The Eyes of the Forest
Ever Had the Feeling Someone Knows Your Every Move?
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
On the morning of December 25, twenty-three years ago, the gray thicket and frozen silence of Story’s Island lay ahead like a wish—something about winter, the steel blue and whiteness of it, the endless quiet. The canal there ran as a channel off the river, indistinguishable from nature’s flow just as it broke from the Yellowstone. Now frozen, that channel became a bridge of ice to uninhabited land, granting a rare chance to venture into interior space held between the river’s banks. From the wooded flood plain, the island had remained for some time a place of mystery, in that one wonders what must lie in the offing, between self and the hori-zon, beyond reach (save the imagination’s) and within a dense forest of trees and brush that in spring resound with so many songbirds as to drown out all other concerns, a melodic white noise tuned to avian frequencies—now silent, hushed in winter’s dormancy. That island sanctuary, though, I would soon find, was hardly dormant.
The near bank dropped a few feet to the frozen channel. I stepped down, onto hard ice, testing it nonetheless. Though a fine instrument, the Ruger 10-22 across my shoulder served no real purpose, slung there with a 25 round banana clip and scope that made it seem more a rifle than it was. And what it was, was an accoutrement of a boyhood dream long denied, to cut school and go exploring, maybe in the woods, maybe down river like Huck Finn, or in this case across one and into the crisp silver of that beckoning island.
Treading on ice, I saw that the forbidden land would soon be mine, just above the far bank. On the other side, before stepping up to the frozen plateau, I imagined that Pete Story once said, Stay off that island, you hear? Or had he? Regardless, I set foot upon terra incognita, and if in trespass it only added to that certain something in the frozen air that morning and my wish to walk free in a new world. That new world, for me, was Montana. It was Huck Finn. It was Story’s Island.
Strange, though, in that silence one got the feeling of being obser-ved, alone yet conspicuous. Could have been the feeling again from childhood that I was doing something wrong, setting foot where I ought not, yet what was the harm? Or that God had earthly eyes, that he peered through the optics of some mythical creature high in the trees, knowing my soul.
And there seemed to be the greater purpose of my own fascination with a place that had been for months so clear through my window yet so far from reach.
Still, someone was watching.
I kept at it, deeper into the frozen stands of cottonwoods, believing for some reason I should be treading lightly. And then I knew why. A great winged creature like none I had ever seen sprang from the high branches beyond me and took flight, not all that far away, and with a wingspan that stunned, a good five feet and deep gray like the trees. He had been hidden against the sticks and winter skyline, watching me like an avenger, then ascended and veered to my left at about 35 yards, lumbering, then in plain flight to some other perch on the far side of the island. No naturalist and struck by the bird’s almost unbelievable size, I scrambled through encyclo-pedic categories of recollection. This was no eagle, it was far too large, more the size of a condor, but that could not be, not in Montana, and though I had never known of one so large, there was only one bird in all creation it could have been, given the silhouette and the spell it had cast that morning, the feeling of having been intensely observed through the eyes of the forest.
It was a Great Gray Owl.