Category Archives: General

Of Owls and the Man

By John Hanson Mitchell

One thing we know about Henry Thoreau is that he loved owls.

The Great Horned Owl’s mating call can be heard in late January.

“I rejoice that there are owls,” he wrote after a description of a demon-haunted night at Walden, filled with dismal screams and the melancholy forebodings of calling owls. He loved to hear their wailing, it reminded him of music and singing.

In this regard he was (as usual) a little off center as far as tradition goes. Here in the West, owls do not fare well in legend and literature. Of all the birds that inhabit the fields and forests of the world, owls have probably more legends associated with them than any another avian – not always pleasant legends at that.

For example, I had read not long ago an account of an ominous event that took place in the Protestant cemetery in Rome in 1910.

One rainy night, the famous early twentieth century Swedish physician and author, Axel Munthe, was involved in a somewhat nefarious transfer of bodies from a grave in the cemetery at Porta San Paolo. He and the gravedigger were hard at work when, out of the gloom, from behind the Cestius Pyramid, a big owl began to sound off.

Munthe was a great lover of owls and birds in general. He traveled in the highest social circles, was classically educated and a skilled physician, but a chill shot through him nonetheless. He knew that owls were the traditional the harbingers of death.

Just before the Roman emperor Antonius died, an owl had alighted on his residence. Same thing happened to Valentinian, according to Roman histories. And before the death of the great Cesar Augustus, an owl called out.

Later in history the Italians had their revenge by consuming owls or using them in net lures, but even in Munthe’s time, and well into the twentieth century, Italian peasants traveling at night would sign themselves or touch a crucifix if they heard an owl call.

Owls fare no better in English and northern European folklore. You couldn’t even mention owls in Munthe’s native Sweden without putting yourself at risk of a sorcerer’s charm, and killing one was sure to bring on ill luck. Throughout northern Europe and even into the Near East owls were considered the associates of witches and dark deeds, harbingers of a death to come, and were even used as ingredients in witches brews. Shakespeare’s weird sisters used an owlet’s wing to strengthen their foul concoction in Macbeth, and later in the play, an owl — “the fatal bellman”— shrieks just before Macbeth murders Duncan in the second act. No doubt the scream of that notorious Irish herald of death, the banshee, had its origin in the wail of the little Irish screech owl.

There used to be a legend in England that the owl was in fact a Pharaoh’s daughter, and there was even a couplet to comfort children wakened at night by the owl’s scream:

“I was once a king’s daughter, and sat on my father’s knee,
But now I’m a poor hoolet, and hide in a hollow tree.”

Curiously there are only two exceptions to this bad reputation of a perfectly innocent creature which, by the way, does inestimable good for the human community by holding down the populations of grain eating mice.

In ancient Greece the owl was considered a sacred bird, associated with wisdom and the goddess Athena. In fact in some of the statues of Athena the goddess appear with an owl’s head. This association with intelligence was even used in a wordplay by one of the greatest of the Greek heroes.

When he reached Sicily after the fall of Troy, Odysseus and his men unwisely took shelter in a cave belonging to the one-eyed Cyclops, Polyphemus. When the giant came home from tending his sheep that night, finding the sailors inside, he rolled a rock in front of the cave mouth and proceeded to eat a few men for dinner. After his repast, he asked for the name of their leader. The wily Odysseus announced that his name was Otus.

In ancient Greek, the word Otus means owl, the symbol of wisdom and Athena. But it also means “nobody.”

“My name is Nobody,” Odysseus said, in effect. Those who remember the story will recall that after the crew managed to blind Polyphemus, all the other Cyclops, hearing his bellows, came to the mouth of the cave and asked what was wrong.

“I am blinded,” Polyphemus called out.

“Who blinded you?” they asked

“Nobody,” he answered.

His fellow giants departed the scene and Odysseus aka, Nobody, or Wise Owl, and his men escaped.

The other cultures that appear to have a certain reverence for owls are certain tribes of American Indians. Archeologists excavating an eight thousand year old rock shelter not far from Marlboro, Massachusetts, found, among the bones of more edible species, the tiny hollow bones of a screech owl. The owl could have been used for ceremonial purposes, or perhaps was even kept as a pet.   In historic times there are records of pet owls kept by the Mandans in the Missouri River Valley and the Zuni, who had a special reverence for owls, used to keep them in their houses. Small children were warned that they were all knowing creatures.

On a darker side, shamans in certain Midwestern tribes used to transform themselves into owls in order to attack their enemies, according to Ernest Ingersoll, who researched bird legend throughout the world.

None of these mystic emanations should be surprising to anyone who has ever been awakened by the shivering descent of a screech owl call at midnight just beyond the bedroom window, let alone the bizarre, strangled caterwauling of a barred owl from a nearby wooded swamp.

No dread in the heart of Henry Thoreau, though. It was music to his ears.

John Hanson Mitchell is a travel and natural history writer and the author of Ceremonial Time: Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile. He founded and edited the Massachusetts Audubon Society journal, “Sanctuary.” Mr. Mitchell lives in Littleton, Massachusetts.

 

 

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Walking With Henry

By Tom O’Malley

It is good to walk with someone who knows how to put one foot in front of the other and move forward.  For modern educators, it’s a downright necessity.  What with all the theories, strategies, lesson plans, faculty meetings, parent associations, and student advocacy groups, one needs to find a companion who knows how to keep his or her feet on the ground.

Over the years, 36 and counting, I’ve never found a better schoolyard  companion than Henry David Thoreau.  He died in 1862, but luckily he left his voice with us in the form of two wonderful books and his grand opus Journals.

Henry’s journals were not published during his lifetime, and I suspect he might not appreciate the fact that they are readily available today.  He was a precise writer, fond of editing and revising his work — honing it to literary sharpness.  Perhaps that is why his voice still speaks to me here in the 21st century.  My life in the classroom is often a combination of problem solving, handwriting, shoulder leaning, and all sorts of listening opportunities.   Through it all, Henry remains my mentor, enduring wisdom sprung from the head of Zeus and deposited on the doorway of my classroom. 

Here are two lessons:

In 1836, Henry was a newly minted Harvard graduate. He was also unemployed.  One day, in desperation, he visited his famous friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lived in the same neighborhood.  The philosopher asked, “What are you doing now?”  That is the ultimate question for students and teachers alike, one that should be asked over and over.

Henry spent the rest of his life confronting that question and using it as a guide. The answer prodded him to explore self-reliance at Walden Pond, and to create the genre of American nature writing. It also led him to prison in opposition to slavery.  Good questions can shape a life.  Good questions can shape a nation.  As a teacher, I use Emerson’s question as a guide.  What am I doing now? It connects me to my students and pushes our studies forward.

Can we learn how not to be bored?   In his journal for June 27, 1840, Henry confronted  boredom: ”I am living this 27th of June, 1840, a dull cloudy day and no sun shining. The clink of the smith’s hammer sounds feebly over the roofs, and the wind is sighing gently, as if dreaming of cheerfuller days.”  I never realized life could be dull in the 19th century, what with all the discovering and Civil Warring going on.  Yet there it is.

This is the kind of day the history books gloss over.  Students often suggest that this is a world without computers,  Blu-rays, or social media.  What can you expect but boredom?  Still, not one to give in, Henry found that boredom could be a useful part of life.  He did this by taking up journal writing in a serious way. I like people who turn a perceived bad into a perceptive good, and that’s what he did.  Notice the good, careful observation on that 27th of June entry.  It’s just an ordinary day, but Henry turned it into something special by paying attention and then writing about it.  There’s a lesson in all this for my students.

Journal writing went on at an almost daily pace for Henry, and it does for my students as well.  Often times writers sit and wait for those moments of inspiration.  I often see my students waiting for the Muse to descend and inspire them.  Yet, as Thomas Edison pointed out, “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.”  This applies to writing as well.  

Henry found this out on January 29, 1851 when he wrote:  “Of all the strange and unaccountable things, this journaling is the strangest.  It will allow nothing to be predicted of it.  Its good is not good, nor its bad bad.  If I make a huge effort to expose my innermost wares to light, my counters seem cluttered with the meanest homemade stuffs, but after months or years I discover the wealth of India…” 

See what I mean? There’s no waiting around for writing or most kinds of learning.  It is really a matter of rolling up your sleeves and getting to work. There is magic in this work.

In the end, good writing requires patience, confidence and discipline.  The writer needs faith that the ideas in his of her head can be fleshed out, sharpened and transferred onto the page.  That is no easy task as anyone who has stared at the blank page will verify. Yet, walking with Henry will keep the journey interesting, and fuel the imagination every step of the way.

Tom O’Malley is an adjunct professor of English at Canisius College. 

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Bringing Back the Sun

By John Hanson Mitchell

Beaver Brook Trail in Littleton, Massachusetts

Almost every day for the last twenty-five years I have trekked down through the woods below my house to a dry bank above a slow north-running stream known as Beaver Brook. The bank offers a good vantage point for viewing the surrounding landscape, and if you are of the type who appreciates the implications of the flow of dark waters from source to sea and the unfolding progress of the seasons, it’s one of the only places around here where you can gain some perspective on the regular cycles of the natural world, as opposed to the alarming events of the current human condition.

Last year just before dawn on Christmas morning I went down to my place beside the brook to watch the day unfold. It was a day not unlike that of other days that I visit the place, except that it was the official beginning of the winter season. The sky was cloudy, and the air was filled with that close, watery scent of coming snow. I went out anyway and rather than follow the cart track that leads through the woods to the stream, I took a short cut and clambered through a tangle of oaks and pines, interspersed with thickets of bittersweet, brambles and multiflora rose, skirting walls and brakes and blow downs all along the way. With only a slight suspension of disbelief you might think for a second or two that you were in wilderness here. In fact, this is a fast suburbanizing region of former farmlands and apple orchards, and in order live with the myth of the past, you have to go burrowing into the night woods and seek out those few isolated spots in the area, such as the stream bank. Henry Thoreau knew all about this sort of thing. He might have liked my private sanctuary.

Down at the brook, the grass on the bank was still snow free and I sat cross-legged above the waters and waited for sunrise. There was nothing to wait for in point of fact; this day was characterized by that flat, seamless pall of sky that prefigures snow. A few flakes began drifting down as I watched, followed by a few more flakes and then by a steady, but light fall.

As I waited, a pale faded image of the white winter sun, much filtered through the mists and drifting flakes, showed itself—a silvery coin behind the black branches of the trees. It was an odd, somehow portentous sunrise, the type of light into which the native shamans and Puritan ministers of these parts might read dark omens — which got me thinking about the implications of this particular holiday.

Among Christian cultures, Christmas marks the day when it is believed that the Savior of the world was born, the Prince of peace who would mark the start of a golden age. But in fact, shortly before the historical birth of Christ the same date was celebrated by a popular Roman cult whose chief luminary was Mithra, who was not exactly a god, but a representative of what they believed was the true and only god — the sun. Mithra, who pre-dates the birth of Jesus, not coincidentally, was born on December 25.

Long before that, by a thousand years or more, the day was celebrated as a solstice festival. This was, for all the cultures of the world an absolutely critical holiday. In earlier times, the ancients watched the fading light and shortening days with dread. It was not clear that the sun would not carry on in its decline and never return. To halt this process, shamans and holy men and later priests and potentates would carry out certain rituals, most of them involving fire — the thought being that the fiery sun would be nourished by earthly light.

In ancient Egypt, pharaohs, who were considered the earthly embodiment of the sun, used to perambulate the temple walls to encourage the real sun in its daily course. Each year at Rhodes, the ancient Greeks would cast a chariot and four horses into the sea to refresh the wornout team of Helios, who drove the chariot of the sun across the sky by day and sank in the western seas at dusk. Some of the local Native American tribes would shoot fiery arrows into the night sky at this time of year, and all across the globe fires were lit, ritual hymns were sung, sacred herbs were consumed and dances were performed imitating the course of the year.

Here, amid the silence of the drifting snow, and the quiet flow of black waters below the stream bank where I was sitting, you could catch a hint of all this. On mornings like this, the pre-Christian wilderness manifests itself; the peace of wild things descends, time stalls out, and even runs backward so that I might be sitting here 500 years ago, when all eyes were on the night sky and all around the world the sacred fires burned.

Mr. Thoreau, were he with us now, would surely understand.

John Hanson Mitchell is a travel and natural history writer and the author Ceremonial Time: Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile. He founded and edited the Massachusetts Audubon Society journal, “Sanctuary.” Mr. Mitchell lives in Littleton, Massachusetts.

 

 

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