We had just left the Brigittine Monastery in Amity, a tourist stop along the highway that connects Portland to the Oregon Coast, with hand-rolled chocolates and prayer books for sale. My son Devon had travelled south two days prior for a short visit. At 23, he is observant and perceptive, entertaining my husband John and me with commentary on the passing landscape as we drove from Seattle.
We were making our way back to the highway on the gravelled entrance road when Devon cried ‘Stop!’. He had seen something.
I parked near a cattailed ditch, and he clambered out. John and I followed. Beside the line of trees was a dark grey mass, bundled tight at the tree line. As we moved closer, the feathers became visible. A great horned owl, soft and still warm, motionless under leafless branches.
Her eyes were still liquid and had not yet misted over. Maybe only half an hour earlier, she had been flying across the lane, swooping low for a chipmunk morsel. The driver that hit her left her wayside, to breathe her last alone under a dusky and cloudless sky.
We didn’t really know what to do, but instinct took over. Devon lay several banded rocks under her pliant body, said kind reverential words, and then we moved on ourselves. Before he rose over her remains however, hundreds of starlings erupted from the surrounding arbour, swirling upwards into a murmuration encircling my son and the dead owl.
Even though we had left the monastery a scant 20 minutes earlier, we were in the real church now.
Though we had left the monastery, we were in the real church now.
In the following months, I thought often about our encounter with the owl. I am a decent wildlife spotter, yet I had breezed right past her as I drove, focused on reaching the coast before nightfall. I was rushing and so out of connection with the land I was passing through. In my hurry, I had reserved no space for the sacred to find home in my psyche. I needed to slow down, to rest, if I wished it to be restored.
Owls, especially great horned owls, are known as ‘silent flyers’. Their travel is virtually soundless, so much so that an owl can fly within inches of its prey before being detected. Owls typically hunt through sound, at times being able to locate their food in deep grasses or under inches of snow. Their descent is angled, swooping and silent, an irregular pattern that bypasses their prey’s awareness. In my first wild owl sighting, when I was a child living on the Oregon coast, it was only the passing wind that alerted me to her presence.
The leading edge of an owl’s wing is covered with unique projections, comb-like structures that funnel and mute the air’s turbulence. The oncoming wind then passes over velvety feathers, also unique to owl species, and finally flows over a soft fringe on the wing’s trailing edge. The combination of these features streamlines air flow and absorbs a wide range of sound frequencies.
In addition, the ratio of wing width to body size in owls is profound. Due to these proportions, owls can fly as slowly as two miles per hour and are able to decrease wing oscillation. Owls can maximise rest, even in flight. With lessened effort, a wider and more diffuse focus on their surroundings is possible.
The land of the sacred is not a different land than the one we inhabit in our day to day lives. The sacred comprises a typically unseen dimension of that same land, a dimension that requires a slowing down of our habitually active minds and bodies as the price of admission. Once that threshold is crossed, subtle vectors of a wider connection become apparent. And sometimes, if we are lucky, in that glistening and still place we find starlings honouring slain owls in a widening spiral of mourning.
Many traditions have understood the relationship between speed and loss of the mystic for a while now. Both Jewish and Christian theology celebrate a weekly day of rest for communion with the sacred. Islamic tradition contains the Salah, daily prayers that interrupt commerce to allow space for ritual and reflection. Buddhism incorporates a cessation of movement as a part of its regular meditation practice, with the late Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh once describing sitting meditation as the ‘art of resting first’.
With the rise of the Industrial Revolution, and the severance of people from the land that followed rapidly thereafter, claiming space for the sacred became an increasing threat to ‘progress’. The rhythm of life for many shifted from the rise and fall of the seasons to the blast of the factory whistle.
Overt resistance movements, such as the Luddite revolt of the early 1800s, were often crushed. In response to a threat to textile production, the British parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act in 1812, which made industrial sabotage a capital crime. The resultant show trials, executions and penal colony transports chilled any further direct defiance.
Resistance to industrial culture was more successful when it was oblique and less audible to the wider power structure. In the 1820s, the Transcendentalist movement, which saw the divine in the everyday and was inherently sceptical of rising industrialisation, developed in New England and spread throughout the United States by way of the work of Emerson, Thoreau and others. Transcendentalist philosophers criticised the regimented 19th-century cultural status quo and promoted individual autonomy in education, women’s rights and through the slavery abolition movement. Thoreau’s Walden emphasised the importance of rest and contemplation as an antidote to the increasing rush and complexity of industrial life.
Transcendentalism was purposefully at odds with the production-focused culture of the time. Yet rather than using a cacophony of labour strikes and loud public protests as their tool of resistance, this artistic campaign instead used withdrawal, repose and attunement to nature as a more muted opposition. In many ways, this oblique approach allowed their message to better assimilate and remain a continuous thread in the wider culture.
The pathway of rest as doorway to sensory attunement, and thus sacred connection, continues to this day in philosophical discourses, such as those of South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han and Tricia Hersey, the Atlanta-based founder of The Nap Ministry. Han’s 2010 book, The Burnout Society, contains a nuanced discussion of how the ‘ambition of efficiency’ can result in a compulsive internal push for self-exploitation or action to the point of individual and cultural collapse. In her book, Rest is Resistance: a Manifesto, Hersey names rest as the right of all beings, and a primary tool in the dismantling of capitalist and white-supremist systems. She delineates the exhaustion inherent in our growth dependent economic systems as the means of our own destruction, in part because the rushing inherent in Western culture means ‘there is not room here for the magic of mystery and Spirit to move in your life.’
It can sometimes require hard work to dismantle hard work.
I have been following The Nap Ministry for several years now as the organisation is a spotlight on what the Hopi language calls koyaanisqatsi or ‘life out of balance’. In the face of a centuries-old systematic pattern of growth and accumulation, to slow down is to swim steadfast against the current of a larger cultural river. Paradoxically, it can sometimes require hard work to dismantle hard work. Claiming a birthright of equanimity and harmony has become a radical act.
Yet, on a more profound level, this ‘hard work’ is a doorway to the deeper path towards wholeness and connection. The owl rests while flying and that rest is the means itself for evolutionary success. If one can slow down, against the tides of culturally rewarded speediness and driven urgency, then that respite is also itself the means of cultural change.
In traditional Inuit cultures, owls are often seen as guides. They serve in this role for the living, but also owls may act as revered shepherds that lead the spirits of the dead to the afterworld. The great horned owl that crossed my path that chilly November afternoon has been a wise guide indeed.
Since that day, owls and I have been intersecting often. A greyish barred owl swooped across the trail as my son and I were hiking in a local park. A barn owl appeared as a stalwart watcher in a feverish dream. An artist at my neighbourhood ceramics studio started a series of curious owl tiles. Whenever I cross paths with owls now, I pause to take in their teachings.
For each of these encounters is a marker, one that transports me back to that sanctum. Each interaction is a welcome reminder to slow my pace and enter into a form of time distinctly outside of our more typical frenetic cadence. In that space the societal drumbeat of increasing efficiency no longer holds sway. Rather, connection to the sacred, the true birthright of all beings, is now the ground below me. Though seemingly subtle, such shifts are the true threat to our current industrial status quo, hidden stealthily in the silent beat of a barn owl’s wings.