all of his classes.  when the call came from across the “big pond”, he resolutely boarded the private jet to help steven hawking set up his star trek screen saver.  for the good of man, was his motto.  he lived it.  he breathed it.  

but then in 1987, he entered another world.  it was dark, like his days at the boy scout camp, where the term “portage” took on a completely different meaning.  and it was quiet, like the sunday mornings of his youth, parked in front of the church knowing that he could go in, but why do what everyone else is doing?  instead, he sought his own path.  another world to him became the night.  another world became the silence of late winter.  another world had as its aria the haunting song of the boreal owl. 

he was like a fish out of water at first, afraid of the dark, unwilling to venture beyond the safety zone of his truck.  but gradually he sprouted fins (actually snowshoes) that took him to the furthest reaches of the forest.  he walked and skied, rode a bicycle, and drove the back roads like a pavlovian dog looking for its reward.  he listened for sounds in the night, like during high school when he had a girl in his room and his parents were gone-but due back soon.  

by the end of his 2001 field season, he had surveyed nearly 5,000 miles of those sometimes snow covered, sometimes arid roads, often barefoot.  he drank coffee like a sot, and passed gas like a ’68’ corvair running on three cylinders.  he entered the night with his belly full and his belly empty.  he had endured sickness and health, and the shady area between the two.  he walked stridently with clothing worthy of a level 3 haz-mat disposal unit.  he was a vagabond, a lithesome mover in the night. 

he had seen much during his north woods adventures.  there were the nights when the mother ship appeared and his heart rate soared, like during high school when he had a girl in his room and his parents were home.  there was the day he rescued a dog from the perils of abandonment in the wilderness, and the tears shed when its owners drove immediately from chicago to reunite with their “captain”.  there was serendipitous discovery and perpetual consternation.  he had brushed, but not flossed his teeth regularly.  he had aged, but in so doing, felt his heartbeat slow to the pace of the winter’s night. 

and now, with dusty plumes rising behind his vehicle he slowed, then stopped.  he got out and looked to the north, illuminated in the pale glow of a new day, with only the brightest stars and planets lingering in the retiring night sky.  he raised his arms in a ritualistic good-bye to the land, the water, and the heavens, and paused with a deep breath, knowing that his soul was leaving its home behind.


26 years on

i remember the first night like it was the back of my hand.  it was an exercise in fear and impatience and irrational thoughts…completely bereft of warm fuzziness.  on thursday, my first night will be relived as i again venture into the night and begin my fourth-to-last round of spring owl surveys. 

apathy has yet to push dogged determination aside. 

come on apathy…push harder…  

i am sure if you were to time travel back to the moment each spring when i become blog happy, the first few posts  would sound remarkably similar.  they will waft through the reconnection and the passion, the anecdotes and yes, the drudgery and sleep deprivation.  then in early may, they will all stop as i apply the hand brake to biologic acuity. 

i mean, jeez…it’s been 26 years folks. 

of course, everything has changed.  i have changed, the landscape has changed, the owl community has changed but…and i don’t need to belabor this point…i still get a tingle of excitement when i arrive on the front porch of nocturnal indulgence. 

reconnection means different things to different people but to me, an owl spring means i am again put into my place. 

humility is never a bad thing.

the anamolous winter is nearly over and for the first time in a while, i will have free run of a forest absent of waist-deep snow. skiing has been served its eviction notice and gardening has taken position in the portion of my brain still accepting synaptical stimulation. 

i have resigned myself to the empirical data and now accept that long evenings without the song of the boreal owl are the new “nocturnal norm”.  but for the next 6 weeks, i will spend my evenings in 3-minute increments and at .5 mile intervals, hoping for new discovery and affirmation that i am where i am because “this” is where is am supposed to be.    

as excited as i can get is as excited as i will be on thursday night.  it will be warm and the roads soft.  i will listen and then voice chagrin and dismay before setting up a homestead on the isle of nostalgia.  but, if an owler is in the woods and he’s sharing anecdotes and there is no one there to hear them, are they really anecdotes?

after 25 years yes, i believe they are.