I. Nicaragua: Looking
I was sitting on my back steps studying the splits in my gum boots, mulling over whether to try duct tape or accept defeat, and was reminded of the coffee farm in Nicaragua where they had been my only shoes. Nothing ever really dried there, and it rained every day, multiple times a day. When it wasn’t raining a cloud encircled the top of the mountain. It felt like an enchantment that had swept the rest of the world away, or locked us in. We were the only visitors to the farm—my husband A—— and his colleague E—— collecting wasps for research, me a tag-along occasionally holding a net—and we only saw the cook and her young son at mealtimes. If I had followed her and the little boy back down the entrance road, I would have soon arrived at a cluster of houses: perhaps. It seemed equally likely that the clouds would push me back up the hillside, walk me in circles, keep me for a week or century as they chose.
Dinners were early, but even so, night falls suddenly at that latitude, so we would walk back to our cabin from our evening meal with flashlights: a third of a mile, a rutted dirt road, two hills. With some trepidation, I wished each night that we might see a jaguar, but we never did. Except for a man with a machete who emerged from the woods one night (who turned out to be a worker headed to the hilltop in search of a cell-phone signal), we seemed to be alone in the clouds.
We weren’t, of course. There were night birds. Pauraques grumpily crouched in the grass, pretending invisibility that only the orange gleams of their eyes gave up. And leaving dinner on our last evening, we heard an owl overhead: HOO, then a tiny pause, and hooh (making a much smaller, almost flat, ending to a statement). We began to search, sweeping the trees with our lights. Eventually the owl was bothered enough to take flight, revealing a flash of wings and a swoop back into the darkness, a few trees away. We began to pursue it farther into the trees, trying to call to it.
Chasing owls, for the record, is poor form. Birders generally say that if you are close enough to make a bird move, you are too close. I can only say that in the moment, none of us thought about it, or even thought we were birding per se: it felt like the owl was summoned, or summoning. Walking off the path into the darkness under the trees wasn’t a good idea either, but away we went as if we’d been called. Later I would think about the folklore of will-o’-the-wisps and corpse lights steering travelers into swamps and over cliffs, and realize how easy such mindless plowing off course can be.