This magnificent Great Horned Owl is spending the winter in New York’s Central Park. The photo is a “first” for me, a co-operative effort, made through the kind help of a professional nature photographer.
It was Christmas Eve, a day that celebrates journeys large and small, guiding stars, the birth of the new. On that day, we took an everyday stroll through ordinary time into a quiet revelation of the numinous.
We’d come to the Ramble, the section of the park where the owl was roosting, but the area was huge, and we couldn’t spot the bird. Then a man with a camera came walking down the path, and we asked him if he knew where the owl was.
“I know where he was the other day,” he said.
Offering to show us, he trekked back the way he came, and we followed him along a hidden path so serpentine that I imagined him walking us back in time — to the moment, as well as to the place where he’d last seen the owl. The path sloped downward toward a clump of trees where another man sat with his camera and telephoto lens mounted on a tripod.
“He’s looking at the owl,” said our guide, who spoke with a Russian accent. He was soon joined by a clutch of Russian-speaking birdwatchers who’d spotted a hawk hunting for snacks at a cluster of bird feeders dangling from the bare trees and crowded with titmice. There were other out-of-towners there, including a number of Americans and a woman from Britain, an avid birder who’d just seen her first Christmas-red cardinal. And then there were the two of us from Toronto — one, a native New Yorker, both observing the scene with wonderment. We stood inside a quiet microcosm of the great world, humming around and above us in the big city beyond this hidden glen.
The photographer was an unhurried man, quiet and patient, sitting a metre away from me in a lounge chair, a remote switch in his hand, his 600mm telephoto trained on the enormous owl high up in the trees. I was astounded to realize that he was someone I knew by reputation, a professional videographer and a denizen of Central Park, whose photo blog I’ve admired for years. (I mentioned him in this blog a year ago).
Feeling wowed to be working alongside him, I got busy photographing the owl. I didn’t have my big telephoto and my 300mm lens wasn’t quite up to the task, but I kept at it while the sleepy-looking raptor opened and shut its huge golden eyes, scratched and preened and turned its back to us. I felt a bit frustrated, but then I watched the photographer who seemed in no hurry, who did his work by waiting in stillness for the majestic bird to reveal itself. I realized then that for every one of the man’s extraordinary online photos, he may have taken dozens less so. He was unpreturbed, prepared to wait, attentive. It seemed as if the beauty of his work arose out of the empty space created by patience and silence.
How apt, I thought , that the run-up to Christmas should be a season known as Advent, the period of waiting.
A man approached the photographer, asking if he could attach his camera to the lens and take some photos. He could, and did.
So now you know how I got my picture.
My photo was also taken with that 600mm telephoto lens. More than that, it was taken through the serendipity of chance encounters and the kindness of a generous man. It felt as if it were taken in a vision. “Now the eyes of my eyes are opened,” wrote e. e. cummings. So was the eye that beheld the owl.
Many eyes. Birders, clustered together in silence, their binos lifted skyward — they embody contemplation and reverence in the presence of mystery and wonder. Observe the grandeur of the Great Horned Owl, and you will know for sure that abiding in the heart of this broken world is a clear and luminous goodness.
Radiant moments of wonder and blessing do happen in our brief lives.
All we can do is embrace them and be thankful.