owl wisdom

One of the power qualities of the owl is wisdom.

We don’t actually know if owls really are wise – at least by human definition.What we do know is that animals – owls included – generally have good survial instincts – and more than that – that knowledge is passed down from one generation to another.

I have just finished reading a really interesting novel (Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult). It’s actually not about owls at all, but it’s given me a lot to think about
She writes:

I started to write Leaving Time when I was in the process of becoming an empty-nester. My daughter was headed off to school. I was thinking a lot of how we humans raise our kids to be self sufficient enough to leave us – and how depressing it was for those who were left behind. That theme – of what happens to the people who are left behind – became what I wanted to write about. Then, I was reading something and learned that in the wild, an elephant mother and daughter stay together their whole lives until one of them dies. Given my frame of mind, it seemed so much more pleasant to do things the way elephants do. I began to dig a bit more about elephants, and their reaction to death, and what I uncovered became a metaphor for the novel.  (emphasis mine)

What I’ve learned from the novel (amongst other things) is that elephant babies are allomothered, which means that they are cared for by all females in the herd, and older siblings get to practice their parenting skills before actually becoming moms.

That gave me food for thought.

When I became a mother (26 years ago this week) I knew next to nothing about babies or mothering. I am an only child. My own mother had very little contact with her family, and my father was from a family of only boys. Together that meant that contact with aunts and cousins was also very limited and almost all I knew about womanhood I learnt from my elderly grandmother – and my amazing sisterhood of girls I was at boarding school with.I grew up with them – and much of who I am today is due to them and the experiences we shared – but we were peers – and all living away from home, which in turn meant there were no family responsibility for younger siblings and no older siblings to learn from either! In other words, as a young mother there was no experience bank for me to draw from.

Another thing the novel taught me was about the importance of the mother to the well-being of the whole herd. The untimely death of a matriarch means that the whole herd is threatened.If a nursing mother is killed, her nursing baby dies. If a matriarch dies prematurely, so does the collective knowledge of that family, and the whole society disintegrates e.g. the herd won’t know where the best water holes are, in times of drought. They won’t know the safest travel corridors. Their very existance is in jeopardy.

Leaving Time also taught me that the relationships of elephants last a lifetime, and they have elaborate rituals of grief, much like us humans. Elephants will mourn – together- the loss of one of their herd, and will often cover an elephant who dies with branches and dirt. There’s a three day mourning period before moving on in search of fresh food and water. For example, if an elephant comes across the bones of another elephant, it will be quiet and reverential. The tail and ears will droop. They will pick up the bones and roll them beneath their hind feet. They only do this with elephant bones, not the bones of other animals. They will return to the spot of a herd member’s passing and pay respects for years to come.

What about us?

Life expectancy for humans has increased significantly over recent decades. Today in the USA a white man / woman has a life expectancy of 75/80 years (in 2000) whereas a hundred years earlier (back in 1900) it was only 47/49 .  The situation back then was much worse for blacks- men and women living only until 33/34 respectively. (Today there is much less disparity because of the civil rights moment) In Europe too the life expectancy has increased and there is less of a gender gap (in these terms!) too.

Never before have we had access to so much knowledge, and yet we live in an era where we humans are struggling with information overload (practically everything we need to know is available at the click – or two – of a button) but because there is so much information at our finger tips we are finding it increasingly difficult to understand issues and to make decisions. The really important facts for survival  – those once handed down from mother to daughter from generation to generation –  are being eroded and our wellbeing is at risk.

What would the owls – and elephants – have to say to us were we to have ears to listen to them, I wonder.


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