A Book Review of Miriam Darlington’s ‘Owl Sense’, by Jayant Kashyap
Any reader begins Owl Sense, I’m sure, just the same way as they begin any other essay — however good or bad that might be, — but then this 350-page encyclopaedia of a book is what becomes more interesting owing to its range of characters. All good ones. To begin with, it is a wonderfully researched essay on the presence of owls and their interactions with all that is around them, but it is not limited only to that point; it is also the story of the author about breaking all the rocks that bar her route, her story of being a good mother to her son, and daughter.
Owl Sense is the kind of package that many books can only aspire to be — a part research paper and part observational fiction, the combination makes it a tell-tale owl encyclopaedic — vastly ranging in itself from travel writing to writing for environmental awareness and other sorts. Miriam Darlington has written a book of simultaneously parallel stories — one of her first child Benji’s getting along with an initially unknown disease, and the other of the different members of the owl family. It is a story borne out of several different countries. All of which in search of owls, from getting to know about their way of living to possibly helping them wherever need be.
“I found that in the end any encounter between a mild owl and a human must always be tentative, aware of the assumptions we might wrongly make.”
Apparently, Darlington’s very faithful documentation is an excavation of the ‘almost-nature’ of owls; of the fact that we think we know well this extended family of ‘cute’ and ferocious, mostly nocturnal birds of prey, which, however, only turn out to be “our wrong-headed assumptions”, and which are often challenged by these agile creatures.
Evidently, the book is also as much about ‘how’ we see the owls — as omens and symbols and, sometimes, nothing — as about ‘what’ owls are.
“As we cutify and commodify the natural world they risk becoming ornaments: a static picture on a screen, a shining cup, egg cosy or tote bag [which it shouldn’t be].”
Miriam Darlington is a devastatingly curious researcher; and those who have read her Otter Country know this already, while those who haven’t have enough opportunities yet. One of which could be observing the little breezes of behaviour, which more so add to the nature of the book; the little stories that in some way characterise the owls and the people involved with them at times, like the one of Athene noctua (a Little Owl) and its rescue by Miss Florence Nightingale.
On the other hand, ironically, however, our author here also puts how Nightingale’s presence both weakened and strengthened the owl; how in her absence it also never survived.
With bytes of information, Darlington marks throughout the book how human intrusion has hurt owls (and many organisms alike) in numerous ways, most of the times fatally; how her own ignorant intrusion of once she is so ashamed of. How “[t]he bird is feathered perfection; grace and beauty with talons” and yet (or perhaps because of the very reason) never one to be put up as an exhibit.
“When we get it right, and work with nature rather than against it, we can achieve the most extraordinary things.”
So, as a normal book, talking about the unstable number of owls in present day as a result of what we did to them years (and centuries) ago and have continued doing yet in numerous other ways, Owl Sense doesn’t just stand up to my expectations, it rather elegantly exceeds them. There are qualities about it that continuously amaze me; Darlington as an advocate does the best bit possible on her behalf, and in perfect humour — what we need to do now is learn and act thus based on our bit.
Owl Sense (Guardian Faber, 2018) – £9.99
Miriam Darlington is a poet and author of Owl Sense and Otter Country. Reviewers have hailed her as a successor to Gavin Maxwell and Henry Williamson, and as a central part of the new nature writing movement. She has a PhD in English from the University of Exeter and a particular interest in the tensions, overlaps and relationships between science, poetry, nature writing and the changing ecology of human-animal relations.
Jayant Kashyap is an artist, reviewer and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet, and among other publications, his poems appear on The Poetry Society’s (UK) website. He is also the co-founding editor of Bold + Italic, and a food blogger. His debut chapbook, Survival, is almost out in print.