On finishing this very readable book I can honestly say that I now know a great deal more about owls than when I began it. That wasn’t hard: my main understanding of owls had come from Winnie the Pooh and Harry Potter (I’m exaggerating, of course – but only a bit.)
The book is packed with surprising facts about owls, covering topics such as how owls are made (the mating and rearing practices of different species), the bewildering range of kinds of owls and their habitats (at least 260 species and counting), the way their keen sight, acute hearing, impressive camouflage and almost silent flight, all assist in their hunting of prey and their survival.
I found myself trying to follow the instructions about how to imitate the call of a flammulated owl, being simultaneously glad I was alone at the time and amazed that I now knew there was such a thing as a flammulated owl.
The scientific information is pretty fascinating, but what engrossed me was how the author canvassed the ways in which owls have been regarded by humans over centuries and across civilisations. It seems that owls have been associated with wisdom, witchcraft, good and bad luck, prophesy and mythology.
Human connection with owls often has negative consequences, some deliberate, many unintended.
Some cultural traditions, for example, hold that owls must be killed. because they bring misfortune. Throwing an apple core out of your car window can entice small birds or rodents to nibble on it, later attracting an owl which can then end up dead from flying into a moving vehicle. Using poison to kill pests such as rate or mice can also result in poisoned owls when they hunt and eat the rodents.
Hedwig, the owl in the Harry Potter books and movies, resulted in a craze for owls as pets, with the predictable result of abandoned owls when the humans realised that their new ‘pet’ is a wild creature, difficult to keep in a domestic setting. Far from being ‘bird brains’, it is entirely possible that owls possess levels of intelligence we can only guess at, and they do not belong in a cage.
On a more positive note, I learnt that there are people all across the world, professional scientists and ordinary citizens, who are doing what they can to learn about owls, educate others about them, and preserve their habitats.
I thoroughly enjoyed my little journey of learning about these mysterious birds. Here is what the author had to say about an encounter she had with a female Long-eared Owl being studied by an owl expert:
For me, it was an adventure, bright, intense, deeply affecting. That owl had seemed like a messenger from another time and place, like starlight. Being near her somehow made me feel smaller in my body and bigger in my soul.What an Owl Knows p11
I asked Holt why he has devoted the better part of his life to studying these elusive creatures. Because of this, he said, gesturing at her empty path. Because they’re so beautifully adapted to their world, so quiet, invisible, cryptic not just in coloring but in sound, deft in the dark, superb hunters – traits that have evolved over millions of years.
“And,” he said, “because they’re still so full of surprises.”
What an Owl Knows is published by Scribe in July 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
The cells in Irish author Gavin McCrea’s memoir are the spaces in which major scenes of his life played out. There are the rooms of his childhood home, in which he grew up with his clinically depressed father, mentally ill older brother, complicated mother, and other siblings. Other spaces play their part: his schools; single rooms or shared apartments with friends or lovers in the UK, Ireland, or abroad; university campuses where he studied and worked.
The book begins in the tiny flat where Gavin moved to live with his eighty-year-old mother who was exhibiting signs of encroaching dementia. His plan was to continue his writing while providing care for his mother. Then Covid struck and Dublin, as with much of the world, was in lockdown. Living with an elderly relative with whom he had experienced a complicated relationship, closed in by four walls and dealing with the inevitable repetitious interruptions of someone with dementia: it is easy to see how the description ‘cell’ fits this space.
Then we move back in time, to a childhood dominated by the emotional distance of his exhausted father, the mental illness and drug addiction of his brother, and by the bullying Gavin experienced at school, primary and secondary. Gavin had, in early childhood, regarded himself as his mother’s favourite, her prince, but she did not protect him from the torment of his school experiences.
He explores his growing awareness of his difference, later identified as homosexuality, and the reactions of others – dismissive, abusive, or violent – to this difference. Woven through the narrative is his excavation of the complexity of the primary relationship of any child – that with their mother. He draws on Freudian and Jungian theories of dreams, relationships, emotions, and examines his own role in the events of his life with excoriating honesty.
By this point, I was already making my concrete plans to leave Ireland. I did not deny to myself or others that my planned leave-taking was anything other than the rage of rejection taken out on my surrounding environment: the place I was born, its culture and its people, especially my family, most of all my mother. My rejection, my rage, when it was not spewing over all of this, was aimed at her, or rather at the idea that this particular mother was the only one I would or could ever have.Cells p214-215
This is not a book for the faint-hearted. We, the readers, understand that the author is writing about parents, family, and lovers, as a way of revealing something about himself. He does not hold back: the rawness is at times, almost too much, leading to a sensation of voyeurism. There is the universal difficulty of choosing what to put in and what to leave out of a memoir which references people who are still living.
The writing is also infused with love, and humour, and beautiful prose about often difficult subjects. I finished this book with a greater understanding of the range of human experiences and the ways in which family relationships contribute to an individual’s life trajectory.
Cells is published in Australia by Scribe in October 2022.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.