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L I N D A H A S S E L S T R O M Hermosa, South Dakota The Owlon the Fence Iwas eleven years old when I first saw a great horned owl. On my mare Rebel, I was riding around clusters of cows and calves, pushing them down off sunny hillsides while my father checked their favorite hiding places in the pickup. Gathering was a slowjob. The cows stood when they saw me, and stretched. Then they’d belch, a growl that brought cud up from their stomachs. They’d watch my horse walk up the slope, chewing slowly until I yelled at them or got too close. Then they’d bawl to their calves and begin pacing downhill. I’d ride back and forth above each bunch, whistling and hollering. Every few minutes, two or three pairs would emerge from a hidden glen, or pop out of a limestone outcrop; I’d see my father waving his whip behind them. When they were bunched in the bottom of the gully, he’d count to be sure we had them all, and I’d drive them behind the pickup to the leased pasture a mile east. As I passed under a big cottonwood, the back of my neck prickled as ifsomeone watched me from the branches. I stared up into the thick leaves, trying to see through the shimmering patterns. An owl dropped straight out of sunlight and shadow into open air, great wings snapping open a few inches above my face. The wing span was greater than my outflung arms could reach. The owl glided down the draw and floated into the next cottonwood. Rebel snorted at the flying shadow in front of her hooves and reared; after I grabbed the saddle horn and managed to stay on, the owlwas gone. Bynearlyflying down my throat, the great horned owl became one of the firstwild creatures I learned to identify. I reacted like the writer I wanted to be; Idescribed the incident in myjournal while we ate lunch, and I looked in my parents’books for more information on owls. Itwas like discovering a secret, as if the Lone Ranger was my big brother; I wanted to share my excitement. Though shy and nocturnal, owls are such efficient predators they’re near the top ofthe food chain, but most 30 Western American Literature people may never see one. After that first glimpse, I saw them every­ where on the prairie. My wildlife lessons began on trips with my father over east to the summer pasture to check the cattle. On nearly every trip, in those years before hunters found the public property mixed with our deeded land, we saw coyotes, antelope, and feral horses. I learned by experience to turn my head slowly, watching for movement out of the corner of my eye. The more carefully I looked, the more I saw. Riding alone over east before I was comfortable in the prairie’s bare size, carrying my diary, I sometimes thought an invisible danger was stalking me. Now I believe most children are more aware than adults; my senses were trying to tell me about animals I never saw. Fear kept me alert, butyears passed before I learned to respect its heighten­ ing of my awareness as a useful survival tactic. Fear made me see more clearly, until Irealized what abusy and engrossing place the prairie was, and began consciously looking for its inhabitants. Myjitters helped me see the great horned owl, and learn a perception necessary to one who writes about nature—and humans. I was lucky; people who climb near owl nests to count owlets or study eating habits have been viciously assaulted. When the bird strikes prey, the legs contract toward the bird’s chest and the tendons at the base of the toes tighten, so the hooked claws curl inward like a fist—and lock. Around my parents’house stood cottonwood trees sixty to eighty feet tall, mixed with cedars and elms. Lilac and plum bushes, with a few willows, line the dry bed of a creek; fall winds pile tumbleweeds into thickets about the time skunks and mice move in for...


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