Female spotted owls have a call that doesn’t sound like it should come from a bird of prey. It’s high-pitched and unrealistic, like a squeaky toy that’s being squeezed just a little bit too hard. Lots of people who hear them in the woods don’t even realize that they’ve heard an owl. They assume it’s a bug, or a dog running wild through the evergreens, beloved chewy bone clenched tightly in its jaws.
I held tight to the branch beneath me and adjusted my binoculars, trying to find the telltale barred plumage. The night scope I had was good, but I needed a positive ID before I moved. I had been tracking this female for the better part of two days. I was tired, and muddy, and covered in mosquito bites. Kathy had already radioed in to confirm that her team was done scooping, tagging, and crating all the Western pond turtles in her sector. They were moving on to assist Benet and his team with the search for Beller’s ground beetles. The stress there really belonged on the word “ground.” They were going to be on the ground. And I, and my team, would be staying in the trees for the foreseeable future.
“Do birds, Julie,” I muttered, adjusting my binoculars again. “You like birds. You think they’re pretty. You should do birds. That way you’ll be less miserable thinking about how all this is going to burn.”
There was a flash of barred wings in the tree in front of me, feathers ruffled out as the female owl I had been tracking settled on the branch. I stopped talking and held my breath, tracking her slow, bobbing walk as she moved toward the main body of the tree.
Come on, sweetheart, I thought, so fiercely that if I could have developed telepathy in that moment, I would have done it. Show me that you’re going home.
The owl paused, looking around herself with a predator’s wariness. She didn’t need to wonder what kind of monsters lurked in the woods: She knew, because she was one of them. Her wings were silent and her talons were sharp, but there were still things that could hurt her.
She had no idea how many things there were that could hurt her.
Finally, the owl vanished into her tree, and I lowered my binoculars, beginning to inch my way back along the branch I had been perched upon. I knew where her nest was now. I could come back any time I needed to.
There were monsters coming to these woods. I was going to do my best to save her.
• • • •
When the droughts hit the West Coast in the early teens, everyone said “this too will pass.” Climate change was still up for debate in those days, at least in the eyes of people who had everything to gain by keeping the argument going for just a little longer, long enough for them to make their money and get the hell out of Dodge. Lots of beach houses got quietly sold during the back half of the decade. Lots of island resorts were traded in for ski lodges and mountain getaways. The signs were there, if you knew where to look for them.
Trouble was, the spin machine was spinning as fast as it could, and when people pointed to the signs, the pundits said we were fear-mongering and telling lies and trying to discredit good American businessmen who were only doing what they did for the good of the country. A lot of money traded hands in those days, and even as people were starting to focus on eating local and recycling, they ignored the fact that the lakes were drying and the hills were burning and the whole great stretch of green that we had all depended upon for so long was becoming a fairy tale. The myth of rain in California.
Thing about lies is that no matter how often you tell them and how much you believe them, they’re not going to become true. “Fake it until you make it” may work for public speaking and falling in love, but it doesn’t stop climate change. By 2017, it was pretty clear who the liars were, and they weren’t the scientists holding up their charts and screaming for the support of the public. By 2019, it was even clearer that we’d listened to the lies too long. The tipping point was somewhere behind us, overlooked and hence forgotten. Maybe there had been a time when we could have reversed the damage and restored our planet to its natural equilibrium. Maybe not. It didn’t really matter anymore.
The rich fled the places where the sun was too bright and the rain was too rare, and when the places they fled to dried up in turn, the rich fled further, looking for some promised land that had managed to remain pristine while they were busy wrecking the world the rest of us had to live in. It was inevitable that their eyes would settle on the Pacific Northwest, where the trees were still green and the rain was still coming down.
Global climate change hadn’t spared the Pacific Northwest. Everyone I knew from Seattle complained about how hot it was, even breaking seventy degrees in October. They complained about how blue their skies were, and how much they missed the rain. And a few of them — the ones who understood what was about to happen — complained about the way the big corporations were sniffing around, the maggots moving on from the corpse of San Francisco, which they had already stripped down to dry bones.
Without its ever-present rain, Seattle was a beautiful, tempting target, and Portland was even more so. They were still cool. They were still green. The changes that had done so much damage to the rest of the country had just made them more attractive to everyone else — especially the parts of everyone else who could afford to move on a whim. Forget the poor. Forget the disenfranchised. They were the ones who had done the least to destroy the world as we’d known it for so long, and now they were the ones being left behind.
Oh, we fought. Because the thing was, Portland and Seattle and Vancouver, they were beautiful cities, with their own positive qualities . . . but what they weren’t was infinitely capable of expansion. There were protected wetlands and forests to every side, mountain microclimates and endangered species under the protection of the federal government. The Pacific Northwest was already full, sorry, and it wasn’t looking to double its population any time soon.
But it was also the home to several large, thriving tech firms, which between them controlled more of the political figures in the area than anyone had ever considered. Some of these men and women had been the ones to put us into our current predicament, continuing to throw their money into economically and environmentally unsound practices because it was cheaper than the alternatives. Who cared if a few newts died when their ponds dried up, if it meant that microchip manufacturing could be outsourced for just a little bit longer? Who cared if a few houses wound up literally underwater, if it meant they could keep paying fines instead of fixing problems?
And then, when they had to stop paying fines, when they had to start fixing problems, those same brave men and women turned their attention to getting rid of laws they didn’t like. Why did owls need entire forests for themselves? Yes, it was important to preserve species diversity, but that land was needed by humans, who would do more with it than simply leave it untouched and growing wild. There were DNA banks now, there were zoos and private collections, there were a hundred ways to wipe a creature out of the natural world without losing it forever. It was cruel, yes, but it was also necessary. How could they leave so much green and verdant land unused, when so many people were wanting?
The environmentalists had lost the fight against industry and fossil fuel and men who spoke in voices that dripped money. They had failed to stop climate change in its infancy, and failed again in its childhood, and now that it was an angry adult, slamming its fists into every country in the world, there was no stopping it. They looked upon this newest fight, and knew they couldn’t win.
Still, they fought — we fought. We used every delaying tactic in the world, and a few more that we made up on the spot. They played dirty, and so we played dirty. And in the end, they had more money and fewer morals, and they won. They won everything.
Protection for endangered species and habitats wasn’t as important as space for homes and cities and jobs. Commerce and trade were coming to the Pacific Northwest, whether we wanted them or not, despite our protests that they had been here all along. State legislators looked at a sky that was black with crows and said, “The wildlife is doing fine without our help.” They didn’t see the complicated web of systems that set those crows in flight.
We argued. We bartered. We stalled.
We won. A small battle, not the war; a small victory, more of a sop to bleeding-heart environmentalists than anything real.
We got a year.
• • • •
I reached base camp two hours after sunrise. My owl was long since asleep in her hole, waiting out the hours of daylight. Hunting nocturnal predators means late nights followed by long days: I’d go back around noon with a team, and we’d extract her from her nest, stuffing her into a carrier that was more than large enough for her needs, but that would seem too small to a creature who was used to having the entire sky beneath her wings. I wondered if owls were claustrophobic. I forced myself to stop just as quickly. It didn’t matter — it couldn’t matter — because we were running out of time.
Benet sat at one of the camp tables with his eyes closed and a mug of tea slowly cooling next to his hand. A small plastic tank rested on the table in front of him. Something moved inside. I squinted. Three large, skink-like lizards were stacked atop each other like children’s toys, their spade-shaped heads twitching from side to side as they watched for danger.
“Alligator lizards?” I asked.
“Northern alligator lizards,” said Benet. He didn’t open his eyes. “They don’t like deserts. They do like streams and mud. No one’s seen one in California for ten years. They went from least concern to presumed extinct in less than a decade.”
Crap. “Where did you find them?”
“I flipped over a log looking for beetles, and there they were. They must have been eating the things I was supposed to save.” He opened his eyes, fixing me with a look that was equal parts misery and despair. “I didn’t know that they were here. I haven’t been watching for them — no one has. Their habitat never extended this far up before. How are we supposed to save this ecosystem if we don’t even know what’s in it? We’re going to fail.”
“We’ve known that since day one,” I said. He blinked, expression shifting toward betrayal, and I sighed. “There was no way we could save everything that needed to be saved. We’d need a country, not just a compound. The Arks will preserve, but they’ll be incomplete. We know that. Maybe in three generations, the people working them will be able to pretend that they give an accurate look at what life was like before we clear-cut the planet. Maybe in six generations, we’ll be planting again, and this will be the basis for an ecosystem all its own. But we’re going to fail, if you define success as ‘we saved everything.’” I shook my head. “Something has to burn. When the world catches fire, something has to burn.”
“You’re our resident little ray of sunshine, aren’t you?” asked Kathy, walking in with a crate under her arm. She deposited it in the cryo freezer next to the door. Those poor turtles would never know what had hit them. “How went the owl search?”
“I finally found out where the last lady owl has been nesting during the day; I’m going to grab the extraction team and go pry her out around noon,” I said. The skin around Kathy’s eyes tightened, her lips thinning as she pressed them together in an expression that was not a frown, not quite; she wasn’t letting it get that far.
I had no such restraint. I frowned, eyeing her sidelong. “What’s wrong?”
“Remember last week’s report, where you confirmed removal of eight owls from the sectors you’d been assigned?”
“Uh-huh,” I said, feeling my heart sink toward my toes.
“Some people think that’s sufficient genetic diversity to preserve the species,” she said. “Julie, I’m so sorry.”
My heart sank further. “How much of my territory are they seizing early?”
She shook her head. That was enough of an answer, really, but I still wanted to hear her say it; I wanted to know how short-sighted the people who were supposedly in charge were going to be. So I waited, just looking at her, until she said, “They’re taking the whole thing. They say that the construction crews are running ahead of schedule, and we’ve taken in so many refugees from Southern California —”
“Vultures, you mean,” I said, breaking in. “They killed their state, and now they’re coming for ours. This should be against the law.”
“It was against the law, remember?” She didn’t bother to conceal her bitterness. We were all among friends here. There had been some concern about spies initially, the environmental equivalent of industrial espionage, but we had all eventually realized that we didn’t care. If they were getting their hands dirty with the rest of us, they could carry as many tales of angry, resentful environmentalists back to their bosses as they liked. It wasn’t like anyone was going to be shocked by the depths of our anger. We were trying to save the remains of the natural world, and they were still lighting matches.
“Fine,” I said. That didn’t seem like enough, so I repeated it: “Fine. How long do we have? The insect teams have barely started their sweeps, and you know the remaining mammalian populations are migratory, we need to do a full underbrush check to make sure they’re not in my territory.”
“There isn’t going to be time for that.”
The world seemed to slow and crystallize. I heard Benet’s chair scrape against the floor as he rose and moved to stand beside me, leaving his alligator lizards on the table. Kathy looked at me solemnly, and the pity in her eyes was one more match for the pyre that was being built, one fallen evergreen at a time, in the wasteland of my soul.
“How long?” I whispered.
“The construction crews will arrive to start the clear-cutting today at eleven,” said Kathy. “I’m so, so sorry.”
I stared at her for a moment. Then I whirled, turning to Benet and jabbing a finger at his chest. “Get on the com and call everybody. I don’t care if they’re ass-deep in pine martens, they get here now. We have four square miles to clear, and we have four hours to do it.”
“We’re not going to make it,” said Benet, and he was right, and I didn’t care.
“We’ll get the owl, and we’ll get whatever else we can find, and we’ll save them, do you hear me? We’re going to save them. Now move.” I moved. So did he.
We had a world to save.
• • • •
I grew up in Northern California, at the foot of Mt. Diablo, which teemed with tarantulas and rattlesnakes. It wasn’t uncommon to look out the window in the early morning and see coyotes in the yard, moving like pale ghosts through the fog. I was lucky. I was born in the last of the good decades, when it still rained, when the puddles still iced over in the winter months. Maybe I never saw snow on the ground, but I knew the sound of my feet crunching through frozen grass, and I knew all the cycles and seasons of the natural world.
I know the exact day the frogs stopped singing for the last time in the dry creek bed that ran behind my childhood home. I could remember the hour and minute, quote it like scripture. It had been years since I’d actually seen a bullfrog by that point, and I was a grad student in environmental science, marching in climate awareness parades on the weekends, writing impassioned op-eds about recycling and ecological sustainability. I preached the gospel of the carrier bag and the compost heap, and it all amounted to nothing, because the rain stopped, and the frogs stopped, and one night the mountain burned and swallowed my parents and the house where I’d grown up in a single brilliant gulp. They were killed by climate change, even if no murder charges were ever going to be brought against a human agency.
We’d known, by then, that our last stand would be the Pacific Northwest. It was mountainous enough that the change in sea level wasn’t projected to be completely disastrous for human life. All we had to do was keep human life from being completely disastrous for everything else. And we had failed. Maybe we’d been doomed to fail from the very beginning. It was honestly hard to know one way or the other, and the burning was upon us.
Our camp was one of fifteen scattered through the Olympic Peninsula. Two hundred and fifty people were distributed between them, each fighting the same hopeless fight. Some of those people were fighting it for good reasons and some were fighting it for bad ones, and in the end, it didn’t matter. You don’t question the motives of the firebreak. You’re just grateful when it gives you a little bit longer before you go up in flames.
Benet was by my side as I plunged back into the forest, a carrier in my arms and a pair of falconer’s gloves clipped to my waist. The people who had decided my time was up only looked at numbers. They had a bunch of columns on a page that said “owls normally nest in pairs,” and “an even number of owls has been extracted from this territory.” They had paid biologists who would look at the samples we’d sent in and claim that we’d preserved sufficient genetic diversity, even if we hadn’t, because bringing back the owls was a problem for another time, another generation — another world. We were up against people who had shown time and again that they were happy to destroy whatever they needed to in order to line their own pockets just a little more. They were always “saving for a rainy day.”
Well, the world was out of rainy days, and still those assholes kept on saving, while we were out here in the trenches, saving everything that really mattered. We deserved what we’d brought down on our heads. Humanity was the architect of its own destruction — and I don’t give a shit if that sounds callous. There were the ones who lied and the ones who died, and we made this mess for ourselves. The frogs didn’t. The beetles and the turtles and the lizards didn’t. And right now, most of all, the owls didn’t. We deserved damnation. They deserved a second chance.
The remains of a large fallen tree — now just trunk and major bearing branches — lay off to one side of our makeshift path, decaying gently back into the forest floor. Benet shot it a longing look. I smiled, just a little. Just enough to let him know I understood.
“Grab three people, and take it apart,” I said. “There’s no telling what you’ll find.”
“I can see three species of moss, two lichens, and signs of burrower beetles,” he said. “We’re going to find a world.” Then he was gone, waving for the nearest members of the team to join him as he dropped to his knees next to the log and started digging.
The rest of us kept moving, although I knew full well that this was a scenario that would be playing out over and over again now that I had given permission for it to happen once. We each had our own areas of focus and obsession, scattered across the natural world like Legos on a bedroom floor at midnight. If we stepped on one of them — a fallen log, a frog calling from a hidden stream, even a rare or threatened mushroom — we would have to stop and deal with the pain, because there just wasn’t another option. All of us were what we were. We had to save what we could. Otherwise, there’d be nothing to distinguish us from the ones who’d sent us here, scrambling to put our toys away before the house went up in flames.
The trees were dense here, barely touched by human hands. I’d always come through carefully before, picking my way between the saplings, doing as little damage as I could. It was an old, useless habit; I could have cut each tree down and thrown it away as soon as I was sure it didn’t contain something worth saving. But the part of my soul that had been involved in conservation since I was in my teens chafed at the idea that anything wasn’t worth saving; that we couldn’t find a way to somehow remove every tree from this soil and carry it away to a place where it could keep on growing, safe and sheltered in the welcoming earth. I had listened to that part of my soul. I shouldn’t have, because now I was crashing through the forest like an intruder, and the forest was responding by crashing back.
My owl’s tree was just ahead. I shoved a branch out of my way, hearing the crack as it was bent too far, and took a hasty count of my remaining assistants. There were only six of them, and only one was someone I recognized as working with birds, although his specialization was in corvids, not owls. “I’m heading up,” I shouted, indicating the tree. “You start searching down here, look for anything else that needs extraction.”
“What if you fall?” asked one of the women. I didn’t recognize her.
“Then I fall,” I said. There was no time to set up a proper rig: I pulled the climbing clamps from my belt, jammed them into the tree, and started my ascent.
The higher I got, the more I understood what we were about to lose. Mt. Rainier gleamed in the far distance, Grandfather coming out from behind the increasingly uncommon clouds to watch solemnly as we stripped the world around him. Everywhere I looked, there were trees. Sometimes they surrounded islands of steel and glass, or were split by the black ribbons of the highway system, but they were alive, and they were there, and they deserved this land as much as we did. Maybe more.
I pulled myself higher, feeling the clamps flex beneath my hands as the servos adjusted, recalibrated, and locked in. They were designed to handle my weight plus or minus forty pounds — more than that and I would have needed a second set of hands to safely make the descent. There’s not an owl in this world that weighs that much, thankfully.
Every inch of my ascent brought another strip of forest into view, until finally I could see where it ended. The land there had already been clear-cut and prepared for development, centuries of growth stripped away in favor of concrete foundations and — eventually — perfectly manicured, perfectly controlled little lawns, one strip to a home, so that people could pretend that they hadn’t destroyed the natural world for their own benefit. Some of them would plant wildflowers that used to grow here naturally. I was sure of it. They’d fill their tiny yards with color and pat themselves on the back when bees or butterflies appeared, pretending that those sightings weren’t rarer than they used to be, pretending that they’d never done anything wrong.
And in a generation, when their kids had grown up thinking “the great outdoors” meant a paved cul-de-sac and a few sad cabbage butterflies, all those mistakes and misdemeanors would be forgotten, swept under the rug of history and never discussed in polite company. The Arks would be up and running by then. It would be easy to say “oh, it’s better like this,” and “oh, they would never have survived in the wild.” There would be the gene banks to fall back on, once the live displays were out of favor — and they would be. Zoos had been viewed as the best form of conservation once, and look where that ended.
I wasn’t saving these animals. I was buying them a stay of execution: that was all. They would die in cages, never seeing the open sky or the feeling of warm, welcoming soil beneath their claws. I was turning them into artifacts, and they’d never been given a choice in the matter. Even now, it wasn’t like we were asking them whether they wanted to be saved, when “safe” meant captive and confined. We’d taken gene samples from every individual we could find. We could have released them back into the world, letting them die with the habitats that had sustained them for so long. Was it mercy or arrogance that led us to stay our hands and keep them caged? Did we have the right?
The owl’s hole loomed dark in the trunk above me. It was a good location, sheltered from the wind and rain, sufficiently concealed by the nearby branches that no competing predators were likely to find it by mistake. I wondered what had happened to her mate. She was a mature female with a good nesting place, and we hadn’t caught a solo male in this territory: She had been widowed somehow, probably by human hands, and now I was coming to take away her freedom.
But I had to. I had to, or she was going to die. I could see the wood’s edge from where I hung suspended against the tree; see the great construction equipment rolling into place, ready to begin the burn. There was no future here.
Pulling on the falconer’s gloves, I eased myself closer to the hole, until I could see the silent lump of feathers that was my owl. She might be awake by now: I hadn’t been silent in my ascent, and birds of prey have excellent hearing. She wasn’t fleeing because I had blocked the exit, and because sometimes, stillness was the best defense something like her could have.
It wasn’t going to save her this time. I plunged my hands into the darkness, seizing the owl and pulling her out into the light.
She fought. She flapped and struggled and screamed her indignation into the air, glaring at me with her bright black eyes, gnashing her beak as she fought to reach me. When she cried, it was like her entire face opened, blossoming into a flower formed from terrible anger and betrayal. She screamed. I struggled to hold her, gathering her as close as I dared before switching my grip to let me open the carrier. I was careless. That was the only explanation. I was careless, and I was conflicted, and I took my eyes off the owl for a heartbeat.
That was long enough.
When she moved, it was like a storm: swift and unforgiving and inescapable. Her beak sliced into the flesh above my collarbone, opening it wide. It happened so fast that for a moment, there was no pain. There was only the shock of beak against bone, and the red smell of blood mixing with the green smell of the trees.
My clamps were designed to keep me from falling, but they couldn’t do much when they were disengaged. I fell. Twisting hard against the pain in my chest, I managed to wrap the clamps around a branch and hit the switch to auto-engage. They pulled me up hard, knocking the wind out of my lungs and leaving me dangling, helpless, as the owl I’d come to save took flight and winged away into the forest, white wings against black branches and blue, blue sky.
“Dammit,” I whispered — but maybe it was better this way. Maybe some things were never meant to be caged, nevermore to see the land to which they’d been born. The owl flew, and I hung suspended, granting myself a moment before I disengaged the clamps and went back to fighting to hold the fire back for just those few precious moments longer.
All we could do was save what little we could put our hands on, and remember the things we had to leave behind. We owed the world we had destroyed that, at least. We owed it so much more.
Maybe someday, our children would see owls in the world again.