John Mcewen

Wise old birds

Not only are they endowed with legendary wisdom; owls prove extremely therapeutic for certain medical conditions

Wise old birds
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Owl Sense

Miriam Darlington

Faber, pp. 343, £

The Secret Life of the Owl

John Lewis-Stempel

Doubleday, pp. 88, £

Owls, frontally eyed and nose beaked, look the most human of birds. Accordingly, they have for millennia been prominent in mythology and literature and their image continues to be commercialised beyond compare. They offer an author rich pickings, but in a competitive market a strong personal subtext is helpful. That improbable bestseller H is for Hawk told of a bird consoling and inspiring a daughter grieving for her father.Owl Sense has a mother finding a healing source in owls for herself and her worryingly ill son Benji. His Non-Epileptic Seizure Disorder (NEAD) took a disconcerting time to diagnose and is frighteningly unpredictable. Just how frightening is illustrated by his collapse on a bus as a 6ft, 16st student. For the remainder of the journey he lay motionless, stepped over and unreported by the passengers, with no alarm raised until arrival at the depot.

Dr Darlington, who gained a PhD researching her last book, Otter Country, spent four years on that quest. When she embarked on owls, Benji’s serious illness intervened. She was reminded of the famous opening line of Dante’s Inferno: ‘Midway along life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood, and the path was lost.’ She had a choice: shelve the project or work it around Benji, with the help of her rarely mentioned but clearly vitally supportive husband and daughter. Fortuitously, Benji liked owls. They proved therapeutic for son and mother. Indeed Benji’s alarming illness made them all owl-like. It brought them into communion with the wildness of the birds: ‘The family gained a new attentiveness, a kind of listening sensitivity.’

The world has 216 owl species. Darlington originally confined herself to our five native birds: tawny, the most urban and numerous; barn, now dependent on bird boxes for a third of its nests; the diurnal little owl, emblem of the goddess Athena, introduced in the 19th-century but today officially in ‘rapid decline’; and the two scarce, in part migratory, wilderness species, the long-eared and short-eared. Difficulty in finding the last two forced Darlington abroad and brought Eurasian owls within her scope. She did not find them all, but added the largest, the eagle owl, the smallest, the pygmy owl, and the ultimately elusive snowy owl to her list.

Her book, as a result, is in part an entertaining travelogue. She discovered that Serbia is the world centre for long-eareds; her unintended camera flash caused 100 to erupt from a pine tree. In France, in search of the tiny pygmy owl, her liberal sensibilities were affronted by her jovial guide Gilles’s enthusiasm for Benny Hill and the discovery that birders — ‘les ornis’ —are deeply unpopular nationally for wanting to protect all those birds treasured by the French — any species seems to qualify — as culinary delicacies. Having despised twitchers she became a convert: ‘like all the best birdwatchers, Gilles loved people as well as birds’. Similarly, the vulnerability of a massive eagle owl reminded her that ‘without family, we are nothing’. So, she found her path, as this book triumphantly testifies; and, although Benji’s NEAD persists, the end of her quest finds him happily employed in a bakery.

Readers should nevertheless be warned that, despite being a prize-winning poet and lecturer in English and creative writing at Plymouth University, her prose reveals a weakness for painting the lily, slack repetition, twee anthropomorphisms (‘owl footsie’) and such infelicities as ‘a woosh of adrenaline flooded me’. She wonders how she can ‘wrench any if it into words’. There is too much wrenching — though nothing an editor could not have remedied.

John Lewis-Stempel is the hottest nature writer around, having won the Thwaites Wainwright prize twice in the past four years. His book is described in the press release as ‘perfect for the gift market’, which it is. It is too short to bring much of the earthy authenticity of his life as a working farmer to bear. Much of its contents, factual and mythological, inevitably duplicates Darlington’s; but there is still enough to silence a dinner party: an owl’s eyes fill half its skull; and its heart, placed on the left breast of a sleeping woman, will make her tell all.