Category Archives: Nature

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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A Loch Ness Monster in Long Lake? Or, if Humans Are Creatures, Can Creatures Be Human?

by John Hanson Mitchell

On a clear night recently, two local scientists spotted a strange, long-necked aquatic animal rising above the surface of Long Lake in Littleton, Massachusetts.

Sketch depicts the south shore of Long Lake in Littleton, Massachusetts, where the monster was spotted. Credit: John Hanson Mitchell

Dr.Timothy Ahearn. who holds a degree in aquatic biology, and Dr, Lawrence Millman, an ethnographer and an authority on aquatic animals, were boating along the shores of the lake around 11 PM when they saw a large serpent-like form rise out of the water. The creature stared at them briefly and then arched its back and submerged.

“It looked like your classic Loch Ness Monster, “ Millman said. “Or descriptions I’ve read of Lake Champlain’s creature, Champy, and I would have thought I imagined it, except that Tim saw it too.”

“Neither Larry nor I could believe what we saw,” Dr Ahearn said, “but after it disappeared, our mutual descriptions matched. The thing rose no more than four or five feet above the water and it had a slim snake-like body and a head that resembled some sort of reptilian otter. In fact, we both at first thought it was an otter, but its body was too slim and snake like and far too long.”

Sketch by John Hanson Mitchell

Long Lake, it should be said, does harbor some unique aquatic species. Every August, a host of nickel-sized jelly fish appear en masse in the waters. These were identified a few years ago as Craspedusta sowerbii, a rare species of freshwater jellyfish that occurs in the Yellow River in China, as well as Long Lake and a few other sites in North America.

And Dr. Ahearn, who lives on the lake, has seen a giant water scorpion just below the clear black ice, also immense water bugs. Eels, black water snakes and an unusually large snapping turtle have also been seen in the lake over the years. Furthermore, there was a legend among the local Nashobah Village Indians of a lake creature know as the Ap’chinic, although that “species” lived in Nagog Pond, and was more like a giant octopus.

Dr. Millman, who is a Research Associate at Harvard University, spent several afternoons reviewing the literature on Native American lore and historical reports of local sea serpents but could find no reports, other than the Ap’chinic, and several sightings of a sea serpent in Massachusetts Bay in the mid 19th century, later disputed.

Sea serpents, lake monsters, winged snakes, dragons and the dreaded, ship-swallowing, deep water squid known as the Kraken are, of course, the stuff of legend and myth. But as geographers, anthropologists and crypto-zoologists, point out, the legends and folk-tales of pre-literate cultures often reflect real creatures and prehistoric geologic events such as world-wide floods and ice mountains.

For example, the Nashobah people, a seventeenth century group of Christianized Indians believed that the four winds were trapped inside Nagog Hill and would periodically roar and thunder and shake the very earth. Geologist later determined that the area is an epicenter for earthquakes.

Loch Ness and Lake Champlain are known for their depths, and were both connected to the sea after the retreat of the glacie, the theory being that Pleistocene sea creatures were trapped in the lakes when the lands rose after the ice retreated. Long Lake, by contrast is shallow and spring fed, not prime territory for monsters of the deep.

One other detail, for what it’s worth, is the fact that the Long Lake serpent was seen around Halloween, a period when cultures around the world record extraordinary events; the dead can walk, spirits rise from the earth, and bats, witches, dragons, flying snakes and other “mythic” creatures course through the air.

It is also the time of year when the so-called Wild Hunt would pass over. Ghostly hunters, eternally damned, would touch down on earth in this season in the form of high winds and carry people away, only to have them return weeks, or even months later with no memory of where they had been.

So why not a local Long Lake primordial water dragon?

“This thing was benign,” Millman said. “Not dangerous. It just stared at us briefly in curiosity. Littleton should be honored to host such a rare being.”

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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On The Concord River

By Tom O’Malley

“The life in us is like the waters in a river,” HDT

What is it about rivers?

Tom O’Malley, with daughter Nora and wife Meg.

They pull us in and push us along. Sometimes, rivers will sweep us away, but I think that is only because they get excited when we accept their invitations. Rivers can be sociable, but can get out of control in their enthusiasm. Funny, I live right near a famous river, the Niagara. I have swam in it, boated on it, walked along it and have been hypnotized by it. My wife Meg and I love to drive along the Canadian side of the Niagara from Fort Erie to Niagara on the Lake. It is a time machine with passing glimpses of British forts and quiet villages. Such a slow and pretty drive.

Still, I don’t feel the warm attachment to this river that I do for the Concord River in Massachusetts. The Niagara is a powerful god, a Poseidon the earth shaker, a ribbon of fear that sweeps toward oblivion at the Falls. If the Niagara is a time machine, then the Falls are the fearful Apocalypse that lurks in the darker pages of the Bible.

The Concord is the river of peace, as its name suggests. I prefer its Algonquin name, the Musketaquid or river of grassy banks. This river moves so slowly that Nathaniel Hawthorne, an avid boater, was never sure of the direction of its current when he lived up at Emerson’s Old Manse in the 1840’s.

I have walked and paddled on the Concord many times. It is never a fearful place, even when I was caught in a rainstorm a few years ago. The trees and bridges seem to spring up whenever shelter is required. The gentle river is always inviting , protective and generous.

As I floated down the Concord just a short time ago, I couldn’t help but recall my secret image of this river as a concrete image of time. In fact, the Concord is timeless. We floated past 18th Century farm houses shaded by trees that were seeded during the American Revolution. I could clearly feel and see Emerson walking along the banks with Henry Thoreau. Their poetry was written on these waters and continues to nourish the generations that spring up along its shore. Geese still jet over our heads while frogs sit meditating on logs.

Soon we approach the Old North Bridge, surely the birthplace of American independence. It is hard to imagine that an epic battle was once fought in these pastoral fields. To our right, we see the Old Manse, a house built by Reverend William Emerson and home to his grandson Ralph Waldo Emerson and later to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who enjoyed writing haunting stories while watching the river float by his window.

Back on land, time seems like a straight line as we mark off the days, months and years. While we are carried along by this mystic water, time has no meaning. The Native peoples still make treaties near Egg Rock, while up ahead, stout Concord farmers trade their plows for muskets. The transcendentalists learn to see heaven on earth, and I float along through all of it in the company of those I love the most. Here there is no dreary human time, only the bells of shared experience and visible manifestations of wonder. Every time.

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

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Filed under Environment, Henry David Thoreau, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Quote