There is a white owl flies near the river, close to my home. From its size, shape and flight pattern I recognise it as a barn owl. Barn owls are normally pale in colour, white below and a light buff above, but this one seems white all over.
Few other creatures are as deeply imagined as owls. Singularly creatures of the night, they are usually associated with foreboding and doom. If we are afraid of the night, the owl hints at where that fear comes from.
The relationship goes back a long way. A painting of an owl has been found amongst cave paintings at Chauvet, its head turned through 180 degrees to look back at us. This unique ability sets it apart from other creatures, endowing it with strange powers of divination. The Romans thought it so, and associated it with impending disaster.
Shakespeare has many references to owls. Lady Macbeth shudders at the sound of an owl hooting at the moment of Duncan’s death. And in Henry VI (part 3) the doomed King Henry says of Gloucester, his executioner:
The owl shriek’d at thy birth,–an evil sign;
The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time;
Dogs howl’d, and hideous tempest shook down trees;
The raven rook’d her on the chimney’s top,
And chattering pies in dismal discords sung.
The image below was taken by the great wildlife photographer, Eric Hoskings, in 1948. It captures a rare moment of synchronicity, a subject whose aesthetic power reaches far beyond its literal value.
Owls can have a more subtle relationship with us, not merely foreboding of doom, but suggesting something more complex, mysterious, ultimately quite marvelous. This love poem by Ted Hughes speaks of the transformative power of perception:
I saw my world again through your eyes
As I would see it again through your children’s eyes.
Through your eyes it was foreign.
Plain hedge hawthorns were peculiar aliens,
A mystery of peculiar lore and doings.
Anything wild, on legs, in your eyes
Emerged at a point of exclamation
As if it had appeared to dinner guests
In the middle of the table. Common mallards
Were artefacts of some unearthliness,
Their wooings were a hypnagogic film
Unreeled by the river. Impossible
To comprehend the comfort of their feet
In the freezing water. You were a camera
Recording reflections you could not fathom.
I made my world perform its utmost for you.
You took it all in with an incredulous joy
Like a mother handed her new baby
By the midwife. Your frenzy made me giddy.
It woke up my dumb, ecstatic boyhood
Of fifteen years before. My masterpiece
Came that black night on the Grantchester road.
I sucked the throaty thin woe of a rabbit
Out of my wetted knuckle, by a copse
Where a tawny owl was enquiring.
Suddenly it swooped up, splaying its pinions
Into my face, taking me for a post.