Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington
Melancholic yet hopeful, seeking to enable a fresh understanding of owls in the natural world, and our relationship with both
By Miriam Darlington
Guardian Faber 2018
Reviewer: Shaun Lambert
Miriam Darlington has consistently troubled herself with the wild, first with Otter Country
and now with Owl Sense
, her latest book. She cares fully for the ecological landscape that holds us and so has cultivated a deep attentiveness toward nature and its inhabitants. This is embodied, even spiritual awareness that recognises that our fragile, mysterious, ecstatic, painful lives are interwoven with owls who live close by us and yet are far from our understanding.
In this book she succeeds in bringing us closer to owls. With an ethnographer’s eye she immerses herself in the world of owls, which was veiled to me until I opened the book. In the process of my reading Miriam, as writer, seems to unveil the owl until I am filled with wonder. As my eyes are opened I begin to care for these creatures. I find myself standing on the edge with them, sensing their vulnerability to our mindless trampling of their home.
She weaves into the story of her research the tale of her own son’s vulnerability which is almost parabolic of our ecological intertwining. We think we are invulnerable and we think the world around is invulnerable but neither are true. Personally and corporately we too are subject to ecological fragility.
Her attention to detail is powerful. I am fascinated by owlish ears, that owlets hiss like rattle snakes, that owls can rotate their heads 270 degrees, that there are so many species of owls, that owls link us to Europe. I like her writing because she knows so many words and can name things for me.
The writing this time seems more melancholic, as if something of the symbolism of owls has entered her being, as she once became an otter. There is more of the black blood of sadness seeping from the pages.
But it is also a book to inspire hope, with a palette of emotional colour that matches the browns, ochres, sepia, gold, flax blond, beaten gold, soft clotted cream of the owls themselves. The author has a poetic imagination that sparks a muted poetic imagination in me. In the book she does not beat the reader over the head with fear but seeks to enable a reperceiving of the owls in the natural world. A reperceiving that leaves me wanting to be a participator in the preservation of the wild and not a spectator to its fall, not complicit in an unnatural extinction.
I leave the last word to the author and the aftermath of a short-eared owl nearly landing on her head mistaking her for a perch:
‘I sat dry-mouthed, heart thumping, owl-dazzled from the follicles on my scalp to the tips of my toenails.’
I believe I am owl-dazzled too.
Shaun Lambert is an author and minister of Stanmore Baptist Church