The Familiars of Goose Creek

One of our most environmentally-indifferent presidents once said famously that “if you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all.”

I’m afraid he speaks for a large portion of Americans for whom nature is an anonymous blur out the car window or a diorama vignetted briefly  from scenic overlooks on the way to Dollywood; or taken in frenetic gulps on family forced-march vacation hikes. Nature has no face, really, for most hurried unfortunate urban sorts.


But the same seen-them-all numbness can happen to rural folk, too. If you’ve seen one deer, one snake, one owl, one bear…

I’m happy to say we have, among those generic lots of creatures, individuals we see over and over, very often the same time of day, in the same places–creatures, you might say, with particulars; with personalities.

They are our familiars. We are tempted to (and often do) give them names. We feel like we know them, and somehow that they know us. They do show less fear by habit of our presence. We even talk to them as if we half-expected to have them answer back.

This barred owl is one of Ann’s familiars. She tells me often about seeing it perched above the road as she drives to or from at earlier or later hours than I travel that same winding gravel road.

We happened past her owl the other day while he sat just beside the road on a fallen basswood trunk. We stopped. He stayed. We talked. And said goodbye, and went on our way.

Later in the day, I was sitting on the front steps at dusk, listening to the anonymous chorus of crickets, katydids and the babble of the creek. I recorded a half-minute of it below.

Not ten seconds after I turned off the recorder, an owl called just twice from behind the barn–our familiar, saying goodnight.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I do miss that night sound dearly now living in FL on the beach, a sound which I took for granted for most of my life. I now treasure it more and listen closer when given the opportunity.

  2. I just spent two hours sitting on my deck reading while an owl sat in a tree watching me. He was joined by a smaller owl for a little while but it didn’t stay around too long. I live in the middle of suburbia but we have a lot of wildlife that frequents our yard. I love staying in touch with nature in my own yard.

  3. Here on the Bayou I guess I have a number of familiars. The Night Herons that visit me on the pier, the fox that noses about whenever I am out after dark and the red-tailed hawk comes in the early morn to visit me in the garden. I have one very odd pair that follows me about the hillside. A large barred owl and a Cooper’s Hawk seem to be best friends. I have never seen one without the other within a stone’s throw. Love our wild friends!