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Friday, 26 March 2010

"But can you imagine it nailed to a door..."

You can have a fiver if you can guess what that particular comment was referring to. Go ahead, let your imagination run wild. It’s neither door knocker, Christmas wreath nor petition. Nor is it any number of theses by Martin Luther. Nor is it theses by his less successful younger brother, Barry. No. It’s none of those things. It’s a barn owl. Well, obviously. (As an aside, I'd have liked to have seen Owl Nails included in that Two Ronnies, 'four candles' sketch: "You know, nails for owls")

On a recent trip to do some birding with some good chums in Norfolk we unfortunately found ourselves completely outsmarted by the fog. Now fog isn’t, you’d have thought, a formidable intellectual opponent but whatever we tried, the fog was two steps ahead of us at all times. As you’ll be able to reason, seeing birds that were anymore than 20 metres away became difficult so we pretty much gave up for the day praying that Sunday would be better.

Turned out it was slightly better if not the stark blue wintery skies we were hoping for. And it turned out that Holkham, like some feathery supermarket, had put on a ‘see-one-get-seven-free’ barn owl promotional bonanza. They were all over the place. Now, if there’s a bird you’re never going to get tired of then it’s the barn owl.

For some time in different locations we watched these birds doing what they do best: that impossibly shaped profile in the air which, in flat flight, looks bizarrely lopsided. But when that disc turns flat towards the ground and the translucent wings begin to silently beat the air then the bird suddenly becomes something even more beautiful. The strange whiteness and burnished brown of the animal against the greens and browns of a coastal landscape draw the eye. It’s not a boring, seaside, herring gull white but a white that is captivating and unsettling all at the same time. You just have to look. More than that, you find yourself staring. The way that it hugs the ground connects the rank grass and the winter trees with the senses and what would otherwise be any flying bird in an empty sky becomes some kind of total experience.

For no reason other than they just do, the barn owl is, in its landscape, a living thing that sets the senses and the imagination racing. In our collective imaginations and consciousness it’s become more than just a species of owl. It is all of its kind. It is Owl.

It was Wordsworth’s bird of death and because of its immense owly-ness a bird of heavy portent for many people. The rural people of this green island, with their pagan, fable-soaked sense of Christianity saw the barn owl as a forebear of unimaginable doom. It’s screeching at the window of the sick would spell certain death and, for some, its very presence a reason to abandon hope. Could I imagine these things? Yes. Can I see why it is named by some the Ghost of the Farm? Yes. Can I imagine it nailed to a door? No. But right up until the middle of the 19th Century the warding off of evil from the borders of the farm was achieved by nailing the barn owl to the barn door. Evil fends off evil.

In recent years of course the barn owl has penetrated further, becoming less of a reason to abandon hope but more of a reason to hang onto it. A bird that came perilously close to unsustainable scarcity is returned and can once again insinuate itself into our minds. Just by being there it makes us stop and stare and wait for it to disappear. As long it’s there, even if just a dot against the hillside, we will watch and watch. Because we have to.