Ode to Owls
Once upon a time,
I thought owls were mediators
to the hidden realm of truth,
nescient guardians of the hidden secrets,
birds of the antinomian night.
But that was before real owls humbled me,
and showed me they are not symbols.
Owls and other birds taught me that
"once upon a time"
can be a problem to be overcome,
when real experience questions
It took me a long time to begin to unravel
some of the secret conceits
of exalted myths, religion and “spirituality”.
It took me a long time to understand
that the strong talons of owls
belied their actual fragility.
capitalist worship of the "Predator" is unwarranted.
Wall Street lies about lions, tigers, bears and hawks
the weakest of species
hawks, are the weakest of birds---
easily displaced and disturbed.
Once I looked into their eyes
I learned that like me, and others who love the night,
they seek safety in the dark
the comfort of not being known,
partly because they fear
those who would harm them
but mostly because,
like night hawks or whippoorwills
they thrive in the night
and want to raise their babies in peace.
The world of the night
is almost another planet,
where what is hidden in the day comes forth
in many strange and marvelous ways..
Owls initially excited my imagination
but finally helped close the door to fictions
and open the door to living beings
Maybe it was their eyes that called me
open wide and watching all directions
and seeking a quiet way in the world.
Maybe it was their silent wings
flying without sound,
seeking without vanity.
Maybe it was the care I saw
they showed one another,
rubbing beaks together high in a tree
in twilight endearments.
Or maybe it was the down soft breast feathers
of the barn owls,
softer than silk or cotton,
that taught me that these fearful birds are gentle
and live a life of looking,
sitting in stillness in a tree
and seeking their own
and despite the darkness
giving and caring for their own.
Owl At Twilight
Certainly I was not alone in once thinking them
mediators at the threshold of the great mystery.
There are caves such as the "Trois Freres" in Europe
where 3 owls guard the entrance to the inner chamber.
30,000 years ago the cave shamans fell into the same
romantic illusions that I created.
But the Barn and Barred owls have taught me
that owls are not “esoteric”,
or guardians of the secret knowledge of
and I must not confuse them, anymore,
with human projections
or the deceitfully exalted symbols of a priesthood.
The day is done that the dark stone of hidden knowledge
calls me to its secret, fictional, luminous diamond.
The simple truth of one wild bird,
daily seen and experienced
is worth more to me than all of ornithology.
Owls do not teach me of hidden worlds,
In the last two years
I have visited the same Barred Owl
who sits silent in the same tree
all winter long.
I sit on a log beneath him
looking up, and admire his stillness,
his lonely acceptance of silence and waiting
and his awareness of the position of the sun.
He awakes as the sun sets
orange light illuminating his opening eyes
and as the spring night comes on
I hear him with his mate.
He is not a mythology but an individual being
as alive and full of existence and rights
as the forest he lives in.
I am not less or more than he,
rather he is the same as me
even as he is different.
They live in a world far different than mine
taught me to respect the difference.
enables him to fly
through the thick forest
without touching a branch
and silent as a soft wind.
I walk clumsily and noisily
through the woods
trying to teach my feet to be less human.
I began to know owls
when they taught me real looking,
--- looking with more than one’s eyes.
They have not taught me scientific measuring,
which often does not look.
The proof that science has not yet understood nature
is the fact that science produces so much ugliness
and helps destroy nature.
Only the knowledge that sustains
and nurtures is of value.
The more one learns of nature the less
one needs to destroy or lay waste.
When science begins
to have the listening eyes of owls
the beauty of the crystal light of autumn,
and the care of birds for their young,
it will cease producing injustice.
Until it loses its delusion of human supremacy
and learns to grow like birds wings
and its results are as elegant as leaf veins
it is merely another exploiting mythos.
Seeing often requires freeing the mind,
not just of superstition,
but of other
patterns and pretences of knowing,
scientific or otherwise.
Owls can see, not with
seraphic visions of golden hierarchies
and other "Great Chains of Being",
but with the simplicity of tree rings growing
or the glistening of wet moss on the forest floor.
Owls are not symbols of human wisdom.
I have seen them be quite foolish and playful.
Nor are Owls symbols of approaching death,
as some Native tribes believed.
Owls are not symbols of magicians,
or the lost souls of former shamans
like ghosts lost in cemeteries.
"the owl of Minerva flies by night"
meaning philosophy is secretive
and in service of a special elite..
but that is because Hegel did not know owls----
and what good is a "wisdom" if it misrepresents birds?
Owls are not advertisements for philosophers
with delusions of grandeur.
If owls represent "wisdom" and symbolize philosophy,
we would be obliged to blame them
for the failure of the thinking
that now is harming nature all over the earth
which certainly has some of its roots
in the arrogant crown of human pride
tangled in abstract and inflated ideas.
But Owls are innocent of philosophy
and the "wisdom" of foolish humans.
They are blameless.
The endangered Oregon Spotted Owl
is not symbolic of anything.
The Spotted Owl is innocent of the philosophy
behind the logging companies
and the hardwood cutting greed of the Forest Service.
Owls are innocent of the "wisdom" that drives Owls to extinction.
It is clear the blame belongs to men and myths
and to those who take from nature
and style it in images of their conceit
and give nothing back.
Owls are the innocent mimes of the forest and field
whose silence tells the tale of existence.
Barred Owl in Maple Leaves
Now that I have seen the sad fragility of owls
and the cruel ideas that can distort human eyes,
I am wary of myths and what they do to real
will I be frightened by Poe's poem about ravens,
which lies about these marvelous birds and
which, no doubt, contributed to the deaths
of untold numbers of black birds.
No bird is actually all-over black,
but the sun turns it yellow or blue in the light of dawn,
So too, black does not symbolize human concerns
and is innocent of human notions of “evil”.
The Native Americans put Raven on the top of their totem poles
which is at least shows some respect--
though ravens are not hierarchical.
They put owls on them too, usually lower down.
Priests, scientists and businessmen organize nature
in hierarchies that suit them,
but these hierarchies lie about nature.
The truth is both stranger than science
and more marvelously ordinary than myth.
Owls have been misunderstood in many cultures.
Neither Hegel, Plato or folk belief
tells me much about Owls
And Merlin did the birds much damage
when Morte d'Arthur and other fairy tales
claimed owls as symbols of a priesthood.,
When birds are used as symbols
the real birds tend to start dying off,
as the Chinese have killed off most of the Cranes
that they claimed as symbols of long life,
the Tao or the emperor.
Owls do not believe in the Tao,
and do not need it
and I respect them for that.
I don’t need it either.
Eagles are largely exterminated
in the place where they
symbolize the land of the free.
What kind of "freedom" is it
that murders the bird that
Someone I knew, who knew Little Warrior,
the Lakota 'wicasa wakan' ,
and friend of Black Elk
told me that Little Warrior
derived his 'power' from Owls
and used it to help his tribe,
just as Tecumseh claimed
his power and ability to unite tribes
came from Cranes, probably the Sandhill,
not the Whooping.
But the days of the bravura of
Little Warrior and Tecumseh are over.
Animals and birds are no longer totems.
No more can a man or woman
who cares about nature
selfishly ask the fish, bears, eagles or owls
to help us and give us power.
We have no right to ask more of them
when it is we who destroy their land.
No one is master of the animals, no god, gods or humans.
Owls are not mythic or symbolic.
It is time that they be masters over us.
Let the animals be masters over humans.
They know more about the earth than we
and might teach us to stop destroying it.
I would rather be the totem of an owl,
raven, chickadee or chipmunk,
than presume any longer
that I am better than them.
If ever I can gather the strength to please them
so that they might choose me
I would be honored to be the totem of small birds for instance,
and they can use me to help their tribes.
But do I really want chickadees to set up a little image of me?
claim me as their medicine power?
A totem of me would be very silly:
a little rotund chickadee sculpture
wearing glasses, perhaps.
No, I must not fool myself.
They do not need my medicine
but only my respect
The truth is they don't need totem humans
whom they would never emulate.
The best I can do is write this plea
that others might love them as I have
or better than I have.
Yes, I have loved owls
and have sought comfort in their enclosing wings.
I have loved them at twilight when they fly in an opal sky
over darkening pines. I have seen them against the stars,
or gliding silently over dark fields and meadows
sitting three together
in a lonely winter oak tree.
I have seen their babies and shared in their lives.
I have smelled their feathers and
watched their eyes glisten in moonlight.
Maybe I sought refuge in the eyes of Owls,
because I was blind
and I learned from them and other animals
that seeing is not automatic for humans
Owls taught me that occasionally, if I try hard,
and try to look beyond my own narrow human vision,
I can see.
All my life I have looked into the dark,
trying to understand
and slowly I have shed some of the myths
my culture taught me.
The night is full of life
and though life loves light,
it seeks into the dark
and as deep sea fish
are the extremity of the eyes of the sea,
Owls are the eyes of the forest
living in a fragile world
beyond human capacities.
Life seeks yet more life
timorously extending itself
into the extremity
of all that is known.
I learned more from Owls
than I can ever give back to them.
So I offer this ode to them
in grateful celebration.
Copyright © 2002 Mark Koslow.
All Rights Reserved.