Owl City

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May 20, 2014
By: Jim Walsh
The great horned owl of the Rose Gardens (not pictured: one extremely agitated and very loud crow, ka-kawwing).
Photo by Jim Walsh
Jim Walsh

The crow screamed bloody murder for a good 10 minutes before I looked up from my perch on my favorite bench at the Rose Gardens to see what the fuss was all about.

Beak stabbing at the branches around her and wings a-flutter, the crow pointed the way. There, camouflaged amidst the pines and looking more like an oil painting than real life sat a great horned owl, staring straight into my eyes, shutting out the sound of the crow and, so, the madding crowd.

He turned his head slowly, simultaneously regarding and ignoring — but never once being bothered by — the crow. He was cool, I froze. I was afraid he’d get away. Get a picture yapped my reptile reporter brain, and so I did. Whenever his third eye windshield drooped over his eyes, it did so like a camera shutter, like he was taking a photo of me. He never made a sound, never uttered the familiar “hoo hoo” that can be heard from 3.1 miles away, but I know for a fact we were both happy to connect and chat for a bit.

No big deal, just a couple old birds watching the sunset together and stealing a moment’s peace before getting on with the business of killing and eating again. More than anything, we were extremely curious about one another. Careful, even, and the meditation that happened between us as we locked gazes over the next several minutes was rare and profound. He had a regality about him that made me want to get down on my knees in the new grass and worship him the way humans and wizards have for centuries.

I snapped a photo fast, but didn’t have to. We were in no rush. For another 45 minutes he, this beautiful creature of ancient myth, sat and silently bonded with me, looked into my soul, guided me with his steady wisdom as the crow’s raw-throated screams grew louder and more intense — brother, can you believe this noise? — in attempts to shoo him away before sundown came and his night vision began scanning for a feast of rabbits, squirrels, and, yes, juicy loud crows.

Finally, the great bored beast had had enough. In one fell swoop, he launched from his branch, extended his wings dramatically, and majestically flapped off into the sunset towards the Lake Harriet Band Shell, casting in its wake a silhouette of graceful freedom.

Most spiritual traditions maintain that spring is a time of birth, rebirth, transformation, and an opportunity to slow down, stare, and measure inner growth. This year’s long winter and late spring has detonated a Bambi-like explosion of wildlife and produced yet another fertile menagerie to this area, bringing to mind the words of naturalist and author John Muir, who said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

For sure, that contemplative abundance is what happens when we make like the owl, chilling comfortably in our own skins, surveying the grand beautiful expanse, and letting the world unfurl around us as best we can. Plus, we get to hunt: In addition to the fine fellow pictured here, my own catch from around the neighborhood, creek, and lakes over the last week has been two fleet foxes, one statuesque blue heron, one sinister-looking red-tailed hawk, countless bunnies, gaggles of geese, and armies of quacking ducks, chirping ducklings, roving raccoons, scurrying squirrels.

But it’s owls that have been most special, as spotted by friends all over town. Widespread reports of owls in puddles, front yards, back yards, trees, porches, car dealerships, office windows, telephone poles, and more abound. Then look around the unnatural world, and owls are everywhere — from businesses (Owl Optical, Owl Engineering, Wise Owl Café, Night Owl Transportation, Origami Owl) to bands (The Owls, Owl City, Nyteowl, Wake Owl) to the omnipresence of owl purses, T-shirts, buttons, and backpacks, to the new owl painted on the wall of Harriet Brewing’s Tap Room, to the enduring specter of the Red Owl, who once lorded over 54th and Lyndale and haunts it and Kowalski’s to this day.

“Great horned owl chicks are out of the nests now, making great horned owls a bit more visible than other times of the year,” said Julia Ponder, executive director of the University Of Minnesota Raptor Center. “While we do not know total population numbers for most owl species, or about South Minneapolis specifically, I can tell you that several species, great horned and barred owls in particular, adapt extremely well to urban/suburban areas. They all need habitat and food. Barred owls need older trees with cavities. Great horned owls adopt old crow, squirrel or hawk nests, so can pretty much set up anywhere.”

And so they are, hovering anywhere and everywhere around these parts, to the point where it’s getting to be high time we adopt them as our communal spirit animal. From spiritanimal.com:

“The owl spirit animal is emblematic of a deep connection with wisdom and intuitive knowledge. If you have the owl as a totem or power animal, you’re likely to have the ability to see what’s usually hidden to most. When the spirit of the animal guides you, you can see the true reality and see beyond illusion and deceit. The owl also offers for those who have it as a personal totem the inspiration and guidance necessary to deeply explore the unknown and the magic of life.”

Folklore, myth, and religion cast owls as prophets, old souls, keepers of ancient wisdom, and gatekeepers to the astral plane. Native American tradition has it that an appearance by an owl is a sign of death, change, and a coming life transition. Other traditions celebrate owls as shape-shifters, agents of moon magic, and patron saints of the shadow self.

All I know is that as I sat there in the Rose Gardens that day, ruminating on life and love and friends and family and death, I was visited by a wise old friend whose lasting message of tranquility, focus, oneness, alertness, presence and the power of the aerial view is one I hope to share with him a couple hundred more times before the snow flies.

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at madripple@earthlink.net and www.jimwalshmpls.com