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    owl feathers

    Look at the Owl

    After an encounter with an injured owl, I don’t think owls can be reduced to symbols of intellectual success or impending doom.

    By Tiffany Eberle Kriner

    October 6, 2023
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    • Phoebe Love

      Beautiful writing. Makes me love the soft hoot, hoot, hoot of my nightly Barred Owl outside my bedroom window all the more. Thank you for bringing his “royal finery” to life.

    • Terry Lovelette

      Beautiful article. A story well told about the mystery of nature. I see owls frequently when I walk. I’m always intrigued by their presence. We talk sometimes. Every now and again I hear something. Wisdom of the Owl Old Wise One of the forest and sage of the ancient ways What knowledge can you offer as I stand within your gaze Your presence sends an aura of deep sagacity Will mankind ever grasp a sense of your veracity Or are we doomed to failure within our ego state I ask of you Old Great One shed light upon our fate We've lost a shared concern among our human race No sapience in practice confusion in its place Tumultuous exchanges opinions fly in vain Divided as a nation troubled and in pain The unrest of our times afflicts each walking soul Angry rants abundant the impact takes a toll From you I hear the message that falls upon my ears The knowledge of your insight comes through loud and clear On how we mend our problems your voice sends out a who The healing for the misery begins with each of you Be kind to one another with compassion at your gate When hearts contain benevolence there is no room for hate

    • Tom

      Gives me pause to consider the life/drama/play just down the street and around the corner… and the notion to set all mine aside and step out into the rest of this created world. Bless the story and it’s teller!

    One gray morning this year, the day before my forty-first birthday, I stayed three hours in the rainy woods with an injured, young great horned owl. On the way back to visit the goats in their woodland pasture, nine-year-old Beckett and his friend Gregory had found a big owl in the scrubby grass of the clearing where the paths cross. The owl was failing to fly, flapping into a sort of hop and wing whip, as if to ascend. Then, mission aborted. Something was wrong; the owl was on the ground.

    I’d been folding laundry, grounded myself by a not-insignificant funk. Just the night before, a writing collaborator had decided to leave the project we were working on. A total bummer, since we’d both invested more than a year in working together. Was our work not compelling enough to merit the time? Should I even continue with it? What with the birthday coming and all, it seemed appropriate, if somewhat dramatic, to work up the disappointment into a crisis of sorts, modest but ugly.

    “You’re going to want to come out here,” my husband, Josh, said from my lit phone, his voice rustling against the brush in the goat pasture. A giant, messed-up bird, come down to the understory of our wrecked, wet woods. I dropped the dish towels and went to see.

    For the philosopher Plotinus, beauty exists in the world of forms, away from the corruption of matter. His is an objective view of beauty: things are beautiful to the extent that they conform to the ideal and pattern. I don’t agree with Plotinus very much on beauty, but he describes ugliness pretty well: “Suppose a soul to be ugly, ill-disciplined and unjust, full of cravings and all kinds of disturbance, in the midst of fears because of cowardice, and of jealousies became of petty-mindedness, thinking of everything in so far as it thinks of them at all, as mortal and lowly, twisted in every respect, in love with pleasures that are impure.” I could resonate.

    great horned owl in the woods

    Great Horned Owl. Photograph by prochym, stock.adobe.com.

    And while the beauty and ugliness of owl souls are beyond my purview, I’m not so sure that Plotinus wouldn’t have declared that owl – at least in its state that day – ugly too. Of course not so psychologically as me. But he does say that whatever is “not mastered by shape and reason principle, since its matter is not capable of supporting complete shaping by the form, is also ugly.” The owl was injured, not what he was supposed to be, and in danger, one supposes, of never becoming what he ought to be. That, for Plotinus, is ugly.

    The ugliness of both situations was regrettable. But the plain fact is, we would have never stood together on the same ground, that owl and I, if we weren’t both of us messed up. He was supposed to be roosting; I was supposed to be working. I don’t know what to make of it.

    We all know what owls mean – by sounds, by images. The Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean acknowledges that great horned owls are everyone’s mental archetype of owl. They are a classic harbinger of Halloween danger, as those gargantuan neon eyes on the porch at a house downtown remind us.

    Or they are brainy knowledge, wisdom. Surely we’ve seen owls as the theme for a baby’s nursery, expressing in hats and adorable onesies the hopes for future intellectual achievement….

    I hadn’t seen actual owls before, great horned or otherwise. Owls had been merely a heap of accepted images to us; recognizable, if tired, symbols. Harry Potter’s Hedwig merges them all – a reliable messenger, but usually a bad sign.

    I walked down the half-grass path through the walnut and oak forest thick with invasive undergrowth. The ground unsteadies at the crossing, what with raspberry, scrub, and the tall-grassed moguls from the former dirt track. It’s far from the fruited plain planned by C. C. Miller to support his bee population, and farther still from the oak savanna that preceded him and other white settler immigrants to the town. But the owl had come there: “Owls thrive in these fragmented landscapes humans create,” says the Peterson Reference Guide.

    The clearing seemed crowded. Children in wet sneakers pranced about; Josh, geared up in full flannel and mosquito netting to lay fence for silvopasture, brandished his metal-bladed bushwhacking trimmer; gray catbirds with handsome black caps and fringes swooped down toward the owl, bravely and stupidly. Their distress calls made a soundtrack for the general melee.

    Of the owl, my first impression was of a cat – that size – but a mechanical cat, head pivoting round and back at stops on the compass, face toward all of the threats. He did not seem, from my unpracticed eye, to be thriving. His head pivoted again and again, as if looking would tell him what next action might suffice to save him.

    He didn’t make a sound.

    Maybe we’re just making the owl mean what we’ve heard owls mean, or maybe we’re making him mean what we’re feeling at the moment. There’s this revenge play by Joanna Baillie, De Monfort, where just that happens with an owl. In the tensest scene, De Monfort, the eponymous murderer on the hunt for Rezenvelt, hears an owl’s cry as a foreshadowing of coming violence: “Foul bird of the night! What spirit guides thee here? / Art thou instinctive drawn to scenes of [horror]? / I’ve heard of this.”

    But Rezenvelt, De Monfort’s blithely unconcerned target, hears in the owl’s cry a totally different meaning: his own childhood union with nature. He remembers hooting to the owls “till to my call / He answer would return, and thro’ the gloom / We friendly converse held.” The thing is, though, De Monfort himself makes the scene of horror – by killing Rezenvelt. He insists on his meaning of the owl, makes it accurate. Rezenvelt is just as insistent, though. They both die in their certainty of what it means. That’s terrifying, I suppose. But their interpretation of the owl is not the owl, is it?

    Wordsworth’s lyric “There Was a Boy,” which remembers the poet’s experiences with owls in the wilds over Lake Windermere, orbits De Monfort  – as if he were an audience member of that play trying to figure out the owl. At first, the boy is like Rezenvelt, sharing jovial conversation with owls. He “blew mimic hootings to the silent owls / That they might answer him.” The owls would, “responsive to his call,” hoot back in “concourse wild / Of jocund din!” So blithe, so halcyon-nature and human in relation.

    But then, the bird’s meaning changes. The owls refuse to answer the boy. Perhaps the jig is up; he is, after all, not an owl. Perhaps owls are better suited to silence than speech. And in the poem, the owls begin to point through their silent selves not to the boy, or to human concourse with birds, but to the whole of the vale, nature as it reveals transcendent truth. And “in that silence, while he hung / Listening,” the visible scene

    Would enter unawares into his mind
    With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
    Its woods, and that uncertain heaven received
    Into the bosom of the steady lake.

    Silenced by the silent owls, the boy can see the world outside his own purposes or speech.

    Then the owls change again. Whatever this nature is, it’s not just picturesque, or even the gentle sublime Wordsworth imagined for children: “This boy was taken from his mates, and died / In childhood, ere he was full twelve years old.” The birds come back around to forewarning death. But “There Was a Boy” doesn’t end with the death of the boy. Immediately after the lines about his death, Wordsworth continues, “Preeminent in beauty is the vale / Where he was born and bred.” The owls come eventually to take their place, silently, to mean something like beauty.

    Great horned owl in cottonwood tree in the fall

    Great horned owl in cottonwood tree in the fall; Fort Collins, Colorado. Photograph by Tom, stock.adobe.com.

    Hard to think how beauty could work like that, so near this boy’s death—that it’s in fact seen by Wordsworth only because of the silence pervading the churchyard and his own silence. “A long half-hour together I have stood,” he writes, “Mute-looking at the grave in which he lies!” But even simple, profound beauty isn’t the final meaning of Wordsworth’s owls. “There Was a Boy” was written in 1799 and published in the second edition of The Lyrical Ballads. But it was later placed into the bosom of The Prelude in 1805 – a poem about the growth of the poet’s mind, which work itself was prefatory to his great, unfinished poem, The Recluse. The planned work, The Recluse, would demonstrate how the mind, “when wedded to this goodly universe / In love and holy passion,” can renew the common world. Its mission was to sing

    Of Truth, of Grandeur, Beauty, Love, and Hope,
    And melancholy Fear subdued by Faith;
    Of blessed consolations in distress;
    Of moral strength, and intellectual Power;
    Of joy in widest commonalty spread;
    Of the individual Mind that keeps her own
    Inviolate retirement, subject there
    To Conscience only, and the law supreme
    Of that Intelligence which governs all—

    If successful, the work would cheer “Mankind in times to come.”

    Setting those owls, that alive and dead boy, in book V of The Prelude changes their meaning. It makes them a way to think about how experiences of nature’s beauty are preparation for the poet’s vocation, a correction to the mind merely attendant on bookish fantasy. The owls become a way to teach the world about the wonder, the mystery, of beauty.

    And the manuscript history of those key lines shows how much wondering, how little certainty, goes into beauty. In 1799, they went, “Preeminent in beauty is the vale / Where he was born and bred.” In 1805, he tried, “Fair are the woods and beauteous is the spot, / The vale where he was born.” In 1850, when the final manuscript of The Prelude was published posthumously, it came out that he had tried again: “Fair is the spot, most beautiful the vale / Where he was born.

    Hard to think how beauty could be part of our own losses, our own failures at speaking, our own vocational sloughs and stops. What to do? At the end of The Prelude, the poet rises “as if on wings,” looking over all the world he’s been “centring all in love.” His conclusion? “In the end / All gratulant if rightly understood.”

    Die trying.

    His head was a fuzzed, dun softball, rain furred. Small, tufty ridges highlighted the forthcoming brows. The widow’s peak descended severely to the beak in would-be angry eyebrows of white, if it weren’t for the equal and opposite force-curved letter c’s, sweeping skates of brown up the outside of his eyes, suggesting questions.

    His eye marbles were lensed with a clear glass thickness. Under the crystal knob, they were, I felt, the precise yellow of a #2 Dixon Ticonderoga pencil. Dilating pupils, feather-ringed by interrupted circles smudging gray brown and orange – a weighted gaze. His eyes amassed orbiters like twin suns.

    My massive inertia lurched. There was gravity there. I tripped my way slowly over the mini-moraines of the clearing. I thought to project myself as a non-planet – Pluto, even – a rock chip, drawing toward this grounded sun of a bird in slow, deliberate, narrowing circles. Ten feet. Six feet. Five feet, and, finally, four feet away. I was this close in the gray morning, only the length of my useless desk between me and one of the great raptors of the night woods.

    His aspect was all intention – no, not intention; attention. Only the violet underlid occasionally slow-closed in what Josh called a mascara blink (the violet did have an eyeshadow look to it) against the gold and gray and brown. I could see the lighted underfeathers. A harlequin, or harlot, tipping buff-gold petticoats; he was jacketed in cascades of variegated feathers, trimmed in undulating sandbars of white, buff, tan, sienna. I could see all the layers of softness required to remain silent in flight, and at night. One wing in disarray. His head turning was like a royal’s, dispensing attention; all his finery was that of a hunter-king, girded up, girthed about, with worthy furs.

    The fact that something is perceived as beautiful is bound up with an urge to protect it, or act on its behalf. —Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just

    The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
    to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes…. —Isaiah 61:1–3 NIV

    Is every birdcall vocational? Karl Barth would call the owl, being creation, beneficial, covenantal. Before seeing that owl, we might have been said to be the sort who would consent cheerfully to admire the owl’s glories, if it were convenient. Had we thought about it, we would have wished to be on the right side of owl protection against herbicides, should taking sides be called for. Our social media likes and shares would not have failed to speak out.

    His head turning was like a royal’s, dispensing attention; all his finery was that of a hunter-king, girded up, girthed about, with worthy furs.

    In the owl’s presence, though, I wanted to save him. And I feared that if I left him, even for a few minutes, he would hop away to hide somewhere in the bent undergrowth and die. But it was by no means certain that my presence was salvific in any way. What did I know of owls? I got too close, two feet away – and learned that great horned owls hiss, just like cats, just like your skin when it touches the pan. And then, when the rain picked up, I unthinkingly raised my golf umbrella, and that owl puffed out his feathers so far he enlarged himself by half – in what I supposed was fright prompted by my peacocky fantail of o’erweening might. He tried again to fly away but got only a few feet. I had hurt and frightened him. He paused again, waiting, looking at me without pause, and in a half hour, when the rain had more or less soaked him through, he walked into a dense honeysuckle thicket and stood, drier, under the hedge. Still never ceasing to look.

    I followed in a panic, tripping over the moguls, frantic as a chicken. I dashed the empty coffee mug back into the soaked grass, chucked the apple core somewhere, tucked the empty bag of sunflower kernels into my pocket. And I stepped forward, back, up, down, trying to find the right angle, in the rain, through the branches, past the catbirds all gray and black and fine that circled him, unceasingly sentinel. I found the owl still looking at me without moving. So I looked as hard as I could, into the dim, to the dark center of those owl’s eyes. I stood in the steady rain under the darkest of umbrellas, grass water dampening up my jeans, trying to stay still. Trying to look. Trying not to look at my dying phone.

    I thought, stand and wait, stand and wait. “They also serve who only stand and wait.” If I could just stay with the owl so that he didn’t get lost, he had a chance of getting rescued by people who could help.

    “I will climb up to my watchtower and stand at my guard post.”

    But then I glanced to the left as gushing-down rain hit the goat-stripped raspberry canes, dropping on the immature Queen Anne’s lace and the many purple faces of heal-all.

    No, look at the owl. Where were his eyes again? There. I didn’t want to lose him.

    For the last forty minutes or so, phone battery dead, it was just me and the rain and the owl, catbirds circling around. His gaze never wavered. It took me the whole time to give up, settle down, and look back….

    He was fine, he was beautiful, even if he was messed up. He was beautiful – as theologian Alejandro García-Rivera writes in The Community of the Beautiful – as “what moves the heart” is beautiful.

    And this contemplation of mine burbled up in my mind from the inmost recesses of my heart, and I wrote some volumes entitled On the Beautiful and the Fitting. I think two or three of them – you know, God, but I forget. We haven’t got them anymore; they’ve wandered away from us somehow. —Augustine, Confessions

    When the rescuer came – her name was Dawn – she crouched into the brush with her falconer’s gloves and grasped his legs, inverting him, achieving instant calm. She brought him out into the clearing to examine the wing. Her hands were confident as they slid over his wings to determine the injury. I peered at his massive talons, vestiges of a dinosaur past.

    “Look,” she said, “here.” I saw feathers worn off against a slim bone, a scrape of blood. “And yes,” she said, “here it is, a break in the proximal ulna.”

    She looked at me. “You stayed out here with him the whole time?”

    “Yep.”

    “That’s nice of you,” she said.

    She told us they had a mother at the center who’d take care of him. They’d set the wing, give him something for the pain. She put him into a box like one of those coffee carriers from Tim Hortons and set it on the front seat. He was perfectly quiet and still.

    “Sorry about the state of my car,” she said. “You can fill out the form on the clipboard there.”

    The form had a box to check if we wanted to receive an email about the animal’s “final disposition.” (A parenthetical note here requested a minimum fifty-dollar donation if so.) I waited until October to ask for my email, for his final disposition.

    I said I’d been writing about the owl, trying to figure him out. “Thank you for contacting us!” came the reply. “We will respond to your message as quickly as possible!”

    Since then, one Facebook friend, who lives in Utah now, posted a photo of the owl she found on the hood of her car – it made her late to her mammogram.

    Another friend, from down the road, showed me a photo of an owl on the roof of her chicken coop, covered in chicken guts and gore, eye bloody and feathers ruffled from the death match.

    At daybreak recently, my husband was moving the cows in the pasture and saw another great horned owl float from the finger jut of forest to the treed field’s edge. But about this owl, we’ve received no message, yet.

    And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it. —Psalm 90:17 KJV


    This article is an excerpt from In Thought, Word, and Seed: Reckonings from a Midwest Farm by Tiffany Eberle Kriner (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2023). Reprinted by permission of the publisher. 

    Contributed By TiffanyEberleKriner Tiffany Eberle Kriner

    Tiffany Eberle Kriner is associate professor of English at Wheaton College and the author of The Future of the Word: An Eschatology of Reading and In Thought, Word, and Seed: Reckonings from a Midwest Farm.

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