I find it a better tonic than a natural daylight lamp. In winter, I dowse barn owls from Ordnance Survey maps. There is no hokum involved, no circling rings suspended over the grid. I just scan the map for, say, patches where a river winds through what has the look of old pastureland and where there’s a back lane nearby, a few isolated farms . . . Then I go and wait, half an hour before sunset. I get lucky about one trip in every two, which feeds my conceit that I can suss these charismatic birds.
But it is heartening when it happens, a token that in these particular places things are as they should be: grassland and vole and owl properly connected, as the symbols on the map foretell.
This early February’s manifestation was so perfect that it felt as though it had been staged for my benefit. A chance remark in a pub had made me look at the map of Cookley, a village in Suffolk not far east of where we live. The signs looked promising. The River Blyth is just a stream here and it meanders through a mile of unfenced common, past a Norman-towered church that you reach by going through someone’s back garden. Romantic that I am, I thought it would be pleasant to see the owl wafting past – or even into – the church, as Gilbert White had described 250 years ago, in his wonderful eyewitness account of Selborne’s owls.
I met the Cookley barnie before I had even arrived at the village. It was perched on a fence post, gazing around, its hunched posture and sleek tan-and-cream plumage giving it the look of a small marmalade cat. It flew off mazily towards the common. I followed and took up my position in front of the church as I was determined to do. About 200 metres to my left, it changed direction and came back. It was flying high, chopping and side-slipping in the wind, not seeming to be hunting seriously (White caught the style perfectly – “They seem to want ballast”).
It came very close and I could see the individual scroll and lozenge markings on its wings. A dark bird, so probably a female. They are the ones most likely to be out in daylight at this time of year, needing to reach the critical weight of 340 grams for breeding. Ten minutes later, a paler bird (perhaps her mate) drifted out of a thicket in my direction. It was a fly-past.
I like such vigils, hanging out in another organism’s territory, playing the role of respectful guest, not of fleeting gatecrasher, hoping for the privilege of an encounter. I know that I’m out of step. A shelf-ful of books asserts that the proper route to natural revelation is the determined tramp. Journey becomes text. Footfall becomes footnote. Moving the body reveals the self. Walks are made into works of art, or into empathetic autopsies of earlier walkers’ journeys. I enjoy a stroll as much as anyone but these earnest perambulations often seem to me to smack of appropriation, of a kind of colonisation in the mind.
In February 1818, Keats wrote to his sick friend John Reynolds with a cheering metaphor about the virtue of wise passiveness: “Let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey, bee-like, buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be aimed at, but let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive.” Even when it doesn’t pay off, attentive indolence is a great antidote to hubris.
Back in Cookley, the owls didn’t reappear. Going home in the dusk, I spotted the female bird on the post where I had first seen her. She had her back to me, wings closed, their hieroglyphs merged to give the appearance of a brown carapace. She swivelled her head and, unperturbed, eyeballed me, with those vast, unfathomable black globes. For a few minutes, I had the salutary experience of being the watched as well as the watcher and receptively opening my leaves.