I wake at first light and blink my eyes open. It’s too quick for the dream images. They turn on their heels and scurry back down the ladder before I can catch them. I walk upstairs and switch the kettle on. From the crack in the window the brush of autumn greets my skin. The magpies are warbling. They remind me of my grandmother. Floating clouds are glowing a pale pink. The kettle clicks off. So quick. I fill a pot with leaves and steaming water and continue staring out the window.
Inside or outside. There is always a choice. Do I stay inside, and tend to the cultivated life - work, domesticity, contemplation, human relationship? Or do I instead step outside and give my attention to the wild world waking up to a very different rhythm? Inside is primarily under my control. Outside my schedule flies out the door and I am subject to events and elements outside my jurisdiction.
Today is the Sustainable Living Festival big weekend and I’m talking on a panel titled ‘Animism Respoken.’ I really should make some notes. I stare longingly out the window. The clouds are palms outstretched towards me. Before I can curtail myself with further plans, I slide the chair back, leave the tea steaming on the bench, and head out the backdoor.
The river is a good few degrees cooler, mist creeping along the surface and gathering like a ruffled skirt at my knees. I gingerly stand on my paddle board and push off. I could be walking on water except for the giveaway ripples of the paddle. The highway is blessedly still asleep.
It’s just me and the birdsong. There is a faraway knowledge of needing to have something coherent to say into a microphone in the city later. The idea is surreal compared to the suddenly full-bodied feeling of propelling myself down a body of water with a paddle. Pacific black ducks swim alongside and two giant ibis fly north west overhead. If I could, my offering would be gathering everyone down here to sit silently on the dock just listening.
Halfway down the upstream stream I suddenly have an instinct to lift my head and look left. My gaze falls on an abundant elm tree in a backyard. It’s glowing with the kind of iridescent European green this land doesn’t know. I’ve barely noticed the elm before, the broad river red gums on either side too alluring. My attention penetrates beyond first impressions. It’s then I come into contact with a large dark shape in the branches. Pattern recognition starts flashing red lights - “Not branch-shaped. Bird-shaped. Investigate.” I paddle in closer, keeping focus-locked on the shape.
A strange high-pitched wheeling sound accompanies the shape. As I near, I can feel a presence that is definitely not of the vegetable kingdom. The feeling grows stronger as I near the bank and steady myself against an overhanging branch. When I look up, I meet a piercing gaze that arises from an enormous bulk of brown mottled feathers. A bolt of electricity runs through my body and I gasp. Standing at least half a metre above the branch, large talans gripping the narrow branch, I recognize the face of Australia’s largest forest owl – appropriately named ‘powerful’. It’s a moment that doesn’t come often in life, and has a handful of times previous, all of them unforgettable, but this one, virtually in my backyard. I wonder how many times I might have passed it on my morning paddle. I know the Powerful Owl to be a threatened species, relying as it does on nesting in large hollow branches that takes a eucalypt at least 80 years to produce, a beautiful metaphor for the kind of holding and nurturing capacity of old age.
The owl and I stare into each other’s eyes unblinking. Dark bushy eyebrows furrow into a sharp V as if asking ‘what are you doing here?’ The whistling call is definitely coming from the owl, and I don’t need to speak its language to know it as a warning. Don’t get too close. OK, I steady myself against the branch, not wanting to break the gaze.
Remembering my manners, I fling out both arms and call cheerfully “Greeting, wild one!” I try to contain the joyous hoot of joy that wants to escape. The owl goes quiet and cocks its head to one side, as if not quite sure what to make of me now I am no longer a silent admirer. I extend a heartfelt warmth to accompany my vocal greeting, and engage all my senses in an all-bodied listening. As I continue to stare into the owl’s eyes, its face morphs into that of me as a 4-year-old. A bowl cut frames my serious face and large searching green eyes, a small cut on my upper cheek. I feel her slight unease, I’m not sure why, being photographed perhaps. Maybe the owl is encountering me as I did the photographer, wanting something from me. Taking something.
The memory is momentary, and when I return to the owl’s face the initial ecstasy has faded into a dense kind of shared silence infused with the intensity of my small child’s gaze.
The creature starts making gestures with its neck, a horizontal back and forth. What is this? I am simultaneously intimated and seduced. I begin to mirror its movement. As we dance together, the first rays of sun reach the east facing elm leaves. It makes the owl appear even darker, as if fading into the background along with the night. The shadows bring me deeper into owl’s gaze. We keep locked on each other, as if besotted, engaged in some kind of courtship rite. There is an invisible electricity passing between us. There’s a sudden flapping of wings and another of its kind flies in between us and onto another branch. I break my gaze and follow this smaller shape to its new perch. A juvenile perhaps. And then another smaller owl flies in. Three! Three Powerful Owls! My legs are shaking ever so slightly on the board and I remember I am floating on water. Similar to my precious powerful owl encounters, I feel sure they have chosen to be seen by me, capable as they are of being almost entirely invisible. I hold my hand over my heart in gratitude before taking my leave.
Back within four walls, I look up an online dictionary. “Animism is the belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence; that all things - animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems - are animated and alive.”
Riding the tram into the city my presence is overflowing with the dark underbelly of silence that resonated from the owl; that and the pensive little girl. People are looking at me curiously, they’re not sure why, but I do. It’s as if I am holding within a potent secret that is leaking out through my pores. It portends to ways of knowing far beyond the ordinary. In another place and time, the kind of interaction with the owl would have been part of the everyday conversation, not a ‘religious’ experience, just part of the community of relationship that existed with all of life. But here, in this flatland of imagination, it is questionable, untrustworthy, ‘just my imagination’, make believe.
The whole interaction has a quality of wild eros to it, a flirtation, an ecstasy, a vulnerability in seen and being seen in our hitherto private worlds. To offer this eros monogamously to the human world is so limited. The possibilities instead when one opens to falling in love with all the diverse life forms around us. The possibilities when encountering everything as alive and deeply feeling, sensing, responsive. When one assumes that the world is as curious about you as you are in it – perhaps in equal measure. It’s a relationship that happens through the body, not the discursive mind. It speaks the same language of soul – visual, poetic, mysterious, undefinable. Ultimately, I reckon, it’s a choice. Whether to experience the world in monochromatic black and whites, or the entire spectrum.
A few hours later on stage in the city, I say as much after sharing the story of my encounter with owl. I’m curious to notice myself holding back some of the detail, as if protecting the confidence of what was shared. My co-panelists have their own stories of remembering to walk in an animate world. For Patrick Jones, it was initially through a reciprocal relationship with a domestic dog. For Maya Ward, it was a long walking pilgrimage from the sea to the source of the Yarra river. She would have walked past the very place I paddled this morning. Maybe past the very same adult owl. For me it’s a daily decision, and starts with the smallest of choices. Like, when the clouds beckon, or the owl calls, or the storm approaches, to accept their invitation and enter into the larger conversation.