Return of the Spirit Owl

Barred owl, strix varia

The story of the Spirit Owl is simple but eerie. One cold afternoon in the late winter of 2005, I glance out the office window of the Berkshire Hills farm where I work, and sitting in the branches of a crabapple tree not twenty feet from the front door is this beautiful, deadly-eyed owl. I point it out to my employer, the wisewoman and herbalist, who tells me straight-facedly that this owl’s presence comes as no surprise—it is a messenger, a bearer of news from the spirit world, and she has seen it here before, years ago, sitting in that very same tree. I don’t believe her. But I get my camera and go downstairs to take a picture. This owl has nerves of steel. I step out the front door and inch closer, pressing the shutter intermittently, a little too chilly and too freaked out by the whole situation to get a steady shot. Only when I am practically on top of it does the owl perform a stately turn and swoop silently off into the pines.

All this happens in broad daylight, mind you.

I go home that night and get out my bird books, determined to find a rational explanation for the owl’s uncanny behavior. National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region has the following to say about strix varia:

This owl is most often seen by those who seek it out in its dark retreat, usually a thick grove of trees in lowland forest. There it rests quietly during the day, coming out at night to feed on rodents, birds, frogs, and crayfish.

In other words, barred owls are nocturnal—they don’t come out in daylight.

The next day, in defiance of its very nature, the owl is back again, sitting on the same branch staring at the door, at me peeking through it, exactly as though it expects me to shed my human disguise and fly off with it into the shadows. And it’s there again the day after that.

What does it mean? What does it want from me? Why won’t it look away?

But on the fourth day, the owl doesn’t return. With the immediate affront to my rational sensibilities removed, my feeling of ontological horror fades. After a few weeks, I give myself permission to dismiss it and go on about my life. And that was the end of it. Or so I thought.

Now it’s almost exactly three years later—the early spring of 2008. I show up at work this morning, glance out the office window, and there’s the owl again. In the same damn tree, practically on the same branch. Only this time, it doesn’t quite seem to want to meet my eye. As though it were ashamed of me.

Is it the same owl? It can’t be. How long do owls live? Kept in captivity, according to this site, barred owls have been known to survive up to twenty-three years.

It sure looks like the same owl.

I took a picture (much nicer this time, if I do say so myself), and compared it with the blurry photo of three years ago, and compared that with a murky, distant picture I found in the archives, which my boss snapped when the owl first visited in the early spring of 2002. It’s hard to say with the older photo, but the two shots I took are practically identical. I compare them with the identification photo in the Audubon guide, and there, the distinction is clear: our owl has the same penetrating, coal-black eyes, the same mottled pattern on the breast, but it’s sleeker, with less rust color in the feathers, more white. A quick google image search confirms this: barred owls look alike, but there is quite a bit of variation between individuals. All of which leads me to only one conclusion.

It’s the same owl.

What the hell is going on? Is this truly, as the wise-woman suggests, an owl of ill omen? Is it some restless ghost that returns to the site on the anniversary of its grisly murder? Is it the spirit of an ancestor in animal disguise, come to watch over my shoulder and make sure I dot all my i’s and close all my HTML tags?

Actually, I’ve been thinking about this since I got home, and I believe I have the answer. Most of it, anyway. Enough to preserve my rationalist worldview for now. It’s the three year cycle in the owl’s eerie pattern that really throws me. But even that too can be explained away, with a stretch. If you’re of the ilk who’d prefer to think magic is real, well, just don’t read past the cut.

The farmhouse where I work is pretty old, built in 1850. It has mice. And it so happens that there’s something else besides the owl’s crabapple tree within 20 feet of the kitchen door: the compost heap. Which, in a place that brews its own herbal medicines, is still in active use even in the dead of winter. I figure the mice have all kinds of little tunnels running between the foundation of the house and the compost—but once they reach the heap, they’re obliged, however briefly, to leave the safety of their icy warrens and make a mad dash for the delicious, steamy-hot, leftover herbs. The owl knows this. Late in the winter, she has a hard time finding easy prey elsewhere in the woods—all the toads and crawdaddies are deep in hibernation, and with such a heavy snow cover on the ground, the rodent side of her diet can tunnel about with impunity. So maybe, just maybe, once every few years, when the winter has been particularly harsh, our owl gets hungry enough to risk coming within twenty feet of human habitation—even in broad daylight (which just happens to be the only time when the humans are around to dump leftover herbs on the compost heap).

That’s the best explanation I can come up with. The best, anyway, that doesn’t involve hallucinatory prophecy and the ghosts of the ancestors.

If you’ve got a better one I’d love to hear it.


  1. very cool!

    i had a midnight encounter with a huge f’n owl once in college, while deep in my cups. we stared at each other for ages. then i figured if i walked a circle around him (at distance), maybe i could see him do that 360 head-turn thing! but at my first step into the woods, he swooped away. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Scott,
      Next time you’re in boston I ought to get my sister to take you on the insider tour of the museum of science. They have a room full of wounded or abandoned animals they keep for live presentations, including several owls and hawks etc. I went in there when I was writing the “William-O vs the Owl” story, and the scientist types (with only mild annoyance at my persistence) fielded a whole barrage of questions I had about owl anatomy and hunting habits. Would they go after a full-grown cat? Not so much. Kitten? Maybe! I think their heads don’t quite go 360, but it’s close–like 320 or so. They have more vertebrae in their necks than giraffes!

  2. Many years ago, our 20-y.o. cat was ailing, and it seemed like her time was up. Then one night, I dreamt that an owl came to me and offered me the gift of magic in return for the life of the cat. Even in my dream, I knew that I had no right to bargain with the life of any other being, so I refused politely and with no mixed motives, although I wanted that gift pretty desperately. Shortly after that, our cat recovered from her illness and lived about another year. I went looking for stories of owls as trickster characters, but it isn’t a common theme, I don’t think, not like Fox and Coyote and Anansi. They’re usually pretty serious in folktales (although my research was not extensive), so I never understood how that trickled into my subconscious, but it’s something that I think about every time I see or hear an owl (and there were quite a few barred owls where I lived last year). I don’t think the two things had anything to do with each other, and yet I think they had a lot to do with each other, but these two thoughts exist together with equal weight in a paradoxical way. Your owl could be watching the mice in the compost pile, or there could be something else going on, or all of the above. Reasonable explanations don’t preclude magical possibilities, is what I’m trying to say, I think. The beauty of it is that it happened, and, now that I have ventured down other magical pathways without the help of the dream owl, my opinion is that lots of things that are ordinary are also magical, and lots of things that don’t appear to have ordinary explanations–well, sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes we will never know. Anything that awakens your awareness of magic and wonder in the world, though, is to be paid attention to, and is excellent artistic fodder.

    I also think that if you’re going to believe in magic, or God, for that matter, you should be prepared to feel like you’re out of your ken a lot of the time. If it’s something that the human mind is part of, but not something that the human mind has created, then it stands to (my) reason that you can only comprehend a small part of it, and plan accordingly (that is, observe and consider that any reason for anything may be bigger and more amazing than you can possibly imagine). If one could truly comprehend infinity, it would be a very small universe indeed.

    This is starting to get rather baroque, I’d better stop…trying to post about magic in a journal comment field is like trying to stuff a river into a sack.

    Also, congratulations on the subject of your previous posting. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Liz,
      I really appreciate your persistence in arguing the side of the uncanny. And you’re right—just because the owl has a biological excuse to appear in this place at this instant doesn’t mean I shouldn’t interpret this particular serendipitous confluence of a near-infinite array of ocurrences in the history of the universe as bearing some greater significance. I am often aware of two parallel possible interpretations for a given event, magical and rational. It’s just a product of my worldview that the rational side tends to get the edge, and as a result, whenver this situation occurs, I am always conscious of the fact that I have a choice. And even if I accept the magical interpretation (and sometimes I most certainly do), I am mindful of the fact that I could have dismissed it. Maybe that changes the power of the experience and maybe it doesn’t…but it’s only when I have trouble coming up with the rational occurrence that I really get freaked out.

      And thanks, I am pretty psyched about getting into that antho myself!

  3. I think neither of us would argue that humans place patterns on things that seem significant and feel the need to create stories out of these sorts of events, and in creating order, we create narrative. Can a human not do this? I don’t know.

    What if there is no true dichotomy between the rational and the uncanny?

    What freaks you out about not coming up with a rational explanation, the possibility that magic might exist, or the possibility that it doesn’t (and therefore something’s wrong with your interpretation)?

    What if magic was completely rational, it just followed rules that we don’t know?–imagine the state of science in the 17th century, for example, or take it one step further and imagine that we are able perceive three dimensions, but exist in four, and the fourth dimension is where the rules for magic exist (These are probably ideas you’ve run across before).

    I suppose some of the answers to those questions depend on how you define magic. The spirit owl explanation and other explanations of that type don’t ever go far enough for me, they feel sort of limited, but then I’m attracted to complicated systems like Tibetan Buddhism and Western Mystery schools. Yet there is a simplicity to that sort of encounter, too: it exists, it has happened, it is observable in some way and perhaps explanations say more about our inner dialogue than they do about what actually happened. Sort of a more Zen Buddhist take on it, I suppose.

    On that note: Aren’t owls cool? That was a great picture, good work! Great story, too! What a delicious mystery! ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. What if there is no true dichotomy between the rational and the uncanny?
      What freaks you out about not coming up with a rational explanation, the possibility that magic might exist, or the possibility that it doesnโ€™t (and therefore somethingโ€™s wrong with your interpretation)?

      Hmm that is a tough one. I think the answer is: I’m freaked out by the possibility that magic exists in a form distinguishable from the rational elements of ordinary reality. I didn’t mean to say that there’s a dichotomy between the rational and the magical, but that the two exist simultaneously, perhaps inseparably, in the same occurrences. Recently, in another wonderful online philosophical discussion like this one, I worked out what I believe to be the fundamental rule of my belief system in the preternatural to be: God = Nature. In other words, i prefer to think of the ineffable not as some bearded dude or lady manipulating objects and events, but as the sum total of everything that is (with the possible, partial exception of free will and its products). There is a logic to the universe. It is so vast as to be unfathomable, and it regularly produces these events of serendipitous significance such as my encounter with the owl. I can comprehend only a tiny part of that logic–but enough of it to appreciate that the rest of it is there beyond my ken. It’s when I can’t think my way to seeing even some tiny part of that logic that I start to get worried.

      I kind of have to get moving here or I would say more about this…particularly about the human tendency to impose narrative and whether or not it is innate in human-ness or if it’s culturally enforced. I lean towards the latter, which is part of why I settled on God = Nature. There’s also something more to be said about the possibilities of 4th dimensional thought… but maybe later!

      Owls are indeed cool.

  4. To pick up one of the last threads first, I think it may be innate human-ness to see patterns in things, although not necessarily to bind them together narratively, and certainly the kinds of things one picks tend to be culturally enforced. But in truth, I haven’t thought about that subject for a while. How did that reinforce your God=Nature worldview?

    The way you have described “God=Nature” appears fairly close to my own view of things. There’s probably another discussion to be had, here, about faith and the nature of proof! It’s been said that it’s impossible to be a being incarnate and truly conceive of what the Absolute might be–there are ways to describe parts of it, but to actually get there is impossible while working in three dimensions (let’s say, since we started talking about that. But there are certainly other names to call it).

    The fun of this is that it’s fathomless, and talking about it barely brushes the surface. Still, you have to start somewhere, even if your words are only brushing the surface of the tiniest inlet of ocean (and that just made me think of the Gospel of John, where it says the Word is the beginning and the Word was with God, and the Word was God–apparently “Word”=”Logos” in the original Greek, which has among its meanings “reason”. Not that I’m a bible-thumper, btw, but neither am I anti-mythology, whatever its stripe). Words place some amount of form on the formless–interesting since words in themselves are not actually of form, they are, arguably, energy more than form. At this point, I could easily loop around to the beginning of this comment and talk about creating patterns and narrative…pretty neat trick! And I didn’t even do it on purpose.

    Anyhow, I need to go to ground in the world of Form for a bit, now, before I float away on my own airy persiflage. ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. Yeah, I love that quote… isn’t it interesting how often the element of language shows up in the very first lines of origin stories? I took a literary theory survey class once where the professor gave a linguist’s interpretation of “In the beginning was the Word”, which sadly I am not going to be able to reproduce in all its glory, but the kernel of it was that the “beginning” was not the beginning of life, the universe and everything, but rather humankind’s first use of language. Before language, there was no narrative, no meaning, thus no ineffable, no god. That class pissed me off for the most part with its refusal to deal in anything but uncertainties—but it’s an interesting idea. The trouble is, trying to imagine a time before language is a lot like trying to imagine time as a dimension of space. It can be done, but only through approximations. We can think about it in whatever terms we choose, as fancifully or romantically or mystically as we like (through science fiction and fantasy, for example), but as far as we go, it will never be far enough.

        Here’s how I think about it: the nature of our existence forces us to endure time in a strictly linear fashion—time passes, we go where it takes us. And the nature of our means of engaging with the world—the senses and language—are dependent on that linear perception of time. So in that sense we have a natural proclivity to narrative. But ten thousand years of culture built up on top of that have made it something very different. Culture begins with language—which means its origin also coincides with the origin of free will—the concept at least, if not the actual phenomenon. I’ve been using free will as the marker for the break between nature and humanity as well as that between humanity and god. The point could be argued; it’s very debatable what constitutes free will and what is predetermined by nurture, instinct and suchlike. But it’s the best distinction I can come up with. And drawing conclusions from it leads me a general sense that all these essentially human things, language, culture, narrative, free will, and the search for symbols, are more or less interdependent and coeval. And everything else, particularly those things which are demonstrably nonhuman in nature, those things constitute god.

        1. It’s also like trying to imagine what life was like before written language, pre-literate culture. It was perhaps not as big of leap of technology, but it’s a similar sort of thing, once you make the jump to written language, there’s no going back, really. We can imagine what it was like, but only that.

          I think some spiritual paths have, as a goal, being able to perceive Universal time, to transcend linear time. Again, it’s one of those things, like touching the face of God, that you can’t do completely if you are incarnate. But you can try, and in trying, perhaps you achieve certain states of consciousness briefly (rather like Elfland, perhaps, because time runs differently in Universal consciousness than it does in the world of the mundane). To be able to access the experience fully afterwards is another story–once restored to the world of form and linear time, it takes training to be able to hold that spark. And be careful about who you try to describe it to, and how you describe it! Who has ears to hear, and all that.

          But I’m wandering (although not a lot) from the original things I had in mind when I sat down to write, which had to do with free will and language and separation. The interpretation that I currrently favor regarding the development of language, culture, etc. is that it had to do with the rise of self-consciousness in the human, meaning that, when the human perceives himself as a conscious being separate from the world around him–separate from nature, separate from god, separate from other people–there, also, is language, culture, linear time, human-ness. I think I’m agreeing with the structure of your current thoughts on the matter, but clarifying a difference of opinion about the cause. Consciousness of separation may lead to the idea of free will (although my particular take on free will has a lot to do with the question “whose choices constitute free will?” sort of like saying “I believe in reincarnation” then adding “what is it that reincarnates, though?”), so perhaps we are talking about the same thing in some ways.

          Is separation from god an illusion? Are we not as much a part of god as the things we see, that we experience, and are we not just connected, but one with them? It’s been a long time since I’ve read Martin Buber’s I and Thou…I wonder where my copy is, and how relevant it is to my current philosophies…anyhow, I prefer to think that separation is a scam, a veil that can be seen through. It has been described as the veil of Isis: Isis who is Nature, and the seeker is the one who could learn to see through her veil to the fundamental laws of Nature beneath (have you read Apuleius?–something else I haven’t read for a long time, but would probably be worth looking at again). Not that I favor a mushy-headed idea of, like, being one with the Universe, d00d, whoa. ๐Ÿ™‚ Separation, if truly an illusion, does serve a purpose, and Oneness, I suspect, given the teachings about it, is more sublime and terrifying than I, at least, can currently imagine–I’m not sorry to have a skin. I’m starting to ramble a bit, sorry. And I’m still sort of stuck on that thing about Words and Holy Words, and the Names of God, and vowels holding the magic of a language, and so forth, it’s all been going around and around in my head–also, the story of the golem. Yeesh. Five thousand (or more) years of philosophical and magical thought, all bounding around like dancing elephants in the subconscious. I feel like there might not be any coherent thread to this comment at all.

          Therefore, let me completetly stop trying to have a coherent thread and say: Looking outside right now, it looks like I live in a snow globe.

          Oh, and I found out this weekend that one of my friends got a crank laptop (although it doesn’t actually have a crank, but it does plug into a solar collector). And it is indeed Very Awesomely Cool.

        2. Ha ha ha…yeah, this thread sure has ranged far from anything to do with owls…but it’s cool! Good times were had, and good ideas. I agree it is hard to tell where we end and Nature begins, and maybe we don’t, and it doesn’t. But me thinks I need to bend it all around somehow so it fits into a story.

          I have not read either of those writers you mention. Will have to give them a look.

          Oh, and I also got a chance to play around with one of the crank laptops. I only wish the keys were just a teeeny bit farther apart so my fingers could fit on them…

  5. Yup, it was fun. It’s good to focus on metaphysical ideas for a bit, and to try to explain yourself to another human being and see how it holds up. Better still when it makes its way into one’s art.

    Apuleius’ The Golden Ass; I read the Robert Graves translation which is very fun, but there are some newer ones that weren’t available before that might also be good. Don’t get the old Victorian bowdlerized one, whatever you do. Get one that’s accurate and keeps true to the picaresque, bawdy spirit of the thing (psst–it’s about the Mysteries of Isis, don’t tell anybody, though, k?).

    Happy Eclipse!

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