Some of you will recognize “I Heard the Owl Call My Name,” as the title of Margaret Craven’s 1967 novel about a young Anglican vicar (that’s episcopalian for “low man on the totem pole”) who is sent to a First Nations Village in a remote part of British Columbia.
What the young vicar doesn’t know, but his bishop does (improbably) is that he hasn’t long to live. The bishop’s idea seems to be that among the First Nation’s people the young man will be on a fast track to maturity, packing into the short time he has left a crash course in life, death, and wisdom. That’s the story the novel tells.
The title comes, specifically, from the native belief that when a person hears an owl call their name, which the young vicar does in due course, it means you do not have long to live.
Owls have long been associated with the shadows, with night and with death. Probably because that is when they are active and on the hunt, as the shadows fall and during the night. And perhaps their association with death is also because they are, for their prey, a sudden end.
Owls fly all but silently. This is because the feathers along the front edge of their wings are serrated in a particular noise-reducing way. A remarkable adaptation. A sudden swoosh of wings may come with a hawk or an eagle’s flight. Not so for the owl. More stealth, these guys.
But owls are not only associated with death, but also with wisdom. I prefer this association, although some would argue that death (or an awareness of mortality) and wisdom go together. Such is the teaching of the psalmist, “O Lord teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90)
Why are owls associated with wisdom? I think it must have something to do with their large and prominent eyes and incredible eyesight. And also an uncanny capacity to rotate their heads 270 degrees. The penetrating sight suggests insight. Perhaps owls are also associated with wisdom because they have a great capacity for stillness, for silently observing what is going on around them. Owls are a symbol for “fives” on the Enneagram. I am a 5. Whether I am wise or not . . . sort of depends on who you ask.
I love owls and wanted to share this beautiful photo of a snowy owl who is currently residing in the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle, courtesy of Elaine Chuang. Elaine is a fellow Seattle Parks and Rec volunteer naturalist, and an excellent photographer.
2020 has been a lot of things, many of them sad, difficult and disappointing. But 2020 has also stilled us. We who were accustomed to such full schedules, such constant coming and going, and to so many choices, have been to a significant extent stilled — quieted — by the pandemic.
Death, way too much death, has been a part of it. And our hearts do go out to all who have lost family and friends this hard year.
Has wisdom also been a part of 2020? Has this season of unexpected stillness brought us some deeper wisdom? I think it may have. I certainly hope so. Lord knows, we need it.