Wonder on the Wing: Lessons from the Owl Goddess on Climate Change

The Bird Woman

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.

Barred Owl 02-19-12


Photo Credits:

• “The Bird Woman,” (CC) June Yarham [source]
• “Barred Owl,” (CC) nebirdsplus [source]

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

14 Comments

  1. Alison Leigh Lilly
    Jul 24, 2014

    Important Author’s Note:

    This essay was commissioned and originally published by Patheos.com as part of their Public Square 2014 Summer Series examining important social issues and current events through the perspectives of different faith communities. The Pagan Channel hosted a discussion on climate change, with a diverse range of voices from the Pagan and polytheist community, and I was glad to be included in that discussion. I hope my essay can contribute in a meaningful way to the on-going conversation about climate change and environmental awareness, among Pagans and non-Pagans alike.

    However, some of the editorial choices regarding how the Pagan Channel’s Summer Series was presented on the main Patheos website left me feeling deeply ambivalent, and I decided to republish my essay in its entirety on my own blog to hopefully allay some of those concerns.

    Two concerns in particular that I want to address here briefly are:

    • The weirdly hostile discussion prompt that was sent out with the call for submissions (and that now serves as the introduction to the Pagan Channel’s collection of essays), which accused Pagans of being “wildly unrealistic” about environmentalism and framed the discussion in needlessly controversial, antagonistic terms. The prompt/introduction also included references to “pagan environmentalism,” which is at best a misrepresentation of the individual choice by some Pagans to participate in the broader environmentalist and conservationist movements, in the absence of any such organized social movement within modern Paganism itself. (At worst, such a phrase could be seen as a conservative Christian dog-whistle, evoking the conspiracy theory that all environmentalism is secretly “pagan” — dangerous and anti-human.)
    • My own essay is introduced on the Patheos site by a blurb (taken out of context and with all qualifying language removed) in a way that frames my contribution as advocating for “human management” and subordination. In fact, the theme of my essay is personal responsibility, compassion, wonder, forgiveness and hope in the face of uncertainty — in short, the exact opposite of what the (selectively edited) excerpt implies. I was not consulted about my essay’s introductory blurb before it was published and had no control over what was chosen.

    For these reasons, I feel that I need to publicly share my ambivalence about being included as part of this Patheos series. It’s incredibly disheartening to think of how many readers might be misled by the inaccurate and deliberately controversial framing of my essay, and of the conversation as a whole. The editorial choice to frame the discussion in this way, though probably motivated by marketing rather than malice, seems especially irresponsible to me considering how frequently commenters and social media users respond to excerpts and summaries without reading the actual articles themselves. Furthermore, the topic of climate change has already suffered from enough needless and misleading controversy in the media — it is this “climate of doubt“, and not the “wildly unrealistic” goals of environmentalists, that has largely been responsible for the political inaction of the American public. At the risk of seeming ungrateful for the opportunity to participate in such an important discussion, I just could not bring myself to remain silent about these concerns.

    That said, I do want to personally thank the Patheos Pagan Portal editor, Christine Hoff Kraemer, who was nothing but supportive and enthusiastic about my contribution to this series and even advocated on my behalf to some of the other Patheos editorial staff. My concerns about my work appearing on Patheos notwithstanding, Christine has always been a thoughtful and professional person to work with, and I am very grateful to her for that.

    (P.S. I also realize that tacking this extended explanation onto the end of my essay might detract from its emotional power. I tried to bring you along on my personal journey from despair and anger, through uncertainty and paradox, to a place of hope. To offer you a sense of direction and resolution without relying on any overly-simplistic answers. I asked for Blodeuwedd’s help and guidance in that endeavor. Does the addition of this nit-picking undermine that original intention? All I can say is that I try to trust in the greater wisdom of my gods… but I am, admittedly, not always very good at it. I do the best I can. I can only hope that it’s enough.)

    • Themon the Bard
      Jul 24, 2014

      Unimportant Reader’s Comment: Make the comments font bigger! :-)

      Responding to the post: A beautifully-written essay, and you’re wrestling with the same thing that I am, including not knowing what to say. The term “sustainable” actually means something so foreign to the way we’ve been thinking for at least five centuries, certainly the five decades of my conscious life, that I don’t even know how to talk about it. It isn’t recycling a little more aggressively, or biking to work twice a week. It will take generations to adapt. But it starts with thoughts and words like yours.

      Responding to your comment: Sad. I found Patheos a few years back, and participated for a while. But it seemed that, as I watched, it got eaten by the Evangelicals. I stopped following it. Good luck; stay true to yourself.

      • Alison Leigh Lilly
        Jul 25, 2014

        Thanks for your comment, Themon. :) Yes, you’re so right about how difficult it can be to change our habits of thought. I think many people still think of climate change as just one more obstacle, just a problem that needs fixing, and if only we could “solve” it we could get back to being the superior species that gets to do whatever we like. It’s going to take a long time to dismantle that attitude and really acknowledge just how much damage it causes.

      • Alison Leigh Lilly
        Jul 25, 2014

        O, P.S. Thanks for pointing out the font issue! Turns out there was a bit of loose html code floating around — but it should be fixed now. :)

  2. Carl McColman
    Jul 25, 2014

    First of all, what a lovely essay, eloquent and thoughtful. You write so well — you remain not only my favorite Pagan blogger, but one of my favorite writers, period.

    Sorry you are so disheartened about the editorializing that surrounded your publication on Patheos. FWIW, when I read your article (here, not on Patheos), the sentence on “human management” and humility really leaped off the page to me. Perhaps you are underestimating just how powerful that assertion is. Then again, I think one reason writers keep writing is because we are continually stymied by how people misread, misunderstand, and otherwise don’t get what we are trying to say, or what we think we are trying to say.

    Now, for a little nitpick of my own — criticizing not so much you, but my faith tradition. You write, in passing, about

    “…the forgiveness of a benevolent Almighty on whose behalf we can act with unchallenged dominion…”

    I’ve been wrestling a lot lately with the kind of genteel forgiving god that is so much a part of liberal Christianity. He is the god of upper middle class psychotherapy, who lovingly accepts us just as we are and is more worried about bolstering our self-esteem than calling us to justice and transfiguration. He is all found all over contemporary American Christianity, especially in the suburbs, and I think worshipping this god is a form of idolatry.

    The God of Moses and Elijah, the Hebrew Prophets, John the Baptist and Jesus, of the Apostles and the mystics and figures like Hildegard of Bingen and Francis of Assisi, is not this god of cheap benevolence and facile forgiveness. Hildegard, for example, wrote eloquently and at length in the twelfth century about how God will punish those who exploit nature. This may run counter to our post-Carl Rogers idea of what an all-loving god should look like, but I think it’s a truer understanding of the God of Christianity. The God I believe in and worship requires repentance of those who seek forgiveness. Put another way, and specifically in terms of ecological justice: we cannot undo what has already been done, but we still face choices today. Giving up because of our past sins is not repentance; neither is blithely and unconsciously continuing down the path we have blazed for ourselves. We are called to walk a new path — and I think that path might look very similar to the “human management” and humility to which you call us — as well as the hope that awaits us after we pass through paradox and uncertainty.

    Anyway, just felt that there might be some benefit in having a more nuanced way of thinking about the god of the monotheists. :-)

    Cheers and love to you and Jeff!

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Jul 25, 2014

      Carl, Thank you for sharing such a great expansion on these ideas!

      I have a confession: this piece used to be a lot longer, but the folks at Patheos wanted me to get it down to 1,000 words…. In some ways, I feel like this is more like slam poetry than an essay (compared to its original length), and even then I came in 190 words over the line! So yes, there are definitely some sentences that really need much more exploration, including the one about “human management” and the one you dug into about the forgiving God of liberal Christianity.

      There are so many nuances to the uncertainty of this topic! (It’s not just a simple uncertainty, I mean.) It’s funny that the reference to “human management” and humility rang so true for you. Even though there are times when that’s a very powerful idea for me, too, I also continually grapple with the legacy of modern environmentalism and deep ecology, which has so often been accused (sometimes deservedly, though usually not) of tending towards fascism and misandry. This is especially true when it comes to the question of how to deal with an expanding human population — so bringing up this idea of “human management” in contrast to “wildlife management” and the culling of Barred owls can have some pretty dark undertones! On the other hand, for myself as an animist who sees spirit/personhood in all beings, the idea has a twofold power: not just reminding me to remain humble and close-to-the-humus, but also calling my attention to the complexity of balancing the needs of an ecosystem against the inherent dignity and value of the life of every individual (human, owl, oak or otherwise).

      So while you grapple with a liberal culture that is perhaps too eager to seek forgiveness without the hard work of repentance, I find myself worrying about a related problem: a tendency to overcorrect and a desire to exert too much control — control over others, rather than our own selves — in the belief that taking this hard line is the only possible way to get out of the mess we’re in.

      As usual, I feel like we’re both seeking the same balance, but coming at it from different directions! :) (And here is where Jeff would probably step in and remind us both of the Buddhist’s “mindful presence” and the Middle Way. ;)

    • Scott Schumacher
      Sep 1, 2014

      “I’ve been wrestling a lot lately with the kind of genteel forgiving god that is so much a part of liberal Christianity. He is the god of upper middle class psychotherapy, who lovingly accepts us just as we are and is more worried about bolstering our self-esteem than calling us to justice and transfiguration. He is all found all over contemporary American Christianity, especially in the suburbs, and I think worshipping this god is a form of idolatry.”

      Ooo.. I feel compelled to respectfully respond and disagree with this statement. I don’t know you, so I hold no personal judgement, but I’m curious about how you came to this conclusion. Without having a back-and-forth on Alison’s blog (you are free to email me!), I feel exactly the opposite. The antithesis to this “idolatry” that you claim in a forgiving God is fundamentalism, which alienates all who do not “toe the line” with moving targets of commandments and edicts of the laws of cultures from a thousand years ago or more. In both Christianity and Paganism, it’s my opinion that we need to “Belong” before we can “Believe” in any faith. We’re all broken people who have either “sinned” or have acted against Nature in some way in our modern life. I believe that if you want long-lasting and authentic Justice and Transfiguration, that in most cases you’ll get it at the hands of forgiveness and love rather than edicts, judgement, alienation, or persecution. I’ll take my comments offline to spare Alison’s blog from argument…

      • Alison Leigh Lilly
        Sep 7, 2014

        No worries about respectful disagreement and discussion, Scott! :) I hope Carl sees and responds to your comment. Knowing a bit more about where he’s coming from, I don’t think he was arguing in favor of fundamentalism, but more pointing out that swinging too far in the opposite direction can lead to navel-gazing that’s more concerned with boosting ego than fostering thriving community and a healthy, challenging faith. I know I’ve met plenty of people who are wounded from experiences with fundamentalist religions and who are in need of forgiveness and healing — but I also think part of seeking health and healing is understanding that our health enables us to in turn serve others, and if we’re not challenging ourselves to live up to that calling we might need a gentle and kindly kick in the pants. ;) I think maybe the “idolatry” Carl means is this idolizing of an easy and difficulty-free life, mistaking personal comfort for authentic connection with others (including the divine)… But I’d love to hear Carl’s own thoughts on this!

  3. George
    Jul 27, 2014

    I enjoyed reading your article, Alison. I followed the link to Kingsnorth’s article and enjoyed it, as usual – he’s a great writer! Then, in the comments section of the article, I noted mention of Craig Dilworth, whom I had never heard of before. He’s written a book entitled Too Smart For Our Own Good. In that book, he presents a variant of Kingsnorth’s “progress traps”. I’ve not read the book, but it sounds intriguing. I also did a web search on the phrase “progress trap” and found George Mobus, who has explored the same topic. I’d like to suggest that you explore the theme that you were working on in your post in greater depth by familiarizing yourself with these two authors. They have a great deal to say about our current predicament and they present their ideas in a new way that side-steps the collapsarian and peak-oil doomer fanatics out there. I found them both to be very interesting. I love Paul Kingsnorth’s writing, but Dilworth and Mobus dig deep into the “why” that lies behind the trap we find ourselves in. Their ideas make a tremendous amount of sense.

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Jul 29, 2014

      Hi, George — I’m glad my post inspired you to do some research of your own! (I hadn’t come across Mobus before, which is surprising, since it looks like a lot of his work overlaps with work my husband is doing in natural language modeling and neural networking. Thanks for the recommendation. :)

      Right now, my focus has largely been on philosophers interested in exploring post-Kantian philosophy, specifically object-oriented ontology — Timothy Morton, Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, etc. Morton especially has brought OOO together with environmental philosophy and the philosophy of aesthetics in really fascinating ways in books like Ecology Without Nature and The Ecological Thought. If you like Dilworth, you might be especially interested in Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. :)

      Keep on reading!

    • George
      Jul 29, 2014

      Alison – A few months ago, I was deeply absorbed in working my way through Levi Bryant’s blog but I got lost and ended up reading Schopenhauer instead. I had run across the names Morton and Harman, but just didn’t feel like tackling any more than I was with Bryant. The problem I find with OOO is that it is by no means a defined field of inquiry and it also presumes an intimate familiarity with a lot of philosophers that I’m only tenuously familiar with. Sigh. What I find intriguing, as an aging Boomer, is how OOO has devoured Marx and incorporated many of his ideas into a very powerful approach to understanding our current predicament – much more powerful than Marxism. I have a hard time getting my Marxist friends to go for a walk to get some fresh air. Another sigh. I have a feeling that some OOO philosophers would agree with me that capitalism is just the latest manifestation of Schopenhauer’s will to power, but not being very familar with OOO, I don’t know.

      • Alison Leigh Lilly
        Aug 1, 2014

        “I have a hard time getting my Marxist friends to go for a walk to get some fresh air.”

        Oh no! LOL I hope you have better luck with that. :)

        I understand what you mean about needing a basic familiarity with certain philosophers to start with in order to get into OOO. Plus, because it’s still developing and evolving, OOO philosophers are always refining their ideas and taking their work in new directions. Personally, I like that! I find it fascinating to see a new philosophical school unfolding before our very eyes! :) But it can make it hard to find a “way in” to the topic. You might find Morton a little more accessible than Bryant — since he combines OOO with literary analysis, he draws on many familiar examples from literature and art to illustrate his ideas. He also has some videos (correction: as of last week, there are a ton more!!) available on his blog of guest lectures and talks he’s given, which can serve as a good introduction without relying too heavily on any prerequisite knowledge. (I wouldn’t recommend actually trying to read his blog, though — it consists not so much coherent essays, as a cacophony of random thoughts and links that he posts whenever they occur to him!)

  4. Scott Schumacher
    Sep 1, 2014

    I thought your article was incredibly thought provoking, and your compassionate stance for both sides of the issue did come through for me. The plight of the Barred Owl is, to me anyway, a lot like the plight of humanity. What lengths do we go to “control” or manage a situation, even if we were the ones who had a hand in creating it? The dominos of reaction and response to all choices at times seem daunting. If we do nothing, a spiral of species extinction follows. If we kick people off of their land to protect a species, we deprive future generations from the opportunity to connect personally day by day to the natural environement and we destroy the current economies of rural people. If we kill a species of owl to protect another, are we upsetting a balance that was somehow created by Nature?

    I have to err on the side of optimism, that in our modern world, that we can find a way to compromise that helps everyone (like what many Permaculturists are doing!). The “way” however, often needs political “will” for it to happen. In our ever-polarizing political landscape, these opportunities become rare as well, and gridlock turns into “doing nothing” and leaving us only to either hope for the best or be utterly disappointed.

    I feel for your dad. Whenever our more “older-wiser” generations have a sense of futility, we need to look at the system that created this. I’m a believer that compassion, forgiveness, and love can move mountains, so keep up the provocative thoughts of this!

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Sep 7, 2014

      “Whenever our more “older-wiser” generations have a sense of futility, we need to look at the system that created this. I’m a believer that compassion, forgiveness, and love can move mountains…”

      Indeed! :) Another important lesson that we can learn directly from nature, but that I think many people forget, is that there may not be a single solution that works for everyone, everywhere. Each community, each situation is unique. We can waste a lot of time looking for the “perfect” one-size-fits-all solution and never find it; in the meantime, we put off taking the small but effective actions that might make a big difference for our local communities and local environments. It’s important to balance education (which takes time and patience) with pragmatic action in the present, and work on the local level while keeping the big picture in mind, without letting that big picture become a burden that leads to inaction. Not an easy balance to strike, that’s for sure!

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