In college we were made to read Niccolo Machiavelli, who wrote that "the Prince must learn to imitate the lion and the fox." This sounded like sensible advice at the time, although when I tried to follow it in the real world it led to bloody noses and a bad reputation. And since then it has seemed that there ought to be better creatures to imitate, especially for those of us not destined to be princes.

Here in Washington, one has plenty of examples to chose from, because there are 50 kinds of mammals, including us, living wild inside the Beltway, to say nothing of 180 species of birds. However, with few exceptions, these are not exactly standing around in heroic poses waiting to be used as models; in fact, they would rather not be seen and are usually able to arrange just that -- a private life, in spite of the two million pairs of human eyes lurking around to glom onto them if they can.

Not many Washingtonians have seen, say, a river otter, a deer or a bald eagle. But those are here all right. And this is leading up to say that there is a great big white barn owl living under Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, a circumstance I discovered last week on one of my walks.

I was crossing that bridge. It was deep dusk, rush hour, with the bumper-to-bumper cars on the inside lane moving slowly or not at all. One red-faced fellow in a Mercedes was leaning forward over his steering wheel, bellowing at those in front of him and pounding his fists on the dashboard; in short, displaying the sort of qualities that had probably gotten him the Mercedes in the first place.

I had just made the mistake of buying and reading the newspaper, and as result was inwardly about as agitated as he was, suffused with powerful information: megadeath projections; the subtle brutalities of diplomatic maneuverings; the quiver of inflation graphs; fire-bombing in Arlington, multiple decapitations in New York City, ritual disemboweling in Prince George's County; new quasars discovered , new galazies suspected and mysterious illnesses filling up the hospitals of D.C.

It was just to damned much, and for the moment I did not want to be a lion and face it, or a fox and understand it, or a lap dog and listen to some pontificating son-of-a-bitch tell me what it all meant. Besides, it was there all around me even without the newspapers; the death-fume-producting, satanic-tail-lighted, tension-crammed cars; the evil Faustian jets powering up out of the airport, the metasticizing glass anomie-monuments stabbing Rosslyn's sky; the plasticized subways hurtling under the polluted river; the mean steets where featherless raptors roved.

And so I turned my back on all that, leaned on the rail and looked down into the ancient darkness of Roosevelt Island, whose Indian village fires had glowed for 10,000 years and whose mansion's windows had shown for gentle decades on times far more understandable than these. I thought about how human it had been then, and how hellish it was now, and wondered why anybody would want to keep current with that noisome oath of undigestible information calling itself a civilization, that even now was blaring itself through the radios of those closed cars. "Smart went Crazy," Allen Ginsberg wrote -- and sometimes it seemed that we would.

Then I saw him, silent, white, broad-shouldered; so long-winged, so powerful and graceful in flight, emerging from under the bridge swiftly as thought and sailing out over the island's dark trees. A big, handsome, exclamation of a barn owl! -- scion, perhaps, of that old Washington family, the Smithsonian tower barn owls who've lived off Mall mice for more than a century, and distant cousin to the barn, saw-whet, long-eared, short-eared and great horned owls that live secretly among us.

Suddenly, everything seemed still. He was on his evening hunt: sharp-eyed, sharp-taloned, efficient and, most important perhaps (for anybody looking around for something to imitate), limited; because he wanted to be and had to be. The thick black roof of his world was the bridge I stood on and its carpet was the old island; and that was it.

He did not have to deal with the complicated rest of things that were above it, below it or to the side, or aimed at him blackly from a hole 10,000 miles away. It was all right there for him, the dark island, the secret perching places, the more-secret lore in his bones, and the field mice, jumping mice, voles, moles and rats abounding in what to others was darkness. This was his world.

And when morning brought those bright cars full of tense people back into the city again, he could sleep peacefully in his niche under the bridge, unobliged to hear anything but the low peaceful lap of lulling waters. And it seemed to me that for one who wished to live an ordinary life, he was a better model than any lion or fox.

One speaks here not of predation, but of modesty. And, while not wishing to push the metaphor too far -- for who among us wishes to send an entirely carnivorous life crouched in some dark corner hissing and snapping at anything that approaches? -- it does not seem to me that people who get along best in this town -- which is to say, live the most humane lives -- have a bit of barn owl in them; have established self-limited, self-suficient and somewhat solitary lives; and, even when they are public figures, manage somehow not to be truly seen by their fellow citizens except as a kind of graceful apparaition that passes by in the night.

In such a clutter of things, and against such odds, it takes resourcefulness to live a life like that; exactly since, as any barn owl knows, the universe has made no binding promiese about what waits for us out there in the night. But a lot of people bring it off anyway, amidst difficulties. That's the real news of our mysterious city, and always has been; astonishing as a white bird above a dark island, as promising and as mute.