The little woodland behind my studio is thick with owls. I hear their cries each morning as I start my work at the break of dawn. I hear them again at the midnight hour in our little house just down the hill, the song of owls slipping the bedroom window into my dreams. During the long, eerie days of a pandemic lockdown, the owls of the wood are more present than ever. The quiet, the stillness, the companionship of the owls: these are gifts during a difficult time.
In this luminous passage from her book Dwellings, Chickasaw poet and novelist Linda Hogan follows the call of the owls who gather near her home in the American south-west:
"It was early in February, during the mating season of the great horned owls. It was dusk, and I had hiked up the back of a mountain to where I'd heard the owls a year before. I wanted to hear them again, the voices so tender, so deep, like a memory of comfort. I was halfway up the trail when I found a soft, round nest. It had fallen from one of the bare-branched trees. It was a delicate nest, woven together of feathers, sage, and strands of wild grass. Holding it in my hands in the rosy twilight, I noticed that blue thread was entwined with the other gatherings there. I pulled at the thread a little, and then I recognized it. It was a thread from one of my skirts. It was blue cotton. It was the unmistakeable color and shape of a pattern I knew. I liked it, that a thread of my life was in an abandoned nest, one that had held eggs and new life. I took the nest home. At home, I held it to the light and looked more closely. There, to my surprise, nestled into the grey-green sage, was a gnarl of black hair. It was also unmistakeable. It was my daughter's hair, cleaned from a brush and picked out in the sun beneath the maple tree, or the pit cherry where birds eat from the overladen, fertile branches until only the seeds remain on the trees.
"I didn't know what kind of nest it was, or who had lived there. It didn't matter. I thought of the remnants of our lives carried up the hill that way and turned into shelter. That night, resting inside the walls of our home, the world outside weighed so heavily against the thin wood of the house. The sloped roof was the only thing between us and the universe. Everything outside our wooden boundaries seemed so large. Filled with the night's citizens, it all came alive. The world opened in the thickets of the dark. The wild grapes would soon ripen on the vines. The burrowing ones were emerging. Horned owls sat in treetops. Mice scurried here and there. Skunks, fox, the slow and holy porcupine, all were passing by this way. The young of the solitary bees were feeding on pollen in the dark. The whole world was a nest on its humble tilt, in the maze of the universe, holding us."
The art today is by fellow owl-lover Catherine Hyde, who trained at the Central School of Art in London and now lives and works in Cornwall. Catherine has published five books (The Princess’ Blankets, Firebird, Little Evie in the Wild Wood, The Star Tree, and The Hare and the Moon), all of which I recommend. Her art is extensively exhibited in London, Cornwall, and father afield.
“I am constantly attempting to convey the landscape in a state of suspension," she says, "in order to gain glimpses of its interconnectedness, its history and beauty. Within the images I use the archetypical hare, stag, owl and fish as emblems of wildness, fertility and permanence: their movements and journeys through the paintings act as vehicles that bind the elements and the seasons together."
Please visit the artist's website to see more of her exquisite work.
The passage above is from one of my all-time favourite books, Dwellings: The Spiritual History of the Living World by Linda Hogan (W.W. Norton & Co, 1995), which I highly, highly recommend. The paintings are by Catherine Hyde. All rights to the text and art in the post reserved by the author and artist.