Wonder on the Wing: Lessons from the Owl Goddess on Climate Change
On the phone with my father, I find myself lost for words when he sighs and admits, “I just don’t have much hope for my generation anymore. Maybe there’s still time for you kids to fix this…” The resignation in his voice weighs on my heart.
I could be angry. I’ve griped before about the inaction of the Boomers regarding climate change. I’ve watched the conversation shift over the past year, denial giving way to the defeatist belief that trying to do anything now would be too little, too late. Even lifelong conservationists have started to talk about “dark ecology” — activism without hope. It’d be easy to see this as just another excuse to do nothing.
But just now, compassion outweighs anger. I grope for a way to reassure my dad that there’s still a lot we can do. I know that what he’s really asking for is forgiveness. Even so, I don’t know what to say. Over the phone, from thousands of miles away, I hear the faint call of an owl in the dusk.
My gods are the gods of nature — among them Blodeuwedd, owl goddess of Welsh mythology. Her story tells of love, betrayal, punishment and transformation. In the Pacific Northwest, she is also a goddess divided. Global warming and environmental changes threaten native owl species even as non-native owls move in to claim disrupted spaces. The endangered Northern Spotted owl has become a national symbol of harmful deforestation. But another threat to its survival comes from its cousin, the Barred owl, a larger bird that outcompetes the Spotted for territory and food. Once restricted to the eastern U.S., over the past century Barred owls have expanded westward, thanks largely to humans planting more trees in the midwest, providing habitat for the bird to cross the formerly impassable Great Plains.
Now, some conservationists are proposing a cull of Barred owls in hopes that reducing their numbers will offer some protection for vulnerable Spotted owl populations. Others object to this policy of killing one species to save another — questioning our ability, as well as our right, to choose.
This debate brings me to a central paradox of my nature-centered spirituality — a controversy I just cannot resolve one way or the other. Sometimes my sympathies lie entirely with the Spotted owl; other times I’m a stalwart defender of the Barred. The fact that I cannot just “pick a side” is one of the reasons this dispute speaks so powerfully to the place we find ourselves now, awakening to the Anthropocene. It sends me seeking a wisdom deeper than my own — the wisdom of a goddess.
We feel an ambivalence towards animals who are hardy (or foolhardy) enough to manage to survive side-by-side with humans in urban and suburban landscapes: the crow, the possum, the coyote, the rat — creatures we fear, disparage, even kill without a qualm. But every once in a while, they linger near us long enough to fascinate. Here in Seattle where no Spotted owls could survive, I’ve heard the Barred owls calling in city parks, establishing territories, seeking mates. A friend leading a nighttime nature walk last year had a Barred owl follow his group for a full twenty minutes as they walked through moonlit woods. The Barred is brazen, unflinching.
We see the Barred owl as a pest and a threat — we call it aggressive and obnoxious — but perhaps this is psychological projection. As we continue to conquer the wilderness with our logging and development, we worry that the Barred’s aggressive, territorial nature threatens the Spotted’s survival.
It’s almost as if we’re acting out a deep self-hatred. How dare the Barred owl behave as we do! The owl that lingers in human-claimed spaces, defying our domination of wilderness by following us across the continent like the long shadow that our manifested destiny casts across the land. It must be stopped. We must eliminate it.
But killing Barred owls will not ultimately halt the destruction of old-growth forests. Eliminating it may help boost the Spotted’s numbers temporarily… but what then? If we continue to destroy the wild habitats the sensitive Spotted owl needs, will it survive our consumerism? Or will we be left with no owls at all?
Sometimes the very concept of “wildlife management” seems problematic to me. The desire to have a positive impact on the environment can be twisted into the beguiling belief that “technological progress will save us” from the consequences of our past and we need only sit back and enjoy our supremacy. Sometimes I think what we really need is a bit more human management: more self-restraint, more humility in the face of natural forces whose consequences we don’t (perhaps never can) fully understand.
But then there are the soft, downy wings of the Spotted owl, the gentle caress of its flight against the star-studded night as it dips among the boughs of the great old trees. How could I watch this being slip into silence and extinction? The choice not to act is still a choice. Our past actions inevitably shape the future, and our desire to fix things is deeply connected to our longing for forgiveness. How can we stand aside and accept the passing of this wild beauty? How could we forgive ourselves?
The Pagan gods are not exactly known for their forgiving natures. Yet as divine powers of regeneration and return, they offer a forgiveness all their own. Not the forgiveness of escape and abdication, nor the forgiveness of a benevolent Almighty on whose behalf we can act with unchallenged dominion. Rather, theirs is the forgiveness of restored responsibility, the response-ability that we possess as natural beings and citizens of the earth.
What do we seek when we seek forgiveness, but the chance to start again? We want to know that it’s not too late, that our actions still matter, that we’re still capable of meaningful relationship with the natural world. It is because we are interconnected that we bear the weight and enjoy the freedom of our response-ability. It’s because we’re bound by the cycles of life, death and renewal that we’ll always have another chance — in this very moment — to begin again. Such forgiveness is a terrible, wonderful gift.
Wonderful. A word that draws me back towards hope, rather than despair. Wonder opens us to mystery, possibility, awe. It gives no certain answers — it is an invitation to deepen, to attend, to enter into the complexity of sacred relationship. Wonder can render us speechless, brought to our knees by the brutal necessity to act. But it can also give us the words we need — unexpected, transformative and raw — in the face of silence, apathy and ignorance.
After the conversation with my father, that night in meditation I seek the counsel of Blodeuwedd. On owl’s wings, she slips silently away, settling to roost among the branches of a great Oak: the world tree, the wild abundance of nature’s sovereignty and law. Here is where she makes her home. Owl, daughter of Oak. Shadow, daughter of Light.
This is her only answer.