Owls and Orreries
The barn owl (Tyto Alba) is my favorite bird. The owl was sacred to bright-eyed Athena, and its name in Greek, Υλαυ´ξ, glaux, also refers to the brightness of its eyes. Although there are many debased images of owls–remember those terrifying and ubiquitous macramé things with the frayed and fluffed acrylic yarn surrounding wooden bead eyes?–they retain an essential purity and mystery.
Several years ago, in the middle of a cold and snowy winter, I found a dead barn owl on the hood of my truck. It had clearly fluttered down out of the sky and died–not a mark on it, no sign of pain or struggle, just some slight disarrangement of the snow around it. Each downy feather was edged with a rim of silver frost. I’d never been so close to an owl before. I looked and looked at it. I can see it as clearly now as if I were still standing there, my breath drifting in slow clouds, snowflakes on my black wool sleeve, and that owl.
A few years later, in spring, driving along a back road about five miles from our house, Joan and I saw a baby great horned owl sitting by the side of the road. We stopped the car to watch it for a little while; I wondered if it was stranded. After a few minutes, Joan got out of the car to look at it more closely. It clattered its little beak at her, and shifted from side to side on its adorable tiny clawed feet. A shadow floated over us, drifting from fir tree to pine above our heads. Joan got back in the car, and we drove slowly away, watching in the rearview mirror as the mother landed on a stump beside the thistledown gray baby.
That August, at the county fair,* we got to chatting with a grad student from our local Raptor Research Center, and learned that a full-grown great horned owl can exert about 500 pounds of pressure per talon, and that Joan had narrowly escaped a visit to the emergency room wearing a feathery live toupee of doom.
O is also for orrery, a clockwork model of the solar system named in honor of the 4th Earl of Orrery by its inventor, George Graham. There’s an orrery at the heart of the Drinkwater house in Little, Big, which is also a perpetual motion machine. Clockwork fascinates me, although I do not understand it in the least and some of the uses to which it is put freak me out completely (see “A”). Orreries, though, are not scary. Their measured, stately movement reduces the enormous, unfathomable night sky to elegant coherence. (The extra “o” word is, of course, “orderly.”)
*My pound cake took a red ribbon in the cake competition, and I took home 25 pounds of sugar for that, but don’t even ask about my knitted lace baby cap–Shetland cobweb wool, people! 000 steel needles! Traditional antique Shetland lace pattern! Tell me that sorry-ass acrylic granny square afghan in three shades of brown deserved that blue ribbon . . . and no, the rosettes on my cap were NOT too big, Mrs. Sweet-Jumping-Seventies-100%-Polyester-Craft-Yarn-Lovin’ Judge-Lady.
Not that I care at all, six years later.
But I’m not entering one single thing in the fair this year. Except maybe I’m going out for the Master Baker Award (loaf of bread/cake/2-crust pie/dozen cookies).