Review | What can owls teach us? And what should we learn from them?

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By Amit


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In recent years, an unusually dense flurry of books has promised a close view on one or another of Earth’s flora and fauna. Trees and mushrooms are big these days, but birds of prey loom even larger. Significant entries include “H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, Jonathan C. Slaght’s “Owls of the Eastern Iceand now “The Wise Hours” by Miriam Darlington. Together, these titles may signal a cresting awareness of impending ecological doom. The canary is no longer alone. There’s a raptor in the coal mine.

Darlington’s survey of the state of owls today is intimately staged, an account of her quest to see in situ the six species that live in her native England. Despite that, her obsession with the mysteriously alluring birds soon becomes borderless; she ventures to Finland and Spain on promised sighting of the Eurasian eagle owl, to Serbia to view the long-eared owl, and to France for the pygmy owl. Her approach is not that of biologist, ecologist or scholar. Instead, her binoculars are those of a writer and a mother, both roles equally consequential to the resulting mix of popular science, travelogue and memoir.

“The Wise Hours” draws on literature, myth and folklore as well as the author’s experience as the fierce protector of a son suffering a baffling illness. Like the owl, she becomes preternaturally watchful, orienting herself to her offspring’s nurture and care (without, however, caving to her son’s plea for a pet owl). This book — its chapters each ostensibly devoted to a single owl but also the stuff of the author’s life that insists on making its way into the narrative — is a product of that most necessary mind, the generalist of collective life. It defiantly puts us back where we belong — all in it together.

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A note of wistfulness, even resignation, permeates the newest titles on the nature bookshelf. Gone is Edward Abbey’s ructious ire. There is a sense that it’s too late for anger. Darlington does introduce us to, and recount her experiences volunteering with, some of the many nonprofits heroically dedicated to tracking and restoring the habitat of owls in England and beyond. But it’s hard not to read such effort as a finger in the dike. The ingenuity with which evolution kitted out these beings for their survival is rhapsodically related. Yet the new genre of nature writing is shadowed by a tacit acknowledgment that none of these adaptations is ingenious enough to evade man. In the first pages of each chapter devoted to a single species, Darlington is often compelled to number the remaining individuals: fewer than 5,000 pairs of barn owls in Britain; the little owl population down 65 percent over 25 years; worldwide, some 13,000 snowy owl pairs left.

Thus they “are emissaries from an imperilled ecosystem.” They are also what we have long wished to be — free masters of the air. Predators like us, yet uncanny, somehow unknowable, these raptors appear enviably self-sufficient. They have been finely tuned by evolution over 60 million years to prevail in sometimes dramatically specific niches thanks to fabulous adaptations. To hunt in the dark they developed the astonishing auditory acuity Darlington calls “earsight,” sometimes aided by dish-shaped faces that direct sound to the hypersensitive ears. Their feathers are constituted to mute the noise of air turbulence, while special vertebral accommodations permit the near-total head rotation that makes them appear so magnetically odd.

Perhaps Darlington, like Macdonald before her, understands at a deeper level than most the perilousness of a highly specialized predator in a world of rampant habitat destruction. One simple event in the life of a loved one, or the environment, can begin a cascade of effects that may end in tragedy. Darlington notes that barn owls, for example, are perfectly equipped to be swift and stealthy hunters of grasslands rodents, but they pay for it with “a body mass index so precarious that if an owl does not make a kill for more than a few days it can quickly starve.” Also, fewer barns and grasslands? No nesting spots and no voles. Having evolved to successfully inhabit such restricted locales also presents the difficulty of continued survival for some owls. In Darlington’s Devon neighborhood, the synecdoche for global habitat destruction is the arrival of a sign in a soon-to-be-former farm field: “Site Acquired for Development.”

So do contemporary books about the wonders of nonhuman nature hinge on a built-in tension of opposing emotions: the elation of discovery and the foreboding of imminent grief. We know whatever amazements the book delivers are vanishing even as we read them. It’s like finding out about Houdini’s existence from his obituary.

For some, it has become almost too painful to read popular natural science. All right, it’s often too painful for me.

It is mainly the extra-scientific glitter that rescues the modern-day reader from despair, especially when applied with Darlington’s reserve. These sparing flights of poetic prose raise a shiver. The nocturnal tawny owl is so rarely seen, its disembodied cry seems to be “the voice of night itself.” Of a class of schoolchildren encountering a captive burrowing owl named Murray, “Such is the delight and amazement, it is as if we have thrown the windows open and snow is suddenly falling inside the room.”

That is why Darlington’s occasional banalities land with a thud. In Serbia, she has the revelation that in the absence of a shared language, “laughter has no borders.” After a dream in which owls appeared, “I was recognising that they had something to say.” But more than merely trite is the frequently repeated suggestion that animals, to be worthy of consideration — more to the point, a book deal — must perform an educational service. Its implicit premise reinforces the biblical directive that man is to subdue the earth. The notion that the primary value of the fish of the sea and the fowl of the air is as utilities pervades many books of this type.

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Here, owls have something to teach us if only we will listen. Murray the burrowing owl nobly fulfills his job as “a coach to help us feel something about ourselves,” but he neither asked for nor understands the role into which he was conscripted. If his main function is to teach us something about ourselves, are we really learning anything about him? Even as Darlington consistently notes her distaste for captive birds of prey — they are diminished, “fascinating marionettes” for our pleasure — her insistence on making use of them subtly suggests that the natural world is expendable unless we can get something from it.

Despite that, “The Wise Hours” proves we don’t need life lessons to appreciate the world’s marvels. Every simple fact, from the burrowing owl’s strikingly persuasive imitation of a rattlesnake’s warning to Darlington’s own lavish curiosity, requires no supporting argument. They exist. It is miracle enough.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is a critic and the author of “The Place You Love Is Gone,” among other books.

A Journey Into the Wild and Secret World of Owls

Tin House. 302 pp. $27.95

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