I have been obsessed with owls of late. First I was asked to write a piece for a new online magazine called The Barn Owl Journal that has come out of Melbourne’s Twilight School. I found myself trawling books and the internet, looking at owls and considering the mythology around them. Eventually I wrote a piece that was inspired by a heartbreaking image of an owl in captivity, hunkered into a corner of a plywood box.

Then, out walking one day in Sydney, I chanced on a young owl and one of its parents, being harassed by mynahs. I wanted to intervene. To stop the war. But clearly the parent owl was forbidding enough to stop the irritants from coming too close. The baby simply sat on its branch, blinking and gazing down at me with those curios O O eyes.

Back in Melbourne, a miracle occurred one day while I was walking the Elwood canal. A group of people were standing in silence, looking up at what seemed to be an ordinary tree branch. Closer inspection revealed a tawny frogmouth on a nest. IMG_4659Brilliant camouflage, but somehow she had been spotted. Or he. Apparently they co-parent, taking turns on the nest or to find food.

But I digress.

Over time, I watched as that bulge under the wing revealed itself to be two little owl chicks. I began to walk morning and evening. I didn’t take my other paths. My camino was always to the owls. I observed the comings and goings, and struck up conversations with other walkers who had come to feel the owl family was theirs.

The babies seemed to develop personalities – one was cheeky and the other reclusive.

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More and more of us were drawn to them. I would walk faster to get to them, stand for longer underneath them, and drag my heels walking away. We talked excitedly of the changes, we people of the owl. We swapped anecdotes. Felt ourselves to be their guardians.

One day I saw one of the chicks stretch a wing, and my heart thudded. It was long and strong. It stretched wide. I hadn’t realised that the babies were preparing to fly the nest. To me they were family now. Permanents. In spite of the parent owls regarding us with their detached wisdom, I had somehow reached the conclusion that the chicks were ours. Mine.

The adult owls knew better.

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I contacted my sister to come and photograph them. I brought friends to pay homage. I told myself they would not be there forever. I visited more frequently and saw that the chicks had left the nest and were now sitting on another branch, their personalities still the same, but their bodies grown. I was proud of them. Unreasonably excited at their achievements…IMG_4750

Then one Sunday morning, I came running down the path, and they were gone. All four of them, the parents too. Gone. I stood under the branch, looking up, thinking of those people who say they can feel a missing limb after it has been taken. Eventually I walked on. Then I turned and came back, as though I might have snuck up on them unawares. I played that game for several days, visiting at odd times and doubling back.

But they never returned.

Humans did. Sometimes I would come upon a group of other owl-fans, standing below the branch looking up to where they had been, eyes wide and mouths open. All silent. It was like coming to a holy site. We were making a pilgrimage of a kind. The tree – that branch – is now the place where the owls came. It is sacred for some of us. It will always be so. They blessed us by nesting there, and then the parent owls did what all great parents do for their offspring – they gave them wings and taught them to fly.

As I prepare to let go of another year, I hope I can do it with the same grace and beauty of the owls. I hope I can remember to fly above my own petty disappointments or insecurities and soar on the updrafts of gratitude and discovery. I have had a year full of wonders and of kindness. I have been given nests by friends and strangers, so that I could do my work on the next book. I have been asked to share my Sinning Across Spain stories with attentive and welcoming hearts. I have learned and learned. The book has been reprinted, and it is still being given from one hand to another. This is another set of miracles for me.

So, at Christmas, I wish you wings, and a safe nest in which to shelter with those you love. I wish you places of sanctuary and sacredness, wherever you find them. I wish you peace and plenty. And I wish you moments of wonder, where you stand, eyes wide and mouth open, touched by the miraculous possibilities of this astonishing planet.

Thank you. As always. For opening my heart and mind and spirit.

In 2014, I am hoping to complete my next book. I have been given some more “nests”. I start with time in residence at Bundanon, the amazing gift made by Arthur Boyd for the creation of new work. Then I go as writer in residence to another place gifted by an artist – the Katherine Susannah Prichard Centre in Perth. I will be giving talks and workshops while there, so will put up news here and on Facebook as they are settled. Also, Radio National are rebroadcasting the Sinning Across Spain episode of Poetica on January 11th, and on January 12th, they will play the episode of Spirit of Things in which I am in conversation with Tony Doherty.

But for now, gratitude again. Peace to you and yours. Deep peace.

May you fly high and safe in the coming year. Spread your wings and lift off….

17 thoughts on “Winging away

    1. Thanks so much,,Anne. I loved them so much. Felt very lucky to have been in their presence. Thanks for your lovely comment. X

  1. Hello Ailsa,
    Having had a family of Tawny Frogmouths outside my window I came to know that they are not owls. Owls are very important to me; so much so that my 16 grandchildren have been gifted with all kinds of owl trinkets to place on my coffin after I die. I’m not dying yet!
    After reading the Native American Indians’ legend: I Heard the Owl Call My Name, [that means you are approaching death], I figured it was a rather special way for the family to be involved with my final journey into a new adventure. Blessings for the Season and 2014, dear lady,

    1. Hello Trish,
      Yes I learned that they were not really owls from one of the other watchers. I was a bit lax to call them that. They are wonders, aren’t they? And do you know, when my mum was dying, she read that book. I actually have it by my bed to read over Christmss. Only nineteen years later!
      Don’t go yet. Good to be ready, but try to stay a while longer!
      Thanks so much for your warm comments. A xx

  2. Hi again Ailsa. Your post reminded me of two tawny frogmouths that took up residence in a tree at the base of a small property I owned in Bindoon. We watched them for a few weeks, took photos, and they watched us. Then they too disappeared. I still carry them in my heart in some way and when I read your post, the image of them was strong. Ahh, the power of words and images. Anne

    1. Amazing how potent it can be to have any kind of exchange with a wild creature, isn’t it? I think it calls to something in us. Something we forget about in the day to day of our civilised lives. Beautiful. I’m glad they are still with you.

  3. Great story Ailsa.
    I love birds and have crows and magpies and even the odd stunned kingfisher come visit me,but I have never seen an owl in the wild…heard them at night in trees,but I have never seen one.Just about everyone I know has seen some type of owl,bar me.That book looks like a good read and while doing a search on it I found out there is also a movie of the same name,
    Also I found this piece of info – “Tawny Frogmouth pairs stay together until one of the pair dies. They breed from August to December. They usually use the same nest each year, and must make repairs to their loose, untidy platforms of sticks.”
    So you should be able to see them again next year if you are lucky.

    1. Thank you as ever, Darren. I love the hope in that last para. Maybe we will look up one day and they will be back. Wouldn’t that be something? I wish you owls and other delights at Christmas. Thanks for the info. And for a your contributions to my year. Peace.

  4. This was sent to me today by Andrew, regular correspondent via the blog. I thought it so lovely that I wanted to put it here for those of you who read the comments. A little extra treat! Thanks Andrew.

    The ultimate source of the Susquehanna River was a kind of meadow in which nothing happened: no cattle, no mysteriously gushing water, merely the slow accumulation of moisture from many unseen and unimportant sources, the gathering of dew, so to speak, the beginning, the unspectacular congregation of nothingness, the origin of purpose.
    And where the moisture stood, sharp rays of bright sunlight were reflected back until the whole area seemed golden, and hallowed, as if here life itself were beginning.
    This is how everything begins – the mountains, the oceans, life itself.
    A slow accumulation – the gathering together of meaning.

    from Chesapeake, James Michener

    1. Re: “The ultimate source of the Susquehanna River was a kind of meadow”.
      I have a friend in the UK who goes under the name of King Uke and he likes to write his own songs and tunes.
      This one is about birds and meadows.It’s quite relaxing too –

  5. Hello Ailsa,

    It’s been a long time since I posted to your wonderful blog. Not from lack of interest or attention, believe me. Your gorgeous pieces are always so uplifting and sweet and your messages so touching.
    It’s been a busy and enriching time for me and my husband and many changes in our working and writing life , and some special things on the drawing board for 2014. Suffice to say, I sucked in all your lovely, kind, elegant and thoughtful New Year wishes and applied them directly to me ( all about me, isn’t it???) as always and would like to return them likewise to you. Many many good wishes in all your endeavours and may your talents and dear heart works go onwards and upwards .
    I have only fleeting owl experiences of lovely Tawny Frogmouths who land on our verandah railings, gum trees and front fence and stay a day or three and leave. But I note that every time I tell an owl story, the listeners’ faces melts into rapture, and a special look creeps into their eyes. Magical creatures aren’t they!
    Best to you,

  6. Dear Julie,
    You always write with such lightness and tenderness. Thank you. I picture you inhaling scents in your summer garden, your smile shaded by a wide brimmed straw hat. Hope there are moments like that.
    May 2014 be a year of benign and sunny surprises and may we continue to walk together in cyberspace.
    Thanks for your support and encouragement.
    Love and every good wish.
    A x

  7. Enjoyed reading this piece on the Owls. In East Doncaster, where my duaghter lives we first saw parents and 3 babies (Tawny Frogmouths) about 4 years ago in an old gum tree in an abandones garden. Had to send letters to the council to save the tree! We are glad we did as they returned a year or two later and again a few weeks ago – two grown chicks!

    1. Hi Felicity,
      I guess that means there is hope for me that they will return. For all of us pen-mouthed watchers. Thanks for the story and may owls follow you. Buen Camino. Ailsa xxx

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