By Allison Cox, ©2014.
I managed to escape work early enough that afternoon. I remember wanting to escape all the traffic and concrete of the city. I was lucky enough to drive right onto the ferry just before it left for my island. Once home, I lingered on the front deck of my house, soaking up some rare warm Spring sunshine, breathing in the scents of the flowering pots around me and the wildflowers in the surrounding woods.
Standing still, my eyes snagged on something large and white, moving through the tree canopy in the distant forest. I hurried inside to grab some binoculars and was back out in time to see a barred owl land on a fir tree deep in the woods. Just like in my Audubon field guide, the immense bird had white feathers “barred” with brown. One night, weeks before, I was startled by what sounded like a gibbon howling “Who cooks for you?” through the dark. I searched to learn what creature may be responsible and found the barred owl’s photo then. And this one in my yard was a big one, possibly two feet tall. Each time I raised those binoculars to have a closer look, it looked like that owl was staring straight back at me!
The massive bird launched again, sailing through the trees on a wingspan near four feet across, still watching me as he flew. As the owl was about to clear the woods – BAMM! A redheaded pileated woodpecker slammed into the owl from the side. The owl faltered, winging backwards to right himself as he landed on an alder branch at the edge of my long front yard.
The woodpecker was a great bird himself, sixteen inches high with shiny black wings spanning over a foot wide. His black masked face scolded as he darted in wild loops, his topknot a flaming red streak. Bigger than ever with his feathers puffed out, the owl flexed thick talons to steady himself while his head rotated to follow his attacker’s flight. The woodpecker finally dashed back towards his nest, still chattering about staying the proper distance from his nest.
“Wow!” was all I could think. Giant owls and woodpeckers in my front yard! Nothing like this ever happened in Chicago when I was growing up!
While I was lost in amazement, the owl turned his attention back to me. He was obviously staring at me – no binoculars needed any more to decipher his intent. He hopped out farther on the alder branch and took flight – straight at me.
I heard a staccato “Mi-a-oww!” and glanced down to the driveway, four feet directly below the deck, where my tabby cat, Freya, stood frozen except for her twitching tail, as she watched the owl sailing toward us. Again she cried, “Mi-a-oww” – which I now know means, “Look out!” – for that owl was flying right at me.
My cat leapt a mighty leap, up, higher than the deck. For a moment, she hovered even with my head, nine feet off the ground. Freya swiped the air with her right paw in what seemed like slow motion as the owl barreled down on us.
And the great bird merely flicked his wingtips, lifting them just a fraction, and whooooshed by, inches above me. The backdraft pulled my long hair up into the air after him, a cartoon image of amazement. I turned to see the white and brown feathered giant soaring over the roof and beyond, disappearing over the old cedar forest beyond. Wow!
Later I wondered, “Should I have been scared?” It had never occurred to me in those moments that the owl meant to hurt me. So I asked a park ranger I met soon after. He told me, “Nah, probably no need to be afraid. That owl was just letting you know that he was setting up his territory in your front yard which is why that woodpecker took issue with it.”
But soon after this, I told the same story to an artist who shapes beautiful spirit owls from clay. This woman had welcomed owls into the attic of her art studio and observed them often. She told me, “What that owl did is simply this… that owl gave you his blessing.”
After spending some considerable time thinking about my afternoon adventure, I decided… they are both right.
“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.” (Wallace Stegner, “Wilderness Idea,” in The Sound of Mountain Water, 1969).
When telling environmental stories to families, a favorite participatory story I share is “The War Between The Sandpipers And The Whales”- a Marshall Islands folktale from Margaret Read MacDonald’s book, Peace Tales; World Folktales To Talk About. The story tells of how a whale and a sandpiper argue about who the beach really belongs to… and what happens when the argument got out of control! If you do not have a copy of this wonderful storytelling book, you can find multiple versions of this story on the internet.
Here are links for various versions of “The War Between the Sandpipers and the Whales”:
I tell the story as a participatory tale by having my listeners sing the songs of the whales and the sandpipers with me. I have people bob like a sandpiper as they sing. When all the whales brothers arrive I ask the audience to name all the kinds of whales they think came to the island (and acknowledge which whales are native to the Marshall Islands and which ones probably had to swim a long distance to get there.) When the sandpipers and the whales call their cousins, I again ask the audience to guess what species arrive and if they are from faaaar away, I may joke that they caught a ride with someone else (“Must have flown in on the pelican’s back!”). There are other places in the tale where I have the children mime the whales spouting or munching up the beach and the birds swallowing the ocean. It is a thoroughly rousing tale that also carries strong messages about bullying, war, and respecting others and the environment.
Following this story I like to share a personal experience of real animal territorial behavior that I witnessed in my backyard – which is a wonder to me to this very day! This story illustrates what happened when some local Pacific Northwest birds and my cat got into a recent debate about territory.
Storyteller, editor and an author in The Healing Heart books and The Healing Story Alliance’s journal, Diving in the Moon: Honoring Story and Facilitating Healing. Allison Cox combines her training and experiences as a therapist, social worker, health educator and prevention specialist with her love of story to create a healing medium that connects across cultures and generations. www.dancingleaves.com/allison/