QUAIL MUTTERINGS #20. Owl Serenade (February 2013)

QUAIL MUTTERINGS #20.  Owl Serenade (February 2013)


Every night, lately, the owls have been making their voices heard in the canyon. Recently, when I got home after dark, I could hear two owls nearby, in the creekbed, communicating in the old familiar “Whoo whoo” language. I also thought I heard a dog barking in the distance. But it wasn’t my dog. He’d met me at the gate. Then I realized it wasn’t a dog at all that I heard and it wasn’t all that far away. There was actually an owl up on the mountainside. It had a repetitive, staccato-sounding hoot. After a little research I figured it might have been a Spotted Owl, although there don’t seem to be many of those in this area.

I love hearing the symphony of the owls each night, floating in through my open window. Even if I’m having trouble sleeping the calming sounds of the natural world are soothing and make me wish that our world could always feel this peaceful. The week leading up to full moon, like this, always gives me pleasure when I look out over the creekbed or up at the shining boulders speckling the mountainsides. There’s a magical feel to it – lending a possibility to all good things, even if only right here and right now.

I wonder how owls have become affiliated with wisdom. Is it because they can swivel their heads up to 270 degrees independently from the rest of their bodies? Is it those big, inquisitive eyes which seem capable of pulling your thoughts straight out of you? Or is it simply their nature of staying up all night like those intellectual members of academia?

I remember my mom writing a little song when I was a kid. She was taking a piano class, as an elective, while attending San Diego State College (not “University” yet) pursuing her Geology degree. The lyrics were as follows:

The wise old owl

sat in an oak.

The more he heard

the less he spoke.

The more he heard

the less he spoke.


At the time it had sounded rather simple and repetitive to me, but I think I understand it more clearly now. As a teacher, I can see its significance. We, as parents and educators, may find ourselves continuously preaching at our children. Sometimes, it seems that the more we say the less they listen. If all they hear from us is constant noise then it can’t help but dull their senses. At some point, everyone needs to shut down from anything annoyingly repetitive to keep from going crazy. It’s a little like that torturing procedure where they strap you down and simply drip water onto your forehead at regular intervals.

John Holt, a well-known child advocate, teacher and author, said that once, as an adult, when he noticed his own defensive reaction in response to not grasping what was being taught [told] said, “…Please stop talking about it, and just let me look at it.” Then he thought to himself, “Remember what you have learned about learning. Be like a child. Use your eyes. Gag that teacher’s mouth inside your head, asking all those questions. Don’t try to analyze this thing, look at it, take it in.” He reminds us in HOW CHILDREN LEARN that “What is essential is to realize that children learn independently, not in bunches; that they learn out of interest and curiosity, not to please or appease the adults in power; and that they ought to be in control of their own learning, deciding for themselves what they want to learn and how they want to learn it.”

I’ve noticed, too, that kids pick up on things when they’re interested and care to learn about it. Hammering a youngster with letters and numbers when they don’t have any context to associate it with begins an exercise in frustration for both student and teacher alike. That’s one reason why it’s important to expose our youngsters to many different experiences so that when they are learning to read they can associate the words with some real thing they can identify with. Without tangible evidence in our memories, there’s not much hope of understanding or absorbing anything when the task of learning how to read is so new and challenging, in and of itself.

On the other end of this spectrum, when we’re older and have been reading for decades, simply flipping through a magazine has the potential to spark a new interest. Perhaps something we didn’t even know we cared about. That’s partly because we’ve had more exposure to life’s experiences and can associate it with many things.

Anyway, just last month we’d gone to Pennsylvania for my husband’s step-mother’s funeral. She was a wonderfully positive person who’d always been interested in others, letting them expound about themselves instead of going on about herself. Listening and helping others feel worthwhile came naturally to her. She constantly allowed herself to learn new things.

Kent and I stayed in the historic district of Philadelphia for those few days in January. We wandered Elfreth’s Alley, which was lined by well-preserved three to four story buildings with trap doors out front leading to basements below. I would guess that some, if not all, of those beautifully painted doors have been replaced over the centuries. They looked to be in strikingly good condition. These eighteenth century townhouses were actually inhabited by current renters. I found it intriguing that modern day people lived in, what seemed to me, a museum. The architecture of those old brick buildings struck my fancy. A few blocks away, in Carpenter’s Hall, where the First Continental Congress met in 1774, a small portion of a wall was opened up to display the aged lathing underneath. Horse-drawn carriages parked along the streets awaiting patrons wanting to sight-see. The Liberty Bell rests inside a building where no admission is charged. While Kent read every placard containing dates and other historical jargon, I stood in awe of the physical beauty of all that incredible hand-built history. Our interests as well as our preferred methods of learning differ. I was never much of a history buff – with all those important figures and dates. Perhaps it was subconscious, on my part, that I ended up marrying a historian. Who knows, we just might be able to pick up a few things from each other by osmosis.

A huge statue of Ben Franklin presides over the cemetery where he lays buried – a little like a wise old owl in a tree surveying his hunting grounds. This fellow was an extremely industrious U.S. statesman, writer and scientist – a true academic. His contributions include setting up a printing house in Philadelphia, inventing the lightening rod and helping frame the Declaration of Independence. His ‘Franklin’ stove used less wood than a fireplace and when he got tired of taking his glasses on and off he came up with an original pair of bifocals – framing the individual sections of glass. He also made a catheter for his sick brother and a simple odometer for his mail delivering carriage…. This guy really knew how to keep the love of learning alive.

After all the hassles of a missed flight and other modern security irritations we felt grateful to come home to our little nook in the canyon. Where, once again, the owls and other natural inhabitants fill the night with their reassuring voices. So, I say “Whoo whoo” to you. Open your window tonight and see if you, too, can hear their wonderful notes of wisdom.


Chi Varnado is the author of two books. Her memoir, A CANYON TRILOGY: Life Before, During and After the Cedar Fire, and her children’s book, The Tale of Broken Tail, are both available from www.amazon.com. Chi directs the Ramona Dance Centre: www.ramonadancecentre.com. Her collection of essays, Quail Mutterings, can be found on www.chivarnado.com