Living in Ghost Land

Memorializing a dead barred owl with a resin replica of a human skull, February 2021. CC Jean Stimmell.

I recently got back from two months in San Jose, supporting Russet, whose son Austin succumbed to a malevolent brain tumor in January. It has been an extremely taxing, long haul for her, caring for him as he went downhill over the last year.

After returning home, I’ve been dislocated in time and space, yanked around by a profusion of emotional climates as erratic as the weather, both here and there: From the frigid winter winds blowing across the stark whiteness of Jenness Pond to the feminine softness of mournful, foggy mornings in the Los Gatos mountains.

It didn’t help when Coco discovered a dead barred owl behind the house, devoured except for her wings, feet, and head. If owls are prophets, what kind of omen is this?

Then, stranger yet, walking with Coco along Jenness Pond road, the past and present melded together in a surreal collage. It came to me that what journalist Ella McSweeney recently said about Ireland perfectly described what was happening to me: “we live in ghost-land, marked not by what is around to see and hear, but what is not.”1

Coco and I inspect the ice-fishing houses out on the pond, soon to be endangered species when the ice melts. When the ice froze last December, Austin was still alive, and barred owl still patrolled my land. We walk further by the little graveyard where my grandparents rest. I am named after my grandfather, who wrote letters in triplicate with carbon paper to his sons when they were serving overseas during WW II.

In one of his letters, Grandfather Jean, who had a gift for words, wrote about Jenness Pond freezing over in December 1942, three years before I was born: “During the night, the Pittsburg Plate Glass Company arrived and laid a solid piece of plate over Jenness Pond, so slick one’s eyeballs slide when looking at the pond in the sun….”

Walking along, the dog and I soon come to a beach near where an old colonial used to stand. According to legend, as told by my father, long-ago the farmer who lived there took his two oxen, still yoked together, down to the pond to cool off on a sweltering August day. The cows waded in up to their chests, where they got stuck in quick-sand and sank, in slow motion, to their deaths. According to the story, their bodies were never recovered.

We now pass majestic, dead ash trees, pock-marked by what look like bullet holes fired in a mob boss execution. However, the holes are the handiwork of invasive Emerald Ash Borers, which are pushing the species toward extinction. Sugar maples and hemlocks may soon follow. A new study predicts that in the next 50 years, we will lose one-third of all our animal and plant species.

A little further down the road, we come to a place along the edge of the pond that used to be a gathering spot for local indigenous people in the summer. As kids, we found arrow-heads there. It was also rumored to be the site of an Indian mound, which we could never find. If it still exists, it is now covered up by a palatial new house.

What would these Native Americans think about all the changes the white man has wrought. Could my barred owl be the messenger? According to their legends and myth, the owl is often a symbol of death. In fact, the circles around the eyes of an owl were believed to be made from the fingernails of ghosts.⁠2

Owls were also believed to be messengers from beyond the grave who deliver warnings to people who had broken tribal taboos. I know I have broken taboos my whole life by not living sustainably and in harmony with Mother Earth. Most of us have. We have upset the balance of nature, and now, I’m afraid, we will have to pay the price.

Paraphrasing the refrain from Pete Seeger’s acclaimed song about where all the flowers have gone:

“When will we ever learn?”




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