Essay by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
In the stories I’ve been writing lately, all set in and around my neighbourhood, a great many animals have arrived as if in the Eden of my mind, they are a necessity. They are not always kindly creatures. And they are there in the created neighbourhood of my stories even when they are not necessarily in my actual neighbourhood. And even when they are something like the animals that can be found in my actual neighbourhood, they are certainly not real in the way they enter the space of the stories, which can be both violent and inexplicable.
Yet, there are animals in my neighbourhood.
Over the May 24th weekend — a sacred Canadian long weekend — a Screech Owl was spotted in a Linden tree on my street.
It was neighbour # 82 who noticed the owl in his front yard tree and told me about it — actually, stupidly showed me the owl in his tree. He can be forgiven, as he did not know what havoc my imagination would play with this knowledge. The story should start here but this was, in fact, the second central problem, now I see, in retrospect.
The first problem occurred sometime at the turn of the century when the river that runs in the ravine was covered up. A garbage dump, where, according to a surly now-dead neighbour (#77), my house and my street sit was also buried so that pretty Edwardian houses and nice Edwardian people could expand Toronto. And here I must pause to consider all the strange lives — the secrets, the exclusive thoughts and the torments — of all the inhabitants of my street from the very time of its creation. We will never begin to know any of this back-story.
Developers moved out the trees and the nature, and then they moved a curated version of nature back in — it is the way of human progress, to destroy and then recreate in our own image.
By taking out the trees, these developers took out a lot of creature homes, and when they moved some of the trees back in, the created new potential homes. This was not something that was taken into consideration back then, and that is because consideration is no friend to progress. Still, and for some, luckily, Screech Owls did not live in this area until people rearranged things. They’ve immigrated because they like the longer views, and who can blame? It must be marvelous not to have all those trees in one’s way when one hunts.
When the neighbours and I looked closely, it was discovered that there was an entire family of owls up there. Two adults and three owlets, a fourth having been found and kept in a box by neighbour # 81. He had found it flailing around in his backyard.
I began to stand under the tree for twenty-minute stretches looking at them. There was a feeling that so long as I witnessed them, they were real. I tweeted about them on Twitter to further manifest them, and a ‘follower’ of mine came to document and witness them too. I won’t get into the obvious — which is to say that I felt very alive standing there, finding angles, showing them off to my twitter friend as if I had some stake.
I will admit to falling in love with the owls. I felt I knew them, and any misgivings I had that they saw, acknowledged and perhaps even returned my affection, were never dispelled by anything they did. Even when the ‘daddy’ owl flew to the wire in front of our house the first evening, he did not look at me, even when I tried a little owl whispering.
He was probably hunting.
Actually, I have no idea what he was doing. I assume he was hunting. He may have been collecting data for a project, or he may have been enjoying the evening breeze, or he may have been doing something so foreign to my imagination that I will never be able to conjure it up, no matter how many plausible storylines I walk down. But never mind all that, the daddy owl had come to visit!
The third problem — surely you can see this coming — was that the owls couldn’t communicate their story and so we — neighbours #75, 76, 78, 79, 81 and 82 — made one up. It went like this:
- One of the adults was the daddy owl.
- The other adult was the mummy owl.
- The owlet baby fell out of the nest.
- We must help the poor owl parents who must be distraught.
- We must give them back their child!!!!!!
- The owlets will be so happy for the safe return of their sibling, and we can rest in the knowledge that we have helped — nay, saved — them from this dreadful tragedy.
So neighbour # 81 called the Wildlife Rescue people to come and try to re-unite the fourth owlet — the one he’d kept in a shoebox in his basement — with the family.
Within hours of the owlet being freed by the rescue people into a nearby tree, the family was decimated. The one we thought was the daddy was gone, the rescued owlet was gone, and another owlet had — based on the continuation of our collective narrative — ‘fallen’ out of the nest, and been found by a cat (irresponsible neighbour # 73).
Neighbour #79 collected this fledgling owlet, took it into his home and proceeded to try to feed it worms he himself worked out of his backyard lawn. I repeat: he himself worked the worms out of his yard for the owl. Like a surrogate parent, however misguided. He claimed that he “wanted to keep the owl as a pet.” The idea that anyone other than me would get to have an owl pet made me wildly jealous, but I shut my face. This one saved owl would now be the redemption story within the tragedy — the one who survived.
When I saw neighbour #79 a few days later, I asked after the owlet. “No,” he said. “He refused to eat. I brought him food but he would not eat it, and so I had to set him free. He was starving.”
We suck at being goodly animals, because we always see a better way — one with ourselves as protagonists. My neighbours and I, with our human penchant for narrative, for solving situation with a through-line, with dramatic necessity, with some sort of reason based on our own closed and limited projection simply destroyed whatever unimaginable story was proceeding without us.
I am sorry to the owls. I have heard the adults will likely come back to nest and raise their owls next year. I will walk by them if they do. If people point them out to me, I will not look up. I will say, “Yes, they come here every year, and they are not my concern.” And that, too, will be a story I tell myself.
Video by Jack Illingworth
©2011 Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the author of the novels The Nettle Spinner and Perfecting and the story collection Way Up. Her short fiction has recently been published or is forthcoming from Numéro Cinq, Joyland, Riddle Fence,
Filter Literary Magazine, Significant Objects, Fantagraphics, The Walrus and Granta Magazine.
You can read Kathryn’s earlier Numéro Cinq contributions; an essay on getting published in Granta and her short story, “The Longest Destroyed poem.”
Love this, Kathryn. Thank you!
Great piece K. Glad you don’t live out here in Keene though. The birds run the joint. And the bats. And the turtles.
Yes, I would let them more or less. The farm is like that, too. Mice rule!
Kathryn, you offer quite a breadth of material. I appreciate your incisive tone on on a complex matter, “consideration is no friend to progress.” I also admire how your essay navigates through various levels of awareness. I am particularly struck by your idea of humans’ insistence of being considered the protagonist. Perhaps the desire to manipulate the story—why “we suck at being goodly animals”— is the same thing that can get away in of writing a story (then again, maybe this is just me projecting as a human who insists everything is all about humans 🙂 ).
Thanks, Mary. I’m not sure I completely understand the last bit of your post but if you mean that the arrogant self can get in the way of giving over to story, I would completely agree. The self has to give over to story, or the story becomes selfish. It won’t work, and will always feel mechanical. It’s hard to make a whole story entirely non-mechanical, but they exist.
A terrific essay, Kathryn. We have barred owls in our woods and one of them spent several days watching for squirrels from a fir tree just beyond my kitchen window. It was see this huge owl — around two feet high — day after day, moving along the branch from time to time. The squirrels were eating seed below the feeder hung from the clothes line and the owl would float down to try to grab one but every time I saw this happen, the squirrels simply disappeared into the woodshed. I think of that owl when I heard calling in the dark hours, wondering if it’s the same one. (I think they are pretty territorial.)