Blodeuwedd’s Betrayal: The Necessity of Choice
In the Pacific Northwest, Blodeuwedd’s darker aspect manifests as innocent victim as well as hapless intruder. Not one or the other, but both. If the beautiful but invasive Scotch broom shows us the seductive face of Blodeuwedd as a maiden goddess of spring — lovely, eager and promiscuous in her erotic innocence — her other face watches us silently from among the trees of the dark forest, unflinching, wild and wary. We may smile at the sweetly sunny blossoms as a manifestation of her deceptively gentle and passionate nature, but who among us has not also felt a thrill of fear move through our bones when the shadow of the owl crosses our path?
Like the broom, the owl occupies a liminal space in mythology in its native lands. Although often associated with ancient wisdom and abiding patience, many cultures also feel an uneasiness about this bird, sometimes seeing it as an omen of illness and death. Unlike most birds who greet the rising morning sun with bursts of joyous song and fill the daylit hours with their cheerful constant chatter, the owl is a creature of silence and darkness, shunning the sunlight and seeking the shadows. Its eerie calls, barks and screeches fill the autumn evenings with echoes of longing and shivers of fear.
This is a different kind of ambivalence from that of the broom. This is the ambiguity of the old maid — the pitiable hag, the unwanted guest, the social outcast. It is the uncomfortable stare of the elder animal guide who sits in silent judgment as the forests around her die and flourish and die again. In the ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest, this ambiguity is played out in the tensions between the native but endangered Northern spotted owl, and its close cousin from the east, the Barred owl.
I’ve never encountered the small, reclusive Spotted owl in the wild, although it is easily one of the most famous birds in the region. Over the past few decades, the Spotted owl has become a symbol of both victimization and oppression, depending on who you ask. Designated a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in the 1990s, the Spotted owl became a rallying symbol for environmentalists and conservationists fighting to preserve the last remaining old-growth forests, the most essential habitat on which the survival of this species and so many others depends. Meanwhile loggers and supporters of the timber industry in the area came to loathe the small native bird, seeing it as an example of environmentalism run amok with conservationists giving priority to cute little animals at the expense of human beings and their economic security. Timber industry advocates lynched plastic owl replicas in effigy, and sported bumper stickers that read “Kill a Spotted Owl — Save a Logger.”
The Spotted owl’s numbers continue to decline even today, despite new restrictions on logging and growing awareness of the vital importance that old-growth forests play in a balanced, thriving ecosystem on which the timber industry itself relies. The controversy surrounding this shy native bird has died down in recent years, only to be replaced by a new one: the growing conflict with its larger, more aggressive eastern cousin, the Barred owl.
The Barred owl is far more common in the Pacific Northwest today than it was even fifty years ago. For the past century, this species has made its way westward from its native habitat in eastern North America into northwestern Canada and the United States. In fact, many consider the Barred owl to be an invasive species, in part because it outcompetes and drives out the smaller native Spotted owl. However, unlike many other invasives, the Barred owl was never intentionally introduced into the area by humans, and it’s not particularly wanted. Instead, its presence here is the result of several factors. On the one hand, the disruption of its native forests across the eastern half of the continent has forced this species to look elsewhere for hunting and nesting territory. On the other hand, human forest management, forest fire suppression and tree-planting in the Great Plains have allowed it to migrate into ecosystems where once it would have been unable to survive. Add to this its more assertive nature and its ability to adapt more readily to changing human-cultivated landscapes like suburban neighborhoods, and it’s no surprise that the Barred owl outcompetes (as well as interbreeding with) its smaller, shier cousin, threatening to push the already vulnerable Spotted owl right out of existence.
It is a hotly debated topic whether or not killing Barred owls is the appropriate way to protect endangered native species like the Spotted owl. When it comes to plans to cull Barred owl populations in the Pacific Northwest, both the timber industry and many environmentalists actually find themselves in agreement: they raise objections to the policy and point out that killing Barred owls will not help to redress the problems of deforestation and human encroachment that are the real threats to the Spotted owl. In asking how we ought to deal with the Barred owl and its harmful effects on native owl populations, we are forced to confront the problem as a systemic one. We must ask ourselves: Is it truly wise to intervene in the processes of natural selection that have allowed the Barred owl to adapt and survive more readily than other species in the face of ecological imbalances, while ignoring our own role in creating those imbalances in the first place? Where do we locate our sense of outrage and injustice? Who do we blame, and who do we punish? There are no easy answers to these questions.
For the animist and polytheist, there are more difficult questions still. If the owl is the face of a goddess, how does this change our relationship to her? As the Spotted owl, we might see Blodeuwedd as vulnerable, elusive and withdrawn, the unfamiliar Other who demands that we place our loyalty to her above our human concerns, who asks more of us than we are perhaps willing to give — the hag who demands a kiss as the price of sovereignty. As the Barred owl, she is the adaptable trickster again, the wanderer driven by hunger into new lands, whose appetite and determination threaten to overturn the current order. Seeing the owl in the goddess, we also see the goddess in the owl. The animist recognizes each owl as a living, sacred person, with its own will and right to live that cannot be callously dismissed without regard. Do we sacrifice the one in service to the many, without that one’s consent? Do we kill this one owl, or eradicate this one species, for the sake of the balance and prosperity of the whole?
We are confronted with the unflinching gaze of this creature of shadows. The goddess smiles a cold smile as if to ask, What were you expecting? A pleasant bedtime story with a moral at the end? Did you think this would be easy? As Audubon writer Jack Dumbacher notes:
It is impossible not to pick sides – what humans have been doing for the last 100 years has already unwittingly made certain choices or favored certain outcomes. To “do nothing” is really to consciously endorse the unconscious decisions we have already made.
We no longer live in a world where we can abdicate our responsibilities to let the “natural course” of events play out as they may. Patterns of choice and consequence have already been set in motion, and we are inextricably woven into the cycles of life, death and balance. This is the betrayal of Blodeuwedd, the trickster goddess: she breaks down our assumptions about the boundaries between nature and culture, so that we can no longer escape the one by seeking refuge in the other. She invites in the dark and wild things to share an honored seat by the hearthfire. She brings unconscious things into the light, and casts shadows of the past across whatever way forward we choose. She turns love into vulnerability, and vulnerability into sorrow.
The choice is yours, she says, as the owls cry out in the woods. And you must choose. Which one of them will die?