A wolf was outside the window. Its first howl merged seamlessly into my dream; the next one jolted me half-awake — so loud that I flinched beneath the quilt. And the third measure of song resonated against the pane of glass beside my head.
I levered onto an elbow and pressed my face to the window, expecting to see the animal stationed amid the bird feeders. A last-quarter moon nudged the roof eave, a wisp of cirrus brushing its limb, staining it to pale umber. The snow was iridescent in the lunar light, cut by forest shadows. It seemed wrong the wolf wasn’t there.
A fourth howl etched a track on my scalp. The wolf was southwest, probably on the ice of Secret Lake, 500 feet away. I hoped to hear a pack in full chorus, but after two more howls … silence.
I considered venturing out to howl at the moon. Did it years ago, and our dog joined in. A wolf pack humored us with a riposte. But now it was 10 degrees below zero and two hours before sunrise. The bed was warm. There was no dog. Best to just lie back and leave the loner be. The song, though vivacious and stirring, was not sung for me.
Later that morning I grabbed a chunk of split birch from our basement firewood rack, and a tatter of white bark fluttered to the floor. I picked it up. It was about two inches wide and four inches long, delicate as onion skin. Besides the usual motif of parallel brown slashes, this fragment was embroidered with a complex pattern of ultrafine veins, like an ancient chart of a river delta scribed in vermilion with the point of a quill. I was fascinated, and carried it upstairs with the parent log. The latter I fed into the wood stove, but the slice of bark could not be burned.
I rummaged in a cabinet for a snapshot frame and mounted the fragment on a sheet of black paper, securing it behind the glass. I set it on a bookshelf and stepped back to admire this found art. Apparently it was the only way I could let the damn thing go and finish my chores, realizing it was what I’d somehow, some way, longed to do with the wolf.
Two evenings later I was settled into a chair with an open book when I noticed a familiar sound — a faint metronomic tooting. I’d long attributed it to a thermoelectric fan atop the wood stove. The hotter the fire the faster the blades whirl, and my theory was that at a certain speed the fan emitted the beat. But it was different this time — much noisier, and when I turned my head to refix my ears I realized the fan was actually silent.
What was it then? That bugged me. It’s frustrating to be unable to identify a noise in the house. Something was vibrating.
I dressed for a walk under the stars, and the moment I exited the back door, I froze. The sound was outside, and loud. My first thought was the backup alarm of a truck. There was a logging operation 2 miles northwest, and I’d heard the equipment a few nights before. But seconds later the location was clear: dense woods 50 feet west of the cabin. I walked that way.
The regular toot-toot-toot emanated from the forest canopy, and as I eased under the trees, the sound stopped, then resumed several seconds later from a little further north. A bird then, probably an owl.
I was delighted but embarrassed. I’m an avid birder, and for years I thought that call was the wood stove fan. I suspected what species it was, and hurried inside to boot up the laptop. I searched for the owl in question and brought up a recording. There was the “fan sound” — plain and unmistakable: a northern saw-whet owl, common in our region, as I knew from hearing its voice for years and ascribing it to a machine.
I appreciate what a privilege it is to trade in howls, birch bark, and saw whets — to live in a situation where they are influential. In her book “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life,” Winifred Gallagher notes that what we pay attention to is automatically important to us, that “whatever we engage with becomes engaging.”
I’m mindful of the richness that accrues to objects of focus. How fortunate that my neighbors and I are not fixated on basic sanitation, our next meal, rockets screaming in from the clouds, random machine-gun fire or the fate of routinely missing loved ones.
As someone who tries to keep an eye on the world — on current events and the history that spawns them — I sometimes feel guilty about my affluence and security. I’m not referring to cash per se, though I’m pleased to own quality binoculars to study birds, and to dwell in a snug nest of my own. But is “guilt” the right word?
In 1941, facing the specter of the Nazis, Lillian Hellman wrote, “For every man that lives without freedom, the rest of us must face the guilt.” In that light, my guilt seems appropriate. On the other hand, the philosopher Lao-tzu noted, “There is no greater guilt than discontentment.” Does that mean my guilt at good fortune is in itself blameworthy?
Webster’s New World Dictionary defines guilt as “a painful feeling of self-reproach resulting from a belief that one has done something wrong.” Is it wrong for me to revel in the fascinating minutiae of the North Woods? No.
If not guilt or self-reproach, what should I feel? I believe gratitude, accompanied by a realization that my current station results primarily from the facts of where and when I was born. Empathy is also worthy, but only if it’s tethered to a sense of responsibility leading to action. That’s what Hellman was suggesting. We’re one species, in it together; there are communal expectations.
What’s expected? Self-education; civic and political engagement; donation of time, money, energy; taking care of yourself as best you can, because it’s difficult to help others if you need to be rescued. Only in that sense should we rally to “America First!” — in the relatively narrow vein of being robust enough ourselves to reach out to the rest of the world and have a suitable impact. We come first only so far as necessity demands.
What we do and say matters. I don’t mean the collective “we,” but the personal you and me. In a real sense, the United States of America doesn’t exist — it’s an abstraction, an idea, a seal on a dollar bill. The U.S.A. doesn’t make decisions, the U.S.A. doesn’t take action; only individuals decide or act.
Though we do and should have a collective effect, we are christened with personal power via our words, deeds, votes, money or, just as importantly, what we don’t do, say or spend.
You count — one way or another. So it makes sense to pay attention. Isn’t it right to intensely engage with the world? It’s a short step from tracking an owl call to following a policy debate. Framing a fragment of birch bark is close kin to nurturing an informed conviction.
We, the collective America, are relatively rich and safe. We have a duty to help fashion a better civilization, and that is not best accomplished by insulating our borders and maximizing our benefits in isolation. Being engaged and active sometimes feels like trying to ferret out a mystery sound in the house — perplexing, frustrating and maybe even a little scary. So step out and earn perspective; listen to the melodies and signals of the world. It is the obligation that goes with our privilege.
After a lifetime of study, noted historian William H. McNeil believed that “trans-civilizational encounters” are the engine of history. Individual accomplishments and ideas are important, “But invention also flourished best when contacts with strangers compelled different ways of thinking and doing.”
A wolf or an owl — or another person 10,000 miles away — will exist without my acknowledgment, but as a member of a species that is transforming the planet, what I think about them has the potential to affect their fate. I count, so I bear responsibility.
“Me first” or “America first,” while necessary in the short term, are ultimately dead ends.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of “Ghosts of the Fireground” and other books.