What the Owls Knew

2,563 total words    

10 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: John Hitchcock

Every night, for three weeks before my father fell in his art studio for the final time, I was visited by a Barred Owl. Before this summer, although I had heard the calls of Barred Owls, I had probably only seen a total of four or five throughout my entire life. Often from very far away. One week before my father died, I noticed my friend, the Comanche/Kiowa artist John Hitchcock, suddenly had owls appearing in his prints. I was curious what they meant to him. I knew much of his work was about his ancestors’ wisdom. Were the owls symbolic of something? 

When the owls started appearing, I never assumed they could be visiting me. I admit, I probably started it, earlier in the summer—the visiting, or maybe, more honestly, the stalking. One evening, while walking in the woods near the house in my small city, I heard one calling. The haunting sound was a siren, drawing me to it. I waited until the sound came again: who-cooks-for-you-who-cooks-for-you-all, the adult Barred Owl beckoned. I wove my way through the darkening woods until I finally stood below his enormous feathered body. Perched on a limb, he stared down at me with uncanny composure. I was spellbound. I felt so small, so merely human, and somehow so very seen. We stared at each other for what seemed like several minutes, until he silently glided into the darkness.  I came often to see if I could see him again, but only heard his voice. 

One night, on a strange hunch, I followed a conversation of high-pitched screeches and discovered two juvenile owls talking to each other while flying back and forth through the ash and the oak. Sometimes they landed side-by-side, and often quizzically looked down at me, the wingless gawker. These juveniles were not small birds. The wingspan of the adult Barred is between 38 and 49 inches. They were already close to their adult size. Thus began my nightly routine. As the sun began to disappear, the woods and the owls summoned, and I would hike in, listen to locate them, then follow them at a bit of a distance as they flew tree to tree. But then late one afternoon as the shadows of the trees stretched long, I was sitting in a chair reading in my backyard, waiting for the right moment to head into the woods. When I looked up, there sat a Barred Owl—on the grass a few feet in front of me, looking straight into my eyes.

Photo credit: Heather Swan

I am not unfamiliar with connections to nonhuman beings. I have spent hundreds of hours with bees, both honey and native, for example, trying to comprehend their lives and moods, watching them move among flowers and slowing myself enough that they feel comfortable crawling around on my hands while I gape at their apian complexity. I always marvel at the exemplary relationship they have with one other and the world, always stroking each other gently with their antennae, flying from flower to flower, tonguing stamens and sepals to help the plants propagate themselves. Such an admirable coexistence. Time disappears for me when I am with these insects. 

My desire to connect with the natural world most certainly grew out of my experiences as a child. Before I had my first human friend, my constant companion was my dog, Buff, who went to the woods, the prairies, the creeks, and the mountains with me for dozens of adventures in places richly populated with beings who were not human. Because we moved so often once my parents divorced, we seemed always to be saying goodbye to people, but Buff was with me through it all—in Illinois, Colorado, New York, and Massachusetts—to meet the trees, the insects, and the birds wherever we landed. I felt most myself surrounded by wild things. I found not only solace, and often awe, in these spaces, but also, oddly, companionship. The company of wild things quelled my loneliness and my many sadnesses. 

All this is to say, to this day, I crave connection with the nonhuman world. Isn’t it true that a nonhuman being can understand us in ways that no other human ever could, I have often thought, because of an understanding that goes far beyond the limitations of spoken language? But I have never honestly felt that nondomesticated animals had any real interest or awareness of me. Naively perhaps, I thought they were busy living their lives, and I was simply spying on them. That they did not notice us humans. A connection with a wild animal such as a Barred Owl felt extraordinary and rare. A gift I was not sure I deserved. But maybe this happened to people all the time? I imagine with wildlife biologists or shamans it might be common.

After that day the owl magically materialized in my yard, she returned night after night. A few times she brought her sibling, too, but mostly she came alone. I would sit quietly on a bench in the graying light, and she would fly to a low branch just above me, staring down and often dropping to the ground for a snack of an insect or a vole. I became obsessed and stayed long after dark, watching her turn her head impossibly around in the nearly colorless night. One night, I knelt on the ground below a tree and when she came down to land beside me, her wing feathers brushed my shoulder and my face—a feeling I will never forget. One night I climbed into one of the trees, and she landed on a branch a few feet from me and stared, confused perhaps why this was the first time I had perched there. Once she flew to my feet and began pulling on my pant leg. My continued astonishment and gratitude at her willingness to spend time near me made me ever more dedicated to never missing a moment with her. Owls dominated my mind day and night. 

Barred Owl facts: “A large gray-brown and white bird with a round head and no ear tufts. While most other owls have yellow eyes, the Barred Owl has brown eyes… Hunts by night or day, perhaps most at dawn and dusk. Seeks prey by watching from perch, also by flying low through forest; may hover before dropping to clutch prey in talons.”

Around that time, I happened to hear an interview with the animist David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous, whose training as a magician led him to study the work of medicine people, healers, and shamans around the world. His work served as a foundation for his ideas that humans are animals in an animal world, and we should return more fully to our sensory knowing. I heard him say: “Everything in the surrounding terrain was speaking to us… Everything speaks… although most things don’t speak in words.”

In the semi-darkness of night, when I locked eyes with the owl, I often whispered hello and asked her what she wanted me to learn from her. I tried so hard to guess. Stillness? Humility? A radical trust? Something much larger than the personal? Or was she just curious and confused about my rapt attention? But sometimes I just became so absorbed in her feathered body and her beautiful quiet presence that I forgot myself completely.

I eventually saw the folly of thinking this owl was all owls. This owl was quite specifically herself, a unique creature like I was. All my research could tell me were basic things, but it could not describe this one individual owl, this consciousness that was so unlike mine, the one I was trying to get to know. One evening, I walked outside and stood by the gate and from down a street, through a corridor of trees, she came flying fast, huge wings steadily beating, and landed on the fence a few feet from my head. I laughed out loud. Maybe we were friends.  

Then I saw John Hitchcock’s new silkscreen prints. The work electrified me: bright colorful patterns created with layers of ink drew me in immediately, but what stopped my breath was the owls. In print after print, inside the patterns, I saw them peering out. John’s work has long been a way to carry forward the stories his Comanche grandmother told him as she sat doing her beadwork. I wrote to him, told him about my visitors, and asked if he could explain what they symbolized. 

Credit: John Hitchcock

John wrote: “The Kiowa people believe that the Screech Owl has powers to predict events in our lives. 

Only Kiowa medicine people are allowed to handle their feathers. When I was a young kid, my Kiowa grandfather would tell me to watch out for hooting Screech Owls at night. If you hear them, it means the oldest member of your family is going to die. They are going to make the transition from this life to the next. My grandfather said, ‘If you hear an owl outside your window at night, take your shoes and place them toe side in the northwest corner of your bedroom, and the owl will leave.’”

I wrote: “Maybe I should be more afraid of the owls!”

John wrote: “They are messengers of major change. The end of one thing and rebirth of a new thing.”

I shuddered at the idea of death, but tried to ward it off, mostly because I didn’t want to think of my own mortality or the mortality of those around me, deciding that I should not make a narrative out of the owl visits, that it would be too anthropocentric. Plus, this was John’s heritage, not mine. And also, they were not Screech Owls. It couldn’t mean that, I thought. Within a week, my father, the eldest member of my family, had died. 

My father was an artist struggling through the later stages of Parkinson’s disease and though the medical community had suggested he should live in a 24-hour care facility, he insisted on staying in his studio alone. He fell fairly often, scraping his arms or bruising his knees, but continued cooking for himself, cleaning his house, and most importantly, painting.  His art was all that mattered to him. Without the making there was no meaning.

A week after my exchange with John, I received a call from a person trying to deliver a wheelchair to my dad. My father wouldn’t come to the door. I knew he had fallen again, this time unable to get up. He had been on the ground a long time. That night my daughter and I sat with him in a hospice facility as he began to transition out of this world. 

I will write about his dying because I feel we live in a culture that tries to avoid thinking about it. I was not ready for the reality of his death. I had promised to abide by his wishes. Nothing to numb him from the experience of his transition. No morphine, he always insisted. No machines. His body was not only suffering from kidney failure and organ shutdown, but he was also not getting his Parkinson’s meds, which meant he would be going into paralysis. His limbs began to cool and lose the ruddiness of life. I could see him fighting so hard to stay with us. He could not speak, and I wanted to break my promises. Instead, I laid my hands on his head, and my daughter dripped water into his parched mouth. We called his other daughters so he could hear their voices. I read “Directive” by Robert Frost, his favorite poem. And we sang a wordless Native American lullaby that had been taught to me long ago, which I sang to my daughter every night when she was small. As he took his last breath, he squeezed my hand, and then was gone. 

A few days after he died, it hit me, and I wrote to John Hitchcock, “My father, the eldest member of my family, did die.”

Weeks later, when I went to deliver a book to John and his wife, Emily Arthur, he told me about the death of his grandfather. The owls came and sat on the roof of the house. That’s how they knew he would be dying soon. His grandmother started singing the prayers. And soon after, his grandfather passed on. “We are the elders now,” he said. “We need to carry the stories.” 

I envied John’s mooring. I wanted so much to trust in that greater story. But was it mine to receive? 

My good friend, a scientist, kept telling me it was wrong to assume that wild animals did anything in service of humans. That the desire to narrativize the owl visits was overlaying a human story on a purely biological activity: young owls practicing hunting before moving off to new territory.  

Meaning, for my father, came from the act of making. He did not want the paintings themselves to be telling obvious stories. He was a painter who followed the philosophies of the abstract expressionists. He worried often with his later work that any obvious recognizable image in a painting might lead a person to lean on stories or narratives from society, and what he wanted was for the viewer to respond to the color and the shape alone, to respond from a place not built on logic, but raw emotion and instinct. So instead of painting realistically, which he could do masterfully, he hid things in the paintings by abstracting them. As a poet, I was always trying to tell stories and notice how things might act as metaphors, and how those could help me make sense of things. This was how I made meaning. 

In one of his final paintings, he painted the silhouette of a bird, but then painted it out. To a poet, birds might mean all kinds of things. 

I saw the owl one last time. She called from a tree in the woods, and I had to scramble up a hill to find her. From high in a tree, she called into the night in her full adult voice, then disappeared into the forest and from my life. 

Photo credit: Heather Swan

After my father took his last breath, we were there with his body, merely a husk, and it still made no sense to me. He was freed from that body, I thought, his fierce, beautiful spirit no longer fighting that terrible disease. But where did he go?

No energy is ever destroyed, only transformed, says one of the laws of physics. 

In his absence and the absence of owls, I was left with so many questions. Then I remembered some writing my friend Daegan Miller had done, about trusting the gaps in our knowledge; that, in fact, our ignorance was the birthplace of wonder. Maybe trusting in the unknown, in the mysteries and strange gifts of this life, and being grateful for them—maybe this was the message the owl had been offering to me. 

When we opened the door to the room where my dad died, and my daughter and I stepped out, exhausted, into the early evening air, suddenly a great wind came through the woods on the hillside before us, sending the trees momentarily into a joyous dance, and a smattering of small birds were lifted by the rushing currents. Our eyes were sore from sobbing, but we began to laugh. That wind carries us still. 

  • Heather Swan

    Heather Swan’s book Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories from the Field was released in the fall of 2017 from Penn State Press and was awarded the 2018 Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award. Her nonfiction has appeared in Aeon, ISLE, Resilience, Edge Effectsand About Place Journal.

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