I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls.
- The Book of Job, 30:29
The oule eek, that of dethe the bode bringeth
- The Parlement of Foules, Geoffrey Chaucer
An owl plunges to its tryst
- Three Baroque Meditations, Geoffrey Hill
If you have ever stood face to face with a wild animal and met its gaze, neither of you flinching, each scanning the other with a primal curiosity until you have seen your own face mirrored in its pupil, you will know what this blogpost is all about.
Since this summer Owl Adventures, a local falconry company, has offered people the opportunity to have their picture taken with a bird of prey. Having learned this from a friend and former flatmate in York, I was determined to grasp the opportunity with both hands since I have a well-nurtured fascination for falconry, partly owing to growing up in rural Norway where birds of prey are frequently seen, partly owing to my love for things Medieval.
In the Middle Ages falconry, or hawking, was a popular pastime for European nobility and royalty. The sport was introduced to England by the Normans and its importance throughout Europe can be attested from a wide variety of sources. For instance in Regesta Norvegica, a collection of Medieval correspondence, we learn that King Henry III of England expressed his gratitude to King Håkon IV Håkonsson of Norway for his gifts of birds of prey. Falcons and hawks from Norway and Iceland were considered the best in Europe and were naturally highly sought after.
A man taking his fascination of falconry to a level of his own was Friedrich II, Holy Roman Emperor and a contemporary of the aforementioned kings. He wrote De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus, an almost proto-empirical treatise on the art of falconry, and, as a friend pointed out after her trip to Neustadt, German, he is frequently depicted in the company of birds of prey. I also suspect that this feature of Friedrich II has been a key source of inspiration to Erik Fosnes Hansen's wonderful novel Falketårnet, the Falcon Tower which is set during his reign.
A companion to owls. And eagles.
During my time as a student in York I came across the nobility's preoccupation with falconry several times in the course of a module on Middle English romances, for instance in Sir Degrevant where the following lines occur:
He wold be upp or the day
To honte and to revay.
To honte and to revay.
I was quite pleased to come across this since it reminded me of one of the reasons why I am fascinated by falconry, namely its vocabulary. I often seek to expand my own vocabulary, imping it, as it were, with words from various disciplines, taking delight in the wide range of choices available. What brought my attention to the language of falconry a couple of years back was the use of terms from falconry found in the poetry of Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare, opening up a small but exciting world to me. Revay, for instance, designates the hunting of ducks and geese along riverbanks.
In other words it should come as no surprise that I was quite eager to seek out the birds of prey in York and finally one day I did. That day they had no falcons or hawks available, but instead they had a beautiful selection of owls and I decided to have my picture taken with each of them in turn.
A little owl of the species little owl.
First I was handed the little fellow above. He was small enough that I dared place him right in front of my face, so we stood for a brief while looking into each other's eyes and I could see myself mirrored in his pupil, my own face reflected in a puny orb as black as black can be, eye to eye with an animal who, although tamed, can never be anything but wild. As we stood there I felt a childish excitement about being this close to something primal and that moment of a brief aeon was in itself a consummation of all I had hoped for.
The ill-faste Owle, deaths dreadfull messengere
- The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser
Unlike the inquisitive little owl the barn owl was quite sedate and tired having just pruned her feathers so she cared little for what took place around her. When she had been placed on my hawking glove the photographer stroked her little beak a couple of times to wake her up, although I felt it was somewhat unnecessary to bother her like that, poor thing. This was the first time I had ever seen a real-life barn owl since we don't have them at home and I have always been somewhat mystified by its strange face which is at once both beautiful and deformed.
A male eagle owl. You can tell, they told me, from its lesser size.
The eagle owl was perhaps what I was looking most forward to become briefly acquainted with, partly because of its rather quaint majesty, partly because I have been somewhat dazzled by eagle owls since childhood. As the manager placed him on my glove I was told to hold steady lest he should interpret my wavering as a signal for him to return to his log since he expressed a certain impatience to have this thing over and done with. As he was about to settle on my hand he beat his wings somewhat and hit me in the face as he did, and I confess that it too gave me a certain sense of coming close to the wild animal perching behind its domesticated appearance.
All in all it was a great experience to come this close to owls, something I haven't been since my youngest sister and I came across two young tawny owls in an abandoned farm back home, and even then I didn't get to stare deep into its face in the same way. There is something hauntingly beautiful about owls, a appearance of senescence that makes us believe them to be sapient, mystical creatures and that, in turn, might be part of the reason why it is such a thrill to peer into an owl's eyes, looking for something you have lost in yourself, bound to fail in your quest to retrieve it.
In all the excitement I forgot to ask them to take the pictures with my own camera and consequently I got photographs rather than digital pictures. However, to give you an idea of how the sensation was, I have posted a few pictures of the photographs in question below. For the remainder of my travel I kept them safe in an edition of Geoffrey Hill's poetry collection Clavics bought in York, a volume, as you can see, featuring an owl on its cover and a sequence of poems as hauntingly captivating as an owl.
(...) but then face to face
1 Corinthians 13:12