An Owl, A Pigeon, and a Pandemic

How Is It That I Wrote About One Character When I Longed for Another?

Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) — USFWS

I was once married to a logger. A bona fide, flannel-shirted, steel-toe booted, day-in, day-out logger. He had recently returned from Vietnam and the U.S. Army, still sweaty with nightmares and locked into the notion that the wild woods of Washington State could break him of his heartache. Instead, those woods created another kind of misery. One that would prevail far beyond his individual life.

In 1971 there were jobs for men who could buck a chainsaw and set a choker. A man’s profession deeply ingrained in tradition, loggers didn’t need a degree or even much of an education. What they required was a hearty regard for figuring distance, because what looks big standing upright is actually a God-awful giant as it comes crashing down. It also helped if they could run fast with a load of as much as 200 pounds of steel cable dragging behind them. Other than that, basic instructions were to stay alive, especially on a soggy hill, and pack a lunch consisting of two meals, in case you weren’t able to get home one night. Every moment in the woods was about survival — of Douglas firs and western red cedar standing ram-rod straight in the middle of a line of men handy with saws. Mostly it was men who won the skirmish. But sometimes even a small log could jump around under a chainsaw, and a man could lose a chunk of his leg or arm or an entire limb.

Sometime in the first few months of his employment, my husband heard about the northern spotted owl. Mostly affecting logging in the old-growth forests of Washington and Oregon, he remained open to the idea that a man could still make a decent living at the dawning of the new age of environmentalism, even though the owl made headlines after a U.S. Forest Service biologist referred to it as an indicator species — “a gauge of the health of the ecosystem that provides its habitat.” He continued to work with a small family-owned outfit on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains in an endeavor known as “gyppo” logging, where profits were small and work could be labor intensive though scanty. He knew he was on the lean side of an old profession when he was laid off for a winter. But it was when he returned in the spring that life abruptly changed. A chainsaw slipped, and he sliced open his upper right thigh. About the same time, the spotted owl took on new worries.

“Reduced logging in old-growth forests will harm all Americans and be particularly devastating to communities in the Pacific Northwest.” According to one report, the timber industry wrote, “If the volume of old growth declines, up to 28,000 jobs could be lost, leading to increased rates of domestic disputes, divorce, acts of violence, delinquency, vandalism, suicide, alcoholism, and other problems.”

“Without my ever seeing one that damned owl is going to have my job,” my husband said. “And I’m not alone.”

He wasn’t. Harvesting timber in the Pacific Northwest was eventually cut by as much as 80 percent. Estimates pegged the loss of jobs at between 30,000 to almost 170,000 throughout the lumber industry. But what he didn’t realize, nor did I, was that the owl was merely the ecologic symptom of an industry losing its grip on depleting forest reserves. The owl was in trouble because the industry was in trouble, and the hard-working loggers were the last to know.

The true travesty was that the northern spotted owl didn’t spring back to life despite drastic cutbacks and new logging stewardship. In fact, some 20 years later (1990), the creature was declared threatened. Efforts to protect it included a mandate to timber companies to keep 40 percent of old-growth forest intact “within a 1.3 mile radius of any spotted owl nest or activity site.” These measures were frustratingly well intended but failed to keep in mind nature’s greatest upset — her own periodic fluctuations, which can and did include the invasion of another dominating force, the barred owl. Close kin to one another, they can interbreed and may eventually do so without any opposition from us in the way of transcendent evolutionary cycles. But for now, we manage the situation by infrequent extirpation, killing barred owls while spotted owls, already in jeopardy, just quietly disappear. It’s a juggling act between man and nature, and particularly the quizzical nature of species seeking the privacy of ancient forests.

And so, that should be the end of the story, right? But birds have a way of coming up from behind, and suddenly their story is repeated. Nothing about a pigeon even vaguely resembles an owl — in fact, they’re frequently in a dance with death, the owl always the declared winner. But in my case, years of watching the northern spotted owl had reverse logic, a twist that no one could predict. My husband had lost his first vocation because of this small haunting creature, yet there was no recompense. He gave up logging, in part, because of intense environmental judgment, while the owl continued to lose ground despite all the efforts to protect. Something about that lingered in my writer’s brain. As if nature could never be appeased. And I realized over a period of almost three decades following this memorable incident in our lives that sometimes, and most often with birds, we humans come in too late with too large of an agenda. Or worse — no agenda at all.

In about 2005 when I began a novel about a bird flu pandemic, I realized early on that it tied in with a very special bird. Birds have been known to carry disease. They have also been revered for reflecting caution or danger (think of the canary in the coal mine). Birds have had the power to break a human pursuit, such as logging. Many display an inordinate amount of charisma and a fair allotment of mystery. Some have even sanctified one remaining nesting site (think of the ivory-billed woodpecker). And more than once they’ve made me cry. I remembered the northern spotted owl on some outside rim of memory — how it hurt to discuss it with my now former husband and my own unwillingness to relinquish the belief that I wanted that owl to survive more than I wanted him to return to the woods. I told myself it was the leg injury, and for the time being it had been. But 40 years later, I know it wasn’t the injury that had possessed me. It was the story of the forever-struggling owl of the northern forests. And its long-term effects on my thinking.

So I began Quick Fall of Light without the bird character being decided. An owl, no matter how heartrending, wasn’t the right choice. Neither was the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird I considered for its disappearance and ongoing mystery. However, it too lacked the right qualifications. The relevance of a character, even of animal origins, is paramount to how a story unfolds, and this particular bird had to have stamina, hundreds of miles of flight time and yet a soft, passive nature. Nothing suited the story better than the passenger pigeon, the “blue meteor” as it was sometimes called, in a role far unlike its true destiny. In Quick Fall, the spirit of a dying species lay in one man’s hands, while in reality the passenger pigeon was eradicated by the thoughtless acts of many. The bird that flew the eastern half of the American continent until the early 1900s was historically confined to a series of tragedies, most of them man-made, but limited to only two places in the novel, the most exceptional being an old-growth forest in Washington State, a place most reminiscent of the northern spotted owl. I had succeeded on some subliminal level in bringing together the fate of two avian species that meant the most to me. The writing lasted for three years.

In the end, I fell hard for the passenger. Its flocks known for flying up to 70 miles per hour for hours at a time wrapped me in fantastical make-believe, their long-detailed formations encouraging a mental process that allowed expression of strong feelings about them. One, in particular, guided my thoughts. “Gem-X is the silent character of the story, but he’s pivotal — the result of training by one man while he answers another man’s prayer. Not only a secret, he’s been trained to save his kind.” I realize now how I merely swapped species, sending one bird into a story of longing about the distant memory of another.

The last of America’s passenger pigeons died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, a specimen studied quietly for years, most of that time alone. She and her kind never saw the 1918 flu, yet I found them a likely undiscovered remnant of that great pandemic for the sake of triumph over deadly odds in a fictionalized one. I’d written a book about a devastating plague and about a bird capable of stopping it with as much conviction as if I’d revisited the northern spotted owl with the intent to keep it alive for the rest of time. One book, two avian superstars. That’s the hidden life of a writer. There are secret love affairs behind her words, even when they’re very old, even when they’re almost forgotten. They mean no less just because they’re about birds.

Sherrida Woodley is an author in Ea. Washington State. Learn more and connect at www.sherridawoodley.com.

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