Tag Archives: night

Owls bring the night in.

In the late fall I was sitting here at my desktop after dark when I heard an owl in my back yard. I knew it was an owl because he sounded just like the ones in the movies. I don’t think I had encountered one in person ever.

But I didn’t know what species he might be. I spent a good hour listening to various owls on Cornell University’s site All About Birds site, and the owl cooperated by demonstrating his distinctive call many times. He came another night not long afterward. For a while that first night I thought perhaps he was a Barred Owl, but eventually I knew for sure that he was a Great Horned Owl.

In my research I found advice about how to build a platform for this owl to nest on, how high up to attach it, and that it should go up in November so that the owls might find it when they go looking for good nesting sites in February. I did wish that I could start on one more project like that, but it was obviously not the right thing for me this year.

Probably everyone has more familiarity with owls than I do, but if you’d like to hear the calls of five owls this is a helpful Audubon page that limits itself to just that many: Identify Five Owls

You can guess how honored I felt that such a creature had visited me, even if he couldn’t be seen. His voice seemed full of romance, and let me in on the secret drama of the night. Of the five owls on the linked page, his call is surely the most pleasing, low and soft. So many owls are screechy.

Richard Wilbur wrote a poem about an owl’s voice. His own voice is more pleasant to me than that of the Barred Owl that he writes about; maybe that’s why someone came up with the explanation for a child, and why I like his poem so much. You can listen to him reading it: here.

A BARRED OWL

The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

-Richard Wilbur,  from Mayflies: New Poems and Translations. © 2000

In that book flies a bird.

The library is a pleasant walk away from Kate’s apartment, but maybe not on a day when it’s over 90 degrees and the library didn’t open until 1:00. So Kate drove the two of us while Raj was napping, and that way we could completely focus on finding the titles we really wanted, most of which we had researched together online the night before.

We were looking not for ourselves, but for a toddler. Kate’s eager to fill her child’s life with the most enriching books, nourishing not only because of the pictures or the text but also for how they provide an experience for the adult and child to share — and that they both enjoy. We’ve been talking about what makes a child love a book, and why we don’t like some of the traditional favorites. But even in cases where we can’t quite put our finger on what is “wrong” with a story or the illustrations, one reading to find out is more than enough time to give to it.

Today the bag of 14 books we brought home included 6-8 board books, including a few by Sandra Boynton and Byron Barton (Mi Carro); there were many sweet options in this category, so many that we had to narrow our choices by such considerations as, “Let’s not borrow this book I Hear, because listening to a book is not an experience of hearing the birds, rain, or wristwatch that are pictured; why don’t we talk about sounds when we are actually hearing them.”

One charming picture book with fold-out pages is Papa, please get the moon for me, by Eric Carle. It’s a whimsical tale in which the girl making the request does get her wish, and she even plays with the moon as soon as it gets small enough for her dad to bring it down the ladder. Raj seems to focus on the pictures of the moon in his story books, and I always love to return to the more poetic depictions of the moon when reading or singing to children.

A title that popped up on my screen was The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson, with pictures by Beth Krommes. It appealed to me right off, and the majority of reviews were positive, but some people said it was too dark and that several children had not liked it. As luck would have it, the small local branch had it available so I was able to see it for myself very quickly; now it’s my latest favorite picture book.

It has elements of Goodnight Moon, but the verse form of the traditional “This is the Key of the Kingdom.” And though it is about nighttime and there is little color on the pages, it is about light even more, somewhat in the way that the novel All the Light We Cannot See is radiant with love and hope.

The moon is shining in the sky when the scene opens, of a bed, where a violin and a book are lying. Only one line describes each scene.

In that book flies a bird.
In that bird breathes a song…
all about the starry dark.

Every week at Vespers we pray “Thou appointest the darkness and there is the night,” and it reminds me of how C.S. Lewis wanted to name his space trilogy something about Deep Heaven, because space sounds cold and unfriendly, whereas heaven is full of angels. God created the night and He is in it. This book seems to be about the sun (shining on the moon, even at night) and the electric lights in our houses, but when you come to the end and read about “a home full of light,” you realize that it is also about the human love and care — and that is only an overspilling of the love of the Holy Trinity — undergirding it through the night, making it the most restful place that is both safe and bright.

The Glow from Brief Light

Sally Thomas’s book of poems was published just in time for me to get a copy and read it during Advent. The title is Brief Light: Sonnets and Other Small Poems, and these poems are so illuminating, they fit right in with this season when the Light of the World first shined upon us.

Various sorts of light, or the lack of it, are an important aspect of many of the selections. The title brings to mind wintry light that is brief and thin – and there are several poems for this darker season of the year we have entered, with titles and subjects including Christmas, New Year’s, Advent, frost and snow.

I like the “small poem” aspect of the collection, seeing as I am eternally poetry-challenged and usually put off by the ones with very many stanzas. “Snow Weather” is the shortest in the book, and manages, and partly through its very brevity, to capture a dramatic moment that grabs at my own heart.

Snow Weather

A falcon on a wire
Against the laden sky
Scanned his brown empire
With a black-ice eye.

Nothing beneath him stirred
In that sunless instant,
But my heart, for a keen-eyed bird
Blind to me, or indifferent.

The light that Thomas shines on this event reveals something in her own soul, and searches out even the falcon’s impulses.

Birds abound in the poems: a wren in “Tornado Watch,” and the “Mourning Dove” whose being she “felt in the small of my back/The soft clattering updraft of wings.” But the starlings in “Poem in Advent” are the most glorious. This is the first poem I’ve read about the birds that she so aptly describes in couplets beginning with these:

At twilight the poplars, upright and naked,
Wear starlings like restless leaves. Unafflicted
By the cold, they come and go in noisy shifts,
Filling the trees, free-falling into updrafts….

And going on to relate how the starling flock, though “harbinger of every nightfall,” is not only unafflicted by the cold but is a hopeful reminder to us of where we have come from, and “never mournful.”

This reminds me of the prayer read at every Orthodox Vespers, “Thou appointest the darkness and there was the night.” It was after years of hearing this line that it began to sink into my being that God Himself fills the night that He created, and is to us like the black night into which Thomas’s starlings settle. “Darkness, careful, cups them in its hand.”

The subject matter of the collection ranges far and wide and shows how rich a life is lived by this woman interested in everything. Many poems about children and family, her motherly concerns — and marriage, and depression, boats, a snake, depression. But all with a ray of light revealing the transcendent quality of our existence, the interconnectedness of everything.

This is the first time I’ve been so bold as to review a book of poetry, and I don’t know that I’ve read many such reviews, either. I don’t know where to stop, when most of the poems are a pleasure from the first reading and also promise a greater reward if I will spend more time with them.

But let me mention another one or two: “Introvert” is chilling in its description of forced narcissus, “all sweetness, winter-white” alongside a man’s desire to break into his woman’s inwardness, even to “prise her open, bone from hinging bone….” And “Lamplight” is a favorite of mine so far, in which the poet shares the simple event and startling perspective of looking in instead of out at her bedroom window one night, where

…the room shone privately
As with a happiness, a mystery to me.
I stood outside and wondered at that glow.

There is plenty of wisdom shining from the poems in Brief Light, gifts that will go on giving. I am soaking up the glow.

Mountain Retreat

I’m off to the mountains again this week. Two years ago I made my first solitary retreat in this remote destination, with some fear at the outset about being alone where there is no phone, and few people around. But the fear was gone the moment I walked through the cabin door and the reality of God’s presence came freshly on me. Why had I been talking about being alone up there, when it was really God and I together for a few days? And it did end up being best kind of retreat and rejuvenation of the spirit, by the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps this time I will spend more time at night looking at the stars. That other outing it was late September and almost too cold for it at that high elevation. There are none of men’s lights to interfere; I’ll put on my glasses and lie on my back on the deck. I remember how the sight of those uncountable stars filled me with awe for God, and with God Himself, so much that I couldn’t bear it for long.

Maybe I was unconsciously “thinking” ahead when I posted that poem and thoughts about night recently. I’ve been looking forward to the time for reading and prayer, and now that I start writing I’m reminded to anticipate the joy of the dark and starry night as well.

Our civilization has fallen out of touch with night.
With lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of night back to the forests and the sea;
the little villages, the crossroads even, will have none of it.
Are modern folk, perhaps, afraid of night?
Do they fear that vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space,
the austerity of stars?
–Henry Beston


But back to the bookish part of the opportunity. The process of preparing for the trip by choosing my reading material (and even the food to bring, I might add) is a sort of pre-retreat. I know I won’t be able to fully mine any of the treasure-troves that this list represents, but if I left one at home, it would surely be the one I’d want to dip into, right? In addition to a couple of the history or literature books from on my sidebar list, I’m taking these spiritually meaty ones.

Books for a Mountain Getaway:
Orthodox Dogmatic Theology by Michael Pomazansky
The Inner Kingdom by Kallistos Ware
Little Russian Philokalia Vol. 1 by St. Seraphim
Courage to Pray by Anthony Bloom
On Prayer by Archimandrite Sophrony

Well, I’m going on my adventure, and pray God will bring me home to tell about it. If not, you’ll all know that it really was unbearably glorious!