What an Owl Taught Me About Life

7 minute read
Carl Safina, a professor at Stony Brook University, is the author of Alfie and Me: What Owls Know, What Humans Believe

Five years ago someone found a baby owl, near-death, on their lawn. The wildlife rehabber who stabilized her consulted with me because of my experience with owls and hawks. Eventually my wife and I undertook the task of conditioning “Alfie” for a soft release; waiting out a developmental delay (most of her flight feathers came abnormally late that first summer), then flight training and hunting training. Alfie disappeared for a week. Then she chose to return, centering her territory on our backyard. I put a nest box on my writing studio.

Alfie’s first free-living year—mating, raising her first brood—coincided with the 2020 Covid pandemic that confined us to our yard. Friends said the birds were singing louder. But that wasn’t it. The humans were quieter. News media showed mountain goats on Welsh sidewalks, jackals in Tel Aviv, daytime raccoons sauntering through Central Park in New York City. Deer wandered in a seemingly de-peopled east London. The BBC showed us flamingos on a de-touristed Albanian lagoon, pumas in Santiago, Chile. Like many, we found in pets and gardens a silver lining to that awful year. But we alone had Alfie and her family.

Soon I realized something mutual was happening. Alfie became a portal to a parallel reality. She brought us into more intimate proximity with the living world, softening borders between light and darkness, deepening perception beyond the usual. If that sounds a bit mystical, well—.

Many cultures view owls as messengers. Alfie is flesh and feathers; her heart pumps blood red as ours. She has her comforts and fears. Everyday things, sure, but they rest on our planet’s 3.5-billion-year history. “Everything is here now” is a tenet of Zen Buddhism. This moment required all of time. The whole journey is present. The deep ancestors’ essence is everywhere. In our mother’s womb, our temporary gills, fins, and tail manifested the genetic memory of Life’s family portrait. As adults we retain and procreate our fish-originated spinal column, ribs, and organs, and the gill-originated jaw with which we voice human thoughts. We are one point in the manifold unfolding. We are not just a speck in time and the universe; we are the universe and all of time in a speck. The Latin root for “religion” implies a relational bond held in reverence. And, oddly enough, those qualities applied to my relationship with Alfie. Alfie is a very real little being, yet I suppose she is, after all, a messenger.

From Alfie’s portal I’d reenter human constraints and confront the headlines. Covid. Unhinged politics. Racial frictions. Cultural factions. Lying denials, lying assertions. While Alfie and her mate, Plus-One, rested in the shade, “troops clashed in disputed areas.” The daily rhythms and quiet sanity of the owls’ world contrasted with humankind’s self-inflicted torments.

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For most of human history, Indigenous peoples everywhere perceived that Life and the cosmos are relational. Similarly, ancient Asian traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism, Confucianism, and others elevated the human role in maintaining relationalharmony among interacting forces. All saw in nature’s diversity a unity with things deeper, bigger, eternal. (Physicists have indeed found deeper, bigger, eternal realities; unseen things create the world we see.) Then in ancient Greece, something different happened. Plato posited an ideal realm outside of space and time, and disparaged our flawed material world. Judaism absorbed his dualist split between ideal and real and Christianity amplified it. Later, René Descartes’ faith—and fear of Catholic Inquisitors—helped ensure that the West’s philosophical underpinnings carried into the scientific and industrial revolutions this deprecation of the world.

If I may overgeneralize, in almost all other belief systems the world contains the most holy and important things; in the Western dualist perspective the world is often the least holy, least important thing. The Western view has globalized as a worldwide monetary economy whose valuations reflect this devaluation. Physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, biology, and ecology all affirm that existence is relational at all scales of space, life, and time. But we have created instead a transactional economic system that allows all parties to dissociate from their interactions—and the consequences.

Once we are sufficiently disengaged from the world and one another, nothing is horrific enough to unify us. Not mass shootings; not intensifying storms and rising floods; certainly not oceans of plastic, nor plummeting populations of birds and bugs. Dissociation is dualism’s contagious ailment, civilization’s self-generated epidemic. It all works overtime to turn the planet’s once splendid living family into a broken home. Our systems depend on destruction of natural systems. Our way of living, writes Zen master Susan Murphy, “does evil by countless repetitive, cumulative failures of care and conscience.” Even those of us who are aghast are enmeshed. And here we are, simultaneously facing the extinction crisis, the toxics crisis, the climate crisis, while a world of eight billion humans, having literally set the natural world on fire, just stares. It is easier to imagine the end of the world than how we will end our destructive habits.

Life on this planet is vulnerable. Yet it’s also capable of resilience. Flaco the Eurasian eagle-owl, loosed and now living comfortably in Central Park, is an urban survival story relatable to many. Ospreys, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and whales were headed for extinction when I was in high school. Now we see them regularly. Their spectacular recoveries do not fill me with confidence—their rescue from our pesticides and violence entailed protracted battles—but they certainly inspire me with hope. Saving them required merely a new willingness to value and accommodate other-than-human life. That’s important, because a few more accommodations are needed.

Alfie has been a connector for me, not only between her world and mine, but between my familiar ways and my expanding perspective. Alfie opened the portal, allowing me to participate in aspects of life rarely available in a human-centered existence. Things small and lovely, often delightful, have altered my view of her life and my own. The little things are the big things. In our accustomed lives we think and act transactionally, but Alfie showed me that what’s paramount is to live in relationship. When we take the focus off ourselves, we become better. There’s a touch of magic here. After all, Alfie has managed to convene us, you and me, on this page, in this moment.

To be fully present in life and love, so natural for Alfie, remains a work in progress for me. Alfie is the perfect little Zen master. She lives a freedom untainted by critique or doubt, a liberty buoyant and accessible as the air beneath her wings. Resisting nothing, she is pure presence, here now. Perhaps I’d long labored toward the place where Alfie was effortlessly taking me, a sense of openness, showing what’s possible when we blur our accustomed boundaries.

Alfie remains our magical russet comet of the nighttime backyard. By day she usually roosts in a couple of favorite shaded spots. The choice is always hers. Free within limits; that’s the universe for you. It can inspire a life’s work. Or be as simple as a little owl in the porch light’s halo.

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