A Year-End Message from an Owl that Calls Your Name

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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.

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Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.

2 COMMENTS

  1. The owl called our name in September, amidst the pandemic and a horrific wildfire that destroyed the river cabin my wife and I built 50 years ago in the foothills of the Oregon Cascades.
    We had spent two glorious, self-quarantined weeks there, with short hikes, lots of reading and reflecting. Sunday before Labor Day, our son David was with us, and as evening approached he spotted a very large bird flying right in front of our view windows. It quickly disappeared; we commented on it but put it aside. We knew fire danger on the hills above us was increasing and we talked about that.
    As we walked David to his car to return to Portland, the air was shattered by a high and frantic scream. Startled, we spotted a large owl, perched on a stump between us and a neighbor. It screamed again; without doubt it was warning us of danger.
    The next day we were forced to evacuate our beloved cabin; the Beachie Creek Fire was out of control, driven by gale-force winds bearing down on our little community. Within 24 hours the cabin and the forest were destroyed.
    Did the owl survive, or did he perish with other creatures great and small? He knew.

  2. Floyd, thanks for sharing this story. I’m so sorry for the loss of your cabin and for the forest. Terrible losses. As it happens, I am a fourth generation Oregonian. We have a nearly 100 year old family cabin in the Wallowas. So far, we haven’t been touched by fire. But it could certainly happen. Owls are remarkable and seem often to bear some message.

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