From Out of Soundings,
Copyright 1931 by H. M. Tomlinson, New York and London:
Harper & Brothers Publishers. Chapter 1, p 1-14.
From A Mingled Yarn, Copyright 1953 by H. M. Tomlinson, Indianapolis and New York, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.. Chapter 4, p 44-51.
A Brown Owl
H. M. Tomlinson
ONE night, the night of my arrival home after a long absence, I was introduced to Joey. It was the first time I had ever looked intently at a large owl, desiring friendship, but wondering whether or not I should get it. That owl, sitting on the table, was not a bird. It was more like a gnome. The other members of the family sat round and were very amused. They knew the creature. Evidently he was on intimate terms with them, though there was no laughter in his direct and impish stare at me. His flat face, with its enlarged and challenging eyes, was odd. He stared at me briefly, then turned his head away wearily, as if he had seen all he wanted. I was dismissed. He began larking with those he knew. He walked about with a jaunty and rolling gait, like a sailor who knows what he is expected to do to make people happy. He gave them some fun. His conduct, in a guise of the utmost gravity, was ridiculous. Presently I tried to join the party. He turned on me another challenging stare, and its meaning was plain: You still here? Without warning he flew at me, his grappling hooks in front of him. I drew back, to more laughter; for it appeared that this also was in fun.
Joey's plumage is beautiful, though at first you might not notice it. The beauty of a shadow, with its tones, needs more than a careless glance. This soft swarthiness has regular markings of hazel and buff. When he sits within a greater shadow, his eyes may blaze like orange glow lamps. Now that he and I know each other he will sit on the back of a chair near me, when I am writing. He shakes his feathers loose, half closes his eyes, and at times makes a contented 44 noise, if spoken to. Or he will come to one's shoulder to sit there, occasionally nibbling round one's ear with his sickle-like beak. But there is no need to worry about that. He knows what his beak can do, but he is a perfect gentleman. His claws can close like a vice, but not on us. It is certain that a bird cannot be a Christian, but the simple truth is that Joey is more like the real thing than most of us try to be. If you offend his dignity certainly he resents it, but he never retaliates, and he never harbours resentment. He is magnanimous without knowing what that means.
In fact, I think I would sooner write about that owl than about ships or anything else that I may happen to understand in a small measure. He fascinates me because, beyond Freud and Jung, he appears to hint that life is a riddle which we had better give up. No use even dreaming about it? Besides, like the Sphinx, he gives no help, but merely sits looking to futurity with those awful eyes of his.
We have been told that W. H. Hudson was afflicted by letters from numerous correspondents who were moved, not so much by the order of his prose, as by the inexplicable behaviour of their pets. They supposed that Hudson could guess hidden springs, not mentioned in the manuals, which actuated most animals. Their faith in Hudson's gift of insight is not surprising. I myself once interrupted his meditations with just such a problem; but he was a sceptical man, who well knew the poverty of common observation, and the vanity of human desire which so readily recognizes what naturally it prefers to believe is there. Hudson always coldly directed reason on those pets, and reason is not invariably fair to poor instinct. Yet what he himself could make of the twitching ears of a deer we learned from his Hind in Richmond Park. Let us not marvel over the magic carpet. That would be Axminster, or what not, compared with those ears. They transported Hudson to South America and elsewhere, they reminded him of music he had heard as a boy, of inexplicable premonitions he had felt as a man; indeed, those ears persuaded a reader, who watched their nervousness with Hudson's eyes, to believe that their extraordinary movements would presently waft apart the black curtain which hangs between this world and whatever may be on the hither side of it. That is fairly remarkable for a deer in Richmond Park.
We enjoy good stories about animals, but we rarely believe them unless they are our own. Luckily, there is no need to believe a good story before we enjoy it. Those yarns by our neighbours which would have us believe that sound morality, noble conduct, subtle intelligence, which are our prerogatives, are at least nascent in humble creatures, are very pleasant, and that is as much as we ought to expect of them. We doubtless conceded more to animals, for reasons we forgot long ago, while we still used totems, than we do now when natural history is the lesson most enjoyed in the elementary schools of the cities. We knew more about animals before we stuffed them for museums, and even before we had a settled Government. The settled Government it was, perhaps, that settled it. Our fear of the wilderness diminished. It was no longer necessary for us to watch the midnight dark in apprehension when we had quite forgotten what could come out of it. It may not be of much importance that we have grown deaf and blind to the finer communications from the night, for we get along very well without them now we have our wireless installations. But there, anyhow, the communications are for such as Hudson, and for primitives who still live beside the wild, and even in it, and who may neglect its signs at their peril. It gave me a chill once when I spoke at night innocently, but without restraint, of Rimau, the tiger, to some forest Malays, and saw the embarrassment brought about by my careless ignorance. They did not like it. His name may not be mentioned. I but wanted some information, yet it was certain then that they knew more than they were going to give.
Since then I have enjoyed the good fortune of a close friendship with this fellow Joey, who is but a Wood, or English Brown Owl. I do not propose to tell any tall stories about him, because as there are none I should have to make them up; nor to pursue, biologically, the problems of memory, joy, love, sorrow, fear, and so on, to their remote physiological springs in a bird, for I am ignorant of the way. I could not put that owl's mind, should it exist, under the microscope. But at least he has caused me to put my own there for a brief examination, with what result I need not confess. After all, ignorance, like everything else, is relative. It is possible that our confidence in our scientific understanding of this broad matter of life cannot be fully justified. Joey is a warning. My assurance fails me under that inscrutable contemplation of his; which is beautiful to see, though there is an element of terror in it, if you dare his glance long enough. It occurs to me, while observing him, that there may be a ridiculous side to our science, when we are explaining what we know of these lower creatures; creatures quite incapable of forming a systematic and orderly government. An orderly government? We had better be careful, because even with our unique gifts, by which we form complex communities, we should ponder afresh in the neighbourhood of an ant-hill or a bee-hive.
As for this bird Joey, we have examined diligently all the evidence about the Brown Owl in the ornithological text books; but I must say that, except for his coloration, and his language--or some of it--and the length of his primaries, and his weight and dimensions, he is still outside those books. He sits above and beyond, attractively meditative, quietly interested in our strange behaviour, not altogether unwilling to assist us in the careful measuring of his primaries--for we grow more and more concerned with the need to establish beyond cavil his ordinary owlship; but he is outside. He is beyond us. If he knows no more of us than we know of him then he knows very little.
We at home have seen in him the reason why the ancients chose him as the symbol of learning and wisdom. The reason is obvious enough. It is not because his eyes are deep with shadows, and are better to look at than most eyes; they certainly give, in repose, a hint of mild but unusual wisdom. But they seem to tell him, without fail, all he wants to know about anything which takes his interest, and his interest is constant and alert. He has an inspection which begins with an instant and piercing glance, while his body is motionless, and thus he may remain for a full minute, considering whatever it may be, with a stern fixity which would draw out the innermost secret of a diplomatic note. Satisfied at last that it is worthless, he turns away his head with an expression of tedium, and the object is thus contemptuously dismissed. That first challenging glance, that night stare of his, though I am used to it, and know that Joey is incapable of treachery, is still somewhat startling when he fixes it on me. You feel like a sinner whose secret thoughts are manifest. He sees through you; and thereupon he relaxes, puffs his feathers, and languidly half closes with bluish veils those dark and luminous orbs. But let anything stir in the shadows--I think he can hear a shadow move--and he becomes as tense as a taut spring, and his eyes are judgment itself.
When he sees a matter quite novel to him he has a curious habit of moving his face in a circle; and if the object really astonishes him, as when he saw his first aeroplane, then his whole body sways to enlarge the radius of the circle. It is a comic spectacle of eager curiosity, altogether different from his still glance of doom when a mouse is present though unperceived by our crude senses. I used to think that rotary performance of his head was a foolishness of his till once I caught myself shifting my head about to get a name to something nondescript on the floor which glinted in the lamplight. So now I know that when Joey plays that caper he is but obtaining evidence of an object from different angles; he is trying to give it solidity. He could teach any young writer a point or two at that game.
That he reasons things out there can be no doubt. I should rate his intelligence as high as that of a good cat, and his manners and morality much higher. He has a sense of fun. He is very good-natured. Even when badly irritated he never strikes with his full force, but appears to remember in his extreme annoyance just how far his sickle beak may be struck into a hand without drawing blood. Yet it can execute a rat with a single swift puncture through the skull between the ears. The rat has no chance at all. Joey looks very satisfied with himself when he has nailed so big a victim, and evidently expects us to admire him. He lifts his flat intelligent face to us with a new expression of languid and fatuous good-humour; but one foot has the rat's middle in a vice of steel; it would be useless for the unlucky creature to struggle, and it does not. But Joey, I must say, shows no cruel enjoyment, as would a cat, in fooling with his prey. He stoops down and very early dispatches it.
He has never yet shown anger, but only a kind of fierce resentment, which he expresses with a sound which mixes a whistle and a warble, in a high key, his wings outspread and his head held low. And he will do what most cats will not. If he is out after dark, and you call quietly his name into the night, then presently a great noiseless shadow sweeps swiftly at you; and you may be used to him, but control is necessary or you will dodge; and so he alights on your shoulder, nibbles your ear in salutation, and questions you in friendly little undertones. It is amusing to watch a strange cat in its prowl come upon Joey where he is hunched in deep thought on the garden border. The cat sees at once that this is a bird. So near, too. A bird. What a bird! The cat's mingling of desire and fear is plain in its attitude. It would attack, but dare not. Joey does not move, but looks at the trespasser as a constable would at a loafer. The cat slinks off, Joey's haughty glance following it.
One curious trick he has, which, so far as I know, the natural history books do not record; perhaps because, in the wild, the trick is invariably successful. It is not always easy, by daylight, to pick him out of the shadows of a tree, even when you know he is somewhere there. But if a noisy stranger comes into the garden that owl instantly understudies a dead stump. He elongates stiffly and shuts his eyes; he might be aware that it is his eyes you see first, when looking for him. When he has become a stump of dead wood then he is nothing but that. You may even push him, but he does not relax, nor open his eyes. He is a stump. There is no owl.
He is fond of a bit of fun, but only after dark. Like a cat, he will pounce on small moving objects. Suppose that you secrete a matchbox, tied to a length of string, under the table cloth, joey will spy its first effort to get slyly away. However, he looks elsewhere. He pretends that he has been unobservant. He looks everywhere but at the suspicious movement. Then, with his odd walk, that curious rolling gait, like that of a stout and light-hearted seaman, he strides not directly towards the movement, but only obliquely, as though he had just thought of something more important than play. Yet as soon as he is beside the object he is on it so quickly with his talons that there is no getting used to his suddenness. We used to play this game by moving our hands under the table cloth. Now we prefer a matchbox and string.
There was a time when we thought he had had enough of us, and was about to choose a home in alien trees. But he remains, and he seems to have lost his desire for the wild. He keeps close to the household. He seems to prefer to stay within sight of the place he knpws; for he is a sociable creature, and at times comes to the window to intimate that he wishes to sit, for a spell, within the family circle. When admitted he becomes maudlin with his demonstrations of affection, though never servile, like a dog. He stands no nonsense even when most maudlin. It should be said that he was found, two years ago, an orphaned fledgling. He would have died of starvation but that a youth of the house, who had a way of his own with animals, got a blowpipe, filled his mouth with milk, and blew it into Joey. The dodge worked. Joey has never forgotten, by the look of it, the one who gave that first kindly attention with a blowpipe. For the youth has gone overseas, and now Joey sits humped and not at all playful, contemplative, friendly, but by no means inclined to accept me as a substitute for his companion. His particular friend used to be the first to greet him in the morning. Joey came eagerly to the opening of the door. He comes eagerly now, but it is odd to see his sudden relapse into indifference, when the familiar sound of that opening door is no longer followed by a sight of the one he most favoured. I thought, once upon a time, that I would like to try my hand at a novel; but that blessed owl is a salutary warning. I know next to nothing even about him, and his share of life's mystery does not amount to much.
There was a memorable occasion when we were visited by Thomas Hardy. I believe that great man had a special regard for owls; the author of The Dynasts, we may fairly suppose, would know why the owl is Athene's familiar. In ally case, the venerable poet and Joey unexpectedly confronted each other. It was a strange experience for the rest of us, who stood and watched them. They did not speak; they regarded each other intently, but I do not know what passed between them. Presently the poet turned sadly away; and the owl directed his gaze elsewhere as though entirely satisfied.
* * * * *
I had written all that, and there was a vague intention to continue it, perhaps as an attempt at a purely ornithological study. A day came, however, when Joey's young friend returned from overseas. Joey looked at him, and remembered, but did not move. He was not demonstrative, yet he began to watch for the coming and going of his old friend. He regained his humorous spirit. Then, with surprising suddenness, he deprived me of my one chance to contribute to ornithology. We stood round him one morning while he stared at us from the ground; he was on his back, and that had never happened before. He stared at us with what appeared to be bright and haughty knowledge. His young friend, so recently returned, knelt to lift his head. The brown owl nibbled his fingers in greeting. Then he shut his eyes and returned to Athene.