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As I watched, the heron spread its wings and fell forward, gliding toward the next lake and out of sight. The spruce top did not quiver.
That, I thought, is the way to behave on the planet: Be vibrant and useful, but so smooth that the spruce doesn’t know you’re there. Or that you’re gone.
A week later, I imitated that heron for a moment — easing down the Sturgeon River in a canoe — paddle quiet, disturbing the water only a little. The current gurgled around boulders, supple as the dappled light leaking through the basswoods and spruce. A faint white rhapsody announced rapids a quarter-mile ahead.
I ruddered around a bend and came face-to-face with a great horned owl. It was taloned to a dead alder limb arching over the water, its yellow eyes only a foot or two higher over the stream than mine. We were 10 feet apart. As I floated past, its head swiveled to follow, and so did mine. The balance was exquisite.
It seemed a strange stakeout for an owl — they’re not renowned as anglers — and perhaps the owl thought it a surprising locale for a human, or whatever it perceived me and my canoe to be. Too big to kill, at least.
I smoothly slipped downstream, and just before clearing the bend I saw the owl flap off the alder, cross the river and select a fresh roost in an ash tree that was 15 feet higher up. There, its body language seemed to say, that ought to keep the riffraff at a more appropriate distance.
The owl seemed like aristocracy in that patch of woods. It didn’t call out, but I heard it nevertheless. We had both done well.
Two thousand years ago, a freed slave named Epictetus wrote: “Remember that you ought to behave in life as you would at a banquet. As something is being passed around it comes to you; stretch out your hand, take a portion of it politely. It passes on; do not detain it.”
As if we could.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of “Ghosts of the Fireground,” “Letters from Side Lake” and other books.
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