‘I feel in love/ with the third son of an owlkeeper’ – from a song, never recorded, by me, from the heady days of love on the river when Matt and I got together.
Owning an owl – can you own a wild creature – seems impossibly romantic. I stare at you, wild animal with a broken wing, hiding in a box, secure in your cardbox box in the care of animal rescuer Tracie Parsons. You look at me, then you close your eyes. You have to trust us, get well. You have been hit by a car. Get better. You’ll be going to the sanctuary soon, hopefully your wing can be fixed. If you have just one wing you have a chance at a sanctuary. No wings, sanctuaries don’t like to keep birds alive, as a rule, it’s too cruel.
Matt Armstrong’s father kept owls in an aviary at the bottom on his garden. He always built his own aviaries since Matt could remember. Before Matt arrived on the scene. As the youngest of three sons, he was the third son of an owlkeeper.
Owls have stayed with me so many years as a visual sign, as a visual key, as a design. On my fence I have drawn my signature primitive pieces, many of which have morphed into owls. The big eyes, the heart-shaped faces. There are so many types of owls. Drawing makes you ask questions about them. They are active during the day, I thought they were night-hunters, only.
The small owls, the burrowers, the Little Owl. So much smaller than I thought. Digging the soil, the sand, the dust with their claws, owls in the ground.
I have dreams of owls. I dream I am one, in a tree. A classic owl. My eyes are so big, they drink in the whole world. The sky whirls around me and I see everything and hear everything. The whole night-time is inside my ears and eyes. I have pin-sharp, pin-vision accuracy. Nothing is safe from me should I choose to focus in on it. And when I fly, I am huge, my great wingspan reaches from tree to hill, but I am also so so silent. This makes me incredibly deadly. No one even hears the mouse shriek.
When an owl needs a mate, it cries, ‘Too whit’. And its partner replies, ‘Too whoo’.
But not all owls make the same cries. Listen to what they shout. So many wonderful calls here online. Collected by owl educator and specialist Ian McGuire.
In Greek mythology, the pantheon I was brought up with at school, we learned that the owl was Athena’s birds, the symbol of wisdom. This association was reinforced by brilliant children’s books, A A Milne’s WOL. His vulnerability made him adorable as well as clever.
‘He could spell his own name WOL, and he could spell Tuesday so that you knew it wasn’t Wednesday, and he could read quite comfortably when you weren’t looking over his shoulder’. And in The Herb Garden, I may have identified with Parsley, but I loved Sage.
‘I’m a rather fat feathery owl called Sage / (Too whit, too whoo!) / I’m not at all happy in fact in a rage / it’s bad enough having ones home all upset / but to make matters worse all my feathers are wet / (Too whit, too whoo!)
The way owls run, with their upright stance never ceases to amaze me. They lift their arms and they run, their legs reaching in front of them, off they go. It is inherently comical. Why? As an artist who uses comedy in their expression I stare at their form, at their movement. Why? They are compelling. Perhaps one day I will impersonate an owl.
I am thinking about these creatures today, as the rain falls on the fence drawings in the photo, circling my wild garden, because the drummer Paul Millernas has requested a photo of one of my drawings that I sketched on my garden fence in Mottingham to be tattooed on him by the artist, composer and performer Alice Karveli. Why, what is OWL to him?
‘My ‘spirit animal’… Ever since I can remember, this goes waaaay back, I have always found them so beautiful, enigmatic, totemic – emblematic, imbued with wisdom. Their eyes so large and knowing. The shape of the face. The feathers, incredibly soft. Their stillness. Deftness, incredible skill in the kill. Nocturnal, watching. Their absence from view, the unbelievable thrill of seeing one, always a pure delight, especially in the wild.’ PAUL MILLERNAS
Give me back my night.
I miss playing the villain,
knowing everything there is to be seen
because of the darkness.
flickering in moon Mottingham mirrors.
The story of my birth in oakbark
lies queued in Dracula’s in-tray.
Smallness is weakness.
My feast, to fly frozen in silence.
Feathers, famous as Hollywood.
Death of the Century.